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Sunday, September 11, 2016

SF Book Review, Part 24: The Killer B's
Without going to far into the history of Science Fiction, there was a revival of epic, large-scale Hard SF in the 1980s led by three authors: David Brin, Greg Bear, and Gregory Benford. Dubbed the "Killer B's", they seemingly incorporated the strengths of New Wave authors while returning the genre to its rational, optimistic, Campbellian mode. Less navel-gazing, less counterculture, less dreary pessimism... Interestingly enough, it feels like we could use another such revival these days. Alas, we seem to have descended into an ill-advised political morass, misdiagnosing core SF tenants for political victimhood. It sometimes feels like there's no escape in modern SF (this is probably something worth exploring in its own post sometime, not in a short intro to some reviews)... but luckily, I have plenty of books like these to discover. Three are from the Killer B's, the other two are just from authors whose last name starts with a B (and one isn't even SF!) Cheating? If you say so. Let's stop quibbling and get to the books:
  • Startide Rising by David Brin - Earth's first Dolphin-led exploration vessel Streaker has crashed in the uncharted water world of Kithrup, pursued by bloodthirsty zealots fighting over them in orbit. They'd discovered a long lost fleet of spaceships thought to belong to the fabled Progenitors, an idea that is heretical to many competing and hostile alien races, who are now out to destroy the Streaker and its human/dolphin crew in order to hoard the secret to themselves.

    Technically a sequel to Sundiver, this could potentially be read as a standalone, and while I enjoyed both books, this one represents a dramatic improvement over Sundiver (which I'd say is overlong and muddled). At first I thought this might suffer from the same flaws, but it turns out that much of what I thought of as being needlessly tangential or episodic turned out to be artfully tied together in the end. And it's a really fantastic ending, one that surprises and delights at each new turn. There are a lot of plot lines here and Brin does an exceptional job setting them up and then bringing them together. There are still some loose ends which I presume will be addressed in the third book in the series, but this one remains satisfying in itself (a trick I wish modern authors could pull off better, if this past year's Hugo finalists are any indication).

    The perspective of "uplifted" dolphins is an interesting one and makes up the bulk of the novel, though we do get ample exposure to their small coterie of human crewmates as well. It's funny, I was trying to think what a film/tv adaptation of this might look like, and I suspect we'll never see it because the Dolphin bits might seem ludicrous if they're not visually perfect, even if it works great on the page. I suspect many will see Brin's optimism and notion of Earthican exceptionalism (uh, my phrasing, not his) as jejune and unsophisticated, but I kinda love it for that. Their escape plan is only hinted at, but you can piece together the big parts, leaving enough twists and turns for the finale. We don't find out much about the Progenitors, but the planet Kithrup has its own mysteries that make up for that (and it turns out, are not wholly unrelated). The book periodically checks in on the alien forces fighting in orbit, but these sketches are less successful. Perhaps it's because we only get little glimpses, but something about these races has never really clicked with me (even the ones from Sundiver). But that's only a quibble, this comes highly recommended, especially for fans of Hard SF and Space Opera.

    It won the Hugo and Nebula and while it is not the first work from the Killer B's, it seems to represent the tipping point at which people seemed to realize that something special was going on. This novel paved the way for Bear and Benford (even if, again, they were writing before this novel). This is perhaps an oversimplification and worthy of further exploration in its own post, but for now, I'll just say that I can see why this novel would have been inspirational. I will most certainly be revisiting this series in the future...
  • Blood Music by Greg Bear - Vergil Ulam is a scientist working on unlocking the computational potential of cellular material. When he crosses the line and uses human cells for his experiments, he's fired and directed to destroy his samples. Instead, Virgil secretly injects himself with the engineered cells with the hope that he could smuggle them out and recover them later to continue his work. Naturally, the cells have other plans. The mad scientist experimenting on himself is a time-honored, if a bit silly, story. One would think it's the sort of thing that wouldn't work in the rigorous confines of hard SF, but this turns out to be one of the best executions of such a trope that I've read. Virgil isn't exactly the most exciting protagonist, but he gets the job done, and Bear takes this story way, way beyond what I would have expected from the opening of the book. I mean, it goes to some really bonkers places. I don't want to say much to spoil it, but this is a great, standalone story that is well worth checking out. This was also nominated for the Hugo and Nebula, but lost out because it had the great misfortune to be published the same year as Ender's Game. You better believe I'll be reading more Greg Bear.
  • Timescape by Gregory Benford - Thrill to a story of time travel, tachyons, environmental disaster, encoded messages from the future, and... dinner parties? The politics of academia? Barry Goldwater? Marital infidelity and more dinner parties? Yes, so I'm a little more mixed on this tale of future academics (in the far flung year of 1998!) attempting to send a message back to 1962 in order to forestall an environmental disaster.

    The meat of that plot is fantastic, and Benford hits many hard SF tropes right in the sweet spot. I particularly enjoyed the examination of sending a message back in time, where Benford actually takes the movement of earth's entire solar system (and galaxy) into account whilst aiming the message (though that is later overridden by other considerations, it's still something I'd think more time travel stories would take into account, but don't). Likewise, the work of decoding the message and trying to figure out what it means is interesting enough, and even the bureaucratic encumbrances encountered during that process make for interesting reading.

    Where Benford falls down is, well, the dinner party portions of the novel, which, unfortunately, comprise far too much of the narrative. It's not that they're necessarily bad (though, yeah, some of it really is bad), just that they don't really fit with the rest of the story, feeling oddly out of place and wreaking absolute havoc over the pacing of the story. As a result, it feels like almost nothing happens until near the end of the novel, when you start to see repercussions of the messages from the future. What's more, as the reader, you're operating under more information than most of the characters, so you know what's coming next and not in a good, Hitchcockian sort of way either. It's one thing to have your characters go through the paces so that they can reach a logical conclusion that the reader already knows, it's another to have them spend 80% of the novel doing so. I've read some Benford before and while he always includes interesting bits and even some good turns of language, I always find myself disappointed on the whole. I can't say as though I'll be pursuing more Benford anytime soon...
  • The Player of Games by Ian M. Banks - A while back I got all fired up about finding some new space opera worth its salt and decided to read the first novel in Ian Banks' long-run Culture series, Consider Phlebias. Episodic, sloppy, and overstuffed, it was nonetheless imaginative, intelligent, and stuffed with extra-crunchy space operatic tropes. While I ultimately found it disjointed and mildly disappointing, I liked it enough to proceed with the series (uh, a few years later).

    It turns out that this second novel in the Culture series is a narrowly focused and sharply drawn narrative that represents pretty much the stylistic opposite of Consider Phlebias. No series of jumbled vignettes here, everything is tightly plotted and interconnected, following the perspective of a single character: Jernau Morat Gurgeh, the titular Player of Games, the best strategic gamer in the Culture. Having mastered all forms of gamedom, he's also bored out of his skull. One suspects this is meant to illustrate the dissonance that the concept of the Culture, a post-scarcity utopia governed by AI, represents. Would human beings react favorably to such a situation, or would the devolve into pure hedonism? Or violent rebellion? Gurgeh represents this conflict well. Left to his own devices, he has mastered games but discovered it an ultimately hollow achievement. What's next? What matters enough to be next?

    The answer comes in the form of Contact, the group responsible for interacting with other civilizations (diplomatically... or not, as the situation dictates). After some prodding and outright coercion from an annoying AI, Gurgeh accepts a long-term assignment to the empire of Azad in order to represent the Culture in their culturally-ascendant game, also named Azad. It seems that the entire empire, from the lowliest worker to the emperor, is governed by the game. In essence, ruling the empire equates to playing the game, and the philosophy of the game represents the philosophy of the empire.

    Fictional games are tricky to deploy in a narrative like this, and Banks gets around many of the difficulties admirably, describing higher-level meta-gamed and strategic philosophy more than tactical moves. This allows for some maneuvers that would be otherwise suspect, such as when Gurgeh manages a near miraculous reversal after almost immediately falling prey to a talented game player. But it also allows Banks to leverage an underdog sports analogy as well as provide several interesting game-related revelations that are insightful without feeling like a cheat on Banks' part. It is a little surprising that the empire of Azad would allow some of these shenanigans to go on as long as they do, but Banks manages to keep the explanations for Gurgeh's continuing success satisfying enough that it works. Some of the final revelations, while surprising to Gurgeh, might not be as surprising to experienced readers of SF (You mean to tell me that Contact has more pointed motives for Gurgeh's presence than they let on? No way!), but it all works well enough in the end, retaining just a hint of ambiguity as to what Gurgeh's endeavor actually means. Meanwhile, Banks' elevation of a game to civilizational levels gives him ample room for a multi-layered exploration of various themes and philosophies. I ultimately enjoyed this a great deal more than Consider Phlebias, and it hangs together as a narrative much better as well. Banks wasn't a member of the Killer B's and comes out of a different tradition, but I'm happy to include this one in a post like this. Once again, this is a series of novels that I will most certainly be revisiting.
  • Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold - A follow up to last year's Penric's Demon, this one follows Penric as he consults on the murder of a pig farmer and the request of Locator Oswyl (basically a police detective). They seek Inglis, a young shaman whose role in the pig farmer's murder is unclear. This takes place a few years after the last story, and Penric has gone through all the training needed to become a sorcerer, and his relationship with Desdemonia (so ably established in the previous novella) has grown and matured. As usual, Bujold weaves an interesting and entertaining tale, one that is, in some ways, simpler than the first novella, though it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. I won't ruin it by getting into details, but it's a worthy read. It probably ranks below the last novella for me, but still pretty good on the whole.
And there you have it. The Six Weeks of Halloween fast approach, so put your horror hat on, it's going to be a bumpy, terrifying ride.
Posted by Mark on September 11, 2016 at 01:44 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hugo Awards 2016: The Results
The Hugo Award winners were announced last night and I'm having a hard time caring all that much. I've played along with the Hugos for the past few years, but unfortunately, that roughly coincides with the rise of Sad/Rabid Puppy movements and by intention or not, the award and seemingly the entire field has become a politicized morass. Of course, this isn't new and this year fared significantly better than last year's disaster, so let's look closer. (Also of note: the full voting breakdown in case you wanted to figure out how instant-runoff voting works.)
  • The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin won the best novel Hugo. This was a bit of an upset since Naomi Novik's Uprooted seemingly enjoyed a broader fanbase and scored previous wins in the Nebulas and Locus Fantasy awards. On the other hand, The Fifth Season was the only novel not present on any Puppy list, so it's hard not to see this as a political win rather than a joyous celebration of a great story (especially when combined with Jemisin's history with Vox Day). Back on the first hand, though, while I wasn't a fan of the book, I can also recognize it as a well written work that makes for fine award material. I found it to be misery porn (which is emphatically not what I look for out of SF/F), but really well done misery porn. I will admit to being a little surprised at 480 votes putting Seveneves under No Award, which again seems like a political response to its inclusion on the Rabid slate. Then again, I've long since stopped being surprised when Stephenson's work rubs some people the wrong way, which has always been the case (and long before any Puppy controversy) in my anecdotal experience.
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor takes the best novella award. Again, hard not to see it as a political choice, but it was a decent enough story, even if I found it to be lacking. It was the only finalist not to appear on the Rabid list, though it did get the nod in Sad Puppies. Also of note, No Award did not place in this category, which is fair - it was a strong category.
  • "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu wins in best novelette. Yet again, this is the only finalist not to appear on the Rabid list, even if it was on the Sad Puppy list. No Award shows up in the rankings here, beating out the two Castalia House nominees.
  • "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer wins the short story award. I can't really argue with that since I voted for it, but once again, it was the only non-Rabid choice, even if it was a Sad Puppy choice. No Award places second. This was a dumpster of a category this year, so this isn't surprising at all.
  • The Martian takes home the Long Form Dramatic Presentation award, which was a nice nod to the type of SF that I really enjoy, and Andy Weir got himself a Campbell award for best new SF writer, which is also very cool. I look forward to his next book with great anticipation.
  • Once again, the Puppies are trounced. It's the same old story: Action, Reaction. The Sad Puppies seem to have faded from the ire of fandom, but the Rabids remain steadfast in their quest to destroy the Hugos. Or do they? There appears to be a dramatic drop-off from the nominating stage to the voting stage this year, so perhaps there is hope yet for the future of the award. Then again, their divisive tactics have polarized fandom into awarding the types of works I tend to dislike. As usual, my hope for the future is that we can all just calm the fuck down, read some good stories, and celebrate them with the awards. Yeah, politics are inherent in the process, but we shouldn't be able to look at a list and predict the winners without looking at the quality of the work at all, which you could have done with this years awards.
  • Last year, I noted that "The notion that voting on the current year gives you the ability to nominate next year is a brilliant one that might actually keep me participating." This year, they apparently voted to revoke that practice, which means I'm much less likely to participate next year (or whenever it takes effect - may not be next year). I'm guessing this was because of Rabid interference this year, but it also feels short-sighted. Also of note, they appear to be pushing the deadline for nominations up from January 31 to December 31, which probably spells doom for any SF/F story released in December. I'd have to look into both of these things more to really figure out how much I like them, but their intention seems to be to decrease participation, which doesn't feel like a great idea. I'm still on the fence about participating next year, but I guess we'll see how things go. The crappy thing about politicization of the awards from my perspective is that I feel like simple celebrations of great writing are being eschewed in favor of virtue signaling (on both sides of the divide). It's become a polarized field, which leaves me in the middle, not really caring about either side and wondering why I'm even participating. As H.P. notes:
    So which side "won"? Which side lost? The Rabid Puppies/alt-right/Vox Day and the SJWs both won. That is, the people who wanted to hijack the awards to make it just another venue for their political fight (see the longlist of Best Related Works nominees for a good idea of the relative importance placed on politics versus reading). People who actually love to read and would prefer to think about books first lost. It's probably been a foregone conclusion for many years now, but the Hugo Awards will continue to long decline into irrelevancy.
    Well said. Like H.P. I'm just going to go and read a book rather than dwell on it. I'll see you next year, when the Hugo whining begins in earnest.
And that's all for now. I've actually been reading some great SF of late (none of it is recent though) and we're about to shift gears into the most wondrous time of year, The 6 Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on August 21, 2016 at 07:11 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

2016 Hugo Awards: Semi-Final Ballot
Today is the voting deadline for the Hugo Awards, so here's the final ballot I submitted. I'm only really voting on the fiction categories right now, but I might take a gander at the artists or fan writer categories later if I get time. Overall, this is a significantly better year than last year, though the Short Story category continues to be a drag. Let's get to it:

Best Novel
  1. Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson [My Review]
  2. Uprooted, by Naomi Novik [My Review]
  3. Ancillary Mercy, by Anne Leckie [My Review]
  4. The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass, by Jim Butcher [My Review]
  5. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin [My Review]
This is a pretty solid ballot! I've noticed a few things about the way I tend to vote in this category, and one of them is that entries in a series tend to fall behind standalone entries. This year, that puts Seveneves and Uprooted far, far above the competition. Sometimes the first entry in a series can work, but both of this year's examples of that suffered under the weight of their respective long-term stories. In both cases, not much really happens in the first installment, and while there's a definite ending, neither was particularly satisfying. Ancillary Mercy, at least, provided some form of closure (though even that did not fully pay off the promise of the initial entry in the series). There have bee various proposals over the years for including some way to reward series as series, which makes sense, but is also fraught with challenges. The devil is in the details, and there are lots of details for that sort of thing.

Predicted Winner: Uprooted although The Fifth Season seems suspiciously popular...

Best Novella
  1. Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
  2. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson
  3. Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
  4. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  5. The Builders by Daniel Polansky
See My Reviews for more details. Again, a pretty solid list of finalists, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: Penric's Demon

Best Novelette
  1. "Obits" by Stephen King
  2. "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead" by Brooke Bolander
  3. "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
  4. "Flashpoint: Titan" by CHEAH Kai Wai
  5. "What Price Humanity?" by David VanDyke
See My Reviews for more info. A decent list, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead" but who knows, this seems more up in the air. Also, I'm terrible at predicting these things. I don't

Best Short Story
  1. "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer
  2. "Asymmetrical Warfare" by S. R. Algernon
  3. "Seven Kill Tiger" by Charles Shao
  4. No Award
See My Reviews for more details. Sorry Chuck Tingle, I ultimately decided to leave you off the ballot because seriously? Oy. And it goes without saying that "If you were an award, my love" doesn't belong on here either. Otherwise, these are fine, but unremarkable.

Predicted Winner: Cat Pictures Please though No Award has a fair chance here because this ballot was rough.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
  1. The Martian
  2. Mad Max: Fury Road
  3. Ex Machina
  4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  5. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ran out of time before posting about this, but basically, the top three are great, the bottom two are cromulent but clearly on a lower level. I go back and forth on Martian vs Mad Max, but since Martian is more clearly SF and the sort of thing we don't see often, it goes first on my ballot.

So there you have it. I doubt I'l get to any other categories since the deadline is tonight, but this is what I'e entered in. A pretty decent slate of finalists this year, with one category being a real bummer (Short Stories). Looking forward to seeing who wins (assuming we actually have winners this year).
Posted by Mark on July 31, 2016 at 08:33 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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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 :.

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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, 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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Sunday, May 22, 2016

SF Book Review, Part 23
Just catching up with SF reading, including the tail end of Hugo candidates and some other stuff. One of these actually made the cut for my Hugo ballot, but alas did not become a finalist. Let's hop in:
  • Corsair by James L. Cambias - The "space pirates" trope can be a fun one if you're willing to sacrifice scientific rigor in favor of a ripping good yarn, essentially pretending that space is an ocean and thus vulnerable to piracy. But space isn't an ocean and the logistics of piracy in space make such an outcome unlikely. And yet, James Cambias has actually managed to make it work in this novel. He does so by cleverly setting up the "ocean" in a limited fashion, speculating about mining operations on the Moon by unmanned semi-autonomous spacecraft (whether there's anything actually worth the trouble of mining on the Moon is another question). This means that piracy is actually conducted from the comfort of our home planet via hacking attacks (sometimes involving other unmanned spacecraft, but still). While the space between Earth and the Moon is vast, energy efficiency essentially dictates the past most of the valuable cargo will have to pass through. The Earth/Moon Lagrange Point is essentially pirate-infested waters. All of this is background, of course, but it's this sort of subtle cleverness that Cambias threads through his work that attracts me. The story itself takes a little while to get going, but works well enough. David Schwartz and Elizabeth Santiago meet each other at MIT, but while they initially hit it off, it seems clear that their general attitudes don't fit together (especially David's more morally flexible approach). A decade later and Santiago is in the Air Force helping fight space piracy. Unbeknownst to her, David is secretly "Captain Jack, the Space Pirate", the most infamous and successful space pirate of them all. Captain Jack's latest endeavor, though, is sponsored by a shady group with their own agenda. When things start to go pear-shaped, David and Elizabeth's paths cross again. Some of the space pirate stuff feels a little cheesy, to be sure, and David's attitude seems naive, egotistical, and maybe even sociopathic at times, but he's at least competent and otherwise likeable enough that he sneaks through. Still, once things get going, it's a lot of fun, and the underlying cleverness worked enough for me that I threw it a Hugo nod (which, of course, did not make the finalists). Cambias is quickly becoming an author I look out for...
  • Zero World by Jason M. Hough - Peter Caswell is an technologically enhanced assassin. To ensure operational security, he has neural implants that prevent him from remembering any details of his missions. After his handler activates him for an emergency mission, Caswell finds himself on an alien but oddly familiar world, tasked with seeking out and murdering an escaped human. Naturally, all is not what it seems, and as Peter goes further down the rabbit-hole, other revelations make him question his involvement... until he hits his time limit and regresses to his "innocent" state. This was an enjoyable enough read, and while some of the later plot twists are well done, others are wholly predictable. It's a bit overlong and yet, incomplete, as it seems like there will be more books in the series. I'm on the fence as to whether or not I'd read those books, which I guess says something about this one. Again, very enjoyable, but somewhat disposable...
  • Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang - A few years ago, I read Chiang's story "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" and was impressed enough that I made a note to go back and check out more of his stories. In typical Kaedrin fashion, we're only now getting to read more of his stories, but they're pretty fascinating. Some of them are more purely fantasy, but clearly from the mind of a SF author ("Tower of Babylon", "Hell Is the Absence of God"). Most of them have very human cores, even when delving deeply into the science of this or that. "Story of Your Life" is certainly a standout, covering a team of scientists and liguists making first contact with an alien species (Cross-cut with one of the scientist's memories of her daughter). It's apparently going to be a movie directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams, which sounds promising, though I can't imagine this being a "crowd-pleaser" of a movie... "Understand", about a man given an experimental drug to heal brain damage which has the unexpected side-effect of dramatically improving his intellect. Soon, he's being hunted by the government and, more ominously, another super-intelligence. Very interesting and entertaining. Like all short-story collections, this is a bit uneven, but the quality is overall pretty high.
  • Triplet by Timothy Zahn - I always come back to Zahn, a solid craftsman who I can usually count on for some SF comfort-food. This is one of his earlier efforts, about a three planet system connected through magic. It's yet another play on Clarke's infamous "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", though in this case, Zahn takes it literally, positing flying carpets, trolls, demons, and so on... It's not a long book, but it does take a bit of time to get going, and our main characters aren't quite as enjoyable as you'd probably want here (my favorite character is the bodyguard Hart, a man our main characters spend most of their time avoiding... drats.) Zahn has lots of better efforts, but this was fun enough.
  • The Commuter by Thomas A. Mays - Originally a finalist for this year's Short Story Hugo, Mays asked to be removed because all of the nominees were part of the Rabid Puppy slate. But I greatly enjoyed Mays' previous effort, a novel called A Sword into Darkness, so I decided to pick this up and give it a shot. It's a fun little fantasy tale of a man whose daughter is inadvertently stuck in the Faerie land. Action packed, fun, and a little clever, it's a good little story and worth checking out...
And that's all for now. I've started making my way through this year's Hugo finalists, so you should be seeing some more reviews here soon enough...
Posted by Mark on May 22, 2016 at 02:14 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: Initial Thoughts
The 2016 Hugo Award Finalists were announced this week and yes, it's another shit show, but maybe sorta not as bad as last year? I hope? Assorted thoughts below:
  • So the Rabid Puppies once again dominated the finalists, presumably due to their habit of generally following the slate laid out by their dark leader. In comparison, Sad Puppies seem ineffectual, but actually, this is probably what the whole Puppy effort should have looked like from the start. They got some things on the ballot without dominating the process. If we are to take them at their word that they just wanted to highlight works that traditionally get short shrift at the Hugos (I know it didn't start like that, but it did evolve into that), then this seems nice. The Rabid approach seems tailor made to hurt the award and just plain piss people off. As I mentioned last year, it's one thing to be more successful than expected, but it's another to experience that backlash and then just double down on your approach. In any case, it does seem as if their influence is centered around the lower-participation categories. As such, I expect anti-slating measures to end up in the rules for next year, which will hopefully erode attempts to game the system like this.
  • Fortunately, at least part of the Puppy success this year was driven by the inclusion of works from mainstream authors on the lists. The Rabids had folks like Neal Stephenson , Neil Gaiman, Alastair Reynolds , and Lois McMaster Bujold on their slate, which, well, these are all people who don't need any help getting nominated. In addition to those names, the Sads even included the likes of Ann Leckie, John Scalzi, Nnedi Okorafor, Naomi Novik, and Cat Valente, most of whom don't seem to exactly fit the puppy mold if they aren't actively hostile towards each other. I am, of course, not the first to mention this, but it does seem to have the effect of softening the impact such that the scortched-earth No Award response feels less likely this year. There are some who are calling these mainstream choices "shields" and coming up with elaborate conspiracy theories about their inclusion, but who knows? I mean, yeah, I could dig through the muck and try to figure out what the Rabid intentions really are, but jeeze, who wants to get into their head? I like a lot of these authors and hell, I even nominated some of them (completely independent of recommendation lists or slates, imagine that!). Of course, this has been my approach all along, but others, even strident opposition, seem to be getting on board that train.
  • This post will hopefully be the extent of my Puppy wrangling for the year. As usual, I plan to read the works and judge them accordingly. More thoughts on major categories below, but at an initial glance, there are most certainly some things I'll be putting below No Award (especially when you get to the lower-participation categories), but some of the categories are actually pretty exciting.
  • Best Novel features a pretty solid little lineup, three of which I've already read. A little heavy on the fantasy side of the award for my tastes, but that happens sometimes. Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is the clear frontrunner for me, though Naomi Novik's Uprooted isn't too far behind (i.e. there's a reason both of these novels were on my ballot). I wasn't a huge fan of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Mercy, so N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season or Jim Butcher's The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass certainly has the chance to climb up the ranks. From what I know of these two unread novels, I don't expect them to overtake Seveneves, but I'm rooting for them. I should probably note that I'm a Stephenson nut, so it would take a lot to unseat him, even if I think this particular effort is more flawed than some of his others. One last note about the Puppies with respect to this category: I'm pleasantly surprised to see that John Wright's Somewhither didn't make the cut. From what I can see, it was very popular with puppies and John Wright has been a bannerman for the movement, so the fact that this didn't make it to the final ballot means that, for Novels at least, you need to have broad support (the one Puppy nom that didn't have a good chance to make it otherwise was The Aeronaut's Windlass, but then, Butcher is an incredibly popular mainstream author, so his book was probably bolstered by non-Puppy votes).
  • Best Novella is actually looking pretty good too. I've only read one (Bujold's Penric's Demon), but that one work was better than anything nominated in this category for the past few years (and a damn sight better than last year's John Wright dominated slate). None of the nominees fill me with the dread of reading dross, which again, is a big step up from last year. I'm kinda looking forward to reading something by Brandon Sanderson that isn't 1000 pages long. Binti, The Builders, and Slow Bullets sound pretty interesting too.
  • Best Novelette is less clear to me, but I don't see any major red flags (though I suppose having two stories from the same anthology is a bit gauche). The only author I recognize is Stephen King, an author you don't see in the Hugos very much to be sure, but I'm not complaining. This is the least popular of the major fiction categories, which probably explains Puppy dominance here. I'm as guilty as the next fellow here though, as I didn't nominate any novelettes this year.
  • Best Short Story is... bizarre. Where to start? The elephant in the room is, I guess, Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle (a writer of gay, science fiction erotica who would fit right in with my Weird Book of the Week series alongside our last selection, Lacey Noonan, author of I Don't Care if My Best Friend's Mom is a Sasquatch, She's Hot and I'm Taking a Shower With Her and A Gronking to Remember (first in a series of Rob Gronkowski themed erotica novels)). In some ways, this is an inspired choice. In other ways, what the fuck? Also of note, Thomas A. Mays has asked that his story, The Commuter, be removed from the ballot (for admirable reasons), which is a shame, because I really enjoyed his last novel (and even nominated it last year!) I will most likely still read his short story. After that, we've got two military SF stories (one from the same anthology mentioned above in Novelettes) and If You Were an Award, My Love, a clear reaction to Rachel Swirsky's infamous If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, which, like, ugh. Really? It was written about a year or two too late and it's just an exercise in petty spite, filled with Scalz-hate-boners and the like. There is something wrong in Short Story land. I read plenty of decent short stories every year, but they never end up on the ballot, and I suspect the problem is that there's too much short fiction out there and none of us are reading all the things so our votes get spread far and wide, making the category vulnerable to slating and even very popular authors (even before the Puppies, witness the inclusion of John Scalzi's absurd April Fool's joke, "Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue", a funny little parody to be sure, but best short story of the year?). I don't know what the solution is here, though maybe the rules changes will have an impact.
  • Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) turns out exactly like I thought, with my three favorite nominees in addition to standards like Star Wars and Avengers... Still would have rather seen something like Predestination make the ballot, but I guess it's too much to expect for the Hugo voters to actually look for small, independent movies.
  • As for the other categories, ehhhh, we'll see. Few of these categories hold much interest for me, though I might be tempted to look at a couple of them because I like a nominee or two there. For instance, long time Kaedrin compatriot Shamus Young made it on the Fan Writer ballot this year, which is pleasant to see (another instance of Rabids glomming onto a popular writer, albeit one who primarily writes about video games). Despite a long history of awards, File770 probably deserves some additional recognition for becoming the defacto clearing house for fandom during last year's clusterfuck of a Hugo process. And so on.
As usual, I plan to spend most of my time reading through the nominees and judging them accordingly, rather than attempting to wade through the usual BS.
Posted by Mark on May 01, 2016 at 02:51 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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Sunday, April 03, 2016

SF Book Review, Part 22: Ye Olde School SF
One of the things that participating in the Hugo Awards process has evoked in me is a strong desire to read older SF. This often lends a sense of deja vu, as older works are foundational and thus many things you're used to think of as modern are actually quite old hat in the SF world. Sometimes this is a conscious homage, others are more inadvertent (or, at least, unclear). Anywho, I'm once again quite behind in reviewing these books, so here goes nothing:
  • Needle by Hal Clement - A pair of amorphous alien beings crash lands on earth, their hosts dying in the process. One is a Hunter, a sort of policeman, and the other is a criminal. They are symbiotes, and after their crash landing, they must immediately seek new hosts. The Hunter ends up in the body of 15-year-old Robert Kinnaird. After making contact, they must seek out their quarry, but how do you find a needle in a haystack... especially when the needle appears to be a piece of hay? Clement is an author I'm going to need to read more of, as I quite enjoyed everything of his that I've read, including this, his first novel. He has a very hard SF style to him, spending a lot of time working out the logistics of, say, the way the Hunter establishes contact with Kinnaird (it's not simple and there are several fits and starts, but it makes perfect sense). This is the book's primary strength, and that process was my favorite part. Once they've established ways to communicate, the hunt is on, but that part is actually less well plotted than you'd expect and goes on a bit too long (though the book is quite short). I don't know if this book is the ur example of symbiotic aliens in SF, but its among the first, and I'm guessing one of the more rigorous attempts as well. I'd be curious if, for instance, Wesley Chu had read this book before embarking on his Tao series... Regardless, this is a quality work and probably a good introductory text for novice SF readers. I will most certainly be reading more Clement in the near future.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison - Slippery Jim diGriz is a con-man who is out-conned by the Special Corps, but instead of going to jail, he's recruited by the Corps to help investigate a new warship being built in secret. Along the way, he meets Angelina, a deadly con-woman who is orchestrating the whole thing. This book was a little more disappointing, though the premise is certainly sound and some of the ideas work well. The execution is a bit off though; the character of Angelina didn't feel right and I'm thinking there are probably better con-man turned police stories out there. Then again, this is apparently just the first in a long series of books, so perhaps that's why this has the reputation that it does. I'd be inclined to check out some more of these, but probably not anytime soon.
  • Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, Time Travellers Strictly Cash, and Callahan's Secret by Spider Robinson - The first three books in a long series of short story collections all centered around Callahan's Bar, your friendly neighborhood tavern where the reguars are anything but regular. time travelers, vampires, con-men, cybernetic aliens, telepaths, and perhaps worst of all, expert punsters. Yes, if you like puns, you will love these stories. As with most short story collections, these can be a bit uneven, and as the series progresses the stories tend to get longer and more complex. Still, for the most part they are fun exercises filled with interesting ideas. Robinson clearly loves Science Fiction, and in many cases will make references or homages to SF in-story (even using the SF initials). The setting is the clear draw here, as Callahan's Bar is a wonderfully warm and inviting location filled with empathetic patrons who, despite their love of groan-inducing puns, are quite smart and helpful to strangers who have big problems. Some highlights include "The Centipede's Dilemma", "Mirror / rorriM Off The Wall", and "Pyotr's Story". I enjoyed a lot of the stories here, but I think I've had my fill for the moment, though if I ever get a hankering for more, there are several other collections available.
That covers it for now. Up next are some newer books, then we'll be in the swing of Hugo season...
Posted by Mark on April 03, 2016 at 01:59 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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Sunday, March 06, 2016

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
One of the great things about Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels is the sheer variety of genres and stories that she manages to wring out of her universe. It speaks to how well the worldbuilding in the series works, but also to her breadth as a writer. I'm sure you could generally categorize the series as action/adventure in the mold of Horatio Hornblower, but when you start to narrow it down, you find a wide array of sub-genres: military SF, spy thriller, drawing room intrigue, political conspiracy, mystery (of many kinds), legal drama, and even straight up romance. As the series has progressed, she has trended away from the more action oriented aspects and more towards interpersonal dramas and romance. Most of the series is told through the eyes of the pint-sized force-of-nature that is Miles Vorkosigan, though the series (chronologically) began with his mother Cordelia Naismith and father Aral Vorkosigan. It's been 25 years since Cordelia headlined a novel, but she has returned in Bujold's latest novel, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Spoilers, I guess, more from the series rather than just this book, though I guess some of that might pop up too.

Three years after her husband's untimely death, Cordelia Vorkosigan thinks it's time to resign her post as Vicereine of Sergyar and move her life in another direction altogether. Along the way, she ensnares the unsuspecting Admiral Oliver Jole in her schemes, and he suddenly finds himself contemplating possibilities he would never have dreampt up on his own.

This may not sound like much of a plot, and truth be told, there really isn't one. There's no grand political conspiracy driving the events, no dead bodies, no explosions, no Cetagandan invasion fleets, just a rather well executed character piece. This usually isn't my sort of thing, so I think it speaks volumes about Bujold's worldbuilding and capability of producing lovable characters that I really enjoyed the novel. Part of this is certainly that this is something almost completely new to the series. The books it most resembles would be A Civil Campaign and indeed, there are some light parallels between the stories (I'm thinking primarily of an unexpected family visit). But even A Civil Campaign had the structure of an adventure, even if it wasn't strictly so. The centerpiece of that novel was a dinner party for crying out loud. And what's more, it was fantastically exciting. No such disasters here.

There are subtleties here that Bujold has yet to explore in the series. Since most of the series was seen through the eyes of the young, we don't get a lot of insight into what was actually going on with the parent's generation. It turns out there were some, er, interesting relationships being built. This novel reveals many of these things, and concerns itself with the concept of dealing with the grief of losing a loved one. Aral's loss is keenly felt by most of the main players, and Cordelia's plan to course correct her life is her way of acknowledging that she must move on.

For reasons I'll leave unclear, Admiral Jole felt the loss of Aral nearly as much as Cordelia, and her plans have suddenly given his late-life a hope that he never really considered. Jole is not strictly a new character, having been briefly mentioned in several previous novels, but his part was always as a handsome, competent aid to Aral Vorkosigan. As usual, I'm left wondering if Bujold always had this story in mind and was peppering hints to this obscure side character in order to lay groundwork for this story, but this generally speaks to her ability to craft lovable characters.

The pairing is a good one, and it deals with late-life issues in a way that most stories never dare. This being a science fiction universe, a 76 year old woman deciding to change careers and have more kids does not seem so far fetched since she can expect to live to 120 years old. Similarly, a career military man can find other uses for his keen observational skills, and maybe have some kids of his own. Interestingly enough, Bujold is still wringing new and intriguing implications out her concept of a Uterine Replicator, even now, thirty years after she began writing these stories.

The usual coterie of side characters pepper the story, both new and old, and as per usual, they are all delightful. Despite a wide cast of characters, it never falls into an unfocused, episodic trap, and generally remains deceptively compelling.

It's a fascinating book primarily for what it doesn't do. One of the things I cherish about this series of books is how frequently Bujold manages to subvert expectations. I often find myself thinking This can't be right!? Is she really doing this? and then being utterly enthralled as Bujold sooths whatever stupid reservations I may have. I have learned that you must simply go with the flow and trust in Bujuold. In this case, I suspected that we might see some political intrigue or inciting incidents, but as the novel progressed and the story stubbornly refused to indulge my predictions, I started to get a feel for something different and interesting. Like Cordelia and Oliver, you have to be willing to let the story go its own way.

In a recent interview, Bujold noted that sort of difficulty in certain audiences:
Bujold, 66, remarks she was once part of a book club discussion of her fantasy novel, The Curse Of Chalion, with a group of junior high students, "where it gradually became apparent that the hero was far more alien to them by being an old man of 35 - practically like their parents! - than by being a demon-ridden medieval fantasy nobleman."
I suspect Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen would garner a similar reaction, though I think ones experience in SF/Fantasy greatly reduces any complaints you might have about the exploration of late-life challenges this novel confronts. After all, if you're willing to consider the implications of a "demon-ridden medieval fantasy nobleman", why not a 76 year old widowed Vicereine and her desire to raise a new family? Or maybe I'm just getting older and wiser...
Posted by Mark on March 06, 2016 at 01:47 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Hugo Award Season 2015
It's that time again. Well, almost. The nomination period for the 2015 Hugo Awards is fast approaching, so I thought I'd get some thoughts on potential nominees down before all the requisite whining and controversy begins in earnest. This marks the third year I've participated, and while I was very gunshy about nominating in the first year, I went far out of my way to find stuff last year, to middling success (i.e. almost none of my nominees became finalists, but a couple things snuck in!) This year, I'm coming in somewhere between that level of effort. I've definitely read a bunch of eligible stuff, but I've only got a handful of definite nominees and I'm not really planning on any Herculean efforts to swell this list. My current nomination ballot, some thoughts on same, and a few things I'd like to read before I finalize my ballot are below. Enjoy:

Best Novel: Nothing too controversial (as if any of you were surprised that Stephenson would make my ballot) or even obscure here, and in fact, I'm reasonably sure that both of these will become finalists for the Hugo. There are a few dark horse books that I'd like to check out that may make the list, including: Zero World, by Jason M. Hough, Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman. I doubt I'll get to all of them, but I should be able to swing at least one before nominations close. Will it make the cut? Only one way to find out.

Best Novella: Another completely unsurprising nomination, given that Bujold is one of my two favorite writers (the other being Stephenson). If those two weren't publishing last year, I'm not entirely sure I'd participate this year. And it looks like we've got a new Bujold novel coming in the next few weeks. Most exciting.

Best Short Story: This was actually on my original nomination list for last year... until I found out that while the "January" issue of Fireside Fiction was released in very late 2014, it would not be eligible for the 2014 awards due to the listed publication date (2015), and so here we are. I have no idea what its chances are. Certainly it's had plenty of time to build a following and it's a wonderful story, but it also has the great misfortune of being an initial Sad Puppy pick (like me, they removed it from their list once the eligibility issue reared its head - at least, that's how I remember it, I could be very wrong), so there might be some weird backlash. Whatever, it's on my ballot.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Those of you following along with the Kaedrin Movie Awards will probably not be surprised by this list, but I suppose the one missing entry that might raise some eyebrows would be Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Call it a "snub" if you like, but given the Hugo voters' historical record and generally surprising lack of depth in this category, I opted to highlight some wonderful films that actually need the help. Star Wars will almost certainly make the ballot, along with Mad Max and The Martian. I think Ex Machina has an excellent chance, while Predestination is a true dark horse (perhaps a resurgence of Heinlein fans will get it done?) and What We Do in the Shadows has almost no chance at all. If you're reading this, though, seek all these movies out, they are worthy of your time and nomination.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: The only one of these I'm really passionate about is The Chickening, which has virtually no chance of becoming a finalist. It is maybe a bit on the outskirts of fannish interest (being a take on Kubrick's The Shining) and strikingly bizarre, but it is absolutely brilliant. You should totally watch it and then wonder about my mental state afterwards. Seriously though, I found myself reaching for more short films this year than TV episodes (which normally comprise approximately 100% of the finalists). Kung Fury is a hoot, but I suspect not really the Hugo voters' thang. I have mixed feelings about World of Tomorrow and it might not make my final ballot, but then, I'd rather see that there than any number of the usual suspects (and it does seem rather fannish). Game of Thrones is a lock to be a finalist, but they've gotten a lot of Hugo attention the past few years, so maybe it's not necessary this year (but then, who else can stop the Doctor Who juggernaut?)

And that just about covers it for now. I suspect I'll read a few other things before nominations are due, but this is where I'm at now. Suggestions are welcome, though comments are still wonky, so hit me up on twitter @mciocco or @kaedrinbeer (if you're more of a lush) or just send an email to tallman at kaedrin dot com.
Posted by Mark on January 27, 2016 at 05:46 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, January 10, 2016

SF Book Review, Part 21: Hugo Prep Edition
I read a lot of books last year, but I'm way behind in reviewing them, so in an attempt to catch up, here are some thoughts on a few Hugo Award related books. Last year I went out of my way to seek out stuff that would be eligible for the Hugos. This year: not so much. But I've read a few things that could qualify, so here goes:
  • Lines of Departure by Marko Kloos - This book was nominated for the Hugo Awards last year, but Marko Kloos withdrew the book due to the whole Puppy kerfluffle (thus clearing the way for the eventual winner, The Three-Body Problem). As a result, Kloos emerged mostly unscathed from the whole affair, and many pledged to purchase and read his book anyway. For my part, I really enjoyed the first book in the series and thought it showed a lot of promise, so I was inclined to check out the sequels anyway. This book starts off with humanity in pretty bad shape. Already suffering from a civil war and overpopulation, a new and relentless alien race (referred to as Lankies) has seemingly targeted human colonies throughout the galaxy. Our intrepid hero, Andrew Grayson, is right in the thick of it. After some disastrous operations, he gets scapegoated and assigned to a tiny, ice-bound colony in the middle of nowhere. Naturally, that situation ends up in mutiny and treason... and then the Lankies show up. I liked this well enough, but it also felt a little like the series was treading water. The first book was a little derivative, but well executed and it set up some interesting dynamics. This one is also well executed and moves the ball forward a bit, but not very far. The Lankies still remain inscrutable, which could wind up being a good thing, but what we do know about them is straightforward and not all that "alien". Grayson and pals are competent and likable, but there's some discomfort with the whole treason thing. The military here is presented as incredibly dysfunctional, especially when you move higher up the ladder (the grunts are all pretty honorable folks). Depressing, but certainly a valid extrapolation of current political trends. The book ends with a desperate counterattack against an invading Lanky ship. They use a tactic that's treated like a breakthrough, but that any reader even remotely familiar with space combat tropes already knew about. So what we're left with is a reasonably well executed MilSF novel, entertaining, but not mind-blowing.
  • Angles of Attack by Marko Kloos - The third of Kloos' series sees our intrepid heroes marooned on that tiny, obscure planet that's been cut off from supplies. Lankies are getting closer and closer to Earth at this point, and human institutions are breaking down. Again, we've got some well executed Military SF here, a capable enemy and competent heroes. Kloos is good at action, and the stakes are certainly higher here. Our heroes wind up striking an alliance with former civil war enemies (the Sino-Russians) and defending the Earth from disaster. There's still no real insight into what's going on with the Lankies, and this book feels, again, like we're treading water. I understand there's a fourth book coming out this year, which I'd hope would move closer to a resolution or at least understanding. I feel like I'm being pretty hard on these books; I've enjoyed each of them quite a bit, and I'll probably end up checking out the next book. There's a possibility that this will get nominated this year, but I'd rank it as more of a dark horse than a lock. I don't think I'll be nominating it, but it's worth checking out.
  • Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold - A novella set in Bujold's Chalion fantasy universe, this one concerns a young man who accidentally contracts a demon. Demon possession is rarely considered a good thing, but in the Chalion universe, it can be a manageable thing and if you can control it, you will get a fair amount of power. Penric is a likable young chap, and I love the way this story treats the relationship with his demon. I won't go into too much detail, but this was a fantastic novella, one that doesn't require any familiarity with the other stories in this universe, and will definitely be on my Hugo ballot. Check this one out, it's short and very good.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik - Agnieszka is a clumsy, homely girl who loves her little village, but the corrupted Wood, filled with monsters and evil presences, has slowly been encroaching on the territory. The Dragon, a magician who is assigned to the area, holds the Wood at bay, but requires an assistant from the village. Each assistant is a young girl taken by the Dragon and serves for 10 years before being freed again, usually moving away from the area afterwords. Agnieszka assumes her best friend, the beautiful and talented Kasia, will be taken, but of course it turns out that Agnieszka is chosen. At first, she seems singularly unsuited to the task, and can't even learn simple spells. But it turns out that she has a knack for a more intuitive form of magic. Soon, the Wood starts to become emboldened in its attacks, and Agnieszka and the Dragon must find a way to counter the offensive. This is a wonderful little fantasy book. It's got some flaws. I wasn't a big fan of the romance and some of the conflict is rooted in profound lack of communication. Some people like that sort of thing, but the Dragon's initially terse relationship with Agnieszka was frustrating for me, and indeed, a lot of the initial confusion and conflict would have been resolved had he spent a few seconds explaining some things. Similarly, the rigid way all the magicians in this universe treat magic seems unlikely, especially when Agnieszka starts showing them her more intuitive version. Those minor complaints aside, this is a well constructed story, with an ominous and cunning enemy and some interesting allies. Novik manages to cultivate a good sense of dread throughout the story, and when the shit really starts to hit the fan later in the novel, it's much more effective because of that slow buildup. You could say that the ending is a bit rushed and convenient, but one thing I really love about it is that this feels like epic fantasy, but it's not 7 books of 800 pages. Novik builds a complex, interesting world here and tells a complete story, and I like it more for that. I will probably be nominating this for next year's Hugo, and near as I can tell, it's a frontrunner. Recommended for fans of fantasy!
And that's all for now. I'm not completely caught up at this point, but I'll get there someday! In the meantime, the Kaedrin Movie Awards will be kicking off soon enough, so stay tuned!
Posted by Mark on January 10, 2016 at 01:54 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

SF Book Review, Part 20
I've reviewed a bunch of individual books recently, but I am still way behind, so here's the first of several attempts to catch up. With some reservations, I've enjoyed following along with the Hugos the past few years, but I've also noticed that I really enjoy delving into the back catalog, and I'm hoping to do more of this in the near future (rather than desperately reading new releases in the hope that they'd be Hugo-worthy - that was not really that productive for me last year). Today, we'll cover a few books ranging from 10 to 50 or so years old...
  • Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper (1962) - Frontier man Jack Holloway comes home from prospecting for sunstones one day to discover a, well, little fuzzy animal hanging around his house. As he gets to know the fuzzy (and his extended family, who also come to stay at "Pappy Jack's" house), he begins to suspect that these aren't just cute little animals, but actual sapient beings. Naturally, this spells trouble for the corporation who thinks they own the planet... if the fuzzies are people, that means the company loses out on property rights and the like. First published in 1962, this makes for a great introduction into the SF genre, tackling difficult questions like how to define sapience without getting too esoteric. I don't think you'd call this a novel of deep characterization, but it's short and sweet, with excellent pacing and plotting for a thoughtful exploration of consciousness. Plus, the fuzzies feel like the cutest race ever devised. The only flaw is that there are many subsequent works that build on this, and thus it might seem like it's treading familiar ground... My understanding is that Piper never quite got the respect he deserved in his lifetime, but he's certainly gained in that respect in recent years (despite some small outdated technological references to things like "tape", this seems like an example of the classics that would still be relevant to youngsters today). It helps that his works have lapsed into the public domain (this book is available for free on Project Gutenberg) A few years ago, John Scalzi wrote a snappy "reimagining" of this book with his Fuzzy Nation, which has a lot of the same beats, with some added complexity and slightly shifted priorities. It's also worth checking out, but I wish I had read the original first.
  • Quarantine by Greg Egan (1992) - In Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Duo, there is a planetary system that is surrounded by an impenetrable barrier, and humans go to investigate. In Quarantine, humans are the ones inside the barrier. At first, this just seems like a way to set up a backdrop of riots and weird religious cults for this neo-noir detective story, but it later becomes clear that Egan had a much deeper reason for use of that trope (one that is a lot more convincing and interesting than Hamilton's eventual explanation for his take - note also that Egan's novel predates Hamiltons by many moons). Egan is known for diamond-hard SF, but this is the most approachable novel of his that I've read, and he eases you into the mind-blowing stuff with a deft touch. Make no mistake, he gets into true sensawunda territory and this novel contains one of the better explorations of quantum mechanics, observer effects, collapsing wave functions, etc... that I've seen in fiction. It's a well balanced blend of trashy detective tropes and hard SF. The ending might leave some with lingering doubts, but I was so elated by the way Egan tied together the various oddities of setting and plot midway through the book that I didn't mind at all. Probably my favorite book of the year (blows anything nominated for a Hugo in the past few years out of the water, in my opinion), and highly recommended!
  • Sundiver by David Brin - I only really tackled this because I want to read the second novel in the series, Startide Rising, and wasn't sure if the first one was necessary or not (it is apparently not, but we'll see soon enough). In this series, humanity has met up with lots of other alien races, most of which were "Uplifted" by "patron" races. Humanity baffles everyone though, because there doesn't appear to be a patron race for us, and we've made our way to the starts by working through first principles (rather than being taught by someone else). Go Earthican exceptionalism! An expedition into the Sun is mounted to see if the mysterious creatures living there could provide an answer, but various mishaps along the way are cause for hijinks. This novel does a decent job setting up the idea of Uplift and how unbearably patronizing and frustrating the superior alien races can be, but I also found it a bit bloated and overlong. It eventually settles into a better groove later in the story, but it took a little too long to get going. The idea of luminous beings living in the sun is an interesting one that evokes Hal Clement's first published short story, Proof (which is excellent). This book doesn't quite approach Clement's level, but it's decent enough. I'm hoping for much better things from the sequel, which I hope to get to sometime early next year...
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke - This novel of two magicians, friends and later rivals, bringing magic back to England is an interesting one. Clocking in at over a thousand pages, it might seem forbidding, but it's not a difficult read at all. I certainly don't know that it needed to take quite so long, but it never feels like it stalled either, a neat little trick and a testament to the craft Clarke used in writing this book. On the other hand, it does end up feeling more episodic as an overall story (I have not seen the recent BBC series, but I can imagine it working well in that respect), which is not usually my favorite approach. It doesn't help that our main characters are, while not quite unlikable, they aren't really the most compelling people either. Mr Norrell is mildly competent, but also a complete turd about it. Jonathan Strange fares better, but is also fairly obtuse as a character. None of this prevents the story from being enjoyable and each "episode" is compelling in its own right. There are a lot of traditional English magic tropes, mischievous fairies and the like, and the novel hangs together well. I can see why it garnered the Hugo award about a decade ago, even if it probably wouldn't have been my favorite. In the end, I'm really glad I read this, even if it's also not really my type of book. Often in these situations, I think such an approach is valid but extremely difficult to pull off. I feel like a lot of people give works too much credit for ambition in works that don't fully realize the ambition. Not so here. Clarke accomplished exactly what she wanted with this, and it's worth reading because of that.
  • Agent of Change by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller - I read this almost a year ago, so details are getting a little fuzzy (pun intended?) for me, but this is the first in a long-running series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. This one covers the meeting of Val Con and Miri Robertson, thrust together by circumstances, but clearly having some form of attraction. It starts out as an action-adventure chase novel of sorts, and our two protagonists spar with each other while fending off throngs of enemy redshirts in an attempt to escape. Things slow down in the middle, and even though we meet a very fun race of alien Turtles, the story never quite resolves itself, ending on a sort of cliffhanger. I generally enjoyed this, though I also think it says something that I have not revisited the series. However, it's something I could definitely see myself doing in the nearish future. (Every time I start a series like this, I'm hoping to spark some sort of Bujoldesque Vorkosigan Series flame, but so far, I've not managed to get there... but then, it took a few books for the Vorkosiverse to really heat up for me too, so there's that.)
And that's all for now. Next time around, we'll tackle some newer releases...
Posted by Mark on December 13, 2015 at 02:11 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ancillary Mercy
With Ancillary Mercy, Anne Leckie has completed a trilogy that began with a lot of promise which was almost immediately squandered with the middle installment in favor of, I don't know, let's just say tea. This is perhaps more harsh than necessary, but I do think this series is indicative of much of the strife going on in SF fandom these days.

The first book in the series, Ancillary Justice, had a lot going for it. A complex, non-linear narrative that deftly employed indirect exposition to establish its worldbuilding (instead of tedious info-dumps). A heady mix of hard and soft SF, including an ambitious exploration of hive minds or shared consciousness. Galaxy-spanning empires, mysterious aliens, all the Space Opera tropes you could ever want. It was distinctly lacking in plot and storytelling, but as the first in a series, it established a lot of potential. Potential which the second book, Ancillary Sword, almost completely jettisoned in favor of a small scale, colonialism parable. This was so unexpected that you kind of have to respect the reversal. The problem for me is that nearly everything I enjoyed about the first book was gone. Instead, we had lots of interpersonal relationships, petty politics, and lots and lots of tea. Endless drinking of tea, the intricacies of good and bad china, even the exploitation of tea plantations.

This third and final book of the trilogy aims to complete the story, and despite hewing much closer to the second book's small-scale approach, it actually manages to stick the landing. But to continue the gymnastics analogy, the series as a whole feels like a routine that started off with ambitious, high-difficulty release moves, flips and twists and whatever, then moved on to boring filler, and finishing with the simplest dismount possible. Again, this might be too harsh, as this book does comport itself quite well, it's just so different than what the first book seemed to promise that I can't help but feel disappointed.

During this year's whole Sad Puppy kerfluffle, I ran across some non-puppy lamenting the puppy line and proclaiming that science fiction was primarily about the "exploration of the human condition", which is funny because I think that is indeed the whole crux of the matter. With this Ancillary series, Leckie is clearly fascinated by the "exploration of the human condition". And of course, there's nothing wrong with that! Much of science fiction does this, and it's a wonderful, time-honored part of the genre. The problem is that the grand majority of art ever produced is about the "exploration of the human condition". That's not what makes science fiction unique, and while Leckie managed to channel some of SF's unique sense of wonder and conceptual breakthrough in the first book, she basically abandoned that pretense in the succeeding novels. Lots of Puppies complained about Ancillary Justice, but I know for a fact that a lot of them enjoyed the novel. I doubt any of them appreciated the sequels. (NB: while I have some leanings towards the type of works Puppies prefer, I am not and have never been a Puppy!)

So what we end up with is a series with some fascinating worldbuilding and SF ideas that are established but not really explored. What seemed like promising lines of thought in the first book come off like window dressing in this final novel. Leckie even acknowledges this shift in-story. In the first book, we find out that the shared consciousness tyrant that rules an empire had actually fragmented into two factions that were secretly at war with one another. Great idea! In Ancillary Mercy, our protagonist Breq flatly opines that she doesn't care what happens, and thus we get no real exploration of what this civil war amidst a hive mind would entail (and no clarification as to how these hive minds actually work, and how such a situation hasn't happened thousands of years earlier). Another example? A mysterious alien race called the Presger have been hinted at throughout the series. It's suggested that they may be the force behind our Tyrant's little civil war. There's this extra-super-fantastic gun that, at first, is simply undetectable. In this final book, it can destroy entire spaceships with a single shot. As deus ex machina, it works, I guess, but it's pretty indicative of how Leckie treats the Presger. They're there for convenience, not for actual insight.

So I've blathered on for several paragraphs and I haven't even talked much about this book. It picks up where the last one left off, with Breq trying to effect repairs of a space station while overseeing the planet's transition from tyranny to more self-determined government or somesuch. She knows that Anaander Mianaai is going to visit to re-establish her rule, and she will probably have to also deal with the Presger, who will no doubt be a little upset that their translator/ambassador was killed in the previous book's shenanigans. Meanwhile, everyone drinks tea out of cheap china because the good china was destroyed in the previous book, but hey, tea is needed.

I know it sounds like I'm being dismissive of the tea stuff, and to a certain extent, I feel justified in that, but it actually doesn't bother me that much. I enjoy the tea minutia more than I would have thought, and as a beverage nerd who enjoys a cup of tea every now and again, it's got its charms.

Anyway, the plot of this one actually works a good deal better than the second book. It's not as episodic, and hangs together better. If you can go with the deus ex machina of the Presger, the story actually works really well. The pacing is still off, and too much time is spent on the seemingly endless parade of officers that have severe emotional problems (seriously, this is the culture that conquered most of the galaxy? How?) For instance, at one point a mysterious ship shows up out of nowhere. It's the new Presger translator/ambassador! She will no doubt be a little miffed that the previous translator was killed! Whatever shall we do? Apparently, we need to sit down and discuss how microagressions make a member of the crew feel. And look, I'm not predisposed to hate that sort of thing, but it kills plot momentum and is one of several such instances. On the other hand, the new Presger translator is, by far, my favorite part of the book. She has a very weird affect about her, coming off as nonplussed and yet somehow wise, and primarily acting as comic relief. Her disaffected demeanor fits well, and is used to good effect throughout the novel, almost making up for contrived role the Presger play in the series.

The conclusion actually works, too. It is, of course, not a conclusion to all that was set up in the first novel and again relies on the deus ex machina of the Presger, but it does resolve the smaller-conflict at the heart of the book in a surprisingly satisfying fashion. At the start, I thought Leckie had written herself into a corner, but she manages a couple of twists and turns that make sense. I left the book feeling pretty happy that I read the series, even if I have my fair share of complaints.

Despite my reservations, this book has been well received critically and fans of the series seem to love it. I have no doubt that it will make next year's Hugo ballot (indeed, even the Sad Puppies are talking about it), even if it will probably not make my ballot. I am actually curious to see if Leckie will revisit this universe, maybe even tackle some of the unrealized potential she so ably established in the first book. I would like to read that, actually.
Posted by Mark on November 22, 2015 at 01:32 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Whither the SF Classics
A couple weeks ago, author Jason Sanford kicked up a fuss about the "fossilization of science fiction and fantasy literature", suggesting amongst other things that "No one still discovers the SF/F genre by reading Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, or Tolkien." Needless to say, this caused a lot of consternation in some quarters, though my guess is that the medium of delivery had a lot to do with the response. Sanford posted all this in a series of Tweets, which by necessity are brief and thus come off as pompous and dismissive. Sanford later posted a clarification on his blog in a much more friendly tone, even if the weight of his argument is the same. Others have taken up the call as well, notably John Scalzi who notes:
The surprise to me is not that today’s kids have their own set of favorite authors, in genre and out of it; the surprise to me is honestly that anyone else is surprised by this.
And indeed, I'm not surprised by this notion, but it does represent a difference in the SF/F world. I was a teen in the 1990s and read all sorts of stuff from the 1930s-1960s corridor that generally represents the Golden Age, the same way (near as I can tell), teens in the 70s and 80s did. This is literally the first time in history when readers weren't introduced to SF/F via Golden Age authors like Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein (as Scalzi notes, Tolkien probably still reigns in Fantasy). What has changed?

I think a big part of it might have something to do with the on-demand nature of our current media environment. To take an example from another medium, kids growing up in the 70s didn't have much choice as to what movies they watched. It was whatever was playing on TV or the local theater, and a lot of what played was in the public domain. In other words, film nerds in the 70s saw a lot of silent movies by default. I grew up in the 80s, and with the advent of cable, I didn't really see any silent movies until I started actually studying film. I did, however, watch lots of black and white movies or movies from long before I was born, simply because that's what was showing on Cinemax or whatever. You can really see the difference in film critics who grew up in an earlier era, they have a much broader base to draw from when discussing current movies. Nowadays, it's all about what's on Netflix.

Bringing it back to SF/F, I think this is a big part of it. Many folks hit up the classics of SF/F back in the day because they were basically the only thing available. Book stores had tiny SF/F sections and primarily stocked the classics with the occasional new release. These days, kids can snag an ebook or even an audio-book on-demand, and their available choices have exploded in the past couple of decades. SF/F has sorta conquered the world, and is widely available everywhere. Thus the classics, while still available, are getting dwarved by other books.

And this is before you get to all the other options kids have to occupy their attention these days (video games, anime, internet stuff, etc...) There seems to be a dismissive streak running through fandom these days. Perhaps its because there's so much new SF/F flooding the market. There's too much to keep up with; you don't have a choice but to filter in some way.

One thing a lot of people mention when it comes to this is that kids don't like the classics because they can't relate, which seems kind of silly to me. Sure, old books were written in a different context, and there's a lot of weird stuff people were exploring. But for crying out loud, this is Science Fiction we're talking about here! The whole point is to explore alien ideas and blow your mind within the confines of a rationally knowable universe. When people are pining for the Golden Age of science fiction, they're craving that Sense of Wonder we got from Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Lots of great science fiction is being written these days, but a surprising amount is dystopian misery porn or boring character studies with a veneer of SF Tropes. This is especially rampant in YA fiction, which is so melancholy that I'm wondering why we're so excited by it. Maybe the reason people keep recommending Heinlein juveniles is because so much of YA fiction is dedicated to gloomy settings and grim despair. There's nothing wrong with that type of story, but is it really surprising that some of us crave Golden Age throwbacks like, say, The Martian?

I suppose the worry is that this represents another cultural battleground where kids don't read the classics because they're trying to establish a "safe space" or some other such nonsense. Again, I find that odd considering the whole point of speculative fiction is to expand your horizons. To a lot of people, reading is a passive activity, but it really isn't. If you're not interrogating what you're reading, you're doing it wrong. This gets us into strange territory though, and we'd have to go about discussing what really makes the SF genre work, which is probably better served in its own post someday.

None of this is malicious or necessarily dangerous, but it is different, and for the first time in 70ish years, kids aren't reading the "classics". One can't help but wonder what that will mean, but I'm not too worried. People like what they like. I don't like the idea of dismissing the classics out of hand, but I wouldn't be surprised or upset if someone got into SF by reading, say, Scalzi or Weir. For instance, I don't think Fantasy is anything but strengthened by the popularity of Harry Potter. The same is probably true with SF, even if I'm not a huge fan of dystopian YA...
Posted by Mark on November 15, 2015 at 11:27 AM .: Comments (4) | link :.

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

The End of All Things
When John Scalzi started his little serialized publishing experiment a few years ago with The Human Division, it felt a little like a television series. Each story was self contained and episodic in nature, and Scalzi even went as far as to call each installment an "Episode". The book (unexpectedly and distressingly) even ended on a cliffhanger, and when he announced the sequel, he did so by saying that it had been "renewed for a second season". Well, the new season has finally arrived, in the form of The End of All Things.

To continue the television analogy, though, this is less like a season two and more like a mini-series. The first book/season consisted of thirteen stories/episodes, and they were very episodic in nature. There was a burbling background conflict that wound its way through, like one of those procedural TV shows that has a monster of the week, but an overarching conspiracy that gets mentioned every now and again. This new book/season only consists of 4 novellas (each of which is significantly longer than most of what preceded it), and instead of focusing on self-contained, episodic conflicts, this one focuses pretty intently on bringing that background conspiracy to the forefront in a more longform narrative way. As a result, this feels like a bit of a turn in the series, and lends itself to the mini-series analogy. This is all well and good, and the narrative here is more cohesive than the previous entry, but then, one of the things I loved about the first book was the way some of those standalone stories worked. So yes, this is more cohesive, but not quite as much as a normal novel, which makes it a bit of an oddity. Let's take a look at each episode.

The Life of the Mind is the first story, told by Rafe Daquin, who is basically a brain in a box. He wasn't always that way, but here he tells us the story of how he became that way and what he did about it. It actually explains a lot about the mysterious disappearing ships from the previous book, but it is also the most clumsy story in the series in terms of exposition. Maybe Scalzi was concerned that the head-in-a-box thing would be confusing, but even inexperienced SF readers don't need you to repeat something three times or extrapolate every piece of information. I was a little concerned at the outset of this story because Scalzi's last novel, Lock In, also started with an unnecessary and egregious example of info-dumping. Fortunately, while this grated on me a bit, it wasn't nearly as bad as last time, and I was able to quickly move past it. I liked the character of Rafe and I liked where this novella went.

This Hollow Union is up next, and it follows alien diplomat Hafte Sorvalh as she attempts to keep her Conclave of alien races together while dealing with those pesky human factions. You may remember Sorvalh as the Churro loving diplomat from the previous book, and it was nice to revisit her. While told from a different perspective, this basically continues the narrative set up in The Life of the Mind, in particular the fallout of various information leaks and revelations about third party factions out for their own purposes. It's a little talky, but it reminded me a bit of the previous book's focus on the diplomatic corps and while Lieutenant Harry Wilson shows up at one point, the zaniness factor isn't quite what it was. Since we're finally getting down into the details of the shadowy conspiracy hinted at in the first book, the tone is necessarily more serious here, and Scalzi did manage a few little surprises. All in all, a solid story.

Can Long Endure is told from the perspective of a 4 person CDF squad as they're sent out on riot patrol, keeping the Colonial Union in line (instead of their normal conflicts with alien species). There's some of Scalzi's snappy dialog here, and that part goes pretty well. The story itself is a little repetitive and the ending is a little anti-climactic, but that's kind of expected for the penultimate episode of a series, right? It was my least favorite episode, but even then, it was a good story, well told.

To Stand or Fall brings things to a close on a strong note. Due to its episodic nature, it's hard to call any one character the protagonist of the series, but the one man present throughout almost all the stories would be Lieutenant Harry Wilson. He's a fun character, and breathed fresh life into all the preceding stories whenever he showed up (even if only for a short time). Here, he's the viewpoint character, and while the overarching narrative has become more serious, Wilson's stories always feel breezy and fun. It helps the Scalzi is able to devise a plausible solution to the challenge facing our various factions and heroes (you can nitpick if you like, but I was more than willing to go with it).

As a whole, it all works out, even if it comes off a bit disjointed. That's just a natural result of the whole serialized publishing thing though, and I think the overarching narrative was pretty solid. Personally, though? I think I appreciated some of those lowish-stakes diplomatic missions from the first book a lot more. This sequel reminds me of a TV series that started out episodically, then got bogged down in the mythology and ended up devoting all its attention to the continuity story rather than coming up with a series of small, fun adventures for our heroes. I can't really fault the book for being something different than what I desired though, and it still fares really well in my book. I am on the fence with this one with respect to the Hugos though. None of the stories are really suitable for inclusion in the novella category (The Life of the Mind might be, but the glaring exposition issues make it a tough sell), but the disjointed nature of the narrative also makes best novel a tough sell. On the other hand, I liked this more than most of the stuff on the past two years' worth of novel ballots, so there is that! Of course, we've got plenty of time here, so there's no need to make snap decisions. Let's see how this one ferments in my head over the next few months. All of which is to say, this is a solid successor to The Human Division, and it resolves all the cliffhangery elements of that first book well. The resolution here does not seem to lead to a natural third "season", but who knows? I would certainly like to spend more time with some of these characters...
Posted by Mark on September 13, 2015 at 07:02 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hugo Awards: The Results
The Hugo Award winners were announced last night, and since I've been following along, I figured I should at least cobble together some thoughts on the subject. Also of note, the full voting breakdown in case you wanted to figure out how instant-runoff voting works. In short, this year's awards were a clusterfuck, and no one's coming away happy. "No Award" happens in several categories, and those voters were clearly the dominant force in the final voting. You can blame this whole thing on the puppies if you like, but to my mind, it's a two way street. Plenty of blame to go around. Action and reaction, it's a thing.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Ken Liu translator) wins Best Novel. As predicted, this one had the most rounded support because it wasn't on either Puppy slate (which allowed Noah Ward voters cover to vote for it), but it was endorsed by the dread Vox Day (which allowed Puppy voters to vote for it). That being said, it was my favorite book on the ballot (and indeed, the only one I actually nominated that made it to the final ballot). The Goblin Emperor came in second place, but was my least favorite novel on the ballot.
  • Looking at the stats for Best Novel nominations, a few things jump out. The two next in line were Trial by Fire and The Chaplain's War, both Puppy nominees (though it seems likely that Torgersen would have turned down his nomination, had it come to that). After that were two non-pups in Lock In and City of Stairs. I didn't particularly love Lock In, but it probably would have come in third on my ballot had it been there (which says something about last year's crop of favorites, I think). Interestingly, The Martian showed up next, though I'm not sure if they screened it for eligibility. It was on my nominating ballot and it may very well have been my favorite novel of last year (eligibility issues aside).
  • Chaos Horizon has a detailed initial look at the stats, of course, and estimates the influence of various factions as such:
    Core Rabid Puppies: 550-525
    Core Sad Puppies: 500-400
    Absolute No Awarders: 2500
    Primarily No Awarders But Considered a Puppy Pick: 1000
    That sums up to 4600 hundred voters. We had 5950, so I thin the remaining 1400 or so were the true "Neutrals" or the "voted some Puppies but not all."
    For what it's worth, I would put myself into one of the 1400 "Neutrals".
  • The only other fiction to win an award was the Novelette "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, which basically won by default since it was the only non-Puppy nominee in that category. It was also my least favorite story, by a wide margin. "No Award" takes Novella (which I was kinda expecting, since even I was ranking No Award in that category, though not in the highest place. It seems that nominating one writer for three stories isn't the best approach.) and Short Story (more surprising, I guess), trouncing all competition in the first pass of voting.
  • So the Puppies did not do so well in the final voting. I was basically expecting this, though perhaps not to this flagrant extent (the 2500 Absolute No Awarders number is pretty eye opening). More evidence for my Action and Reaction theory, and I stand by most of what I said there. One thing I hope I'm wrong about is "No Award" being the worst possible outcome. It's always been clear to me that the current Puppy approach does not work (assuming you're actually trying to get your nominees an award and not, say, burn the whole thing down). My recommendation for Kate Paulk: Please, for the love of God, do not put together a slate. Focus your efforts on garnering participation and emphasize individuality. If you're dead set on listing out nominees, go for a long reading list as opposed to a blatant slate. Brad Torgersen called for nominees early this year, and the grand majority of them didn't make his slate (and some things appeared on the slate that weren't discussed? I think? I don't really feel like digging through that.) Perhaps coordinate that effort and be inclusive when you list out eligible nominees. We're all fans, let's write this year off and try not alienating everyone next year (that goes for everyone, not just the Puppies). Forbearance is a good thing.
  • The notion that voting on the current year gives you the ability to nominate next year is a brilliant one that might actually keep me participating. That being said, if there's anything like this year's clusterfuck brewing, I'm out. I can forgive this year because I think even the Puppies were surprised at how successful their slate approach was. I can understand the Noah Ward voters too. But if the same thing happens next year... I don't know, why bother?
I'm not particularly looking forward to the upcoming teeth gnashing, gloating, and/or whining that is inevitable in the coming week. If a worthwhile discussion emerges, maybe I'll roundup some links, but I'm not particularly sanguine about that prospect.
Posted by Mark on August 23, 2015 at 09:35 AM .: Comments (6) | link :.

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Sunday, August 09, 2015

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.
That's the eye-opening first sentence of Neal Stephenson's latest novel, palindromically titled Seveneves. It speaks to how much science fiction loves the what if mode of storytelling. What if the moon exploded? At first, not a whole lot. The moon splits into 7 big pieces, but thanks to gravity, they're generally in the same location and orbit, exerting the same tidal forces, and so on. That is, until the pieces of the moon start to smash into one another, splitting massive rocks into smaller chunks, leading to an exponentially increasing number of collisions. While we're not really expecting the moon to explode anytime soon, the notion of space debris colliding with other space debris, creating more debris and thus increasing likelihood of further collisions, is something NASA scientists have actually speculated about. In the novel, Stephenson calls this the "White Sky", and the smaller pieces won't stay nicely in orbit like the moon did. Within two years of the moon exploding, the Earth will be assaulted by what Stephenson calls the "Hard Rain" as all of the pieces of the moon fall to earth as bolides, releasing so much energy and heat as to make the Earth uninhabitable for thousands of years.

The human response to this news is to send as much material into orbit as possible. In a way, this is an "ark" story (a common subgenre, though it's also often relegated to backstory), but since Earth orbit is going to be crowded with moon parts, it can't be a single, giant ark. Instead, Stephenson comes up with the concept of a "cloud ark", a series of small, independent arklets that can swarm and maneuver to avoid debris. Various groupings can be made, and there's also a home-base of sorts with the International Space Station, which is somewhat larger than it is today and which is also bolted to a large iron asteroid called Amalthea (which acts as a shield for the ISS). Naturally, the cloud ark cannot accommodate more than a few thousand souls, so there's lots of Earthside wrangling and politics over who is chosen to survive, and who will remain on ground to perish in the hard rain.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned anything about characters yet, and that's pretty illustrative about how this book reads. There is a very large cast of characters, of course, but the book seems primarily concerned with orbital mechanics and more broad sociological interactions. The depth with which Stephenson explains various elements of humanity's future home in space will no doubt turn casual readers off, but this is par for the Stephenson course. Blog readers know that I'm totally in the bag for this sort of thing, so it didn't really bother me, and while info-dumps can be frustrating when done poorly, Stephenson is a master of incorporating that sort of detail into a larger narrative. Here, the orbital mechanics are mixed fairly successfully with social mechanics and the more divisive political aspects of the cloud ark.

Depending on your point of view, this could be viewed as an intensely pessimistic view of humanity. I was actually reminded of the Battlestar Galactica television series, where people can't seem to agree with each other about anything, even when the entire race is on the brink of extinction. In some ways, it's not quite that pessimistic, and spoilers aho, humanity manages to survive, but not after some pretty harrowing and surprisingly sudden crises. More spoilers forthcoming, but the immediate takeaway is that fans of Stephenson will probably enjoy this, but like most of his novels, you probably have to have a certain mindset to enjoy it...

Individual characters feel more like chess pieces in the story's game. Sure, they have personalities (this comes into play later in the book, moreso than early on) and they're a compelling enough bunch, but their actions are severely constrained by their circumstances. This is, in many ways, the point. Living in space does not allow for many of the habits and practices we're used to here on our cushy planet, after all. Personal space, privacy, and so on are pretty severely limited. Still, the characters feel more like types than individuals. There's a science populizer called "Doc" Dubois Harris who is basically Neil Degrass Tyson. There's a miner turned roboticist named Dinah Macquarie, who is arguably the main character of the first two thirds of the book. We like both of them, and several of their surrounding characters. There's an almost cartoonishly devious political villain that emerges as well, along with her own retinue of followers. We don't like them! And there are dozens of other side characters, some becoming very important, some unceremoniously dispatched in one space disaster or another.

It's a huge novel in nearly every way, including it's physical size (another 800+ page hardcover), but also in terms of its ambition and the way Stephenson tells the story. If you think the first line is cool, the transition about two thirds of the way through the book was another pretty big surprise. At the time, humanity isn't in particularly good shape. They've fractured into two main camps, but few remain alive when they rejoin one another. On the other hand, they've finally reached a relatively safe and stable position in space to build out from, and they have enough technology to ensure the survival of the species... and then Stephenson starts a new chapter with "Five Thousand Years Later" and proceeds from there.

It's a bold choice, one of many in this book. Unfortunately, when you move the action that far forward, there's a lot to catch up with. As mentioned above, Stpehenson is a master of info-dumps, but this section of the book, in which nearly every narrative event is preceded by long and complicated digressions about how this or that piece of new orbital technology works or how this or that aspect of society works (again we get the juxtaposition of orbital and social mechanics frequently here) left even me a little impatient. It doesn't help that the events that drive that future part of the narrative seemed pretty obvious to me from the start (it's based on something from earlier in the book). Still, once the basics are established, the story gets moving on its own terms and ends strong enough.

It's just that you have to get through 5000 years of basics, which takes a while. A lot of Stephenson's ticks are noticeable here (and I don't mean that in a bad way). Stephenson loves to play with familial relationships and often returns to certain types of characters. Here, we get seven different strains of characters, such that when the story is moved 5000 years into the future, even if we don't know the new characters yet, we know their ancestors, and this gives you a little bit of an idea as to who they are. It's not a perfect, one-to-one relationship, the same way that Randy Waterhouse is distinct from Lawrence Waterhouse (in Stephenson's Cryptonomicon), but there's some underlying type that works for them both. Now, it is a bit of a hard sell to say that the 7 distinct genotypes (the eponymous seven "eves") wouldn't have interbred more in the intervening 5000 years (it is implied that this does happen, but it seems infrequent), but I can accept that the storytelling works better when you make such sharp distinctions.

It's funny, but this feels like Stephenson's most cinematic work. Many of these info-dumps and extended discussions of orbital mechanics would be much less daunting if presented visually (the book even includes a few illustrations to help you visualize what he's talking about, but they are few and far between). Alas, I'm guessing such a movie (or, more likely, TV series) would be cost prohibitive because of all the special effects required to blow up the moon, portray the white sky and hard rain, and all the arklets, let alone the far future space habitats and gigantic orbital launch devices, etc... Perhaps someday this could happen, and I think it could perhaps even surpass the book in terms of quality if done right.

I'm a total sucker for Stephenson, so it's not a surprise that I enjoyed this novel. It's not going to unseat Cryptonomicon as my favorite, but it compares favorably to his other work. I have to admit that I don't particularly agree with all of his sociological musings here, but this is interesting, exciting, and ambitious stuff, and I can't fault Stephenson for wanting to explore this fascinating territory. I know that this is an unpopular line of thought with increasingly ideological Science Fiction fans of late, but I'm actually capable of disagreeing with a work that I think is great without actually needing to doubt that greatness. This is bold, adventurous writing, and while there are plenty of valid complaints to be made, I still think this is some of the most interesting SF published in the last few years (it certainly puts the last few Hugo novel ballots to shame). You can bet this will show up on my 2016 Hugo nomination ballot.
Posted by Mark on August 09, 2015 at 11:41 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hugo Awards: Skin Game
Nominees like this are difficult to judge. It's the 15th installment in Jim Butcher's long-running Dresden Files series of books detailing the exploits of that other wizard named Harry. The series started out as a mashup of fantasy with detective fiction, with Harry Dresden playing the role of a PI with magical powers. He even has a listing in the phone book. Of course, as the series went on, some variation crept in, some are still traditional noirish detective stories, others not quite so formulaic. My experience with the Dresden Files actually began with the short-lived SyFy television series. Not even realizing at the time that it was based on a book series, I actually enjoyed the show quite a bit (for a time, it was on Netflix Instant and Amazon Prime streaming, but it appears that convenience is no more). It's not one of those things that would get cited as part of the hallowed golden age of television we're currently ambling our way through, but it was an entertaining enough series (and without going into personal circumstances at the time, it was exactly what I needed). I wish it lasted more than one season.

A few years later, and a book club run by some coworkers selected the first book in the series, Storm Front, so I figured it was time to check it out. I enjoyed that first book quite a bit, but the bounced right the hell off the second book, Fool Moon, which put me off the series for a while. Last year, after I burned out on SF, I read the third book in the series (looking for something trashy and fun), Grave Peril, and found it better than the second book, but still not quite fulfilling the entertainment quotient provided by the TV show. Then Skin Game gets nominated for the Hugo Awards this year and despite not having read the intervening 11 books, I feel like I need to give it a shot. I was a little hesitant about this because I was reliably informed that the book featured mostly long-standing characters whose personalities and motivations were rooted in earlier books.

This is certainly true, but I found that I was able to follow along well enough given my knowledge of the first three books (and even the TV series, to some extent), and indeed, the central plot here is self-contained enough to be compelling even if there were some personal matters that weren't entirely fleshed out. I'm no expert on urban fantasy or anything, but the series seems to pull from enough folklore that I was generally able to keep up with the proceedings. I ultimately enjoyed the book heartily, and it had enough going for it that I think it compares favorably to the other nominees (such that my initial #2 ranking feels justified).

The book started off a bit on the rough side, with Harry living on the island of Demonreach, acting as a Warden to a sorta magical prison. He's running around the island and jumping over obstacles while screaming "Parkour!" which is pretty painfully silly at first, but sorta rebounds during a few later callbacks (at one point, Butcher even acknowledges how ridiculous it is in the text, which is nice I guess, but doesn't make it any less ridiculous). There's a bunch of stuff going on here that is clearly from earlier novels, but it doesn't take long for things to settle in, as Dresden's Faerie Queen arrives to offer him a job: help fallen angel Nicodemus steal something from the vault of Hades.

It's a heist story, complete with all the tropes, but with a nice magical twist or two thrown in for spice. Assemble the team, devise devious ways around the vault's magical safeguards, deal with some obstacles, prepare for deception and betrayal within the group, and so on. It's a pretty well executed heist tale too, with some neat puzzles, intrigue, double agents, and so on. I'm sure most of the characters on the team were well established in the series, but for the most part, I was able to pick up on the specialists, and the shifting allegiances weren't hard to follow or anything like that. Of course, I recognized Harry's primary allies in Karrin Murphy and Michael Carpenter (and, to a lesser extent, Waldo Butters and Bob the Skull), but most of the other characters were new to me. Again, I didn't have much trouble catching on, and even grew to like a few of the characters.

As with previous books, this one feels a bit bloated, with Butcher never missing an opportunity to expound on this or that magical theory, and while I was able to follow along, there did seem to be a fair amount of what I'll call continuity-service, consisting of references to the fallout of recent books and so on. I've never been a particularly big fan of the way Butcher portray's action in this series either, and that's also the case here, though it is better than I was expecting, and the puzzle-like nature of some aspects of the story are enjoyable. Some of it is just lingered on a little too much.

One of my problems with the earlier entries in the series is the sort of escalation of magical powers that necessarily happens in stories like these, as well as the damage that Harry typically takes on in the course of the story (usually an absurd amount that beggars belief, even assuming some sort of magical healing power). Some of that is certainly here, but there are plenty of times when Harry reasons things out for us and it all makes logical sense, which is more than I can say for some of the early novels. There's even some explanation for why Dresden can take more punishment than normal here, which is appreciated. Butcher also has a tendency to revel in pop culture references a bit, which sometimes works, and sometimes just seems extraneous (I mean, a Black Hole reference? Another situation where Butcher explicitly has a character call out how ridiculous the reference is, which is nice and all, but doesn't make it less ridiculous!)

I really enjoyed the heist aspects though, and there were plenty of well executed twists and turns late in the story that kept things moving at a brisk pace. I particularly enjoyed when Hades singles out Harry (during the heist, of course) to sit down and have a drink. It was probably my favorite part of the book, even if it's a bit hokey. It's my kind of hokey, I guess.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed the book, and I can see why this series is so popular. Not having read the previous 11 books in the series, I have to say that some of that probably sailed over my head, but I seemed able enough to follow along, and was still able to find plenty of enjoyment here. I think my #2 ranking on the ballot is warranted, and will probably remain that way. I'm also resolving to read more from this series, as from what I understand, I'm past the worst bits. Don't hold your breath though, I've got plenty of other stuff to read. This basically concludes my Hugo reading for this year, though I'm sure I'll have something to say when the winners are announced in August...
Posted by Mark on July 29, 2015 at 09:48 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hugo Awards: Semi-Final Ballot
As the voting deadline approaches, I find myself rushing to finish one book, but have otherwise read what I want to read and pretty much know how my ballot will shake out. I'm pretty much only voting in the fiction categories, avoiding commentary and zine categories like the plague. I might take a look at the artist stuff in the voters packet, but for now, this is what I've got:

Best Novel:
  1. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Ken Liu translator) [My Review]
  2. Skin Game, by Jim Butcher [Tentative, review forthcoming]
  3. The Dark Between the Stars, by Kevin J. Anderson [My Review]
  4. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie [My Review]
  5. The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison [My Review]
The only caveat here is that I have not finished Skin Game. I will definitely finish before the voting deadline, but even halfway through, I think I know where I'm falling on it (in short, I have a soft spot for heist stories, and this one is doing a reasonable job thus far). For the most part, I'm not tremendously excited by this lineup, but I don't see a need to deploy No Award here either.

Predicted Winner:The Three-Body Problem (It's not on the Puppy ballots, so it's acceptable for people to vote on it, but the Puppies seem to like it too, so I think it's in good shape)

Best Novella:
  1. One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright
  2. Big Boys Don't Cry by Tom Kratman
  3. "Flow", by Arlan Andrews, Sr.
  4. No Award
  5. "The Plural of Helen of Troy", by John C. Wright
See My Reviews for more details. Left off the ballot is "Pale Realms of Shade", also by John C. Wright, because having two nominated stories on the ballot is probably enough. Depending on my mood, I may remove "The Plural of Helen of Troy" as well, but it's aged better in my head than I thought it would. It's still weird that Wright has 3 stories in this one category. My only deployment of No Award this year. I tend to go light on that sort of thing, but it seems like the rest of fandom is throwing it around with reckless abandon. There's a decent chance that all the short fiction categories will end up No Award. If that happens, I might just have to tune out entirely. This controversy is getting old.

Predicted Winner: Big Boys Don't Cry (though No Award is a strong contender this year, because controversy)

Best Novelette:
  1. "The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale", by Rajnar Vajra
  2. "Championship B'tok", by Edward M. Lerner
  3. "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium", by Gray Rinehart
  4. "The Journeyman: In the Stone House", by Michael F. Flynn
  5. "The Day the World Turned Upside Down", by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
See My Reviews for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" (though No Award is a strong contender this year, because controversy)

Best Short Story:
  1. Totaled, by Kary English
  2. Turncoat, by Steve Rzasa
  3. On a Spiritual Plain, by Lou Antonelli
  4. A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond
  5. The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright
See My Reviews for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: Totaled (though No Award is a strong contender this year, because controversy)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
  1. The Lego Movie
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy
  4. Edge of Tomorrow
  5. Interstellar
See my recap for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: The Lego Movie

So there you have it. Not a bad slate overall, and I actually enjoyed it slightly more than last year's slate. What I did not enjoy was all the whinging about Puppies or Noah Ward and so on. Fingers crossed that next year won't be quite so contentious. With the likelyhood that No Award will win some categories this year, I don't see that happening, nor do I see the vitriol subsiding (heck, it hasn't really subsided yet to begin with). I may just end up bailing on the whole enterprise next year and just read stuff I like. What a novel idea.
Posted by Mark on July 26, 2015 at 09:39 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Quasi-Hugo Awards: Terms of Enlistment
The initial Hugo Award finalists for Best Novel included a book called Lines of Departure. It was one of the suggestions from Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies, and once that came to the attention of the author, Marko Kloos, he promptly withdrew his acceptance of the nomination (this withdrawal lead to the inclusion of The Three-Body Problem in the category). As a result, he's one of the few authors to emerge mostly unscathed by the whole affair. The puppies seemed to respect his decision and lots of others vowed to read his books anyway, probably giving him a boost in sales without the vitriolic baggage everyone else is dealing with. For my part, the nominated novel just seemed like it would be cool, so I felt I should check it out regardless of what all the factions of fandom thought. In fact, when nominees were initially announced, this was the one I was most looking forward to... Alas, it's actually the second in a series, so I started with the first novel: Terms of Enlistment.

At its core, it's a solid military science fiction novel, pretty much hitting all the expected tropes. The story is told from the perspective of Andrew Grayson, a welfare rat living in a prison-like tenement in Boston. He's one of the "lucky" few to be accepted for military service, and he jumps at the opportunity of escaping his near-dystopian surroundings without thinking too much about the *ahem* terms of enlistment. Every convention of the subgenre is covered, from saying goodbyes to basic training with its drill sergeants and physical exhaustion, to a shit assignment that turns out to be more prestigious than thought, to (eventually) exploding spaceships and battles on alien planets.

As these things go, it's a pretty well executed version of the common MilSF tropes. This might seem derivative and repetitious to some folks, but I've always been of a mind that a well executed version of a common story has value. What you usually end up with is something akin to SF comfort food, with the occasional feint towards something more transcendent. The start of this novel feels more like the former, but as the story progresses, we start to move towards the latter. We never really get that true transcendence, but this is only the first novel in a series and while it has a decent ending, it's also clearly setting up a rich groundwork for the sequel.

Kloos has nice, clean, concise prose, and he's excellent at describing battles and explosions and whatnot. The characters are generally likable and competent without being ridiculous caricatures. This isn't a particularly deep novel of characterization, but it's pretty good by the standards of MilSF. The worldbuilding seemed a bit hokey at first, but it gets better as it goes on, and the ending throws a nice little wrench into the proceedings, making it a good setup for the following books. Initially, it almost seemed like this would be one of those novels where our protagonist is propelled through a series of episodic adventures that ultimately lead nowhere, but Kloos manages to keep the narrative tight enough that each combat mission leads into the next in an entertaining fashion that keeps the pages turning.

Thematically, it's a bit straightforward until we get to the ending, which presents a tantalizing reversal of a common trope. Lots of MilSF concerns itself with bug hunts and aliens that are insectoid in nature. In this case, it appears that the human beings might be the insects of the universe (er, metaphorically speaking), which is a pretty clever take on a tired theme, and while Kloos is pretty explicit about this theme, he manages to make it feel earned and not hoary.

Ultimately, it's a promising start, and I'm really happy I decided to read these books. As you might be able to tell from the above, it's a novel that starts off extremely derivative and trope-driven, but it eventually starts to take things into more interesting places, hinting at even more to come. I'm very much looking forward to the next installment, which is more than I can probably say about all of the actual nominees for this year's Best Novel. Of course, I still need to read Lines of Departure before commenting on how it would fit into this year's ballot (had it survived the nomination), but I should probably finish off that Dresden book and Seveneves first... In the meantime, if you're looking for a relatively straightforward MilSF novel series that shows some promise at transcending its roots, this is worth a look.
Posted by Mark on July 12, 2015 at 03:45 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, July 05, 2015

Hugo Awards: Novellas
The other shorter-than-a-novel-but-longer-than-a-short-story category, these tend to be longer reads, which is a shame because I didn't particularly care for any of them. It's also one of the weirder categories in that three of the five nominees are from the same author. Two of the stories are also significantly expanded versions of much shorter stories (which, given my complaints below, would probably have been much better for me). None of the nominees are particularly terrible, per say, I just failed to connect with them, and it makes me wish there was a little more variety here. I don't want too dwell on this, so let's just get to it:
  1. One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright - This was pretty clearly my favorite of the bunch, a baroque tale of magic that evokes Arthurian legends, C. S. Lewis (complete with an appearance by a giant lion), Tolkien, and maybe even Stephen King's Gunslinger series. The problem with this approach is that I would much rather be reading the works that served as inspiration than the novella itself. Still, of the other stories on the ballot, this was the most successful story and at least Wright's style seemed to fit this narrative. It's not a story I love, but I don't mind having read it and it's well constructed and written.
  2. Big Boys Don't Cry by Tom Kratman - A few years ago, I read Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, not realizing that it appears to be the template for so many other stories of sentient vehicles. I didn't even enjoy the book, as its episodic structure was frustrating and left me cold. Kratman's vehicle is a massive, sentient tank named Maggie (short for Magnolia) who, like McCaffrey's singing ship, undergoes a series of episodic adventures that left me feeling disconnected from the story. Some of these episodes are actually pretty well executed though, and Kratman is pretty good at writing combat sequences, but there are more battles than necessary here, they're disconnected from one another, and they're interweaved with weird infodumps that grind the pace to a halt. This was apaprently one of the stories that was originally published in shorter form, then expanded to novella size... I haven't read the original, but I'm betting the expansion did a disservice to the story. Still, there are interesting questions here about the motivation of sentient vehicles, especially when it comes to the complete lack of respect from their human masters. The ending of this story takes a pretty dark turn, and is almost comically didactic, but it at least gives the story a conclusion.
  3. "Flow", by Arlan Andrews, Sr. - The tale of northerners selling an iceberg to the Warm Lands, then running afoul of the local religious inquisition or some such. There's some interesting stuff hinted at here, but it never really goes beyond hinting, and I really could care less about our main protagonist. This is one of those stories that just sorta flies by (not in the way of a page turner, though, it actually took a while to read this one), leaving almost no impression whatsoever. It's not terrible, I just could not connect with it.
  4. "The Plural of Helen of Troy", by John C. Wright - I should like this story. All the hooks are there, but it's like Wright forgot to attach the fishing line, so once he hooked me and attempted to reel it in, nothing really happened and now I've got these hooks all over me and I'm not one of those people who loves piercings, John! Seriously though, it's a time travel story told with a Memento-like reverse non-linearity. Or something. The protagonist is a detective hired by one John F. Kennedy to kill a future JFK with the help of a middle JFK and maybe an alternate timeline JFK, all because Marilyn Monroe is Helen of Troy and is also a slave of the evil JFK, who is going to become a timelord or something. Look, I enjoy the byzantine structures of time travel plots, poring over details and making diagrams with straws, and so on. But Wright's baroque style simply doesn't fit here, and the rules of time travel and whatnot don't seem particularly well established (or are elided to the point of incomprehensibility). I get the impression this is part of a larger collection of stories within a similar setting, so maybe that's what I'm picking up on. Regardless, this seemed about twice as long as it needed to be and while the details kinda fit, I found myself caring less as time went on. Again, I should really like this story. But I don't.
  5. "Pale Realms of Shade", by John C. Wright - Another story with a pretty neat hook, a psychic detective who dies and comes back as a ghost (or maybe he's going to become an angry poltergeist), visits with his ex-wife and business partner, along with a "fixer" (i.e. the devil) and a priest for some redemption. Along the way, we find out why and how he died, and so on. It's actually a pretty complete narrative, but it's one of those things that just really made me want to see more about this detective's exploits taking down vampires and werewolves back when he was alive. As it is, we're left with a dour, depressing tale that I never connected with. Wright's style just doesn't seem to connect very well with me.
For the first time this year, I'm actually thinking about deploying No Award on my ballot, if only to get past the ridiculous notion that one author wrote the three best novellas of the year or something. I mean, I guess such a thing is possible, but not with these three stories. That being said, Wright also wrote my clear favorite of the bunch, so I'm not slotting No Award very high.
Posted by Mark on July 05, 2015 at 03:50 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Hugo Awards: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
This award is one of the stranger categories for the Hugos. This year, it's something of a respite from the all controversy and vitriol surrounding Puppies and Kittens and all the other nicknames people are handing out with reckless abandon. Which is funny, because as a movie person, I've always found the nominees to this category mediocre at best. It seems that while the electorate can focus on obscure artistic exercises for the fiction awards, they are generally focused on the biggest budget, widest releases from a filmic standpoint.

There are certainly exceptions. The voters seem to enjoy Duncan Jones, giving the low budget Moon the rocket in 2010 and nominating Source Code in 2012 (both flawed films, to be sure, but at least they're unexpected choices). There are a handful of other non-obvious choices (i.e. A Scanner Darkly, District 9, etc...), and a whole boatload of Hollywood pap (i.e. Avatar, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, etc...) There's nothing inherently wrong with big budgets, wide releases, star vehicles, or Hollywood invovlement, to be sure, and there are plenty of fabulous choices in that realm (i.e. Inception, Gravity), but what of the lower budget, obscure, or foreign films that never seem to find their way onto the ballot? I guess I can see why Upstream Color didn't make the ballot last year; it's a pretty inscrutable movie. But then, so was a lot of the nominated fiction! Voters are willing to dig through the heaps for short stories and novelettes, why can't they seem to find things like Detention, Sound of My Voice, Attack the Block, Timecrimes, Triangle, The Man from Earth, and probably a dozen others that are escaping me right now. Sure, many are obscure genre pics, but isn't that the point of the Hugo awards taking on the category? Movies like Avatar get plenty of recognition from the mainstream, why not highlight things that aren't so easy to find, the way we do for fiction?

This year, we have at least two nominees that were deserving (and that didn't have Upstream's impenetrable style), including Coherence (to be fair, there are some eligibility concerns on that one), The One I Love, and maybe even Snowpiercer (a film I kinda hated, but it seems up the voters' alley). Alas, they did not make it, and to be sure, Hollywood had a pretty good year, putting out plenty of genuinely good movies. Indeed, I even nominated 3 of these, so I guess I shouldn't complain! My vote will go something like this (I'm going to be partially quoting myself on some of these, with some added comments more specific to the Hugos)
  1. The Lego Movie - Writer/Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made a career out of making movies out of seemingly stupid premises, and this movie may be their crowning achievement. This sounded so much like a cynical cash-grab by Hollywood, but I found myself immediately charmed by the film's fast paced humor and wit. The thing that tips this to the top of my vote is that it is actually very impressive from a visual standpoint. It's got great jokes, and some of them are visual jokes. This is a movie that actually uses its medium in a way that few movies do these days.
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Marvel firing on all cylinders, this is a dramatic improvement over the first Captain America, topping it in everything from action set pieces to consistent interpersonal touches. Considering the wider context, this movie makes some pretty bold moves too, channeling paranoid 70s thrillers (and even casting Robert Redford to underline that point) and throwing a huge monkey wrench into the whole Marvel universe (something I admire about it - as a standalone, it would be fine, but the fact that there are seemingly lasting consequences helps here). I'm actually on the fence with where to place this in relation to Guardians, but for now, it take the #2 slot.
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy - This could have failed so miserably in so many different ways, but my guess is that James Gunn's goofy personality is what saved the whole thing (even if it's toned down a bit here). Once again, it's the interpersonal touches that makes these Marvel movies tick, even this one, which is almost completely disconnected from all the other movies. It's also a big ball of fun, so there's that.
  4. Edge of Tomorrow - There's a lot to quibble about with this movie, but I'll tell you, it really worked for me. From a filmmaking craft perspective, the editing here is incredibly well executed. The ending has some issues and Cruise has his own baggage, but I had a whole lot of fun. I actually voted for this on my ballot, not thinking it would garner enough votes (it was fairly underrated and underviewed last year, even by mainstream audiences), but even then, it would have ended up towards the bottom of my ballot...
  5. Interstellar - There's a lot to like about this film, but it never quite congealed into something as cohesive as Nolan's previous work. Certainly gets points for ambition, but the film is a little clunky in its execution. It all fits together, and there are great ideas and emotional moments at its core, but perhaps could use some smoothing over some of the rougher edges (of which there are, sadly, many). A clear last place finisher for the Hugos. Not an entirely unworthy nominee, but I'd have much rather seen a few other movies in place of this one...
So there you have it. Maybe I'm being a little too hard on voters, as this is a pretty good slate, and it's nice to comment on something and not have to even bother with the whole controversial nonsense that has snowed us in this year.
Posted by Mark on June 28, 2015 at 04:29 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hugo Awards: Novelettes
Novelettes! Good old novelettes! What do you call something that's longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel? A novella, of course, but that's too easy. Let's invent something between a short story and a novella, and call it a novelette! On the one hand, it is a bit odd that SF/F seems to be the only genre in literature that makes this distinction (something about a legacy of SF's pulpy magazine roots, where different sized works had different pay scales) and it seems rather pointless and confusing for no real reason. On the other hand, it just means we get to read more fiction, which is actually a pretty cool thing. Once again, none of my nominees made the final ballot, but such is the way of short fiction awards. Last year's Novelettes were pretty darn good (with one obvious and notable exception), and it looks like this years will rival that:
  1. "The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale", Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014) - My clear favorite of the bunch, this tale of Exoplanetary Explorer cadets redeeming themselves after getting caught up in a bar fight is well written, well paced, and entertaining. It tells a full story, presents some interesting puzzles, and uses reason and logic to resolve the problems that arise. I don't know that it's particularly deep in terms of thematic heft, but it's deeply entertaining, which is usually enough for me (and so many other stories seem to forget that part) and this story struck the right chord. I feel like I should be saying more, but this is the one story on the ballot that I definitely would have put on my nominations if I had read it earlier.
  2. "Championship B'tok", Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014) - This one is a bit of an odd duck in that it feels kinda like a pilot episode of a TV show. In a colonized solar system, various unexplained breakdowns have been occurring with increasing frequency. This includes both human and alien settlements, and while the humans were able to weather the aliens' initial invasion 20 years ago, tensions are high. The aliens are hiding something, the mysterious sabotage is hitting everyone, and the humans are getting ready to launch a new interstellar starship. I actually quite enjoyed the setup, but then, that's mostly what this is: setup. It's got a lot of great storytelling elements in play. Intrigue, subterfuge, conspiracy, and so on, but this feels like one of those stories that is really just an excerpt from a larger work. This sort of thing is always weird to judge when it comes to awards like this. I think it says something that I do really want to follow up on this story at some point, because that speaks to how engaging it was. But how to judge an incomplete experience when it comes voting time? Also worth noting is that Lerner's prose style is a bit on the stilted side. I can see why some of the more literary Hugo voters are annoyed by a story like this. Often I read people's complaints about this sort of thing and shrug them off, but they may have a point here. For instance, this sentence appears in the text: "Something long dreaded was at long last at hand." Look, I'm not the most talented writer in the world, but even for me, this is a pretty obvious clunker. That said, it had some great ideas and the storytelling was on point, so it ends up falling higher on my list than lower (depending on how I feel, this may drop down a peg when voting time comes).
  3. "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium", Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014) - This feels almost like the inverse of Championship B'tok. In this scenario, aliens and humans clashed in the past, but this time the aliens won and are keeping the humans kinda bottled up in their colony. The story concerns a man who is dying. His last wish is to be buried, a practice that he thinks might throw their alien masters for a loop. It's a neat little puzzle and a complete story, but it's not quite as entertaining or fun as the above two.
  4. "The Journeyman: In the Stone House", Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014) - This is the weirdest of the bunch, a strange tale of various quasi-primitive clans coming together to train and set out on an expedition. Or something. This one is a bit light on plot. It's got some nice character moments and a couple of great one-liners (particularly Sammi o' th' Eagles), but it seems to be somewhat lacking in the realm of points. Flynn's style also threw me for a loop, as it's pretty ornate and detailed, but didn't really flow well for me (also annoying - the voters packet only had this on pdf, which has an annoying interface.) I did not hate it, but I never really got into it either.
  5. "The Day the World Turned Upside Down", Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014) - Remember above when I said that a lot of well written stories forget to be entertaining? Yeah, here's a good example of this. The premise is that one day, gravity reverses itself. Most everyone who is outside simply falls off the planet, while those inside are slammed up against their ceilings, and so on. Interesting, I guess, but don't go looking for explanations (fine) or even logical consistency (how are people still able to breath, why doesn't water in rivers, etc... fall, and so on...). It reminded me of last year's short story "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere", only this one is a little less coherent. There's a guy and his girlfriend just recently broke up with him, making this the second time the world turned upside down for him (zing!) and he makes a trek across the city to get to his girlfriend's apartment. Along the way, he meets a little girl and some other characters, but it's all pretty pointless, and pretty emphatically not my sort of story.
So there you have it. I'd say that this compares pretty favorably to last year's slate, and that it's maybe slightly better than this year's short story slate.
Posted by Mark on June 21, 2015 at 08:23 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Hugo Awards: The Dark Between the Stars
Hard as it may be to believe in these Star Wars saturated times, there was a period following Return of the Jedi in which the hallowed franchise faded from the pop culture consciousness. The trilogy had ended and nostalgia had yet to set in. In 1991, three new novels appeared, Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, which covered the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han, while peppering in some new folks for added flavor. Music to my teenage kid ears, and I loved those books. The three novels were a massive success and ushered in an age of what became known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. They were quickly followed by Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy, a not quite as successful continuation of Zahn's story. Anderson wrote many other Star Wars novels (notably the Young Jedi Knights series), but I was never particularly inspired to explore more because I didn't particularly care for the Jedi Academy books. They were fine, I guess, but lacked the thrilling pop of Zahn's initial entries, and while there were some memorable bits, it lacked the satisfaction I got out of initially rejoining my childhood heroes. I always wondered if that was a function of Anderson's writing, or whether it was because he was saddled with pre-existing conditions and unrealistic expectations... So Kevin J. Anderson is a hugely prolific author that has toiled away for years on licensed works for Star Wars, The X-Files, and Dune, though he occasionally puts forth some original novels as well. It is one of those novels that got nominated for the Hugo Awards this year.

From all outward appearances The Dark Between the Stars is a straightforward Space Opera, complete with requisite fancy starships and big explosions. The first of a planned trilogy (though set in a universe the author previously created), it delivers pretty much exactly what you'd expect: Space Opera comfort food, and little else. This is not meant to be belittling, as I tend to enjoy such exercises when done well (the aforementioned Zahn has long been my crutch for these purposes) and what we have here certainly fits the bill, if not perfectly.

It's filled with typical Space Opera tropes. A cast of thousands, quick chapters cutting back and forth between various plot elements, lots of spaceships, aliens, and explosions, an existential threat, and so on. I gather much of the worldbuilding has occurred in a previous series, but Anderson does a fine job establishing the key players. There's several Roamer clans who are basically industrious space gyspies, and we get a close look at several clans. There's a Confederation of several human factions (including Roamers), lead by a monarchy (we follow their family pretty closely). There's a bizarre mad scientist named Zoe Alakis who researches diseases and develops cures that she does not share with anyone for unknown reasons. There's the Ildirans, an older race of polymorphic aliens that is allied with the humans (not without tension, naturally) and whose history seems to drive much of the story. The Klikiss were an insectoid race that was apparently defeated in the previous series, though there remains a small cache of Klikiss robots that play a role here. The near extinct Verdani that are a telepathic network of trees that humans can use to communicate (among other things). So basically, a lot of plot threads here, and much in the way of history and worldbuilding.

During a joint exploration mission, a Human and Ildiran expedition uncovers hidden Klikiss robots and, more ominously, a dark nebula that appears to envelop and dissipate everything it touches. The Ildirans think this dark between the stars (ding ding!) are the Shana Rei, an ancient, legendary race that seem to personify entropy (the notion of order and thought appear to anger them and even cause them pain). The Shana Rei and Klikiss robots ally to destroy all sentient life in the galaxy. Ildirans and Humans struggle to find weapons with which to fight the chaotic force that seems to be popping up throughout the galaxy and destroying outposts, etc...

As a villain and existential threat, the Shana Rei are interesting at first, though I do believe that Anderson perhaps gives us too much of a glimpse into their world. For creatures that personify entropy and chaos, they seem to spend a fair amount of time talking to the Klikiss robots or creating ships to attack other sentient life (i.e. things that rely on order and sentience in itself). They also don't seem to be successful enough in this book to be truly terrifying. They may have been more effective had we known less about them or their motivations. Similarly, many of the distinct plotlines seem rather tangential to the story. Some do start to converge towards the end of the book, but much is left open ended, leaving this feeling a bit incomplete. As the first in a series, that's not too unexpected, but it also makes this difficult to judge this for the awards.

The biggest problem with this novel is that it reminds much of similar exercises that were just executed better. In particular, I kept thinking of Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Duo, a pair of books I certainly had problems with (notably with their excessive length), but which were far better at creating a truly alien threat and delivering on the terror such a thing represents. Indeed, I think I'd call this book Hamilton-lite. It's not as long (which is good!) and the plot is slightly tighter (not saying much given Hamilton's bloat, but fine!), but the ideas and storytelling aren't quite as big or bold either (that's bad!).

When I was in college, I spent one of my two free electives on a film class. One of the subjects we covered was the Auteur theory, basically the idea that a film's director is the primary author of a movie and that it's their distinct creative vision that we're seeing on screen. For some reason, we watched Thelma & Louise, and my teacher dismissed director Ridley Scott as a mere "craftsman" rather than a true Auteur. But what about Alien, we all ask. She responds by mentioning the other creative talent involved, and mentions that just because Scott is a craftsman doesn't mean he can't produce a brilliant work, just that its brilliance can't be traced back mostly to him. Given that filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor, that's probably a much better way of viewing things anyway. It was an interesting discussion, but I don't want to belabor the point. The idea of a distinction between a true Auteur and a craftsman is what keeps coming to mind when I think of Kevin J. Anderson. I mean, books aren't collaborative in the way movies are, but the distinction between a craftsman and, let's say, a master, is what I'm falling back on here. He's a fine author, his prose gets the job done, and the books I've read by him are enjoyable. I still find them a little too diffuse, a little too derivative. So Anderson is a fine craftsman, and honestly, I could see myself revisiting this universe because I had a decent enough time with it. But he's not a master, and while this represents good old-fashioned SF comfort food, I'm not sure it's well executed enough to be worth the stretch.

The question now becomes where to rank this on my ballot. It's certainly a fun adventure, even if it's not really doing anything new or particularly notable. On the other hand, while something like The Goblin Emperor set its sights high, I don't think it delivered on its potential and was a bit of a slog to get through. I feel similarly to Ancillary Sword, a novel that might be fine on its own, but represents a baffling way to continue a series that started off in a fascinating way. I don't think The Dark Between the Stars is better written that either of those novels, but I did enjoy it more than them and could see myself revisiting the series at some point. At this point, I'm at a loss as to where to place this novel on my ballot. I'm pretty certain that The Three Body Problem will end up at the top, but after that, who knows? I'll just have to see how I feel when the time comes to finalize the ballot, I guess. Up next: Jim Butcher's Skin Game... the 15th in a series of novels where I've only read 3. I obviously don't have time to catch up, but maybe the novel will be standalone enough that I can get through it... In the meantime, those novelettes and novellas won't read themselves.
Posted by Mark on June 14, 2015 at 11:48 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, June 07, 2015

Hugo Awards: Short Stories
My feelings on short stories are decidedly mixed, because most of the short fiction I read is from collections that are, by their very nature, uneven. As with Anthology Films, I generally find myself exhausted by the inconsistency. Also, as someone who tends to gravitate towards actual storytelling rather than character sketches or tone poems (or similar exercises in style), a short story can be quite difficult to execute. A lot must be accomplished in a short time, and a certain economy of language is needed to make it all work. There are some people who are great at this sort of thing, but I find them few and far between, so collections of short stories tend to fall short even if they include stories I love. In my experience, the exceptions tend to be collections from a single author, like Asimov's I, Robot or Barker's Books of Blood. That being said, I've been reading significantly more short fiction lately, primarily because of my participation in the Hugo Awards. I found myself quite disappointed with last year's nominated slate, so I actually went the extra mile this year and read a bunch of stuff so that I could participate in the nomination portion of the process. Of course, none of my nominees actually made the final ballot. Such is the way of the short story award (with so many options, the votes tend to be pretty widely spread out, hence all the consternation about the Puppy slates which probably gave their recommendations undue influence this year). But is the ballot any better this year? Only one way to find out, and here are the results, in handy voting order:
  1. Totaled by Kary English - Told from the perspective of a brain that has been separated from its body (courtesy of a car accident) and subsequently preserved in a device that presumably resembles that which was used to preserve Walt Disney's head or something. In the story, this is new technology, so the process is imperfect and while the brain can be kept alive for a significant amount of time, it still only amounts to around 6 months or so. Fortunately, the disembodied brain in question was the woman leading the project, so she's able to quickly set up a rudimentary communication scheme with her lab partner. Interfaces for sound and visuals are ginned up and successful, but by that point the brain's deterioration has begun. This could have been one of those pointless tone poems I mentioned earlier, but English keeps things approachable, taking things step by step. The portrayal of a brain separated from the majority of its inputs (and outputs, for that matter), and slowly regaining some measure of them as time goes on, is well done and seems realistic enough. One could view some of the things portrayed here as pessimistic, but I didn't really read it that way. When the brain deteriorates, she eventually asks to be disconnected before she loses all sense of lucidity (the end of the story starts to lilt into an Algernon-like devolution of language into simplistic quasi-stream of consciousness prose). I suppose this is a form of suicide, but it was inevitable at that point, and the experimental brain-in-a-jar technology allowed for a closure (both in terms of completing some of her research and even seeing her kids again) that would have otherwise been impossible. I found that touching and effective enough that this was a clear winner in the category.
  2. Turncoat by Steve Rzasa - This was the only nominated story that I'd actually read before the slate was announced, and it nearly made my ballot, though it was knocked off as I read other stories. This tale of an AI that inhabits a ship is certainly covering well tread ground, with stories like The Ship Who Sang or last year's Hugo Award winning novel Ancillary Justice going deeper into the subject. However, the thing that's really stuck with me in this story is the role and actions of the "uploaded" humans. I'd love to believe that such a thing would be possible in the long run, but how would we ever know the exact relationship between an uploaded human and its original, biological brain? What is lost and gained in the transition, and this story gets at some of the more troubling aspects of such suppositions. This is all world-building, of course, as the story itself is a fairly effective military campaign where an AI, disturbed by its uploaded masters, defects to the opposing side to try and save biological humans. I can see why this approach would rankle folks not into MilSF, but that's a sub-genre that generally works for me, so here we are.
  3. On a Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli - A spiritual and heartfelt tale of humans discovering that the soul is actually a real, quantifiable thing, thanks to an alien planet's strange magnetic fields. There is less of a story here, though there are some similarities to Totaled, where someone dies but is given a temporary reprieve so that they can glean some sense of closure. That closure is less effectively portrayed here, perhaps because this story is not told from the ghost's perspective, but it is certainly implied. This actually reminded me of Timothy Zahn's Conquerors trilogy, though Antonelli seems much more taken with the more spiritual implications than Zahn (who used a similar device for a more story driven purpose). There are some oddities about this that left me scratching my head, though I guess it makes sense from a more thematic perspective. Still, this is supposed to be SF, and I would have expected less of a rush to allow the ghost to pass on... In the end, it's a decent story and I enjoyed it well enough, not too far behind Turncoat, but clearly inferior to Totaled.
  4. A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond - The tale of a single samurai taking on a mountain-sized Kaiju monster, this has stuck with me surprisingly well, even if there are a bunch of things that don't quite jive with me. There are, for instance, a bunch of stylistic affectations that don't really work for me at all. The story being told is effective enough though, and is what lets me enjoy it for what it is. There's a decent sense of scale, and our protagonist is a man of honor who, while not perfect, manages to figure out how to defeat the monster. Could perhaps swap places with On a Spiritual Plain, though those stylistic affectations bother me for some reason (note: that usually doesn't stop me if I think the story in question is interesting enough, which I guess isn't enough in this case).
  5. The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright - Yeah, I don't really get it. I guess there's some interesting stuff in here somewhere ("the poopflinger has a point"), but there's little story here. If the stylistic affectations of A Single Samurai bothered me, the affectations here downright bored me. It's about a bunch of animals talking to each other in the wake of the Twilight of Man, trying to decide who will lead, or something like that. There are lots of Bibilical intonations, but the whole thing feels more poetic than story-like, and I did not particularly care for that. As part of the Puppy coterie complaining about the lack of good ol' fashioned storytelling (a sentiment I admit that I have sympathy for), I have to wonder what's up with this piece. As much of the Puppy slate has been derided, I have enjoyed a fair amount of it for its back-to-basics approach, but this does not fit there, and feels more like last year's slate (albeit with a more Religious slant than last year's stories). It's fine for what it is, but it is pretty emphatically not my thing.
I definitely found this list an improvement over last year's slate, which again, I did not particularly enjoy. With the possible exception of Totaled, I generally prefer the stuff I nominated to the finalists above, but then, I would think that, wouldn't I? I don't see the need to deploy No Award in this category, though I would not be surprised to see Wright's story fall below that threshold (and we'll see how I feel when the time comes to actually finalize my ballot, I guess).
Posted by Mark on June 07, 2015 at 10:48 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Non-Hugo Book Queue
As I wind my way through this year's Hugo nominees, I've realized that there are several books coming in the near future that I really, really want to read. It's almost enough to want to opt out of the Hugos (what with all the lame controversy), though I suppose there's a fair chance that two of these will be eligible next year (and one the following year). There's also the fact that I've already read 3 of the Hugo novels and am halfway through another, so I guess that's still on the table. Still, These 4 books make me want to drop everything and read them first:
  • Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (May 19, 2015) - So close I can almost taste it, this is coming in the mail next Tuesday. Stephenson is my favorite author, so I don't even really need to know what it's about, but if you do want to know, I posted the official synopsis a while back.
  • Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold (February 2016) - Just recently announced, this is most exciting news. Bujold is my other favorite author, so this is another almost blind buy. Details are sparse, but Bujold has stated that the main protagonist is Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, which is most exciting. She's also stated that "It is not a war story. It is about grownups." which doesn't really narrow it down much, though it may suggest that this novel takes place long after Cordelia's previous entries in the series (Shards of Honor and Barrayar, both great) and perhaps during her stint as Vicereine of Sergyar (will Aral be there?) Honestly, this one is probably the most exciting on the list to me, if only because I have so much already invested in the series.
  • The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (May 19, 2015) - Finally! Barker has been talking about this story since 1993. 1993! I know he doesn't owe his fans anything, but it's been 20+ years, which is a bit excessive... It supposedly features Harry D'Amour (from The Last Illusion and Everville) and Pinhead (from The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser). This gets on the list simply because it's been so damn long, but since it comes out on the same day as Seveneves, it will have to wait!
  • The End of All Things by John Scalzi (Serial, August 11, 2015)- I was a huge fan of The Human Division... right up until it ended on a cliffhanger. Well Scalzi's finally gotten around to publishing the second volume (which supposedly will finish off the overarching story), which is supposed to happen in serial form over the next few months, but I'll probably wait until the full collection is released in August.
There are tons of other books in the queue, but these are some of my favorite authors and they deserve special attention. Can't wait for some of these!
Posted by Mark on May 13, 2015 at 09:23 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hugo Awards: The Goblin Emperor
Among high fantasy tropes, the goblin is not a particularly prized character. What you're thinking of when I say "goblin" is probably some combination of attributes from J.R.R. Tolkien's grotesque orcs in Lord of the Rings, the bumbling, low-level scamps from D&D (or, more recently, World of Warcraft), and maybe the terrifying codpiece of David Bowie in Labyrinth (amongst other, even more ridiculous 80s movies). Even more sympathetic portrayals, such as the goblins of Harry Potter, generally portray goblins as mischievous and greedy. For the most part, goblins are evil, villainous monsters that are, nevertheless, little more than cannon fodder in larger conflicts.

Katherine Addison's novel The Goblin Emperor challenges this starting with the title of the novel itself. We're clearly going to delve into the world of goblins here. While I'm not going to claim anything near a comprehensive knowledge of high fantasy, I know enough to be intrigued by the concept, and the possibilities are endless. The novel doesn't quite deliver on that axis of potential, but rather tries for a more subtle novel of characterization. There is, of course, nothing wrong with characterization, but when that's all there is, I'm usually left unsatisfied. This novel makes overtures towards a more gripping story, but generally seems content to stick with its character sketch.

Our protagonist is a reasonably likable fellow, well-mannered, self-aware, and honorable, though in no way perfect. In fact, he's alarmingly passive throughout most of the story, and as our sole viewpoint character, the reader is forced to confront his naivety and ignorance a little too often. I never stopped liking the guy or rooting for him, but did find myself frustrated by the frequent misunderstandings or whining about this or that court intrigue. But I get ahead of myself.

The novel starts of promisingly enough. Maia is the youngest son of the Emperor, but lives in exile because of his half-goblin heritage. The Elven Emperor married Maia's Goblin mother out of political expedience rather than any real desire, so when she died, Maia was sent off to a distant castle under the "care" (i.e. abuse) of his cousin while the Emperor took a more desirable Elven bride. When events conspire to kill the Emperor and his three eldest sons in a freak airship "accident" (i.e. sabotage), Maia quickly learns that he has unexpectedly ascended to the throne by default. The race is on to get to the court and establish himself before the Chancellor and other sycophants jockey themselves into power.

After an immediate charge of energy from these events and the introduction to the world, the novel quickly bogs down into repetitive, tedious, and repetitive meditations on court intrigue and decorum. And honestly, "intrigue" is too exciting a word to use for these machinations. Most readers will pinpoint the troublemakers in an instant, and yet Addison drags out the inevitable coup attempt (spoiler, I guess, but have you ever read a story about a freshly minted Emperor that didn't involve a coup or assassination attempt?) for nearly 2/3 of the novel, and not in a tension-building way either. When it happens, it is less thrilling than it is simply a relief to be reading something entertaining rather than how lightheaded Maia is at the thought of politics or how he grips his chair so hard out of nervousness that he bruises his hands (seriously, that last one happens multiple times). Also, I hope you like the word "Serenity" because that's the honorific bestowed upon the Emperor and thus it appears approximately 2,000 times in the novel. The final third of the novel, at least, delivers on some of the potential suggested earlier in the piece, even if I don't think it wholly compensates for the plodding nature of the story that preceded it...

Of course, part of the point is that the title of Emperor is not a particularly pleasant one. Much is made of Maia's loneliness, and he is, indeed, in a very vulnerable and scary situation. Fourth in line for the throne, he was not prepared for any of this, he has come to the court lacking any real knowledge of politics or etiquette, and he has no friends, no one he can really trust. Even most of his servants, loyal to the previous Emperor, seem to only grudgingly tolerate him at first. I don't generally like whiny characters, but it helps when they have something legitimate to whine about. There is something to be said for a story where the new Emperor learns to win over his detractors and learn how to rule, but as mentioned earlier, Maia seems entirely too passive to really accomplish that. Even his response to the coup attempt is a situation that he barely has any influence on (I was far more impressed by Maia's cousin Idra during this event). He seems to win people over simply by existing, which is not particularly satisfying, especially when it takes so long to occur. Things are looking up a bit in the end, with Maia ham-fistedly dubbed the "bridge builder" because he actually did something decisive (though seriously, that's a pretty clunky metaphor).

There is some exploration of race and class here, and Addison wisely shies away from histrionics on that front, revealing a less overt influence that is perhaps more insidious because of its subtlety. On the other hand, we learn very little about goblins or elves, so while it seems clear that Addison did a fair amount of worldbuilding to make this story work, much of it is not really on display. All of the characters essentially act like human beings, rather than different races. As a human being myself, that's not the worst thing in the world, I guess, but one of the things I like about Fantasy and SF is trying to extrapolate human characteristics in different contexts. This book made me want to either read actual historical accounts of court intrigue, or better fictional versions (the ones that come immediately to mind are Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar as well as her Chalion books, and naturally, Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, all of which I enjoyed a great deal more than The Goblin Emperor).

I'm decidedly mixed on this book. I can appreciate much of what it accomplishes and it is certainly a well written piece of work. It's got a surprisingly pleasant and empathetic protagonist and the final third has an actual plot (if a derivative one) that winds up hopeful in tone and even uplifting rather than the more typical grimmness. It's the dreary, overlong slog in the middle that sunk me and I was never really able to recover. Of the 3 novels on the Hugo ballot that I've read, I'd put this at about on par with Ancillary Sword and far behind The Three Body Problem.
Posted by Mark on May 10, 2015 at 08:50 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Action and Reaction
To paraphrase Newton's third law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It's one of the basic tenets of classical mechanics and it has analogues in other scientific fields. For instance, in chemistry, Le Chatelier's principle indicates how a chemical equilibrium responds to a change in conditions by adjusting itself to account for the difference. In biology, you have Homeostasis. And so on. For the most part, these principles are stable and predictable, but when you raise the complexity, they start to break down.

In physics, Newton's third law appears to fail in situations guided by quantum mechanics. Predictions become probabalistic instead of deterministic. As systems get more complex, their function gets more difficult to predict, and can even start to counteract the effect they were put in place to address. Humorist John Gall generalized Le Chatelier's principle to say that "Any change in the status quo prompts an opposing reaction in the responding system" or, more humorously, "Systems tend to oppose their own proper function."

Examples abound. Over-the-counter nasal docongestant sprays are effective... for about 3 days. After that, the user's continuing stuffiness and congestion are actually caused by the product itself, something called a rebound congestion.

Once you enter even more complex realms like psychology and sociology, forget about it. These systems don't even pretend to be predictable. Take the political movement of Liberalism, as Chris Wenham explains:
Each of the major political movements active today have changed drastically from what they were a few centuries ago. What was called Neoliberalism, for example, whose economic policies of laissez-faire, deregulation, low taxes and restricted monetary supply are now more closely associated with neoconservatism, or just "conservatism" in general. Or how modern Liberals are now said to be in favor of big government and managed economies, while Classical Liberalism, from the time of John Locke and Adam Smith, is about the opposite.
The point here, which Wenham observers, is that:
Engineers have long noted a tendency for complex systems to grow and evolve until they perform the opposite of what they were built for.
He goes on to comment on a frankly bizarre argument against Intellectual Property that compares it to human slavery, but the general idea of a system that opposes what it was built for is a fascinating one that has a basis in scientific fact, and seems to crop up just about everywhere.

An example of this in sociology is known as the Streisand Effect. This is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to suppress a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely. It is named after Barbra Streisand, who mounted a failed attempt to sue a photographer that had released a collection of 12,000 California coastline photographs (meant to document coastal erosion) that happened to include a photograph of Streisand's beachside house. Before the lawsuit, the photo in question had been downloaded a total of 6 times (2 of which were by Streisand's lawyers). In the month following the lawsuit, the photo was downloaded 420,000 times. And some dude from Techdirt coined the phrase Streisand Effect to illustrate the ironic folly of such situations. Somehow, I don't think this is the outcome Streisand was hoping for.

If you've been following along with the current Hugo Awards imbroglio, you can probably see where I'm going with this. A few years ago, an author named Larry Correia, became convinced that the Hugo Awards had become insular and dominated by a left-wing ideology, along with its associated, depressing literary fiction tropes. So he began an effort to counter this perceived imbalanced in Science Fiction's most prestigious award. He called this campaign Sad Puppies (because depressing SF is a leading cause of puppy related sadness), and so far, we have seen three different iterations of the Sad Puppies campaign.

The first was low key and did not gain much traction, so I will not spend much time on that. The second was significantly more successful... from Correia's point of view. I suppose some background is in order. In 2011, a freshly minted Correia was actually nominated for a Campbell Award for Best New Writer (not technically a Hugo, but administered as part of the same process). Correia recently explained his experience:
So I went out on the internet and started searching my name, trying to find out what the buzz was for the Campbell nominees. I started calling friends who belonged to various writer forums and organizations that I didn't belong to, asking about what people thought of my books in there.

You know what I found? WorldCon voters angry that a right-wing Republican (actually I'm a libertarian) who owned a gun store (gasp) was nominated for the prestigious Campbell. This is terrible. Did you know he did lobbying for gun rights! It's right there on his hateful blog of hatey hate hate! He's awful. He's a bad person. He's a Mormon! What! Another damned Mormon! Oh no, there are two Mormons up for the Campbell? I bet Larry Correia hates women and gays. He's probably a racist too. Did you know he's part of the evil military industrial complex? What a jerk. Meanwhile, I'm like, but did they like my books?

No. Hardly any of them had actually read my books yet. Many were proud to brag about how they wouldn't read my books, because badthink, and you shouldn't have to read books that you know are going to make you angry. A handful of people claimed to have my read my books, but they assured the others that they were safe to put me last, because as expected for a shit person, my words were shit, and so they were good people to treat me like shit.
Regardless of what you think of Correia or actually believe these things happened to him, I think you can see why he feels the way he does. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Correia launched Sad Puppies with the explicit purpose of getting authors with the "wrong" politics on the ballot so that the world could see the response.

Sad Puppies 2 was pretty successful in that respect. It got 7 nominees on the ballot, including the dread Vox Day (more on him later, but for now all you need to know is that he is a generally despised man in certain segments of fandom, particularly those who vote on Hugos). The interesting thing about this campaign is that Correia's goal was to provoke a negative response. It wasn't about acknowledging writers that wouldn't otherwise get attention, it was about making "literati heads explode" because he wrote a book where FDR was a nominal villain and got it on the Hugo ballot for best novel. The response was predictable: a massive backlash. Action, reaction. Most of the Puppy nominees last year finished low, and one finished below No Award. Correia claims he's happy with the result, because his goal wasn't to actually win a Hugo, just demonstrate that he'd upset people by getting the wrong works shortlisted. A decidedly pyrrhic victory, if you ask me. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy and totally against the spirit of the awards.

A year later, the torch passes to Brad Torgersen, who ran the third Sad Puppies campaign. Unlike the previous campaigns, Torgersen attempted to put a kinder, friendlier face on Sad Puppies. He spoke of diversity and bringing recognition to authors that are usually overlooked. Some of his arguments are more effective than others and I'm sure we could quibble over details, but it seems clear that he's coming from a place of good faith. Unlike Correia before him, he really wanted to get recognition for the nominees, and wanted to give them a chance to win.

Now we come to Vox Day, an infamous personality in the field. I will not go into too many details here because I really don't want to wade through all the unpleasant topics that arise in this discussion, but suffice it to say that he appears to be a very successful troll in the classical sense. It would be amusing if it didn't seem so counterproductive. He's got a knack for very carefully wording statements such that they are easily misquoted out of context and lead to easy conclusions that he's a crazy, evil man. It's a deliberate strategy. Where most people would clarify and caveat statements they know will be controversial, Vox leans into them. In the course of this, I think there are plenty of times in which his statements are perhaps not worded as carefully as he thinks, and thus some rather unpleasant ideas are left hanging like a bad curveball. Action, reaction. People hate the guy. Personally, I know enough about Vox to know that I don't want or need to know more. Please don't construe this explanation as an endorsement of anything he's said (incidentally, this clarification that I just made is precisely the sort of thing that Vox wouldn't do).

Vox Day's appearance on Sad Puppies 2 seemed to be the flashpoint of that campaign and drove a lot of negative response. Perhaps recognizing this, Torgersen deliberately left Vox off the Sad Puppies 3 ballot (also of note, Torgersen left himself off the ballot as well). That doesn't mean that Vox can't play along though. He has a huge following, and posted his own splinter list, called Rabid Puppies, on his blog. The two lists overlap considerably, though Vox had more nominees and a much less friendly tone. For instance, Torgersen called for people to read the works and nominate what they felt was worthy. Vox urged people to "nominate them precisely as they are". And so on.

Sad Puppies 3 and Rabid Puppies have been remarkably successful, taking the grand majority of nominees (especially in the main fiction awards) and in several categories, all the nominees are Puppy works of some kind. The response has been remarkably negative. Action, reaction.

One of those reactions is that several high profile members of fandom have vowed to vote No Award in place of any and all Puppy nominees. This means voting No Award instead of works they liked (this seems especially likely in the Best Dramatic Presentation awards), and it also means not even bothering to read the works in question. Action, reaction.

The more successful the No Award voters are, the worse off we'll be. Vox Day has explicitly mentioned that if No Awards wins in 2015, he'll make sure that No Award wins in 2016. This is a despicable tactic meant to bully people, but then, so is voting No Award without reading the work. Even taking Vox out of the equation, I can't imagine a scenario where No Award winning will produce a good result next year. Somehow, this is not against the rules either, which seems odd (there's a reasonable explanation, but what's being deployed this year is not that). If this happens, we can look forward to years of finger pointing and pointless vitriol debating who killed the Hugos. I, for one, am not looking forward to this.

Every system in play here is caught in a negative feedback loop that is subverting the desired result. The Sad Puppies want recognition for the overlooked, but went about it in a way that alienated too many people to be successful. The Noah Ward voters are trying to register their disgust, but in doing so, seem unlikely to achieve their aims. In the meantime, the ostensibly democratic Hugo process is strained to the point of breaking.

Regardless of your stance on the matter, it would behoove us all to consider how easily our ideal scenarios can boomerang back on us, pushing us into a downward spiral that results in the opposite of what we were seeking in the first place. No one is operating in isolation. Action, reaction. While complex systems can sometimes oppose their own proper function, it doesn't need to be that way. But if we continue on the current path, it will be that way, and I don't think any of us want that.

My approach tends to be one of restraint and forbearance. This will not (and should not) be the same for everyone. If you're a die-hard puppy, more power to you, and vote your conscience. I don't like the slate approach, so please don't coordinate so tightly in the nomination process next year. It won't get you what you desire, it will just piss people off further. We're in an unexpected place right now and can't fault you for being more successful than anyone ever thought, but the important thing is what you do next year. If you're a non-puppy or even if you're a Noah Ward voter, more power to you too. I get the distaste for slates and certainly for Vox and don't blame you for wanting to oppose it all in a vigorous fashion, even if that's not my approach.

All that being said, it's worth considering what your goals are, and evaluating whether your actions will actually get you there. There's been a lot of name calling, accusations of bad faith, conspiracy theories, general vitriol, and even abuse being spewed forth of late. On all fronts. I get it, sometimes that feels good, but at some point, we need to take a closer look at what we're doing. People are talking past each other, and the rest of us are caught in the middle. Some might call this tone policing, but I think it's how things get done.

I will leave you with this anecdote about Charles Darwin's rhetorical strategy (emphasis mine):
Darwin, says Slatkin, was like a salesman who finds lots of little ways to get you to say yes before you're asked to utter the big yes. In this case, Darwin invited people to affirm things they already knew, about a topic much more familiar in their era than in ours: domestic species. Did people observe variation in domestic species? Yes. And as Darwin piles on the examples, the reader says, yes, yes, OK, I get it, of course I see that some pigeons have longer tail feathers. Did people observe inheritance? Yes. And again, as he piles on the examples, the reader says yes, yes, OK, I get it, everyone knows that that the offspring of longer-tail-feather pigeons have longer tail feathers.

By the time Darwin gets around to asking you to say the big yes, it's a done deal. You've already affirmed every one of the key pillars of the argument. And you've done so in terms of principles that you already believe, and fully understand from your own experience.

It only took a couple of years for Darwin to formulate the idea of evolution by natural selection. It took thirty years to frame that idea in a way that would convince other scientists and the general public. Both the idea, and the rhetorical strategy that successfully communicated it, were great innovations.
I've blogged about this before, and as I mentioned then, I think perhaps the author simplifies the inception and development of the idea of evolution, but the point holds. I'm sure Darwin and his supporters were infuriated by the initial response to their ideas, and I'm sure plenty of hateful rhetoric was employed at the time. But Darwin didn't allow it to spiral, he knew evolution was important enough that it would have to be accepted if he communicated it in such a way that people could accept it. I, for one, am glad he did. I don't know that the solution to the challenges facing the Hugo are, but I know it's not vitriol. And I hope it doesn't take 30 years!
Posted by Mark on April 26, 2015 at 10:44 AM .: Comments (3) | link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Three-Body Problem
The ascension of geek culture in the United States has meant that long marginalized genres like Science Fiction have become more acceptable, or at least tolerated. Ironically, this acknowledgement from the literary mainstream seems to be part of the current culture war, what with Sad Puppies whining about message fiction and anti-puppies trying to counter the surprisingly successful efforts to return SF to the gutter (as it were). While many have cast this as a political issue, and there certainly is a political component, I've always thought that Eric S. Raymond's analysis of the situation, based more on the qualities of literary fiction, was more cogent:
Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.
Into this weary situation comes The Three-Body Problem, by China's most popular science-fiction writer Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu, no relation). In China, the situation is somewhat different. After decades in which Chinese SF was subject to the whims of Communist Party rule, first as a way to "popularizing science for socialist purposes", then as a pariah that was "promoting decadent capitalist elements", it appears that SF is on the rise again. Liu has capitalized on the rising sentiment, and his most popular books are now getting translated and generating buzz amongst SF fandom.

Liu's work is often described in terms of Golden Age SF, and in particular, the work of Arthur C. Clarke. At first, I was not sure if this book would be living up to that promise. There was a great deal of time and attention placed on cultural forces acting on science towards the beginning of the book (in particular, Liu spends a fair amount of time with the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s). Then there are some interesting, but seemingly not SF occurrences, such as a scientist who notices a number in his photographs. It appears to be a countdown, but he cannot account for how the number is appearing or what it is counting down to. There are a host of other, seemingly impossible events. There is a video game that is oddly hallucinatory and difficult to get through. And so on...

It turns out that this is all window dressing. The historical bits set the scene, the seemingly impossible occurrences generate a crisis amongst Earth scientists, and the video game holds the key to explaining what is going on. This episodic and oddly disjointed setup starts to click at some point, and the pieces start to fall together. Sometimes, it's a little clunky or overwrought, but it comes together well in the end.

At its heart, it's a first contact story, and if you're familiar with those, you know that fiction rarely shies away from the inherent possibilities for conflict there. It was again a bit worrying at the start, because one of the main factions on earth are people who want the aliens to come to our planet because they don't think the human race is worthy of existence (or something along those pessimistic lines), but it seems clear that this is not where the series is going, it's just part of a lengthy setup. The aliens themselves are rather interesting, existing in a Tri-Solar system (one of a few references to the titular "three bodies"), a wildly unpredictable state of affairs that has guided their evolution and frequently destroys their civilizations (when, for example, two or three of the suns are in certain configuration, the planet becomes, shall we say, unsuitable to life.)

This is all a bit unconventional from a Western point of view, and why wouldn't it be? It's also one of the things that makes this an interesting book to grapple with. From a plot or character standpoint, it feels a bit lacking, but there are many rich thematic elements that one could explore here. These basically come down to competition and disruption. The conflict between civilizations at this book's core could easily be applied to more mundane struggles, from industrial competition, to the rise of China in relation to the West. Disruption is a key element of business, creating and/or destroying markets, often through the use of technology. It is how people react to such disruptions that are the point, and the rival factions on earth reacting to the coming Aliens is a good example.

There are some fantastical elements that threaten to break it away from SF, especially earlier in the book. As mentioned above, these do come together well enough in the end, though Liu's cleverness is in the way he sets it up. The early, nearly complete lack of realism sets a point of reference such that, when Liu does get around to explaining why these things are happening, it feels acceptable even though it's mostly hokum. Chaos Horizon explains it well:
While some of the scientific sections are sound, others are deliberately exaggerated. Near the end, there's a bravura sequence where an alien civilization "unravels" a proton from 11 dimensions to 1, 2, and 3 dimensions, and then inscribes some sort of computer on that seemingly miniscule space. It's one of the most fascinating pieces of bullshit I've read in years, but it is bullshit nonetheless.
Fascinating bullshit, indeed. I was more than willing to go with it.

This being the first book in a trilogy, little is resolved in the end, though it does finish on a positive note and it leaves you wanting more. The next volume is scheduled to be published next year, and I'm greatly looking forward to it, which says a lot.

I read this earlier in the year as part of my Hugo Award coverage. It came out late last year and was steadily building steam, and once it was nominated for a Nebula award, I thought I should check it out. I'm glad I did, and it made my Hugo ballot, but once the official nominees were released (and this book wasn't on their), I kinda scuttled doing a full review. However, since this year's Hugo awards are so weirdly contentious, one of the Best Novel nominees dropped out of the race. I'm not sure if this is unprecedented or not, but it's highly unlikely nonetheless (authors often refuse their nomination, but are given a chance to do so before the finalists are announced - this situation where an author sees the lay of the year's Hugo land and simply opts out was surprising) and many were expecting this to mean that the Best Novel category would only include 4 nominees. After all, adding the next most popular nominee would tell everyone who got the least nominating votes (info that is only published after the awards are handed out) and honestly, given the current situation, this precedent seems ripe for abuse. Nevertheless, the Hugo administrators opted to fill the open slot with The Three-Body Problem (a non-Puppy nominee, though from what I've seen, the Puppies seem to really enjoy this book). From left off the ballot to potential winner, quite a turn of events. Of the two nominees I've read, this is clearly ahead and could possibly take my number 1 vote. It is a bit of an odd duck, but I quite enjoyed it.
Posted by Mark on April 19, 2015 at 07:54 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Link Dump: Hugo Reactions
It's been about a week since the Hugo finalists were announced... and there's been way too much commentary to comb through. I'm going to post a few links here, but know that there are others who are doing a far better job summarizing the commentary, and to be quite honest, I'm already burnt out on the politics of the thing. This will most likely be my last post on the subject, though I suspect I'll get pulled back in depending on how recklessly No Award is deployed in the final tally. For the record, I think Sad Puppies 3 was far more successful than anyone thought (which includes them) and as such, I'm going to be somewhat leery of slates in the future (my preference would be for Sad Puppies 4 to simply encourage participation and maybe include an open post about eligible books as opposed to a straight slate). I have a hard time believing most of the conspiracies being thrown around, and am emphatically against the abuse that's been generated (which goes both ways). I don't like guilt by association and generally assume good faith in participants. Many nominees are being thrown under a bus for petty reasons, and that seems silly to me. As always, I plan to read and vote accordingly. Anywho, here are some other folks commenting on the slate.
  • File 770 has been all over this thing, with daily updates and link roundups that are well worth checking out. If you're the type who wants to continue devouring commentary, this is the place to go.
  • Chaos Horizon has been doing some excellent statistical analyses based on available data. It seems likely that there are at least some voters who nominated the straight puppy slate, though there's not enough information to say for sure. Honestly, I don't know that there ever will, though when the full numbers are released in August, we'll be able to speculate on a maximum impact (but even that won't prove anything). My anecdotal experience in looking at puppy nominators is that they are people who only voted for things they read and liked (and thus did not nominate the full ballot).
  • A Note About the Hugo Nominations This Year - Like last year, John Scalzi's reaction has been eminently reasonable:
    2. I'm very pleased for the several friends and/or writers who are on the ballot this year. This includes everyone in the Best Novel category, all of whom I consider friends, and any of whom I would be happy to see take home a rocket this year. And as always, I congratulate all the nominees for the Hugo and the Campbell. It's fun to be nominated, and nice to get recognition. I'll be voting.

    3. This year I'll do what I always do when voting for the Hugos, which is to rank the nominees every category according to how I think they (and/or their particular works in question) deserve to ranked. Preferential balloting is a useful thing. I will be reading quite a lot.

    ...In sum: I think it's possible for voters to thread the needle and give creators fair consideration while also expressing displeasure (if indeed one is displeased) at the idea of slates, or people trolling the award. This might take a little work, but then voting on the Hugos should be a little bit of work, don’t you think. This is a good year to do that.
    Well said.
  • Thoughts on the 2015 Hugo Award Nominees - Joe Sherry has reasonable things to say, and unlike 99.9% of other commentary, he also posted some thoughts on the actual ballot. I'm more or less in line with this approach:
    At this point I have read far too many articles written on both sides of the debate, and while I'm not willing to say "I hate everyone equally", I can say that I'm fairly well annoyed by most people. I am not on the side of the Sad Puppies because generally, the sort of book and the sort of story I enjoy reading is already what is frequently represented by the Hugos (though there are certain authors I am very, very confused by how frequently they are nominated for stuff - but I've always chalked it up to different and divergent tastes and nothing more). But, I do agree with one of their stated aims: which is that more people should be involved in the Hugo awards. Heck, the people who nominated and vote are only a small fraction of the people who actually attend Worldcon. Get them involved, too, somehow. Everything might look different if that happened.

    So, what am I going to do?

    I'm going to read everything on the ballot and hope that the Hugo voter packet is inclusive of everything on it (minus the dramatic presentations), and then I'm going to vote accordingly. I look forward to the Hugo Awards every year and enjoy thinking about them, talking about them, occasionally writing way too many words about them. Before I knew anything about the awards, I believed that they were the premier award in science fiction and fantasy. The best of the best. The Oscar of the genre. Later I learned that the Hugos were nothing more than an award given out by a particular community, and only nominated and voted on by a very small subset of that same community. The Hugos are reflective of a particular group of people, just as the Nebulas are, and the World Fantasy Awards are (the three I awards I care most about) - but the Hugos is the one I can participate in, which makes it special even knowing what I do about it. So, I respect the process of the award and will treat all the nominees fairly and at face value - and I think it is disappointing that I felt the need to write that sentence.
    Again, reasonable stuff.
  • The Disavowal - A Sad Puppy nominee disavows stuff.
  • Mary Anne Mohanraj also has reasonable things to say. She leads with a Bujold reference and takes Miles' wisdom to heart, assuming good faith and providing some reasonable suggestions for the future.
  • If you're bitching about the Hugo Awards, you're part of the problem. A more cynical approach here, but worth noting.
  • Please stop with the death threats and the hate mail. Very nice to see Mary Robinette Kowal's reasonable comments:
    Folks. Do not send death threats to Larry Correia, Brad Torgersen or anyone else on the Sad Puppies slate. That is a shitty thing to do. Stop it.

    I, too, am angry about how things went down with the Hugos, but am also realistic about the fact that much of the work — not all of it — but a lot of it is on there because people are legitimately excited about it. Yes, there are some things from Rabid Puppies that seem to be there purely for shock value. But others? Sheila Gilbert does damn good work. Jim Butcher is a serious writer.
    Hey, look, another person has actually looked at the ballot. And she also took the rather noble step of sponsoring 10 supporting memberships for folks who want to vote but can't afford it... an effort that has caught on with other folks to the point where there are now 75 sponsored memberships. Well done.
  • George R.R. Martin has been pretty active this week, and this post on Hatespeech is just one of them:
    And now there's Puppygate, and I have been posting about that, and in the course of which I have had some exchanges with Larry Correia, the founder of Sad Puppies, and Brad Torgensen, who ran the SP3 slate. And both of them tell similar tales: of anonymous phone calls, libel and slander, vicious emails, death threats... death threats! All of these, presumably, coming from "my side" of fandom, those who oppose the Puppies. Do I believe them? I don't want to believe them. I would rather cling to the belief that my side is better than that. That's hard to do these days, As strongly as I disagree with Torgensen and Correia about the Hugo Awards, and probably a hundred other issues, I have no reason to think them liars. I think they are telling the truth, just as Quinn and Sarkeesian and Wu were. On the internet, it seems, abuse trumps debate every time.

    Death threats. Really? Really???
  • ...to my people, don't blame Tor - Larry Correia also jumps on the "stop being jerks" bandwagon:
    Don't threaten to boycott anybody because of their business associations, because that's exactly the kind of boorish behavior that’s been done to us.

    Don’t post links to a torrent site and suggest that people pirate stuff instead of giving a publishing house money. Do you have any idea how offensive it is to do that on a professional author's feed?
    Tor seems to be a major boogeyman for some people, for some reason.
  • Vox plays chicken with Worldcon - Brad Torgersen (organizer of the Sad Puppy 3 campaign) has some choice words for No Award voters (i.e. folks who vow to vote No Award above everything on the Puppy slates), including Vox Day's thread to No Award 2016:
    Frankly, I think everybody should just do what Mary Robinette Kowal and Dan Wells and Scalzi and Correia and Jason Sanford and myself have been recommending you do, and read your voter packet and vote like the stories and books are just stories and books.

    If Vox borks the Hugos in 2016, he is the biggest asshole SF/F has ever seen in its history.

    Vox, please don't be an asshole.

    If the people who hate Vox bork the Hugos in 2015, they are the biggest assholes SF/F has ever seen in its history.

    Vox-haters, please don't be assholes.
    This is getting ridiculous. For the record, I think voting No Award above (or in place of) something just because it appears on a puppy slate is a bad idea. It is actually allowed technically if you read the rules closely, but it's a pretty crappy thing to do. I don't think slates are a great thing either, but the No Award approach is worse. Two wrongs don't make a right. Or something like that.
Alright, so there's some sampling of stuff. Like I said, I can't really keep up and at this point, I'm ready to just move on and start reading the actual work (because why spend that time reading vitriol and disingenuous arguments?) Care to join me? Oh, and by the way, comments are working again! Huzzah!
Posted by Mark on April 12, 2015 at 10:32 AM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: Initial Thoughts
The nominees for the 2015 Hugo Awards were announced yesterday, and the entire world is losing their shit because the Sad Puppy campaign has pretty much run away with the slate. Assorted thoughts below:
  • My ballot faired quite poorly indeed! Not counting the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category (because it's a pretty mainstream category, though I'll have some additional thoughts on this below), only one nominee made it to the official ballot, and that was a (mostly accidental) overlap with the Sad Puppy campaign. In fairness, Ken Burnside's The Hot Equations (in Best Related Work) is a worthy nominee with an endearing nod to SF right in its title. I find my lack of success here mildly amusing in that this is what the majority of Sad Puppy nominators must have felt in years past, but what most of the Sad Puppy opposition is feeling right now (even if I don't particularly subscribe to either side in the battle).
  • When I first saw the Sad Puppy slate (and Rabid Puppy slate), I thought the dramatic increase in suggested works would result in a decrease in concentration amongst the choices, thus spreading out the voting and yielding relatively few successes. I was incredibly wrong in this prediction. It appears that the Puppy campaigns were remarkably effective this year, with 61 nominees appearing on at least one of the lists (only 24 of the nominees did not appear on either list, and many of those were in categories that the Puppies did not bother to include in their ballots). I predict widespread panic, bleating, and protest voting ("No Award" will be deployed with reckless abandon). Then again, I've been pretty wrong about everything else, so who knows?
  • Personally, while I don't really identify as a Sad Puppy, I never bore them ill will and their notion of emphasizing fun storytelling over boring literary fiction conventions was attractive to me (my nominations for the fiction categories had no overlap with the Puppy ballots, but I suspect many Puppies would enjoy them). That being said, I can't help but feel like the pendulum has swung too far in their direction. If I were running Sad Puppies next year, I would focus on encouraging participation rather than posting a list of approved works. I don't expect this to happen, but as I've amply demonstrated, I'm the worst and am often wrong.
  • The whole kerfluffle comes down to assumptions of bad faith. The Puppies assume that people nominate things according to political merit rather than quality and rebel against that notion, the anti-puppies assume that the puppies are just blindly nominating the suggested slates (without having read the stories, etc...), again for political reasons. This is why people decry the inclusion of politics in previously non-political arenas. My assumption is of good faith, and as with last year, I'm just going to read the nominated works and vote accordingly. I'm already pretty sick of all the digital ink being spilled about the politics of all this stuff, and don't expect to have much more to say about it.
  • Let's take a closer look at the Novel category:
    • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie - Sequel to last year's unstoppable winner, Ancillary Justice, this is one of the few non-puppy nominees to become a finalist and the only nominee that I've already read. Alas, I was not as big a fan of this one as the first book in the series.
    • The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson - A puppy nominee, this looks to be a standalone (or start of a trilogy) set in the context of a larger setting. My only experience with Anderson was his not-so-great Star Wars Jedi Academy trilogy. Timothy Zahn basically reignited Star Wars fever in the early 90s with his Thrawn Trilogy (the first and to my knowledge, best of the modern expanded universe stories) and Anderson quickly doused it with his trilogy (at least, for me). But it's been, like, 20 years, and this book seems like it could work well enough, so there is that. I actually have a modest amount of hope for this one.
    • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison - The other non-puppy nominee, a well regarded fantasy novel that seems like it could be a lot of fun. Looking forward to this one.
    • Lines of Departure by Marko Kloos - Appears to be a military SF story, the second in a series. The whole series this is always kinda annoying, but these do seem up my alley and they appear to be short page turners. Definitely looking forward to this one.
    • Skin Game by Jim Butcher - Of the Sad Puppy nominees, I was most expecting this one to win. Butcher's Desden Files series is immensely popular. I suspect the reason that none of the previous books were nominated is that urban fantasy is just not something that normally does well with Hugo voters. I'm decidedly mixed on the Dresden Files books. I've read the first three, enjoyed two of them and hated one (the second one, with the werewolves). That being said, it's not really one of my favorite series. This being the 15th book in the long-running series, I also find myself wondering how standalone it would be (but I'm not going to read the intervening 11 books just to come up to speed).
    This is actually a pretty good mix of sub-genres here. Two space operas (one trending more literary than the other), one mil-SF, one straight-up fantasy, and one urban fantasy. Obviously, I still have to read 4 of the nominees, but I actually think this slate is more attractive to me than last year's...
  • The Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form list is decent enough, I guess, but I always find it odd that the Hugo for best movie always seems to be mostly mainstream blockbusters and not the little indie SF movies (which are often much better at capturing the sensawunda of written SF). For instance, I was really hoping that Coherence and The One I Love would get some love and heck, even the dreaded Vox Day included Coherence in his Rabid Puppies list, but alas, we get 5 blockbusters. But they are actually very good blockbusters, so there is that. Update: There is speculation that Coherence was left off because IMDB marks it as a 2013 release and thus would not be eligible for a 2014 award. Dooks.
Comments are still borked right now, so if you have any comments, feel free to email me at mciocco at gmail or hit me up on twitter @mciocco (or @kaedrinbeer if you're a lush). Apologies, I am the worst. Will have to make a more concerted effort to fix the problems with comments in the near future.

So there you have it. I don't think I'll be spending much time on the whole political war going on with this stuff, but I suspect it will be unavoidable in some places. Expect some link roundups in the near future, followed by reviews. I will still try my best to let the works speak for themselves though. It may be a few weeks before I finish off my current reading, so I probably won't get to any reviews until May-ish.
Posted by Mark on April 05, 2015 at 10:29 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My 2015 Hugo Award Nominations
The Hugo Award Nomination Period ended last night, and miracle of miracles, I managed to get my ballot in on time. I suppose the value of posting this list after the deadline is questionable, but we're that kind of timely here at Kaedrin (meaning, not timely at all). But I suppose if you're looking to see what I enjoyed from last year's spate of Science Fiction, this is a pretty good place to start. For the most part, this is just an expanded version of the list I posted in January, and that commentary is generally just as relevant here (most of the comments here will be about the additions and possibly some general expectations). Additions are noted with an asterisk (*)

Best Novel: My initial three picks were all longshots. A Darkling Sea has a very outside chance (but I'm guessing it unlikely, and its buzz factor seems to be waning), The Martian suffers from an eligibility question (more on why I'm still including it here, though at this point, I think everyone's fears mean that even if is eligible, it won't get nominated because everyone is leaving it off their list), and A Sword Into Darkness is self-published mil-SF that the literati probably would hate. The two additions are considerably more likely to be nominated. Annihilation is a near certain shoe-in for a nomination (it's already got a Nebula nom) and pretty good odds on taking the prize. I just finished The Three-Body Problem myself and will probably write a full post about it at some point, but it's been steadily picking up steam since it's release in November. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream buzz (like this New Yorker article) appear to be hitting a little too late to really influence the nomination process. On the other hand, it did garner a Nebula nomination and it ticks a bunch of typical Hugo checkboxes, so it's got a good chance. While I wasn't a huge fan, I would also predict Leckie's Ancillary Sword will grab a nomination because of the runaway success of Ancillary Justice (last year's winner) and generally positive reviews. Scalzi's Lock In has a decent chance, but I wouldn't be surprised if it gets left out either. I'm betting Correia will be one of the few beneficiaries of the Sad Puppy campaign, and possibly Butcher's Skin Game while we're at it. There's usually some sort of fantasy novel in contention as well, but I'm not too familiar with those...

Best Novelette Still not sure if the first two are actually Novelettes, but hey, I'm putting them there. Wanna fight about it? The addition is The Bonedrake's Penance, which I guess has some mild buzz, and Yoon Ha Lee seems like a rising star type (I'm certainly a new fan). No idea what else would tickle fandom for these short fiction categories.

Best Short Story:
  • Periapsis by James L. Cambias (from Hieroglyph)
  • Covenant by Elizabeth Bear (from Hieroglyph)
  • The Day It All Ended by Charlie Jane Anders (from Hieroglyph)
  • Passage of Earth by Michael Swanwick (from Clarkesworld)*
  • The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars by Yoon Ha Lee (from Space Opera)*
Note that Tuesdays With Molakesh the Destroyer by Megan Grey is not eligible for this year's awards (something about the magazine being a January 2015 edition that just happened to be available in December). It will, however, be eligible next year (at which point, I genuinely expect it to be nominated). Covenant seems to have buzz and Hieroglyph was a popular anthology, so it has that going for it. Passage of Earth also feels like it has some buzz. However, the short story category is infamously fickle, with votes spread out amongst the widest range of stories (many stories which could potentially be nominated aren't because they fall short of getting 5% of the overall vote). It's always something of a crapshoot. All I know is that I liked just about all of the short stories I read this year much better than any of the nominees from last year.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Coherence and The One I Love are far and above my favorites of the year and I'm pretty sure they won't even come close to being nominated (both recommended though!). I swapped out The Lego Movie for Interstellar (though I think both of those will end up making the cut) I also wouldn't be surprised if movies I didn't care for do well, notably Snowpiercer.

Best Related Work: This is a weird, catch-all category, but I actually think these two things have a good chance of winning (gasp, I aligned with the Sad Puppies on one of these). One thing I feel bad about is not nominating A Report on Damage Done by One Individual Under Several Names by Laura Mixon. It's placement in terms of categories is unclear though. George R.R. Martin apparently recommended her for Best Fan Writer, which didn't seem quite right, and I just plain forgot to add it to my ballot last night. Which is a shame, because that is some tour-de-force shit that Mixon put together there.

Best Professional Artist:
  • Stephan Martiniere for covers like The Immortality Game and Shield and Crocus*
Yeah, I guess I fell for Ted Cross's push for Stephan (who provided the art for Cross's book), but this artist is genuinely talented and I kinda love his covers.

Best Fan Writer: I don't have a lot here, but Nussbaum is a regular read and I think she should have won last year, so here we are again.

And that just about covers it. Official nominations will be announced, as usual, during the inexplicable Easter day timeframe, so look for some comments on the subject then.
Posted by Mark on March 11, 2015 at 11:32 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015

SF Short Story Review, Part 1
I was pretty disappointed by last year's Hugo slate of short stories, so I wanted to make sure I read enough stories this year to nominate worthwhile stuff. Of course, the short fiction categories are infamously fickle and don't enjoy quite as much in the way of convergence as the novels do (meaning that a very wide array of stories are nominated with little chance of any individual story standing out from the crowd - this is why there often isn't a full ballot nominated, as many of the contenders never reach the 5% threshold needed to make the Hugo ballot). The good news here, though, is that I enjoyed almost all of the stories in this post a lot more than almost any of the stories nominated in short fiction categories last year. Go figure. That being said, I will probably only nominate a couple of these because there's only so many slots...
  • Whaliens (aka How to Win a Hugo Award) by Lavie Tidhar (Short Story, ~4900 words) - This is a goofy little story about whale-like aliens (i.e. Whaliens) that visit Earth and demand to convert to Judaism. As the alternate title might indicate, it also involves a dismissive sub-plot about science fiction writers that feels rather petty and dismissive. It's a fun, short read and worth checking out, but it's not going to be on my ballot.
  • Toad Words by Ursula Vernon (Short Story, ~800 words) - This year's "If You Were a Dinosaur My Love", it is marginally more fantastical, but still pretty emphatically not my thing.
  • Tuesdays With Molakesh the Destroyer by Megan Grey (Short Story, ~4000 words) - Every once in a while, you hear about how someone infamous and/or super evil spends their spare time doing mundane things like watching Seinfeld or something, and that kinda tickles me. So this story about a fire demon ironically condemned to live out his retirement in exile in Minnesota (i.e. a very cold, snowy place) really clicked with me. Molakesh enjoys hot chocolate and chatting with his teenaged neighbor. There's a moment when I was worried that this story would go off the rails, but it sticks the ending, and I found this the most enjoyable of the stories in this post. Will almost certainly make my ballot.
  • Passage of Earth by Michael Swanwick (Short Story, ~7400 words) - Interesting story about an autopsy performed on an alien that takes a hard turn about halfway through. It descends a bit into literary angst for a while, but it's not undone by it and reasons its way to a natural conclusion. Strong contender for my ballot.
  • The Innocence of a Place by Margaret Ronald (Short Story, ~4100 words) - Haunting tale of a historian's attempt to understand the disappearance of students from the Braxton Academy for Young Girls. There's a beautifully ominous tone to the story and it is very effective... as horror. As the obvious explanations are thrown out, what is left is speculation on the fantastical, so I don't know that this is quite as non-SF as, say, last year's Wakulla Springs, but it's borderline. I don't think I'd nominate it, but I would not get worked up about it if it got nominated...
  • Brute by Rich Larson (Short story, ~4800 words) - Entirely predictable tale of two scavengers who run across a piece of technology that bonds to one of them and gives him super powers or something like that. It's the sort of thing you've seen a million times, but it is a reasonably well executed version of the story. That being said, it's not exactly award-worthy material.
  • Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta, by Helen Marshall - Seems like it would hit on that mundane life of infamous personages thing that I like so much, but this one is distinctly less effective to my mind. Well executed for what it is, but not really my thing.
  • Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology by Theodora Goss (Short Story, ~6800 words) - A bunch of anthropology students invent a country from scratch and are then surprised to learn that the country they made up actually exists. They go to visit and find that many of the small details they have invented for the culture have unintended consequences. This becomes particularly important when one of the anthropologists marries the princess. A dense, Borges-like story (Borges is explicitly referenced in the story, so this is an obvious referent) that I found appealing and interesting. A potential nominee...
  • The Bonedrake's Penance by Yoon Ha Lee (Novelette, ~9800 words) - Notable for its elaborate but not overwhelming worldbuilding, this follows the story of a human girl raced by an alien war machine that had given up war. Perhaps more concerned with that central relationship than the detailed setting, it works better than I'd expect. Would love to read more from Yoon Ha Lee... Would be a contender for my ballot if I hadn't actually done so:
  • The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars by Yoon Ha Lee (Short Story, ~5700 words) - So I did seek out more Yoon Ha Lee, and this one is even better than the last one. Interestingly, there are a lot of similarities. Both have an archive of sorts (games, in this one), a guardian (a warden, in this one), and both feature disgraced warriors of some kind. This one is about the warden of a collection of games and a warrior who intends to bargain for a game that will help her keep a promise. They play a game with high stakes and the byzantine worldbuilding implied by the games is quite impressive.
I may sneak in a few more stories before the deadline, but I'm planning on posting my updated ballot on Sunday, so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on March 04, 2015 at 06:21 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

SF Book Review, Part 19
As we near the Hugo nomination deadline, I have been surprisinly lax in my reading. That being said, I have made pretty good progress in terms of reading books I thought might be worthwhile, even if I won't end up nominating most of them. I'm going to make a last minute push for a couple books and/or stories though, so we'll see (nomination deadline is March 10). Here's some stuff I've read recently:
  • The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold - The third book in Bujold's Chalion series, this one seems almost completely disconnected from the previous two entries. As such, it takes a bit to get going, and unfortunately it never quite reaches the heights of Bujold's other work. Still, there are some fine sequences and decent ideas explored here. The book opens with Lady Ijada defending herself against a half-mad prince. Lord Ingrey is dispatched to investigate and transport the body to its final resting place. He is also tasked with escorting the accused killer to judgement. With the price dead and the King on his deathbed, the Crown is in play, and their journey is beset on all sides by intrigue and danger. The book perhaps bides too much time on this journey. The series has been pretty talky so far, but nothing compared to this book, which is extremely dialogue heavy and filled with esoteric lore that was only hinted at in previous entries. It's certainly not a bad novel or anything like that, but it was a little disappointing when compared to Bojold's other work...
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer - The first in a trilogy, this covers an expedition to the myserious Area X. Cut off from the rest of the continent by unknown means, no one knows what the deal is with Area X. Numerous expeditions have been dispatched to explore the area. Some were uneventful, some resulted in mass suicide, some ended in violence, and some of the expeditions just disappeared. This book contains the 12th expedition as it makes its way through Area X. Things almost immediately start to deteriorate. The general tenor of this book makes it feel a lot like Lost - a mysterious and isolated locale, previous visitors with unknown motivations, strange artifacts, and so on. Like Lost, I'm not entirely sure how much of this will work out in the end, but I'm comforted by the fact that the author completed all three volumes and published them in short order, which makes me think he may actually have a plan. The story is told in first person, as if we're reading one of the expedition member's journals, and VanderMeer has a very ornate style. This is a short book, but it's dense and introspective. Which is not to say that it isn't exciting or compelling. The central mysteries are well drawn and intriguing, and there are some revelations later in the book that are eye opening. This will almost certainly be nominated for a Hugo (It's already garnered a Nebula nom), though I'm a little more mixed on it. Definitely one of the better novels I've read from 2014 though, and I do plan on reading the next volume in the series (which I think says a lot).
  • Undercity by Catherine Asaro - Set in Asaro's well-established Skolian Empire universe, this is the start of a new series of books covering Major Bhaajan, formerly military, now a P.I. The initial segment of this book is fantastic. Bhaajan is hired by royalty to locate a missing prince, and Bhaajan has to return to her former home in the Undercity (a series of caves and slums under the Empire's capital city) to investigate. This section moves surprisingly quick, then the story transitions to a slower pace, dealing more with the politics and sociology of the Undercity. It almost makes me wonder if the first section was published separately (Update: apparently, it was!) The middle act, dealing with maneuverings of drug cartels in the Undercity, is a bit too slow and repetitive, but things come together well enough in the final act, as the cartels plan to go to war and other revelations about the population of the Undercity come to pass. I enjoyed this and am curious to check out more of Asaro's work, though I don't know how likely I am to read the next Bhaajan book (which, again, says something I guess). Not something I plan on nominating, but I'm glad I read it...
  • Riding the Red Horse - I took a flier on this collection of short stories and essays mostly because it features Eric Raymond's first published fiction. I did not realize at the time that one of the editors was the dreaded Vox Day, but his commentary before each story (he shares this duty with Tom Kratman) gives him away (and generally, this commentary was unnecessary and needlessly dismissive of other perspectives). That being said, folks familiar with military history will recognize some of the names, like Bill Lind or Jim Dunnigan, who mostly provide the non-fiction portions of the book. Some of these could be eye opening, but only if you've never heard of Lind's conception of 4th Generation warfare, etc... Some highlights from the book:
    • Sucker Punch by Eric S. Raymond - This was the reason I bought the book, and it comports itself well. I don't think it will be making my ballot, but it is a short, interesting, and fun little military story about naval warfare (and how certain weapons might change the game). Worth reading!
    • The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF by Ken Burnside - Those familiar with the Atomic Rockets website will be right at home with this essay. The pragmatic considerations of space travel, in particular the problems posed by Thermodynamics, are applied to typical military SF tropes, and the results aren't pretty. The unimaginative would probably find this to be a killjoy, but the notion of working within our understanding of science when writing SF is one of the things that makes SF so great. This is one of the Sad Puppy nominees (under Best Related Work), and for once, I agree with them.
    • The General's Guard by Brad R. Torgersen - Interesting story of a General who attempts to unite various factions of his empire by forcing them to work together. From each tribe, he selects the strongest... and weakest member. It seems reminiscent of the other Torgersen stories that I've read; he seems every concerns with finding ways to interact productively with people from different backgrounds (whether they be aliens and humans, folks from different tribes, or two people with vastly different skillsets).
    • Turncoat by Steve Rzasa - This tale of an AI that inhabits a ship might be my favorite story in the collection, and the idea gets explored well enough despite the large amount of previous material with similar subject matter (i.e. The Ship Who Sang, Ancillary Justice, etc...) and it hints at some troubling things about potentially "uploaded" humans that might be weird in the longrun. Will probably make my ballot, though I'm not sure if this is a short story or a novelette...
    If you're a fan of military fiction (and non-fiction), you'll probably enjoy this collection. There were only a couple of stories that I didn't enjoy, and a lot of them were decent. I even enjoyed Vox Day's story (not award worthy, but definitely a sight better than that thing that was nominated last year).
And there you have it. I'm going to try and read some more short stories, novelettes, and maybe a novella or two before the Hugo nominations deadline. I will post my final ballot sometime next week...
Posted by Mark on March 01, 2015 at 12:58 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, February 08, 2015

Hugo Awards: Puppies Unleashed
As Hugo Awards nomination season hits full swing, the Sad Puppy slates have finally be unleashed. For the uninitiated, the Sad Puppies are a semi-organized response to the notion that recent Hugo slates have trended away from traditional SF, with it's emphasis on sense of wonder and storytelling (the name emerges out of the notion that recent Hugo slates were so depressing that they were making cute puppies sad, or something along those lines). There is an ideological component to the movement as well, and it seems the Right/Libertarian are on the Puppies' side, while Left/SJW are opposed. Or something. In reality, I don't really buy that dichotomy, and that's one of the reasons I can't seem to get on board with the typical responses to the Sad Puppies (for it or against it). To me, it's just another input into the process, which is pretty much how it's supposed to work.

For the record, Brad Torgersen has posted the official Sad Puppy slate over at his blog. Vox Day has posted a variant, which he calls (perhaps unsurprisingly, given his usual tone) Rabid Puppies. There's a pretty large overlap, though enough differences to be annoying. Assorted thoughts and ramblings are below:
  • The first thing that jumps out at me with these slates is how huge they are (both are basically a full nominating ballot - somewhere on the order of 50-75 overall between the two lists). I think part of the reason Sad Puppies 2 enjoyed success last year was that the list was relatively small (12 choices in various categories), so the impact was concentrated on those works. Remember, the people who nominate for the hugo are actually people! They will not have read this entire slate and chances are, there are plenty of things on the slate that they did read, but would not nominate. Anecdotal evidence indicates this was the case last year, and even the hard numbers show that there was significant variance in the amount of nominating votes for each work. I expect people's votes will be spread out across the entire slate, and since there are so many options, that may spread things too thin.
  • Comparing the two lists is interesting, as is the tone in which they're presented. Torgersen is very careful to indicate that his list "is a recommendation. Not an absolute." He has repeatedly mentioned that it's not about politics, but about story and fun. He also acknowledges the idea that you might not like works on the slate (though "we suspect you might"). Torgersen also, much to his credit, made sure that his own works would not appear on his slate. Day, on the other hand, is extremely combative about the whole situation and appears to be much more ideologically motivated (he explicitly mentions the "science fiction Right"). He encourages folks who trust his opinion on the subject to "nominate them precisely as they are". He also nominated himself in multiple categories (though in the editing categories, not the fiction categories). On the other hand, he nominated Coherence on the Dramatic Presentation Long Form category, which is a personal favorite that I'd love to see get nominated (even though it probably wouldn't). This is why I can never get on board with Sad Puppies, nor can I really get too worked up about it either. Just because a work appears there doesn't mean it is or is not worthy of a nomination.
  • In terms of The Martian, it looks like fears of its eligibility (or lack thereof) means that it was not included in either slate. I actually emailed the Sasquan administrators, but their (perfectly reasonable) response was: "the standard Hugo committee policy for many years has been to not make suggestions on nominations or rule on eligibility of nominated items until nominations close". Apparently, when eligibility of a specific work was announced in the past, other nominees felt it represented an endorsement, so the policy is to maintain impartiality. This makes perfect sense. Interestingly, Vox Day actually quotes me on the matter, though as usual, his tone is way more combative and makes my post seem equally so, even though I'm not. My example of a self-published work that was later published and then nominated was John Scalzi's Old Man's War. Day hates Scalzi, and uses my example as evidence that the Hugos are corrupt or something. This was not my intention at all, and it's weird to see my words deployed in such a fashion. Indeed, I've always thought that the Sad Puppy attitude towards Scalzi has been rather weird. Yes, Scalzi is outspoken on his blog about certain leftist issues, but for the most part, his fiction is fantastic and entertaining stuff. You could make an argument that something like Redshirts was only nominated because he's popular with a certain segment of fandom, but that's the kind of thing that happens with populist awards. More to the point, Scalzi's work tends to be that more old-school science fiction. Redshirts has it's flaws, but it's a very fun book, exactly the sort of thing I'd expect to see on the Sad Puppy slate (except that, obviously, it enjoys wide popularity across most of fandom). That never made sense to me. On the other hand, "Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue" is, in fact, a pretty lame nomination.
  • Eric S. Raymond appears on both slates as a nominee for the Campbell Award (for the most promising new writer in SF), which, as he himself notes, is a little strange:
    I will stipulate that I think my one published work of SF, the short story Sucker Punch, isn’t bad. If it were someone else’s and I was wearing my reviewer hat, I’d probably say something encouraging about it being a solid, craftsmanlike first effort that delivers what its opening promises and suggests the author might be able to deliver quality work in the future.

    But, Campbell Award material? A brilliant comet in the SF firmament I am not. I don’t really feel like I belong on that shortlist - and if I’m wrong and I actually do, I fear for the health of the field.

    What bothers me more is the suspicion that my name has been put forward for what amount to political reasons.
    I've read Sucker Punch and think it's a perfectly cromulent short story, but if I were to nominate it for something, it'd be for the short story category (which, I suspect will not happen, since it will probably be a crowded category for me by the time nominations close). As a Campbell nominee, I would want some sense that he, you know, intends to write a lot more fiction. I have no doubt that he could write more fiction (even great fiction), I just don't see him taking that on. He's been pretty clear that his focus is on hacking and Open Source advocacy (at which, he is very good and very successful) and that he did this mostly on a lark. Which makes this nomination kinda confusing. (Update: he basically confirms this in the comments)
  • Speaking of Eric Raymond, he has some keen insights into the whole culture war of sorts that's happening in SF right now (of which Sad Puppies is a symptom) that pretty well match up with where I'm coming from. His key insight is that this is not a political issue, but rather a matter of "Literary Status Envy":
    Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

    People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.
    His post on the deep norms of SF is also worth checking out. I find myself mostly agreeing with this analysis (and honestly, he gives a much better primer for the factions involved and general situation than I do above). All those things that literary fiction hates are what I love about science fiction. And I tend to dislike the angst that permeates literary fiction (that this often manifests as wallowing in identity politics and misery is incidental). This focus on literary fiction is why stuff like Wakulla Springs gets nominated for a Hugo, despite not even being slightly SF or even Fantasy. It's a very well written story, to be sure, but it's so far outside the boundaries of any type of genre fiction (let along SF) that I can see why the Sad Puppy campaign is happening.
So there you have it. I do not particularly hate or love Sad Puppies. Call that feckless if you want. I just know what I like. Sometimes that happens to coincide with the Sad Puppies, sometimes not. Go figure.
Posted by Mark on February 08, 2015 at 08:15 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Hugo Award Season 2014
It's that time of year again. The Hugo Award Nomination Period has begun, and of course, all the requisite whining has begun. People whining about Awards Eligibility Posts, people whining about politics, people whining about the people whining about politics. And wonder of wonders, some people are actually talking about books they like, compiling lists of things to check out before nominations close, or coming up with thorough models to predict who will get a nomination this year. How revolutionary. I'll do my best to focus on same, but I'm sure I'll be sucked into some controversy or other.

Last year, I was a little gunshy about participating in the nomination process. This was mostly due to the fact that I hadn't really read a comprehensive selection of 2013 books or stories. It was also before I realized that some people don't bother reading all the nominees before voting or nominate things for purely ideological reasons. I also realized that I was very nearly one of the two votes that could have put Lauren Beukes's excellent time travel serial killer novel The Shining Girls on the ballot. This year, I won't claim to have read particularly deep into the catalog, but I read more than I did last time and there are definitely some stories I would like to nominate. My current nomination ballot, some thoughts on same, and some things I'd like to read before I finalize my ballot are below. Knock yourself out. Comments are still wonky, so if you have any recommendations, feel free to email me at mciocco at gmail or hit me up on twitter @mciocco (or @kaedrinbeer if you're a lush).

Best Novel: All three are kinda longshots. A Darkling Sea has the best chance to make it, as there is at least some minimal buzz surrounding it. A Sword Into Darkness is self-published and not typical Hugo material, but I really enjoyed it (and not for nothing, but there's a fair chance it would make the Sad Puppies slate, which could improve its chances). The Martian suffers from eligibility issues - it was self published in 2012, then snapped up by a publisher and put into fancy editions and audio books in 2014 (where it has sold extremely well). General consensus seems to be that it will not be eligible, but I think there are a few things going for it. One is that self-published works that get bought up by a real publisher and come out a year or two later have made it onto the ballot before (an example that comes to mind is Scalzi's Old Man's War, which was self-published in 2003 or 2004, after which it was promptly bought up by Tor and republished in 2005, garnering a Hugo nomination in 2006). Another is that I've heard that version published in 2014 has some differences from the self-published version, but I have not confirmed that (and it's very possible that this is not true), which might call some things into question. In any case, unless someone official makes a definitive statement about The Martian being ineligible, I plan to include it on my ballot.

Best Novelette?
  • Atmosphæra Incognita by Neal Stephenson (from Hieroglyph)
  • A Hotel in Antarctica by Geoffrey Landis (from Hieroglyph)
Here's the thing with short fiction, I think it's pretty easy to tell the difference between a short story and a novella and a novel, but when you throw novelette into the mix, it becomes much less intuitive. I'm pretty sure the above two stories are long enough to be a Novelette, but I'm not positive. Also, you'll be seeing a lot of Hieroglyph in the nominations today. Hopefully I'll be able to pad this out with some other sources of short fiction as time goes on. Also, maybe I'll find a novella or two!

Best Short Story:
  • Periapsis by James L. Cambias (from Hieroglyph)
  • Covenant by Elizabeth Bear (from Hieroglyph)
  • The Day It All Ended by Charlie Jane Anders (from Hieroglyph)
This is a a pretty good list here, and I'm reasonably certain that at least one will come close (Covenant seems to have some buzz). I will most certainly be checking out additional short stories though, so hopefully I can find some more nominees.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: While I don't claim comprehensive selection in my reading, I'm much closer when it comes to film. Alas, I'm pretty sure my two favorite nominees (Coherence and The One I Love) will not make the cut, and the one I'm most ambivalent about (Interstellar) seems to be a shoe-in. I also wouldn't be surprised if movies I didn't care for do well, notably Snowpiercer.

Again, comments are still wonky on here right now, so if you have any recommendations, feel free to email me at mciocco at gmail or hit me up on twitter @mciocco (or @kaedrinbeer if you're a lush).

I think we'll leave it there for now and revisit some other categories or perhaps some stuff I want to read next week. Until then, happy nominating.
Posted by Mark on January 21, 2015 at 11:19 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

A few years ago, Neal Stephenson wrote an article in Wired called Innovation Starvation. In it, he laments the decline of the space program ("Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars?") and a general failure of our society to get big things done. He brought up concerns at a conference, and promptly got a finger pointed back at him: if Science Fiction authors weren't so pessimistic, they might have inspired a new generation of folks who actually could get things done. Intrigued, Stephenson set out to correct that imbalance with something called Project Hieroglyph a collaboration between SF authors and real scientists at Arizona State University. There were two major challenges that Stephenson laid out: a moratorium on dystopian futures as well as "technology so advanced that the world it describes bears little or no resemblance to our own world." In short, no "hackers, hyperspace and holocaust". The result of all this is a collection of short stories, also called Hieroglyph, that was recently published. I would probably have read this in any case, but I was also hoping to find some short fiction to nominate for the Hugo Awards. Alas, like most anthologies that I've read, this collection is decidedly hit or miss. Surprisingly, there are quite a few stories that do read like a dystopia, and many seem to have a fundamentally pessimistic idea at their core. This is quite distressing, considering that this collection was supposed to get us away from such things. It's not all bad, of course, and there are several bright spots, but I was overall pretty disappointed.
  • Atmosphæra Incognita by Neal Stephenson - Unsurprisingly, this is one of my favorites of the collection. It's a story about building a twenty-kilometer tall building. Stephenson explores the limits of our current civil engineering capabilities in his usual detail, and I am totally a sucker for the style. There are several moments of conceptual breakthrough and the sense of wonder is palpable. This is impressive since he's not really proposing any crazy new technologies. This 20 km building is being built with current technologies, just on a much larger scale than anyone has actually dreamed to do. Stephenson, at least, seems to have taken his guidelines to heart. In addition, it feels like something actually happens in this story. Stephenson doesn't downplay the difficulties of such a project, and the main conflict is derived from that, but his attitude is optimistic and the story is a great read. Highly recommended, and will probably be on my short fiction ballot somewhere (is this a short story or novelette?)
  • Girl In Wave : Wave in Girl by Kathleen Ann Goonan - The idea at the core of this story is an interesting one, a way to dramatically improve the learning capabilities of the brain, and Goonan does a decent enough job exploring the possibilities. Alas, there's not much of a story to hang this on. It reads more like a history lesson or short memoir than a real story. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure, and the idea is at least interesting and optimistic. Ranking this somewhere near the top of the middle tier of the stories.
  • By the Time We Get To Arizona by Madeline Ashby - This one is about the interplay of technology with immigration. Once again, I'm not sure the story is particularly eventful, and the idea isn't super clear either. In fact, one could read this more as a dystopia (especially with respect to the surveillance state), though Ashby thankfully doesn't go fully down that path. This would be in the middle tier of the stories.
  • The Man Who Sold the Moon by Cory Doctorow - This is the longest story in the collection and it reads strangely dystopic in its outlook. It centers around a couple of Burning Man like festivals, and spends a lot of time going through automated 3D printer robot thingies. Eventually it gets to the interesting part, where we send a bunch of these robots to the Moon to create the building blocks for our next trip to the moon. Alas, I was not particularly inspired by this story. The impression I'm left with is that we'd send these robots up there, they would build a bunch of stuff for us, but we'd never get there because we're too busy destroying ourselves back on Earth or something like that. Lower tier!
  • Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA by Lee Konstantinou - Another seeming dystopia, exploring some interesting ideas about drones and the commons, but it's still an ultimately pessimistic look. Lower tier!
  • Degrees of Freedom by Karl Schroeder - This is an odd one for me. On the one hand, it's exploring one of the more relevant and important ideas in the anthology. It's all about how Big Data and collaborative decision-making tools could make the political process more effective, and the system described here really stuck with me. Of course, we are talking about a short story here, so I have about a gazillion questions and am not really convinced that the particular implementation described in the story would work quite that well, but that's also kinda the point. The particular system described here probably won't work, but it does hit that goal of inspiration pretty hard. Bottom of the top tier!
  • Two Scenarios for the Future of Solar Energy by Annalee Newitz - This one takes the form of a guided tour through a couple of futuristic, carbon-neutral cities, each of which uses an approach that mimics biological processes in some way. It's got some interesting ideas, but the "guided tour" approach didn't really work that well for me. Middle tier.
  • A Hotel in Antarctica by Geoffrey Landis - An interesting idea and Landis does spend time working through the practical aspects of building a hotel in Antarctica. We hit it from many angles: political, environmental, and physical. There's even a surprising interaction with an environmental activist, though I found that a bit on the nose too. Still, it's a fun little story that ranks somewhere towards the bottom of the top tier here...
  • Periapsis by James L. Cambias - Among the more out-there efforts in terms of being very futuristic, but it's not so far-fetched as to be unapproachable. It's set in the far future, and it covers a competition amongst a bunch of young adults. The prize: citizenship on Deimos, one of Mars' moons. Deimos has become the economic powerhouse of the solar system, and features a small population of very innovative people. This is one of the few short stories that actually feels like a story. There's an actual plot here! And there's plenty of interesting bits of technology and breakthroughs too. It's among the best in the collection and I plan on nominating this for a Hugo. Top tier!
  • The Man Who Sold the Stars by Gregory Benford - An interesting story that covers how an ambitious businessman started mining out asteroids in order to fund his search for other Earth-like planets. It's an odd one in that we're spending time with the richest of the rich, but it's implied that things aren't going quite as well for everyone else, at least in the near term. By the end, though, things seem to be working out, and there's a clever little bit around a nearby Earth-like planet that I enjoyed. Top of the middle tier? Bottom of the top tier?
  • Entanglement by Vandana Singh - This one really didn't do it for me. It's all climate change and misery. I think. The only thing I really remember about this story is how much I didn't like it, which probably says something. Bottom tier!
  • Elephant Angels by Brenda Cooper - This one proposes the use of drones to prevent Ivory poaching (or track down the poachers after the fact). It's an interesting idea, but comes off feeling a little slight compared to the other stories in the collection. Then again, that sorta rings true as well. Bottom of the middle tier.
  • Covenant by Elizabeth Bear - An interesting look at a convicted serial killer who gets "rightminded" to prevent future murders. It reminded me a little of Clockwork Orange, only it seems to approve of this treatment. There's lots to dig into here from a moral and social aspect, and Bear also tells a quick little story here too. Bottom of the top tier.
  • Quantum Telepathy by Rudy Rucker - Lots of bioengineering and the titular concept of Quantum Telepathy work reasonably well, but it feels kinda like bio-punk or something like that. It's a little too weird to be all that inspirational, but it works well enough I guess. Middle tier!
  • Transition Generation by David Brin - At first this one feels like a dystopia, but it turns out well in a fairly predictable way that is nonetheless pretty entertaining to read. Top of the middle tier!
  • The Day It All Ended by Charlie Jane Anders - One of the more fun entries in the collection, I have a hard time believing this could ever happen, but it's still a fun story that tries to pull the rug out from underneath you several times. Anders is playing the game well enough that I don't mind some of the more ludicrous aspects of the story. Top of the middle tier.
  • Tall Tower by Bruce Sterling - The second story about a giant tower, this one has a decidedly less optimistic approach, though it's clearly not a dystopia or anything like that. I've never been a big fan of Cyberpunk, so perhaps it's not surprising that the authors famous for that (see also: Rudy Rucker) don't really connect with me. This story has some interesting stuff in it, but it also doesn't really go anywhere.
And there you have it. There's also an interview at the end that has some interesting stuff, as well as a few introductions that are interesting reading. On balance, it's a decent collection, though again, it's hit or miss, and there were several stories that baffled me by their inclusion. Still, I've got a solid two stories that I would like to nominate (the Stephenson and the Cambias)
Posted by Mark on December 21, 2014 at 08:56 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

SF Book Review, Part 18: First Contact
In recent readings, I seem to have inadvertently stumbled upon a series of First Contact stories. Like any sub-genre, these generally include other sub-genres (notably military SF and Space Opera), but there's actually something of a through line with these three books that I found interesting. I will start with the most famous of the three, an exemplar frequently referenced when discussing First Contact stories:
  • The Mote in God's Eye by by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle - This is one of those novels that shows up in "Best Of SF" lists all over the place, and as a mix of military SF, Space Opera, and First Contact, I was pretty well on board with the premise. And yet, it took me quite a while to actually get into the story, which is my primary problem with the book: it's a bit on the bloated side. Much time is spent with a lot of characters, but they still tend to feel two dimensional and functional, rather than fully fleshed out. This is not normally a problem, except that a lot of time is spent on character building, so if you're going to go down that route, you should make that worthwhile. Fortunately, the dilemma at the heart of the book is a truly fascinating puzzle, both in figuring out what is causing the problem and what kinds of solutions could be proposed. The puzzle is posed by the alien species first encountered by humans in this book, and results as an interplay between biology and sociology. It also explores the weird moral quandaries of First Contact stories. I won't go into more detail here because while this book is a little bloated and long in the tooth, the core ideas are fantastic and worth exploring. Just be patient with it at first, as it takes a while before things start to get really interesting.
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts - This book made waves back in 2005/2006 (it was nominated for a Hugo), and as a novel of ideas, it is fantastic. Again, though, I'm left with characters that Watts wants to delve into, but are nevertheless not all that relatable. They are interesting, as a point of fact they are all "freaks" of one kind or another, but there's no real point of entry for us normal humans. The closest we get is a guy named Siri Keeton, but he's had portions of his brain removed and isn't the most likable guy in the world. Again, not a terrible thing in a novel of ideas, except that Watts spends a bunch of time, for example, going into Siri's childhood friend and ex-girlfriend. Outside of Siri, we've got a linguist with multiple personalities, a few other folks, and a Vampire. Yes, a vampire, and actually that's one of my favorite bits about the book. As the universe of the book goes, Vampires were real predators from the distant past that have been resurrected through recovered DNA. They are far more intelligent than humans, their brains operating in parallel, allowing them to maintain multiple simultaneous thoughts in their mind. This leads to advanced pattern recognition, which ended up being their original downfall - they have trouble perceiving right angles (i.e. a cross would actually harm them). In the late 21st century, they've been resurrected and given drugs to help with the Euclidian problem, but their vastly different way of approaching the world means their speech patterns are cryptic and odd. They are very nearly an "alien" presence, and in fact, they are one of many explorations of consciousness that seems to really drive this book. The first contact with aliens goes rather oddly, and it's never particularly clear if they are a conscious intelligence, or something less than that. There is a very rich exploration of the concept of Philosophical Zombies, for instance, among other ideas. Watts does not dumb anything down and really lays on the ideas thick. This makes for interesting reading, but it's also clear that Watts has a very pessimistic approach to all of this, which hampers things a bit for me. Not fatally so, to be sure, and it's clear that Watts knows his stuff and plays the game well. I just wish there was a bit more of a story here to hang all of these interesting ideas on... Watts just recently released a sequel of sorts (at least, it's set in the same universe) called Echopraxia. After some initial Hugo Award buzz, the chatter around this seems to have dropped off considerably. I don't know that I loved Blindsight enough to run after Echopraxia right away, but if it does get nominated, I will look forward to reading it.
  • A Sword Into Darkness by Thomas A. Mays - This was one of the 2014 books I was looking to read as a potential Hugo Nominee for next year's awards. As a self-published book in a sub-genre that the general Hugo voter tends not to like (military SF), I seriously doubt it will make the slate (or even come close, really), but I may consider nominating it. As a first contact story, it takes the angle of a potential invasion of aliens. Given the realities of space travel, we can, of course, see them coming once they turn their ship around and start decelerating, thus revealing their thrust. This is an implicit reference to The Mote in God's Eye, made before a character in this book explicitly references the classic. A team of humans on earth recognizes the threat and privately finances the creation of a greeting party (complete with new drive technologies and weapons). The government is initially dismissive, then helpful, then, well, I won't spoil anything there. The science behind everything is very well thought out, especially when it comes to the weaponry and battle sequences. This shouldn't be too surprising, since the author was a longtime member of the US Navy. Of course, so is our main protagonist, a pretty obvious Gary Stu character who gets to fall in love with another cliche or whatever you'd call the SF equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That being said, these are fun characters. They don't have a ton of depth, but at least Mays doesn't try to shoehorn it in where it doesn't belong. They do their job well enough, and I enjoyed spending time with them. The story is well paced and has a more satisfying plot than the previous two novels mentioned in this post. Mays' prose style isn't anything to write home about, but it's functional enough and propels the story along nicely. As plot goes, it's a pretty tight little story, and Mays even manages to do something that most alien invasion stories get wrong: he's come up with a compelling reason for a violent invasion. This is one of the major problems with most invasion stories. Given the amazing amount of resources and time it takes to reach another planet with a sentient species, why bother? When it comes to resources, our planet is hardly unique. You could mine whatever you needed from elsewhere in our solar system (or presumably lots of other systems) without ever having to risk your target fighting back. And so on. Mays has devised a pretty interesting reason for the invasion, one that gets at the hard of what makes a lot of First Contact stories tick while managing to turn it on its end at the same time. It's an impressive trick, and something that elevates this book above a simple trashy SF Space Opera or Military SF story. I'm still on the fence in terms of whether or not I would nominate this, but if I did, it would be primarily because of the motivation factor.
Up next on the First Contact front, The Three-Body Problem, another potential Hugo contender.
Posted by Mark on December 07, 2014 at 05:55 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ancillary Sword
Ann Leckie's debut novel Ancillary Justice was a huge breakout novel that vanquished all comers during awards season. It racked up wins from Locus, the BSFA, the Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula, and Hugo Awards. As you might imagine, the recently published sequel, Ancillary Sword, was eagerly awaited. I enjoyed the first book despite some reservations, so I was really hoping this one would shore up some of the lacking elements of its predecessor. What I got was completely unexpected.

This is a really odd novel. It picks up where the first book left off, with Breq accepting a commission as an officer in Anaander Mianaai's fleet and leading an expedition to... a space station with some minor strategic importance. There she butts heads with the local forces, led by one Captain Hetnys, and otherwise gets embroiled with various bits of local politics.

Like it's predecessor, this book is somewhat lacking in plot, though I will say that it does become somewhat tighter as a result. Unlike it's predecessor, many of the interesting things about the first book have been jettisoned. The complex non-linear narrative is gone. The first book's heady mix of hard and soft SF has shifted much more to the soft SF side. Many of the most intriguing things about the first book, particularly the ambitious exploration of hive minds and what that means for identity, while present, aren't really expanded upon in any real way. When Anaander Mianaai's condition is revealed in the first book, it opened up many tantalizing opportunities... that are almost completely bypassed in this sequel. The mysterious alien presence of the Presger was hinted at in the first book, and while the Presger's ambassador plays a significant role in this book, we still don't really get much in the way of information on the Presger. Even some of the softer ideas, like the way Radch culture doesn't distinguish between the sexes, calling everyone by female pronouns, aren't really expanded on at all. I suppose we get some closer looks at Radch society, but little beyond what we already knew.

It's a decidedly low-key approach that is not entirely unwelcome, but which makes me wonder where Leckie is trying to go with this series. It started off as a series filled with interesting ideas and an epic scope, and yet, it's all shaken down to this rather simple story that doesn't seem to really advance the series all that much. I suppose the implication is that the events of this book are happening all over the Radchaai Empire, which would make sense. And it's not really bad per say, it's just unexpected. Conceptually, I think this is something that could have worked really well, lots of crunchy ideas on a smaller, close-up scale. Alas, all of the interesting ideas originate in the first book and aren't expanded upon very much in this sequel.

The book has a more episodic approach than its predecessor, and many of the individual episodes are quite good. The opening reveals Breq to be a capable leader who immediately recognizes the deception of one of her officers. There's a great sequence where a pissed off Breq goes to the armory for target practice. Since she is a thousand of years old AI, she's pretty good at it, leading to some slackjawed crew members (Seivarden memorably notes: "Fleet Captain is pretty fucking badass.") Some of the incidents at the space station are less successful, though there are plenty of interesting bits about the formality of Radch society. There's a decent enough courtroom drama at one point, and several other interesting tidbits here or there. Leckie's not particularly great at action, but there's not a ton of action here anyway and she gets the job done. Many of the new side characters are pretty fantastic. Alas, when you add it all up, it's merely the sum of its parts, nothing more.

So I have mixed feelings about this. There are many bits to like, and I will say that it seems to be aging well in my head, but I don't think it's quite the equal of its predecessor either. It's almost certainly going to appear on the Hugo ballot next year, but I'm doubting that it will win. One other side note: I listened to this on audio book, and I hated the reader. She was fine most of the time, but for certain characters, particularly the ones we're not supposed to like, she puts on this ridiculous, high pitched, exaggerated cockney accent (I think). That wouldn't be a disaster if she didn't use the exact same voice for multiple characters, and if the story weren't so talky (which it really is, and it gets kinda weird when Breq is speaking with two of the weirdly accented people). Just a fair warning, you'd probably be better off reading this one rather than listening.
Posted by Mark on November 16, 2014 at 08:23 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, November 09, 2014

Lock In
I read a fair amount, but there are only a few authors whose output I eagerly await. Longtime readers already know that Neal Stephenson and Lois McMaster Bujold are the ringleaders, but John Scalzi is also among their ranks. Scalzi rankles a fair amount of folks because of his politics (which have been getting more and more pronounced over time), but in general, I've found his novels to be enjoyable pageturners. Being "easy to read" also rankles a certain element of fandom, those who seek "literary" status as opposed to entertainment and good old fashioned storytelling. Scalzi won a Best Novel Hugo award last year for Redshirts, which produced much teeth-gnashing from a wide range of people. It was an odd novel, but it's one that seems to have aged well in my head (my only issues with it were meta-issues). I suspect I would not have ranked it #1 that year, but like this year's Ancillary Justice win, I can't really fault people from voting for what they like - the Hugo is a populist award, after all. So it's with this baggage that I come to Scalzi's latest novel, Lock In. In short, I found it disappointing. Not bad, per say, but I have trouble mustering up much enthusiasm.

Lock In takes place in the near future, after a global pandemic of something called Haden's Syndrome that mostly presented flu-like symptoms, but for about 1% of the population, resulted in locked-in syndrome. This is a real condition that is thankfully pretty rare, but in the world of the novel, the amount of locked-in patients (called "Hadens" in the book) exploded. The world adapted and developed a whole suite of solutions, including a Haden-only virtual reality space, embedded neural networks, and robot-like machines that can be "driven" by Hadens. This is all worldbuilding though, and the story proper is a pretty straightforward police procedural, following FBI agents Chris Shane (a Haden himself) and Leslie Vann as the investigate a Haden-related death.

Science Fiction is perhaps infamous for its reliance on exposition and info-dumps, but the first chapter of this book is a pretty egregious example. It baldly lays out the worldbuilding, encyclopedia-style, and as near as I can tell, it's completely superfluous. You get a lot of the same information through context as the story unfolds. I may be griping a little too hard about this, but it started me off on the wrong foot, and it took a while to recover.

While I'm complaining about things, Scalzi's politics are showing. Of course, an author's politics are always showing in one way or another, and Scalzi's past novels were no exception, but this time around there are completely unnecessary tangents on things like, for example, gun control. These are disappointing tidbits, but fortunately, they aren't pervasive. On the other hand, Scalzi's concern with gender is much more successful. Agent Vann is great, a smart, tough, hard-drinking veteran agent who reminded me of the well connected smuggler at the heart of Polar City Blues (another SF mystery that, alas, I wound up enjoying more than Lock In). If you are paying attention, (and if you read Scalzi's blog, how could you not pay attention to this stuff?) you'll notice that Chris Shane's gender is not specified. This apparently blew some people's minds, but I was expecting this sort of thing from Scalzi. Of course, it's pretty easy to pull off when your character is represented by a featureless robot 99.9% of the time in the novel, which did make me wonder much more about the lives of Hadens. Again, this is a detective thriller, so there's not a lot of time given to exploring these aspects of a Haden's life, but as tangents go, that would have been a welcome one.

The overall mystery is well done, but nothing particularly special. There aren't any grand revelations, but it's more satisfying than your typical episode of [insert CBS procedural here]. It took me longer than usual to be hooked (perhaps because of that clunky opening chapter), and while Scalzi normally excels at snappy dialogue, it wasn't quite as snappy as his other recent efforts.

I ultimately did enjoy the book, but I found myself nitpicking, which I generally attribute to some deeper dislike (though I'm having trouble pinpointing that). It has been getting pretty good reviews though, so I'm fully expecting that it will be nominated for a Hugo next year (it will not, however, be appearing on my nominating ballot). Apparently Lock In was also optioned for a television show, and a SF police procedural might actually work really well. So I wasn't totally on board with this book, but regardless, I'm very much looking forward to the second Human Division novel (er, collection?), as I really loved the first installment (even if it ended on an unexpected cliffhanger).
Posted by Mark on November 09, 2014 at 08:44 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

SF Book Review, Part 17
Since we've come dangerously close to decorative gourd season, motherfuckers, I figure I should knock out a few reviews before the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon begins in earnest. There's going to be some overlap here with the most recent book queue, but a few other books I've read recently as well.
  • Afterparty by Daryl Gregory - I bought this one blind, based solely on a quick recommendation by my friend Chandra. I wish I'd looked at the blurb though, as this book has my deck stacked against it. I really don't like stories that center around drug use. There are a few that have worked, but more often than not, I find myself frustrated and annoyed. There are some interesting bits here, and in theory, it could have worked for me, but it never really connected. In the future, there's been a smart drug revolution, with people able to quickly and easily design new drugs and print them out on a "chemjet". When a new drug called Numinous starts making the rounds, Lyda Rose recognizes it as something she worked on earlier in her career and tries to find out who is making this stuff again. The drug provides a sort of spiritual euphoria, but those who take too much start to hallucinate their own personal guardian angel (or similar figure from your chosen belief system) and that hallucination never goes away. Alas, the SFnal elements are basically window dressing, an excuse to whine about religion or wallow in self-pity and guilt. The world isn't quite a dystopia, I guess, but we only really see the worst elements of it. This would not be a fatal issue, except that I really couldn't stand Lyda as a protagonist. She's clearly had a rough go at it, so I can see where she's coming from, I just didn't find her methods particularly effective or worth following in this much detail. If it weren't for her paranoid friend Ollie, perhaps the only competent character in the book (despite the continual reminder that her paranoia often gets the better of her), this book would have really been miserable. It does get better as it goes on and the ending works well enough, but it's not really my thing and I found the whole thing rather depressing...
  • A Darkling Sea by James Cambias - This story takes place at the bottom of a deep, ice-covered ocean on the planet Ilmatar. A human research party is there to observe the natives - blind lobster-like creatures that congregate around deep sea vents for sustenance and use sonar for navigation. However, the humans are prohibited from actually contacting the Ilmatarans by a peace treaty with a third race, the Sholen, who want to limit humanity's expansion into the galaxy. When an unfortunate accident results in a human death, the Sholen kick up some diplomatic fuss in order to get the humans to leave, eventually resorting to force... and the Ilmatarans are caught in the middle. I enjoyed this novel greatly. Cambias has created a well balanced set of conflicts here, with sympathy extending to nearly all players. The Sholen, while clearly antagonistic, are not mere carboard cutouts. They have their own motivations and biases that would be amusing if the situation here wasn't so dire. The Ilmatarans' society is logically thought out given their environment, and their motivations are well established. You could argue that both alien races are a little too human-like in their thinking, but I think they cleared the bar on that (they aren't the Tines or Primes, but they're decent). Thematically, the book covers some interesting ground without ever feeling particularly preachy or manipulative. For instance, the whole thing is pretty thorough takedown of the rather silly Star Trek conceit of the "Prime Directive" (which basically forbids Starfleet personnel from interacting with developing alien races), but that emerges naturally from the story, rather than as a lecture. Overall, this is one of my favorite SF books of the year so far, and is an early possibility for a Hugo nomination next year.
  • Grave Peril by Jim Butcher - The third book in the Dresden Files and while it's an improvement over the second installment (which I did not particularly enjoy), it's still not quite the fun modern fantasy adventure I keep thinking it will deliver. I have this sneaking suspicion that I'll probably come back to this series again at some point when I'm looking for something kinda trashy, and I've heard the series gets better as it goes on... This installment covers how Harry deals with a particular uprising of ghosts and spirits, as well as a sneaky Vampire power grab. There's plenty to like here, and there are a bunch of memorable episodes, but then a lot of this falls a bit flat. The primary side characters include Harry's continually damseled girlfriend Susan and his sorta partner in crime, Michael. I feel like both of them kinda came out of nowhere, though it's been a while, so maybe they made brief appearances earlier in the series (I'm pretty sure Susand did, actually). Murphy seems like a great character, but she's sidelined for most of this book. Dresden's stepmother makes many appearances and represents another thing that feels like it came out of nowhere. Fortunately, the bulk of the story is reasonably well done. As per usual, the magic stuff tends to get out of hand and Dresden seemingly endures wayy too much physical damage to be effective, but that's par for the course in this series. In the end, I had a fine time with this, even if it didn't really knock my socks off.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir - You know that scene in Apollo 13 where the NASA team dumps a bunch of parts on the table and tries to make a square filter fit into a round hole, using only the equipment available in the space capsule? Yeah, this book is 350 pages of that, only the astronaut in question is alone and stranded on Mars. And he's got a lot more resources and equipment available to him. Still, this is a fascinating chronicle of how he survives in the hostile environment of Mars. Author Andy Weir cuts no corners, and painstakingly explains how each little bit works. Even more impressive, he makes all of the science approachable and even exciting. He also manages to insert a fair amount of humor into the proceedings, which helps greatly. This isn't particularly a great character piece, but the challenges facing the character and the problem solving that goes into resolving issues more than makes up for any deficiencies in that area. There are no villains here, only a harrowing fight for survival. This is ultimately one of the most impressive pieces of Hard SF I've read in a long time. Not quite as diamond-hard as Greg Egan, but the accessibility and humor make this a gazillion times more approachable and entertaining (if not quite as mind-blowing). You could perhaps argue that the level of detail goes a little overboard, but it was music to this systems analyst's ears. If this winds up being eligible for the Hugo awards next year, it will almost certainly garner my vote. Highly recommended for those not scared by science (and really, if you're scared by science, why are you reading science fiction!?)
And that's all for now. Stay tuned for the Six Weeks of Halloween, starting next Sunday. Up first, I think, will be what I'm calling The Remade (three 50s classics that have been remade).
Posted by Mark on September 14, 2014 at 06:27 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Wheel of Time: The Great Hunt
When Robert Jordan's entire Wheel of Time series was nominated for a Best Novel Hugo Award this year, I knew I wouldn't have time to read all of the books. While you might think that's due to laziness, it should be noted that the series consists of 14 books, 10,000+ pages, and 4.4+ million words. According to my Goodreads stats, I'm averaging something like 12,000 pages a year, and given the fact that I only had a few months before votes were due, it was basically impossible. Fortunately for me, I didn't particularly care for the first book in the series, The Eye of the World, so reading the entire series became unnecessary. That being said, the publisher, Tor books, was exceedingly generous in making the entire text available in the voters packet, so I thought I'd give the series another chance before voting. I got about halfway through the second book, The Great Hunt, before I had to cast my votes for the Hugo, and I felt good about my ballot. I finished the book not long after, and I must say, it's a big improvement over the first book, even as it suffers from many of the same issues.

The story picks up where we left off, with our heroic band of misfits taking refuge in a town, waiting for a bunch of Aes Sedai to consult on the happenings of the first book. Nynaeve and Egwene plan to accompany them to train as Aes Sedai, while the rest plan to return home. Our nominal protagonist, Rand al'Thor, has definitively been identified as "The Dragon Reborn" (basically a "Chosen One" type of situation), and is thus developing some major trust issues. Not long after the arrival of the Aes Sedai, the city is attacked by Darkfriends, and two powerful artifacts are stolen, including the cursed dagger which is magically linked to Mat, so it seems that our three farmboys are headed off with a large search party to retrieve the stolen treasures. Meanwhile, foreign invaders called the Seanchan have begun to encroach on the border, and there are all sorts of other weird happenings throughout the world.

There are a lot of similarities to the first book here. There's an ancient, powerful artifact that is in danger, there's a bunch of epic journeys, tangential episodic adventures, hearty stews (of course), our band of heroes is separated, and eventually reunited - you know, high fantasy tropes galore. The difference between this book and the previous is that each element here is better done and more memorable. It's still bloated and sloppy, but at least there's some more interesting stuff that's happening. It helps that we already have a pretty good handle on the cast of characters, despite a few new ones, so little time is wasted rehashing what we already know.

The episodic stuff actually works reasonably well. For example, at one point Rand, Loial, and Thurin (the latter being a new character) are separated from the search party and find themselves in a town called Cairhien, where they play something called "The Great Game", an intrigue-charged game of politics and maneuver amongst the various factions of the city (I'm guessing the name here is historically based). For various reasons, Rand appears to be a Lord to the city, so he is expected to play. His instinct is to simply ignore various invites and overtures, but it turns out that this is taken to mean that he is even more important than he appears. His inaction is interpreted to be a rather extreme action. And so on.

Nynaeve and Egwene have a couple interesting episodes as well. Their training with the Aes Sedai leads to a lot of additional knowledge about how things work in that weird magical lawyer/mafia hybrid environment. They meet up with Elayne and Min (both characters had bit parts in the first book, and were a welcome addition here), and have a rather disturbing run-in with the Seanchan later in the book (this is one of the more memorable tangents, actually).

There are plenty of other tangents that perhaps don't work as well as the above examples, but for the most part, the characters are growing. Rand is still a little whiny because he doesn't want to be the Chosen One (a fair complaint, to be sure), but he is also nowhere near as passive or blank as he was in the first book. He has spent some time training as a swordsman, and his chosen one powers are starting to add up (even if he's scared that they will eventually make him crazy). Mat is still a bit of a turd, but he's still cursed, so that's to be expected. Perrin makes himself useful, further developing his latent talent to talk to wolves. Nynaeve and Egwene are both learning a lot, and having to deal with some interesting problems. Moraine and Lan get some more background and motivation. Many of the side characters are further developed. A handful of new characters seem to have some interesting stuff to do.

All of this would still feel rather unsatisfying, except that Jordan manages to bring everything together for a big climax towards the end of the book that is genuinely involving and even exciting. Don't get me wrong, it's still bloated and overlong, but there is an actual payoff at the end of this book that is encouraging. When I finished the first book, I wasn't upset or anything and I had enjoyed myself well enough, but I wasn't that interested in exploring more of the series. This book does indicate that such a thing might actually be possible, and so I'm thus marginally more inclined to pick up book 3 at some point. None of this would have changed the way I voted for the Hugos, of course, but it's still encouraging.

From what I understand, the series bogs down for a while in the middle books, but eventually all the pieces are assembled for the final battle, which sounds like it could be an interesting experience. I'm planning on reading a bunch of 2014 books and stories in preparation for next year's Hugo nomination season, but if I read two books a year... I should be finished sometime around 2020. Er, ok, so maybe not. Still, it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility, which is more than I could say after the first book, and you never know. After all, I already have all the books on my Kindle. Ah well, the Wheel turns...
Posted by Mark on September 07, 2014 at 02:16 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

It has been a few years since Reamde, so I've been getting a bit antsy of late. Neal Stephenson is my favorite author, and I've long since exhausted reading just about everything he's published. I'm always on the lookout for his latest, and I recently discovered this mysterious book called Seveneves. How very palindromic of him. The blurb, which originally showed up in some random upcoming books PDF, goes something like this:
When the moon blows up, the earth's atmosphere is predicted to go through changes that will eventually lead to a Hard Rain, a meteorite storm that could last for thousands of years, rendering the earth’s surface uninhabitable. In preparation, the nations of the earth send an ark of humans to an International Space Station. But the Station isn’t immune to the galactic catastrophe and many of its people are lost, mostly men. When stability is reached, only seven humans remain, all of them women. Jump forward thirty thousand years. Two peoples exist: those who survived on Earth, living rustic, primitive lives; and those who derived from the Seven Eves of the space station, affluent, sophisticated, organized sects looking to colonize the surface of earth. Stephenson’s next novel is an epic potboiler, with political and military intrigue, and plenty to say about evolution, genetic engineering, and civilization as we know it.
The PDF sez it's due "Winter 2015", but Amazon and Goodreads have it at 4/14/15. Clocking in at 1056 pages, it appears that Stephenson's ways have not changed much.

Now, it's unclear to me if this book is the first of a series that Stephenson hinted at in a BBC interview last September, or if this was an interim book. Based on the description, I think Seveneves will be different.
"They're historical novels that have a lot to do with scientific and technological themes and how those interact with the characters and civilisation during a particular span of history," he says of the new series, refusing to be specific about the exact period.

"It looks like it will start with two back-to-back volumes.

"One of those is largely done and the other will be done early next winter. So I think [they will be released] mid-to-late 2014 perhaps - something like that."
"Something like that", meaning 2015 I guess. Not that I'm complaining, as it looks like we'll be awash in new Stephenson at some point in the near future. In other news, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future comes out on 9/9/14, and it features a bunch of stories inspired by Stephenson, in particular his desire to see more "positive" science fiction (as opposed to the dystopia or misery porn that seems to infect a lot of modern SF). It includes new stories by Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, Gregory Benford, Elizabeth Bear, and Bruce Sterling (presumably amongst others). I will most certainly be reading it, and will hopefully be able to glean a few Hugo nominatables!
Posted by Mark on August 27, 2014 at 05:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hugo Awards: The Results
The Hugo Award winners were announced late on Sunday, and since I've been following along, I naturally had some thoughts on the winners. Also of interest were the final ballot details, which had some interesting information for statistics wonks... I don't claim to be an expert in such matters, but I still found many details interesting. So without further ado, here are some assorted thoughts on the results:
  • Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie, took the best novel award, surprising no one, as this novel has already swept every other major SF award (including the Nebula, Locus, Clarke, and BSFA awards, among others). While this was not my first choice, I don't have any real objection to it, it's got plenty of crunchy ideas worthy of exploration, even if it is a bit short on plot. Also of note, it absolutely stomped the competition, with 1335 first place votes, versus only 658 for The Wheel of Time. Speaking of which, that series of novels, while garnering the second most first place votes, fell to fourth place overall thanks to the Hugos' use of an Instant Runoff voting system. While many feared a Wheel of Time win, I was not surprised because this sort of voting system discourages love it/hate it nominees, and while the Wheel of Time was indeed popular, it had plenty of haters and conscientious objectors who didn't think that a 14 book series deserved to be considered as a single nomination (like, uh, me).
  • My first place vote for Best Novel, Charles Stross's Neptune's Brood came in second place, which is basically what I was expecting. Plus, it turns out that Stross won the Best Novella award with "Equoid", which I found mildly surprising, since it had a high squick factor (according to Scalzi, the story's genesis came out of a two word phrase, "unicorn bukkake", which gives you an idea of what you're in for with this story). Indeed, looking at the details, it appears to have been a somewhat close race, with Six Gun Snow White (which I had thought was going to win) nipping at Stross' heels the whole way. I wonder if Stross got the edge because everyone knew he would lose the Novel race, and thus shifted their votes accordingly.
  • No huge surprises for the other fiction awards, though it didn't go exactly as I had predicted either. I was a little surprised that Game of Thrones took Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (over Doctor Who), though since I voted for it, I'm obviously fine with that.
  • So, the Sad Puppy slate. It's a tough thing to judge, because the way Correia went about his campaign was designed to provoke a backlash, so that he could then go and proclaim that the awards were biased. Which everyone already knew. The Hugos have always been a popularity contest. I guess you could say that Correia demonstrated how crappy politics are when introduced to a situation like this (and make no mistake, most of the people taking a hard line on this were pretty crappy about it, on both sides), but that's a decidedly Pyrrhic victory. Anywho, all but one of the Sad Puppy nominees basically came in last place, with the only exception being Editor, Long Form, where Toni Weisskopf actually had the most first place votes, but wound up in 4th overall thanks to the voting process. Amusingly and entirely unsurprisingly, Vox Day's story came in 6th place out of 5 (meaning that he was beaten by No Award). In the end, I hope this doesn't happen again next year. Correia has proven his point, so while I assume he'll mention that his Monster Hunter book is eligible next year and encourage his readers to participate, he hopefully won't do so in a way intended to alienate the normal voting base the way he did this year.
  • Speaking of the Sad Puppy slate, there was a lot of speculation when the nominees were announced that those who got these things nominated were blindly voting for the entire slate. Looking at the nomination details, this was pretty clearly not the case. Correia's novel garnered the most votes, with 184, while Vox Day's story only captured 69 votes. So there are at least 115 people who didn't do a straight vote. I suppose it's possible that there were 69 people who did so, but I also find that unlikely. My assumption, shockingly enough, is that the people who nominated were still actual human beings and only voted for things they read and liked.
  • While I was not fond of the way that The Human Division ended, I absolutely loved several of the individual stories, so I was surprised that none of them were even close to being nominated in the short fiction categories. I guess the fact that there were so many of them may have spread out the love to the point where no individual work got enough votes to come close to being nominated. On the other hand, Scalzi's Mallet of Loving Correction (which I believe is just reprints of select blog posts, in book form) did show up on the Best Related Work category nominations, albeit relatively low on the list...
  • In terms of near misses, one of the novels I would have nominated if I had participated in that part of the process was The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, which fell only 2 votes short of making it onto the ballot, which makes me feel a little bad. On the other hand, Upstream Color just barely made the nomination sheet for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form and was far from being nominated, which makes me sad, but I guess it's understandable. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself did not appear at all, which is a bit sad (you should read it anyway, I loved it).
Since I've got a supporting membership this year, that means I can nominate and vote in next year's awards, which means I should probably start reading some 2014 books (so far, I've not really read anything worth nominating, but I'm hoping to change that in the next few months). Any recommendations are welcome!

This basically concludes the 2014 Hugo Awards posting. I will probably write up a quick review of the second Wheel of Time book at some point (I liked it better than the first book, but it's still a bit of a repetitive, bloated, repetitive mess), but otherwise, you should be free of Hugo posts until next year. Stay tuned, lots of other stuff coming, including another patented SLIFR quiz and the quickly approaching Six Weeks of Halloween Horror Movie Marathon...
Posted by Mark on August 20, 2014 at 07:44 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hugo Awards: Miscellaneous Thoughts
Just a few thoughts that I've not crammed into the multitude of other Hugo Award posts I've been making of late.
  • For the uninitiated, when you become a member of a given year's Worldcon, you get access to the Hugo Voter's Packet, which contains the grand majority of the nominated works. However, it's an entirely voluntary thing, and the decision generally resides with the publisher, not the author. Indeed, the voter's packet (in its current form, at least), is a relatively recent thing (about 10 years old?) and was not even an official part of the process for the first few years. The reason I bring all this up is that there are a lot of people who seem to be dinging a given work on their ballot simply because it was not included in the packet. This is especially prevalent in the novel category, where three of the 5 nominees only included an extended excerpt in the packet. These included my top two picks, Neptune's Brood and Ancillary Justice, so I hope not too many people are doing that. Interestingly, the two most hated works also seem to have the most generous publishers: Baen included all three books in the Grimnoir Chronicles (of which only the third was actually nominated), and Tor included the entire Wheel of Time (that's 14 books, 11,000+ pages, and 4.4+ million words, mighty generous of them). I even saw one person ding Six Gun Snow White because the packet only included it in PDF format (Which, yeah, is annoying, but really? You're going to hold that against the work?) For my part, while I definitely took advantage of the packet, I also tried not to base my decisions on what was or was not in the packet. I will admit that some of the more obscure categories were more difficult to track down and probably did play into my eventual rankings, but I wasn't consciously trying to punish the artists because of the way the voter's packet works.
  • I only ended up deploying the No Award option (and the associated action of leaving a work off the ballot) twice, in both cases because of general philosophical disagreements (one because I don't think you should be able to nominate 14 books as one work, and the other because it wasn't Science Fiction or Fantasy, and thus should not be in the discussion for a SF/F award). If I'm reading the rest of the internet right, I'm not nearly vindictive enough, as most folks seem to deploy No Award at the drop of the hat, often just because a story had the impertinence to be part of a sub-genre they don't like. I get the reason for the award, but I feel like it's being used way too often.
  • I've read a lot of things I wouldn't normally read. I have obviously found value in that, but the end result will change little of my overall reading pattern. Of all the stories I've read, the only definite thing I'm going to follow up on is to read more Ted Chiang. I will also probably be more open to Charles Stross than I have in the past (still, I've had spotty luck with Stross).
  • Things I'm disappointed didn't get nominated:
And I think that just about covers it. In a few weeks, I'll cover the winners, otherwise, we'll be returning to the Kaedrin of old. I'm sure you're all super excited. Try to contain yourself.
Posted by Mark on July 30, 2014 at 09:20 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hugo Awards: Final Ballot
We are coming down the homestretch; the voting deadline is July 31st, and I'm pretty much finished going through the categories I'm going to get to, so here's where things are shaking out:

Best Novel:
  1. Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross [My Review]
  2. Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie [My Review]
  3. Warbound by Larry Correia [My Review]
  4. Parasite by Mira Grant [My Review]
  5. No Award
Not listed is The Wheel of Time, mostly because it's simply absurd that so many books could be nominated as one entity. I read The Eye of the World and I'm almost finished with The Great Hunt, but nothing I've read indicates that I'd place it higher than any of the above. Incidentally, if only A Memory of Light was nominated, I probably wouldn't have gone this route (even though the end result would still be needing to read 4 million+ words in order to finish off the story, which is absurd).

Predicted Winner: Ancillary Justice

Best Novella:
  1. "The Chaplain's Legacy" by Brad Torgerson
  2. "Equoid" by Charles Stross
  3. Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
  4. The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells
  5. No Award
See My Reviews for more details. Not listed is "Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages, primarily because it is not Science Fiction or Fantasy (if this were a historical fiction award, then that story would certainly be near the top).

Predicted Winner: Six-Gun Snow White

Best Novelette:
  1. "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", by Ted Chiang
  2. "The Lady Astronaut of Mars", by Mary Robinette Kowal
  3. "The Exchange Officers", by Brad Torgersen
  4. "The Waiting Stars", Aliette de Bodard
  5. "Opera Vita Aeterna", Vox Day
See My Reviews for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award. I did drop "The Exchange Officers" down a peg since my original reading, mostly because the story here did not really stick with me at all (though it's still a fine story).

Predicted Winner: "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling"

Best Short Story:
  1. The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere, by John Chu
  2. Selkie Stories Are for Losers, by Sofia Samatar
  3. The Ink Readers of Doi Saket, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
  4. If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, by Rachel Swirsky
See My Reviews for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
  1. Gravity
  2. Iron Man 3
  3. Frozen
  4. Pacific Rim
  5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
See my comments for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: Gravity

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:
  1. "Game of Thrones" The Rains of Castamere
  2. "Doctor Who" The Day of the Doctor
  3. "Orphan Black" Variations Under Domestication
  4. "Doctor Who" The Name of the Doctor
  5. An Adventure in Space and Time
  6. The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot
See my comments for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: "Doctor Who" The Day of the Doctor

Best Professional Artist:
  1. John Harris
  2. John Picacio
  3. Julie Dillon
  4. Galen Dara
  5. Fiona Staples
  6. Daniel Dos Santos
See my comments for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: No idea!

Best Fan Artist:
  1. Sarah Webb
  2. Mandie Manzano
  3. Spring Schoenhuth
  4. Brad W. Foster
  5. Steve Stiles
See my comments for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: Sarah Webb

Best Fan Writer:
  1. Abigail Nussbaum
  2. Mark Oshiro
  3. Liz Bourke
  4. Kameron Hurley
  5. Foz Meadows
See my comments for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: Abigail Nussbaum

And that covers all the categories I'll be voting for (there are several others that I just won't get to). All in all, it's been a fun year. I can't say as though I discovered anything that really blew me away, but I'm really happy with this whole experience (the annoyance caused by various controversies notwithstanding). Since my supporting membership qualifies me to vote on next year's awards as well, you can probably expect to see this whole rigmarole again next year. I know, I know, you're already looking forward to it. In the meantime, we'll probably have a couple more posts on general stuff about the Hugos, and I am really curious to see how the voting turns out (sometime in mid-August).
Posted by Mark on July 27, 2014 at 04:08 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hugo Awards: The No Vote Categories
There sure are a lot of categories for the Hugo Awards (that's 17 categories, if I'm counting correctly). My main focus has been on the fiction awards, but I've obviously been making my way through a lot of the others. That being said, there are some I just won't get to, whether that's because I don't really care about the category or I just don't have the time to make my way through it. So don't expect to see much about these categories:
  • Best Editor, Short Form - Honestly, I have no idea how we're supposed to judge these editors. If I were a writer who had worked directly with all these people, that'd be a different story, but as a reader, I'm just not sure what to make of these two Editor categories. How should I know how good an editor is? As I understand it, a great editor should be invisible to the reader, no?
  • Best Editor, Long Form - Ditto!
  • Best Related Work - Not a category I'm inherently opposed to or anything, I just won't have the time to make my way through it (though perhaps someday, I'll read some of them).
  • Best Graphic Story - While I do have a certain fondness for Randall Munroe's "Time" (XKCD) I don't think I'll be bringing myself to read the other nominees (only 3 of which are included in the packet). It's another timing thing here, not really a comment on the category itself.
  • Best Semiprozine - If someone can explain what the hell a semiprozine actually is, I might be more inclined to spend more time figuring this category out. It seems to me that "zines", even ones that involve paid contributers like these semipro ones, are a pretty outmoded concept. I mean, do these things actually get printed up and distributed in this day and age? As it is, I think I'll probably give this category a pass.
  • Best Fanzine - Again, the concept of a fanzine seems rather outmoded, especially when you consider that the grand majority of the nominees are basically just blogs (the packet shows the content in a more traditional zine-like format, but does that really matter). Since I have actually read a bunch of these, I may end up submitting a ballot here, just because I might have an actual opinion. Still, this category begs some questions. Maybe we should consolidate these zine categories and the fan writer category into something that resembles what people actually do these days.
  • Best Fancast - If I have time to get to this category, I will. I've tried various SF/F podcasts in the past and have been generally unimpressed, but I've only tried one of the nominees, so I might try to check this one out if I have time.
  • The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer - Technically not a Hugo award, but it's facilitated through the same process. I don't think I'll have time to get to this, but I will say that I have read (and enjoyed) one of the nominated works (The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu) in the course of my normal reading, which I guess says something.
So I'm basically done with all of my Hugo consumption, and the votes are due in about a week. I am still reading some Wheel of Time stuff, but I'm doubting I'll finish that in time and I've not seen anything that really changes my mind. So only a handful of Hugo posts left. I'll post my final ballot at some point, as well as some other thoughts on the process in general, and I'll probably post something once the winners are announced. Otherwise, posting will return to its former glory, what with the link dumps and movie bloviating.
Posted by Mark on July 23, 2014 at 11:10 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hugo Awards: Warbound
Warbound is the third book in Larry Correia's Grimnoir Chronicles, and (finally) the one that was nominated for this year's best novel Hugo. Because I tend to take a completist view of this sort of thing, I read the first two novels in the series, Hard Magic and Spellbound, and generally enjoyed them. Correia has mashed up a number of genres - action, noir, fantasy, even a little steampunk, etc... - and made it work. This is no small feat, and I suspect many attempts at this sort of thing do not work anywhere near as well. And Correia is a telented storyteller as well. There are things set up in the first two books that pay off here, indicating a thoughtful approach. Plus, it's just fun. This is a quality that I suspect is lost on a lot of people, but not on me! Even though this particular genre mashup is not exactly in my wheelhouse, I appreciated the series as a whole.

So I basically knew what I was in for in this book, and it delivered on all the promises made by the first two installments. As an individual entry in the series, I'd say it's about on par with the rest of it (perhaps better than the second installment, but only because middle stories in a trilogy tend to be incomplete).

The story picks up right where Spellbound left off. Heavy Jake Sullivan is trying to mobilize a force to face the Pathfinder, a scout for the great Enemy that will devour the world if the Pathfinder is successful. Meanwhile, Faye Vierra is coming to terms with being the spellbound and must seek out help to ensure that she is not corrupted by the power that "curse" has granted her. When Sullivan and Faye find out that the Pathfinder has been more successful than it seemed, the planet is about to be plunged into a great battle against the Enemy. You might even say that Earth was warbound. Heh.

The plot is a bit broken up here, with Faye's story almost completely isolated from Sullivan's, and with some prominent characters from the first two books making an appearance, but otherwise sidelined for most of the book. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's another indication of how loose the series has been. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, and it's clearly not as bloated or flabby as something like The Wheel of Time books that I've read so far, but I do find myself thinking that these books could stand to be a bit shorter.

As per usual, Sullivan and Faye take the brunt of character work, and they're both likable protagonists. Toru is also the type of character that grew on me as time went on. As always, there's a colorful cast of supporting characters, including some new faces (I was a fan of Wells, the alienist - a slightly less creepy version of Hannibal Lecter).

As I mentioned in the previous two reviews, one of my problems with stories about magic is how overpowered the magic becomes as the story progresses. The stakes are continually rising, and because it's magic, it's tempting to just keep making the magic more powerful. For the most part, Correia has pulled it off in this series. In part, this is because he set up some very clear rules, and used logical extensions of those rules to find new powers. By the end of this book, things were getting a bit too overpowered, but then, this is also the last book, so I think some leeway is required. I'm pretty impressed that Correia was able to balance everything out this well.

I guess this is a spoiler, but not really - Faye saves the world (as she did in the first two books), but on a larger scale. Faye is basically the main protagonist, and she's a bit terrifying. This is partly because she is so powerful, but also because she seemingly kills hundreds if not thousands of people throughout the series, but feels not a single pang of guilt towards it. For that matter, Sullivan and the rest of the Grimnoir are similar in that way, so perhaps that's a Correia thing. But in this book, there is at least an acknowledgement that such wanton bloodlust will lead to disaster. Faye is the spellbound, which means that she can absorb the power of magical actives when they die. This is why she is so powerful. But such power can also corrupt, and the previous spellbound became consumed by his quest for power and became a mindless killing machine (basically driving this alternate history's version of WWI) Faye spends a good portion of the novel trying to come to terms with the fact that she could easily be corrupted in that way, and she catches herself thinking things that would lead down that path. I was glad to see this tacit acknowledgement that all this death and destruction wasn't really a desirable thing, even if Correia seems to revel in the violence and action of it all.

And finally, a word on the audiobooks. Even though Baen very thoughtfully included all three novels in the Hugo Voter's Packet, I listened to the audiobook for all of them. As it turns out, the book is read by Bronson Pinchot. Yes, that Bronson Pinchot. And he's really fantastic (supposedly, these books have won him awards), seemingly able to handle a multitude of accents and vocal registers (given the worldwide scope of these stories, there are a lot of foreign accents required). From Audible, it seems he has 144 titles available, which is a pretty impressive body of work.

This wraps up all of the fiction awards that I'm voting for. My ballot for best novel is basically as predicted, with this one falling right smack in the middle, behind Neptune's Brood and Ancillary Justice, but ahead of Parasite (that ending has really curdled in my mind as time goes on) and The Wheel of Time. In the end, I probably wouldn't have read all three of these books if left to my druthers, but I have had no real issue with them either. They're a ton of fun, and I may even be tempted to check out some of Correia's Monster Hunter books if I get in the mood for something like that.

Obligatory note of all the controversy surrounding the nomination of this book. I've already (briefly) discussed it elsewhere, but I tended to concentrate more on reading all the nominees. Now that I've read all of Correia's "Sad Puppy" slate of nominees, I'd say it was a pretty mixed bag in terms of quality. Then again, so were a lot of the nominees overall, but that's just the way of populist awards. I appreciate reading some things outside of my comfort zone, and this was a good way to accomplish that. I get the consternation around this, but I was ultimately pretty happy with this whole experience.

From your perspective, only a few more Hugo posts to go. I am reading The Great Hunt (the second book in the Wheel of Time series), so I'll probably review that when I finish (short story here is that I like this better than the first book, but it's still ridiculous that this series got nominated as a whole. I'm reading this book because Tor very thoughtfully included the entire damn thing in the voter's packet. But according to my kindle, I have about 266 more hours of reading to go before I finish the series, which ain't going to happen by the end of the month). There are definitely some awards that I won't be voting for (how am I supposed to vote for Editors?), and I have some other assorted thoughts about the whole process as well. I'll post my final ballot when I get the chance as well. Then I'll have to find something else to write about, because I'm sure my readers (all three of you!) are getting pretty sick of this Hugo stuff.
Posted by Mark on July 20, 2014 at 07:50 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hugo Awards: Best Artists
The are two awards for artists in the hugos, one for Pro Artist and one for Fan Artist. The line between these two categories seems to be blurring every day, with some publishers trolling the likes of DeviantArt to get their book covers and whatnot, but there are two categories, and so here we are. The voter's packet comes with sample works for most of the Pro Artists and only a few of the Fan Artists. This is a little strange, as I'm not sure how much to weight the packet works. In general, I tried to base my decisions on what was included in the packet, though I also tried to check out their websites.

For Pro Artist, 5 out of 6 nominees included stuff in the packet, so I'm mostly basing my decisions on that, though I did look at each website as well.
Ancillary Justice Cover by John Harris
  • John Harris - These were my favorite of the nominated works, very SF and focused on landscapes/spacescapes with spaceships and whatnot. All of Scalzi's Old Man's War books have Harris covers (and if I'm not mistaken, Scalzi likes to credit Harris as one reason why his books sell), and so is one of this year's nominees, Ancillary Justice (pictured above).
  • John Picacio - By far, the best presentation in the voter's packet, with clean versions of the art next to the actual book cover (with the title and other text, etc...) And the art is pretty good too. I was particularly taken with the piece entitled "La Luna".
  • Julie Dillon - These tend to be fantasy focused, and while some are bog standard examples of the stereotypical thing you'd picture a fantasy book as having, there are several that were much more inventive and striking.
  • Galen Dara - The voter's packet was inexplicably light for this artist, with only three entries, all of which were based on The Wizard of Oz. Left to only that, I may have ranked this lower, but there's some fantastic art at the website, so I guess that needs to be taken into account as well.
  • Fiona Staples - This is the only artist without anything in the packet. She is the artist on a comic book series called Saga. I've not read that, but I found a bunch of cover art, which tends to be what this is based on. Still, I can't help but think her lack of info in the packet is serving her poorly.
  • Daniel Dos Santos - Something about all of these rubbed me the wrong way. Very focused on human beings and actually kinda repetitive in their composition. Nothing really bad or anything, but I was more taken with some of the above.
For Fan Artist, only 3 had included works in the packet, and two of them only included 3 entries, which makes it hard to judge.
Sarah Webb artwork
  • Sarah Webb - A clear favorite here, with many fantastic, original works (9 of which are in the packet). Nothing derivative here, and indeed, each of these paintings sorta cries out for a story, which is all you can ask from an artist.
  • Mandie Manzano - Nothing in the packet, but from her website, it appears that she specializes in a sorta faux stained-glass style that actually works rather well.
  • Spring Schoenhuth - Another not included in the packet, and indeed, most of this work is actually not painting but sculpture or jewelry. They are distinctly SF in nature, though I get the impression that this sort of thing isn't normally nominated. From what I can see, these are mostly pretty good though.
  • Brad W. Foster - Only three pieces included in the packet, and two seem pretty standard stuff, but they're colorful and pleasant enough. The last one, though, is very playful and complex, if a bit rough around the edges (and it looks like it was stitched together weirdly).
  • Steve Stiles - My clear least favorite, and exactly what you fear when someone says "Fan Artist", though perhaps that's being too harsh.
So there you have it. Stay tuned for more Hugo blathering, but don't worry, only a few weeks left of this nonsense.
Posted by Mark on July 16, 2014 at 08:40 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Hugo Awards: Best Dramatic Presentations (Long Form and Doctor Who-Form)
So now we're getting into some of the more obscure awards categories, and these seem to be a true outlier, as they cover forms that are well covered outside the Hugos. There are some who don't see the point in these categories because of that, but given how little respect genre filmmaking tends to get, I'm not as gloomy. I love movies, so Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form tends to be a pretty easy one for me. Of course, the issue I have with the category this year is that my preferred #1 pick (Upstream Color) was not nominated (another reason I should have nominated this year)... In any case, here's my tentative ballot. In all honesty, once you get past #1, I could probably swap a lot around depending on how I feel at the time, but this is where I'm at for now:
  1. Gravity - Have spacesuit, will travel. Perhaps more for the technical, visual achievement than for the rather straightforward story and thematic elements, this nevertheless worked on me much more than the other nominees and is a clear #1 vote. Was in my top 10 from last year, and also won the coveted Kaedrin Most Visually Stunning award...
  2. Iron Man 3 - This is a movie that has grown in my estimation over time, and while I enjoyed it just fine on first viewing, I found the second viewing better for some reason. Not dramatically so, but Shane Black's script does give this a slight edge, and it helps that the Marvel movies tend to underline and reinforce other entries in the series. This was a "Just Missed the Cut" pick last year, but I think I might upgrade it to full blown honorable mention.
  3. Frozen - A movie I didn't actually see last year, but caught up with eventually because it became so popular. And I'm glad I did, as I'd rank it amongst the upper tier of recent-era Disney flicks (not including Pixar, of course). I don't think I'd put it above a good portion of their renaissance period stuff from the late 80s and early 90s, but it comports itself very well indeed, and I enjoyed it, even if it's not something that's really sticking with me...
  4. Pacific Rim - I'm really surprised that I have this as low as I do, because I was really high on this when I first saw it. And to be sure, it is still a big ball of fun, but catching it again as it airs on cable, I notice that I only really care about one particular monster battle (which, granted, is pretty great). That being said, this is one of the few movies where a sequel might actually excite me (and it's happening, so we'll see it again).
  5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - A fine movie, perhaps even an improvement over the first installment (in terms of filmmaking craft, at least) and Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful as always (as was Jena Malone and honestly, the casting is all rather great), but my problems with these movies relate more to the worldbuilding and setting of the story. In particular, I find the villainous totalitarian regime to be incompetent in the extreme, and the movies even stress that more than the books. I always feel weird in thinking that I would be a much better dictator than this President Snow moron, but here we are. So while many of the tactical elements of these movies are fine (which leads to a generally enjoyable viewing experience), it's the strategic background that I have a problem with. And because that background is always there, I can never really get past it...
Also conspicuously absent from this category is Her, another small indie film that perhaps didn't get seen by enough voters. Upstream Color was at least on Netflix Instant, so there's no excuse there. But then, I guess Hugo voters are predominantly literature-focused, which lends credence to the pointlessness of these awards. If you're not going to do the work of seeking out interesting stuff, this category doesn't make too much sense.

And now we come to the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, which is also basically known as the "Best Doctor Who episode of the year" award. Year in, year out, this award is dominated by Doctor Who episodes. They usually comprise 3-4 of the nominees, and one of those has won the award 6 out of 8 times. There are 6 nominees this year, and 4 are Doctor Who related (though two of those are more meta-Doctor Who stories than actual Doctor Who episodes). I also fully expect one of these episodes to win.

As someone on the relative outskirts of Doctor Who fandom, this was not a terribly exciting category. I definitely remember watching old-school Doctor Who on PBS when I was a youngin, but the only real episode that I remember was a Tom Baker one called State of Decay, and honestly, I haven't seen it in over 20 years. I have been very slowly working my way through the modern-era series (currently on Season 3), and I am seeing distinct improvements as time goes on (season 1 was a real slog though). So I think I generally had enough context to watch these episodes, even if there were some bits that I was clearly not getting... That being said, here's my tentative ballot:
  1. "Game of Thrones" The Rains of Castamere - It is so very rare that a series can pull off a surprise of such magnitude in the third season, especially when you consider that the show already had a reputation (to put it mildly). This was amongst the most shocking moments of television that I've ever witnessed, so I feel I have to acknowledge that in the voting. I don't know how the creators pulled this off (and while irrelevant to this particular episode, they continue to pull off such feats in season 4). I know this show is not for everyone, and heck, this shocking moment is ridiculously tragic and heinous, but it's so well executed that I find it difficult to recognize anything else.
  2. "Doctor Who" The Day of the Doctor - As I understand it, this feature-length episode (released in theaters, even) commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who had many potential pitfalls and could very well have been an utter failure. That it works reasonably well, even for underseasoned Who dorks like myself is a testament to how successful they were. I'm sure I was missing out on some things, but I found it to be an above-average Who episode, which was well done and had plenty of interesting ideas (and some nice cameos that I did pick up on). I fully expect this to take the award this year, even if it's not my favorite of the episodes.
  3. "Orphan Black" Variations Under Domestication - This is a show that I had planned to check out at some point, especially when it went on Amazon Prime Instant, but the Hugo nom is what got me to actually start the show. So far, so good, and I'll almost certainly continue to watch. I haven't been so sucked in as to full-bore binge it, but I've enjoyed the series to date. This is a good episode, though I don't really see what distinguishes this from the rest of the series, such that it deserves a nomination. As a whole, the series is fun, but seems a little too dependent on a amazing lead performance (several, actually) from Tatiana Maslany. There are worse things to be said, but grand conspiracy stories always give me pause.
  4. "Doctor Who" The Name of the Doctor - I will say, I felt like this episode was more problematic for underseasoned Who viewers like myself, though it wound up being a decent enough episode I guess. I really don't have much to say about it though. It's clearly not as good as "The Day of the Doctor", nor would I put it ahead of the other nominated shows... However, it is at least science fiction, which can't be said about the next two nominees.
  5. An Adventure in Space and Time - Not a Doctor Who episode, per say, but it's basically the dramatization of the making of the show during the time of the first Doctor. As such, it doesn't feel much like science fiction and is being ranked accordingly. That being said, it's reasonably well done and never bored me or anything like that...
  6. The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot - Also not a Doctor Who episode, this one is more like a sorta parody of the making of the 50th Anniversary. It stars the living actors who have played Doctor Who (but who were not really featured in the 50th Anniversary episode) as they try to find a way to be included, in some way. It's played for laughs, and is clearly taking the piss out of the likes of Steven Moffat, etc... but it's also not science fiction, and to me, a fair amount of the humor didn't really work so much. Again, I get the feeling that this is more for die hard fans of the series, so I'm certain I'm missing something, but as it shakes out, this one remains at the bottom of my ballot...
This category seems more problematic than the Long Form, if only because of the constant Doctor Who love. I don't really see any solution though, as nominating a whole season would be more of a "Long Form" accomplishment, but if you open it to individual episodes, you get multiples from the same show. I do wonder what else would be nominated if any given show was limited to a single episode (the mechanics of which would be a bit odd, but still). That might get a wider array of shows nominated, but then, what if Doctor Who legitimately had the two best episodes of SF television last year? There's no real solution, I guess, but I am glad I watched these, so there is that. We've got some other obscure categories to cover here, and some that I probably won't cover at all (looking at you, Editing categories!) I should complete Warbound soon, at which point I'll be mostly done with the fiction (I am actually reading the second Wheel of Time book, but so far, I see nothing that will change my feelings on the series). So stay tuned, more Hugo stuff is incoming...
Posted by Mark on July 13, 2014 at 12:07 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Hugo Awards: Best Fan Writer
This is a category about writers who publish non-professional work. This can appear in appear in a number of venues, but all of this year's nominees are actually bloggers (there is some consternation about some of these non-fiction categories, as they seem to maintain a lot of legacy publications, like "zines", which have generally moved onto the web these days. Not being that familiar with the history here, I'll refrain from commenting further, except to say that it seems like some reform might be wise at this point). The writer in question may actually be a professional, but the publication cannot be so. For example, John Scalzi (winner of last year's Hugo for Best Novel) won this award a few years ago for his blog.

Other than that, the criteria here is a bit on the vague side. From my perspective, the name of the award indicates that the author should be a fan of something. And since this is about Science Fiction and Fantasy, that fandom should probably relate to works in those fields. This does not preclude them from writing about other things, or from a particular perspective, but one of the things I found this category is that many authors are preoccupied with a single topic that has little to do with actual Science Fiction.

Of course, this notion of reviewing authors who review SF does feel a bit awkward. I am nominally a part of this field, though I'm nowhere near as talented as these authors. But then, I'm not a particularly good fiction author either, and I've got enough hubris to think my opinion matters there, so what the hey? Let's get to it. My ranking as it stands now:
  1. Abigail Nussbaum - She comes into this category with a bit of an unfair advantage, in that she's a blogger I already read regularly. This is because she's a fantastic critic. Even if I don't agree with her (and I frequently don't), her thoughts are always clearly articulated and well thought out. You can tell, because her posts are often almost comically long. Some might find that off-putting, but as someone who has a tendency to ramble, I can't find fault in that (and to be clear, I don't think she's rambling). Like all of the female nominees, Nussbaum will frequently comment on the depiction of women in SF/F, but unlike some of the other nominees, this is not always an overriding topic, but rather one amongst many layers of depth that she embeds in her reviews. There are times when it seems like she likes nothing or that she comes off rather strong, but that's the way of the critic. To me, she is a clear winner here, while the rest are all on relatively equal footing.
  2. Mark Oshiro - The idea here seems to be absurdly in-depth reviews of specific books (or TV shows). I get the impression that this would work extremely well if you were playing along and reading the same books, but if you're not, I don't think you'd want to read regularly. On the other hand, one of the posts included in the Hugo Voter's Packet was a review of the pilot episode of Pushing Daisies. I actually added season 1 to my Netflix queue (yes, I still get discs, wanna fight about it?) based on his enthusiasm. Of the nominees, only Oshiro and Nussbaum have managed to guide me in that way (i.e. as a fan), which is why they get the top slots). There's an awful lot of stuff at Oshiro's site though, and I did not have time to read through most of it, especially considering that I have not read a lot of the stuff he's covering. But when he is, I'm on board. This gives him a slight edge over the rest of the nominees.
  3. Liz Bourke - This is a blog for Tor that is specifically designated to look "at the successes and failures of media in terms of portraying women, touching on the history of women in the genre, and highlighting discussions about women and genre in the blogosphere." So the perspective here is pretty consistent, but strangely, it doesn't feel as dominant as the next two nominees. It could be that much of the work focuses on actual book reviews, which are generally well done (though not as detailed or multi-faceted as Nussbaum's work). Also, she seems to actually like the books she's reading, which could lead to the same sort of infectious enthusiasm as Oshiro.
  4. Kameron Hurley - Another blog that is seemingly devoted to the political feminism of the genre, I was a little turned off by the fact that none of the posts in the Voter's Packet were really about SF/F. There was one good post about My Little Pony fandom that I suppose would qualify, but it's not really about being a fan of that show so much as how female fans should feel about Bronies. It's an interesting and thought provoking post, and in poking around on her blog, I'm seeing some other interesting stuff as well. I would put this one about on par with the previous nominee and could probably swap the two...
  5. Foz Meadows - Yet another blog that is almost completely devoted to feminist rebuttals of misogyny in fandom. Unlike previous nominees, this one has a distinctly informal air, with stuff like Futurama memes and a tone that is filled with exasperated rage. In a lot of cases, this is a justified reaction, but it can also get repetitive. And this is another situation where I don't get the impression that Meadows doesn't actually like a lot of this stuff. That doesn't make her a bad writer or mean that her blog is worthless, but it does seem less about SF/F than the other nominees. It can be a fun read, but it's funny, it kinda reminds me of Larry Correia's blog in a lot of ways. They are, of course, complete political opposites, but that's kinda the point - they are both preaching to their respective choirs.
So there you have it. Stay tuned for the Best Dramatic Presentation (short and long form) ballots on Sunday.
Posted by Mark on July 09, 2014 at 11:42 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

Hugo Awards: Novellas
Another category that is dedicated to stories that are not long enough to be considered a "Novel", nor short enough to be a "Short Story" (or, as we must apparently consider in SF, a "Novelette"). As such, these tend to be quick reads, somewhere on the order of 2 hours each (give or take). This year's slate is an odd one. I find myself waffling on how I should rank my votes. This is also a category that makes me wish I submitted a nomination ballot, as I'd really love to be voting for Ian Sales' excellent novella The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, which would be near the top (if not the top) of my ballot. Alas, it was not to be. Here's where I'm at right now, though some of the middle votes may swap around a bit.
  1. "The Chaplain's Legacy" by Brad Torgerson (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013) - I did not realize when I started this that there was a previous story in this series ("The Chaplain's Assistent"), but fortunately, it does not seem necessary to have read the preceding work. The backstory here is that humanity was attacked by a technologically superior insectoid race of aliens called Mantes. Complete annihilation at the hands of the Mantes was forstalled almost by accident, as the Chaplain's Assistent befriended a mantis scholar who subsequently became intrigued with the human practice of religion and convinced his superiors that humanity should be spared so that they could study this curiosity (there is some hinting that the Mantes' biology is not very conducive to religion). As this story opens, a few years have passed and the Mantes are starting to get antsy again. It seems like the peace is about to collapse, so the Chaplain's Assistant is called on again to help preserve the peace. Hijinks ensue. Ranking this at #1 might be a bit on the controversial side, and I can pretty much guarantee that it won't win, but it is the story that I connected with the most. This is one of the works nominated via Larry Correia's "Sad Puppy" slate, which is apparently strike 1 for a large portion of readers. It's military SF (strike 2) and Torgerson's style tends to lean towards the functional, prosaic prose of yore (strike 3). Of course, given where I'm ranking this, you will realize that these issues either don't matter too much to me. Of Torgerson's two nominated stories (the other being "The Exchange Officers" on the Novelette ballot), this is clearly superior, both in terms of basic prose style and in terms of SFnal ideas. That being said, the story is a bit on the talky side (at least, in the middle, when things aren't explodey) and I can see why some would chafe at the way some of these ideas are presented. That being said, it has some interesting things to say about faith, about disbelievers, and about over-reliance on technology. Ironically, many of the core themes (which are admittedly stated a little too baldly in the text) are about tolerance or openness, such as:
    Just because I don't necessarily believe in any of it doesn't mean I have to doubt or deride its value for other people.
    Disbelieving and being openly scornful of belief are not the same thing.
    Now, there are many who will read that, and jump down Torgerson's throat because he's on the Sad Puppy slate and that somehow means he's a privileged, bigoted maniac, but as a general idea, it's something worth taking to heart. I get that there are many who have suffered at the hands of religion and I might not portray this type of story exactly the way he did, but then, why would I? He made me think about those ideas, whether I agree with him on some of the specifics or not. I enjoyed this story and found it more thought provoking than the others. However, I can see why other stories would hold more value to the portion of fandom that got these other stories nominated. But then, I would say that, given the above!
  2. "Equoid" by Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013) - This is part of Stross' Laundry series of stories, though again, it appears to be mostly stand-alone. The series seems to be a humorous, bureaucratic take on the Lovecraft mythos. The "Laundry" is the codename(?) of a governmental secret agency that deals with Lovcraftean horrors, and in this case, our hapless paperwork jockey hero Bob Howard is tasked with investigating a potential Unicorn outbreak. Oh, and unicorns are not the fluffy, majestic beings you might be thinking of, but rather disgusting and gross and potentially cataclysmic. I have been aware of this series for a while and always wanted to check them out, but Stross has always been hit or miss for me, so I'm glad I started with a shorter tale before going all-in on the novels. For the most part, I enjoyed this story, even if Stross' dark humor doesn't quite jive with me all the time. He does a nice Lovecraft impression when needed (portions of this novella consist of a letter supposedly penned by Lovecraft himself, which gives Stross the task of aping Lovecraft), and the goofy bureaucracy that combats all this stuff is well realized. The reversal of expectations surrounding unicorns is a lot of fun, and while I'm sure Stross veers a bit too far into gross-out territory for some, horror dorks like myself are desensitized to such shenanigans (though the comic tone helps). I can't say as though I'm inspired to seek out the rest of the stories, which I guess says something, but I'm glad I did manage to dip my toes into this universe.
  3. Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press) - Here we have a retelling of the Snow White story, this time set (as the title suggests) in the old American West. Valente apparently looked at the original Grimm tale and decided that it was not nearly dark enough. Considering that the original story ends with the wicked stepmother being forced to dance herself to death while wearing glowing-hot iron shoes, that's saying something. Snow White is abused rather heavily throughout the story, first through a neglectful father, then through the wicked stepmother. She eventually runs away (a key difference from the original story), and seeks some semblance of peace with Valente's version of the 7 dwarfs (which are really just 7 other spurned and abused women who had banded together in the woods...) Some of these updates work well: Making Snow White a badass gunfighter is fantastic, and I like the take on the huntsman (their encounter is very different from the original story, and the highlight of this novella for me, as after this encounter, I feel like the story sorta falls apart). Other changes are perhaps less successful, and the pacing, especially in the middle of the novella, can be challenging. The ending does manage to go to an unexpected place, but I found that the story had basically lost me by that point. It is perhaps unfair to judge this based on the original work, but like all remakes, it begs that question. It also made me want to go back and read Neil Gaiman's short story Snow, Glass, Apples, which I found to be a much more interesting and successful subversion of the original tale. That being said, I fully expect this to win the award.
  4. The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (Privateer Press) - Media tie-in fiction holds a weird place in fandom. On the one hand, I feel like most readers cut their teeth on stuff like this (for me, it was Zahn's Thrawn trilogy), and they seem to sell like hotcakes, but they never seem to garner any real respect. This is another "Sad Puppy" nomination, so I'm afraid it won't change that trend. Also, it's not that great. Wells does his best, and I can see talent here, but some of the basics just don't work for me here. The quasi-steampunk setting is one that holds little interest to me, and this is clearly aimed at folks who are fans of Warhammer. I wasn't super confused or anything, so it kinda worked as a stand-alone, but it really felt like it was providing a backstory to an existing character. That might be fine, but this character seemed like a villain, and his motivation (quasi-avenging his murdered love) is a pretty overplayed trope. I don't know if Wells was handcuffed by that or if he had the freedom to come up with what he wanted and chose this anyway, but in either case, it wasn't something that worked that well for me. Wells tried his best to make it interesting, with a complicated non-linear narrative and plenty of action, but it all fell rather flat for me. I would be very curious to see if a media tie-in work could ever be nominated and win, but this is clearly not the story to break that ground.
  5. "Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Tor.com, 10-2013) - Here's the thing: this isn't science fiction. It's not even fantasy (except insofar as all fiction is fantasy). We could quibble about a few things. It has references to Tarzan and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but those are barely even window-dressing. There are two sentences close to the end of the story, but neither are very important. What we really have here is a series of slice-of-life vignettes told in a literary historical fiction style. As those things go, it's good, maybe even fantastic, but it's baffling to me that this has been nominated for a Hugo. I read the whole thing, but it's pretty emphatically not what I'm looking for out of SF/F. I get that there are some folks who think this is pushing boundaries and growing the genre or something, but I don't see it at all. I don't mind reading outside my comfort zone, and I'm glad I read this, but I have a really hard time trying to consider this a genre story. I've always said that genres are blurry around the edges, but there needs to be some semblance of the core of a genre, and this one is so far from the outskirts that calling it SF/F would be to call most any story SF/F.
Of the situations where I would consider deploying No Award (and/or leaving a work off the ballot), Wakulla Springs might take the cake. But then, judging from the other folks playing along, I'm way more hesitant to use No Award than anyone else.
Posted by Mark on July 06, 2014 at 07:37 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Link Dump: Hugo Award Fellow Travelers
It turns out that I'm not the only one playing along with this year's Hugo Awards, and since I know none of you are sick of the subject (right? RIGHT!?), I figured you'd want to see what other people think. Where possible, I'm linking to a relevant category on their blog, because some of these folks are prolific and write about many other things... So there you have it. This is by no means a comprehensive list, just one that I quickly put together using my Google powers. If I find more, I may update this list, just because. I have not made much progress on the Novellas, so I'm not sure if I'll be finished by Sunday. But don't worry, I'm sure I'll be able to comment on some other category if needed.

Update: It seems that CiaraCat had already undertaken to find blogs covering 2014 Hugos, and so I've added a few links to the above (I think our lists are now aligned somewhat)...

Again Update: Moar additions! Thanks to Reading SFF for three of them, and I found another that seems to have ambitious plans, but has not posted much yet...
Posted by Mark on July 02, 2014 at 11:30 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hugo Awards: Spellbound
Spellbound is the second book in Larry Correia's Grimnoir Chronicles. The third books, Warbound, is nominated for this year's Hugo ballot, so being the completist that I am, I figured I should read these first two books. I enjoyed the first book, Hard Magic, enough that I'm not finding this to be a chore, though I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have been inspired to proceed through these sequels if it weren't for the third one being nominated this year.

After an introduction set at the close of WWI, this book picks up where Hard Magic left off, with the Japanese Imperium having suffered a defeat at the hands of newfound Grimnoir knight Sally Faye Vierra, with assists from Jake Sullivan, and a diverse crew of magical "actives." The American government, led by FDR, is trying to align around how to handle actives, possibly leading to registration and reeducation camps and other such dystopian nightmares (which, as established in the previous book, is how the Soviets and Japanese Imperium are handling the Actives). A sudden uptick in terrorist attacks seems to be driving this strategy, and the Grimnoir are being set up. Even more troubling is that Okubo Tokugawa - the fearsome chairman of the Imperium who was thought dead after the Grimnoir victory at the end of Hard Magic - appears to be alive and well. Oh, and the alien being that everyone derives their magical powers from? It has an Enemy, and the Enemy's scout, called the Pathfinder, is on its way.

So there's a lot going on in this book, and it very much reads as a sorta middle part of a trilogy to me. Hard Magic set up the world and the magic system, but basically told a self-contained story. This book introduces several elements that are unresolved at the end of the book, though it doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger either. Again, this seems to be a common thread amongst trilogies, so who knows where it's going from here. In that way, the plot is a bit more flabby than it was in Hard Magic (which wasn't exactly tight either), but I'm also reasonably confident that Correia will manage to tie things together in the third book.

As I mentioned in my review of Hard Magic, one of the challenges that any book with magic faces is this sort of escalation of power that is needed to continually up the stakes in the story. This worked well enough in Hard Magic, but it did get a bit excessive towards the end of that book. As such, I was a little worried that this book would just keep escalating, but Correia has shown an admirable restraint. What's more, he even manages to explain how and why the escalation of power happened in the first book, and he does so in a way that is natural and satisfying. It's clear that Correia had thought all this through and let that guide the first book without actually explicitly laying out why, for example, Faye has seemingly endless reserves of power. Indeed, after her heroics at the end of Hard Magic, she spends a good portion of this book significantly weaker in power.

I didn't spend any time going over details of the magical system in the previous review, but it's worth discussion a bit here because it does naturally lend itself to the story. Each Active has the ability to pull magical power from an alien being, but they are generally limited to a single ability. So Jake Sullivan has the power to manipulate gravity (increasing, decreasing, or shifting the direction of gravity) and he's referred to as a "Heavy." Faye is a Traveler, and she has the ability to teleport herself and others (she also has the ability to map out the world in her head, so she can avoid teleporting into other objects, etc...) There are Healers, Cogs (who have supernatural intelligence), Brutes (guess!), Voices (they can do Jedi mind trick manipulations), and so on. The Power seems to be in another plane of existence, and its comprised of all sorts of fancy geometric shapes. If you can see the Power, as some folks can (like Sullivan or Chairman Tokugawa), you can copy some of those geometric shapes and leverage the magic those areas represent. These shapes are kinda like spells, and if you carve them onto yourself, you can gain new powers (for example, many have Healing spells on their body). Of course, it's a painful process and one person can only take so many spells...

So this is all well thought out and reasonably well balanced. There are still some situations where the magical powers escalate, but Correia is pretty good at keeping it all grounded and reasonably well balanced. There are powerful villains, and you will fear for our protagonists, but Correia is able to come up with solutions that are reasonably satisfying.

The expansion of story threads has also lead to an expansion of characters. We still have our core Grimnoir Knights from the first book, lead by Sullivan and Faye, but we also get another cell of Grimnoir, some more of the Grimnoir elders, a whole group of villains at the OCI (a government organization that is being set up to take control of U.S. actives), a woman named Hammer (sorta freelance), and even an Iron Guard from the Imperium. For the most part, I was very happy to return to the characters from the first book, and that's usually a good sign. The structure of the magical powers sorta lends itself to a large ensemble, kinda like the X-Men, so it's good to know and like many of these characters.

Ultimately, this was a fine sequel, even if it felt like it was setting up a lot of things that wouldn't be resolved in this book. Correia can spin a good yarn, but I'm find it to be a little too loose. This is probably a matter of preference, and I'm sure there are many who love these characters so much that they want to spend as much time as possible hanging out with them, but I find that these books don't necessarily need to be as long as they are. So what we have here is a well executed sequel, and I am looking forward to seeing how some of these threads are resolved in Warbound, which I am starting this week. Given what I've read so far, I can't really see Warbound taking one of my top two votes, but it's got a pretty darn good chance at snagging that #3 slot in my Best Novel ballot.

In other news, I've knocked down 3 out of 5 Novellas and am hoping to finish that category off this week. After that, I've got to finish Warbound, and then I'm done with the fiction categories. I'm looking at a few of the other categories (Dramatic Presentation, Fan Writer, Zines, etc...) though there are definitely a few categories I don't think I'll be voting on (how does one vote for the "Editor" categories?) So yeah, I hope you're enjoying these Hugo posts, because we've got several more to go!

(Oh, I almost forgot: Obligatory note of all the controversy surrounding the nomination of Correia's book. I've already (briefly) discussed it elsewhere, but for now I'm concentrated on actually reading the books and stuff. I may get around to doing something in more detail about it, but then, I may not, because who cares about that sorta Inside Baseball crap when I could be reading about how Faye is going to kick the crap out of this Enemy Pathfinder thing we keep hearing about?)
Posted by Mark on June 29, 2014 at 08:16 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hugo Awards: The No Award Conundrum
Since I know you're all curious about the voting system for the Hugo Awards, I thought I'd spend some time babbling about it, just for your edification. Believe it or not, voting systems have a lot of interesting pitfalls, not the least of which is that there isn't a particularly great solution to discerning the preference of a large community of individuals. Every system has its flaws, even something as simple as Plurality voting (i.e. the choice with the most votes wins).

Fortunately for you, I'm not going to babble on about this too much (and you don't want to get me started on the Electoral College, our misunderstood friend), I'll just note that the Hugo Awards uses an Instant Runoff System. In other words, I don't just vote for my favorite novel, I rank all the nominated novels in order of my personal preference. When it comes time to vote, unless there is a clear majority favorite, most winners can't win based solely on the voters who ranked the winner #1. There is an additional wrinkle in that there is an option available in every category called "No Award", which means that you think that no one should be awarded for that category (or that the category should be abolished). There are some finer points to the voting process, and this has already been discussed to death in other venues so I won't belabor the point.

Add in a particularly controversial ballot this year, and I think the voting process is going to play a particularly big role, especially when it comes to the Best Novel ballot. When the awards were announced this year and the entire The Wheel of Time series was nominated for Best Novel, there were a number of people who seemed to think that it was a shoe in to win the award. Given the Hugo Award's populist nature and just how popular The Wheel of Time series is (despite it's length, it's got more readers by at least an order of magnitude), that's probably a fair supposition... except that I think Instant Runoff Voting will squash any hopes that it will win.

While I assume the dedicated fans of the series would vote for it in the #1 position, I suspect few will rank it at #2 or below... and many have already expressed the notion of voting for it below No Award (or, as the link above notes, not include it on the ballot at all). Some will do this because they actually hate the books, but many will be doing this as a sorta protest of the obscure rule that allows multiple books to be nominated as one.

Personally, while I recognize the need for the No Award option (and the ability to leave options off the ballot), I'm also hesitant to deploy it except in extreme circumstances. The No Award option makes me a little uncomfortable. I mean, I am voting, so I'm obviously considering my opinion to be worthwhile, but on the other hand, the No Award option feels sorta petty, except in extreme circumstances. I'm even a little on the fence about the Wheel of Time situation, though I think I'm leaning towards ranking No Award above it because it is ridiculous to nominate a 14 book, 11,000 page, 4.4 million word work for a best novel award. The only other situation I'd consider deploying No Award is when a nominee is not at all Science Fiction or Fantasy. Given the fuzzy nature of genres, it would also have to be an extreme case, but in this year's Novella category, we have a great example: I'm sorry Wakula Springs, but there is nothing even remotely science fiction or fantasy about this story (except insofar as all fiction is a fantasy, I guess). We could quibble about a couple lines in the story, but this is ultimately historical fiction or maybe literary fiction. It's a fine story, but I have no idea what it's doing on the Hugo ballot, except that it was published by Tor (a genre imprint).

So there you have it. I'm still pondering, and obviously I'm not done reading all the stuff, so maybe I'll turn around on the No Award option in some other categories. I'll be sure to post my final ballot once I submit it (probably towards the end of July, which is when the deadline is...)
Posted by Mark on June 25, 2014 at 09:10 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Hugo Awards: Novelettes
As far as I can tell, Science Fiction is the only genre that continues to use Novelettes as a category. For the uninitiated, the Hugo Awards defines a Short Story as less than 7,500 words. A Novelette is between 7,500 words and 17,500 words. A novella is between 17,500 and 40,000 words, and a novel is more than 40,000 words. Everyone else says there are short stories and Novels, with the Novella being anything inbetween (and many awards only feature short fiction and novels, with no space for novellas). Science Fiction, on the other hand, clings to the Novelette. Legend has it that this is a legacy of SF's pulpy magazine roots, where different sized works had different pay scales, which I guess makes sense, but it's otherwise a pretty pointless distinction. That being said, I was much more happy with this year's slate of Novelettes than I was with the Short Stories... There were 5 nominees, and it only took a couple hours to read all of them (on average, somewhere between 30-60 minutes per story), and if you're looking for some quality short fiction, this is a decent place to start. My rankings for the Hugo Voting.
  1. "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", by Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013) - Anyone who's looked at SF short fiction awards will be bound to recognize Ted Chiang's name. Indeed, even I'd heard of him, and I don't read much short fiction. This was the first time I read Chiang, and I am suitably impressed. The story takes the form of a relatively near future article, with our narrator describing how the world's life-logging is about to get even more complicated by the emergence of better search and analysis software. Basically, this is a world where most people record most every action in their life logs. This proves useful in a number of ways, notably in court cases, but since so much data is collected, it can be difficult and time consuming to find a specific memory. Along comes this new software that promises easy recall. Our narrator is unsure of whether or not this will be a good thing. This future tale is juxtaposed against a missionary in Africa (Tivland), who introduces the written word to a tribe that relies solely on Oral Tradition. Of all the things I've read so far, this one seems to be the most relevant and prescient in that it's something we're going to deal with at some point. Those of you who are uncomfortable with something like Google Glass may be quite skeeved out by this story, especially insofar as Chiang is very clearly evangelizing this sort of technological change as a good thing. That is ultimately this story's biggest fault (if you would count it as such), because while Chiang pays lip service to the challenges of such technology, he comes down very clearly on one side, and the entire story hinges on the narrator's discovery of one particular memory and the revelation that imparts. It makes for a fine story, but it also feels rather contrived and manipulative. On the other hand, this is a very thought provoking and well written exploration of a topic that will only grow more important over time... A clear #1 vote here.
  2. "The Exchange Officers", Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013) - (Sorry, not available online...) This is a well executed, entertaining, but pretty standard military SF story. The US is competing with China in space, and have devised a complex system of space stations built by robot proxies that are controlled by Operators back on Earth. The story alternates between the introduction and training of the titular "Exchange Officers" and a Chinese attack on an uncompleted space station. Torgersen manages to cover a lot of ground while keeping the story moving, and it's the most entertaining and fun of all the Novelettes for sure. That being said, this is a soft #2 that I could easily swap with #3 below. It will probably depend on my mood at the time of voting...
  3. "The Lady Astronaut of Mars", Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com/Tor.com, 09-2013) - Apparently there was a bit of controversy about this story during last year's awards because it was disqualified for only being available as Audio in 2012. Well, the text of the story was published in 2013, and voters decided to make things right by renominating Kowal's excellent story. It basically tells the story of the titular Lady Astronaut, many years after she helped colonize Mars. At the core of the story is a heartbreaking dilemma that I don't want to go into during this short review. Suffice to say, our protagonist has to make a painful decision. It's an emotional, human decision and not some sort of SF puzzle or anything like that. So the resolution isn't quite satisfying, but when all of your choices are horrible, how could it be? And given the circumstances, it's about as good as it could get. The story is well written and has a sorta retro feel to it (lots of references to punch cards, which made me chuckle), but it's that central dilemma that really weighs on my mind and makes this story something worth recognizing.
  4. "The Waiting Stars", Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam) - This is a rather interesting far-future Space Opera type of tale that really made me think that there must be more to this universe (and apparently, there are other stories and books set in this universe). Unfortunately, as a standalone story, it doesn't quite work as well as the above stories. That being said, I did enjoy it, and it does have some interesting components, but I kept wishing the story would go into more detail. It was never boring and it wasn't so obtuse that I couldn't read it or anything, and I did enjoy it, but it never really struck a chord with me...
  5. "Opera Vita Aeterna", Vox Day (The Last Witchking, Marcher Lord Hinterlands) - Given all the vitriol surrounding Vox Day, I was not terribly excited to read this novel. It turns out that while this is clearly not a sexist/racist/homophobic diatribe, it's also not all that great. It was never really boring either, but it's a story where very little happens. It's set in a sorta Fantasy world and leverages many of those tropes, but all that happens is that an Elf hangs out at a Monastery and befriends a priest. They talk philosophy and use Latin and stuff, and then everyone dies. Spoiler, I guess, but there's not really enough here to spoil. Again, the prose itself is fine and I didn't mind reading it, but when it ends, I was left wondering why I should really care. I don't see any reason to vote No Award above this or anything so drastic, but there's no way this is going to win, and it is clearly my least favorite of the bunch.
From what I've seen, I'd put even odds on the Chiang or Kowal to win. I don't think anyone else has a realistic chance, though I think 4 out of the 5 stories are well worth reading and I wouldn't be upset if any of them won... I may keep the Torgersen at #2 simply because he's an underdog, and there are some folks who will be gunning for him because he was on Correia's "Sad Puppies" slate. I find that unfair and since I did enjoy the story, I'll probably keep it there.

I just finished the second Grimnoir book and am starting on the third (i.e. the actual nominee) this week. I've also started the Novella slate, and should be finishing that off soon enough. If I have time, I will try to tackle the second Wheel of Time book as well. The voting deadline for the Hugos is the end of July, so you will only have to deal with these Hugo posts for about another month or so...
Posted by Mark on June 22, 2014 at 01:37 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Hugo Awards: Short Stories
I have never been a huge fan of short stories. I think the biggest part of that is that I tend to read them in collections of short fiction, which tend to be, by their very nature, uneven. Like anthology films, it's hard for me to take in a bunch of short stories at once, and I usually find myself exhausted by the inconsistency. There are some exceptions, I guess. I've always been a fan of I, Robot, but those stories have a consistent style and throughline that is usually missing in short fiction. I have a fondness for Clive Barker's Books of Blood series of horrific short stories and they are some of the most imaginative writing around, but even those tend to be very uneven (and I suspect many would more readily be classified as a Novelette or Novella). Of course most short fiction is published in magazines (or websites these days) first, and are never meant to be collected together, but I still tend to struggle with them.

I have read occasional short stories here and there on the interwebs, but I've rarely strayed from known authors... which is odd, because you'd think that short stories would be a good way to experiment and try new things without making too much of a commitment to any one story. And while I've struggled with short stories in the past, I've also been getting a little tired of stories that are much longer than they need to be, so maybe it's time for a sea change. So it's a good thing there are a bunch of short fiction categories in the Hugo awards, eh? Well, if the Short Story slate is any indication... I'm not going to get back into short stories after all. This is not a statement of quality, just of my personal taste - these are all well written stories, they're just depressing as all get out, none seem to have much of a plot, and none of them really scratch my speculative fiction itch (indeed, most of them would probably fit more under Fantasy than SF, but even amongst Fantasy, these are a challenging bunch). That being said, I read them all, and will rank them as best I can. There are only 4 nominees (the Hugo rules say that a work cannot be nominated unless it has at least 5% of the votes, and the short story ballot tends to be the most contentious - last year there were only 3 nominees!) and they are all available for free online, but like I said, these weren't really my cup of tea.
  1. The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere, by John Chu - Tor.com, Feb. 20, 2013 - The story starts with this: "The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure." It's a rather silly premise, but Chu has used it as the backdrop for a more traditional love story, where a gay man navigates the marriage question with his love and struggles to find a way to "come out" to his traditional Chinese family. Indeed, of the short stories, this is the only one that has something really resembling a plot, with a whole narrative arc and everything. And while the "coming out" story isn't a particularly pleasant one, Chu doesn't wallow in misery the way some of the other stories do (the mother's reaction is actually really brilliant, and made me laugh out loud - she's a clever one). Also, while the premise is kinda silly, Chu does engage with it in a speculative way, making this the most SF of the stories. For instance, because people can't lie without water falling on them from nowhere, they've gotten really good at wording things like a weasel or phrasing declarations as a question, and so on. I am curious about this world's water-drying technology, or perhaps their mold-fighting capabilities (neither of which get much play), but that's just because I'm a nerd. Naturally, that doesn't really matter much when placed against the emotional elements of the story, and I will say that I enjoyed this one the most.
  2. Selkie Stories Are for Losers, by Sofia Samatar - Strange Horizons, Jan. 7, 2013 - So I had no idea what a Selkie was before reading this story, but now that I do, I agree with the narrator when she laments:
    I hate selkie stories. They're always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said "What's this?", and you never saw your mom again.
    Alright, I will say that I didn't hate this story, but seeing as though it plays out in a series of vignettes and relies on that sort of structure for its impact, I was a little unsatisfied at the end of the story. I like the obscure choice of folklore, though I can't say as though I would like Selkie stories very much. That being said, I did enjoy reading this tale of resentment, beauty, love, and loss, and the structure works on me, but it just wasn't as cohesive as Chu's above story.
  3. The Ink Readers of Doi Saket, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt - Tor.com, April 24, 2013 - This is the most evocative of all the stories... but also the least cohesive. I don't think there is really much of a plot, but when you add in the fact that this is a story written in Dutch, translated into English, and set in Thailand, I think you can see why the story doesn't quite flow so well. That said, the setting and fantastical elements of the story are wonderfully evocative. I just wish there was something more to hang that on, as I really have no idea what this story is actually about...
  4. If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, by Rachel Swirsky - Apex Magazine, March 5, 2013 - This is the shortest of the nominees, and yet it does accomplish a ton in that short time, even incorporating a dark twist that completely changes the tone about 3/4 of the way through the story. Perhaps because it is so short, I felt that the twist was more manipulative than anything else, like I could see Swirsky trying to pull the rug out from under me. I guess that's a matter of debate, a lot of folks seem to think of it as being powerful and intense, and I can see that, even if it didn't strike me that way. The other challenge with this story is that there's nothing really SF or F about it. There's an offhand reference to that hoary old Jurassic Park premise of cloning dinosaurs, but that's really it. Given that we're trying to judge the best SF/F stories, that doesn't bode well here (and from what I can see, even those who love this story seem to acknowledge this). What's more, this doesn't feel like a story to me in any way. Indeed, with it's almost formal cadence and repetitive sentence structure, it feels a whole lot more like Poetry than straight fiction. If there was a SF/F poetry category, I'd be a lot happier with this one. As it is, I was left a little underwhelmed.
Not having read much in the way of other short stories this year, I can't say as though these are very representative or not, nor can I say that we should not give the award to any of these (I think I understand how the No Award vote works, but I should clarify that at some point), but I was not very happy with them. Man, I feel like a real miser with these short stories. I am the worst. Fortunately, I'm almost done the Novelettes and I'll just say that I find myself much more enthusiastic about them than I am with these.
Posted by Mark on June 15, 2014 at 08:03 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, June 08, 2014

Hugo Awards: Hard Magic
One of the challenges of an award like the Hugo is how to handle sequels. One of the nominees this year is Warbound, by Larry Correia... but it's the third in a series of books. Do I need to read the first two books in the series in order to give the third a fair shake, or are all bets off when an individual entry gets nominated? Being something of a completist when it comes to questions like this, I decided to start from the beginning. As luck would have it, Hard Magic (the first book in the series) is a fine book, and I've already begun the second book too. It does seem like these books are relatively self-contained though, which is good (I'm still glad I started from the beginning, but I'm guessing you wouldn't have to...)

This series, called the Grimnoir Chronicles, takes place in an alternate history version of the 1930s. It's a universe where magic started appearing in the mid-nineteenth century, and has slowly but surely become more common. Many differing attitudes about "actives" (folks with magical power) exist, from the Japanese Imperium (who kidnap active children and train them in scary "schools") to the German war machine (who leveraged an active to raise zombie armies) to the Americans, who seem to sway back and forth in their democratic ways (this seems to be something that will be tackled in later books, but is introduced here). Jake Sullivan is an active, a war hero and ex-con working for the government. He quickly runs afoul of a secret society called the Grimnoir, actives who seek to ensure that magical powers are used only for good (or something like that), and a plot by the Imperium to assemble a super-science doomsday weapon. Will Sullivan and his plucky allies fend off the dreaded Imperium?

This books is attempting an interesting balancing act, mashing up many different sub-genres, including urban fantasy, pulpy noir, gritty action, and even a bit of steampunk for flair (really just a bunch of dirigibles, but hey, that's steampunky, right?) For the most part, Correia makes this mixture work, which is impressive - this combination of elements was far from a sure thing, but he manages. The only thing I was hoping for that I didn't get much of is some fantastic noir turns of phrase, but then, it's hard to hold something like this up to the standards set by folks like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler (but then, the setting does sorta beg the comparison).

One of the things I find frustrating with fantasy stories is the way magic is handled. All too often, the magic is described in such vague ways and with few limits, leading to an escalation of powers that can get tedious and strain credibility. Correia manages to design a system with some limits and logical extensions, and he does treat the subject consistently, but there is still that escalation of magical powers that gets difficult to swallow. It never gets too ridiculous, and the limitations of the system are clear and well balanced, but it's still magic, so it can also, at times, get to be a bit much. I do wonder how well Correia will be able to swing this in future books, though I guess I'll find out soon enough.

The characters are, for the most part, a compelling bunch. Sullivan makes for a good hero, a huge physical presence who is nevertheless deceptively clever, we discover much about the magical system through his eyes. His gang of allies also has some bright spots, in particular Faye, a young teleporter who has seemingly endless reserves of magical power and a fast thinking mind. This being alternate history, we're also treated to some historical figures like General John "Black Jack" Pershing and John Browning (this works, but I'll also say that Neal Stephenson did it better in Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle). As villains go, the Chairman of the Imperium is imposing and while his powers are seemingly infinite (there's that escalation of magical power I was talking about), Correia comes up with a believable way to "defeat" him (spoiler, I guess!) Sullivan's brother Madi is also a formidable foe (and again, we get some escalation of powers to make him so).

What you end up with is a well executed mashup that is a very fun read. Correia can spin a good yarn, and while I will say that this isn't something I'd have sought out on my own, I'm glad I read it and will have no problem getting through the next two books. I found this one a tad on the long side, but again, I had no major problems getting through it, and it was a lot of fun. Since this isn't actually one of the nominees this year, I shouldn't really be ranking it, but it feels like something that would come in towards the middle of the pack. Assuming there's not a drastic uptick in quality or something in the nominated work, I can't see it unseating my top two votes (which remain Ancillary Justice or Neptune's Brood). Again, this is blatant speculation, but I could see Warbound coming in third (ahead of Parasite and The Wheel of Time). I'm currently reading Spellbound (the second book in this series) and have started reading the other fiction categories (look for a recap of the short story ballot next week).

(Incidentally, I've left out all the controversy surrounding the nomination of Correia's book. I've already discussed it elsewhere, and will probably bring it up again at some point, but for now, I'm concentrated on actually reading the books...)
Posted by Mark on June 08, 2014 at 08:43 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, June 01, 2014

Hugo Awards: Parasite
One of the complaints frequently leveled against the Hugo awards is that the same folks tend to get nominated every year. This makes a certain sort of sense, since the Hugo is a populist award, and a lot of authors tend to put out novels at a roughly once-a-year pace. There is a bit of truth to this, but on the other hand, there are folks who seem to break into this process fairly often. Mira Grant (a pen name of Seanan McGuire) has somewhat recently established herself as an annual resident on the Best Novel ballot, securing nominations for each of the last 4 years (not to mention several nominations in other categories, like novella or novelette, etc...) Alas, the Mira Grant style seems to encompass a zombie sub-genre, with 3 of the last 4 nominations being part of one series of zombie books. This novel, Parasite, is the first in a new series, and while it starts out as a sort a medical thriller, it is basically a zombie story as well.

The story takes place in the near future, about a decade out from now, when genetically modified tapeworms have become a sorta universal healthcare solution. Like any good capitalist solution, there's a planned obsolescence and replacement regime, but the tapeworm also provides a very reliable means of regulating the human body, even going so far as to administer various medications at the appropriate intervals, and other such conveniences. Our protagonist, Sally "Sal" Mitchell, was in a car accident and while initially thought to be brain-dead, she manages to come back with the help of her "Intestinal Bodyguard" (the innocuous name Symbogen has given to this seemingly helpful tapeworm). She has no memory before the accident, and has to relearn basic social skills and knowledge, living a life of a lab rat mixed with socially awkward teen (as the story opens, she's basically 6 years old, though she has the body of an early twenties woman). Of course, all is not what it seems, and we quickly see a series of sleepwalkers that are becoming more and more violent (and frequent) over time.

For the most part, I can see why these Mira Grant novels are so popular. I am pretty emphatically not a zombie story fan, but this novel worked well enough for me. It helps that there is a rational scientific explanation for the zombification process, but on the other hand, many of the supposed revelations in this novel are not all that surprising. I hate to be that guy, you know the one, who claims they predicted the final twist early on in the novel, but this isn't a claim of superiority. I suspect most, if not all, readers would come to the same conclusions much sooner than our hapless protagonists. The ending, in particular, is unsatisfying, settling on a cheap reveal (which, again, is entirely predictable) and sequel setup, rather than an actual resolution. I would assume that Mira Grant's fans are eating this stuff up and eagerly awaiting the next book in the series, but as an awards nominee, it feels rather incomplete.

It is certainly a page turner, which is an accomplishment in itself. The characters are, for the most part, personable and relatable. Sal is a fine protagonist, though because we get the grand majority of the story from her perspective, we perhaps get a bit too much in the way of uncertainty and anxiety. Add in the predictable plot twists (which Sal somehow does not see coming), and you've got a character who is sympathetic, but not all that bright. Her family has some typical hesitations when it comes to her condition, but for the most part, they're fine (until they take a harsh turn later in the book, where Grant relies on miscommunication as a plot device, which always frustrates me). Sal also has pretty much the greatest boyfriend in the history of the planet, fictional or non-fictional. He shows some frustration from time to time, but even those instances are somewhat restrained. Other side character range from the very colorful (the sprightly Tansy) to obviously devious (CEO Dr. Banks).

In the end, this takes the form of a slick medical thriller, with some SF tropes sprinkled in for fun. Again, I Can see why this sort of thing is popular with the Hugo voters, and it is a very easy going read. On the other hand, it is a bit predictable and its ending leaves a bit to be desired. There's a forthcoming volume that is supposed to finish off the story, but I find it hard to judge this book in that it's so clearly not finished. Given recent history, I guess we can expect the next book to be nominated as well, but for now, this is not a book that will unseat Ancillary Justice or Neptune's Brood from the top of my Best Novel voting.
Posted by Mark on June 01, 2014 at 06:55 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hugo Awards: Neptune's Brood
I didn't need to get very far into the Hugo-nominated Neptune's Brood to come to an initial conclusion that author Charles Stross doesn't like money very much (and the same goes for its corollaries, debt and capitalism). I'm only really calling this out because much has been made during this Hugo season about how SF should or shouldn't be political, how some authors stress ideology over storytelling, and the like. Personally, I think it a little foolish to prescribe what a piece of fiction can and can't do, and this book is probably a good example. I do not take anywhere near the dim view of money, debt, or capitalism that Charlie Stross apparently does, and yet I greatly enjoyed this book. Why? Because Stross thoroughly explored the universe he created, and any questions you might have about the economic conundrums that he devises are answered, and he did it while telling a fun space opera story. Indeed, the ideas of this book come off to me as a grand thought experiment on the expense of interstellar travel, and the various realities any such endeavor would face.

Thousands of years in the future, humanity has gone extinct (multiple times). It turns out that the human body, while well adapted to survive on earth, is not very well adapted for space travel. But our story follows beings that are so closely patterned after humans that they have maintained much of our social and cultural norms, as well as the physical form factors (though those are often adapted to their environments as well, as we see in the course of this story). Reproduction seems much simpler, with children being "instantiated" rather than born, among other such terminology derived from software and hardware, but on the other hand, messy human characteristics like emotions and love still seem to exist. These are post-humans, but ones that are easy to relate to.

Krina Alizond is a "forensic accountant" who has embarked on a decades long study pilgrimage to visit and work with several of her colleagues. As the book opens, she has just found out that one of her colleagues, a distant sib named Ana, has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. It doesn't take long for Krina to get entangled in a similar web as she seeks out her sister and gradually finds out that the subject of their study, various interstellar debt scams, has become somewhat more complicated in that they've stumbled upon the biggest financial scam in the history of the universe. Along for the ride are a small crew of down-on-their-luck religious folk (though their religion appears to surround bringing back "fragile" human beings), a look-alike assassin hot on Krina's tale, privateers chasing Krina's sister's life-insurance policy, and a group of squid-like communists.

The story generally takes the form of a roller-coaster space opera, with occasional interludes of exposition and info-dumping. It's mostly written from the first perspective of Krina, and you could argue that this is a rather clunky way of delivering a lot of exposition, but on the other hand, I rather thought those chapters were among the most interesting in the book.

Much of the detail surrounds the nature of metahumanity's expansion to the stars, how expensive that proposition is, and how that expense is structured. A lot of this falls back on physical realities like the speed of light, and how it takes centuries to reach new star systems and so on and so forth. It turns out that using something as malleable and fragile as "cash" in that context is rather foolish. Stross takes the unglamorous nature of space travel and expansion and combines it with economics, devising a clever ponzi scheme of debt based on something called "Slow Money":
Slow money is a medium of exchange designed to outlast the rise and fall of civilizations. It is the currency of world-builders, running on an engine of debt that can only be repaid by the formation of new interstellar colonies, passing the liability ever onward into the deep future ...

By design, the slow money system is permanently balanced on the edge of a liquidity crisis, for every exchange between two beacons must be cryptographically signed by a third-party bank in another star system: It takes years to settle a transaction. It's theft-proof, too - for each bitcoin is cryptographically signed by the mind of its owner, stored in one of their slots. Your slow money assets are, in a very real manner, an aspect of your identity.

...the very slowness of slow money guarantees that it isn't vulnerable to bubbles and depressions and turbulence and the collapse of any currency that is limited to a single star system.
For all its benefits, Slow Money does seem to have a lot of structural difficulties. Krina, being a forensic accountant, has studied all sorts of scams and just plain failures (where, for example, one of the three involved parties dies to soon or other such similarities). Her job is often to swoop in and grab unclaimed slow money that has been sitting around for centuries. There's even a fantastic riff on the usual hand-wavey FTL mumbo-jumbo that always shows up in Space Operas. Here, Stross has adapted the Spanish Prisoner scheme to work on an interstellar scale. If FTL travel was invented, it would suddenly make it possible to trade fast money across interstellar distances, thus depreciating all of the slow money out there (and slow money is what the rich and powerful trade in, so you can see why they would want to preserve the status quo). It's impossible to travel faster than light, but that doesn't stop con artists from attempting to defraud folks (only now it's happening across the vast distances of interstellar space).

I won't obsess over all the nooks and crannies of these shenanigans, except to say that I really enjoyed the way Stross was able to structure all of this and build his plot around it. I also enjoyed the way that Stross was able to adhere to known physics of the universe and pull interesting story aspects out of that, rather than just hand waving his way around the science the way a lot of space operas would. One example of that is the concept of Slow Money, but we also touch on things like interstellar warfare ("It is a well-understood truism that interstellar warfare is impossible") and some impressive underwater conceptualization.

From what I've read of the Best Novel ballot thus far, this seems to be vying for my number one vote (along with Ancillary Justice). I have not finished Mira Grant's Parasite and have only just begun Larry Correia's Grimnoir Chronicles, but from what I've read so far, I don't see them overtaking Neptune's Brood or Ancillary Justice.

As for the politics of the story, there were maybe one or two paragraphs in the book where it felt like Stross was simply lecturing for ideology's sake, but even those were generally part of the story he was trying to tell here. If I felt obliged to not read anything I thought I might disagree with (or to denounce such things), I'd find myself reading very little (or enjoying even less of what I read). While an author's politics will no doubt color their work, some authors are more difficult to figure out than others. Stross seems pretty easy to read. While I tended to think of his story as a grand thought experiment, there are definitely times (the aforementioned "lecturing" graphs) when I caught a whiff of something more politically motivated. Other authors may be more difficult to suss out, but even a cursory glance at Charlie's Diary indicates that yes, Charlie and I would probably disagree about a lot of things when it comes to economics. And you know what? That's awesome! No one has all the answers, and the idea that we all thought the same things and didn't question anything would be far more terrifying than the fact that Charlie and I might disagree about something (which is not, in any way, terrifying to me).

This might seem obvious, but the amount of vitriol expended over this year's ballot (from both the right and left) seems rather misplaced. When people talk about politics ruining SF, I don't think they're talking about the fact that, for example, Stross's book takes a dim view of capitalism. They're talking about the way we discuss those views, and the fact that some folks are attempting to game the nominations process (and others, seeing this, are attempting to counter by blanket voting against certain authors and works, etc... without even reading those books). Me, I don't want to politicize my every action, I don't want to let politics determine my every move, and I don't want to do an exhaustive biography of every author I could potentially read to see if their views align with mine. Not only is that unnecessary, it's unhealthy. It's a good thing to have your core, foundational beliefs challenged from time to time. It can be infuriating, but it is often productive. There are extreme cases, times when it becomes impossible to separate the art from the artist (hello Vox Day), but I would argue that those should be rare exceptions. Otherwise, I would have stopped reading this book and missed out on what may be my favorite nominee. I used to think this was an obvious truism, but apparently it's not: it's possible to enjoy or like a book without agreeing with it (or without liking the author as a person, not that we ever really get to know the author). I'm really happy that I read this book, and I'm going to be facing a difficult decision when it comes to voting time...
Posted by Mark on May 25, 2014 at 07:41 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hugo Awards: The Eye of the World
When I was but a wee nerd of 11 or 12, I had a brief dalliance with Dungeons & Dragons. For whatever reason, I found the High Fantasy stuff fascinating and gobbled up game manuals and started reading The Lord of the Rings. This was before my love of reading really kicked into high gear too, so it was notable that I was reading this stuff on my own. And it wasn't the first time, either. I have fond memories of reading Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books for school, and even wrote a knockoff short story on my Commodore 64 called The Land of Analak (I'm pretty sure I still have a hard copy of this somewhere; I'm also positive that it was terrible.) All of which is to say, I don't know when or even why I fell out of love with High Fantasy, but at some point, Horror and Science Fiction became my reading mainstays, with only the rare Fantasy novel for variety.

As such, if I had picked up the first book in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World, when it was published in 1990 (i.e. right around the height of my exploration of fantasy), I would have probably loved it. Instead, here I am 24 years later, slogging through it because the entirety of The Wheel of Time was nominated for a Best Novel Hugo Award. I've already covered how a 14 book, 11,000+ page, 4 million+ word series of books came to be nominated as a single work (short story: a quirk in Hugo nomination rules says that if no individual work in a series is nominated, the entire series can be nominated once it concludes), so I won't belabor the controversy all that much. Ultimately, it wouldn't even really matter if only the most recent work was nominated, as it would probably be difficult to read without knowing what happened in all the earlier installments.

After finishing this first volume in the series, I will say that there's no way that I will finish the series this year (it's simply too long) and I'm positive that it will not land in the top two slots of my Best Novel ballot. It's not that The Eye of the World (henceforth TEotW) is bad, per say, just that it did not reinvigorate my decades past love of the Fantasy genre. You might think that a bit unfair, but I will say that some recent consumption actually has sparked some interest in exploring more of the genre, notably Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion novels and the Game of Thrones TV series, both of which really grabbed me in ways that TEotW failed to.

In a lot of ways, this book was exactly what I was expecting. Heroes journey, complete with naive farmboy? Check. Mysterious cloaked riders? Check. Obvious Tolkien inspiration? Check. Hearty stew? Check. The number of fantasy cliches this book hits is almost impressive, even to a genre novice. On the other hand, there were plenty of things I wasn't expecting, and there were a bunch of things I did really enjoy.

The story follows the aforementioned naive farmboy Rand al'Thor, who is pretty obviously The Chosen One, despite attempts to obscure that fact by ensnaring 3 naive farmboys (Rand, Mat, and Perrin) in the scheme. Their idyllic little hamlet, Emond's Field, is mysteriously attacked by orcs and Nazgul Trollocs and a Myrddraal, but fortunately a visiting historian turns out to be a powerful Aes Sedai (basically a magician), and she is able to repel the initial attack and helps our targeted farmboys flee, along with a coterie of friends. Thus begins epic journey number one, followed by several episodic stops, hearty stews, and at least three or four other epic journeys. Eventually a threat to the titular Eye of the World (basically a powerful magical object of legend) is discovered, and our heroes and heroines race to confront the Dark Ones who threaten the world.

At first, I was happy to see that your typical "Chosen One" plot was obscured by the notion of three boys being targeted, but since the story is mostly told through Rand's eyes, it seemed pretty obvious to me that he was The One (there are some other indications of this that I did not pick up on, unless I was doing so unconsciously). At some point on their journey, they do get split up, so there are some other viewpoints, but Rand and Mat are together (and their sections are told from Rand's perspective) and Perrin runs afoul of some wolves, making it pretty clear that he has other latent talents. As a protagonist, Rand is rather bland, which tends to be the case with these hero's journey type stories. A blank slate of a protagonist makes for an easy entry point for readers (and would undoubtedly have ensnared a younger me), though there's not a ton of depth to the character or even much of an arc throughout this book (but then, there are still 13 books to go...) He is mostly passive, scraping by through luck and the goodwill of others.

As characters go, most of the core seem only slightly less bland than Rand. Mat is a bit of a prankster, and gets caught up in some cursed treasure like an idiot. Perrin seems like the strong silent type, and he's got some talent for talking to wolves, which is neat. The aforementioned Aes Sedai is named Moiraine, and she seems more interesting due more to the fact that she's an Aes Sedai than anything else. There is much in the way of rumors and hearsay about Aes Sedai bandied about here, which is actually a rather interesting notion. Most of the time, a story like this would buckle down for gigantic info dumps (of which there are still plenty, don't worry), but what we get here is a more realistic sort of information. Aes Sedai are famous, but their fame seems to be an accumulation of misunderstandings and half-truths. Or something like that. They do not seem to have great reputations, with many warning that accepting the help of an Aes Sedai will open you up to repayment of some kind, like they're some sort of Mafia/Lawyer hybrid. Moiraine is the only Aes Sedai we see a lot of in this story, so perhaps she's an uncommon example, or perhaps she just hasn't dropped the hammer on our unsuspecting farmboys (I was definitely expecting something of the sort in this book, and it did not really come). Moiraine has a warder named Lan that is basically a badass bodyguard, though we find out enough about him to know that he's also a bit of a poet. I suppose you could call Egwene a love interest for Rand, though not much comes of that, and the story instead focuses on her desire for adventure and latent abilities that could allow her to become an Aes Sedai herself. Then there's Nynaeve, who initially seems rather caustic and whiny, but also has some latent magical abilities (there's a lot of that going around in this book). Finally, we've got Thom Merrilin, who is an old "gleeman" (basically a bard or entertainer). He's old, well traveled, and wizened, and has enough experience to help guide our lowly farmboys.

To be honest, my favorite characters tended to be off on the periphery. There's Min, who is basically a fortune teller and seems rather cool (though we get very little of her here). There's a loner named Elyas who can communicate with wolves, and helps awaken the latent ability in Perrin. Rand accidentally meets a princess, some princes, and the queen (and her feared Aes Sedai advisor). I suspect many of these characters would be fleshed out in future installments, and I would be disappointed if they weren't...

In the end, I did enjoy this book. It reads like a slightly more accessible, but bloated Tolkien story. I'm reminded of the Tom Bombadil chapter in Fellowship of the Ring, except that I feel like there were, like, 7 Tom Bombadils that seemed inconsequential for this particular installment, but who will show up later in the series (not that Tom Bombadil shows up much in the rest of LotR, but still). I'm a little unsure how to really think about this book in context of the Hugo awards though. I feel like many of the things I'm holding against it would be resolved later in the series, but on the other hand, the fact that the series is so long is prohibitive in itself. I've mentioned before that I don't necessarily mind long books, even meandering ones, but even I have my limits. While I'm sure much of this stuff will be fleshed out in the sequels, I still can't quite shake the notion that this didn't really need to be as long as it is. But since Tor has decided to include the entire series in the Voters Packet, I will most certainly read more of the series before I vote, but given what I've read so far, I can't see myself getting too carried away with this. I did grow to like this story as I read it, and now that I'm familiar with a lot of the concepts, maybe the future installments will be less jarring. That being said, given its competition in the Best Novel category, I can't see this one winning...
Posted by Mark on May 18, 2014 at 07:23 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, May 04, 2014

SF Book Review, Part 16
So while I start chomping through this year's Hugo Nominees (controversies aside), I figure I'll catch up on some non-Hugo related (er, mostly) reviews.
  • The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu - Wesley Chu is nominated for the The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year, which is technically not a Hugo award, but they are administered, voted upon, and awarded as part of the same process (I believe I'll be eligible to vote, though I'm not sure if I'll get through all the nominees either). That being said, I picked this up before those nominations were announced, as it was garnering a fair amount of buzz amongst nerd circles as a fun, Scalzi-like SF adventure story (incidentally, Scalzi is a Campbell winner). And it is!

    The story follows Tao, an ancient member of an alien race called Quasings. They crash landed on Earth when life was in its infancy. I'm a little unclear on Quasing physiology, but they cannot survive on earth without inhabiting a host. Their goal is to find a way to leave the planet, so they have guided evolution along, attempting to build an infrastructure that would allow them to return home. As humans became intelligent and Quasings guided them further, disagreements arose around how best to leverage the humans, and a civil war has arisen amongst the Quasings, who have split into two factions: the peaceful Prophus who want to cooperate with the humans, and the more ruthless Gengix who will destroy the planet if it means they can get home. Tao is a Prophus, and as the story opens, he finds himself unexpectedly in need of a new host. Enter overweight, underachieving Roen Tan, a meek IT worker stuck in a dead end job. As Tao whips him into shape, the war rages on, and Roen finds that the life of a secret agent is not all its cracked up to be.

    This is a neat premise, and it allows Chu to play with history without altering what we already know. There's a whole alternate timeline here that happens to match up perfectly with our notion of history, but, for instance, Tao once inhabited Genghis Khan, putting an interesting spin on what we know about him. This implies that humans are a rather malleable, unambitious bunch, but perhaps future installments will change that... and yes, this is the first in a series. It comports itself well enough, and there's a solid character arc for Roen here, so it's not one of those first-in-a-series books that is unsatisfying. So we've got some interesting ideas, a well paced plot, secret agents, intrigue... if this were a movie, there would be some fantastic training montages. I'd say that the Scalzi comparisons are fair, though Chu clearly has his own style. Roen is an unlikely action hero, and a fair amount of the story plays with his expectations of glamor and adventure... it's certainly fun for me to read the story, but it wouldn't be quite so fun to live it. This is a series that I will actually revisit. The next book is actually already out, but at this point, I've got my hands full with other stuff! Still, I look forward to returning to Roen and Tao.
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey - This book has an odd reputation. It was nominated for a Hugo Best Novel, but it has some very loud detractors as well (it did not win, nor have any of its sequels garnered further nods). The story is set in a highly developed version of our solar system, with the three main powers being Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt ("belters"). It follows two main viewpoint characters in alternating chapters: Holden, a down-on-his-luck captain of an ice mining vessel who runs afoul of a nefarious plot, and Miller, a down-on-his-luck police detective in search of a missing rich kid. They eventually meet up, the nefarious plot becomes more clear, and hijinks ensue.

    I'm a big fan of old-school space opera, but this just wasn't cutting it for me. There are some fantastic ideas here, and the high-level premise (involving an ancient alien virus/organism/somethinglikethat) is very interesting, but it's the journey that's the problem, not the destination. I had a difficult time relating to Holden and Miller, and most of the folks who surround them, and the story wallows in their misery a bit too much for me to really get into it. Holden has some very high-minded ideals, and he sticks to them, which would be admirable if he wasn't otherwise pretty incompetent. At first, I thought Miller's hard-boiled detective story would work, but he spends more time wallowing in self-pity than tracking down criminals... of which, there are many. The Asteroid Belt is portrayed as a cesspool of prostitution, crime, underage prostitution, rape, riots, and prostitution. I'm not entirely sure why humans have settled on these rocks, but apparently 90% of their activities are criminal enterprises. It's a long book, and we spend way too much time with this mostly irrelevant world-building. We get it, the solar system is a grim, gritty place.

    It takes entirely too long (like, half the book) to get to the meat of the plot, the aforementioned alien virus conspiracy, at which point, things get mildly more interesting. The details of the conspiracy (including a rather cartoonish plot to maliciously expose millions of people to the alien virus, complete with mustache twirling villain) strain credibility, but if you're able to take them at their face, it works reasonably well. The physics are probably the least problematic aspect of the story, and the author manages to wring plenty of suspense out of that, which is good. Still, I found it was not worth wading through all the crap to get to the good stuff. There are some aspects of the ending that work reasonably well, even when the dedication to rigorous physics fades away, but the ultimate resolution (at Miller's hands) borders on the ludicrous. James S.A. Corey is the pen name of Daniel Abraham (a mildly successful Fantasy author) and Ty Franck, and they've written three books in the series, with a fourth on the way. Alas, I'm not particularly interested in revisiting this series.
  • Consider Phlebas by Ian M. Banks - Since Leviathan Wakes didn't really scratch that space opera itch, and since I've really been meaning to check out some Banks, I decided to start reading the Culture series (in this case, the series appears to consist of self-contained stories sharing a setting, rather than one long story). Being a completist, I started with Banks' first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. Unfortunately, I'm getting the impression that this isn't a particularly great way to enter the series.

    What we have here is a episodic series of stories centered around Bora Horza Gorbuchul, a quasi-human shape shifter and agent for the Idirans, an alien race of religious-minded warriors who have picked a fight with the Culture (comprised mostly of humans). We don't see much of the Culture in this book, but the implication is that they are a decadent, hedonistic people that are technologically advanced enough to create Artificial Intelligences that are so advanced that they are able to create a sorta utopia (whether this is possible is another debate, probably best saved for another time). The opening of the book winds up being very disorienting, as we find our hero, Horza, being continually captured and thrown from one place to another, managing to escape and survive only through guile. After a couple hundred pages, I was beginning to think the book would be nothing but disjointed tales of Horza's escape from one band of crazies to the next. But then things settle down a bit, Horza resumes the mission he was given at the beginning of the book, and a more steady plot emerges. Of course, it's still a rather small plot (Horza must retrieve a Culture Mind that has crash landed on his difficult-to-reach home planet), and again, what we're left with is disjointed and episodic. Which is all well and good, but not very cohesive.

    We get our fair share of grim and gritty here, too, but unlike Leviathan Wakes, it doesn't feel quite as all-encompassing or oppressive. While we are following Horza and his Idirian allies, it gradually becomes clear that the Culture will emerge victorious. For his part, Banks never paints this conflict in blacks-and-whites, allowing for more nuanced views of each side. The Culture is not Skynet, and the Idirians are not Klingons (though individual Idirians, especially towards the end, prove to be quite capable of wreaking havoc). While the episodic nature of the story ultimately harms it, each episode is imaginative and features some rather fantastic scene-setting, from the thousand-mile-long ships of Vavatch Orbital to treacherous Temples of Light. There's plenty of action, raids, heists, even a rather strange high-stakes card game. Some of these vignettes, like the weird cannibalistic cult that Horza runs across, are perhaps not as successful and only really serve as filler. Ultimately, what we end up with is a bit too sloppy for my liking, but this is interesting and at least somewhat ambitious stuff, even if it leaves something to be desired. I am certainly curious to further explore Banks' Culture books, even if this one was not really pushing my buttons (and my understanding is that the next two books in the series, Player of Games and Use of Weapons, have more cohesive stories, which will help!)
So there you have it. Up next on the SF review front will be one of the Best Hugo nominees, though I'm not sure which I'll finish first (probably Neptune's Brood). I've also read some non-SF stuff that I should probably go over as well, but I may save that for later.
Posted by Mark on May 04, 2014 at 01:25 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Link Dump: Hugo Reactions
The Hugo Award nominations were announced last week, and as you might imagine, there's been a lot of blathering about it on the internets. There always is, but this year is especially heated due to some controversial happenings. I covered some of this in last week's initial thoughts, and while I don't want to dwell on the negative, there have been plenty of discussion this week that's probably worth checking out (after which, I plan to move on to the meat of actually reading and writing about the nominees).

In short, there are three major issues that folks are incensed about. One is that, due to a quirk in the nominations rules, the entire While of Time series of books has been nominated as a whole (that's an 11,000+ page, 4+ million word series). Two is that Larry Correia explicitly sought nominations for himself and some others, with the express notion of making a political point. To my mind, these first boil down to the same problem: The Hugos are a populist award, and thus vulnerable to voting blocs. Both The Wheel of Time and Larry Correia are very popular, and both were the subject of an explicit push for nominations. Many are skeptical of the quality of these popular works, and thus upset that they ended up on the final ballot. For his part, Correia seems to have engaged in this for the express purpose of pissing people off, which is obviously against the spirit of the thing. That being said, the issue here is largely a matter of semantics. There's no evidence of fraud or stuffed ballots or anything like that, just populism, and Correia's posts on the subject mirror a lot of other folks who want to see their favorite things nominated. To my mind, these first two issues are not new at all. Indeed, you could very well argue that the inclusion of Charlie Stross and Mira Grant on the Best Novel shortlist are also populist choices that are more reflective of fandom's love of the authors than the works themselves. Last year's winner was John Scalzi's Redshirts, and many complained that it won more because Scalzi is a popular guy with a high traffic blog than because that was truly the best work of science fiction last year. And so it goes.

If that was all that happened this year, there'd be lots of grumbling and shouting at the sky, but that's always the case (and it probably also applies to other awards too - just look at all the griping the Oscars get every year). But there is a third issue that seems to be severely mucking up the works, and that is the nomination of Vox Day in the Best Novelette category. Once his name shows up, cries of racism/sexism/homophobia become rampant, and to a fair extent, warranted. There will be more detail below, but for now, I'll just say that he seems like an ass and I think it's valid for people to not want to have anything to do with the guy. Personally, I'll be reading his story and judging it accordingly, but I get that some won't be able to separate the story from the man.

With that scene set, let's see what some other folks are talking about:
  • On Merit, Awards, and What We Read - Joe Sherry uses the Vox Day issue to struggle with the question of separating the art from the artist:
    ...I want to extend this a little bit beyond Vox Day and into a more general thought. Also, I believe where a line is drawn will depend both on the reader as well as on who the writer is and how the two intersect. How much does who the artist is matter in our enjoyment or appreciation of the art? How much should it matter? Does time and distance matter?

    Can we watch a Woody Allen movie knowing the credible accusations of molestation against him? Do we view Annie Hall or Manhattan differently, or do they remain major works of art? Does it change how view his new work? Is Ender's Game a lesser work because Orson Scott Card is openly homophobic? Rachel Acks can no longer read Card's work, despite having admired it deeply before she learned of his homophobia. Does reading a particular work suggest support for the personal views of the artist even if those views are not evident in the work itself? Does it matter if the artist is still living?
    He doesn't have an answer, and neither do I. There are lots of other examples. Fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski is someone I have trouble with, though oddly, not as much with films made before the rape (or films I watched before I knew the details, which I believe are the same). When The Ghost Writer came out, I couldn't really get past it. Maybe that's because that movie isn't as good, or maybe I can no longer separate the art from the artist in that case. On the other hand, noted racist H.P. Lovecraft isn't as difficult to deal with, perhaps because he is not alive. There's historical and technical value in watching The Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, but those have troubling content, rather than just troubling artists (who are also no longer with us). Ultimately, I tend to come down on a hard-line free speech position. No one is calling for governmental censorship of Vox Day, but self-censorship can be problematic in itself. A while ago, Salmon Rushdie was commenting on anti-Muslim videos, and said this:
    "Terrible ideas, reprehensible ideas, do not disappear if you ban them," he told me. "They go underground. They acquire a kind of glamour of taboo. In the harsh light of day, they are out there and, like vampires, they die in the sunlight."
    Again, no one is banning Vox Day's story and a commitment to free speech is not the same thing as nominating something for an award, but I also have a hard time condemning something I haven't read. If I refuse to read Vox Day's words, that doesn't make them disappear or any less dangerous. Some have said that reading his work implicates you in his hate, which I would argue strongly against. Especially if the work in question is not about hate or any of the horrible things that get tossed around when Vox's name is brought up (and apparently the story is rather tame in that respect, though I have not read it yet and cannot say for sure.) To me, words can be harmful, but banning them or forbidding yourself to read them isn't going to solve anything either.
  • An explanation about the Hugo awards controversy - Larry Correia has responded to the whole kerfluffle on his blog. At some points, he sounds reasonable, at others, it sounds like he's just engaging in shennanigans to piss people off then trying to play a victim card (though, in fairness, many of the things said about him seem to be false). He also seems to think that he is the one who got these people nominated, and yes, I'm sure he had something to do with it, but I'll be very curious to see the actual stats when they're released later in the year. At the very least, one should acknowledge that Correia himself didn't do this, but rather, a small, dedicated portion of his fans (more on this in a bit). I would be really curious if those fans simply voted as a bloc, blindly nominating the things Correia suggested. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the case. Shockingly enough, the people who voted on the Hugos are human beings and not automatons. And yet, the grand majority of the discussion around Correia's suggestions, on both sides, seems to assume that everyone who voted for these stories did so blindly and without question. It's not like Brad Torgersen or Dan Wells haven't been nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards before, even without Correia's help.
  • Well, the Hugos... are not - Ian Sales has a predictably terse response, though the real gold in this post comes from the comments, in which JaneG very courteously explains her perspective on why she nominated many of the works that Correia suggested (among other works not on Correia's suggested ballot). As mentioned above, it's good to put an actual human face on some of these voters, even if this is only anecdotal. Still, she certainly knows her stuff, and while this is only one person (and I guess not a confirmed voter either), I suspect it is more representative than most are claiming.
  • On Writing the Good Fight: Hugo Roundup - Kameron Hurley (one of the best Fan Writer nominees) tackles the populism aspect of the award, predicting that Best Novel will be crushed by the Wheel of Time fans (I am more sanguine, as the ballots apparently use an instant runoff process, where the winner has to have a good distribution of votes. This may help control the voting blocs). She also touches on politics and the other issues of this year.
  • Hugo Did What? - Population: One sheds some light on just how many votes it takes to get nominated. It turns out that Correia's bloc probably wasn't that large, but that it didn't need to be either:
    This year, there were 1,595 nominations for Best Novel. Last year, there were 1,113 nominations. That's 43% more nominations. This year, there were 728 nominations for Best Novelette. Last year, there were 616 nominations. 18% more nominations.

    ... It took 38 nominations to get on the Best Novelette ballot last year. Apply the 18% adjustment: it probably took between 44 and 45 nominations to get on the Best Novelette ballot this year. That's not block voting, that's a mild wave in a fairly shallow wave pool.
    It turns out that the number was more like 69, but that's still not that many votes. Steve Davidson notes something similar in Amazing Stories.
  • No, The Hugo Nominations Were Not Rigged - John Scalzi has taken a very pragmatic approach to the whole situation, and one that more or less mirrors my own. He has also written about how he reads nominated works (with special focus on how he plans to tackle the Wheel of Time) and graciously linked to people who think he's crazy for wanting to read the works and vote on them.
  • Fear and loathing at the Awards Table 3 - Brad R. Torgersen is one of the folks who appeared on Correia's shortlist and presumably benefited (though again, it's not like Torgersen wasn't getting himself Hugo and Nebula nods before this year).
    You can't have a healthy fandom unless you run a big tent. And by big tent, I mean a fandom that doesn't impose litmus tests. Fandom (that very-small piece of the consumer pie that keeps Worldcon alive) represents an increasingly monocultural segment of the overall fan market. The so-called TruFans work to marginalize and exclude the NeoFans. "Show us your cred!" the guards cry at the entry points to the science fiction "ghetto" that fandom jealously occupies — though Larry Niven once famously argued it’s not a ghetto, it’s actually a country club. Those with insufficient or bad cred ("You only like movies and games!" or "Your politics make you stinky!" or "Your favorite author is too commercial!") are discouraged in both obvious and subtle ways. Go back to what Brandon Sanderson said: if you invite people in, it's rather strange of you to then try to kick them back out simply because they're not matching your taste and preferences 1-for-1. So while I am somewhat sympathetic to the notion of, "Well we liked science fiction before science fiction was popular," I also think this is the slogan of a dying culture. And that makes me sad. Because as someone who came of age reading Larry Niven's wonderful anecdotes about Worldcon, the picture he painted was not that of a dying culture. Worldcon fandom can't be healthy if it imposes hard filters and actively shews away "interlopers" who haven't been properly anointed or baptized into the field, per traditions of old.
    A very fair perspective (and lots more in the post), though I think Vox Day does sorta strain that big tent a bit.
  • 2014 Hugo Nominations - the reactions - Well, if my posts don't have enough to chew on, head over here and gander at this near comprehensive list of reactions.
So that's all for now. I don't expect to tee up on the controversy much more, but I guess you never know. Next up, I'm going to catch up on some non-Hugo reviews, after which point I should have finished my first Hugo works. Stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on April 27, 2014 at 04:40 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: Initial Thoughts
I started this year with a goal of reading the fiction nominees for the Hugo Awards and casting an official vote. The nominees were just announced yesterday, so it's game on for the Kaedrin Hugo run. Today, we'll give some initial thoughts on the Best Novel slate, as well as some general thoughts on the rest of the nominations. Let's get to it:

Best Novel (1595 nominating ballots)
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie - No surprise here, and I gather that this is the favorite to win the award as well. I've already written a review of this one, but I'll say that this seems like an eminently worthy nomination and I could certainly see myself voting for this if none of the other nominees grab me.
  • Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross - A frequent nominee, Stross has yet to actually win the Best Novel award (though he has taken home a couple Novella awards). My experience with Stross is limited, and I genuinely disliked Accelerando (I did not finish, but that says something in itself, since I can count the number of books I've not finished on one hand), but I do enjoy his blog from time to time, and a lot of his books do sound interesting. This one is apparently a "follow up" (but not a sequel) to 2008's Saturn's Children. It is positioned as a standalone novel though, so I'll only be reading this one. Of the nominees I haven't read, this one seems the most up my alley.
  • Parasite by Mira Grant - Another frequent nominee, Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) made waves with her trilogy of Zombie novels. I'm not a big fan of zombies, so I did not read those. This book looks to be the start of another series and has a premise that I find interesting. Assuming this book is self-contained enough to stand on its own, I could certainly see myself enjoying this.
  • Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia - This appears to be a controversial nomination, as Correia has made a hobby of whining about liberals, political correctness and, in particular, the frequent nominations (and wins) of John Scalzi (who won for last year's Redshirts). There is a lot of speculation that this is a protest nomination that happened more for political reasons than for the quality of Correia's work. Not having read anything by Correia, I cannot say, but I'm not immediately endeared to him because of his antics. I'm also a little annoyed that this is the third book in a series. I'll have to look into this further, but I'm guessing I need to read all three books (and they're all of moderate length).
  • The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson - Holy hell, I thought this was a joke. Not having read the books, I can't speak to their quality, but the fact that a 14 book, 11,000+ page, 4.4+ million word work has been nominated makes this a pretty impractical nominee. It hinges on a relatively obscure rule that says if no individual work in a series is nominated, the entire series can be nominated once it concludes. When this possibility was raised earlier this year, I thought it was pretty funny, but now that the work has made it to the final ballot, I'm a little unsure of what to do here. 11,000 pages is around how much I read in a year, and I don't have that long (not to mention all the other stuff I want to read). If I want to be honest in this process, I'll need to read at least some of this... and if I really enjoy it, that will be a problem, because voting for something that I haven't finished seems rather dishonest. If I hate it, I can at least say I made the effort and read at least a couple entries in the series, but even that rubs me the wrong way. I guess we'll see how this goes.
Other assorted thoughts:
  • The series thing bugs me. It's always been a tricky proposition, because even if they had only nominated the final Wheel of Time book, wouldn't I have to read all the others to truly understand what's going on? This has always been something of a turnoff to me when I looked at the shortlists of previous years. Heck, the Correia nomination might force me to read two additional books, and if I don't like the concept of "Grimnoir" (which I don't find particularly inspiring by itself), that's going to be a slog. Last year, Mira Grant's zombie series had the same issue. The year before, the latest in the Song of Ice and Fire series book was nominated (which would also mean thousands of pages of catchup, etc...). Bujold's Vorkosigan series at least consists of somewhat standalone novels, though I'm guessing that fans who've read the whole series are getting the most out of the recent books. And so on. I don't know what the real solution is here, except, I guess, to quit my job and start reading full time or something.
  • The politics thing also bugs me. There are two works that seem to be on the ballot solely to jab a finger at a certain liberal element of fandom, which strikes me as rather boorish. I'm really not down with the whole politicization of everything that seems to be happening in our culture these days, and that goes for everyone, not just these two writers (I expect a lot of people will try to make something big out of these nominations, which will of course only feed the fire and cause more annoyance and frustration than is needed. I'm already seeing people claim that this year's awards are tainted by these two nominations, which I find a bit ridiculous, and it's exactly the sort of attitude that gets these protest nominees on the short list in the first place. We need a way out of this negative feedback loop that politics has put us in...) That being said, I will take these works on their face and judge them as I would anything else. I could see myself enjoying Correia's books, and I know nothing of Vox Day, except that he appears to be an ass (he's nominated for a Novelette). So it looks like I'm taking the Scalzi approach to this.
  • Speaking of Scalzi, no Scalzi on the ballot. I was a little surprised by this, but my guess is that while he is a popular guy and has garnered all sorts of noms over the past decade or so (including almost all of his novels, and several shorter works), no one saw The Human Division as a cohesive novel (it being a series of loosely connected Novellas and Short Stories), and that because there are 13 different eligible stories, any sort of votes for Scalzi got spread out amongst the eligible stories (i.e. there was no clear favorite).
  • There are some categories I won't be voting in at all. I'll leave the more specific complaints about the structure of categories for a separate post, but I can't see myself voting for the Best Editor awards (Seriously? How I am I supposed to know how good they are as an editor, I'm only seeing the finished work...). And the notion of "Zines" is.... I don't know, it's 2014, they seem quaint and not very relevant (though it looks like some are at least online). I'm not sure what to make of the Artist awards
  • Best Fan Writer looks to be an interesting category, as all the nominees are online (apparently, this was not so in the past) and some are writers I already read. They also represent a "terrifying flood of girl cooties" (to borrow a phrase from Cheryl Morgan from last year).
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form is an interesting list, but the best SF film from last year is missing (that would be Upstream Color). This is one of the few things I would have nominated for, since I'm pretty up to speed with SF and Fantasy movies, so I regret not submitting the nomination (I'd guess my vote wouldn't be a deciding one, but still, it's the principle of the thing).
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form is a consistently weird category in which fully half the nominees are from a single show (Doctor Who)... This is not a new thing (and usually the proportions are even worse), but in this case, I'm hit with the same series problem from above. I've been slowly wading my way through the early seasons of the recent run (i.e. starting with the Christopher Eccleston Doctor), so do I need to watch more before I watch these three? They seem to be particularly focused on continuity, so I'm not sure what to make of that. Otherwise, I've already seen Game of Thrones and really want to get onboard with Orphan Black, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see what's going on there...
So it begins. I'm in the process of finishing off two books right now (should be done within a day or two), then I start in on the Hugo reading. I'm sure many posts will follow.
Posted by Mark on April 20, 2014 at 05:27 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

SF Book Review, Part 15
I've fallen a bit behind in reviewing recent SF reading, though a few individual reviews have made their way to the site recently. So before I start my 2013 movie recap (a month late, I know), I figured I'd catch up:
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - This book follows a teenager named Wade, though everyone knows him as Parzival, a low level warrior in OASIS. OASIS is kinda like Snow Crash's Metaverse mixed with World of Warcraft. The real world is dystopic and lame, so everyone increasingly escapes into the OASIS. Just about everything is in the OASIS at this point: school, jobs, just about every piece of culture ever created. Its part game, part alternate reality. When the creator of OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves behind a contest to determine the heir to his fortune and ownership of OASIS (think Publius Enigma, except that this actually works). To win this contest, Wade/Parzival will have to find a series of Easter Eggs (hidden messages in video games) and complete a series of challenges, all of which will require an intimate knowledge of Halliday's passions - 80s culture and old school video games. I don't normally like dystopias, but this was recommended to me and it turns out that the real focus here is on Wade/Parzival. It's a coming of age tale, of sorts. When we meet him, he's a poor, out-of-shape, loser, though his reputation online is slightly higher. As the story progresses, we see him make friends, gain confidence, take hold of his real life (even outside the OASIS) and battle a corporation intent on winning the prize for themselves. It's written in first person, and so it's easy to become wrapped up in the story. As a child of the 80s, the referential nature of the story (constant references to 80s television, movies, music, and video games) hit me right in the sweet spot, though I have to wonder how transferable all of this would be to someone outside of that age group. It certainly doesn't bode well for long-term relevance, but it's a fun enough story (and Cline is always careful to explain the reference) that I'm sure it'll hang around for a while.
  • Warhorse by Timothy Zahn - I always find myself coming back to Zahn whenever I want to read something fun, and Warhorse did the trick. It's not Zahn's best, but it's a well crafted story. A future human society is expanding into interstellar space, and they've run across the Tamplissta, a race of humanoid pacifists with a big environmentalist streak. Their technology isn't anywhere near the human level, except in one key area: space horses. They are huge space-dwelling creatures who eat asteroids and can teleport across interstellar distances. The Tampies and humans are wary of each other, and space horses don't seem to interact well with humans (they do, however, respond to the Tampies soft, eco-friendly touch). As tensions mount between Tampies and humans, a mixed-crew exploration ship is launched to prove that the two races can cooperate. Hijinks ensue. There's plenty of interesting ideas that help drive the story along, and the Tampies are an interesting species, depending on how you interpret their presence (are they a comment on real world environmentalists?). The characters are pretty straightforward (if you've read Zahn before, you know what you're in for) and so is the prose. Still, it's a decent novel and Zahn continues to be a workhorse in my SF reading.
  • Night Film by Marisha Pessl - Investigative journalist Scott McGrath has fallen on hard times ever since he accused acclaimed and reclusive filmmaker Stanislas Cordova (think Kubrick, but with a lot more secrecy and evil) of heinous crimes on television. Years later, when Cordova's daughter Ashley turns up dead in mysterious circumstances, McGrath picks up the trail again. With the help of a few oddball assistants, he sets about unraveling the mystery of Ashley and her father. This is a book that takes its time getting to the meat of the story, but once it gets there, it gets really good. It's never really boring or anything, and it doesn't succumb to indulgent style exercises or anything pretentious like that, it just takes its time letting the story unfurl. I don't know that it quite needed to be this long, but it works nonetheless, and I really enjoyed it.
  • Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales - The third in Sales' Apollo Quartet, where each story is some sort of alternate history stemming from the Apollo-era space race. The first two have brilliant premises (though the second's premise is only revealed at the end), while this one is a little more tame. It does shed light on an unheralded episode in actual space program history. The Mercury 13 were 13 American women who went through a lot of the same training and physiological tests as NASA astronauts that would eventually man the Mercury program. Sales' novella postulates that the Korean war was still raging, so NASA couldn't pull the best and brightest from the Air Force. Instead, they relied on the Mercury 13, who are also moving on to the Apollo program. It's an interesting work, and Sales' prose continues to shine, but I was expecting a little more in the way of ideas (like the first two Apollo Quartet novellas). Regardless, I am greatly looking forward to the fourth and final novella, due sometime this year.
  • Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold - This is the second book in Bujold's Chalion series of fantasy novels, and it takes an interesting approach. It follows a minor character from the first book, and gives her the Hero's Journey (Heroine's Journey?) treatment. It's kinda like a coming-of-age tale too, though it's unlike most others of that type in that the protagonist here is Ista, a middle-aged retired queen who suffered under a maddening curse for most of her life. In the first book of the series, the curse is broken and Ista (well, the whole royal family) is freed. She's still royalty, though, and no one wants to let her go out into the world a live the life she's always wanted to find. The first book had a large scope and ranged across the whole kingdom. This book is a bit tighter, and more focused on Ista. Along the way, there are kidnappings, sorcery, invasions, and sieges, but it's all pretty well contained, and it works remarkably well. This is a rather exposition heavy novel, but Bujold excels at these sorts of things, and it never drags or feels boring, even if some mysteries seem more obvious to the reader than to the characters in the story (but then, we know more than them, eh?) The other unusual thing about this book (and the series so far) is how much of it is focused around religion. Not any sort of religion that we're familiar with, and it seems that in Chalion, these gods are real. I'm particularly interested in how well balanced the magic in these Chalion books is, as I find that magic can often be a crutch for a writer. Not so here, though this book has much more magic than the first book. As usual, Bujold excels at creating characters and feinting relationships, etc... I'm actually pretty excited to check out the last book in the series at this point. Unfortunately, that means I'm quickly running out of Bujold books, so I may need to start rereading some Vorkosigan novels...
So there you have it, a pretty good run. Stay tuned next week for the Kaedrin Movie Award nominations!
Posted by Mark on January 26, 2014 at 01:33 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ancillary Justice
Anne Leckie's debut novel, Ancillary Justice, has been garnering much critical praise and awards hype (I suspect it will be a Hugo nominee). It's a space opera tale of betrayal and revenge, though that description doesn't really do it justice. While it does contain typical pot-boilery elements like that, it's also got a lot of ambitious but subtle social explorations embedded in its worldbuilding, as does most of the best science fiction.

The story alternates between past and present threads, weaving the timeframes together in such a way that each informs the other. In the beginning, we are introduced to Breq, a former soldier on a quest for revenge. She's come to an isolated, icy planet in search of the means for her revenge. Through the alternating timelines of each chapter, we learn that Breq used to be a segment in an artificial intelligence that ran a ship called Justice of Toren. There are layers of hierarchy and organization, but basically these ships are comprised of networked groups of Ancillaries, dead human bodies with the AI embedded into them. This is not a conceit or an idea for the sake of ideas; the exploration of this sorta post-human existence is the primary driving force behind the book. In Breq, a single body separated from her whole, we get a unique perspective on this sort of existence.

For her part, Leckie is able to establish all of this without resorting to excessive info-dumps. This is initially disorienting (though not as much as, say, The Quantum Thief), as the thread set in the past sometimes reads like a Pynchon novel, with the one AI's perspective shifting from Ancillary to Ancillary with each new sentence. It's disorienting because they're the same person, but they're thousands or even millions of miles away from each other, but once you get the hang of it, it works (in particular, the naming conventions of the various levels of hierarchy can be confusing at first). Interestingly, the more info-dumpy segments come later in the book, but by that point, you're wrapped up in the story enough that this information is happily received.

So the way the AI ships work is one aspect of the worldbuilding that works very well, but the other aspect is the social one. Being a space opera, we're of course talking about galactic empires and wars and such, but the empire that Leckie has established here is truly a fascinating one. The Radch are the dominant human society in the galaxy, having steadily annexed planet after planet over a 2000 year period. Of course, annexation in this context is a just a pretty word for conquered. The humans on an annexed planet that resist are killed and turned into ancillaries, which are then turned against the people. Comprehensive surveillance at the hands of Ancillaries makes it difficult to resist, but that's just the Radchaai way. Even the soldiers who are doing the annexing, the Radch citizens, do not receive any privacy. This goes on until a planet is pacified, and the Radch sink their hooks into the planets economy, leveraging gains (in both wealth and ancillaries) to annex other worlds. So basically, the Radch are not very pleasant folks. The Radchaii are lead by someone named Anaander Mianaai, who is very much like the artificial consciousness that run Radch ships in that she is comprised of many networked bodies. She's also near immortal and has basically been the Radchaai dictator for 2000 years.

The Radch identify each other mostly through Houses, tribal affiliations that are complicated and corporation-like. One corollary to this is that the Radch do not distinguish between genders, referring to everyone using only female pronouns like "she" and "her" (it is not explained why the female form is chosen over gender neutral ones, like some other authors have used). Breq, our protagonist, is implied to have a female body, but being an artificial intelligence of the Radch, she makes no distinction between male and female for herself or for others. Breq constantly has difficulties identifying gender when she is outside of the Radch empire (as she is in the present-day segments of the story). This aspect of the novel has garnered much praise for its progressive tendencies, though I'm not entirely sure the book means it to be read as a good thing. It certainly does generate some interesting discussion for us readers, but in the context of the book, it's a conceit imposed by a tyrant. Anaander Mianaai is many things, but one thing she will be to the reader is "evil". And the reason for this gender-blindness is simply her will. Just as it's her will to impose comprehensive surveillance on all citizens, or as we discover in the book, to slaughter innocent citizens by the thousands. And this is supposed to be progressive?

It's an interesting perspective, for sure, and while the constant use of female pronouns is initially jarring, it quickly fades away, partially because you get used to it, and partially because the Radch simply don't care and this story doesn't really need it (though it's implied that reproduction happens in a generally traditional manner, with perhaps some SF technological help (which, in itself, implies that the distinction must be made at some point, simply for reproductive purposes)). Still, the more important social structures seem to be the Houses and how they interact. Put simply, there's lots to chew on, and Leckie does seem to be aware of what came before her, as io9 notes:
For people who love science fiction, there are also many little tips of the hat that are pleasing without being intrusive or fan servicey. Breq's division on Justice of Toren are fond of singing, which brings to mind Anne McCaffery's incredible novel of ship consciousness, The Ship Who Sang. And of course the Radch civilization's lack of gender roles is reminiscent of the civilization that Ursula Le Guin describes in The Left Hand of Darkness. But as I was reading, the one comparison I kept making in my mind was to Iain M. Banks, who always reminded us that politics (and people) are far more complicated than most space operas will allow.
Incidentally, I'd say this novel blows The Ship Who Sang away when it comes to exploring ship consciousness, but on the other hand, I found Le Guin's novel much more mind-blowing in terms of its gender bending (but then, that's a tough act to follow and not really a fair comparison for this book). And as mentioned recently, I really do need to get up to speed on Ian M. Banks.

So yes, this book has an impressive bit of worldbuilding going on, but it's all revealed slowly through the story, which has plenty of narrative hooks to keep you interested. Mystery, action, typical space opera tropes, an alien race that seems to be truly Alien (capital A, though we've not learned much about them just yet), that ambitious exploration of hive minds, and other ideas that help build and maintain the sensawunda feeling that comes out in the best SF. I really enjoyed the novel, and it's something I'd consider nominating for a Hugo award, if I end up submitting a ballot. As debut novels go, this is an assured effort, and I'm greatly looking forward to the next installment (due in October 2014).
Posted by Mark on January 22, 2014 at 10:57 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

A 10 Question Book Meme
SF Signal posted these questions yesterday, and I'm amazingly on the ball here, giving my answers just one day later. Go me.

The last sf/f/h book I read and liked was:

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. I don't read a lot of Fantasy, but since I've already exhausted all of Bujold's SF, I figured I'd try out some of her Fantasy books rather than suffer through withdrawal pains. It turns out that these Chalion books are really good, too. This is the second in the series, but it's only loosely connected to the first, and the main character here was a bit player in the first book (but she's an excellent protagonist). It's an interesting book, because it's mostly talking and religion, with light action interspersed throughout. Anywho, I really loved it, and will probably be reading the third book in the near future...

The last sf/f/h book I read and wasn't crazy about was:

The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey. A book about a sentient spaceship that wasn't all that bad, but which never really connected with me. Something about the episodic nature of the plot bothered me as well.

The sf/f/h book I am reading now is:

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu. I only just started this one this morning, one of a few 2013 books I planned on reading in support of my Hugo run this year... So far, so good!

The sf/f/h book(s) I most want to read next is/are:

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. I've put off reading Banks' Culture series long enough, I think.

An underrated sf/f/h book is:

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I have no real sense of what is underrated or overrated out there, but this is a book that seems to consistently be left out of "best of" lists and such (for example: the NPR list)

An overrated sf/f/h book is:

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's a fine book, to be sure, and I get why everyone loves it, but I never really got into it.

The last sf/f/h book that was recommended to me was:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I'm usually turned off by dystopian futures, but a friend recommended this and yes, she was right. It's a fun book.

A sf/f/h book I recommended to someone else was:

Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy came up in a discussion about the new movies (incidentally, wouldn't it be awesome if they made movies out of Zahn's books? Alas, I think the most we could expect would be a Thrawn cameo or somesuch.)

A sf/f/h book I have re-read is:

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I've probably only reread about 4 or 5 books in my life, but I've read Cryptonomicon three times, which is impressive since it's a 900 page face melter. Or something.

A sf/f/h book I want to re-read is:

Almost anything by Lois McMaster Bujold (I'm curious to reread the beginning of the Vorkosigan series again) and Neal Stephenson (in particular, I'd like to dip into The Baroque Cycle again, though that's obviously a daunting task considering the 2700 page length!)
Posted by Mark on January 19, 2014 at 05:28 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Hugo Award Season 2014
So we've already begun the general award season, with top 10 lists galore peppering social media and publications, and the more formal awards shows are also getting underway (the Golden Globes are tonight, the Oscar nominations will be announced this week, and so on). For science fiction nerds, the Hugo award is generally considered to be the most prestigious, though the Nebula and Clarke awards also garner a lot of attention in certain circles.

Hugo voters must be involved in some way with the Worldcon SF convention that is held every year in a different location (this year is in London). It's a populist award in that anyone can become a voter, they just need to pay for some level of membership. This strikes me as an interesting balance, as the cost of entry should ensure at least some measure of seriousness in the voters. The Nebulas are given by members of the SFWA, which is its own unique perspective, and the Clarke awards are given by a jury (there are other awards, but these seem to be the most respected, and they represent an interesting range of voting rules).

As I mentioned in my 2013 recap, one thing I was thinking of doing this year was to actually join and vote on the Hugos (at the very least, read all the fiction nominees and vote on them, though I'm sure I'll be able to vote on TV and movie awards too). The nomination period has only just recently opened up, but in all honesty, I don't believe I've read enough to give quality nominations. Excuding non-fiction, I've read 6 things that would qualify as a 2013 release, 2 being novellas (or novelettes?) and 1 being The Human Division, which is basically a series of short stories, novelettes, and novellas slapped together into one book. Of the remaining three, two have a pretty good chance of being nominated anyway and the other is arguably not SF/Fantasy (I'd probably put it in horror/thriller/mystery territory). Of those, I'd consider nominating: The rules say you're allowed to nominate up to 5 works in each category, but you're permitted (and encouraged) to make fewer nominations (or no nominations) if you're not familiar with that particular category. So I certainly could submit my nominations (provided I buy my supporting membership soon), but I'm not sure how I feel about doing so given my lack of depth in 2013. Of course, nominations are only due at the end of March, so I have some time to catch up.

In any case, I'm looking forward to participating in the process this year, and it appears that the annual awards grousing has already started, with Adam Roberts taking a two-pronged approach with his usual style and wit:
SF Awards have, as a rule, much to recommend them; but they have two big flaws. One is the loyalty implied in the descriptor 'fan', in which a shitty work by an author of whom (or a shitty episode of a show of which) one is a fan gets your vote because that's what being a fan means -- it means sticking with your team. Ditto: voting for an author rather than voting for a text. Here the niceness or popularity of a given author may overshadow the merits of the books said author has actually produced. ...

The second flaw is the way people often vote for what is shiny and directly in front of their faces, not necessarily because they are idiots, but perhaps because their time is short, they want to be involved in the process but don't want to bother researching the full gamut of possibles, because they don't care all that much, or a hundred other explanations. It means that works can get onto shortlists not because they are necessarily very good, but merely because that have been dangled directly in front of people, by (a) expensive marketing campaigns, hype, or being on the gogglebox, or (b) the aggressive self-promotion of energetic authors strenuously seeking to maximize their online profile.
I think these are both fair points (and they demonstrate why I'm a bit hesitant to submit my nominations), though perhaps Roberts overstates their importance. Of the four nominations I would make, two are by authors I'd never even heard of, one is a relatively obscure piece of self-published short fiction, and the other is, well, John Scalzi (a frequent nominee that I suspect Roberts would point to as someone who gets works nominated because of who he is regardless of the quality of that particular work). But you'll note that I absolutely won't nominate The Human Division for best novel because it doesn't work very well as a novel (nor, I think, is it really supposed to just yet). Scalzi has definitely been nominated a bunch of times where I don't think the work warranted the inclusion (though Redshirts may not have been one of those times (as a winner, I'm not so sure...)). I'm as big a fan of Neal Stephenson as seems possible, but I doubt I'd have nominated Reamde a couple years ago, as it's not really science fiction (debatable, I guess, but that's definitely not the thrust). So yes, I'm a fan, but of the genre as a whole. I have certain preferences and blind spots, just like anyone else, but that's fine when it comes to populist awards, as my votes get smeared across all the other votes.

As for marketing campaigns and self-promotion by savvy authors on the internets, I'm sure there is an element of that in play, but again, I think Roberts overestimates some aspects of this. Scalzi is a pretty interesting example, as he has a huge following online and engages in exactly what Roberts is decrying here. His books seem to sell well and I'm sure the publishers do a fair amount of publicity for them too. Fortunately, Scalzi has responded to Roberts (in a friendly, amicable way) and I find that I have little to add to that. I will note that I would never in a million years have found The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself if Ian Sales had not built up some form of online audience. It's a self-published work with no expensive marketing campaigns or hype, and I think it kind of odd to begrudge him the notion of letting his blog audience know what is eligible (and in what category - I don't even know if The Eye is a novella, novelette, or short story?)

These are, of course, not new complaints. Last year's dustup made some pretty similar points, and the big issue here is that there's not really a way around it. The Hugos are a populist award, so great but obscure stuff might not make the cut. It seems odd to criticize a populist award for nominating popular works, though I guess the Hugo's position as the most respected SF award does warrant more scrutiny. But that's just the way populist awards work, and that's why awards like the Nebula and Clarke exist (each of which, by the way, are far from perfect in themselves). Anytime anyone puts together a best of anything list, there are bound to be dissenters and rules wonks who complain. In some ways, that's part of the fun! I guess we'll revisit this subject after this year's nominees are announced (which should be sometime in early April). I hope to check in before then with what I've been reading (and I'm already behind on that, actually), so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on January 12, 2014 at 08:30 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Year in Books
Another orbital period has passed, which means it's time to recap the year or some such thing. I'm still catching up on movies, and I'll be posting a recap of the year in beer in the next few days too, but let's take a look at my reading for 2013 and see where I'm at. I keep track of my book reading at Goodreads, and they have some fancy statistic generator things (that isn't anywhere near as detailed as I'd like, but hey, I'll take what I can get). Since I've been using the site for a while now, I've got several years worth of stats to compare too.

Let's start with overall books read:
Number of books I read from 2010-2013
So I've read 31 books in 2013, which looks like a significant decrease when compared to 2012, but that is a bit misleading too. I was reading solely for quantity in 2012, and I cheated a bit in that I read a bunch of short novellas and comic book collections. My original idea for 2013 was to only read super long epics, but that was perhaps too ambitious, so I just sorta read what I wanted, length be damned. Of course, book length is tricky to measure, but by any standard, the average length of books I read in 2013 was much higher than 2013. On the other hand, it appears I did read more overall in 2012:
Number of pages I read from 2010-2012
Proportionally, it's not as big a disparity, but it is still significant. It appears that reading super long epics does sorta take longer than reading three smaller books with an equivalent number of pages. That's perhaps not strictly true, but longer books tend to meander, which means I tend to get bored and fall asleep earlier and thus not cover as much ground.
Longest Book and Shelves
The perfect example of this is Pandora's Star, the longest book I read in 2013 and the first in a bloated duo of books that are supremely longwinded. I don't normally mind this, but those books tested even my patience (though I did enjoy them quite a bit in the end). All told, those two books alone account for almost 20% of my reading this year. Another epic of note that I read was Douglas R. Hofstadter's monumental Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It clocks in at 832 pages, but it is some very dense, heady stuff, and it had been sitting on my shelf unread for about 5 years or so.

You can also see that I read a small portion of comic book collections and novellas in 2013 as well, but not as many as in 2012. Other stats of note:
  • 3 Comic Books (one Morning Glories and two Locke & Key)
  • 2 Novellas (both from Ian Sales' Apollo Quartet)
  • 8 Non-Fiction books, which is less than last year, but proportionally more
  • 10 of the 31 books were written by women, which is again less than last year, but proportionally much higher. It's still not equitable, but 2012 was the year of Lois McMaster Bujold, while 2013 was much broader (9 different female authors).
  • 23 Fiction books, mostly in the science fiction or fantasy realm, though a couple of oddballs popped here or there.
Goodreads also provides a neat little gizmo that graphs publication dates, as such:
Graph of publication dates
If you click the image above, you should be able to get a more interactive version of the graph, though I do find it annoying that it only states the publication date, not what book it is! The oldest book of the year was Leigh Brackett's 1949 tale of Martian adventure, The Sword of Rhiannon (for those who don't recognize the name, she was one of the screenwriters on for The Empire Strikes Back).

So it's been a pretty good year for reading. I certainly didn't get through as much as planned, and I definitely didn't spend as much time reading in 2013, but I think I did pretty well. As for next year, I think I'm going to take a similar approach: read what I want, length be damned. I may also get off my arse and read all the Hugo nominated books this year, something I've always wanted to do. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that I've just read a book that will be nominated in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, but I'd also like to take a shot at the other (shorter) fiction categories. I'll probably set my sights at a similar 30 books/11,000 pages rate for 2014, but who knows how things will go?
Posted by Mark on January 01, 2014 at 07:21 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, August 18, 2013

SF Book Review, Part 14: WoGF Edition
I recently ran across the 2013 Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge and thought it sounded like fun. The rules are simple: "read 12 books - 1 each by 12 different women authors that you have not read before including 1 random author selection - in 12 months". I've started this a bit later in the year than I'd like, and I'm beding the "that you have not read before" rule a bit on at least one or two selections, but still, I've actually made pretty good progress. Halfway there, actually. Alas, I've found my selections to be a mixed bag.
  • Among Others by Jo Walton - Winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for best novel, this one was already in the reading queue, and I was quite looking forward to it. Unfortunately, this is a book that struck all the wrong chords with me. It's about a young girl named Morwenna, who was badly injured, and her twin sister killed, when they foiled their mother's nefarious and abusive use of magic. Sound exciting? Well, that's all happened before the story begins and is only referred to obtusely (details are generally unclear). As the book opens, Morwenna (having successfully escaped her abusive mother) is being sent to a boarding school by her father. Cool, so this is going to be one of those magical boarding school stories, right? Well, no, nothing really happens at the boarding school except that Morwenna is unpopular. On the one hand, I can respect what Walton was going for here, and she has turned many genre conventions on their head. Indeed, I love the way magic is portrayed in this book. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, only with magic, there doesn't appear to be any connection between the two events. Want to shut down a Phurnocite factory? Drop some flowers into a lake. In a month, the factory shuts down, citing unprofitable margins. Did the magic work? Or was it simple economics here? In Walton's world, there is little distinction. Magic works, but at weird angles. It's great! Unfortunately, there's not really a story to hang all of this on, and the boarding school stuff is just a rote high school story. It may not be common in SF/F, but it's common enough in general culture.

    It's more of a character sketch than anything else, as we follow Morwenna through her first school year. She's friendless at first, and takes solace in reading SF/F books, eventually making friends with librarians and a local SF Book Club. This book is absolutely filled with SF/F book references, and I suspect that anyone who grew up in the late 70s or early 80s (when this story is set) will delight in the nostalgia of those references (personally, I found the discovery of new books and authors interesting, as it's very different in the age of the internet than it was back then (or even in the early 90s, when I was dipping into SF/F). I liked the book club scenes, but little comes of it. There's a confrontation of sorts at the end of the book, and there is some personal catharsis for the protagonist, but in the end, what I got out of this book is basically this lesson: people who read SF/F are, like, totally awesome. Which is true, I guess, but I already knew that!
  • The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes - Now this is more like it. It's a serial killer story with a little science fictional twist of time travel. There's a house that exists outside of time, and when a twisted guy named Harper stumbles upon it in the depression era, he is compelled to use it as a base to launch his serial killing campaign across time against girls who "shine". In the present day, we're following Kirby, a damaged but spunky survivor of Harper's shenanigans who is attempting to use her newspaper internship to research serial killings. Along with her reluctant partner, old-hand crime reporter Dan, Kirby eventually stumbles upon details of killings that don't make sense. Harper likes to leave impossible mementos when he kills his shining girls, like a baseball card from the future. This is not a perfect novel, and is actually a bit disorienting at times (you are often introduced to a shining girl, only to see her die quickly, which leads to a lot of character introductions, even relatively late in the book), but I was taken enough with the style and cleverness of the plot. As time-travel thrillers go, there's a lot to like, and everything is internally consistent, but it doesn't really have quite as revelatory a structure as I was expecting. Still, this book is well worth reading if the premise interests you.
  • The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett - Recognize the author? Yep, she was one of the screenwriters for The Empire Strikes Back, but she actually had a long history of SF/F writing behind her at that point. This seems to be her most famous work, a tale of aliens and humans on Mars. At this point, these stories are pretty well defined, but this seems to be a particularly well constructed version, and Brackett's prose seems to be a step above her contemporaries. The story follows an Indy Jones prototype named Matt Carse, a gun-slinging archaeologist who stumbles onto the long lost tomb of the Martian god Rhiannon and is subsequently plunged into the distant past... for adventure! It's a fun little adventure tale, short and sweet, definitely of its time (published in 1953), but again, the style seems to be a step ahead of her contemporaries. Definitely worth checking out for genre completists.
  • vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby - This is a generally well done science fiction story... that didn't really strike a chord with me. The premise, following a few von Neumann robots that go on the run from various enemies, is all well and good, and the characters are fine for what they are. There's an excessive focus on family and especially parentage here, to the point where I wonder if people who have kids would get more out of this book than I did. As it was, there seemed to be weird tonal differences from page to page, and I sometimes found myself confused as to what was actually going on. I should mention that I actually listened to this on audiobook rather than reading it, and to be honest, I was not impressed with the voice work here, though it wasn't particularly awful or anything (I'm not sure if it's the book or the reader or some combination of both, or perhaps a weird negative feedback loop of some kind). Some interesting ideas here, but this book was just not for me.
  • The Ship Who Sang Anne McCaffrey - McCaffrey is probably better known for her fantasy novels, but I thought this one, about a human brain implanted into a spaceship, sounded interesting. And that premise is indeed pretty good, though the book essentially amounts to a series of mostly disconnected stories. This episodic nature means it doesn't quite hold together as a whole as much as I'd like, but each story was relatively well done and interesting on its own, and there are some repeat characters, etc... Again, I didn't feel like this was really ringing my bells, but it was certainly an enjoyable short read as well (I enjoyed it much more than Among Others or vN). This is apparently the first among many books, but while I enjoyed this one well enough, I don't see myself reading any of its sequels, which I guess says something as well.
So yeah, I really enjoyed two books, was a little meh on one, and didn't particularly care for another. I actually didn't mention Lois McMaster Bujold's Curse of Chalion, which I loved (significantly more than any book in this post), because I thought I had written about it before, but it turns out that I didn't. That one also bends that rule about not having read the author before, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to really finish off this reading challenge by year's end (especially if I keep choosing books that don't particularly inspire me, like some of the above). That being said, I'll be giving it a shot. If you have any suggestions that seem more my speed, feel free to leave a comment...
Posted by Mark on August 18, 2013 at 07:34 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Commonwealth Duo
I have no problems with long books. Even long books that meander down tangents aren't an inherent issue for me. Heck, I can get pretty longwinded myself. My favorite book is Cryptonomicon, a novel filled with so many digressions that I find it hard to even say what it's about. On the other hand, the only reason I can put up with such excess is if I'm engaged. Good characters, good story, interesting ideas, heck, even well written prose can keep me going.

So when I picked up Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton I wasn't immediately turned off by the length or the leisurely pace. On the other hand, clocking in at around a thousand pages, Hamilton had plenty of time to test my patience. It's a bloated book, to say the least. Plus, it's really just the first half of the story and the "sequel", Judas Unchained, is another thousand-plus page novel. In essence, what we have here is a 2000+ page story, split into two books. Again, I have no inherent bias against this sort of length, but in this case, I'm seriously doubting that it needed to be that long. The funny thing is that, over the course of these two books, the story falls together rather nicely. Things mentioned early that may have seemed extraneous generally do play a role later in the story. I ultimately found myself enjoying the series (I certainly would not have completed it otherwise), and there are lots of things I really like about it, but the excessive length was unnecessary.

By way of explanation, let me tell you about how I almost abandoned Pandora's Star. It was only about 100 pages in, and it was our introduction to a character named Justine Burnelli. She's a member of an interstellar dynasty and as we meet her, she's on a "safari" on some planet. She's taking a hyperglider trip across the countryside... and Hamilton lingers on every single detail of the trip, from the tethers on the glider to the flowers on the mountainside, to the tune of about 30 or so pages. Nothing of import actually happens during this trip - she flies over the landscape, that's it. Now, I suppose it does illustrate something about Justine's personality and as a matter of fact, this "hyperglider" thing comes into play later in the story (um, about 2000 pages later). But it's also something that could have been done in about 5 pages.

Now, take that situation and repeat about 100 times (this is no exaggeration, and you could probably jack that number up to 200 or 300), and you'll have an idea of why these two books are so long, and why their length is something of an issue for me. It's not the story that's a problem, it's that Hamilton thinks we need to see every component of every sub-plot. For instance, one of the characters is named Paula Myo. She's basically a galactic detective, and we see her take on a seemingly unrelated case at one point. This is fine in concept - it's an introduction to how formidable she is - but it drags on and on and on for far too long. It turns out that the characters in that case become important later in the story, but the original investigation still didn't warrant as much time as Hamilton spent on them.

Ultimately, after about 500 pages or so, the book does settle into a groove where things actually start happening. And when stuff actually feels important, Hamilton's obsessive focus on detail is much more welcome, if sometimes still a bit overbearing. So there was clearly enough here to keep me going, but I maintain that this could have been at least 25% (if not a full 50% or even more) shorter.

The story begins when an astronomer notices two starts disappeared from the sky in an instant. The speculation is that some advanced society has implemented a Dyson sphere, but why so suddenly? An expedition is put together to answer the myriad questions. Meanwhile, a sorta cult/terrorist group is trying to hunt down an alien called the Starflyer, whom they believe is able to brainwash human beings and thus has been infiltrating the Commonwealth political and economic structures.

As previously mentioned, things start slowly, but eventually pick up. At some point, a war with an alien species (called Primes) breaks out, and that's when things start to get really interesting. The Primes very well realized... and terrifying. Hamilton's detailed style is at its best when he's writing from the Primes' perspective (particularly a Prime known as MorningLightMountain) and when he's detailing battles in this war (and they are epic battles taking place across 20-50 worlds at a time). The Primes are a scary enemy, but their motivations and methods are, well, alien, and Hamilton does a good job exploiting the differences between the Primes and Humans during the battle sequences, as well as overall strategy. The balance of power tips both ways at different times, and it's a war I could see either side (or both sides) losing.

There are far too many characters to summarize right now, even if I focus only on main viewpoint characters. This is definitely a challenge of the book, as you will sometimes go several hundred pages before returning to a given character. Some characters are visited frequently, of course, but others may only have 20-30 pages in the entire two books. Many of them feel rather similar, though I'm not sure if that was intentional or not. There's a weird focus on sex and superficial looks, though again, that might be a reasonable speculation in a universe where comprehensive rejuvenation is available. There were a few characters I actively disliked (notably including a guy named Mark!), but most were approachable enough and easy to spend time with. Sometimes I felt like characters were nothing more than plot delivery devices, but occasionally we get a glimpse into something that humanizes them. I wouldn't call the characters a failing or anything that bad, but they definitely seem to take a back seat to the story and technology.

For the most part, Hamilton touches on every SF trope he can. A galactic civilization called the Commonwealth, with plenty of unique planetary governments. Longevity treatments mean that humans can live indefinitely. Memory inserts and cloning mean that you can be "re-lifed" if you suffer "body-loss". Varying degrees of computer/human interfaces and cyberware. Genetic modifications. All sorts of fancy energy weapons and force fields. FTL travel comes in the form of wormholes. Inside the Commonwealth, these wormholes are set up along with a train system, though once the war starts, spaceships are built. Time travel is even sorta touched on at one point (traveling to the future, so no paradox). He touches on the singularity with a character called the Sentient Intelligence (SI). We run into all sorts of cosmic structures and big pieces of technology like the Dyson spheres. I already mentioned the Primes, but there are several other alien species... In particular, the Silfen are an interesting bunch. They're kinda elf-like and they eschew most technology (and politics/economics, for that matter), choosing instead to wander along their Paths (which are sorta like wormholes, but much less distinct and much more hand-wavey). Other aliens include the High Angel, an alien spaceship that invites anyone who is interested to live in its pods. And there's probably a ton of other stuff I'm leaving out.

Despite Hamilton's tendency to be longwinded, all of this stuff is there for a reason. It all fits together in the end, and each of these technologies plays a role in the story. Even if it didn't need to be this long or include quite so many viewpoint characters, that Hamilton has managed to string all of this together in a way that fits is actually very impressive.

Hamilton's views on technology and its resulting consequences is generally well thought out and logical. While he does touch on a lot of hand-wavey stuff (see list of SF tropes above!), he never takes that too far, and most of it seems to be an approachable extension of current trends. For instance, while he does mention beam weapons and force fields and the like, nuclear bombs are still pretty effective. He speculates about some advancements in that area, but nothing that feels unreasonable. He's set up a truly terrifying alien threat, but he doesn't rely on a deus ex machina to resolve the conflict.

So this is a difficult series for me. On the one hand, it's longer than it needs to be. On the other hand, it's a highly imaginative, epic space opera, and ultimately every engaging to read. In the end, it's something I can recommend for fans of SF who don't mind excessive detail or extremely long books. And if you go into it knowing that the two books are meant to be read as one story, that might make things a little more approachable (I was unaware that the first book would just sorta end without resolving anything, which left a bad taste in my mouth).
Posted by Mark on August 11, 2013 at 12:43 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sunday SF Meme
Well, not this Sunday. That would be silly. SF Signal posted these questions two weeks ago, and I'm posting my responses now, because that's how we do things here at Kaedrin.

My favorite alien invasion book or series is...?

All the examples that are coming to mind seem like borderline cases. Is Ender's Game an alien invasion book? The story is set into motion by an invasion, but you don't actually see it (Ender reviews recordings of it). How about Anathem? That one seems even more borderline (Are they aliens? Are they actually "invading"?), though if it does qualify, it'd probably be my favorite. What can I say, I'm a Neal Stephenson junkie. This... may come up again.

My favorite alternate history book or series is...?

While I can't say as though I've really delved into the alternate history sub-genre, the two books that come to mind immediately are Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union and Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. The latter of which has the more clever premise (indeed, it's got an almost recursive structure) and is clearly more influential (it's among the early examples of a "what if the Axis won WWII?" story), but the former is a much more enjoyable read (basically a neo-noir style detective story).

My favorite cyberpunk book or series is...?

Here comes Stephenson again: Snow Crash. Of course, he was sorta taking the piss out of the sub-genre and even kinda killed it, but that's sorta why I like it, as I'm not a huge fan of cyberpunk. William Gibson's Neuromancer is a worthy runner-up here, though it's still not really a novel that I love.

My favorite Dystopian book or series is...?

Another sub-genre I'm not a huge fan of, yet the answer is blindingly obvious: Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell.

My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is...?

The start of the Golden-Age is pretty easy to pinpoint - when John W. Campbell became the editor for Astounding Science Fiction magazine in the late 1930s. When the Golden-Age ends is more vague. I'll place the line of demarcation at 1960. It's an arbitrary choice, but it seems to work. However, given that constraint, the first book that came to mind (a Heinlein) is no longer eligible! So what I'm left with is a bunch of Asimov, which I do love despite the distinctly wooden nature of his prose, and a bunch of other one-offs. The two that seem to be winning the battle are Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956) and Theodore Sturgeon's More than Human (1953).

My favorite hard sf book or series is...?

My answer here is going to be an author, because I can't think of anyone who writes hard SF at the level of Greg Egan (I'm sure they exist, I just haven't read them). Egan's books make me question whether or not I've ever read hard SF before. So to narrow it down a bit, I'll go with Diaspora. The hardest of SF, with an ambitious and truly astounding scope. (For something a little more approachable, Permutation City works pretty well, while still being "hard").

My favorite military sf book or series is...?

In terms of straight up military SF, I'll go with Old Man's War, by John Scalzi. Though Starship Troopers and The Forever War are clearly more influential and "important", they both have pretty heavy flaws (Heinlein's incessant lecturing, Haldeman's treatment of sexuality). I suppose you could say that Old Man's War is a little on the light and fluffy side, but I think it works pretty well.

My favorite near-future book or series is...?

I want to put Cryptonomicon here because it's Stephenson and my favorite book, but it's only debatably a near-future book (it's unspecified, but the implications are present-day or very-near-future), and even the near-future stuff is only half the book (with the other half being set in WWII). That being said, I'm keeping it here, because why not?

My favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is...?

The two that come immediately to mind are Stephen King's The Stand and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. Both books suffer from poor adaptations into film/TV, but are excellent in their own right and well worth reading.

My favorite robot/android book or series is...?

Asimov's Robot Series pretty much takes the cake here. I can think of lots of other books that feature robots, but they're usually just window dressing. Asimov's robots aren't truly about robots either, I guess, but I love the way he starts from basic principles (the three laws of robotics) and sets about subverting them at every turn.

My favorite space opera book or series is...?

Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. I was tempted to put this for the military SF question, because there is a fair amount of that going on in the series, but it's really much more of a space opera than a military series (even if there are a lot of military SF elements).

My favorite steampunk book or series is...?

I don't really do steampunk, so I don't really have anything to pull from here. Mulligan!

My favorite superhero book or series is...?

My love of Batman is probably more due to The Animated Series and the movies, but I've read some of the comics too, which is more than can be said for most superheroes.

My favorite time travel book or series is...?

Yikes, a suprising amount of choices here. Asimov's The End of Eternity and Dean Koontz' Lightning (the book that got me into reading when I was a youngin) both spring to mind. Downtiming the Night Side by Jack Chalker takes things in extremely weird directions, but I enjoyed it. There's probably a dozen others I could list (or want to read), as this is a favorite sub-genre.

My favorite young adult sf book or series is...?

My first thought here was Heinlein's juveniles, stuff like Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and Tunnel in the Sky. Then I remembered Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which is clearly the best choice.

My favorite zombie book or series is...?

I kinda hate zombie stories, so they're not something I really seek out in book form. The closest thing I've read to this would be the aforementioned I Am Legend (which are vampires, but the story contains many tropes that would become common in zombie stories).

The 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are...?

Well, it's a long list, but three upcoming books: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold, Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks, and Warhorse by Timothy Zahn.

So that just about covers it. Lessons learned: I have a hard time choosing a favorite novel (most answers above list 2 books, if not more), and I'm not super well read in every sub-genre. Heh.

Update: scepticsmiscellanea gives answers. Warning: We've got another Stephenson/Bujold junkie here, so yeah, some overlap with my answers.
Posted by Mark on August 04, 2013 at 10:51 AM .: link :.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Book Queue, 2013 Update
It's only been about 4 months since the last book queue post, but I've already knocked off about half that list (out of 10 posted, 5 books completed, one other started) and while that might not sound like a lot, keep in mind that at least a couple books were behemoths like Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which is a long, dense, philosophical, mathematical text that has been sitting on my shelf unread for about 5 years. And naturally, I've read plenty of things that weren't in the queue, because I'm fickle like that. So sue me.

The notion of only reading long epics is certainly not going to fly all year long, but I still plan on tackling a few massive tomes just to keep frosty. My Goodreads Reading Challenge is currently set at a reasonable 30 books for the year, but according to my stats, I should be just about equaling the number of pages I read last year (when I hit a 50 book goal). So anyways, here are the holdovers from the last list, and some new ones I'll be tackling in this second half of the year.

The four remaining books from my last queue (note: I began Theodore Rex, but have not yet finished)
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (992 pages) - I have to admit, I probably won't get to this one this year, unless I put on a lot of mileage in Theodore Rex (which I'm intentionally reading rather slowly), but I swears, this will be the next forbiddingly long history book I read.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (800 pages) - I'll definitely be starting this one in the next couple months sometime (probably after some vacations in August), and I am very much looking forward to it.
  • Ulysses by James Joyce (783 pages) - Go big or go home. This is one of those towering literary novels that's supposed to be great but impossible to read. And long! Not sure if I'll have the fortitude to pick this one up this year, but I do want to give it a shot at some point.
  • Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh (528 pages) - I was not a huge fan of C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner, but this one seems to be more my speed. I was thinking about doing this as an audio-book during an upcoming long drive, but the reviews of the reader are awful, so I guess that's out. Definitely something I plan on reading this year though.
New Stuff
  • Judas Unchained by Peter F. Hamilton - Hamilton's book Pandora's Star was on the last queue, but I didn't realize that it was really just the first half of a longer story. It doesn't even really end on a cliffhanger so much as it just sorta stops (that's perhaps not too fair, but I was still disappointed), so now that I'm about a thousand pages in, I figure I should finish off the story (and this one is another thousand or so pages, jeeze).
  • Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold - Another book whose predecessor was in the last queue, but in this series, Bujold at least writes self-contained stories, so I can take my time getting to this one (which I will probably read in the near future).
  • The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey - A short book I added to the list because I'm trying Worlds Without End's 2013 Readers Challenge, which is to read 12 books - 1 each by 12 different female authors. I'm 5 books into that challenge, and am looking forward to expanding my horizons a bit more. McCaffrey is probably more famous for her fantasy novels, but this one is SF and sounds interesting enough.
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain - Whenever I take those Myers Briggs tests, I always score off the charts as an Introvert (I've taken the test formally two times, scoring a 95 and 100 on the Introvert side respectively), and I'm always fascinated by that and what it means. I picked this up based on Jay's review a while back, and am looking forward to digging in at some point.
  • Warhorse by Timothy Zahn - A little while back, Amazon put up Kindle versions of a bunch of Zahn's back catalog, much of which is out of print. Zahn has always been a favorite of mine, a workhorse I could always fall back on, so I'm happy to have more books available, and this one will probably make great vacation reading.
  • Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks - The first in the Banks' Culture series, which seems to be pretty well respected and beloved. Banks recently passed away, but seems to have made a big impact (apparently one of the folks that brought Space Opera back into vogue in the 80s and 90s).
Well, that should keep me busy for a while. I do want to make sure I work in some horror novels when we get to the Six Weeks of Halloween marathon, but I'll need to look into that a bit. I'm a bit out of practice when it comes to horror literature (any suggestions?)
Posted by Mark on July 14, 2013 at 05:39 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 30, 2013

SF Book Review, Part 13
I've fallen a bit behind in chronicling my science fiction reading of late, though a few individual reviews have slipped through. Still reading lots of books, though, so it'll be a while before I'm fully caught up. So let's get this party started:
  • Ubik by Philip K. Dick - I'm not all that familiar with Dick's work, but he's famous for stories involving drugs and paranoia... things that don't particularly excite me. And yet this book, which squarely hits both targets, was really enjoyable. Perhaps because it also has some semblance of a plot, which I gather isn't always the case with Dick. The story is about a group of anti-psychics who get ambushed on the job. Some manage to escape, but find themselves embroiled in some sort of weird phenomena, with their boss appearing in weird ways (such as the face on a coin) or time moving backwards. A mysterious product/drug called Ubik seems to hold the key to solving it all. It's a little more coherent than I'm making it out to be, but still plenty of mind-fuckery to keep a Dick fan engaged. I really enjoyed this.
  • Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold - Slowly but surely exhausting the supply of Bujold books that I have not read, this one is actually a far-flung prequel to the Vorkosigan series focusing on the Quaddies - genetically engineered humans with an additional pair of arms where their legs would be. They were created specifically for work in free fall, but when someone figures out how to create artificial gravity, they become obsolete overnight. The story is mostly told from a regular human engineer named Leo Graf, who sees how the corporation is going to exploit the quaddies and helps them escape their fate. As per usual, Bujold's storytelling is fantastic and her characters warm and engaging. Some clever ideas here too, and a nice sorta heist climax that works really well. Perhaps not her finest work, but a worthwhile read for sure!
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester - A retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo... in space! The story follows Gulliver Foyle, who is marooned in space and manages to survive on his own in the wreckage. When an apparent rescue ship ignores his signals, Foyle is enraged and embarks on a maniacal quest for revenge. He's not very bright and half mad from the isolation, but he picks up many skills, escapes from jail, foils corporations, and generally acts like a jerk. It's a very interesting book, and you can see it's influence, particularly in Cyberpunk (big corporations, cybernetic body enhancement, etc...) If I'd read this earlier in life, I think it would have been more formative, but I enjoyed myself well enough reading it now...
  • Permutation City by Greg Egan - Egan is famous for very hard SF, complete with equations and lengthy discussions of complicated physics, mathematics, and biology. This book is no exception, though it is perhaps a little more accessible than other Egan books that I've read. The story covers a transition period where humans have learned how to copy themselves into a digital environment. It's not perfect, and there's lots of nagging issues with the process. The devil is in the details, and Egan has enough knowledge to flesh those details out while still making the book entertaining and fun. Along the way, you get existential theories (is a digital copy of you still you?), a lot of science, some capitalism and politics (What are the rights of digital people? If you're a digital person, how do you prevent people from destroying your hardware?) The main plot element concerns a man who thinks he can embed a whole universe into, well, I'm not really sure. He's basically embedding a digital universe in the physical world. Like, not in a computer, but just in the general world around us. It's an intriguing concept and I'm doing a really poor job describing it. Within this universe is a digital environment as well as a sorta simulation of space, complete with alien life forms that digital people can go out an meet. It's a really weird book, but intensely interesting, with tons of great ideas. Egan's characters can come off a little cold though, and the digital characters even moreso. He manages to paint a convincing picture of what digital life would be like, but it's not an entirely pretty picture. I'm betting we'll see something like this in our lifetimes... let's just hope it's a little more fun than Egan portrays it! It's a good book and a must read for any hard SF fan.
And that's all for now. I should probably review each book separately, as writing about them months later can be difficult at times. I suppose there's only one way to find out...
Posted by Mark on June 30, 2013 at 06:18 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Human Division
Every once in a while, a publisher has the bright idea to bring back serialized publishing. If it was good enough for Dickens, it's gotta be good enough for Stephen King, amiright? Indeed, King dabbled with the serial novel form a few times in the mid-90s and early 21st century (remember those skimpy The Green Mile installments popping up in book stores?) Others have too, and there's always been stories published in parts via magazines (often expanded when translated to book form, but still). I don't think it's ever truly caught on, but now that we've reached the internet age and digital publishing has established itself, it's just a lot easier and at the end of the day, you don't have 13 tiny books cluttering up your shelves (as I understand it, they generally come grouped together on your ereader).

With all due respect, I don't care for this approach, which is why I waited until John Scalzi's latest novel, The Human Division, had completed its serial run and made it's appearance as a final novel. I don't begrudge Scalzi the whole grand experiment, but I just don't have the temperament to wait a week between chapters (even if the chapters are self-contained, more on this in a bit). I'm the same way with TV shows, though in some cases I catch up with the series and start watching serially from that point on because I'm really enjoying it. So I may have to put up with it sometimes (and in the case of television, I understand the various forces that conspire to keep a serialized structure), but I don't generally like it. But enough kvetching about the method of publishing, let's get to the good stuff.

I really enjoyed the book. It's not perfect, and there is one thing I'm really annoyed by, but it's still a really fun page-turner. By way of introduction, this one is the fifth book that has been set in Scalzi's Old Man's War universe... and by my reckoning, it's the best since the first. Each book in the series has taken a different perspective on the universe. The first book focuses on the military grunts. The second book focuses on The Ghost Brigades, basically the special forces of this particular universe. It was a solid read and exciting and all that, but in my mind it was plagued by a galactic sized plot hole at the center of the story. The Last Colony is the third book, and it examines the colonists (through the eyes of characters from the first two books). It had some loose ends, but I liked it a lot. And the fourth book is Zoe's Tale, basically a retelling of the third book, but from the perspective of the teenage daughter of the colony leaders. That's a tricky approach, but I think Scalzi cleared the bar, even if it suffers from similar loose ends to the third book.

Being a serialized book, The Human Division is a bit more disjointed, but the main narrative thrust of the story is told from the perspective of the Diplomatic Corps. It picks up after the events of The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale, and without giving too much away from those earlier stories, the human factions of the story are taking a decidedly more diplomatic approach than they used to. Most of the stories surround the crew of the Clarke, a small diplomatic vessel manned by what is generally considered to be the "B" Team. They tend to bumble along most of the time, but during periods of extreme stress, they do manage to get things done.

The chapters of the book tend to alternate between tales of the Clarke, and other various one-off stories. The Clarke stories are the best of the lot, at least partly because we get to know those characters the best. Lieutenant Harry Wilson tends to be the one causing the most problems, or rather, discovering most of the problems and devising ingenious solutions. He gets into lots of shenanigans, and it's all great fun. Wilson is actually a character from the first book, and it's always great to return to him. The one-off chapters are a little more hit-or-miss. Some are great, some are just fine. Those "fine" ones (I'm looking at you, "A Voice in the Wilderness") are sometimes almost completely irrelevant to the rest of the story. Most of them seem to center around a sorta shadowy conspiracy that hasn't quite been defined just yet. They're self contained and I liked all of them, but Scalzi doesn't always come back to their characters. Given the episodic nature of the book, it's not really a complaint, and I like it when the author lets the universe breath a little.

Each story is mostly self contained, yielding a feeling very similar to that of a television series (indeed, this seems to be what Scalzi was going for, calling each chapter an "Episode"). There is an overarching plot, mostly centering around that conspiracy, but the focus is more on each individual story and resolving those conflicts. There is some refresher courses on the events of the earlier books in the series (totally understandable), but also a little repetition amongst the episodes themselves, almost as if Scalzi was expecting people to skip around. That's ultimately a very minor flaw though, and each story works pretty well in its own right. They're all filled with Scalzi's trademark witty banter and humor, but also with clever little mysteries or conundrums that spark that sensawunda feeling every now and again. Some of them are bit predictable (Checkov's gun abounds here - if Scalzi mentions a long lost artifact in passing, you can bet that Wilson will probably stumble onto it by accident and almost spark a diplomatic disaster...), but that didn't actually diminish the stories at all (for me, at least).

Also like a TV series, the ending of the book is something of a cliffhanger. The immediate conflict is resolved, but it feels like we've only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ultimate driving forces behind this book. It feels like the end of a season of TV, but that's not necessarily that satisfying either. It's not the worst offender in that respect (more on that in a later post, as I just finished a different book that basically just ran out of pages - apparently I have another 1000 page brick to get through to get any sense of closure at all). Anyways, Scalzi has announced that The Human Division has been renewed for a "Second Season". Again I don't begrudge him his cute experimental serial book as TV series metaphorical setup, but I really hope this second season finishes what has been started here. Scalzi is mildy prolific, so I'm hoping for a quick turnaround on this next season, but even then, we've probably got at least a year before the next book hits (I'm guessing it will be serialized as well).

Ultimately, I still really enjoyed the book and would recommend it. Even though it's probably good as a standalone, it would be worth reading at least the original Old Man's War (or all the other books in the series) first. Despite the cliffhanger, which was a little disappointing, I still like this book overall much better than the other sequels. This is mostly because I'm banking on an actual conclusion in the next installment and I trust that Scalzi can deliver something satisfying. I'd rather not have to wait for it, but such is life!
Posted by Mark on June 19, 2013 at 08:54 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

SF/F/H Book Meme
Via SF Signal and Ian Sales, one of them fancy book memes "for a lazy Saturday" which means that here at Kaedrin, we're doing it on Wednesday, because we're cool like that. 12 questions about science fiction, fantasy, and horror books:

1. The last sf/f/h book I read and enjoyed was:

The last Fantasy I read that I really enjoyed was The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. I don't know that it's as enjoyable as her Vorkosigan books, but I found it very approachable and unlike a lot of fantasy. It's not filled with epic battles or action, instead focusing on the kingdom's court politics and the like. There's magic, but it's limited and relatively consistent. This description might make it sound boring, but it's quite exciting. Will certainly look to read the other two in the series, but Fantasy hasn't been a big focus of mine, so I'll also mention the last SF book I read and really enjoyed: Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts, which I found clever and inventive, but still very approachable. I did a full review a couple weeks ago if you want to read more.

2. The last sf/f/h book I read and did not enjoy was:

I didn't hate Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, but I never really got into it and I wasn't aware that it was the first in a planned series, nor that it would end without any real closure (it's also something I probably wouldn't have read on my own, but it was a book club selection). While I don't have any particular desire to read the next book when it comes out (which does say something, I guess), I didn't really hate the book either... For that, I'd probably go with Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher. I actually like the concept and universe of the Dresden Files series (including the first book, which was solid and fun), but I pretty emphatically disliked this one. I may revisit the series again someday, but this one turned me off of it for a while, at least.

3. A sf/f/h book that I would recommend to new sf/f/h readers is:

The two books that immediately come to mind are Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card and Old Man's War, by John Scalzi. Both focused on military, kinda mirror images of each other, actually, with one focused on training young children to face a threat, and the other focusing on recruiting old people to fight wars. Both have good ideas (the hallmark of good SF), but are also page-turners and relatively short, addictive reads. I know Orson Scott Card has engendered quite a bit of scorn for his unpopular political views, but there's no diatribes against gay marriage in Ender's Game, and it's probably worth catching up with the book before seeing the movie, which will probably be terrible (though who knows, maybe it'll be ok).

4. A sf/f/h book that I would recommend to seasoned sf/f/h readers is:

This is a tough one for me. I'd say that I read a fair amount, but compared to many, I guess you'd say that I'm more lightly seasoned than fully seasoned. I'm at a bit of a loss here. I'm still working my way through the best-of lists and classics of the genre, so I'll just throw the first thing that comes to mind out there, which is Diaspora, by Greg Egan. It's a big, sprawling hard science fiction novel, lots of big, challenging ideas, and Egan's famous focus on really hard SF. Egan is probably more famous for Permutation City (also a very worthy read that I only recently caught up with), but I'm guessing most seasoned SF readers have already tackled that one (which is somewhat more approachable than Diaspora).

5. The sf/f/h book I most want to read next is:

Well, the next book I'll probably read is John Scalzi's just released (well, sorta) The Human Division (which is actually the latest in the aforementioned Old Man's War series). After that, I have several books in the queue, though I'm not sure what I'd hit up.

6. My favorite sf/f/h book series includes:

This is actually a really easy one, seeing as though I just read through Lois McMaster Bujold's entire Vorkosigan Saga (16 books in total, with a few short stories thrown in for good measure) and loved most of them, particularly the 4 book stretch starting with Mirror Dance and concluding with A Civil Campaign (check out my post on the series for more).

7. I will read anything by this sf/f/h author:

This is an easy one: Neal Stephenson. I think that I've read every single thing he's ever published at this point, from the lowliest short story or editorial, to his sprawling masterpieces like Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, and Anathem. Definitely my favorite author, though Bujold has come on strong lately, and I do find myself reading most of what Scalzi publishes these days.

8. The first sf/f/h book I read was:

I'm honestly not positive about this, but I'm going to go with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle or Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series, both of which I think read while I was in the sixth grade. I even remember writing a Prydain-inspired story for school called The Land of Analak (or something like that, I'll have to see if I can dig up my copy of that sucker sometime).

9. The sf/f/h book I'm most surprised that more people don't like is:

These questions are getting harder, but one book I find consistently underrepresented in best-of lists is Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, a superb and harrowing entry in the tired first contact subgenre. I don't know why it doesn't get more love.

10. The sf/f/h book I'm surprised so many people do like is:

The problem with this question is that I can think of plenty of books that I don't love that are revered by many, but I can see why they would be so popular too - so it's not exactly surprising that, say, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin or Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein have big followings. I don't mean to say that I hate those books or that I found nothing of value there, but I didn't really enjoy them. However, I can see their influence all over SF, so it's hard to be surprised that people love them. That being said, I'm going to have to leave them as my answer, because I'm drawing a blank otherwise.

11. The most expensive sf/f/h book I own is:

I have no idea here. I don't have anything notably collectible, maybe a few first edition Hardcovers purchased in the course of regular reading. I suppose the thing that comes closest is Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday The 13th, by Peter Bracke. It's a big, full color book filled with imagery, and I bought it when it was out of print. It's back in print now, but even a new copy is relatively expensive (approx $35). I think I paid somewhere on the order of $50 for a first or second edition copy at some point, so there's that.

12. The number of sf/f/h books I own and have yet to read is:

Surprisingly few, at this point. I'm pretty good about not building up a pile of shame, but a couple years ago, I probably had 10-15 unread books laying around. I knocked most of them out last year and I'm left with a couple Philip K. Dick books I bought during a sale a few months ago. The Kindle has been a great enabler in this respect, as it allows for instant gratification...
Posted by Mark on May 22, 2013 at 08:39 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Star Trek: TNG Tidbits
The Star Trek: The Next Generation Third Season BD came out recently, replete with bonus materials. Of course, it's obscenely expensive (Star Trek releases have always been so) and probably only purchased by obsessives. Us normal fans just fire up episodes on Netflix pretty easily, but then we miss out on remastered HD visuals and bonus features. Fortunately for us, Hercules from AICN has done a seemingly comprehensive recap of all those special features, and there's lots of behind the scenes gems to be had. The general consensus is that season 3 is where TNG turned the corner from a decent show into a great show, and a lot of these features apparently focus on that. Some interesting tidbits:
* A "technobabble generator" created as a joke by a friend of Shankar became a frequently utilized not-joke writers' room tool.
Always funny to hear about the teching the tech tendencies of the writers...
* Moore and Braga lament that "Star Trek: Generations," which they labored on for a year, didn't turn out as well as "All Good Things," which took two weeks to write.

* Piller argued against the other writers who wanted Wesley to stay true to his fellow cadets in the season-five episode "The First Duty." Piller prevailed and Wesley did end up throwing his friends under the bus to put Starfleet Academy honor first. The episode, relates Shankar, is now used at the U.S. Air Force Academy to teach cadets about the honor code.

* The writers reveal Brent Spiner grew weary of stories involving Data's cat Spot. As a practical joke, they inserted into one script a scene in which Data invents a collar that translates Spot's meows into English.

* One storyline that was much fought for before Piller shot it down was to kill Will Riker and replace him permanently with his transporter-mishap doppleganger Tom Riker. "It was a chance to reinvent the character," explains Moore.

* Patrick Stewart, perhaps envious of William Shatner, apparently told every TNG writer he met that Picard wasn't "shooting and screwing" enough.

* Behr had a great episode idea about Picard getting promoted to admiral and Riker given the captaincy of the Enterprise -- and how Picard dealt with the promotions. But Roddenberry insisted Picard's insecurities regarding his new life were out of character, and the script was scrapped. That concept evolved into the episode in which Picard gets boned on the pleasure planet.

* Frakes was always annoyed when the writers made Riker turn down offers of commanding his own ship. He (and many fans) felt his willingness to decline a captaincy was out of character.
Frakes hits the nail on the head with that last one. I mean, I get why it was done (the show must go on, and having Riker off on some other ship would be either contrived or lame), and it made for some good episodes (The Best of Both worlds 2 parter with the Borg being the most obvious), but the character of Riker was such an experience hound, always game for just about anything, that it's hard to believe he would turn down a captaincy.
* Ironically given the subject matter of his first script, Moore was not a fan of children living aboard the Enterprise. He also never understood why a psychotherapist was always sitting on the bridge next to the captain. Moore was also no fan of the replicator, which he believed an enemy of drama.

* Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and Moore all once lamented that they should have saved "Yesterday's Enterprise" for the plot of the "Generations" movie, with the Kirk-Spock Enterprise swapped for the Garrett-Castillo one.

* The staff, which at the time included future "Battlestar Galactica" mastermind Ronald D. Moore, would often refer to Data as "a toaster."
Lots of other interesting stuff in Herc's post...
Posted by Mark on May 12, 2013 at 01:37 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Jack Glass
Adam Roberts' novel Jack Glass presents us with a delicious mashup of pulpy SF and golden-age mystery. I am much more familiar with the former than the latter, but that simple description alone was enough to garner interest, and when this won the British Science Fiction Award for best novel, that just made the choice easier. Having read it, I find it mildy disappointing that this didn't make the Hugo shortlist, which is amusing to me, since my first exposure to Adam Roberts was his takedown of the 2009 Hugos... But I digress, back to the novel.
Jack Glass Cover Art
The story is broken up into three chunks, each a mystery that draws upon classic tropes like the locked-room mystery or country house murder. We're informed early on that the titular Jack Glass is the murderer in all instances, so these mysteries don't really take on the typical whodunit form... it's perhaps more accurate to see them as a howdunit. Each story contains elements of the other - all have some element of a locked-room mystery, for instance - and each story leads into the next smoothly enough. Again, I'm not particularly familiar with golden-age mystery stories, but these are archetypes we've seen many times before. Many have claimed it's also a pastiche of golden-age SF, and that's true to a point, though I find it to be towards the end of that hallowed era. I found it reminiscent of stories like The Space Merchants or The Stars My Destination, more like the output of the Futurians than, say, Campbell's stable.

The first section is a prison story, and a rather grim one at that. Roberts does an exceptional job establishing the characters and the setting, an impressive feat considering that there are 7 main characters in this story. The science fictional twist on your average prison story is that this prison is an asteroid. 7 prisoners are dropped off on the asteroid and given minimal supplies and a tiny habitable bubble. If they can survive for 11 years under those conditions, they can go free. Of course, in order to survive, they have to excavate the rock, find water, build out a whole tunnel system, etc... Theoretically, whether the prisoners survive the ordeal or not, the company that imprisoned them is left with an asteroid that can be sold as a dwelling to someone. Escape is impossible, as they're surrounded on all sides by millions of miles of the nothingness of space - like an Alcatraz in space. It's a clever spin on an old story, and Roberts does a great job setting the stakes. Roberts makes deft work of establishing the 7 main characters - 3 typical alpha males, 2 quasi-alphas, 1 doomed and whiny fat dude, and a cripple (which, actually, isn't as big a deal in zero-gravity). This isn't a pleasant story, and the ending is rather far-fetched, but it's a good way of establishing the world this book is set in...

The second section is the country house murder mystery, and this one is told mostly from the perspective of Diana and her sister Eva. They are the daughters of a clan of information gatherers, rather highly placed in the hierarchy of the solar system. One of their servants winds up dead, and Diana, who is a big mystery buff, seeks to find out who did it. When she is informed that it was, in fact, the notorious murderer Jack Glass, she is mightily confused about how he could possibly have achieved that. When rumors that someone has discovered Faster Than Light (FTL) travel appear, things start to get even more hairy for our protagonists.

I was not quite sure what to make of this section for a while. Diana and Eva aren't immediately the most likable characters, though they eventually grow on you. They're both genetically optimized to solve problems. Eva is more into hard sciences and physics, while Diana is more personable. They both seem to have been bred to leverage sleep and dreams to solve their problems, which makes perfect sense, but which I always find a bit annoying because I don't like the untethered nature of prose that describes dreams. This is more my failing than Roberts, though, so take that with a grain of salt.

The third story is a straight up whodunit murder, except that we know that Jack Glass did it. That being said, we have no idea how he did it, and despite there being multiple witnesses and a confined space (another locked room, it seems), no one saw him do it. Confused? Good!

Along the way we've got some interesting speculations on FTL, a clever (if distressing) explanation of the Fermi Paradox, and even some speculation on "Champagne Supernovae" (as Roberts notes in his acknowledgements "'Champagne Supernovae' are a real phenomenon, one that puzzles real astrophysicists, and which are, I'm sorry to say, really named after the Oasis song.") All of this science is covered in plain language and is easily understood while still being clever and intriguing. Roberts clearly gleans the notion that science fiction is a literature of "ideas" and manages to infuse a few surprises into those old hoary tropes like FTL.

All in all, it's a very enjoyable book. A little grim at times, it's nonetheless very well constructed, well written, and clever. And if you're the type to judge a book by its cover, you'll still be in for a treat, as the cover art is fantastic. If any of this sounds interesting, this is most certainly a worthwhile read...
Posted by Mark on May 05, 2013 at 06:52 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that Ian Sales' novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains won the Short Fiction award at the 2012 British Science Fiction Association Awards. I mentioned that I didn't particularly love it, though I did find it very well written. And of course Ian Sales stumbled onto my post (and my old review), but he just seemed happy that I cared enough to write a review and even offered to send me a review copy of the next novella in the series (called the Apollo Quartet). I declined, opting to simply buy the book, as I know that every sale counts for self-published authors, and this time around, I found that I enjoyed the story much more.

The Apollo Quartet stories are basically alternate history speculations centering around the Apollo program, with some bigger SF tropes added in for flavor. Adrift on the Sea of Rains featured the brilliant premise of a large moon base witnessing the nuclear destruction of Earth. While I wasn't ultimately satisfied with the story, that premise (which I've only really given half of) is fantastic. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself takes its time getting to the driving forces behind the story, but I ultimately found it a much more rewarding read.

The story follows Brigadier Colonel Bradley Elliott, USAF, as he is sent to investigate the possible disappearance of a human colony on an exoplanet. Twenty years earlier, Elliott was the first man to land on Mars. Something happened during that first trip to Mars that lead the higher ups to bring Elliott out of retirement and send him to investigate the exoplanet, but I won't ruin that excitement, and indeed, I may have already said too much.

I found the entire story much more enjoyable this time around. Elliott makes for a good protagonist, and there's much less angst here than there was in the previous story. Sales certainly knows his stuff, both from a technology standpoint and from a prose style standpoint. Even when he takes a scientific leap, such as the faster-than-light travel system used to travel to the exoplanet (which is 15 light years away), he seems to be able to ground it enough that it doesn't feel like a ridiculous affectation. I still find Sales lack of quotation marks around dialog to be a bit distracting, but it was also less notable here because there is less dialog (that, or I was just more engaged with the story and didn't notice as much).

I did get a little worried at one point when it seemed like the story had ended and a short little glossary came up, but when you get to the end of the glossary, there's an epilogue that contains the real kicker that was a real eye opener. That structure is a bit strange, but then, the glossary contains a lot of interesting info on the alternate history here (for instance, that's where we learn the details about how the Soviets landed on the moon first, thus inspiring the US to go to Mars), and the kicker in the conclusion does take on an added resonance when you've read some of the entries in the glossary. So where Adrift on the Sea of Rains started with a brilliant premise and trailed off (for me, at least), The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself takes a little time to get going, but ends with more satisfaction. I'd certainly recommend The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself if this sounds at all interesting to you (it's not closely tied to Adrift on the Sea of Rains, so no worries starting with the second installment either). Next up in the reading queue, the BSFA Novel award winner, Jack Glass (which has been in the queue for a while, but only recently became available in the US).
Posted by Mark on April 17, 2013 at 09:56 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

2013 Hugos
The nominations for the 2013 Hugo Awards were announced last week. The Hugos, while probably the most recognizable and representative award for science fiction and fantasy fandom, are also still, you know, awards. Like all awards everywhere and for everything, there is an inevitable and usually entertaining backlash consisting of usually pretty high profile folks railing against what they perceive as mediocrity. For a superb example of this sort of thing, see Christopher Priest's takedown of last year's Clarke Award nominees (the Clarke is a British SF&F award, and Priest's polemic hit especially hard since, you know, he's an upstanding author who has won the award in the past). Filled with just the right amount of invective and hyperbole that it's entertaining and funny without seeming like he's just some old crank. Will this year's Hugo backlash fare as well? It's still early in Hugo season, but things have certainly started off with a bang, as Justin from Staffer's Book Reviews asserts that the Hugos are "utter twaddle":
...the Hugo voter has a certain style it looks for in its fiction. Hugo-style, if you will, is like Gangnam-style only without the distracting Korean guy riding a horse, replaced with Charles Stross and Connie Willis on a podium holding a... rocket ship. I admit Gangnam-style doesn't have nearly as much sex appeal. In other words, Hugo nominated books tend to be recognizable. On the one hand because they are mostly written by Stross, Willis, John Scalzi, China Mieville, Robert Charles Wilson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ian MacDonald, and active members of the Live Journal community, but also because they fit a certain motif that's difficult to pin down. I'll fall back on the old pornography argument, "I know it when I see it."

None of this accusation of style is a criticism of the award, quite the contrary. I believe the populist nature of an award like the Hugo is vitally important. It captures the kinds of novels that more elitist awards fail to - books people love to read. I've tried several times to read John Crowley's Little, Big (which was, ironically enough, nominated for a Hugo in 1982) and it just isn't any fun. Like Little, Big though, the best novel category almost always has a wild card - something that doesn't quite fit in to the Hugo mold - and sometimes they win. These winning standouts usually represent something that can't be ignored for societal (Windup Girl), cultural (Among Others), or inferiority inferiority complexacle (The Yiddish Policeman's Union) reasons.
So far, so good, and not too critical, though you can see the beginnings of his ultimate problem with the Hugos up there in that first paragraph. After giving two examples of worthy novels that weren't nominated (Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts, and NK Jemisin's The Killing Moon), he starts to get to the heart of the matter.
Books like Bear's and Jemisin's are missing not because they aren't good enough or even because they aren't the kinds of books Hugo voters support, but because of an impenetrable culture of voting habits that precludes them from being part of the discussion. Those habits involve Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi, and (of late) Seanan McGuire who are as likely to be nominated for a Hugo as Barrack Obama is to be heckled at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.
In essence, anyone who follows the Hugos, even just in the Best Novel category, is bound to notice the same 6-7 names popping up year after year. The aforementioned Stross, Willis, Scalzi, Mieville, Wilson, Bujold, MacDonald, etc... It looks like we can add Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) to the list, as she's made the shortlist for the past three years due to her Newsflesh trilogy of zombie books. And there are plenty of others who don't publish often enough to achieve that sort of repetition. The question that is being raised is not whether or not these are good authors, but whether or not every single work each of these authors produce needs to be nominated. The argument becomes a little more pronounced in some of the other categories, like the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (i.e. TV shows):
....best dramatic short form can be summarized in one sentence: why does an award exist when 60% of the nominees year in and year out are from one creative enterprise?
He's talking about Doctor Who, which has garnered at least 2 and usually 3 nominations per year since it was rebooted in 2006 (and has won the award every year except for one, when the Hugo went to another frequent nominee, Joss Whedon, for his admittedly worthy Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). In fairness, as someone pointed out in the comments, this could very well be due to the way in which television is distributed. The Hugos are, technically, a worldwide award, and Doctor Who is actually distributed pretty well around the world, often airing at the same time or only a week or two later. Other shows air seasons in different years, etc... which makes it hard for some of them to gain traction. Anyway, similar arguments can be made for some of the other categories, some of which don't really change at all from year to year (particularly the "fan" categories, though I get the impression that that is a bit too insular for even me to care about).

It's a fair point. I mean, I know that Neil Gaiman is a good author, do we need to nominate everything the dude does? The post takes a pretty critical eye on recent Kaedrin favorite Lois McMaster Bujold, perhaps unfairly comparing her to Heinlein, but on the other hand, Justin is dead on when he wondered why Cryoburn needed to be nominated. I like the book just fine, but it's pretty clear why it was nominated: it was the first entry in a beloved series in 10 years. People were just so happy to spend some more time with (the admittedly great character of) Miles Vorkosigan that they just went and nominated the book, almost automatically. Again, I enjoyed the book, but I'd put it somewhere towards the middle of the pack of Bujold's work, nowhere close to that amazing late 90s run starting with the Hugo winning Mirror Dance and finishing with the Hugo nominated A Civil Campaign (which had quite stiff competition that year). I think you could make the same argument against this year's nominee, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, though I think that one is a step above Cryoburn.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that there is no real solution. Sometimes an author legitimately goes on a tear of great writing. Justin seems to think highly of Heinlein, who went on his own tear of frequent nominations/wins in the late 50s and early/mid 60s. Will Bujold or Mieville prove to be as influential or long-lasting as Heinlein? Well, that's sorta missing the point, isn't it? I'm sure someone in the 60s was all "Heinlein is a good author, but what about all that weird polyamorous sex crap? Do we need to nominate him every year?"

To be perfectly honest, I don't read enough newly published SF/F to really say that this year's slate is good or bad. I've read two of the nominees: Redshirts and Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. I liked both of these books, and managed to read through them really quickly, but I would not have been surprised at all if they weren't nominated. It's not that they're bad - they're both good - but it's hard not to take Justin's point to heart. Are people nominating these books because they're really the best books, or because Scalzi and Bujold are super popular? Of the other three nominees, the one I'm most likely to read is 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson (incidentally, this is his 5th nomination), and from what I've seen, I'd probably be better off reading Robinson's Mars trilogy. I'm not going to read Blackout because I'm fucking sick of zombies and it's the third book in a series, and Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fantasy, which is fine, but I'd rather spend my time catching up on other fantasy stuff.

So this post contains a lot of whinging and not a whole lot of real, genuine insight. I'm not really in a position to refute Justin's position, and I can certainly see that he's correct, but on the other hand, I don't know that it's the worst thing evar either. A lot of this seems like shouting at gravity to me. Yeah, you see a lot of the same authors from year to year. This is going to happen on a populist award list, and the authors do change over time. The grand majority of the frequent nominees mentioned in this post emerged in this century, with a few having started in the 1990s. Some (Seanan McGuire) have emerged in the past few years. I would certainly welcome fresh and interesting nominees, but it doesn't really bother me to see the likes of Scalzi and Bujold either. Ultimately, it's all a subjective enterprise, so while it's fun to read cranky responses to the ballot, we should probably keep in mind that just because something you don't like was nominated doesn't mean the whole enterprise is doomed.

And, just for fun, some miscellaneous thoughts on the Hugos:
  • There is a lot of angst around the dearth of short story nominees (two of which are available online for free), due to a Hugo rule that in order to be nominated, an entry must receive at least 5% of the vote (and there's a minimum of 3 nominees, so it's possible, though probably unlikely, that no short story received 5% of the vote this year). This is apparently not unheard of, especially in the short story category, which is more varied and less talked about than other categories. Cheryl Morgan has the details on the 5% rule and a cautionary tale too.
  • Morgan also notes that this year's Hugo ballot "has been submerged in a terrifying flood of girl cooties." Women took 11 of 18 nominations in the fiction categories, with the aforementioned Seanan McGuire nominated for 4 fiction awards (she's also nominated for the podcast award).
  • In other awards news, the 2012 BSFA Award Winners were recently announced, including Jack Glass for Best Novel (been in the queue a while, but only because it wasn't available in the states!) and the self-published Adrift on the Sea of Rains, by Ian Sales (which I did not particularly love, but which was well done for sure).
And that's all for now. I should probably get back to reading some SF instead of wanking about it on the internet.
Posted by Mark on April 03, 2013 at 10:27 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Locus Online's 20th and 21st Century SF Novel Polls
Back in November, Locus Online conducted a poll for the best science fiction and fantasy of the 20th and 21st Centuries. The results, based on 625 ballots, were tallied and posted just last week. Like all such lists, it's merits are debatable, but I always find them fun and we all know that Americans love lists, so let's get down to brass tacks here.

As I did with NPR's top SF/F list, I'll list them out, bold the ones I've read and maybe throw in some annotations, because I'm a dork like that. I'm focusing on Novels here, but Locus also has novellas, novelettes (why is SF the only one that has these?), and short stories. Also, they broke out SF and Fantasy, so I'm only really focusing on the SF side of things. Ok, enough disclaimers, here's the 20th Century List:
  1. Herbert, Frank : Dune (1965) - Certainly nothing to argue with here, and I like that the Locus poll doesn't include all the sequels (which, I admit, I never read).
  2. Card, Orson Scott : Ender's Game (1985) - I'm still surprised that Card's real life shenanigans have not impacted this novel, but on the other hand, it's a great book, deserving of the praise it gets.
  3. Asimov, Isaac : The Foundation Trilogy (1953) - I have a soft spot for Asimov, but I think I always preferred his Robot books. Still, I get why Foundation always comes out on top.
  4. Simmons, Dan : Hyperion (1989) - In the queue for this year!
  5. Le Guin, Ursula K. : The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) - Great novel, one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years.
  6. Adams, Douglas : The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) - I never connected with this as much as others, but given that this shows up near the top of all of these type lists, I guess everyone else does!
  7. Orwell, George : Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) - A classic.
  8. Gibson, William : Neuromancer (1984) - Not a favorite, but certainly a good book and an important one too, in that it represents the whole Cyberpunk thing.
  9. Bester, Alfred : The Stars My Destination (1957) - I am literally going to pick up this book when I finish this post.
  10. Bradbury, Ray : Fahrenheit 451 (1953) - Finally caught up with this last year and enjoyed it.
  11. Heinlein, Robert A. : Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) - Not my favorite Heinlein, but I get that it's a cultural touchstone and thus always rates highly on these lists.
  12. Heinlein, Robert A. : The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) - This one is my favorite Heinlein, and while perhaps not as high as I would rank it, it's still pretty well represented here.
  13. Haldeman, Joe : The Forever War (1974) - Interesting that this one ranks higher than Starship Troopers, though I think you could make the case either way. Heck, they're so connected that you almost never hear about one without the other being referenced.
  14. Clarke, Arthur C. : Childhood's End (1953) - I like this book and it's a solid choice, but I like other Clarke novels better than this one...
  15. Niven, Larry : Ringworld (1970) - On the bubble for this year's queue, but I'll get to it at some point, I'm sure.
  16. Le Guin, Ursula K. : The Dispossessed (1974) - I'm really not a big fan of this novel and greatly prefer Left Hand of Darkness, but it does usually show up on lists like this, so it must strike a nerve with everyone else...
  17. Bradbury, Ray : The Martian Chronicles (1950) - On the bubble for this year's queue, but I'll get to it at some point, I'm sure.
  18. Stephenson, Neal : Snow Crash (1992) - I love that Stephenson made the list, and this is an important novel in a lot of ways (puts the nail in the coffin of Cyberpunk, popularized/presaged a lot of internet conventions). I really can't complain, even if I prefer Cryptonomicon...
  19. Miller, Walter M. , Jr. : A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) - Another one I caught up with last year, largely prompted by lists like this one. It was certainly very good and I can see why it's on a list like this, even if it's not really my thing.
  20. Pohl, Frederik : Gateway (1977) - On the bubble for this year's queue, but I'll get to it at some point, I'm sure.
  21. Heinlein, Robert A. : Starship Troopers (1959) - For a book consisting mostly of lectures, it's pretty darn good. As a thought experiment, I love it even if I don't wholly agree with it. There's also not much of a story and I can see it chafing some readers. Still, it basically codified the modern Military SF sub-genre, so it's certainly an important book...
  22. Dick, Philip K. : The Man in the High Castle (1962) - A novel I found much more fascinating in it's conception (an alternate history in which a fictional character is writing his own alternate history) than it's execution, it is definitely a good read, but perhaps not something I'd have put on the list.
  23. Zelazny, Roger : Lord of Light (1967) - One of those books that made me wish I paid more attention to Siddhartha when I read it for school. A really interesting novel though, with a sorta literary tone I don't feel like we get much of these days.
  24. Wolfe, Gene : The Book of the New Sun (1983) - Another one that's on the bubble for this year's queue.
  25. Lem, Stanislaw : Solaris (1970) - I saw the movie, does that count? I am curious to see how the novel stacks up, though I don't know that I'll get to it this year.
  26. Dick, Philip K. : Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) - I suppose I should really break down and read this sucker, the story Blade Runner was based on... but I picked up a bunch of Philip K. Dick books in a sale last year, so I'll probably settle for those this year.
  27. Vinge, Vernor : A Fire Upon The Deep (1992) - A great book featuring one of the most original alien species in all of SF. The ending is a little odd, but the novel is overall well deserving of this sort of recognition.
  28. Clarke, Arthur C. : Rendezvous with Rama (1973) - I have not read this in a long time, but it was one of the formative SF novels I read when I was younger, and I definitely like it better than the aforementioned Childhood's End.
  29. Huxley, Aldous : Brave New World (1932) - I should really get on this one at some point, but I've just never psyched myself up for this dystopic experience. Someday, perhaps.
  30. Clarke, Arthur C. : 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Another Clarke book I like better than Childhood's End, and I like the relationship between the book and movie (both of which I think are great).
  31. Vonnegut, Kurt : Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) - Another one on the bubble for this year's queue.
  32. Strugatsky, Arkady & Boris : Roadside Picnic (1972) - This is the first book on the list that I'd never even heard of! Sounds interesting and now that I look into it, i see that this is another Soviet novel adapted to film by Andrei Tarkovsky (like Solaris), though I have not seen that...
  33. Card, Orson Scott : Speaker for the Dead (1986) - While I loved the aforementioned Ender's Game, for some reason, I've never visited any of the sequels. Perhaps that should change this year...
  34. Brunner, John : Stand on Zanzibar (1968) - Another new wave dystopia? Maybe. It doesn't seem as relentlessly annoying as others of its ilk, but again, sometimes I find it hard to muster enthusiasm for such works.
  35. Robinson, Kim Stanley : Red Mars (1992) - I'd like to check this novel out this year, along with its two sequels. They seem to be pretty well regarded...
  36. Niven, Larry (& Pournelle, Jerry) : The Mote in God's Eye (1974) - This one pops up on a lot of lists. It's in the queue.
  37. Willis, Connie : Doomsday Book (1992) - A really good book, not sure I'd have ranked it this high.
  38. Atwood, Margaret : The Handmaid's Tale (1985) - Another dystopia that doesn't really rev my engine, but it's something I should probably check out at some point.
  39. Sturgeon, Theodore : More Than Human (1953) - It's nice that Sturgeon made the list, and this novel is certainly a worthy inclusion.
  40. Simak, Clifford D. : City (1952) - Another book I'm unfamiliar with, though it does sound interesting...
  41. Brin, David : Startide Rising (1983) - This is the second book in Brin's "Uplift Saga", a series I've been meaning to check out for a while. On the bubble for this year!
  42. Asimov, Isaac : Foundation (1950) - Not sure why this is separated out from the Trilogy listed above at #3?
  43. Farmer, Philip Jose : To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) - Another book I'm not particularly familiar with, though I've seen Farmer's name bandied about often enough.
  44. Dick, Philip K. : Ubik (1969) - A book I caught up with last year and really enjoyed, moreso than I thought I would.
  45. Vonnegut, Kurt : Cat's Cradle (1963) - Yeah, I need to read more Vonnegut, I get it.
  46. Vinge, Vernor : A Deepness in the Sky (1999) - I really enjoyed this book, though I find that it shares a lot in common with A Fire Upon the Deep. I can't really fault anyone for including this book, but if I were making a list, I wouldn't include both.
  47. Simak, Clifford D. : Way Station (1963) - Another interesting sounding book... Probably won't get to it this year, but you never know...
  48. Wyndham, John : The Day of the Triffids (1951) - I've seen this book on so many of these type lists that I figure I should check it out at some point. Killer plant story, I think I may have seen bits and pieces of a movie adaptation or something...
  49. Keyes, Daniel : Flowers for Algernon (1966) - One of the novels I caught up with last year, and it's a fantastic, heartbreaking novel.
  50. Delany, Samuel R. : Dhalgren (1975) - This gets thrown out a lot in such lists, but I've never quite brought myself to attempt such a large, forbidding tome. Or maybe my preconceptions about it are completely off. Only one way to find out, I guess, but I've got enough stuff I want to read in the short term...
Phew, that took longer than expected. It's an interesting list, and I faired pretty well, though it's perhaps not an ideal list. If I were to put together a favorite SF list, I'd probably feature a lot of books that weren't on there, but then, that's the way of such lists based on polls. Here's the 21st century list:
  1. Scalzi, John : Old Man's War (2005) - I'm a little surprised at how well regarded this novel is, though I do really love it, so I guess there is that...
  2. Stephenson, Neal : Anathem (2008) - Stephenson is my favorite author, so this obviously makes me happy. I would probably put it ahead of Old Man's War, but these make an interesting top 2 either way.
  3. Bacigalupi, Paolo : The Windup Girl (2009) - I don't know about this one. There's a lot about this that just doesn't ring my bells, if you know what I mean. No? Well, whatever. I might give this a shot sometime, but I can't see it happening anytime soon.
  4. Wilson, Robert Charles : Spin (2005) - This has been in the queue for a while, I've just never really gotten to it.
  5. Watts, Peter : Blindsight (2006) - I go back and forth on whether I want to read this, but I'll probably get to it at some point.
  6. Morgan, Richard : Altered Carbon (2002) - If I ever get in the mood for a Cyberpunk marathon, this would be on the list. But I'm not a big Cyberpunk fan, so there's that.
  7. Collins, Suzanne : The Hunger Games (2008) - I didn't particularly care for the worldbuilding here, but the meat of the story is solid, thrilling stuff.
  8. Gibson, William : Pattern Recognition (2003) - Gibson's post-Cyberpunk stuff does seem interesting to me, but I've never been so enthused about this one. May need to look a little deeper.
  9. Mieville, China : The City & the City (2009) - I read my first Mieville a little while ago, and would be curious to check out more from him. This one seems as good a place as any.
  10. Stross, Charles : Accelerando (2005) - I didn't really care for this novel. I just never really got into it.
  11. Mitchell, David : Cloud Atlas (2004) - The movie makes me curious to see if the book reads better than it plays on screen...
  12. McDonald, Ian : River of Gods (2004) - McDonald is an author that I need to check out.
  13. McCarthy, Cormac The Road (2006) - If I can muster enthusiasm, I might check it out. I wouldn't hold my breath though...
  14. Harrison, M. John : Light (2002) - I'd not heard of this one, but it sounds really interesting.
  15. Chabon, Michael : The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007) - I really enjoyed this one, an alternate history novel that reads more like a hard boiled neo-noir.
  16. Willis, Connie : Black Out/All Clear (2010) - I like Willis as an author and would like to read more of her stuff, so this is in the running.
  17. Niffenegger, Audrey : The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) - I've been told that this wouldn't really be my thing. Fine by me!
  18. Simmons, Dan : Ilium (2003) - More excited for Hyperion than for this one, but if I'm super-taken with Hyperion, maybe I'll eventually make my way here...
  19. Doctorow, Cory : Little Brother (2008) - This one has been on my radar for a while, I've just never gotten to it...
  20. Ishiguro, Kazuo : Never Let Me Go (2005) - Something about this has never really interested me. I should look into it more, but...
Hrm, well I didn't do quite so well on the 21st century list, which is interesting. Every year, I'd be curious to see what it would be like to read, say, all of the Hugo nominated novels/stories, but I never really get around to it... maybe this will be the year.

Some assorted comments about the above lists: Female authors not particularly well represented on either list. Kaedrin favorite Lois McMaster Bujold shows up in the voting a lot, but it appears that her Vorkosigan series books caused a lot of split votes, though she did really well on the Fantasy lists (not discussed above). I'm really surprised that Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow only got one paltry vote.

There's a ton of overlap with similar such lists, though there were definitely a few interesting choices that didn't appear on, say, the NPR list. I'd be really curious to see how the 21st century list evolves over time. The 20th century list definitely has a lot of old standbys, but I could see the 21st century list changing a lot as time goes on...
Posted by Mark on January 02, 2013 at 11:21 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, December 09, 2012

SF Book Review, Part 12
I've fallen way behind on the SF Book Review train. I've done a few individual reviews, but I've been reading at a pretty fast pace this year. Perhaps part of the reason I haven't done a SF Book Review lately is that... I'm reading less science fiction. For various reasons, I've hit up a bunch of Fantasy, Horror, Crime, and Non-Fiction this year. SF remains my favorite genre, but others keep creeping in the queue, and even this roundup contains stuff that would likely be classified Fantasy. But whatever, here's some quick thoughts on some books I've read recently.
  • Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales - A short novella, the first in a series called the Apollo Quartet. The premise is fantastic. Nine Apollo-era astronauts establish a base on the Moon, only to see the Earth succumb to nuclear war. Stranded, they turn to their experimental "torsion field generator", a mysterious device stolen from the Nazis after WWII. Also referred to as the "Bell", it seems that it's able to transport the Moon base across alternate universes. They've got limited supplies, and so far, all attempts at ringing the Bell have only brought them to an alternate universe in which the Earth has still succumbed to nuclear war. Great setup, right? Unfortunately, while Sales does deliver on a lot of that potential, his characters aren't really too involving. Now, they've all been cooped up with each other on a tiny Moon base and their planet has just blown up, so you would expect some irritability from them... It makes sense that these characters would be annoying and short tempered and whatnot, but at the same time, that doesn't exactly do much to endear them to me either. I just didn't enjoy spending time with them. Stylistically, Sales knows what he's doing, though he makes some odd choices. For instance, his dialog does not use quotes or italics or anything that distinguishes dialog from prose. At first, I thought this was just a mistake, something got lost in the translation to ebook format or something, but it's apparently a deliberate choice on Sales' part. I'm also not quite sure what to make of the ending. It's got a bit of an ironic twist, one of those things where the character has no idea what he's done, but we the reader know things he doesn't... It's cleverly constructed, but I don't really like it. Strangely, I don't think I'm supposed to like it. So we've got some fantastic ideas here, but a narrative that isn't particularly satisfying. It is very short, so that makes it more palatable, and the ideas are interesting enough that I'm curious to see how the next novella in the series turns out, but I'm hoping for more approachable characters.
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King - When all is said and done, I think my favorite of the Dark Tower novels might be the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, which is funny in that it's also the story that is the least connected to everything else. It's mostly a flashback to an episode in Roland's past, a story that informs his character, but which is also pretty much a standalone. This is probably why I like it so much - it's able to tell a story in an interesting universe without being dependent on the narrative thrust of the series.

    Recently, King has revisited this universe and put together this book, which takes place between the 4th and 5th books in the series. It's basically another flashback, again mostly independent of the rest of the series. Actually, it's a really strangely structured book. The bookends are from the series proper, as Roland and his band of Gunslingers make their way across the desert, but as they hunker down in preparation for a big storm that's been a brewing, Roland tells his crew another story from his youth. However, this story isn't all that complicated in itself. Basically young Roland and one of his compatriots are sent out to a small town to deal with a little werewolf problem (it's not referred to directly as such, but that's what it is), and while he's there, he tells the titular story, The Wind Through the Keyhole, to a young boy. So it's a story wrapped in a flashback, bookended by some narrative glue that fits this into the rest of the Dark Tower story. Are all these framing narratives necessary? Probably not, but once you get to the meat of the story, it's quite good (and the bookends/flashbacks aren't bad either, just weird that King felt the need to go through all of it). I won't go into too much detail about the story, but it's got that strange blend of SF and Fantasy, a mythic bedtime-story quality that has always served the series well. It concerns a young boy and his quest to help his mother. It's exactly the sort of thing that King excels at, and it's populated with interesting characters (I particularly liked the tax collector guy, who is played as a sorta villain, but who could probably have his own series where he visits towns to collect taxes while also solving mysteries, or more likely, playing the trickster like he does here). In the end, it's a welcome addition to the Dark Tower series, if not particularly necessary. It adds some background to the series without really changing much, which I actually rather liked. The Dark Tower universe is an interesting place, so stories like this still work well.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. - I read this pretty shortly after Fahrenheit 451, which made for an interesting experience in that both books seemingly fear for the destruction of books and knowledge in general. In this case, though, we've got a post-apocalyptic setting where most of the books were destroyed immediately after the war. The book is essentially divided up into three sections, each told from the perspective of Catholic priests in a particular Monastery in the desert. The story actually spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself after nuclear war, with the priests being the early guardians of scientific knowledge. This is generally considered to be a classic novel, popular with SF fans but also the general literary community (a rare crossover), and I can see why (even if it hasn't quite joined the ranks of my favorite SF novels). It has an interesting treatment of religion and one of the themes of the book is about how the Church interacts with the State (especially in the final segment), though in a more general sense, there's a notion of recurrence and history repeating itself that's also highlighted. It's a deliberately paced novel, tackling big themes from small stories, and I'm not entirely sure how happy I am about the ending, but I'm still glad I finally read this. As a Neal Stephenson fan, it's an interesting read because you can see a lot of this book's DNA in Stephenson's Anathem (though that book is much longer and more action packed than this one). In the end, I'm really glad I read this, its very well written, and it has a lot of meaty themes to chew on.
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes - Another SF classic that has achieved crossover success with mainstream audiences, this is a story of a mentally disabled man named Charlie Gordon who submits to an experimental procedure intended to increase intelligence. The book is comprised entirely of "Progress Reports" written by Charlie, and you can see said progress very quickly as his intelligence improves. I suppose it's a bit of a spoiler, so read on at your own risk, but the story also contains a downward swing in intelligence, and it's a real heartbreaker when you start to see his grammar deteriorate to earlier levels. It's a thematically rich story, with much to say about intelligence and relationships, and it's the most emotionally involving of the books in this post. There's a sadness to the story that somehow doesn't lead to despair, which is a neat trick. There's sadness, but it doesn't wallow in it, and it's a great book. This novel is apparently an expanded version of an earlier short story, both winners of Hugo awards and both experiencing crossover success with mainsteeam audiences. Really happy I finally caught up with this one...
  • The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) - The Mongoliad began its life as a serialized story delivered via custom apps on various mobile phones and tablets. I downloaded the app on my phone and played around with it a bit, but I ultimately waited until they started publishing these books before I really read anything significant. It turns out that the story they're telling is a rather long one, though it's actually more involving and approachable than I expected from the initial descriptions. Written by a variety of authors, including Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, E.D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo, the story is set in 1241 as the Mongol Horde was sweeping across Europe. I was expecting this to be something akin to Stephenson's Baroque Cycle novels, but this wound up being more of an adventurous tale, with more focus on action and intrigue than historical minutiae. It's actually a lot of fun, though it's only the first book in the series and it ends at a rather arbitrary place. I was a little disappointed by that, but it seems like the other editions are coming quickly, so I'll probably pick them up next year. I was surprised at how cohesive the book was considering how many different authors worked on it. A couple of the storylines bog down a bit at times though, which I wonder about. Would a single author have made some of those choices? Probably not. Still, entertaining and fun. I'm curious to see what the next book will hold.
So there you have it. I've still got a few books to cover before I'm totally caught up, but this gets me pretty close. I've got some extra reading to do here in the last few weeks of the year if I want to hit my goal of 50 books, but if all goes well, I'll have a end-of-year wrapup coming...
Posted by Mark on December 09, 2012 at 03:25 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where do you get your ideas?
The answer to this most cliched of interview questions asked of SF authors is, of course, Robert Heinlein. At least for Theodore Sturgeon, it was. In a Guest of Honor speech at a SF convention, Sturgeon recounts an instance of writers block:
I went into a horrible dry spell one time. It was a desperate dry spell and an awful lot depended on me getting writing again. Finally, I wrote to Bob Heinlein. I told him my troubles; that I couldn't write-perhaps it was that I had no ideas in my head that would strike a story. By return airmail-I don't know how he did it-I got back 26 story ideas. Some of them ran for a page and a half; one or two of them were a line or two. I mean, there were story ideas that some writers would give their left ear for. Some of them were merely suggestions; just little hints, things that will spark a writer like, 'Ghost of a little cat patting around eternity looking for a familiar lap to sit in.'
And now Letters of Note has reproduced the entire Heinlein letter in question, complete with all 26 ideas and amusing banter ("To have the incomparable and always scintillating Sturgeon ask for ideas is like having the Pacific Ocean ask one to pee in it.") Also, funny how they refer to each other as Bob and Ted. Heh. Anyway, here's some of my favorite story ideas:
a society where there are no criminal offences, just civil offences, i.e., there is a price on everything, you can look it up in the catalog and pay the price. You want to shoot your neighbor? Go ahead and shoot the bastard. He has a definite economic rating; deposit the money with the local clearing house within 24 hrs.; they will pay the widow. Morality would consist in not trying to get away with anything without paying for it. Good manners would consist in so behaving that no one would be willing to pay your listed price to kill you.
Heinlein notes that this is more John Campbell-ish than Sturgeon-ish, but this idea is actually quite Heinleinian. The letter was written in 1955, but you can see a lot of these sorta proto-libertarian ideas, even this early in his life. Another idea:
The bloke sells dreams, in pills. Euphoria, along with your fantasy, is guaranteed. The pills are not toxic, nor are they harmful the way narcotics are, but they are habit-forming as the euphoria dreams are much better than reality. Can the Pure Foods & Drugs people act?
That one is pure Phillip K. Dick (Heinlein and Sturgeon would probably call him Phil). More ideas:
We know very little about multiple personality, despite the many case records. Suppose a hypnoanalyst makes a deep investigation into a schizoid...and comes up with with the fact that it is a separate and non-crazy personality in the body, distinct from the nominal one, and that this new personality is a refugee from (say) 2100 A.D., when conditions are so intolerable that escape into another body and another time (even this period) is to be preferred, even at the expense of living more or less helplessly in another man's body.
Reading a letter like this, while appreciating the generosity, I can't help but think that it's not really the ideas that matter. These are all fantastic ideas and Heinlein is brilliant here, but we all have great ideas. Ideas are important, but perhaps not as important as we like to believe. You still have to deliver on that idea, which is harder than it looks and that's also where the likes of Heinlein and Sturgeon made a name for themselves. Conversely, there are folks who manage to take dumb ideas and make them into something profound. It's all in that process that the magic lies. Ideas are easy. Heck, I have my own SFnal idea about multiple personality syndrome. But do I have the stones to do anything about it? Well, it is NaNoWriMo... Only 2 days left, but who knows?
Posted by Mark on November 28, 2012 at 10:09 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
The latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga actually focuses on one of the colorful side characters of Bujold's Vor universe: Ivan Vorpatril. Variously referred to as "That idiot Ivan" (or directly addressed as "Ivan, you idiot!") among other variations, Ivan is often played as a foil for Miles (the central character for this 15 book or so series, though Miles takes a minimal role in this particular installment). In early novels, Ivan is generally portrayed as a lazy but handsome womanizer type, completely harmless and lacking in ambition. One wouldn't think that this would make for a particularly compelling or even sympathetic protagonist, but as the series progresses, you get a better feel for the character and his motivations (or rather, the environment which caused such). Indeed, his laziness is carefully constructed, and probably more work than it would be to actually apply himself.

You see, both Miles and Ivan are technically in line for succession to the Emperor's throne. This sounds fine and dandy, but on Barrayar (the planet these stories revolve around), being a serious contender for the throne makes one a target for assassination plots, conspiracy theorists, political muck-raking, and general misery. Miles, by virtue of his mutated appearance (among other qualities that would take way too long to go into here), is mostly exempted from this pressure, to the point where he has a sorta opposite problem. But Ivan is the tall, dark, and handsome type, the perfect vision of a leader. And in terms of succession, he's basically next in line. If he even hinted at applying himself, he'd probably be portrayed as a potential usurper to the throne by political enemies (of both Ivan's family and the Emperor, or whoever thought they could benefit from some additional instability in the ruling class). If this seems paranoid, well, sure, but we've seen such happenings throughout the series (whether that be actual military coups, or political enemies portraying someone as a potential revolutionary). To forestall such political wrangling (not to mention the aforementioned assassination attempts and whatnot), Ivan has carefully cultivated an air of lazy incompetence so that he could never be taken seriously by any political operatives or revolutionaries or what have you.

As the series progresses and Emperor Gregor ascends to the throne and actually manages to stabilize and grow Barrayar, not to mention take a wife and start popping out kids, the pressure on Ivan is released somewhat. As such, we start to see that he's not as dumb as he appears. I particularly enjoyed his role in A Civil Campaign. At the start of Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Ivan is living as a comfortable Bachelor, but a certain restlessness has crept in. Enter a friend and Barrayaran intelligence operative with a strange request to look after an attractive young woman who may be in danger, appealing to Ivan's Barrayaran sense of chivalry.

I actually don't want to get into too much detail about the plot. The first act basically plays out like a spy thriller with a dash of romance, while the second act turns into more of a comedy of errors kinda thing (akin to A Civil Campaign), and the third act morphs into a sorta heist story. The first half of the book is great and funny and I found myself wearing a stupid grin and laughing a lot. Things slow down just a bit in the middle as Bujold maneuvers for the final act, which is also quite good. I'd put this somewhere towards the top of the Vor series in terms of enjoyability, certainly better than the last two installments (which were no slouches, to be sure), though not quite reaching the peaks of my favorite novels.

Again, I don't want to give too much away, but Ivan's romantic interest is Tej Arqua, and while their introduction may have been harried and rushed in convenience, they actually do match together rather well. Tej is from a house of Jackson's Hole, which is the Vor universe's sorta free-for-all capitalist planet, with no real rule of law. Her house has just been attacked and split up, with members of her family hiding in exile... which is when Ivan runs into her. Eventually she begins to get a feel for the man and his planet. In line with the above discussion, Tej has Ivan pegged as "...a middling Vor officer of middling responsibilities and middling rank. Just middling along." To which someone replies that such a sentiment is a "charming understatement," while explaining Ivan's family and potential of succession...

Bujold has mentioned that she intends the book to work as a stand-alone to first-time readers, but so much of what I enjoyed about the book came from the fact that I've read all the previous novels. I'm positive that it would work for new readers, but I don't know that you'd get that stupid grin and engage in laugh-out-loud moments like I was if you don't get the background. That being said, I do appreciate that Bujold tends to make her novels stand-alone stories, rather than relying on cliffhangers and multi-book stories (even if there are character arcs that go across multiple books, each book generally tells a self-contained story). I would still recommend that you start the series with Shards of Honor or The Warrior's Apprentice, but all things considered, this one is pretty darn good.
Posted by Mark on November 25, 2012 at 11:04 AM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What is good?
Ian Sales thinks he knows:
I've lost count of the number of times I've been told "good is subjective" or "best is subjective". Every time I hear it, it makes me howl with rage. Because it is wrong.

If there is no such thing as good - because if it's entirely subjective and personal, then it's completely useless as a descriptive term - then how do editors choose which books to publish, how do judges choose which books to give prizes to, how do academics chose which books to study? And why don't they all choose completely different books?
The irony here is that I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that "good is objective". And yet, no one seems to be able to define what constitutes good. Even Ian, despite his adamant stance, describes what is good in entirely subjective terms.
It is not an exact science, and it is subject to changes in taste and/or re-evaluation in light of changes in attitudes and sensibilities. But there are certain key indicators in fiction which can be used to determine the quality of that piece of fiction.
Having established that there are key indicators that can be used to determine quality, Sales proceeds to list... approximately none of them. Instead, he talks about "taste" and "changes in attitudes and sensibilities" (both of which are highly subjective). If it's not an "exact science", how is it objective? Isn't this an implicit admission that subjectivity plays a role? He does mention some criteria for bad writing though:
Perhaps it's easier to describe what is bad - if good is subjective, then by definition bad must be too. Except, strangely, everyone seems to agree that the following do indeed indicate that a piece of fiction is bad: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, clumsy prose, tin-earred dialogue, lack of rigour, graceless info-dumping, unoriginality, bad research...
The problem with this is that most of his indicators are subjective. Some of them could contain a nugget of objectivity, notably the "bad research" piece, but others are wholly subjective. What exactly constitutes "tin-eared dialogue"? One person's cardboard cutout character is another person's fully realized and empathetic soul.

Perhaps it's my engineering background taking over, but I have a pretty high standard for objectivity. There are many objective measures of a book, but most of those aren't very useful in determining the book's quality. For instance, I can count the number of letters or words in the book. I can track the usage of punctuation or contractions. Those numbers really won't tell me much, though. I can look at word distribution and vocabulary, but then, there are a lot of classics that don't use flowery language. Simplicity sometimes trumps complexity. I can evaluate the grammar using the standards of our language, but by those measures, James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon would probably be labeled "bad" writers. For that matter, so would Ian, who's recent novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains eschews the basic grammatical convention of using quotations for dialogue. But they're not bad writers, in large part because they stray from the standards. Context is important. So that's not really that useful either.

The point of objectivity is to remove personal biases and feelings from the equation. If you can objectively measure a book, then I should be able to do the same - and our results should be identical. If we count the words in a book, we will get the same answer (assuming we count correctly). Similarly, if we're able to objectively measure a book's quality, you and I should come to the same conclusion. Now, Ian Sales has read more books than me. The guy's a writer, and he knows his craft well, so perhaps the two of us won't see eye to eye on a lot of things. But even getting two equivalently experienced people to agree on everything is a fool's errand. Critical reading is important. Not everyone that subverts grammatical conventions is doing so well or for good reason. Sometimes simplicity can be elegant, sometimes it feels clumsy. Works of art need to be put into the cultural and historical context, and thus a work should stand up to some sort of critical examination. But critical is not equivalent to objective.

Now, Ian does have an interesting point here. If what's "good" is subjective, then how is that a valuable statement?
If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless. And studying literature, well, that's a complete waste of time too. After all, how can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual's value judgment is worth exactly the same another person's? There'd be no such thing as an expert. All books would have exactly the same artistic value.
Carried to its logical extreme, the notion that what's "good" is wholly subjective does complicate matters. I don't think I'd go quite as far as Ian did in the above referenced paragraph, but maybe he's on to something.

So far, I have mentioned a bunch of questions that Ian asked, which I will now try to give an answer to:
  • How do editors choose which books to publish? This is a pretty simple one, though I don't think that Ian will like the answer: editors choose to publish the books that they think will sell the most. To be sure, editors will also take a chance on something that could bomb... why is that? Because I think even Ian would concede that most readers are not even attempting to be objective in their purchasing habits. They buy what feel like reading. The neat thing about this one is that there actually is an objective measurement involved: sales. Now, are sales an indication of quality? Not really. But neither are most objective measurements of a book. The neat thing about sales, though, is that it's an objective measurement of the subjective tastes of a given market. There are distorting factors, to be sure (advertising, the size and composition of the market, etc...), but if you want objectivity, sales can boil the subjective response to a book down to a single number. And if an editor is bad at picking good sellers, they won't be an editor for much longer...
  • How do judges choose which books to give prizes to? My guess is that it's their subjective taste. In most cases, there isn't a single judge handing out the award, though, so we've got another case of an objective measurement of a group of people's subjective assessments. In the case of, say, the Hugo Awards, there are thousands of judges, all voting independently. There's a lot of room for fudging there. There's no guarantee that every voter read every book before casting their ballot (all you need to do to vote is to pay to be a member of the current year's Worldcon), but since there are usually around 1000 voters, the assumption is that inexperience or malice among voters is smeared into a small distortion. Other awards are chosen by small juries, one example being the Pulitzer Prize. I don't really know the inner workings of these, and I assume each award is different. I've definitely heard of small juries getting together and having a grand debate amongst themselves as to who the winner should be. The assumption with juried prizes is that the members of the jury are "experts". So if I were to be on the jury for a Science Fiction award, I should probably have extensive knowledge of Science Fiction literature (and probably general literature as well). More on this in a bit. Ultimately, an award is meant to do the same thing as revenue or sales - provide an objective assessment of the subjective opinions of a group of people.
  • How do academics chose which books to study? And why don't they all choose completely different books? I won't pretend to have any insight into what drives academia, but from what I've seen, the objective qualities they value in books seem to vary wildly. I assume we're talking about fiction here, as non-fiction probably has more objective measures than fiction.
  • How can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual's value judgment is worth exactly the same another person's? I get what he's going for with this question, but there's a pretty simple answer here. An expert in a topic will have more experience and knowledge on that topic than a non-expert. Sales has read more books than me, both within and outside of SF, and he's a writer himself. I would think of him as more of an expert than me. I'm just some guy on the internet. Unfortunately, one's expertise is probably also subjective. For instance, you can measure how many books someone's read, but comprehension and contextualization might be a little more difficult to figure out. That being said, individual experts are rarely given a lot of power, and I imagine they would suffer setbacks if they're consistently "wrong" about things. At their most important, they'll be a reviewer for a large newspaper or perhaps a jury member. In both cases, their opinions are smeared across a bunch of other people's thoughts.
The common thread between all of these things is that there's a combination of objective and subjective measurements. At some point in his post, Sales sez that objective measurement of what is good is "why some books are still in print two hundred years after they were first published." That's something I think we'd all like to believe, but I don't know how true that is... I wonder what books from today will still be in print in 200 years (given the nature of current technology, that might get tricky, but let's say I wonder what books will be relevant and influential in 200 years)? There's a school of thought that thinks it will be the high literary stuff discussed by academics. Another school of thought thinks it will be best-selling populist stuff like Stephen King. I don't think it's that easy to figure out. There's an element of luck or serendipity (whatever you want to call it) that I think plays into this, and that I think we're unlikely to predict. Why? Because it's ultimately a subjective enterprise.

We can devise whatever measurements we want, we can come up with statistical sampling models that will take into account sales and votes and prizes and awards and academic praise and journal mentions, whatever. I actually find those to be interesting and fun exercises, but they're just that. They ultimately aren't that important to history. I'd bet that the things from our era that are commonly referenced 200 years from now would seem horribly idiosyncratic and disjointed to us...

Sales concludes with this:
If you want to describe a book in entirely subjective terms, then tell people how much you enjoyed it, how much you liked it. That's your own personal reaction to it. It appealed to you, it entertained you. That's the book directly affecting you. Another person may or may not react the same way, the book might or might not do the same to them.

Because that's subjective, that is.
He's not wrong about that. Enjoyment is subjective. But if we divorce the concept of "good" from the concept of "enjoyment", what are we left with? It's certainly a useful distinction to make at times. There are many things I "like" that I don't think are particularly "good" on any technical level. I'm not saying that a book has to be "enjoyable" to be "good", but I don't think they're entirely independent either. There are many ways to measure a book. For the most part, in my opinion, the objective ones aren't very useful or predictive by themselves. You could have an amazingly well written book (from a prose standpoint) put into service of a poorly plotted story, and then what? On the other hand, complete subjectivity isn't exactly useful either. You fall into the trap that Ian lays out: if everything is entirely subjective, then there is no value in any of it. That's why we have all these elaborate systems though. We have markets that lead to sales numbers, we have awards (with large or small juries, working together or sometimes independently), we have academics, we have critics, we have blogs, we have reviews, we have friends whose opinions we trust, we have a lot of things we can consider.

In chaos theory, even simple, orderly systems display chaotic elements. Similarly, even the most chaotic natural systems have some sort of order to them. This is, of course, a drastic simplification. One could argue that the universe is headed towards a state of absolute entropy; the heat death of the universe. Regardless of the merits of this metaphor, I feel like the push and pull of objectivity is similar. Objective assessments of novels that are useful will contain some element of subjectivity. Similarly, most subjective assessments will take into account objective measurements. In the end, we do our best with what we've got. That's my opinion, anyway.
Posted by Mark on July 15, 2012 at 07:05 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Fahrenheit 451
I recently finished Ray Bradbury's short novel Fahrenheit 451. The title refers to the temperature at which paper ignites, and it tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman in a world where books and reading are illegal. Ironically, in this book, firemen don't fight fires, they start them. Whenever a stash of books is found, the firemen are called in to burn them. In one memorable and vivid incident, a woman refuses to leave when the firemen show up, preferring to burn with her books. This seems to represent a crisis point for Montag, the point at which he begins to wonder why books must be burned.

There's nothing particularly special about the characters or the plotting of the story, but Bradbury's ideas and style seem to carry the book. Bradbury's delirious prose evokes a lot of emotion and imagery. There's the aforementioned woman burning with her books, but also the sensory overload of the "parlors" (basically a room rigged up with multiple televisions), the snake-like stomach pump, the mechanical hound, and the fire itself, burning through everything. It's not an easy read, perhaps even overly poetic, but in this case it works. The novel is short enough and the ideas behind it are crazy enough that Bradbury's style fits.

It's a dystopia, and like a lot of such stories, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Again, Bradbury's stylistic flourishes are what make it work here. There's a lot of talk about how the book is critical of state-sponsored censorship, and I suppose there's an element of that, but where Bradbury differs from his contemporaries is where the censorship began: as a populist movement. As Montag's (surprisingly well-read) boss Beatty explains:
There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time...
It's an intriguing notion. Mass media and conformity extrapolated out to its logical extreme. The dystopia aspect is unrealistic, and yet, the steps it would take to get there are things we see all the time. For a later edition of the book, Bradbury wrote a Coda where he expanded upon some of these ideas:
About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.

But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women's characters and roles?

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I "do them over"?

Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.


The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.
It's a weird blend that Bradbury conjures with this novel. It's the tyranny of the minority versus the tyranny of the majority, only they're somehow set together into a negative feedback loop until you end up with a book-burning society. Some see the book as a condemnation of communism; railing against conformity in favor of individuality. And that's certainly there, but what Bradbury wrote also condemns democracy and technology as a conduit towards conformity. I don't think he's entirely correct about it. 60 years later, we struggle with different problems... but that sorta misses the point.

Like Orwell's 1984, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is a document of its era. I don't find it a realistic portrayal of the world, but that doesn't mean that Bradbury failed. Indeed, it means he succeeded. His tale portrays the nightmares of 1953, a time when radio and television and movies must have had the book on the run. Despite the frequent lament that people today don't read enough, I think we've avoided Bradbury's nightmare, and instead live with our own, perhaps stranger, problems.
Posted by Mark on July 08, 2012 at 06:44 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

55 Reading Questions
As memes go, this one is self-explanatory, but I read a lot so it's fun too:

1) Favourite childhood book?

I suppose this depends on where you draw the line of childhood, but the book that comes to mind is Dean Koontz's Lightning. It's the book that I credit with getting me to read for pleasure. I was 13 at the time, and reading was generally something I was forced to do for school, not something I did for fun. But my brother gave me this book once when I was bored and I couldn't put it down. I'd never had an experience like that before, and from that point on, I read as much as I could. If teen years don't count as childhood, another thing that came to mind is Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, but it's been a solid 20-25 years since I've even seen those things, and I remember very little about them except a character named Taran and the black riders that seem so similar to the Nazgul from LotR...

2) What are you reading right now?

I just finished Fahrenheit 451, part of an effort to familiarize myself with Bradbury's work (this originated back during the NPR SF/F list days when I acknowledged my shame of not having read any Bradbury - it's just a not-so-happy coincidence that I read this book in the wake of Bradbury's passing). I just started reading a collection of short stories by Sharma Shields called Favorite Monster, which, despite having only read a few of the stories, might be the weirdest thing I've read all year.

3) What books do you have on request at the library?

Sadly, I haven't been to the library in many years. I'm not even sure where the closest library is...

4) Bad book habit?

I'm not really sure I have any, save perhaps not reading enough...

5) What do you currently have checked out at the library?

Again, no library usage here.

6) Do you have an e-reader?

Yes, a Kindle Touch that I've used more than expected. In fact, Fahrenheit 451 was the first paper book I've read in several months... Though it was sorta appropriate given the subject matter, it was really just because the physical book was cheaper than the Kindle version (I get that instituting ebooks at a big publishing house is non-trivial, but stuff like this is so non-intuitive and frustrating).

7) Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

For the most part, I'm reading one book at a time. I primarily read fiction, but will often have a non-fiction book started as well, and will switch back and forth as my mood dictates or given certain situations (this might be too much information, but I almost always have a book in the bathroom, often a book about homebrewing or beer). In general, though, I will get into one of the two books and burn through to the end.

8) Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

I started this blog about 12 years ago at this point, and my reading habits have changed several times in that interval. I will say that I do tend to blog more about what I read these days, that being a good way of arranging my interests in parallel.

9) Least favourite book you read this year (so far)?

A two-way tie between Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh (my thoughts) and Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher. In both cases, I will probably revisit other works by the author, but I don't have anything planned in the short term...

10) Favourite book you’ve read this year?

Another two-way tie (but the books are deeply intertwined and part of the same series) between Memory and A Civil Campaign, both by Lois McMaster Bujold. Check out my thoughts on both, along with some other books in the series.

11) How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Occasionally. A lot of non-fiction is generally outside my comfort zone, and I've been vying away from my normal comfort zone more this year than last year...

12) What is your reading comfort zone?

Science fiction and pop-science non-fiction. Maybe horror and fantasy would also fit, though I don't read a lot of either...

13) Can you read on the bus?

I'm sure I can, but buses around here are generally to be avoided.

14) Favourite place to read?

If it's nice outside, I like to sit on my deck and read, but the grand majority of my reading is done in my living room, on my couch.

15) What is your policy on book lending?

I'm generally pretty open to lending, though it doesn't seem to come up much.

16) Do you ever dog-ear books?

I'm sure this is blasphemy to some folks, but yes, I'm a compulsive dog-earer, especially for non-fiction. However, I'm finding that one of the big advantages of an ereader is the ability to easily highlight passages (and even save some notes about why I'm highlighting the passage).

17) Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

Very rarely did I do this with physical books, though perhaps I did for a few things in college, but I do so more often now that I read ebooks.

18) Not even with text books?

I don't have much occasion to read text books these days, but like I said, when I was in college, I probably did a little of this (but not a ton).

19) What is your favourite language to read in?

English is pretty much the only language I can read. Unless someone is writing novels in javascript now... I feel like an unworthy nerd. I can't even read stuff in Klingon or Dothraki!

20) What makes you love a book?

Interesting ideas, engaging characters, and good storytelling.

21) What will inspire you to recommend a book?

I find recommendations difficult. I rarely give unqualified recommendations, but if I really love a book, I will recommend it. If someone's asking for recommendations, I do my best to tailor my recommendations to their needs and desires, rather than just what I like...

22) Favourite genre?

Science fiction.

23) Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)?

I wish I had a better handle on crime novels. I love crime movies, but have rarely read crime books. It's something I want to become better acquainted with. I'm reasonably familiar with horror literature, but I have not read much in the past few years, nor have I gone as deep as I have with something like SF.

24) Favourite biography?

I don't read many, but Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War was fantastic and would probably be my favorite.

25) Have you ever read a self-help book?

I can't say as though I have, unless you count stuff like Homebrewing books or pop-science books.

26) Favourite cookbook?

I have a couple cookbooks, but they're fairly unremarkable, to the point where naming them my favorite seems like a waste. If homebrewing counts, then How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time by John J. Palmer is a great introductory text.

27) Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?

Not sure if I really get inspired as this question intends, but pop-science non-fiction always seems to get me fired up. So far this year, I'd say that Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson was probably the one that hit me the best...

28) Favorite reading snack?

Pretzels, but for the most part I'm not eating whist reading. I usually drink tea or water whilst reading though. On rare occasions, I'll crack a sipping beer, like a barleywine or a bourbon-barrel aged stout or something (a good pairing in winter).

29) Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

I don't really see much in the way of hype when it comes to books. Perhaps there are some classics that don't quite live up to their reputation though. A lot of golden-age SF is written in a bit of a flat style, but often the ideas are still well represented, so I'm having trouble thinking of specific examples...

30) How often do you agree with critics about a book?

I can't say as though I read a lot of critics, at least not in the way that I read a lot of film criticism. I suppose I tend to agree with most of what I read, or I can at least understand where someone's coming from when their opinions don't match mine.

31) How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

I don't relish giving bad/negative reviews in the way that some people in the internets do, but if I didn't like a book, I'm going to say so.

32) If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?

An interesting question. The first thing that came to mind was Japanese, but I suppose Russian would be an interesting one too.

33) Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

34) Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

An interesting question. There are perhaps a few, but the one that springs immediately to mind is James Joyce's Ulysses.

35) Favourite poet?

Not much of a poetry guy, but who doesn't like Robert Frost? Or heck, Shakespeare...

36) How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?

Again, no real library usage here.

37) How often have you returned books to the library unread?

Again, no real library usage here.

38) Favourite fictional character?

This was a tougher question than I thought, but the obvious answer for the past couple years is Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold's very long series of books mostly detailing his life and times. After thinking for a moment, I also thought of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe clans from Cryptonomicon, but that's sorta cheating, as there are multiple characters and I love them all...

39) Favourite fictional villain?

And this is even harder than the last question. The first thing that came to mind was Sauron, but that's a boring answer. Unfortunately, not that many other options are forthcoming. How about Grand Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn's Star Wars books? I suppose it's a bit hokey to reference Star Wars books, but Thrawn was a genuinely well thought out villain and a worthy successor to Vader and the Emperor...

40) Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

Something that is breezy and easy to read in busy places with lots of distractions like beaches or airports. I once tried to read Umberto Eco on a trip and it was... not quite as rewarding as it would have been if I read it at home in a more controlled environment. On the other hand, Bujold's books were great companions last year, and I'm sure John Scalzi's books would fit the bill as well...

41) The longest I’ve gone without reading.

I really don't know how to measure this one. I presume we're talking about books here and not newspapers, magazines, websites, etc... but even then, I'm not really sure how to go about quantifying this. There are certainly periods in my life where I didn't read nearly as much as I do now, but I don't really know the longest period of time I've gone between reading books. Let's say a couple weeks?

42) Name a book that you could/would not finish.

It's pretty rare that I don't finish a book, but I never did finish David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It's something I may go back to, but I got pretty well fed up with the book while reading it. I got almost halfway through it though, which is actually a lot of time and effort to throw away, but I was getting annoyed by the lack of any real point to what I was reading. Oh sure, lots of themes and interesting stuff, but it felt like reading a SNL show filled with disconnected skits, and even when they connected, it wasn't quite enough to make up for all the stuff about drugs and stuff that I didn't particularly care about.

43) What distracts you easily when you’re reading?

I was going to say the internet, but really that's my fault, so the real answer to this question is me. I let myself get distracted sometimes, but that's usually indicative of the fact that I'm not enjoying what I'm reading.

44) Favourite film adaptation of a novel?

That's a tough one, as there aren't a lot of situations in which I've both read the novel and seen the movie. The Lord of the Rings movies are certainly a candidate, as they managed something I wasn't sure was possible... Fight Club is a pretty great adaptation. I do love The Shining, despite the fact that it is so very different than the book. I think that's what really makes it work though, as I will often get bored by the book or movie if I've already read/seen the other version of the story.

45) Most disappointing film adaptation?

Another difficult one as there are so many bad adaptations. How the Grinch Stole Christmas comes to mind. David Lunch's Dune is more of an interesting failure than a disappointing one. I definitely want to call out Starship Troopers, as it's one of the least faithful adaptations ever put to film. Regardless of what you may think of Heinlein's right-wing novel (it's not one of my favorites), the film completely changes the direction while keeping the basic structure in place. It's a movie that has inexplicably enjoyed a sorta cult following since it bombed at the box office, and I will admit there is something compelling about the film, but in a bad way. Like watching a trainwreck.

46) The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

I can't say as though I've really kept track. I don't tend to buy a lot of books at once though, so I'm guessing it's pretty low. Then again, there's definitely been a holiday season or two when I've bought a lot of books as presents, probably going as high as $100...

47) How often do you skim a book before reading it?

It's pretty rare, though I do like to see how much reading is left before the end of the chapter/section I'm currently reading. This is one thing that does annoy about ereaders, as it's very difficult to do that sort of thing.

48) What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through?

So the inverse of what I love is a good place to start: Dumb ideas, bad characters that I can't engage with, bad storytelling or plotting. As I mentioned before, it's pretty rare that I stop reading a book though. I can only think of a couple books I've not finished in the past few years.

49) Do you like to keep your books organized?

I have a loose system, but nothing particularly special. I know there are lots of folks who obsess over their bookshelves, but it's not something I've ever really worried about.

50) Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

I generally keep books, but I wouldn't have a problem parting with a lot of them. I'm a bit of a packrat though, so I tend to keep stuff.

51) Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter has been on my shelf for a while now. I'm sure it's something I'd enjoy, but it's a really long book - 1000+ pages of very dense, complex prose - and I feel like it would kill the momentum I've built up this year in reading...

52) Name a book that made you angry.

I tend to avoid books I think will make me angry, but some non-fiction will make me angry, especially politics or detailing tragic situations in the real world, etc...

53) A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

Another tough question, as I don't read a lot of books I don't expect to like. I generally go into a book hoping to like it... That being said, I think I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness

54) A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

The aforementioned Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh was the most recent and egregious example of this...

55) Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

I can't say as though I've ever really felt guilty of reading something, though perhaps my recent reading of a couple of Christopher Farnsworth's trashy Vampire spy novels kinda fit.

Well, there you have it. It was a long one, but fun. Feel free to berate me for my answers in the comments and have a happy Independence Day!
Posted by Mark on July 04, 2012 at 07:58 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Peak Performance
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called How David Beats Goliath, and the internets rose up in nerdy fury. Like a lot of Gladwell's work, the article is filled with anecdotes (whatever you may think of Gladwell, he's a master of anecdotes), most of which surround the notion of a full-court press in basketball. I should note at this point that I absolutely loath the sport of basketball, so I don't really know enough about the mechanics of the game to comment on the merits of this strategy. That being said, the general complaint about the article is that Gladwell chose two examples that aren't really representative of the full-court press. The primary example seems to be a 12 year old girls basketball team, coached by an immigrant unfamiliar with the game:
Ranadive was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A's end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent's attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadive thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent's end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?
The strategy apparently worked well, to the point where they made it to the national championship tournament:
The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn't playing fair - that it wasn't right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable - that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.
Most of the criticism of this missed the forest for the trees. A lot of people nitpicked some specifics, or argued as if Gladwell was advocating for all teams playing a press (when he was really just illustrating a broader point that underdogs don't always need to play by the stronger teams' conventions). One of the most common complaints was that "the press isn't always an advantage" which I'm sure is true, but again, it kinda misses the point that Gladwell was trying to make. Tellingly, most folks didn't argue about Gladwell's wargame anecdote, though you could probably make similar nitpicky arguments.

Anyway, the reason I'm bringing this up three years after the fact is not to completely validate Gladwell's article or hate on his critics. As I've already mentioned, I don't care a whit about basketball, but I do think Gladwell has a more general point that's worth exploring. Oddly enough, after recently finishing the novel Redishirts, I got an itch to revisit some Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and rediscovered one of my favorite episodes. Oh sure, it's not one of the celebrated episodes that make top 10 lists or anything, but I like it nonetheless. It's called Peak Performance, and it's got quite a few parallels to Gladwell's article.

The main plot of the episode has to do with a war simulation exercise in which the Enterprise engages in a mock battle with an inferior ship (with a skeleton crew lead by Commander Riker). There's an obvious parallel here between the episode and Gladwell's article (when asked how a hopelessly undermatched ship can compete with the Enterprise, Worf responds "Guile."), but it's the B plot of the episode that is even more relevant (the main plot goes in a bit of a different direction due to some meddling Ferengi).

The B plot concerns the military strategist named Kolrami. He's acting as an observer of the exercise and he's arrogant, smarmy, and condescending. He's also a master at Strategema, one of Star Trek's many fictional (and nonsensical) games. Riker challenges this guy to a match because he's a glutton for punishment (this really is totally consistent with his character) - he just wants to say that he played the master, even if he lost... which, of course, he does. Later, Dr. Pulaski volunteers Data to play a game, with the thought being that the android would easily dispatch Kolrami, thus knocking him down a peg. But even Data loses.

Data is shaken by the loss. He even removes himself from duty. He expected to do better. According to the rules, he "made no mistakes", and yet he still lost. After analyzing his failure and discussing the matter with the captain (who basically tells Data to shut up and get back to work), Data resumes his duty, eventually even challenging Kolrami to a rematch. But this time, Data alters his premise for playing the game. "Working under the assumption that Kolrami was attempting to win, it is reasonable to assume that expected me to play for the same goal." But Data wasn't playing to win. He was playing for a stalemate. Whenever opportunities for advancement appeared, Data held back, attempting to maintain a balance. He estimated that he should be able to keep the game going indefinitely. Frustrated by Data's stalling, Kolrami forfeits in a huff.

There's an interesting parallel here. Many people took Gladwell's article to mean that he thought the press was a strategy that should be employed by all teams, but that's not really the point. The examples he gave were situations in which the press made sense. Similarly, Data's strategy of playing for stalemate was uniquely suited to him. The reason he managed to win was that he is an android without any feelings. He doesn't get frustrated or bored, and his patience is infinite. So while Kolrami may have technically been a better player, he was no match for Data once Data played to his own strengths.

Obviously, quoting fiction does nothing to bolster Gladwell's argument, but I was struck by the parallels. One of the complaints to Gladwell's article that rang at least a little true was that the article's overarching point was "so broad and obvious as to be not worth writing about at all." I don't know that I fully buy that, as a lot of great writing can ultimately be boiled down to something "broad and obvious", but it's a fair point. On the other hand, even if you think that, I do find that there's value in highlighting examples of how it's done, whether it's a 12 year old girls basketball team, or a fictional android playing a nonsensical (but metaphorically apt) game on a TV show. It seems that human beings sometimes need to be reminded that thinking outside the box is an option.
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2012 at 09:34 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 24, 2012

In geek parlance, "red shirt" is a reference to red-uniformed Star Trek officers who frequently die during episodes1. They basically represent the writer's ploy to allow Kirk and McCoy to display grandstanding emotions (and Spock to show a lack thereof). I don't know who coined the notion or where (or if the the show intentionally employed this strategy), but 5 minutes of comprehensive research on the internets reveals a 1985 Star Trek novel called Killing Time, in which a character opines "you don't want to wear a red shirt on landing-party duty" (so sez Wikipedia2). That's the earliest reference I could find, but I'm sure this is something that the show's obsessive fanbase has been remarking on since the 1970s. It's a meme that has been frequently referenced and parodied throughout the years. The most obvious is in the movie Galaxy Quest, where the character of Guy Fleegman, "Crewman Number Six", fears for his life due to his character's expendable nature (fortunately, this parody inverts the meme, allowing him to survive). There is even a grand tradition amongst some SF authors to "reward" fans of their work by naming a character after them, then killing them (for example: David Weber).

All of which is to say that the concept behind John Scalzi's latest novel Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas isn't exactly a new one. It is, perhaps, the most thorough deconstruction of the trope - most others are mere references, homages, or simple skits on the matter - but I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that. Fortunately, Scalzi is a talented author who knows how to turn the page. Indeed, I finished the book in a mere two sittings. Not quite a record, but close. And it's a solid story, filled with typical Scalzian characters and their snappy dialogue, with a some clever ideas thrown in for good measure. It didn't take me long to become attached to the characters, at which point my over-analysis of the title faded away and I devoured the rest of the book.

The general premise of the novel is that a bunch of characters on a Star-Trek-like ship recognize that people who get roped into away-missions with high profile members of the crew tend to end up dead. Essentially, the redshirts recognize their role in the show, and try to fight back. This stuff manifests itself in a number of ways. One of my favorites being "the box", a magical device used whenever the characters run into an impossible problem. They simply feed the problem into the box, and then when it's dramatically appropriate, it spits out an answer. It's a pretty funny take on Star Trek writers' tendency to tech the tech.

It's a fun book, perhaps more comedy than SF, though fans of Star Trek will probably enjoy it. I'm not entirely sure how well executed some of the mechanics of this whole premise is... For instance, it's not entirely clear when the characters are "on screen" as it were. One of our redshirts speculates that there's a "narrative", you see, and that if you can avoid the narrative, you can avoid an untimely death. There's even a funny sequences meant to illustrate how ridiculous commercial breaks are, but again, the mechanics of this aren't entirely clear. Of course, in an exercise that is so self-aware and meta, that's sorta the point. The TV show these characters are stuck in is clearly pretty bad, so of course a lot of this stuff doesn't make sense... and that's part of the fun of it all... but you could also argue that it's a bit of a cop out. Personally, I feel like such things are worthwhile if they're done well, and for the most part, everything here works even if it doesn't precisely fit.

The story proper is quite entertaining and fun, but it should be noted that it pretty much ends about 2/3 of the way through the novel. The remaining 100 pages or so consist of the sub-titular Three Codas. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this at first. It wasn't really surprising to see the story end when it did, except insofar as I already knew there was still 100 pages or so left. Scalzi even manages to extend the self-referential meta elements beyond the simple redshirt notion, though it's exactly what you'd think when you think about the premise. Anyway, the three short stories are all related to the main narrative, touching on side characters or concepts here and there. The first coda comes off as a little slight, but it ends up being pretty effective. The second coda is actually pretty meaningful and interesting, adding a depth and seriousness the rest of the novel was missing. The third coda builds on that heft while still managing to end on a clever but positive note. There's something a little gimmicky about the codas - they're written in first, second, and third person, for instance - and I can see how some folks wouldn't appreciate them in general, but I thought they were well done and meaningful.

It's strange. I find that the things I don't like about this book, like the title and the structure, are superficial. These meta aspects (not to be confused with the meta nature of the story itself) trouble me more than the actual contents of the book. I don't quite know what to make of this. The title "Redshirts" does perfectly encapsulate what you're in for, but there's something corny about using a decades-old meme as the title for your book3. Fortunately, the actual contents of the book don't strike me that way, so I ultimately enjoyed the book heartily. I don't know that I would entirely agree with Justin's (very funny and entertaining in itself) review that this is "Spoof Trekkie Fiction: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There is" (an oblique reference to Scalzi's recent controversial and ill-fitting metaphor for life as a video game), but there is a distinct Saturday Night Live skit feeling to the premise of the book. But it's a really well done skit, if that's the case, and I'm generally of the mind that such exercises can be fun if executed well, which this is. In the end, I really enjoyed the book, despite any reservations I may have about the title and structure, and would recommend it to just about anyone.

1 - This appears to impact mostly the original Star Trek series and it should be noted that plenty of blue or gold shirted crewmen die on the series as well. Star Trek: The Next Generation (and later shows) tried to invert the meme by placing its main characters mostly into red shirts themselves. Deaths seem less frequent as well, though there is still the occasional unfortunate mishap, and the poor character is sometimes wearing a red shirt. Star Trek is definitely a show in which The Main Characters Do Everything, so when you see some random dude on the away team, chances are that he's in trouble.

2 - Scalzi actually makes a pretty funny, but obvious, dig at Wikipedia in the book. I don't know why I needed to put this in a footnote, but I always find references to Wikipedia and the internet interesting in works of art.

3 - There appears to be a rash4 of this sort of title. Consider another example: Rule 34 by Charlie Stross (Rule 34 of the internet is: If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions. Its awesome, but kinda lame when you name your book after it).

4 - I have recently established that only two examples are needed in order to qualify as a "rash". Which, since I've identified two different rashes in the past week, means that I'm experiencing a rash of rashes. Gross.
Posted by Mark on June 24, 2012 at 03:39 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga
So I'm finished. I love the series and highly recommend checking it out. The problem is that there's a lot of churn in terms of how to read the series. It's a long series consisting of 13 novels, 3 novellas, and 1 short story (plus a few other outliers), and there's a lot of discussion on ye olde internets about the ideal order to read them. Like the recently discussed Star Wars, there are two obvious orders: internal chronology and in order of publication.

There are some complicating factors that can lead to different (or streamlined) sequences though. First, most of the books center around a character named Miles Vorkosigan, but the first two are told from the perspective of Miles' mother, Cordelia Naismith. Second, the initial installments of the series were written and published out of chronological order, so there are plenty of folks out there who've read the series that way. Third, Borders of freakin' Infinity (more on this below, but it's a collection of novellas that can confuse the order). Fourth, most of the books have been collected together in omnibus editions, which complicates things a bit, but if you want to read the series chronologically, they're actually pretty well organized. Fifth, and the reason I struggle with the whole reading order thing, is that the height of the series starts about 8 or 9 books in... This is not to say that those first 8 books aren't good, just that the series got better than I ever expected around that time with an amazing four book run starting with Mirror Dance and concluding with A Civil Campaign.

Every book in the series tells a discrete story. There are no cliff-hangers, but there are a bunch of character-centric multi-book arcs. Interestingly, the series could be read almost as a series of pairs, and the omnibus editions are mostly built around that notion, with the novellas from Borders of Infinity thrown in for good measure. Aside from attempting to read the second of a pair first, I suspect you could try to get into the series almost anywhere along the way. Before I go further, it might be useful to list out the series, publication dates, and omnibus editions:

Story Published Omnibus Notes
Falling Free 1988 N/A Independent novel set 200 years before main series.
Shards of Honor 1986 Cordelia's Honor Told from Cordelia's perspective.
Kaedrin Reviews: Shards of Honor, Barrayar
Barrayar 1991
The Warrior's Apprentice 1986 Young Miles Kaedrin Reviews: The Warrior's Apprentice, Mountains of Morning, and The Vor Game
"Mountains of Morning" from Borders of Infinity 1989
The Vor Game 1990
Cetaganda 1995 Miles, Mystery & Mayhem Ethan of Athos is an independent story.
Kaedrin Reviews
Ethan of Athos 1986
"Labyrinth" from Borders of Infinity 1989
"Borders of Infinity" from Borders of Infinity 1989 Miles Errant Kaedrin Reviews: Borders of Infinity, Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance
Brothers in Arms 1989
Mirror Dance 1994
Memory 1996 N/A Kaedrin Review
Komarr 1998 Miles in Love Kaedrin Reviews
A Civil Campaign 1999
"Winterfair Gifts" 2004
Diplomatic Immunity 2002 N/A Kaedrin Review
Cryoburn 2010 N/A Kaedrin Review
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance 2012 N/A Told from Ivan's perspective.
Kaedrin Review

So the first thing to note is that Falling Free, while technically part of the series, is an extreme prequel and doesn't really involve any of the characters (it's set 200 years before the rest of the series). As such, it's almost completely independent of the rest of the series. I say "almost" because I've heard it would be good to catch up with this one before Diplomatic Immunity. Also, I neglected to mention a short story called "Dreamweaver's Dilemma" which is apparently also an extreme prequel that's not closely coupled with the rest of the series. Of course, I haven't read either of these, so I can't say for sure (Update: I've since read both, and they are indeed not closely coupled with the rest of the series, I would skip them and come back later). I do plan to catch up with them at some point, but the real meat of the Vorkosigan Saga starts with Shards of Honor.

Shards of Honor is where I started the series, though it appears that many people bypass Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and start directly with The Warrior's Apprentice, which is when Miles first shows up (well, there is a short scene in Barrayar where you see him as a young child, but that's from his mother's perspective...) There are pros and cons to each approach. Starting with Shards of Honor and Barrayar gives you a lot of background on the universe and characters, while The Warrior's Apprentice will get you into the series quicker. Personally, I opted to start with the Cordelia books. I'm something of a completist, but it worked really well for me. The other option is to read the books in order of publication, which will have you ping-ponging from Cordelia stories to Miles stories and back again a few times, as well as being all over the internal chronology... but I'm sure it would work too.

The most confusing thing I encountered in the series, though, is Borders of Infinity. This is a collection of three novellas (including one called "Borders of Infinity", just for added confusion), which in a lot of other arenas, means that you can probably skip them... but I would strongly advise against that, actually. "Mountains of Mourning" is quite possibly the best story in the entire series. "Borders of Infinity" is a really clever prison story, and the events in that story - some of which rubbed me the wrong way at the time - pay off huge in Komarr (I have no idea if that was always Bujold's intention, or if she just thought of it later, but it was a fantastic revelation in any case). "Labyrinth" is the most unusual of the bunch, but it also introduces one of my favorite side characters from the series, Taura. Now, these stories were originally published as part of one collection, but the three stories all take place at varying points of the chronology. The omnibus editions do an admirable job mixing the novellas into the series though, which lessens the confusion quite a bit. The only thing lost, then, is the narrative glue between the stories, but that's only about 5 pages or so (even still, it takes place between Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance, making it a difficult thing to fit in - you won't really miss it). Anyways, there are a bunch of options for Borders of Infinity... it might even make an interesting introduction to the series, though it's always hard for me to judge (I'd still recommend starting with Shards or Warrior's).

Ethan of Athos is another book that is noteworthy for its independence from the rest of the series. Indeed, Miles is barely even mentioned, though one of the series' recurring characters, Elli Quinn, plays a prominent role. It's an interesting story, probably one of the least mainstream of the entire series, but it's also very independent. There are some small references to it in later stories, but nothing big enough to say this needs to be read in order (though, completist as I am, I did). If you're looking to get to the amazing four book run starting at Mirror Dance, you can probably skip this one.

So I think that covers all of the exceptions and divisive parts of the series. There are a lot of books that pair together well, and I think the omnibus editions do an excellent job latching them together. Incidentally, just because something isn't part of an omnibus doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. I think my second favorite story in the series is Memory. Also, just because something is a novella or a short story doesn't mean that it's not worth reading. I've already mentioned that, but it bears repeating. Even "Winterfair Gifts" was a great story (which, I believe, is only really available as part of the omnibus).

This series has probably been my favorite recent discovery. It's a tricky thing, and I think there's an interesting discussion to be had about series like this. I have to wonder how good something like Memory or A Civil Campaign would appear to an outsider who didn't have so much background on the characters or the universe. It certainly worked wonders for me, but it's hard to express that because in order for anyone else to get that feeling, they have to read several books into the series to get there... Tricky. But that's a discussion for another day.

Update: Added Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, some additional notes.
Posted by Mark on June 10, 2012 at 09:02 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, May 13, 2012

SF Book Review, Part 11: The Vorkosigan Saga Ends
The last time I wrote about the Vorkosigan Saga books, a commenter noted that the best books were ahead of me, and indeed, I think they were. In fact, the run of books starting with Mirror Dance and concluding with A Civil Campaign is as good as any series I've ever read, and the series as a whole represents quite a feat. It is not so bogged down with continuity that you have to read all of them - most of the novels are complete stories in and of themselves. But on the other hand, when you read them in order (as I have done), a lot of value is added. This makes some of these later books in the series difficult to judge. Memory might be my favorite novel in the series, but is that because of what happens in the novel by itself, or is it reliant on previous installments for that heft? And is that a bad thing? Personally, I don't think so... but it may make an interesting topic for another post.

Below are short reviews of the last five novels of the series (with a bonus short story thrown in for good measure). I've tried to avoid any real talk about the plots of each, but there might be some minor spoilers on a macro level. That being said, I knew a lot of this stuff was coming before I read it, and it did not diminish anything. Half the fun is Bujold's style, which is not ornate or flowery, not showy, but perhaps deceptively effective and downright compelling. These are page turners, but ones of unusual sophistication. While I have finished the series, I don't think this will be the last I blog of it. Indeed, I already have a few ideas for other posts, but they will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, here's some mixed thoughts on the last five books of the series:
  • Memory - I think this may be my favorite novel of the series. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have nearly the same impact if you started here. This book is a culmination, a real turning point for both the character of Miles and the series as a whole. Up until now, Miles has led a dual life, and for the most part, he's gotten away with it. But the chickens come home to roost in this novel, and Miles has to make some hard choices. Like all the best Vorkosigan novels, seemingly nothing goes right in the first portion of the story. I keep thinking to myself: This is wrong! Or No, you idiot! Fortunately, Bujold knows what she's doing. Miles falters in the beginning, but starts to pick himself back up, and watching him grow, watching him finally accept and acknowledge his identity, his true identity, makes for a wonderful story (this is primarily why new readers might not wholly get it). Oh sure, there's lots of intrigue and conspiracy and of course Miles is in the center of it all, but that's the norm for him. What's new is that he doesn't retreat to his normal crutches (er, not after the beginning anyway), and instead forges a new path for himself.

    Also notable here is the setting of Barrayar, which becomes more complex and real to me every time I see it. Sometimes it seems like every science fiction planet has their own monoculture (or monoclimate), but Barrayar is fully realized, with distinct differences between rural and city areas, and multiple political factions, etc... It helps that the planet is populated with a veritable plethora of familiar and likeable side characters (another reason the book probably wouldn't resonate with new readers). In particular, it's fun to see a different side of Illyan, who up until now has been something of an inscrutable spymaster (though we do see him when he's much younger too). There's even a callback to my other favorite Vorkosigan story, The Mountains of Morning - Miles visits Silvy Vale again, to find that things have changed there, in no small part because of his previous efforts. It's a turning point for Miles in this story, and thus a turning point for the whole series.
  • Komarr - In this book, Miles and one of the Emperor's other Imperial Auditors visits one of the other two planets in the Barrayaran Imperium to investigate an engineering disaster. It looks pretty straightforward at first, but seeing as though Miles is involved, things get hairy pretty quickly. There are a few things that really set this book apart, and one is that half the book is written from Ekaterin Vorsoisson's perspective. She's the niece of Miles' Imperial Auditor colleague, and she's married to a minor Vor lord and administrator on the planet. This is a relatively new direction for the series, which has often relied on Miles as detective, but this time, it's his official role. I won't say much about the mystery in question, except that it's pretty well plotted and interesting. The real strength of this book is Ekaterin, who's in a pretty rough situation, and things get worse for her as time goes on. Miles and Ekaterin actually develop an interesting relationship here, and there's a moment about halfway through the book where they have a minor adventure when shopping, and it forces Miles to have flashback to his Dendarii days - it's actually a callback to one of the novellas from Borders of Infinity, and it totally explains something that I never quite got when I was reading that story. It's one of those moments when all the pieces unexpectedly come together... for something you never even realized was an issue. It makes me wonder about the degree to which Bujold had planned out the series. In any case, this is an interesting book. I wouldn't say that it's better than Memory, but it's solid in its own right, and it's an interesting direction for the series. Miles is still growing into his new role, and finding that his Impsec habits die hard (and that's a good thing, too, as his many varied experiences serve him well in his new job).
  • A Civil Campaign - You wouldn't think a book whose centerpiece is a (disastrous) dinner party would have very high stakes, but, well, here we are. Oh, and the conclusion of the story hinges off of... a democratic vote. Yeah, from the outside, this doesn't seem like much, especially in a series that has previously centered on military action and espionage, but it's actually quite involving because it's a big character piece. The points of view in this book expand from Miles and Ekaterin to also include Mark Vorkosigan, Kareen Koudelka, and even Ivan Vorpatril. Like Memory, we're on Barrayar here, so there's a huge cast of well established side characters making appearances, along with a bevy of new ones, including even some folk of the Vorrutyer clan who have been villains in previous books, but this time around, there are a couple that are, uh, maybe not good guys, but certainly better than the alternatives! It's another change of pace for the series, and the Romantic angle which has been building since Memory seems to have picked up a lot of steam. The books starts a bit on the slow side, but once you get to that ill-fated dinner party, which is hysterically funny by the way, things pick up considerably, making this among my favorite of the books in the series. Actually, the grand majority of the book is funny, probably making this more of a comedy than previous books in the series. Where Memory was all about Miles, this book seems more about Ekaterin. Her character underwent a lot of changes in Komarr too, but she's really the one that is driving everything this time around. This book really does a lot, but Bujold manages to juggle all the various storylines well, and make it all seem natural and balanced. Excellent book.
  • Winterfair Gifts - This is a short story that depicts Miles' wedding on Barrayar. The Dendarii mercenaries (sans Elli Quinn, for obvious reasons) have arrived for the wedding, but Lady Ekaterin has mysteriously fallen ill... The story is told entirely from Armsman Roic's POV, which is a neat touch. We've seen him a bit in the previous novel, but he really gets a chance to shine here. Indeed, there's even something of a romantic subplot with him and Taura, the 8 foot tall, genetically modified Dendarii mercenary with fierce, catlike features. Roic, being a Barrayaran, has a prejudice against women soldiers and "mutants", of which Taura certainly qualifies. But he quickly reverses position. It's not really the focus of the story, and it was pretty clear that nothing much would come of this because of Taura's unnaturally short lifespan, but it was a nice touch. The mystery the two of them solve is pretty neato too. All in all, it's a really pleasant story, and it was really nice to get updates on the Dendarii folk, who had been pretty absent from the recent books. If you're reading the series, don't skip this one because it's "just" a short story. It's a lot of fun.
  • Diplomatic Immunity - As I tweeted when I was reading this, I tried really hard to resist the "urge to constantly scream the title like the South African guy from Lethal Weapon 2". Of course, I failed miserably, and yes, I just kinda screamed it right now. Anywho, after the previous four books in the series, which were all superb, I think this one probably represents a bit of step backwards. Not bad at all, just not quite at the level of the previous few books. It does take a little while to get started, but once the nature of the conflict starts to become clear, it becomes incredibly tense and thrilling. Unfortunately, a fair amount of the conclusion happens "off screen" as it were, and we find out that Ekaterin saves the day in Miles' stead (I'd like to have seem more from Ekaterin's perspective in this one). On the other hand, we do get to hang out with Bel Thorne again, which is awesome, and Bujold's writing is still wonderful and absurdly funny at times. I don't want to talk much about the plot here, as it is interesting (you'll probably have to have read Cetaganda before this one for the ending to really have a good impact) and despite not being my favorite Vorkosigan book, it's still better than average SF mystery! It's one of those weird things. Miles manages to foil a galaxy-wide conspiracy plot that could have potentially lead to war... yet it seems like there is less at stake here than in A Civil Campaign!
  • Cryoburn - Like Diplomatic Immunity, this one suffers a bit from reduced stakes. Bujold manages to work around this by adding the POV of Jin, an 11 year old kid at the heart of the conspiracy that Miles is uncovering. But the book takes place on Kibou-daini, a planet that we've never heard of before (most of the other planets in Bujold's universe are mentioned and foreshadowed in other books before a story gets set there), and the only familiar face we run into is Armsman Roic (who is indeed awesome!) A few others show up later in the story, and we see some communiques from Ekaterin and Gregor and the like, and we hear a little about Miles' kids, but for the most part, it's all new characters. Fortunately, the new folks are pretty great in their own right, and the story here is also rather interesting, which I think elevates this above Diplomatic Immunity, even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of some other installments. Ironically, despite being the latest novel published (and the latest in terms of the chronology), this might make a decent entry into the series, which is rather strange, and of course, everything you'd read after this would be prequel, so I wouldn't recommend it, but I suspect that's why this managed to garner a Hugo nomination... Anyway, I had a ton of fun with this, but there was something about it that felt strange. Not bad, but it's like Miles has become so powerful in his old age. He's done all the growth he's needed to do. It's like he's maxed out his levels in an RPG and so most enemies don't really represent a threat to him... so while I enjoyed the story, I never quite feared that he wouldn't manage to pull it all off in style, which, of course, he does. There's nothing really wrong with that, and again, I really had a lot of fun with the book, it's just another that isn't really top tier stuff (though Bujold's writing is tight as ever). The very end of Cryoburn, after the story proper has been resolved, seems a bit rushed for what it represents. There's a bit of a tragedy there, but not an unexpected one, and indeed, Bujold laid the hints on pretty thickly in the preceding chapters, though I didn't quite recognize that for what it was. It makes for a fitting end to the series, though I'm sure there are plenty other stories that could be told as well (and indeed, Bujold has written a tale centering around Ivan that will be out later this year).
Whew. There are only two books in the series that remain for me, one that takes place a couple hundred years in the past and is mostly unrelated (Falling Free) and one that is forthcoming (Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, which can't get here soon enough - I think withdrawal pains are starting to set in already).
Posted by Mark on May 13, 2012 at 04:28 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

When the whole Kickstarter thing started, I went through a number of phases. First, it's a neat idea and it leverages some of the stuff that makes the internet great. Second, as my systems analyst brain started chewing on it, I had some reservations... but that was shortlived as, third, some really interesting stuff started getting funded. Here are some of the ones I'm looking forward to:
  • Singularity & Co. - Save the SciFi! - Yeah, so you'll be seeing a lot of my nerdy pursuits represented here, and this one is particularly interesting. This is a project dedicated to saving SF books that are out of print, out of circulation, and, ironically, unavailable in any sort of digital format. The Kickstarter is funding the technical solution for scanning the books as well as tracking down and securing copyright. Judging from the response (over $50,000), this is a venture that has found a huge base of support, and I'm really looking forward to discovering some of these books (some of which are from well known authors, like Arthur C. Clarke).
  • A Show With Ze Frank - One of the craziest things I've seen on the internet is Ze Frank's The Show. Not just the content, which is indeed crazy, but the sheer magnitude of what he did - a video produced every weekday for an entire year. Ze Frank grew quite a following at the time, and in fact, half the fun was his interactions with the fans. Here's to hoping that Sniff, hook, rub, power makes another appearance. And at $146 thousand, I have no idea what we're in for. I always wondered how he kept himself going during the original show, but now at least he'll be funded.
  • Oast House Hop Farm - And now we come to my newest obsession: beer. This is a New Jersey farm that's seeking to convert a (very) small portion of their land into a Hop Farm. Hops in the US generally come from the west coast (Washington's Yakima valley, in particular). In the past, that wasn't the case, but some bad luck (blights and infestations) brought east coast hops down, then Prohibition put a nail in the coffin. The farm hopes to supply NJ brewers as well as homebrewers, so mayhaps I'll be using some of their stuff in the future! So far, they've planted Cascade and Nugget hops, with Centennial and Newport coming next. I'm really curious to see how this turns out. My understanding is that it takes a few years for a hop farm to mature, and that each crop varies. I wonder how the East Coast environs will impact the hops...
  • American Beer Blogger - Despite the apparent failure of Discovery's Brewmasters, there's got to be room for some sort of beer television show, and famous beer blogger and author Lew Bryson wants to give it a shot. The Kickstarter is just for the pilot episode, but assuming things go well, there may be follow up efforts. I can only hope it turns out well. I enjoyed Brewmasters for what it was, but being centered on Dogfish Head limited it severely. Sam Calagione is a great, charismatic guy, but the show never really captured the amazing stuff going on in the US right now (which is amazing because it is so broad and local and a million other things Brewmasters couldn't really highlight given its structure).
Well, there you have it. I... probably should have been linking to these before they were funded, but whatever, I'm really happy to see that all of these things will be coming. I'm still curious to see if this whole Kickstarter thing will remain sustainable, but I guess time will tell, and for now, I'm pretty happy with the stuff being funded. There are definitely a ton of other campaigns that I think are interesting, especially surrounding beer and video games, but I'm a little tight on time here, so I'll leave it at that...
Posted by Mark on April 15, 2012 at 08:28 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Upcoming Books
Because my book queue is not long enough*, it seems some of my favorite SF authors are releasing new novels in 2012. Yay**. Here are the most exciting ones, in order of anticipated publication:
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King (4/24/12)- I just found out about this one... Apparently Stephen King is returning to his Dark Tower series and doing another quasi-prequel... actually ,it's a sorta sequel to the oddly placed yet strangely compelling Wizard and Glass, a novel I now consider one of my favorites in the series. That book sorta told the origin story of Roland the Gunslinger, and this one sorta continues his early adventures. Stephen King has never been one of my favorite authors, but I'm on board for this one...
  • The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and others (4/24/12) - I've written about this experiment before, and to be sure, most of this content is already available, as it was serialized via custom apps on various mobile devices, but they're now collecting the first completed story in a paperback... I played around with the iPhone app, but never purchased a "subscription" as the concept of serialized books does not really appeal to me (heck, I'm the guy that doesn't catch up with TV series until the season is over), but I'd like to check out a completed story.
  • Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi (6/5/12) - I have to admit that I find the title of this sorta kitschy, but I always find myself entertained by Scalzi, and it's not like this is an actual Star Trek novel or anything. I'm holding out hope that he'll be able to bring something unique to the tired old red-shirt cliche.
  • Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing by Neal Stephenson (8/7/12) - I have no idea what these "Remarks" are going to be, but I'm guessing this will end up being a collection of previously published writing (like his awesome, long, rambling essays in Wired). I'm hoping that it will contain at least some new stuff though. Of course, I'd love another epic essay like In the Beginning...was the Command Line, but I'm not actually expecting that...
  • Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (11/6/12) - I've only got one book left in Bujold's Vorkosigan saga and was prepping for withdrawal pains, so this book will be perfectly timed to keep me addicted... Still, I'm very much looking forward to this novel, a spin-off featuring Ivan Vorpatril, one of the long-running side-characters of the series. I'm actually pretty excited about this book and I'm hoping Bujold will continue to play in the SF space in the future...
And that covers the big books I'm most excited about this year. Of course, there's bound to be others that I'm missing, and the queue is constantly growing, but the above will probably keep me busy for a while.

* Sarcasm!

** Not sarcasm!
Posted by Mark on March 28, 2012 at 09:34 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, March 18, 2012

SF Book Review, Part 10: The One That Includes Fantasy
While I've done my fair share of Science Fiction reading over the past few years, Fantasy has been relatively absent... I don't really have much against Fantasy or anything, I just tend to prefer Science Fiction, which tends to be more grounded. That being said, I've recently mixed a few fantasy books into my schedule, including some longtime residents of the queue, and I think you can expect to see a little more fantasy appearing soon as well...
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury - Hard to believe this is the first Bradbury I've ever read. I actually picked this up a while ago, reading it during Halloween season last year (after being reminded/shamed into it while posting about NPR's top 100 SF/F books). For the most part, I enjoyed this book, and there are some really tense sequences (I particularly loved the chase scene in the library), but I ultimately found the book a bit lacking. I can see why it's beloved, and there are certainly some great characters (the Illustrated Man is a wonderful villain) and eery overtones - carnivals are naturally scare places - but it didn't quite connect with me the way other classics of science fiction or fantasy have in the past. This is partly due to Bradbury's style, which I found a bit stilted, but it's probably more due to the fantastical nature of the plot. I wonder if I'd have liked this better if I read it when I was younger. I'm glad to have read it, and I enjoyed it well enough, but I was never blown away by it.
  • Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville - Ah, finally. This book has been on my book queue (and indeed, even on my shelf) for several years (I first mentioned it on the blog in 2009, but I'd already had it for at least a year at that point). So what's the deal with this thing? Miéville is one of the primary examples of The New Weird, a literary subgenre harkening back to the Weird fiction of yore, exemplified by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft. The notion of "Weird" being distinct from horror or fantasy is mostly due to the fact that a lot of that stuff was written before genre fiction achieved such a strict taxonomy. The "new" weird probably fits into that line too. There are elements of fantasy, horror, and even a little science fiction here, though I will say that the SF elements are little more than window dressing. Our main character, Isaac, is ostensibly a "scientist", but Miéville's conception of what a scientist does is... not very vigorous. For instance, Isaac's main breakthrough in the world of science? Crisis energy... a vague form of power derived by... placing things in danger? It's unclear, and it's ridiculous. Fortunately, Miéville's got a lot more going for him than against him. He's created a wonderfully detailed setting (though I will say he tends to go overboard in his verbose descriptions of such) and some evocative, fun characters. I was a particularly big fan of the Weaver, a sorta multi-dimensional being that takes the form of a spider, regards the universe as a work of art, and speaks in an unending stream of consciousness and free verse poetry. The villains of the piece, called slake-moths (which are huge, monstrous beasts with hypnotic powers and an appetite for consciousness), are also compelling. Lots of other interesting ideas populate the world, like the Construct Council and countless other races of beings. Again, I think Miéville gets a little carried away in his description of the world, and this wankery can get a bit tiresome at times, but it's a dense setting and I'd hope that future installments would perhaps be a little less exposition-heavy. Also, the main character of Isaac is a bit of a sad-sack, and while Miéville sets the stakes very high and manages to come up with a solid solution, there is a bit of an (intentional) downer ending. I'd call this a very good book, though it doesn't quite strike all of my chords. There are things I love about it, and things I don't particularly care for. Miéville has written a number of books set in this universe, and it may be something I return to at some point, but I can't say as though I'm rushing to do so at this point.
  • The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi - This debut novel from Finnish author (and string theorist) Hannu Rajaniemi has garnered a lot of praise, and it is indeed crammed with a lot of interesting ideas. I'm not entirely sure they all coalesce into a great narrative, but then, this is also apparently the first in a trilogy (*groan*). Unlike every other book in this post, and indeed, most of my SF book posts, this book is the hardest of hard SF. Not quite Greg Egan hard SF, but close. Rajaniemi thrusts you into this unfamiliar world with no real hand-holding, forcing you to infer a lot of the concepts and ideas from minimal exposure. Most of the characters are of the post-human sort, digital beings stuck in human body shaped shells, sometimes more machine than biological. Complex interrelationships and privacy controls, augmented reality, brain-machine interfaces and the like. If you've read other stories along these lines, you may be comfortable, but the casual reader of SF might be a bit overwhelmed. I came down somewhere in the middle of that mixture. I was never totally lost, but I wasn't particularly comfortable with everything either. The story itself is a little obtuse. Our main character is Jean le Flambeur (John the Gambler?), an infamous thief playing the traditional role of a trickster. He's reasonably likeable, though he isn't given a ton of space to shine. As the book opens, his mind is imprisoned in a weird state where it is forced to play endless variations of the prisoner's dilemma against copies of itself and millions of others. One copy of himself is freed by a woman named Mieli, who seeks his criminal expertise. Her motivations are vague, as is her plan. There is a bit of a heist involved here, but it is again rather obtuse and difficult to piece together exactly what Mieli (or rather, the person pulling her strings) is after. There's also a detective named Isidore Beautrelet, who is trying to piece it all together, and then there's the tzaddik, a sorta vigilante group that is nevertheless tolerated by the authorities. The story takes place on Mars, where society has attempted to limit the endless copying of minds by instituting radical control over your personal technology stack, including even your appearance. It's all very complicated and very interesting. Again, much of this is inferred during the course of events, and things can get a little dicey as you figure them out. Like I said, it never fully coalesced for me, but I still found it interesting enough, and I'd be curious how the sequels will read now that I'm familiar with the various concepts...
  • The Witch Watch, by Shamus Young - I've already mentioned this a few times on the blog, and I suppose it's impossible for me to be unbiased as I've been... internet friends?... with Shamus for a while now, but I had a ton of fun with this book. Oddly, it doesn't seem like it would be my kinda book. It's a fantasy set in the Victorian era of England, with a little steampunk thrown in for good measure. The main character of Gilbert is a sorta zombie who doesn't really remember how he died (though he still retains his wits). Most of these elements are not really in my wheelhouse, and yet Shamus is able to ground everything in enough reality that it all works much better than I would have expected (I will say that I bought the book without knowing anything about the plot or characters or anything). Shamus is a programmer, and so even the fantastical elements of his story operate with a certain logic and internal consistency. For instance, I often find the way magic is portrayed in fantasy as a major problem. It's often used and abused, with little or no limitations, leading to an improbable escalation of powers that quickly grates on me. But in this novel, magic is limited by both social and natural forces. First, magic is feared and abhorred by nearly everyone. It is controlled by two main forces: the "Church" and the titular "Witch Watch" (a sorta magic-specific British detective agency). The Church is absurdly ignorant in its treatment of the problem, simply killing those it suspects of magic, with no due process. The Witch Watch take a more balanced approach, preferring to actually study what makes magic work. These social limitations on magic make for a nice buffer, and they allow Shamus to avoid getting into too many details with how magic actually works. But when he does, it's still interesting and well considered. There are physical limitations on magic as well. There are some spells that can be cast without much preparation, but they take a great deal of energy out of the person casting the spell. So you can conjure up a big fireball, but after you do so, you'll be pretty tired (and unable to continue). Of course, limitations are a great literary tool, as there are always ways to get around them, and that sort of contortion is always entertaining. Now, the book isn't perfect. In particular, I found the flashbacks and epistolary sections a little distracting. Some of them serve a good purpose, though I'm not sure they required quite as prominent a placement as they received... But that is a minor problem in an otherwise entertaining and tight story. The characters are quite likeable and have a nice chemistry together. Shamus' dry wit is in evidence here, especially when Gilbert and Alice get to trading barbs, and the book is quite easy to read. Give it a shot, if it sounds like your thing...
  • The Tale of the Wicked, by John Scalzi - Ok, so this is a bit of a cheat, as this is a short story I read in a single (short) sitting, but it was a fun space opera tale and a nice precursor to Scalzi's forthcoming Redshirts novel. The story has to do with an AI unit stretching beyond it's normal capabilities and is a little reminiscent of those great, paranoid old SF movies like Colossus: The Forbin Project or Demon Seed (though things never quite run as amok in Scalzi's tale). Still, it's a fun little story. Only available online in kindle format, it's still just 99 cents, and was one of those impulse purchases Amazon makes so easy...
So there you have it. Next up on the reviewing front will probably be finishing off the Vorkosigan saga... I'm trying to delay that as long as possible (only 1.5 books left!), so it may be a bit, but I'm sure I won't be able to resist (also, apparently a new one is coming in November)...
Posted by Mark on March 18, 2012 at 07:23 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, January 29, 2012

SF Book Review, Part 9: Mistressworks Edition
So last year, someone noticed that the SF Masterworks, a series of books highlighting the classic science fiction novels, was somewhat lacking in female author representation. I'm not a big fan of identity politics and I don't want to take this post in that direction, but one of the good things that came out of the whole meme was a site highlighting people's favorite SF books by female authors called SF Mistressworks. I'm always on the lookout for interesting SF, so I picked a few books from their list and added a few of my own, and so here are the last five female-authored books I've read:
  • A Matter of Oaths, by Helen S. Wright - In the distant future, humans have spread out into space, establishing two major empires and a Guild of Webbers that run the spaceships and thus control travel and trade between the two empires. Rafe is a talented Webber (basically someone who can interface with the computers who run spaceships) who is suffering from amnesia... but this isn't just a cliche, it's actually an indication that Rafe is an "oath-breaker", basically someone who has betreayed his respective empire and had their memory wiped as punishment. But, as it turns out, Rafe is more important than anyone realizes, and the two empires fight to retain him. His new crew gets caught in the middle of the fight. Wright has crafted a surprisingly dense universe here and populated it with traditional SF competent men and women that are generally a likable bunch. The worldbuilding is done mostly in the background - you pick things up as you go, rather than wading through long chapters of exposition. Sure, there are some info-dumps, but you have to put a lot of things together for yourself as well, and Wright strikes a good balance. The story itself isn't really exceptional, but it's a well executed space opera and well worth reading (unless you're a homophobe, in which case you'll be freaked out by some of the relationships in the book). The ending does feature a deus ex machina, but it fits well enough with the story, and Wright manages to wring enough suspense out of the finale. It's not really in print anymore, but you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for a penny (alas, no kindle version either). As far as I can tell, this was Wright's only fiction novel, which is a shame, as I'd certainly be interested in more from her...
  • Polar City Blues, by Katharine Kerr - Basically a traditional murder/mystery thriller story with a science fictional setting. Some of this setting doesn't really work for me. Kerr's characters all speak in a weirdly constructed version of English (for instance, a character will say something like "I no get it" instead of "I don't get it") that only really serves to be distracting without providing any real depth or flavor to the story. Fortunately, Kerr has crafted a complex, twisty little mystery for us, so I can give the linguistic stuff a pass. Polar City Police Chief Al Bates has a nasty problem brewing, with a psyionic killer on the loose and a trail of dead bodies in his wake. He teams up with connected smuggler Bobbie Lacey to investigate and quickly becomes enmeshed in a complicated tale of assassination, mysterious alien artifacts, and a new, unknown disease spreading throughout the city. Solidly constructed mystery with some added flavor from the science fictional elements and some neat role reversal in the book's romantic subplot. It took a bit to get going for me, but I ended up enjoying this enough to recommend it. Unfortunately, this is another book that's currently out of print, but again, Amazon has lots of cheap used copies. Kerr is probably more known for her Fantasy works, but this was an interesting effort.
  • Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh - My least favorite book in this post, I found this one a bit of a slog. It starts off promisingly enough. Twice, even. But the two thrilling prologues prove to be a tease. After those exciting false starts, the story proper almost immediately bogs down. Lots of repetitive whining and miscommunication for the sake of plot (which isn't very complicated, but it's played that way due to the fact that everyone only says cryptic things). A user on Goodreads hit the nail on the head with his "brief fantasia that illustrates" Cherryh's style in this book:
    Bren was extremely worried about the assassination attempt and was quite annoyed that his freedom of movement had been compromised. A worrisome Bren couldn't believe he had to suffer an escort everywhere! "I really am awfully worried that I can't phone home", said Bren, as he huffily realized that his ability to buy canned meat alone was no longer possible. "This really bothers me, I can't even leave my apartment without an escort!" notes Bren, as he paces his apartment in frustration. It was driving him crazy with annoyance and worry that not only had an assassin tried to kill him, now he couldn't travel alone anymore. He could not leave his apartment alone. After all, an assassin had just attempted to murder him. An actual assassin! Trying to murder him! It was all so worrisome. And as if the assassination attempt wasn't enough, now he couldn't even leave his apartment unaccompanied. "This is really very annoying and I feel awfully compromised, so much so that I am genuinely worried," reflected Bren.
    Which is all well and good, but the book goes on like this for a solid 200-300 pages of nothing but Bren's whining incompetence. Things pick up towards the end of the novel, and Cherryh can craft some exciting sequences when she wants to, but she seems more interested in detailing the confusion of alien communication or politics. Which, again, would be fine, except that it's astoundingly repetitive and boring. And I'm a guy that's normally fascinated by this sort of thing, but Cherryh seems determined to stamp out anything interesting in the premise. Perhaps if any of her characters were likable or interesting in any way? Maybe if they didn't spend all their time petulantly whining about their lot in life? Which is all rather weird, since Cherryh certainly has a way with words. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to have directed them towards any real purpose. A most frustrating novel. This is apparently the first in a long series of popular novels, and from what I gather, they're better than this book, which does set up the setting which is actually rather well thought out. Unfortunately, Cherryh explores this by way of long sequences of exposition and info-dumps that don't ever really seem relevant and are always interspersed with whining. I guess I just hate books where people whine a lot. It's fine to whine for a while - Lois Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan frequently gets depressed or whiny - but you can't make that the entire focus of the book. Miles always parlays his whining into action and usually success, which makes for a good story arc. The characters in Cherryh's book just whine and whine, interesting things happen to them, then the story ends. Most disappointing.
  • The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins - I got a Kindle for Christmas and wanted to read something, and this book was free to download, so I figured I'd check out what all the fuss is about. I have to admit that the premise held little interest for me. Not only is it quite derivative (see Battle Royale, The Running Man, and a few other stories with similar premises), but it's also set in something of a dystopia, which never excites me (and for the record, that's my least favorite part of the other stories of this nature as well). Indeed, the worldbuilding here is distinctly lackluster. The whole purpose of "The Hunger Games" themselves makes no real sense to me, nor does the structure of the setting. On the other hand, the plot is reasonably well executed and rockets along at a fast pace. Once you get into the actual battle, the setting ceases to matter all that much, and you get a thrilling tale of survival and cat-and-mouse stalking. The action is well staged and executed, and I found myself reading at a rather fast pace. There's a sorta romantic subplot, though it's never really clear if it was just a ploy or not (I predict Katniss will develop a nasty case of trust issues in the sequels). It's ultimately a fun book, though I didn't find much depth here. I was kinda "meh" about this book in the end, and while I don't really have any desire to read the sequels, I'll probably watch the movies. I will say that I read it in 3 sittings, so it's certainly not a difficult book to get through, I just had a lot of nagging questions that bothered me about the book.
  • Mirror Dance, by Lois McMaster Bujold - Of course, there has to be some Bujold on the list, and this one is the ninth book in the long running Vorkosigan Saga. This installment is notable in that it's the longest of the books I've read yet (clocking in at a solid 560 pages) and it's told mostly from the perspective of a character other than Miles Vorkosigan. I won't say who, as it's a bit of a spoiler for the series as a whole, but this new character starts off the book as a pretty unlikeable guy. He's even whiny. And he screws lots of things up towards the beginning of the book. But his heart's in the right place, and unlike the characters in Foreigner, our protagonist here actually has an arc in this book, eventually even redeeming himself (reading Mirror Dance and Foreigner back-to-back really puts the latter's issues in specific relief). I have to admit that I was surprised by a number of plot twists throughout the novel, and while the absence of Miles was a bit grating at first, I quickly became intrigued by the story as it progressed. Bujold seems to do this in a lot of her books. I often find myself thinking This can't be right!? The story shouldn't be going this way!, only to be consumed by what follows. I don't know how she does it, but Bujold sure can craft a wonderful story. As the series progresses, she's managed to make excellent use of her universe and supporting cast, which is large and diverse. You're always happy to see certain characters pop up, and after 8 books, Bujold has a lot of background to draw from. The story of this book has to do with a botched rescue of clones, though things quickly escalate (into spoiler territory). It's a great book, maybe in the top tier of the series, though I'd worry about reading this without the background from the previous books. At the very least, you'd have to read Brothers in Arms before this one (a lot of the books in this series have a sorta companion book, making it a series of pairs - a subject for another post, perhaps). I've already read the next few books in the series and with only two or so books left, I'm dreading the hole it will leave in my reading schedule...
And there you have it. I'll probably need to do some non-SF book reviews coming up, but the SF always returns. I may end up finishing off the Vorkosigan Saga in the near future anyway...
Posted by Mark on January 29, 2012 at 06:25 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Book Queue, 2012 Edition
The last list I posted, back in July 2011, had 15 books on it. I've made some excellent process, clearing out almost all of the "Holdovers" from previous lists, including some books that have been sitting on my shelf for literally years. The one remainder from that list is Godel, Escher, Bach, which I chose not to read due to its length (not sure if I'll tackle it this year either, but it will remain in the queue until I do!) I've actually read several books that weren't even in the queue, but I think it's time to regroup and look ahead to what I'll be reading in 2012. The first few books here are holdovers from the previous list, which I didn't read for various reasons.
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter: Again, not sure I want to tackle this one right away, as it's quite the lengthy tome. And it's not super easy reading either - it's dense, complex stuff. I've actually read the first chapter or so before, and I'm virtually certain I'll enjoy the book a great deal, but I've got a ton of other stuff I'd like to get through first.
  • Komarr, A Civil Campaign, Diplomatic Immunity, and Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujuld - These are the last 4 books in Bujold's long running Vorkosigan Saga, a series I cracked open last year, plowing through the first 10 installments. I'm told that these next few books are some of the most fun in the series, so I'm already looking forward to them (and dreading that I won't be able to fall back on reading Vorkosigan novels)
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I still want to read this (a continuation of Vinge's loosely linked Zones of Thought books), but initial reviews of this book seem to indicate that it ends on a cliffhanger and that another novel is forthcoming. I thus won't be reading this until I know more about when the presumed conclusion to the story will be available...
  • The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi: I actually ordered this last year, but for some strange reason, Amazon could not fulfill the order (it had something to do with my ordering of the paperback version, which is apparently nonstandard or something). I do still want to read it though (it's appaently a SF heist story, which seems right up my alley), and now that I have a Kindle, I can probably get to this whenever I want...
  • Savage Season by Joe R. Lansdale: The first in a series of crime novels by Lansdale, whom you may know from his work on Bubba Ho-Tep (a book/movie where a black JFK and an old Elvis fight a mummy in a modern-day Texas retirement home). I just never got to this last year, but I don't see myself delaying anytime soon.
  • Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson: I really enjoyed Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, but I've never read any of his other stuff... until now. Or until I read this one, which is already sitting on my shelf.
  • Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris - I gave this biography of Theodore Roosevelt to my uncle as a gift a while ago, and he though I'd like it too, so now it's in the queue. The biography apparently begins with Roosevelt's taking office (i.e. no getting bogged down with his childhood and upraising, it just goes straight to the action). It is a long book with small type and everything, but it's probably something I'll get through this year.
  • Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh - I've actually started reading this one already, so you can see that this book queue works in mysterious ways and that I certainly won't be reading this stuff in order. In any case, this is apparently the first in another long-running series about humans first encounter with aliens. So far, it's quite good, though I'm a little discombobulated by how the narrative keeps jumping ahead. From what I can tell, the series gets much better as it goes...
So there's 11 books I want to read this year. My goal is to do just as good as the 30 I read last year, if not improve on that a little. I also got a Kindle for Christmas, which means I could maybe do more reading on the go. Or not. We'll see. I'm going to be keeping track of progress on GoodReads, so feel free to follow along or friend me or whatever.
Posted by Mark on January 11, 2012 at 06:26 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Year in Reading
As of this moment (and depending on how you count omnibus editions), I have read 30 books in 2011. There's a pretty good chance that I'll finish my current book by the end of the year as well. If you'll permit some navel gazing, here are some stats about what I've read this year:
  • 30 books in 2011 is a big improvement over the 20 books I read in 2010 (which was itself a pretty big year for me). This might be the most I've read in a single year since high school... and it's worth noting that at least 4 of the books from 2010 were read in December of that year (i.e. this has been a pretty well sustained pace for the past year and half or so).
  • According to goodreads, these 30 books translate to 10,964 pages of reading in 2011 (and if you count my current progress, I'm over the 11,000 mark...) This number is perhaps a little suspect, as it depends on print size and spacing and book format and so on, but as an approximation it feels... well, actually, I have no real frame of reference for this. I'll have to enter in dates for my 2010 reading to see what Goodreads comes up with there.
  • 9 of the books were non-fiction, which might also be a record for me (unless you count textbooks or something).
  • Most of the 21 fiction books were science fiction or fantasy novels, and my progress this year was definitely fueled by shortish novels (i.e. around 300 page novels)
  • The longest novel I read this year was Reamde, clocking in at 1044 pages. The second longest novel was Perdido Street Station, which ran 623 pages.
  • 13 of the 30 books were written by women, which is probably another record for me (for a point of comparison, in 2010, I only read 2 books written by women). I should note that this is mostly fueled by Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga - I've read 9 books in the series so far, and may finish the 10th by the end of the year.
  • Goodreads also provides a neato graph of when you read stuff and when that stuff was published (unfortunately, it's a little too big to feature here). As it turns out, I read only 2 books that were initially published before 1986, though one of those 2 was published in the late 19th century, so there's that.
All in all, a pretty great year of reading. For reference, my top 4 books of the year: Oh hell, can we just make the Vorkosigan Saga (as a whole) the honorary 5th best book of the year? Ok then.

Things have slowed down in the latter part of this year, though I think a large part of that is that I've been focusing on longer novels and non-fiction, which obviously take more time. Indeed, if I manage to tackle Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid next year, I expect that will drag down my numbers a bit. Of course, I could hold off on that and slot in 4 short novels in its place, but I should really read GEB, as it's been on my shelf for quite a while... Looking ahead to next year, I'll definitely be finishing off Bujold's Vorkosigan novels, and I was given a Kindle for Christmas, so I'm sure I'll find plenty of things to read there. Perhaps an updated book queue is in order!
Posted by Mark on December 28, 2011 at 07:26 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nerding Out on Star Trek
Star Trek has been in the news lately, as J.J. Abrams preps the new movie. It seems that Khan will be the villain again (originally thought to be played by Benicio Del Toro, but that has apparently not happened), though there is also apparently a secondary villain who plays an older mentor to Khan. Or something. It was the obvious choice and I'm interested in seeing what Abrams does with the new movie, but in a lot of ways, it's also a disappointing and lazy choice. Not just because Khan was the villain in the original second Star Trek film either. As Devin Faraci also notes, I think one of the things people forget about is that one of the reasons that film worked so well was that Khan wasn't the obvious choice:
Khan wasn't an obvious choice for the original Star Trek II. Basically Harve Bennett watched every single episode of the original series because he thought Star Trek: The Motion Picture lacked a good villain, and took a shine to Space Seed; while it was always regarded as one of the better episodes of the series, Khan wasn't quite the iconic villain he is today.

What made Khan iconic was the fact that his quest for vengeance led to the death of Spock. It seems unlikely that Star Trek 2 will be a remake of Star Trek II, so it's probably a riff on Space Seed - except made more EXTREME for 3D movie purposes. I bet they get Chris Pine to yell 'KHAAAAAAAAN!,' though.
I think I would have rather seen Abrams go in a completely different direction. Either mining the original series for other obscure characters to update for the big screen, or maybe even - and I know this is crazy talk - creating a new character from scratch. The Star Trek reboot was extremely popular, so they've got a built in audience for this next installment. As long as you can make a trailer with a bunch of lens flares, swish pans, and explosions, people are going to go see the sequel. Why not take a chance? Khan is an iconic villain because of his context - none of which has been built up in this new reboot universe.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the existing movies and just for shits and giggles, I ranked them from favorite to least favorite below. Mostly because this post just wasn't nerdy enough. Here goes:
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - The obvious choice, and the film most frequently cited as the best of the Trek movies. I actually haven't seen it in a while, but there are lots of memorable things about it, and of course, Khan was probably the most memorable of the villains in the films...
  • Star Trek (2009 Reboot) - Oh sure, it's not a very rigorous movie and I would totally prefer more science in this film's fiction (and what's there is just breathtakingly stupid), but this film is just so much damn fun that it really does catapult up towards the top of the list. I'd actually say it ties with the next few films, but for now, this is where I have it.
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Who among us hasn't picked up our mouse and talked to it, saying "Computer? Commmputerrr?" like Scottie does in this movie? It's an unusual movie in that it's a sorta fish out of water comedy rather than a sci-fi action film (and quite frankly, those who complain about the reboot's science should take a look at how time travel is portrayed in this film). Fortunately, it's still a boatload of fun.
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - Returning to the series more adventurous roots, this film also wound up being really well done. I feel like I'm saying this for all the movies so far, but it's a lot of fun.
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture - I know, it's slow and plodding and filled with lame glory shots of the Enterprise leaving stardock or something, but I actually enjoyed this one overall. It was a little nebulous and intellectual, but that's what I like about it.
  • Star Trek: First Contact - Certainly the best of The Next Generation movies, this one is pretty fun, but it's also much more of a lame action movie than the series or even the other movies. I think this movie also demonstrates that while the Borg were once awesome villains, their continual evolution into ineffectual dweebs was disappointing. They're better than this movie gives them credit for. This movie works, but there's lots of dumb things going on here.
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - I'm actually surprised this one fell this far on the list. It's not a horrible movie and I don't hate it, but quite frankly, I don't remember much about it (which isn't a good sign).
  • Star Trek: Insurrection - Meh. It's an ok film, and Worf has a space bazooka and everything, but it plays out like a third rate TNG episode. I remember having an ok time with the movie when it came out, but it's ultimately a pretty forgettable experience...
  • Star Trek: Generations - And now we get to the part of the list where the movies are legitimately bad. This movie was just so unnecessary and got the TNG crew off to a horrible start. It's one thing to honor the old crew. It's another to try to cater to everyone, and thus make a movie that works for no one. A horrible movie.
  • Star Trek: Nemesis - Another terrible movie. Hard to believe that's the same Tom Hardy that was in Bronson and Inception, but yep, that's him. I've always thought that the Romulans would be a good villain for the movies, but it never seems to work out...
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - A total abomination, the less said about this the better.
I think my biggest problem with the Star Trek movies is that I consider a lot of The Next Generation episodes better than most of the movies, even including the ones at the top of the list. And even a lot of TNG episodes haven't aged that well, but many are still really well done and interesting. Much moreso than the movies, at least. Speaking of TNG, check out this twitter feed which is throwing out humorous plot summaries from a proposed 8th season of TNG. My favorite episode:
A sentient nebula chases the ship, which has nowhere to hide, because usually it would be in a nebula. Data adopts a dog, snake, and parrot.
Heh, great stuff. Speaking of great stuff, RedLetterMedia has reviews of all the Next Generation movies (in the same style as their brilliant Star Wars prequel reviews) that are certainly worth checking out. Well, I think that covers all the Star Trek nerdery I have right now, so there. I hope you enjoyed it.
Posted by Mark on December 11, 2011 at 07:40 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, September 18, 2011

NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books
I've been meaning to comment on this for a while, but haven't gotten around to it until now. A couple months ago, NPR put out the call for fans to nominate the best science-fiction and fantasy books. Out of several thousand nominations, NPR narrowed the list down to a few hundred, then had another voting period, finally ending up with the top 100 books (or series).

Like most lists, especially crowd-sourced lists like this, there are many quibbles to be had, but it's a pretty decent list. Below, I'll bold the ones I've read and add annotations where I can, then follow up with some comments.
  1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien - An unsurprising choice for the top slot, and while it may not be my "favorite" series, it's hard to argue with it being the most influential of the books in this list (indeed, many of the fantasy novels below are deeply indebted to LotR).
  2. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams - Another unsurprising pick, though my shocking nerd confession is that I don't seem to like this as much as most other nerds. Go figure.
  3. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card - Given Card's reputation with the NPR crowd, I'm surprised this book made it this high. Of course, he doesn't espouse any despicable views in the book, and it is very good, so it's well worth reading.
  4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert - I've only read the first book, which is fantastic. I never got around to the sequels though, and from what I've heard, I'm not missing out on much.
  5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin - I've not read any, though I've seen the first season of the TV show, which is excellent. Probably more likely to keep following the show than read the books. I have to wonder, given some of the heavyweights that fell below this book, if the TV series gave this entry a bit of a boost in the voting...
  6. 1984, by George Orwell - A classic, probably deserves to be higher on the list, but it's hard to argue with a top 10 slot.
  7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury - Another shocking nerd confession - I haven't read any of Ray Bradbury's books. Consider this book on the list of shame.
  8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov - This one always seems to come out near the top of lists like this, but I've always preferred his robot books.
  9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley - I should read this someday, but I just can't muster the enthusiasm to read dystopic stuff these days.
  10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman - I like this book a lot, but 10th best SF/F book of all time? I don't think so. I wonder how this one got to be so high...
  11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman - I've never read this, but I get the impression that the movie is better than the book and that the book is getting a bump due to the sheer awesomeness of the movie (which is brilliant).
  12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan - Never read any of it. It may surprise you to learn that I don't actually read much in the way of fantasy novels (though obviously I've read some of the ones on this list).
  13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell - Another classic, and one that I now like despite being forced to read it in school (seriously, being able to climb out of that cellar is a big feat in itself).
  14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson - Probably the best of the Cyberpunk novels, which isn't say that much since it was really the first of the Cyberpunk novels. Still, it's a good one, deserving of a lot of the praise it gets. Wouldn't be as high on my list, but I can see why it's here.
  15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore - It is probably the best comic book series of all time, well worth the placement on this list.
  16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov - Well here's the weird thing. They grouped the Foundation novels together (along with lots of other series on the list), but not the Robot novels? I really like I, Robot, but I like the way the series goes as a whole (I guess people aren't as big a fan of Asimov's latter work where he tied Robots and Foundation together).
  17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein - Heinlein makes his first appearance with... one of my least favorites of his work. I suppose it does represent more of a cultural touchstone than his other work, and I know this novel was one of the driving forces behind the 60s counter-culture, so I guess it's not a surprise that the NPR folks like it, but still. Luckily, more Heinlein shows up on this list.
  18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss - I've not read this fantasy series, though lots of folks really seem to love the first novel. I've heard mixed reviews of the second book, and like a lot of fantasy series, who knows how long this will go (I believe it's planned at 3, but so were a few other long-running series, so again, who knows). I also can't think of this book without thinking of Scalzi's story of "hearty stew" fantasy.
  19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut - Another one that goes on the list of shame (at least I've read some Vonnegut before).
  20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley - Is this the first female author on the list? Damn. Well, it's a justified classic novel, probably belonging higher on the list.
  21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick - I've never read this, but I have to wonder if the fact that everyone knows Blade Runner was based on this story has anything to do with its performance.
  22. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood - Never read it and I'm not a big fan of dystopias either, but at least there's another female author in the top 25...
  23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King - A series filled with high highes and very low lows. Difficult to describe, but there was a time when I loved these books. But the series kinda finished with a wimper. I had kinda steeled myself against the ending, knowing that it could not possibly live up to what was being built up in the earlier novels, so I didn't hate the ending, but it was still an unsatisfying conclusion. I might, however, make a case for Wizard and Glass, it being an interesting and tragic tale that is, perhaps more importantly, mostly self-contained. (As an aside, both the Dark Tower series and the previous book on this list, The Handmaid's Tale, feature a city-state known as Gilead - a biblical reference, but interesting that these two were ranked next to each other.)
  24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke - An interesting choice for the first Clarke novel on the list. Once again, i wonder if it gets a bump from its incredible movie adaptation. Still, it is a very good book that I did enjoy (even having seen the movie).
  25. The Stand, by Stephen King - I do really love this book. There are some issues with the ending, but something like "the hand of God came down and saved them" works infinitely better on the page than it does on the screen (not that I'd hold up the TV mini-series as something particularly good). Well worth a read, probably my second-favorite Stephen King novel (with the first being The Shining, which probably doesn't qualify for this list).
  26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson - If the aforementioned Neuromancer popularized Cyberpunk, Stephenson put the final nail in the coffin with this satirical, action-packed romp through cyber-space. It's a surprisingly prescient novel, though it doesn't get everything quite right. Stephenson is my favorite author, but I would have ranked Cryptonomicon higher (more on that below).
  27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury - On the list of shame.
  28. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut - On the list of shame.
  29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman - I was always under the impression that Gaiman's Sandman stuff didn't hold up as well as some of his other work, but I guess people still love it. I've never read it, and probably won't...
  30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess - Never read it. If the rest of the list is any indication, there seems to be an inflation of rank for films with great movie adaptations...
  31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein - An interesting thought experiment from Heinlein, who basically originated the modern military SF genre with this novel, but there's not much of a story here. An important book, but one that would probably chafe a lot of readers with its ideas and the bald way Heinlein presents them.
  32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams - Saw the movie, probably won't read it, makes sense to be on the list though.
  33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey - Eh, fantasy. Only the third female author so far.
  34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein - My favorite of Heinlein's novels, its libertarian themes and strange sexual politics could probably turn off readers, but there's a well paced story that accompanies things this time, and I really enjoyed the novel.
  35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller - Never read it, but it's in the queue somewhere.
  36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells - On the list of shame, though of course I know the general idea of the story (which says something about its importance, I guess).
  37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne - See previous entry.
  38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys - I'd heard of this, but never knew what it was about until now, and I kinda want to read it now.
  39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells - See The Time Machine above.
  40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny - It's in the queue somewhere.
  41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings - Another fantasy series. Good to know if I want to read some fantasy, but I doubt I'll get to this anytime soon.
  42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley - The fourth female author.
  43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson - More fantasy I'm unlikely to ever read.
  44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven - In the queue somewhere, I think my brother might even have a copy somewhere, but I just haven't gotten to it yet.
  45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin - Wonderful SF novel probably deserving a higher spot on this list. And the fifth female author so far.
  46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien - A little bit of a cheat, as I haven't read the whole thing, but still. Why isn't this considered part of the LotR series?
  47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White - I think I read this for school? King Arthur and stuff? Must not have made much of an impression.
  48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman - In terms of pure enjoyment, I think this is Gaiman's best. Real page-turning stuff here, and a more satisfying narrative than American Gods or Stardust.
  49. Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke - A solid choice and a good novel, but I've never been as in-love with it as everyone else. There are a couple other Clarke books I'd put ahead of this one.
  50. Contact, by Carl Sagan - Adaptation bump? Whatever the case, I've heard that the movie kinda stops short, while this one make a bolder statement. I've always really loved the movie, but if it really does betray the book, I'd find that disappointing.
  51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons - The first book is certainly on my list to read, but I've heard the rest of the series is kinda meh, and then there's the fact that I've never actually read a good book by Simmons (I read one of his weird vampire books a while back and hated it so much that I drilled a screw through the book so that no one else would read it).
  52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman - I know I read this, and I'm pretty sure I liked it, but I don't remember anything about it and it's been sorta overridden by the movie adaptation in my mind (rightly or wrongly, I did enjoy the movie, which I understand diverges pretty significantly from the book)
  53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson - My favorite book of all time? Perhaps! Would definitely be higher on my list.
  54. World War Z, by Max Brooks - I can only imagine that this is on the list because people love zombies right now. I hate zombie stories.
  55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle - Fantasy. Fleh.
  56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman - Considered by many to be Haldeman's response to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, this is first rate SF and it actually features some semblance of a story. There are some flaws (in particular, the way he treats sexuality), but it's still a great book.
  57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett - The only Pratchett I've read is Good Omens (co-written with Neal Gaiman), but I was underwhelmed by it and have never really sought out more Pratchett. I should probably do so at some point, but I guess we'll see.
  58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson - Fantasy series. Fleh.
  59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold - Love that this made it on the list. I really enjoy these novels and am looking forward to reading more of the series. Would be higher on my list.
  60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett - See Small Gods above.
  61. The Mote In God's Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle - I keep hearing about this novel, but I've never read it. It's in the queue.
  62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind - More fantasy. Fleh.
  63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy - More dystopia. Fleh.
  64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke - I've wanted to read this for a while, I've just never gotten around to reading it.
  65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson - A study of isolation and grim irony. Does this get a bump from the movie adaptation? The movie kinda stinks. The book is far more disturbing, and it's definitely influential in many of the horror writers who followed.
  66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist - More fantasy. Fleh.
  67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks - More fantasy. Fleh.
  68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard - I enjoy the movies, but I doubt I'll ever get to the books...
  69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb - More fantasy. Fleh. But the blurb on NPR sounds nice, I guess. But then, zombies. Fleh.
  70. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger - Doesn't seem like it would be my thing, but I'd be open to reading it, I guess.
  71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson - More fantasy. Fleh.
  72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne - Familiar with the story, but never actually read the book.
  73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore - More fantasy. Fleh.
  74. Old Man's War, by John Scalzi - Fantastic modern entry in the military SF canon. Scalzi's tightest novel, though he's got some other good ones.
  75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson - I'm surprised this made the list, as I'm convinced that Stephenson's reputation for bad/rushed endings comes from this book. Still, it is a really good book, and you can see the transition he was making between Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. I would probably put Anathem higher than this, but I can't argue with putting it on the list.
  76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke - This might actually be my favorite of Clarke's novels.
  77. The Kushiel's Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey - More fantasy. Fleh.
  78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin - I was less impressed with this novel and it probably wouldn't make my list, but I can see why so many people love it.
  79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury - On the list of shame.
  80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire - Eh, really?
  81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson - More fantasy. Fleh.
  82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde - Never heard of it, but it sounds interesting.
  83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks - In the queue somewhere.
  84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart - Yet another Arthurian tale (I think this is the third on the list so far). Not much interest here.
  85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson - Very nice to see this one on the list despite it's relatively recent release. A fantastic novel, his best since Cryptonomicon.
  86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher - More fantasy. Fleh.
  87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe - On my list of shame.
  88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn - I'm surprised this Star Wars series made the list. I loved this as a teenager, but when I revisited it a few years later, it wasn't quite as riveting. Still a thousand times better than the prequels! And Grand Admiral Thrawn was indeed quite a great villain for the series. I'm glad Zahn got a place on the list. He's a workhorse, but I tend to enjoy those authors.
  89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan - Not familiar with this, may have to add it to the queue!
  90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock - More fantasy. Fleh.
  91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury - *sigh* List of shame.
  92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley - More fantasy. Vampire fantasy. Fleh.
  93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge - One of the best portrayals of a truly alien species in all of SF. The ending is a bit... strange, but I really love the book (A Deepness in the Sky is pretty good as well and I'm really looking forward to The Children of the Sky, which comes out in October I think)
  94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov - As previously mentioned, I'm a big fan of the Robot series. Again, these are books I read as a teenager, and some of them don't hold up as well, but the ideas are great.
  95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson - On my list of shame.
  96. Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle - In the queue somewhere.
  97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis - It's a really good book, but I'm not sure I'm as taken with it as some others.
  98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville - It's been sitting on my shelf for, like, 4 years at this point. I have promised myself that I'd read it by the end of this year!
  99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony - Fantasy, but Piers Anthony rings a bell for me. I may check something of his out, maybe not Xanth though.
  100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis - I didn't even know these existed!
I did some quick counting of the list:
  • I've read 38 of the books on the list
  • The breakdown between Fantasy and SF is arguable, but a quick count got me 37 fantasy, 63 SF.
  • Only 15 of the books on the list are written by women (and there's at least one woman who comes up twice)
  • Of those 15 books by women, 7 are fantasy (again, the line between SF and Fantasy can be blurry for some of these)
I should note that despite my frequent "fleh" comments above, I don't really have anything against fantasy, I just don't read much of it and thus don't have much to say about it. There are at least a couple series/books above that I'd probably check out at some point. I thought I'd have read more than 38 on the list, but when you consider that only 63 are SF, that does change things a bit, as my focus tends to be on SF.

I'm not sure what to make of the disparity between male and female authors on the list. Is it that there are less female authors of SF/F? Or is it that there are less female readers voting? I can think of one glaring omission on the list - The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel is superb, and would certainly be on my list (I'm pretty sure it was on the shortlist, but got culled when NPR cut down to 100). Thanks to my incessant Bujold reading, 10 of the 23 books I've read so far this year have been written by a woman (though again, most of that is Bujold). I could probably improve that to 50/50 by the end of the year, which would be nice.

And that about covers it. How many have you read?

Update: Forgot to bold one of the books I read, so my count at the end was off. Updated!
Posted by Mark on September 18, 2011 at 08:32 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

SF Book Review, Part 8: Vorkosigan Edition
I've read the first few books in Lois McMaster Bujold's long-running Vorkosigan Saga and reviewed them in the the last couple SF Book reviews. In short, I've really enjoyed them, and now I've read five more books in the series.

At this point, it's hard to talk about the series without giving a little background info to start with. This, by necessity, means some spoilers, which I'll try to keep at a minimum (if you're sold on the series and want to get started, just skip to the last paragraph of this post). Here goes: In Shards of Honor, Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony meets Aral Vorkosigan of Barrayar, and they get married around the time Aral becomes the Regent of Barrayar (the planet is ruled by a military class called the Vor, which consists of an Emperor and a bunch of Counts. A Regent is appointed when the current Emperor is not yet old enough to take the throne). Barrayar is a largely feudal society, so there's lots of Machiavellian scheming going on, and thus Aral's Regency was not unchallenged. An assassination attempt exposed the pregnant Cordelia to a teratogenic gas. All survived, including the fetus, but the baby was born with several birth defects, including most notably brittle bones.

That covers the first two books in the series (in a really frighteningly abrupt manner that leaves a ton of important stuff out!), and in The Warrior's Apprentice we are introduced to Miles Vorkosigan, who has grown up in a world that hates and fears "mutants" like himself. Unable to depend on physical prowess, Miles instead relies on his powers of observation and quick-thinking wit. He doesn't give in to the urge for self-pity, but he isn't one-dimensional caricature of a man driven by demons either. Bujold tends to write his stories from his perspective, so we get lots of visibility to what's going on in his head, and he's always thinking ten steps ahead (as is required of him). In The Warrior's Apprentice, he fails to get into the Barrayaran Military Academy due to his physical infirmities, after which he stumbles into a military conflict involving mercenaries, eventually improvising a mercenary fleet of his own (called the Dendarii Free Mercenaries) and foiling a political plot against his father. His mercenary fleet only knows him as Miles Naismith and does not know of his connections to Barrayar, which is a good thing, because Miles and his father propose making them Barrayar's secret army. Impressed, but given few options, the young Emperor pulls strings to get Miles accepted into the Barrayaran Military academy. Whew. That took longer and was probably more spoilery than I intended, but it gives you the appropriate background (I assure you, Bujold is much better at explaining all this! Read the first three books!)
  • The Vor Game - The novel opens with Miles Vorkosigan graduation, followed by his assignment to the Barrayaran equivalent of an arctic outpost (i.e. not a very desirable position). It turns out that the commander there (General Metzov) is rather insane, and a confrontation leads to a career wrecking scandal for Miles. His only option at that point is to work for Barrayaran intelligence, but of course, his first mission there goes belly up as well, forcing him to take command of the Dendarii Mercenaries (again) in order to help save his Emperor. Oh, and there's a Cetagandan invasion fleet on its way to Barrayar too. Yes, it's difficult to describe this plot, but it's an excellent novel, and Bujold deftly maneuvers around various pitfalls and tropes.

    Bujold does a particularly good job with the initial confrontation with the mad General Metzov. Miles has been ordered to participate in a massacre that is most probably illegal. However, disobeying orders isn't exactly a good option either. Miles isn't just a newly minted soldier. He's a Vor Lord, a member of the military caste, son of the Prime Minister (and former Regent) and cousin of the current Emperor. And he's faced with an impossible choice here. Participate in an atrocity, or potentially ruin his life, maybe even taking his father with him and soiling the family name. What do you do when all the available options are bad? It's a recurring theme in these books - and Miles can't just make decisions for himself, he has to constantly consider the political, social and cultural ramifications of his actions.

    Later in the book, he runs across the errant Emperor, where Bujold has steadfastly declined to give in to cliche. Emperor Gregor has been in the series since he was a little boy, protected by Miles' parents during an attempted coup. Miles and Gregor grew up as playmates (inasmuch as the Emperor-to-be could have playmates) and in the hands of a lesser writer, Gregor would have grown into a tyrant that would be the flip-side of Miles's honor. Or something. But Bujold avoids that temptation without going too far in the opposite direction. Gregor is, in himself, a most interesting character. He's got his flaws and some major problems, which we see in this novel, but he's not a tyrant either.

    In the end, it's easy to see why this got the Hugo award for best novel. I don't think it's Bujold's best, but it's definitely a great novel and well worth a read.
  • Cetaganda - One of the great things about this series of novels is that Bujuld doesn't stick to one type of story for all the books. The series is primarily comprised of Space Opera stories, but there are a number of books that stray from the path, and this is one of them. Miles and his cousin Ivan (who is Miles's cousin and something of a foil, usually referred to by Miles as "That idiot Ivan.") are sent to represent Barrayar at the Imperial funeral of the dowager Empress, mother of the current Cetagandan Emperor. The Cetagandans are generally the villains of the Vorkosigan universe, so you can imagine that when Miles gets into trouble (which happens almost immediately upon arrival), things get hairy pretty quickly. In essence, this novel takes the form of a murder mystery, with some espionage and political wrangling thrown in for effect. The Cetagandan empire has a multi-tiered aristocracy, along with numerous castes and an almost inconceivable list of customs, traditions, and ceremonies. Like the best SF, Bujold keeps the info-dumps to a minimum, letting us infer the details of all this from the context of the story. Of course, Miles is in-over-his-head almost immediately, yet he manages to pull it out (that's not really a spoiler, right?). Indeed, given his earlier career (as discussed above, along with the fact that his exploits with the Dendarii Mercenaries can't be trumpeted), his success on Cetaganda proves almost politically embarrassing! This is actually the most recently written book of the ones listed in this post, though it is placed rather early in the actual chronology. I guess this is getting a bit repetitive, but it's a good, fun read, handled with wit and care, like all of Bujold's work.
  • Ethan of Athos - Perhaps the most unusual of the novels in the series in that it does not feature Miles (or anyone from his family) at all, instead focusing on Dr. Ethan Urquhart, from the planet Athos - a planet entirely populated by men. It's an isolated and reclusive planet that does not seek any real outside contact. They reproduce using uterine replicators (something mentioned often in the series, actually), basically technological wombs where children can be grown. However, they do require certain genetic materials, which means that someone has to go out into the big bad galaxy and secure some new biological samples. Ethan is their man, but he's quickly embroiled in a galactic conspiracy. He is helped in his task by Commander Elli Quinn of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries (which is one of the ways in which this book connects with the rest of the series). When we last saw Quinn, she had her face blown off during a battle in The Warrior's Apprentice, but she has since had reconstructive surgery, and is now quite the beauty. Given that Ethan has never had contact with women, this makes for a somewhat interesting dynamic. The bulk of the action takes place on a space station and it takes the form of an espionage thriller. This was actually among the first books of the series to be published, and I think you can see that, but once again, it's a really good story, and provides you with some background information on an important character (Elli Quinn) and obliquely connects with a couple other books in the series. Another good read.
  • Borders of Infinity - Ah, this is the book that causes a great deal of confusion for those of us seeking to read the series in chronological order. It's basically a collection of three 100 page (or so) novellas, with some connective tissue provided in the form of an interview conducted by Simon Illyan, who is the head of the dreaded Barrayaran Imperial Security Service (basically an intelligence organization). However, the confusion comes in because each story takes place between other books in the series. I tried to read them in the appropriate order, but kinda messed up because the connective tissue takes place after Brothers in Arms (which is the next book below). No matter, because these are three of the best stories in the series.

    The first story, entitled "The Mountains of Mourning" is particularly effective, and it even earned Bujold a (well-earned) Hugo award for best novella. It's another of the murder/mysteries, but it takes place in the backwoods of Barrayar, allowing Bujold to explore certain Barrayaran prejudices - especially for their intolerance to birth defects or "mutants". This is particularly impactful because Miles is, himself, something of a mutant, and he has a lot of political considerations to make during this investigation.

    In "Labyrinth", Bujold tells a somewhat less plausible tale, but it is one which connects with Ethan of Athos and Cetaganda a bit, and it is quite an enjoyable read. I'm kinda curious as to whether or not the character Taura will make another appearance in the series (it would certainly be a welcome development!) The third and final story, "The Borders of Infinity" starts a little strangely, but it quickly escalates, and Bujold manages a few interesting twists in what basically amounts to a prison-break story. It ends on a bit of a tragic note, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit.

    Like a lot of short story collections, this one doesn't quite work as a whole as much as a single novel would, but that's to be expected, and each individual story is truly excellent. Indeed, I would put "The Mountains of Mourning" up as one of the best stories in the series, and the other two aren't too shabby either. If you're looking at reading the series and think it's ok to skip these because they're "only novellas", think again - these are really fantastic and should not be skipped. I believe they're better integrated into the omnibus editions that are now in print, but that's probably a topic for another post someday.
  • Brothers in Arms - One of the things I've always found somewhat improbably about this series was that Miles would be able to lead an entire fleet of mercenaries without anyone noticing that he was one of the most famous Barrayaran noblemen in the galaxy. In this book, Bujold solves that problem rather handily. If I tell you how she did so, well, it will sound ridiculous. And it kinda is. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have fallen flat, but Bujold does an excellent job executing her solution here. It's almost comedic, though she never quite goes that far (if you just accept the premise and go with it, you'll find yourself laughing). However, by the time of the time you reach this novel, she's laid all the groundwork, and it actually fits rather well. The story itself is more of a political espionage tale, and quite a good one at that. Elli Quinn makes another appearance here, and the story ends at a point that leads into the whole connective tissue parts of Borders of Infinity. I expect to see more of a few of these characters in later books as well.
Yes, I'm completely hooked by this series. The only reason I haven't devoured the 8 remaining books is that I'm deliberately trying to prolong the experience, as I will no doubt experience a bit of withdrawal when I finish the series. Of course, the most recent installment was just published last year, so more books are not out of the question.

I heartily recommend the series. If you're interested, I would start with Shards of Honor (or the omnibus edition called Cordelia's Honor, which features Shards of Honor and the hugo-award winning Barrayar) which primarily deals with Miles's parents, or The Warrior's Apprentice (which is probably easier found as part of the omnibus called Young Miles, which features The Warrior's Apprentice, "The Mountains of Mourning" from Borders of Infinity (another Hugo winner), and The Vor Game (yet another Hugo award winner)). Actually, I think those two omnibus editions are an excellent deal, and will give you a significant amount of the series with just two purchases... Well worth it, if you ask me.
Posted by Mark on September 11, 2011 at 08:42 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

First Contact
As it turns out, Aliens from other planets do exist. On the other hand, whether intelligent life exists is apparently still open for debate:

It's not nearly as good as Terry Bisson's classic short story They're Made of Meat, but it shares some similarities.
Posted by Mark on July 20, 2011 at 06:06 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Book Queue
So the last book queue I posted at the beginning of this year had 12 books on it, and I've made great strides against that list. Only 4 remain, and I'm halfway through one of those. I've also read at least 7 other books that weren't on that list (mostly Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga books, of which only the first was on the original list). With only 3 books remaining, I'm looking to fill up the immediate queue again.

The four remaining books from my last queue...
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond: It's been a bit of a slog. Two weeks of reading, and I'm still only about halfway through it. However, it's gotten better as I've read. It still hasn't quite overcome the bad first impression, but there is at least some interesting stuff going on now. I plan to nail it down this week.
  • Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville: I admit, this is getting ridiculous. This has been in the queue, even sitting on my shelf, for years. I will definitely get to this one this year.
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter: I'm making such good progress this year, but I have a feeling that if I start this, even if I'm reading every day, it will take me a long time to finish it off. It's a 900+ page book, with small type and dense material that I'm sure I'll really enjoy, but which will totally break the momentum I've built up this year. Definitely in 2012 though!
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon: Trashy noir novel by Pynchon? Sounds awesome (also apparently being adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson for the screen, so I want to read this before that movie comes out). This one hasn't even been on the list that long though, so it's not a big deal that it's a holdover. Will definitely get to it this year.
Vorkosigan Saga
I started Lois McMaster Bujold's long-running series of science fiction novels mostly (but not solely) chronicling the adventures of the physically diminutive but mentally gifted Miles Vorkosigan. So far this year, I've read 7 novels in the (loosely connected) series. I've got a whole stack of other books just waiting on my shelf now too... and Bujold just released a new one last year, so there's always the chance of more books in the future! I don't know if these are the nerdiest books I've ever read, but referring to them as the Vorkosigan Saga certainly makes it seem so... In any case, this is what I've got left in the series. I'm trying not to read too many of these in a row - I can already sense that I'll be a bit bummed when I finish the series because I very much enjoy spending time with these characters: New Stuff
Pretty self explanatory:
  • Readme by Neal Stephenson: I've already posted about this several times. Stephenson is probably my favorite author, so of course a new novel will immediately jump to the top of the queue (even though it's a 900+ page behemoth). Comes out in September.
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I've also posted about how much I'm looking forward to this one, another book in Vinge's Zones of Thought universe (not really a series, though maybe, kinda, sorta). This one comes out in October and will probably jump to the top of the queue after I finish Reamde.
  • The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi: A science fiction heist story. I am so there.
  • Savage Season by Joe R. Lansdale: The first in a series of crime novels by Lansdale, whom you may know from his work on Bubba Ho-Tep (a book/movie where a black JFK and an old Elvis fight a mummy in a modern-day Texas retirement home). I'm not anticipating a book that's quite that crazy, but this series seems to get some good reviews, so I'll check it out...
So that's 15 books right there, which should keep me busy through the end of the year. Of course, new books will undoubtedly be added (especially since I've just noticed that there's no new non-fiction on the list) and so on, but that is the way of the book queue.
Posted by Mark on July 17, 2011 at 01:55 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tasting Notes - Part 4
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:

  • Game of Thrones - The season finale aired last week, and I have to say, I'm impressed. My usual approach to stuff like this is to let it run for a couple of seasons to make sure it's both good and that it's actually heading somewhere. At this point, the book series isn't even finished, but friends who've read it think it's great and they say the books get better, so I gave the series a shot - and I'm really glad I did. It's a fantastic series, much more along the lines of swords-and-sandals (a la Spartacus or Gladiator) than outright fantasy (a la Lord of the Rings). People talk about magic and dragons and whatnot, but most of that seems to be in the distant past (though there are hints of a return to that sort of thing throughout the series and especially in the last minutes of the season). Most of the season consists of dialogue, politics, Machiavellian scheming, and action. Oh, and sex. And incest. Yeah, it's a fun show. The last episode of the season doesn't do much to resolve the various plotlines, and hints at an even more epic scale. Interestingly, though, I don't find this sort of open-endedness that frustrating. Unlike a show like Lost, the open threads don't seem like red-herrings or even mysteries at all. It's just good, old fashioned storytelling. The worst thing about it is that I'm all caught up and will have to wait for the next season! Prediction: Geoffrey will die horribly, and I will love it. But not too quickly. He's such a fantastic, sniveling little bastard. I want to keep hating him for a while before someone takes him down.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Doctor Who - Most of the semi-recently rebooted series is available on watch instantly, and I've only just begun to pick my way through the series again. I vaguely remember watching a few of Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor episodes, but I never finished that first season. I'm not very far in right now - just saw the first appearance of the Daleks, which should be interesting.
  • 13 Assassins - Takashi Miike tends to be a hit-or-miss filmmaker for me. Fortunately for him, he is ridiculously prolific. His most recent effort is a pretty straightforward Samurai tale about a suicide mission to assassinate a cruel and ruthless evil lord. Seven Samurai, it is not, but it is still quite engaging and entertaining to watch. It starts a bit slow, but it finishes with an amazing 45 minute setpiece as our 13 heroes spring their trap on 200 enemies. Along the way, we get some insight into Japanese culture as the days of the Samurai and Shogunate faded, though I don't think I'd call this a rigorously accurate film or anything. Still, there's more going on here than just bloody action, of which there is a lot. An excellent film, among the top films I've seen so far this year.
  • HBO has a pretty great lineup right now. In the past couple weeks, I've revisited Inception, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and How to Train Your Dragon. All of these films have improved upon rewatching them, a subject I've always found interesting. Scott Pilgrim, in particular, has improved it's standing in my mind. I still think it's got some problems in the final act, but I also think it's a dreadfully underappreciated film.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Transcendent Man - I mentioned this a couple weeks ago, but it's an interesting profile of Ray Kurtzweil, a futurist and singularity proponent. I don't really buy into his schtick, but he's an interesting guy and the documentary is worth a watch for that.
Video Games
  • I'm still playing Mass Effect 2, but I have not progressed all that far in the game. I've found this is common with RPGs lately - it takes a long time to get anything accomplished in an RPG, so I sometimes find it hard to get started. Still, I have liked what I've seen of this game so far. It's far from perfect, but it's got some interesting elements.
  • Since I had to hook up my Wii to get Netflix working during the great PSN outage of '11, I actually did start playing Goldeneye again. I even got a Wii classic controller, and that made the game approximately 10 times more fun (but I have to say, plugging the Wiimote into the classic controller to get it to work? That's just stupidly obtuse, though I guess it keeps the cost down). Since I could play it in short 30 minute chunks, I actually did manage to finish this one off in pretty short order. It's a pretty simple FPS game, which I always enjoy, but there's nothing particularly special about it, except for some muted nostalgia from the original.
  • The Black Keys - Brothers - This is a pretty great album. Lots of crunchy blues guitars and catchy rhythms. I'm greatly enjoying it.
  • Deerhoof - Deerhoof vs. Evil - Another hipster rock album, but I rather like it, especially the song Secret Mobilization. Good stuff.
  • I've been cranking my way through Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga novels, of which there are many (and I'm actually quite glad, as they're all great fun). I've covered the first few novels in SF Book Reviews, and will probably have finished enough other books to do a Bujold-only edition in the near future. I'm currently reading Ethan of Athos, which seems to me to be a kinda spinoff/standalone novel, but an interesting one nonetheless (and we get to catch up with a character from one of the other books).
  • I also started Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, but have found myself quickly bogging down (it doesn't help that I have, like, 10 Bujold novels sitting around, begging me to read them) almost from the start. It's not bad, per say, but there's something about the style and scope of the book that bothers me. There are some interesting ideas, and Diamond admits that his methods are, by necessity, not that rigorous, but it's still seems extremely speculative to me. I would normally be fine with that sorta approach, but I'm finding something about this grating and I haven't figured it out just yet...
  • If you count the aforementioned Guns, Germs, and Steel, I'm down to just 4 unread books from my last Book Queue, which is pretty good! And I've only really added the Bujold books and Fuzzy Nation since then. I'm actually at a point where I should start seeking out new stuff. Of course, it probably won't take long to fill the queue back up, but still. Progress!
The Finer Things...
  • I've managed to have some pretty exceptional beers of late. First up is Ola Dubh Special Reserve 40, an imperial porter aged in 40 year old Highland Park casks. It's an amazing beer, though also outrageously priced. Still, if you can get your hands on some and don't mind paying the premium, it's great.
  • Another exceptional beer, the legendary Pliny the Elder (currently ranked #3 on Beer Advocates Best Beers on Planet Earth list). It's a fantastic double IPA. Not sure if it's really #3 beer in the world fantastic, but fantastic nonetheless.
  • One more great beer, and a total surprise, was Sierra Nevada Boot Camp ExPortation. Basically, Sierra Nevada has this event every year where fans get to go to "Beer Camp" and collaborate on new beers with Sierra Nevada brewers and whatnot. My understanding is that the batches are extremely limited. Indeed, I never expected to see these, but apparently there were a few on tap at a local bar, sorta leftover from Philly Beer Week. The beer is basically a porter with Brettanomyces added and aged in Pinot Noir barrels. This is all beer-nerd-talk for a sour (in a good way) beer. I'm not normally big into the style or Brett, but I'll be damned if this isn't a fantastic beer. I loved it and unfortunately, I'll probably never see it again. If you see it, try it. At the very least, it will be an interesting experience!
And that's all for now.
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2011 at 06:22 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fuzzy Nation
In recent years, Hollywood has been remaking or rebooting nearly every property it could get its hands on - including franchises that are only a few years old. Some have speculated an unhealthy obsession with branding and marketing, others just call it a result of Hollywood's creative bankruptcy. This sort of thing happens frequently in other forms of art as well. Indeed, it's a hallmark of Theater - every night, a new remake! You don't hear people complaining about yet another production of Macbeth, do you? And covering songs is quite common as well. In both of those realms, the remakes are outnumbered by original works (well, maybe not in theater), though, which is probably a good thing.

One area that doesn't seem to see too much in the way of remakes is literature. Enter John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation. He calls this novel a "reimagining of the story and events in Little Fuzzy, the 1962 Hugo-nominated novel by H. Beam Piper." Not having read the original, I can't speak to the fidelity or necessity of the remake, but I am confident in calling it a fun, entertaining take on several common SF tropes.

Our tale begins with Jack Holloway, an independent contractor working for ZaraCorp, prospecting and surveying the planet Zara XXIII. ZaraCorp is apparently a company that basically strips down planets for all of their useful materials - metal ores, oil, and a rare mineral called sunstones. Not much time is spent mentioning how planets are discovered, but once they are, a team of specialists attempts to determine if there's any sentient life on those planets, and if there isn't, then ZaraCorp (and/or its competitors) are given a license to "exploit" the planet. Holloway, a former lawyer, has just found a huge cache of valuable sunstones. It will take years to exploit and even Holloway's measly 0.25% share will garner him millions, if not billions of credits.

Not long after that, Holloway goes home and discovers that a small, catlike creature has snuck into his house. These ridiculously cute creatures begin to act suspiciously intelligent (incidentally, while I like the cover art, I have to say that the Fuzzy pictured there does not seem as cute as they do in the book). And from here, I'm guessing you can figure out several of the central conflicts in the book.

I burned through the book in about two sittings, and probably could have read it in one big session if I timed it right. I'm not sure if that's simply to do with the length of the book (it's about 300 pages with relatively large type and spacing) or if it's Scalzi's knack for page-turning storytelling (something I've talked about before). As previously hinted at, there are several common SF tropes at work here (Big mean corporations! Planetary exploitation! Is it sentient?!), and while Scalzi isn't often breaking new ground or even exploring various ideas very deeply, I think there's something to be said for a very well executed trope. There are several times when you can easily predict what will happen next, though Scalzi does manage some genuine twists and turns later in the story. It's clear he's working in pure storytelling mode here, which is perhaps why the pages seemed to turn themselves so quickly.

I do want to single out one aspect of the story that I think is particularly well done, and that's the character of Jack Holloway. The story is told mostly from his perspective, and he's got a certain charisma that makes him a good protagonist, but he's also kind of a selfish prick. I don't want to give anything away, nor do I want to give the wrong impression - he's certainly not an anti-hero or anything, he's just a fully fleshed out character who makes mistakes with the best of us. Flawed characters can be difficult and often present stumbling blocks to otherwise good stories, but I think Scalzi manages to pull this one off well.

Again, I have not read the original Little Fuzzy novel, but I suspect that Scalzi has done it proud. I'm not particularly looking forward to other reimaginings of classic SF, but I think in this case, it worked well, and I actually think that Scalzi's choice, while not totally obscure, was old enough that he may be introducing lots of folks to Piper's original works (I believe there are a few other Fuzzy novels as well). Among Scalzi's novels that I've read, this one is towards the top of the list, though I don't think it's his best work. I do think that most of his novels would make good introductions to the SF genre though, and would recommend them. While Scalzi may be best known for taping bacon to his cat, I would argue that he should be better known for his novels! Fuzzy Nation would be a good place to start.
Posted by Mark on June 12, 2011 at 06:03 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, May 08, 2011

SF Book Review, Part 7
Continuing to make some progress through my book queue... and, of course, adding new books to the queue as I go along. This time, it's Lois McMaster Bujold's fault, as I enjoyed Shards of Honor so much that I went out and read the next two books in the (apparently long running and loosely connected) series. I've now got about 10 more of her books in the queue. If the first three are any indication, I'll probably move through them pretty quickly... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'm going to start with one from the actual queue though: Timothy Zahn's Cobra Trilogy. I've been listing it as one book, but it's technically an omnibus edition of Zahn's first three Cobra novels, and I'll review each separately below. As a side note, Zahn is currently in the process of writing another trilogy set in the same universe (the second novel was published this year, with a third tentatively planned for January 2012) and plans a third trilogy at some point in the unspecified future.
  • Cobra by Timothy Zahn - Though this is not Zahn's first novel, it is among his first, and it shows. It is certainly not bad and you can see flashes of what he would grow into, but it is quite unusual. The pace of the novel, in particular, is rather strange. It starts off in rather standard military SF fashion, with a youth signing up for a war against an invading alien race. Of course, young Jonny Moreau gets assigned to a new, elite force of guerilla super-soldiers, packed to the gills with concealed weaponry. You get the standard training section, then you're off to war. But the war lasts approximately one chapter, and we're back in civilian life, but Jonny's powers (which cannot be removed) are causing problems. He's having trouble fitting back into civilian life, an interesting perspective, to be sure, though something that's been covered a lot, even in military SF. But then, even that section of the novel doesn't last, and Jonny is sent off on other adventures. The conflicts that arise are reasonably well done, but the solutions often leave a poor taste in your mouth... but then, that seems to be the point of a lot of it. This is an interesting approach, but Zahn hadn't quite reached the height of his storytelling powers just yet, so it reads a bit stilted. I think if Zahn had attempted something similar later in his career, it may have been a bigger success. It's a fine read, but nothing particularly special, except insofar as it gets you to the later books in the series.
  • Cobra Strike by Timothy Zahn - This book picks up about 20 years after the first, and follows the next generation of Moreaus (though Jonny also plays a big supporting role) as they attempt to cope with living in an isolated trio of worlds. A new threat appears, and the Cobras are sent to investigate. I won't go into too much detail here, as this book is a little more cohesive, telling one story from start to finish. I'm not entirely convinced about the conflict or the ultimate solution, but it's definitely an easier read, and you definitely see more commonality with Zahn's later works. A worthy sequel and indeed, an improvement on the original.
  • Cobra Bargain by Timothy Zahn - The last book in the series, and probably the book that most resembles Zahn's later success. It's not quite as accomplished as his later work, but it's up there, and it's the one book in the series that really had me turning the pages. This one jumps us forward another 20 years. Jonny has passed away, but his sons have established themselves in planetary politics and the third generation of Moreaus are becoming Cobras. This time around, we follow Jasmine "Jin" Moreau, the first female Cobra, and one of the more engaging protagonists in the series. Of course, things never go as planned and Jin is quickly caught alone in enemy territory. Things have changed there over the last 20 years, but it's still a dangerous place, and she finds herself in an uneasy alliance with certain members of the enemy. Quite entertaining, and the pages turned themselves more in this final novel than in either of the previous two. Indeed, I read the last 150-200 pages in one sitting. Is it worth reading the first two novels to get to this point? Maybe for fans of Zahn, but it's certainly not something I'd recommend folks start with. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't count it as one of my favorites, even amongst Zahn's other work.
  • Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold - This book picks up right after the end of Shards of Honor, with Cordelia Naismith marrying Lord Aral Vorkosigan. And as it turns out, Aral has taken up a rather important position in the Barrayaran government - one that involves lots of behind-the-scenes politics and intrigue, betrayals and conspiracies. The book starts out a bit on the slow side, establishing all the players in the coming civil war. Things come to a head in the second act, and our protagonists take the initiative in the final act. The mixture of high technology with old-school Machiavellian duplicity is an intriguing one, and Bujold masterfully weaves a web of cunning and deception throughout the plot. Cordelia is a wonderful protagonist, and her outsider's perspective provides the perfect lens through which the readers can get a look at Barrayar and it's odd mish-mash of traditions and ceremony. Near as I can tell, this is the last book in which Cordelia is the main character, and if you're interested in reading these, I recommend starting with the omnibus edition, called Cordelia's Honor (which contains Shards of Honor and Barrayar). Highly recommended.
  • The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold - With this novel, Bujold shifts the protagonist from Cordelia to her son, Miles Vorkosigan. Without getting into too much detail about the previous books, Miles was born with various physical impairments - in particular, his bones don't develop normally. So physically, he's somewhat frail (and very diminutive), but he more than makes up for that with his mental acuity and cunning. This book starts with Miles' failure to gain entrance into the Barrayaran military academy (he couldn't pass the obstacle course without breaking his leg), after which he must find something to do with himself. The rest of the novel plays out like an old "Adventure on the High Seas" type of story (but in space!) Indeed, Bujold has mentioned that her series is modeled after the Horatio Hornblower novels, which partially explains the mixture of past and future present in the books. Miles makes for a great protagonist, and I love the way his predicament escalates so quickly... and how he somehow manages to hold things together. I read most of this book on my way to (and returning from) Las Vegas, and very much enjoyed it. I was a little hesitant at first, and at first I was a little worried that Bujold was taking too obvious a path, but she manages several twists on the formula later in the novel that really turned things around for me. Indeed, the novel ends very much on a political bent along the lines of Barrayar. Very entertaining novel, and I can see why this is a popular starting place for the series (apparently most of the novels in the series are about Miles). I'm very much looking forward to exploring more of this series (and I have about 10 new books on my shelf now).
Well that just about covers it. I've got some non-fiction to catch up on right now, and while I'm at it, I might as well finish off a couple other non-SF novels that have been sitting around for a while as well, so it may be a while before the next SF book review. Unless I get hooked into the Vorkosigan saga again. Which is probably likely.
Posted by Mark on May 08, 2011 at 06:52 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tasting Notes - Part 3
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:

  • Community is actually a pretty fun show. In a lot of ways, it's standard sitcom fodder, but the inclusion of the character of Abed redeems most of the potentially overused cliches. Abed is a pop-culture obsessed film student who appears to be aware that he's a part of a sitcom, and thus his self-referential observations are often quite prescient. The cast is actually pretty fantastic and there are lots of traditionally funny jokes along the way. Honestly, I think my favorite part of the episode are the post-credits sequences in which Abed and Troy are typically engaging in something silly in a hysterically funny way. I've only seen the first season, but I'm greatly looking forward to the second season (which is almost complete now, and probably available in some form, but I haven't looked into it too closely).
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: The X-Files - It looks like the entire series is available. I watched the series frequently when it was on, but I never realized just how many episodes I missed. I was never a fan of the alien conspiracy episodes (in part because it was difficult to watch them in the right order and I never knew what was going on), but I've always loved the "freak of the week" style episode, and now that all of them are at my fingertips, I'm seeing a bunch that I never knew even existed. The show holds up reasonably well, though it's a little too on-the-nose at times (especially in the early seasons). In the context in which the shows were being produced, though, it's fantastic. From a production quality perspective, it's more cinematic than what was on TV at the time (and a lot of what's on today), and it was one of the early attempts at multi-season plot arcs and continuity (technology at the time wasn't quite right, so I don't think it flourished quite as much as it could have if it had started 10 years later).
Video Games
  • Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction is a lot of fun, though you can sorta tell that it was a near launch game. I actually mentioned this a while back, and because it was my first Ratchet & Clank game, I didn't suffer from most of the repetitive and derivative elements (which I gather is what disappointed old fans). Some minor usability issues (constantly changing weapons/tools is a pain), but otherwise great fun. I particularly enjoyed the Pirate themed enemies, who were very funny. I enjoyed this enough that I'll probably check out the more recent A Crack in Time, which I hear is pretty good.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops - It's another CoD game, so I got pretty much exactly what I expected. The single player game actually has a semi-interesting story, though the animators fell in love with the overly-hyper cutting and shaky-cam style that is already overused in film, and which is mostly unnecessary in video games. Don't get me wrong, the story is kinda hokey, but it's entertaining in its own way. And, of course, the combat is very well balanced and fun (as every game I've played in the series is...) The game ends with one of the most gleefully manic sequences I've ever played (much better than, for example, the airline thing at the end of CoD4). The multi-player is not particularly noob-friendly, but I got a few hours out of it and even managed to win a round one time. The kills come so quickly that it's pretty rare that you'll escape anyone once they start shooting (the way you can in some other games). This is both good and bad though. All in all, it's a good FPS for console.
  • I've started playing Mass Effect 2 for the PS3. I have no idea what's going on with the story (I thought there was supposed to be some sort of PS3 intro thingy, but I didn't see it when I started the game), but I'm having fun so far. It's not something I've been playing a lot though, perhaps because I don't have a ton of time to dedicate to it...
  • Remember when i said I would play more Goldeneye for the Wii? Yeah, I still haven't unpacked the Wii from that trip, which is a pretty good expression of how I generally feel about the Wii these days. I guess it's a good thing Nintendo is announcing their next console soon (though I have to admit, the rumors I'm hearing aren't particularly encouraging).
  • James Gunn's comic book spoof Super continues the trend towards deconstruction of superheroes that's been going on recently in comic book cinema (though things look like they're about to revert a bit this summer). As such, it's semi-derivative at times, but it sticks to its guns (or should I say, Gunns!) and never flinches at its target. It's also not afraid to embrace the weird (such as, for instance, tentacle rape). It's extremely graphic and violent, and some of it is played for laughs, but there's at least one unforgivable moment in the film. One thing I have to note is that there's going to be a lot of teenage nerds falling in love with Ellen Page because of her enthusiastic performance in this movie. She's awesome. The critical reception seems mixed, but I think I enjoyed it more than most. I wouldn't call it one of the year's best, but it's worth watching for superhero fans who can stomach gore.
  • Hobo with a Shotgun does not fare quite as well as Super, though fans of Grindhouse and ultra-violence will probably get a kick out of it. If Super represents a bit of a depraved outlook on life, Hobo makes it look like the Muppets. A few years ago, when Grindhouse was coming out, there was a contest for folks to create fake grindhouse-style trailers, and one of the winners was this fantastically titled Hobo With a Shotgun. Unfortunately what works in the short form of a fake trailer doesn't really extend well to a full-length feature. There are some interesting things about the film. Rutger Hauer is great as the hobo (look for an awesome monologue about a bear), the atmosphere is genuinely retro, it actually feels like a grindhouse movie (as opposed to Tarantino and Rodriguez's efforts, which are great, but you can also kinda tell they have a decent budget, whereas Hobo clearly has a low budget), and the armored villains known as the Plague are entertaining, if a bit out of place. Ultimately the film doesn't really earn its bullshit. Like last year's Machete (another film built off of the popularity of a "fake" trailer), I'm not convinced that this film really should have been made. Again, devotees to the weird and disgusting might enjoy this, but it's a hard film to recommend.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: The Good, the Bad, the Weird - Kim Jee-woon's take on the spaghetti western is actually quite entertaining, if a bit too long and maybe even a bit too derivative. Still, there are some fantastic sequences in the film, and it's a lot of fun. Jee-woon is one of the more interesting filmmakers that's making a name for Korean cinema on an international scale. I'm greatly looking forward to his latest effort, I Saw the Devil.
  • In my last SF book post, I mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor. I really enjoyed that book, which was apparently the first in a long series of books, of which I've recently finished two: Barrayar and The Warrior's Apprentice. I'll save the details for the next SF book review post, but let's just say that I'm fully onboard the Bujold train to awesome. I put in an order for the next several books in the series, which seems to be quite long and varied.
  • Timothy Zahn's Cobra Trilogy is what I'm reading right now. I'm enjoying them, but it's clear that Zahn was still growing as a storyteller when writing these. Interestingly, you can see a lot of ideas that he would feature in later works (and he would do so more seamlessly too). I'm about halfway through the trilogy, and should be finishing it off in the next couple weeks, after which, you can expect another SF book review post...
  • I've also started Fred Brooks' The Design of Design, though I haven't gotten very far just yet. I was traveling for a while, and I find that trashy SF like Zahn and Bujold makes for much better plane material than non-fiction. Still, I'm finding Brooks' latest work interesting, though perhaps not as much as his classic Mythical Man Month.
The Finer Things...
  • The best beer I've had in the past few months has been the BrewDog/Mikkeller collaboration Devine Rebel. It's pricey as hell, but if you can find a bottle of the 2009 version and if you like English Barleywines (i.e. really strong and sweet beer), it's worth every penny. I got a bottle of the 2010 version (which is apparently about 2% ABV stronger than the already strong 2009 batch) recently, but I haven't popped it open just yet.
  • My next homebrew kit, a Bavarian Hefeweizen from Northern Brewer, just came in the mail, so expect a brew-day post soon - probably next week, if all goes well. I was hoping to get that batch going a little earlier, but travel plans got in the way. Still, if this goes as planned, the beer should be hitting maturity right in the dead of summer, which is perfect for a wheat beer like this...
  • With the nice weather this weekend, I found myself craving a cigar. Not something I do very often and I really have no idea what makes for a good cigar, but I'll probably end up purchasing a few for Springtime consumption... Recommendations welcome!
That's all for now. Sorry about all the link dumps and general posting of late, but things have been busy around chez Kaedrin, so time has been pretty short. Hopefully some more substantial posting to come in the next few weeks...
Posted by Mark on April 24, 2011 at 06:36 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Upcoming SF
Because my book queue is not long enough*, it seems some of my favorite SF authors are releasing new novels in 2011. Yay**. Here are the three most exciting ones, in order of anticipated publication:
  • Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi - It's actually been a few years since Scalzi wrote a full SF novel (and that book, Zoe's Tale, was a sorta rehash of an earlier book), so I'm greatly looking forward to this. I have not read any of the original Fuzzy series by H. Beam Piper, but apparently this novel is Scalzi's attempt at rebooting or reimagining the series. At some point, I considered going back to read the originals, but I'm confident that Scalzi's novel will be good as a standalone story, and I've really enjoyed all his SF novels. This one is set to be released on May 10, so I'll probably be picking it up soon...
  • Readme by Neal Stephenson - This should be unsurprising to readers of this blog, as this has long been an anticipated novel here at Kaedrin, even back when it was known as Reamde (still no explanation of that - I don't really buy that it was a typo...) Details about the novel are still scarce (not even a cover yet, and the publication date seems to have moved back a week), but seeing as though Stephenson is my favorite author and all, I don't really need much to get in line for this one. Currently set to be released on September 20th, I'm very much looking forward to this one.
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge - The long-anticipated third novel in Vinge's loosely connected Zones of Thought series. I really loved the first two books in the series (A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky) and both of them have won major SF awards like the Hugo and Nebula. As such, expectations are high. Again, I've been avoiding details about the plot here, but my assumption is that it will only have a passing reference to the previous two novels (both of which only share one character and take place thousands of years apart). This one is set for October 11, so it looks like I'll have a busy fall, once again.
That covers the major releases that I'm looking forward to. There are, of course, some other books coming out that I might be interested in, but for now, I think the queue is full enough!

Also, just a quick administrative note, I'll be traveling this week, so probably no entry on Wednesday. I shall return next Sunday. Have a good week!

* Sarcasm!

** Not sarcasm!
Posted by Mark on April 10, 2011 at 08:35 AM .: link :.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

SF Book Review, Part 6
It's been a while since I followed up on my book queues (and some of the books on here weren't even on the queue, they just jumped to the top of the queue - which is probably why the queue is so long).
  • Doomsday Book by Connie Willis - This is one of a notable few SF novels to have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel (technically this book tied with another Kaedrin favorite, Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, for the Hugo). Indeed, Willis has apparently written a few other novels in the same universe, and they seem to have racked up the awards as well. This particular installment is about time-traveling historians. Young Kivrin is travelling back to the 14th century to observe daily life. Her mentor and father-figure, Dunworthy, is against the trip from the start, as it's a dangerous era and the further back in time you travel, the less precise the technology becomes. The novel proceeds on two main timelines - One at a futuristic Oxford University, the other at a small 14th century town. This is clearly not a predictive novel - the future Oxford is quite absurd at times (in particular, the lack of communication infrastructure is ridiculous - they don't even have much in the way of telephones, let alone cell phones or the internets). I don't know enough about history to say whether or not the 14th century bits are more realistic, but they seem more appropriate. Of course, it doesn't really matter. The story is effective on its own merits, and it operates according to its own internal logic, which is quite sound. One thing I found refreshing for a time-travel story is that there is no real consideration or recursive examination of paradoxes and the like. There are some off-hand references to the fact that the time travel mechanism won't let you change the past, but there isn't much in the way of circular causality events or anything resembling that sort of time-travel pyrotechnics that you see so frequently. Indeed, Kivrin might as well have been traveling to a dangerous alien planet. That being said, the historical section plays out in an interesting fashion. I won't get into too much detail here, but I will say that diseases are involved (in both timelines) and that Willis is brutally unforgiving. Her style is prosaic, more like classical hard SF, which kinda gave me a false sense of security. But Willis managed to pull the rug out from underneath me - several times. It might not seem like it at the beginning of the novel, but this isn't a book for the faint of heart. That being said, there is a hint of redemption and hope at the very end of the novel. I enjoyed this and may someday get around to the others in the series, but I'm not exactly in a hurry to do so.
  • The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth - Widely considered to be the best SF novel produced by the Futurians - a group of SF fans who eventually turned into editors and authors themselves, often focusing less on hard science and more on sociology and politics. This book is basically a satirical look at advertising and consumerism, and as such, it's actually still pretty relevant today (even if the specifics of technology are a bit odd at this point). The story follows an advertising copywriter, Mitch Courtenay, who gets ahold of a big new account (Venus!), and all the inter-office intrigue that he has to deal with. It goes some cliched places, but this book probably helped shape some cliches in itself. Stylistically, there's nothing special going on here, though the pages seem to turn themselves pretty quickly. It's a short book and a very easy, fun read.
  • Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold - Bujold is one of the authors that seemed to pick up the pieces after the whole Cyberpunk thing happened, returning SF to its Cambellian origins. This is a pretty straightforward space opera, though a very well executed one that I probably enjoyed more than any of the other books in this post. The story concerns a Betan scientist named Cordelia and her encounter with Lord Vorkosigan, of the Barrayarans. At first, they are enemies, but they quickly develop into more. And of course, they are surrounded by war and conflict between their two peoples, and during the course of the story, we're treated to all sorts of deceptions and treachery. This probably makes it sound trashy, and maybe it is, but it's still great fun. This book is apparently part of a large, wide-ranging series of books. Opinions differ as to which way to read them - in order of publication, or in order of internal chronology. Either way, Shards of Honor is the start of the series (i.e. it's the first published and the first in the chronology). I've already purchased the next two internal chronology books though, and am greatly looking forward to reading them.
  • Time's Eye - A Christmas gift from my brother, and apparently also the first in a series of novels, this particular book starts out with a premise similar to Clarke's 2001. One day, a bunch of Spherical objects (i.e. objects similar in concept to the Monolith) appear on the planet, and suddenly, the planet is a jumble of times. It seems that each region of the planet (the size of the regions appear to be small, though no definites are given) has been replaced with an earlier version of itself, sometimes stretching back millions of years. As such, most of the planet is now devoid of humanity. This story concerns itself with 5 main groups of people. Two are modern (a 3-person UN Peacekeeping team and a 3-person crew of Astronauts who were orbiting the planet at the time of the event), one relatively contemporary contingent (a British regiment, circa late 19th century, stationed in India), and two ancient powers (Alexander the Great's Macedonian army, and Ghengis Khan's Mongolian hoards). If you like the concept of modern folks mixing with historical folks (i.e. what would happen if modern astronauts met up with some Mongolians? And so on...), this would be a lot of fun, and I managed to have a pretty good time with it. Ultimately, there isn't much in the way of answers here, and I've read enough Arthur C. Clarke series to know that it probably won't be completely satisfying by the end of the series, but it was an enjoyable enough read, and there is an internal struggle between the Macedonians and the Mongols that is pretty compelling. It just doesn't seem that interested in resolving the various mysteries it set up. Perhaps the future books will delve into that a bit, but I have to admit that I'm unlikely to pursue this any further.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray - I've always known that Oscar Wilde was famous for his wit, but I do believe this is the first thing of his that I've read (I suppose he's more notable as a playwright, and you can see that sort of talent in this novel), and I was surprised at the density of witty remarks within the book. It seems like you can't go a page without getting some wondrous monologue, usually spoken by Lord Henry (a quasi-villain? The book certainly doesn't have a traditional conflict). You also get a long series of fantastic one-liners, such as "Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing." and "Dorian is far to wise not to do foolish things now and then," and "There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has a right to blame us." and "Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul." Much of this is oxymoronic or nonsensical in nature, but oddly compelling nonetheless. The story is a bit on the thin side, and is really just an excuse for Wilde to run, well, wild, with his witty imagination. I suppose you could say that this isn't science fiction - it's pretty firmly in the realm of fantasy - but I'll make an exception here. It's not a particularly heartwarming tale, but there's a lot of thematic depth and as I've already mentioned, lots of witty repartee that keeps the pages turning. I wouldn't call it a favorite, but I'm really glad I read it.
And there you have it! Coming up in the queue are some more Bujold novels, perhaps some Timothy Zahn, and even though it's probably not SF, some Thomas Pynchon for good measure. I may also need to do a Non-Fiction book review soon, as I've been reading a lot of that lately too...
Posted by Mark on March 20, 2011 at 07:58 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

More SF Pet Peeves
Sunday's post on the Unquestioned Assumptions of SF was a little strange as the post I was referencing was really more about pet peeves than unquestioned assumptions, so I figured that I should rename this post to add my own pet peeves to Matt Johnsons's list. So without further ado:
  • Aliens That Aren't Really Alien: Most alien species you see in SF are basically humans with weird ears or bumps on their forehead. In other words, they're just humans with superficial differences. Sure many of them will have strange customs or psychological ticks, but most of the time, such differences aren't even as severe as cultural differences here on earth. The most egregious violator of this is Star Trek. Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans... they're all just humans with various traits magnified (impatient aggression, steadfast logic, and passionate cunning, respectively). One notable exception in the world of film is Alien (though sequels tend to diminish the more alien qualities). In the world of literature, the big exception is Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought books, A Fire Upon The Deep (reviewed on this blog a while back) and A Deepness in the Sky (which I also wrote about once). Fire's wolflike aliens, in particular, were great examples of what is possible, but rarely even attempted in SF. Regardless, examples of human-like alien races far outweigh the truly alien aliens in SF, and that's always bothered me. To be sure, this does present something of a challenge to authors, as it requires them to think in ways unaccustomed to humans.
  • Monolithic Planet Ecologies: Star Wars is particularly bad in this respect - the ice moon of Hoth, the desert planet of Tatooine, the forest moon Endor, etc... The thought of an entire planet with only one type of climate almost boggles the mind. I'm sure there are some planets like this, but if Star Wars was any indication, every planet has one and only one dominant climate. Sometimes this sort of conceit can be used to good effect, as in Ursula K. Le Guin's excellent The Left Hand of Darkness, but it's still a pet peeve of mine.
  • Language: Rarely is language used as anything more than simple flavor in a story with alien species. Most of the time there is some sort of unexplained technology, typically called the "Universal Translator" or something, that will automatically translate alien languages. Rarely does the translation aspect receive any scrutiny. At best, we get some sort of throwaway reference to the universal translator, then the story moves on to other things. If you think of the way all the various human languages interact with one another and the inadequacies of translations, it seems really unlikely that alien species would even come close to being easily understood. For instance, human translators working to convert a text from one human language to another aren't working in a vacuum - they bring their own cultural and historical context into the picture when translating that text. Take a Greek word like pathos; there isn't really a single English word that corresponds with what Pathos represents. You rarely get that sort of depth in SF. One notable exception to this is Mary Doria Russell's exceptional novel, The Sparrow. The novel has many themes, but the way it uses language to precipitate a tragic outcome is unsurpassed. Interestingly, Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash has a more thorough exploration of the nature of language than most stories with alien species (and Snow Crash doesn't even feature any aliens!)
  • Artificial Gravity: Another concept often relegated to a throwaway reference, there exists a lot of potential here that goes untapped. It's not so much that it's impossible to control gravity as that if we had that ability, the applications would extend far beyond being able to stand on the floor of a spaceship. Implications for weaponry are enormous, and energy manipulation in general seems ripe for this sort of technology. But no, we'll just use it to simulate earth level gravity, thanks. I guess tractor beams could be explained in such a way, and a lot of SF does at least attempt to account for this by explaining that the spaceship is spinning in such a way as to simulate earth gravity, but it's still a bothersome trope.
I think that's all for now. I was going to write one for manned interstellar travel, but that topic is just too large (for example, it encompasses FTL travel, which is, in itself, a rather large subject) for a quick paragraph (Nevertheless, the way interstellar travel is depicted in SF is often tiresome and thoroughly unrealistic - one notable exception, Greg Egan's Diaspora). One interesting thing about writing this post that I didn't really expect were the number of exceptions to each of the above pet peeves. It turns out that there are a lot of books that really do address these issues (perhaps another reason why the phrase "Unquestioned Assumptions" is not appropriate for this discussion).
Posted by Mark on September 01, 2010 at 09:27 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Unquestioned Assumptions
Matthew Johnson lists out several Unquestioned Assumptions of Science Fiction. It's an interesting list, though it suffers from the same problems all lists suffer from: I don't agree with some of them, and I think there are some rather notable omissions. So let's get started:
  • Bionics: Johnson is basically saying that we have seen no evidence that a superhuman bionic man/woman could be created. He mentions the increasingly sophisticated use of prosthetics, but is correct in noting that there are weak spots in that chain, and thus someone with a bionic arm won't really be guaranteed any advantage unless they become one of them full-replacement cyborgs from Ghost in the Shell. I'll admit that SF has probably gotten a lot of this wrong, but there's much more to bionics than just superhuman beings. In a more general sense, bionics is about applying natural biological systems and methods to the engineering of electronic or mechanical technology. And in general, this is something we've already done a lot of (for instance, velcro and lots of flight related innovations derived from birds). Even in terms of medicine, stuff like cochlear implants are rapidly approaching the point where the deaf can hear better than unmodified humans (there are, of course, other drawbacks to this). I know nanotechnology is used as a form of magic in some movies, but there is a ton of potential there. And something like a Respirocyte could theoretically result in "superhuman" powers simply by increasing the amount of oxygen stored in red blood cells. So no, I don't see the bionic man or woman anytime soon, but I don't think it's an unreasonable topic for SF.
  • Uploading, or cloning for that matter: Johnson notes that this isn't impossible, just that they're also not "any kind of ticket to immortality for the simple reason that neither an uploaded version of your mind nor a clone with all your memories is you: they are both copies of you". This is an excellent point, and I do believe he's very right. While I'm willing to go along with the ride in a book like John Scalzi's Old Man's War, I seriously doubt the subjective experience would be anything like what Scalzi describes (he handwaves the whole thing by explaining that consciousness is transferred, so it's like a cut-and-paste, as oposed to a copy-and-paste - there's nothing left in the old body. I can see how that sort of thing would be appealing to people though.) Interestingly, Scalzi proposes something completely different in The Android's Dream, where the artificial consciousness is most definitely a copy (and we're never entirely sure how good that copy really is). Anyway, Johnson does wonder why anyone would even want to do such a thing, and I do take a bit of an issue with that. I'll expand on this later in the post, but interstellar space travel seems much more hospitable to some sort of electronic being than it does to biological lifeforms (again, more on this later). Another reason, assuming that the artificial construct can sustain creative thought, it might be nice to keep some folks around after they are gone. Maybe that would be a disaster - maybe Einstein would be a tremendous douchebag if he were still alive in mechanical form today, but it's probably something worth trying. In the end, I certainly wouldn't call this an unquestioned assumption. There exist lots of counter-examples, including the recently reviewd Diaspora, where artificial consciousness seems to have lots of advantages over biology (more on this in a bit).
  • Sensors: I completely agree with Johnson here. The non-trivial challenges to sensors are numerous and I don't see them ever working the way they're portrayed on tv or in movies (books tend to be better, but still).
  • Space Combat: Another one I mostly agree with, especially given the way it's portrayed in most SF. This is a topic already covered on this blog (and others mentioned my post) years ago, so I'll leave it at that. I do think there's a fantastic movie to be made in the mold of The Enemy Below, but in space and with realistic physics (with some handwaving around the energy and motivational aspects of the whole thing - it could be entertaining, but it probably couldn't be wholly accurate).
  • Sol III: Quite frankly, I don't think I've ever seen this one before. The convention of naming the star, and then each planet around the star getting a number (i.e. the eighth planet orbiting the star Omicron Persei is referred to as Omicron Persei 8) does seem common, though I don't find it all that troubling. I can see how it would be a pet peeve of someone though.
So that covers Johnson's list. There are, of course, lots of omissions here. Perhaps I'll cover those in a later post.
Posted by Mark on August 29, 2010 at 07:56 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, August 22, 2010

SF Book Review, Part 5
Still working my way through the book queue, here are a few SF books I've read recently. [See also: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]
  • Diaspora by Greg Egan: One way to divvy up the various scientific disciplines is to make a distinction between hard science (natural sciences like physics) and soft science (social sciences like psychology). Given this popular notion, it thus follows that science fiction is also divided in such a way, with hard science fiction focusing on the nuts-and-bolts details of technology and science (and stories that progress in a logical fashion), and soft science fiction focusing much less on science (if there's any science at all) and more human behavior. Of course, given a specific SF story, it will probably fall somewhere around inbetween these two arbitrary poles. However, Greg Egan's Diaspora veers strongly in the direction of hard SF and rarely looks back. This is most certainly not a book for beginners, but if you don't mind lengthy discussions of mathematics, geometry, particle physics, and even more complicated notions, then this is the book for you.

    The story begins about a thousand years from now. Humanity has fragmented considerably. Some, called statics, exist mostly in the same way we do today. Others are still made of flesh and bone, but have been genetically augmented, sometimes in quite thorough ways. There are Gleisner robots, which are individual AI beings that nevertheless choose to mostly operate in the physical world via mechanical bodies. And finally, there are polises, which are basically networks of distinct artificial consciousnesses. Most citizens of a polis were uploaded from a human, but there are occasionally "orphans", which are citizens that are created without any ancestor. The main character of the book is Yatima, an orphan, and most of the action is told from the point of view of polis citizens, which is interesting because said citizens can't quite be categorized as human. Indeed, Egan uses gender-neutral pronouns (Ve, Vis, Ver) to refer to most citizens (there are some recent converts that cling to their original gender).

    The setting alone provides a rich space for speculation and exploration, but once the basics of the universe are settled, Egan starts to throw various crises at our characters, and that's when things start to get really interesting. I won't go into detail here, but Egan has crafted an exceptionally ambitious tale here. The scope and scale of the story grows exponentially, with Egan casually skipping past hundreds or thousands of years at a time and by the end, time pretty much ceases to have much meaning. This is audacious stuff, and probably the "hardest" SF I've ever read (again, this is not "hard" in a sense of difficulty, just in the way science is treated). It's not all "hard" stuff, of course. It still exists on that continuum, it's just way more hard than it is soft. There's a lot of depth to this book, and a short blog post like this isn't even beginning to scratch the surface of the ideas and issues that arise out of the paradigm that Egan has set up (I've already written a bit of a deeper exploration of some ideas, but there are lots of other things that could be fleshed out). For the purposes of this post, I'll just say that this is among the most ambitious and audacious SF novels I've ever read, and if you're not scared away by a little (ok, a lot of) math, it is definitely worth a read.
  • The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke: Since The Matrix came out in 1999, I've often found myself recognizing bits and pieces of other media as being part of the formula that created The Matrix. Indeed, one of the big reasons the movie is so great is that it pulls on a large number of diverse sources and mashes them together into something seemingly new and exciting. Of course, it's not, and that's why I keep seeing pieces of it, even in 60 year old novels like The City and the Stars. The story takes place about a billion years in the future, in an insular city named Diaspar. No one has left or come into the city for as long as anyone can remember, and most citizens have lived many lives within the city. It's a sort of utopia, and most of its residents are perfectly content. However, there is one man, a "unique" in that he has had no past lives, who doesn't fear the universe outside the city. He makes plans to exit the city to see what he can find, but it seems that no one even really knows how to leave. To accomplish his task, he enlists the help of "the Jester", and this is where the Matrix series really takes from.
    Long ago it had been discovered that without some crime or disorder, Utopia soon became unbearably dull. Crime, however, from the nature of things, could not be guaranteed to remain at the optimum level which the social equation demanded. If it was licensed and regulated, it ceased to be crime.

    The office of Jester was the solution - at first sight naive, yet actually profoundly subtle - which the city had evolved. ... On rare and unforeseeable occasions, the Jester would turn the city upside-down by some prank which might be no more than an elaborate practical joke, or which might be a calculated assault on some currently cherished belief or way of life. All things considered, the name "Jester" was a highly appropriate one. There had once been med with very similar duties, operating with the same license, in the days when there were courts and kings.
    (Sound familiar? On the other hand, Clarke himself was clearly drawing on longstanding traditions himself.) Then we find out that this "unique" is actually part of a long line of "uniques", only this time, things are different. He opts to go further and do more than any other unique, and he essentially breaks down the walls of the city (sorry, I guess that's a spoiler, but it's necessary to keep up the comparison to The Matrix, and in specific Neo). It's a really wonderful SF book and it's aged pretty well. There are some inconsistencies and Clarke's prose might strike some modern readers as being a bit sparse, but that's characteristic of the era in which he was writing. The ideas are great and thought provoking, and that's what a good SF book needs.
  • Conquerors' Pride by Timothy Zahn: Zahn has been the workhorse of my SF reading over the past few years. I can always count on Zahn to turn the pages and trot out some interesting ideas along the way, which is more than you can say for a lot of supposedly better written novels. I actually read this series about 15 years ago when they came out, but I wanted to re-read them, as I remember enjoying the books a lot, but some of the things I liked back then aren't as great as I remember. I'm happy to report that this series is about as good as I remember. This book is the first in the series, and it begins as a first contact story. Things don't go well, as the alien ships immediately attack, quickly obliterating an entire human fleet (in a ruthless move, they even attack escape pods). So now humans are at war with a new and deadly species, and the Cavanagh family is caught in the middle. When Commander Pheylan Cavanagh is captured by the aliens, his family leaps into action to mount a rescue mission. What follows is another compelling Space Opera from Zahn, whose storytelling skills have never been better. I have some minor complaints about some of the plot details, but it's otherwise an above average page-turner. Being the first in a series can sometimes be a challenge, but Zahn finds a way to end this one in a satisfying fashion.
  • Conquerors' Heritage by Timothy Zahn: The second book in the series is interesting in that it is told entirely from the perspective of the "Conquerors" (i.e. that aliens). This does tend to slow things down a bit, but that's common in the middle book of a series, and at least Zahn does keep things moving forward by continuing where we left off in the last book (i.e. he doesn't retell the first book from another perspective, he keeps progressing the story.) Switching perspectives makes for an interesting plot device, though I guess you could call it gimmicky, and like a lot of alien species in SF, it seems like these are just humans with slightly different faces and sharp tongues. There is one social component that is unique though, which is that Conquerors have something called a Fsss organ. After a Conqueror's body dies, they live on in an incorporeal form that is tied to the fsss organ. If you split the organ in two, the spirit can move between the two cuttings nearly instantaneously, which gives the Conquerors FTL communication capabilities. This is an interesting idea, and Zahn plays a bit with the social and psychological consequences of such a system. Since there's a whole book dedicated to their perspective, I guess it's not a spoiler to say that we're meant to have a sympathetic relationship with even the Conquerors (who, ironically, refer to the humans as Conquerors as well), though saying how Zahn pulls it off would most certainly be a spoiler. In the end, it's a solid middle entry and it moves the story forward, albeit not as quickly as the first book (I still managed to read it in only a couple of days, so it's still a page turner).
  • Conquerors' Legacy by Timothy Zahn: The final book in the series is told from mixture of perspectives, and now that Zahn has all the pieces in place, he drives the plot forward quickly and relentlessly. I don't want to give anything away here, but it's got a satisfying ending and most of what I said about the first two books apply to this one as well. It's a fast-paced, page-turning conclusing to a solid Space Opera series. This isn't deep or overly hard SF, but it's an above-average SF tale and well worth reading if you like this sort of thing.
I'm currently reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and have a few others to finish up from my current book queue. My next book post will probably be about non-fiction books though, as there are a few I've read and some others on the queue that I'd like to finish off.
Posted by Mark on August 22, 2010 at 08:12 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Clockwork Orange Fallacy
I've been reading a science fiction novel called Diaspora, by Greg Egan. The novel is initially set about a thousand years in the future, which is enough time to allow Egan to postulate all sorts of things without really having to explicitly delve into the morality of gene-splicing or consciousness transferral, etc... However, those sorts of questions emerge anyway because we, the readers, are still living our contemporary lives, where these issues are as relevant as ever.

The novel begins in a "Polis", which is basically a network of artificial consciousnesses. Some of these are humans who have uploaded themselves, others are entirely artificial. Alternatively, there were apparently a lot of people who transferred themselves into human-shaped robots called Gleisners. Regular human beings are still around, and they're referred to as "Fleshers" (for obvious reasons). At this point, there are tons of genetically altered humans, to the point where many of the variants can no longer communicate with one another (another class of humans, calling themselves "Bridgers" have been bred specifically to solve the problem of communication). Humans without any sort of genetic tampering are referred to as "Statics", and don't seem to be doing well.

In the story, the industrious but apparently suspicious gleisners have discovered an odd astrophysical event which could prove disasterous to Earth (at least, to its fleshers). Two of the characters go down to the planet to warn the fleshers, but they're met with paranoia and disbelief. One of the characters, Yatima, is a completely random mutation from a polis (he has no "parents", even artificial ones), and he (or, I should say "ve" as they seem to be quasi-asexual, though even the artificial pronouns sometimes seem to have a gender connotation, but that's a different discussion) is having some trouble understanding the objections to his suggestion that anyone who wants to can upload themselves to his Polis. In the scene below, he's speaking with a static human and Francesca, who is a human bridger.
He gazed down at them with a fascinated loathing. ‘Why can’t you stay inside your citadels of infinite blandness, and leave us in peace? We humans are fallen creatures; we’ll never come crawling on our bellies into your ersatz Garden of Eden. I tell you this: there will always be flesh, there will always be sin, there will always be dreams and madness, war and famine, torture and slavery.’

Even with the language graft, Yatima could make little sense of this, and the translation into Modern Roman was equally opaque. Ve dredged the library for clarification; half the speech seemed to consist of references to a virulent family of Palestinian theistic replicators.

Ve whispered to Francesca, dismayed, ‘I thought religion was long gone, even among the statics.’

‘God is dead, but the platitudes linger.’ Yatima couldn’t bring verself to ask whether torture and slavery also lingered, but Francesca seemed to read vis face, and added, ‘Including a lot of confused rhetoric about free will. Most statics aren’t violent, but they view the possibility of atrocities as essential for virtue - what philosophers call “the Clockwork Orange fallacy”. So in their eyes, autonomy makes the polises a kind of amoral hell, masquerading as Eden.’ (page 119 in my edition)
The reference to A Clockwork Orange was interesting, as this isn't a novel that's been filled with pop culture references, but the concept itself is a common theme in SF (and, for that matter, philosophy). It's not hard to see why, especially when it comes to something like a Polis. What does morality mean in a Polis? A consciousness living in a Polis is essentially living in an entirely virtual environment - there are minimal physical limits, property doesn't really exist as a concept, and so on. The inhabitants of any given Polis are modeled after humans, in a fashion, and yet many of our limitations are not applicable. Some polises have a profound respect for the physical world around them. Others have retreated into their virtual reality, some going as far as abandoning the laws of physics altogether in an effort to better understand the elegance of mathematics. Would it be moral to upload yourself into a Polis? Or would that be the cowards way out and represent the evasion of responsibility that free will provides? Would one still have a free will if their consciousness was run by a computer? Once in a Polis, is it necessary to respect the external, natural world? Could anything be gained from retreating into pure mathematics? Egan doesn't quite address these issues directly, but this sort of indirect exploration of technological advancement is one of the things that the genre excels at.

Strangely, one of the things that seems to take on a more dangerous tone in the world of Diaspora is the concept of a meme (for more on this, check out this post by sd). The way ideas are transmitted and replicated among humans isn't especially well understood, but it can certainly be dangerous. Egan is pretty clearly coming down against the humans who don't want to escape to the Polis (to avoid disaster), and he seems to blame their attitude on "a virulent family of Palestinian theistic replicators". This sort of thing seems even more dangerous to an artificial consciousness though, and Egan even gives an example. These AI consciousnesses can run a non-sentient program called an "outlook" which will monitor the consciousness and adjust it to maintain a certain set of values (in essence, it's Clockwork Orange software). In the story, one character shows Yatima what's happened to their outlook:
It was an old outlook, buried in the Ashton-Laval library, copied nine centuries before from one of the ancient memetic replicators replicators that had infested the fleshers. It imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving ... including explicit renunciations of every mode of reasoning able to illuminate the core belief’s failings.

Analysis with a standard tool confirmed that the outlook was universally self-affirming. Once you ran it, you could not change your mind. Once you ran it, you could not be talked out of it.
I find this sort of thing terrifying. It's almost the AI equivalent to being a zombie. If you take on this outlook, why even bother existing in the first place? I guess ignorance is bliss...

In case you can't tell, I'm very much enjoying Diaspora. I'm still not finished, but I only have a little more than a hundred pages left. It's not much of a page turner, but that's more because I have to stop every now and again to consider various questions that have arisen than lack of quality (though I will note that Egan is probably not a gateway SF author - he certainly doesn't shy away from the technical, even in extremes). I'll probably be posting more when I finish the book...
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2010 at 07:52 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

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