Arts & Letters

Hugo Awards 2020: The Results

The Results of the 2020 Hugo Awards were announced a couple of days ago, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I read most of the novel nominees this year, but I didn’t finish. I never dipped my toes into the shorter fiction categories either, so I ultimately ended up not participating. This tracks with my generally waning enthusiasm for the awards over the past several years, but hope springs eternal. Maybe I’ll find next year more worthy of engagement. In the meantime, congratulations are due to all the winners, even the ones I don’t like. For those who want to geek out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting and nomination stats are also available (.pdf).

Best Novel

The Best Novel Award went to A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which was a pleasant surprise. I really enjoyed that novel. Indeed, this is the first time in several years that I actually liked the winner of this category. It has its flaws, but so did all the other nominees I’ve read (5 out of 6), and all things considered, I think it’s great that the award went to the debut author. Apparently the race for first place was very tight, with Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame coming in a close second place. They were clearly my favorite two nominees, so it’s nice to see. The Ten Thousand Doors of January came in last place, and that also fits with my ranking…

Short Fiction

The only short fiction I had actually read that got nominated were a couple of stories from Ted Chiang’s collection, Exhalation. They were good, as per usual from Chiang, but I never got around to reading the others. In scanning the winners, the one I would be most interested in is This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. After years of being soundly disappointed by the Short Story category, I finally gave up this year.

Best Series

The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey (the pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) wins Best Series. I read the first novel, Leviathan Wakes, a while back and came away unimpressed. However, I’ve also received recommendations from folks I trust, so maybe I’ll check it out again at some point. Perhaps it gets better as it goes.

That said, this award continues to baffle. Only one book from this series (the first) has actually garnered a Hugo nomination for Best Novel, so it’s better than the last few winners in that respect. But it’s still a logistically difficult category to judge. The Hugo Awards are always a popularity contest, but I suspect that’s so even more here than with the other categories. Plus, I have serious doubts that voters have actually read enough of each series to make a truly informed decision. Maybe I’m wrong about that! But the sheer quantity of work contained in just one ballot seems infeasible.

In addition, books from series keep getting nominated for Best Novel, so the Best Series category hasn’t curtailed that much either. Series are tricksy beasts. Clearly they sell, hence their proliferation. But when it comes to awards, they present a problem, because you’re often not judging a single work. I’ve never really participated in this award, mostly because of the aforementioned logistical problems.

Best Dramatic Presentations

The Good Place wins Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form for the third year in a row with: “The Answer”. A fine episode, to be sure, and I did quite enjoy the series, but it did sorta peter out. Personally, I would have much rather seen the award go to a new show/episode, like The Mandalorian: “Redemption” or Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”, but the voting wasn’t even close.

Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form went to another TV show, Good Omens. I never watched it because I read the book and had mixed thoughts. On the other hand, of the nominees, it’s certainly a defensible choice. This category has always been a weirdly mainstream, blockbuster dominated affair. I probably would have voted for Us, but I’m in the clear minority there. It did not do well in the voting. Weirdly, I’ve been finding a bunch of smaller, low-budget 2019 movies that would have been deserving of recognition. But I’ll save those for a later post. In the meantime, pour one out for Prospect and The Kid Who Would Be King, both worthy of your attention (and more interesting than the offerings from Marvel or Star Wars.)

Retro Hugos

There’s apparently quite a row brewing about the Retro Hugo Awards, presumably because the Cthulhu Mythos won Best Series. No matter how much you may dislike Lovecraft, it’s difficult to point to a more influential nominee. Indeed, the award is for the Mythos and explicitly includes other authors, which in theory include books like The Ballad of Black Tom. All of which is to say that I’m doubting that the (relatively few) people voting in the Retro Hugos are motivated by rewarding Lovecraft’s bigotry, but rather the enduring qualities of his work (which, to me at least, are not the racism). I don’t know, maybe I’m being naively optimistic here. I certainly can’t fault anyone for being turned off by Lovecraft’s racism. It’s telling, though, that all of the complaints about the Retro Hugos never refer to alternatives and also seek to minimize the other winners.

Take the perennially dismissed Leigh Brackett. She’s experienced something of a resurgence in recent years, but even then, her contributions to the genre are consistently downplayed or erased. The last few Retro Hugos have provided some spotlight on this underrated author, and I’m happy about that. I don’t understand why so many are so willing to dismiss or ignore her work.

I saw one comment that said the Retro Hugos were rewarding people that we’re trying to relegate to the dustbin of history. Well, the Retro Hugos are quite literally “the dustbin of history”. There were only 120 nominating ballots for the 1945 Retro Hugos, which is an order of magnitude lower than the 2020 Hugo Awards (approximately 1500 nominating ballots). What’s more, I find it hard to believe that the grand majority (if not all) of those 120 people weren’t also participating in the 2020 nomination process. My guess is that these people aren’t obsessed with the past to the exclusion of the present and future. Ultimately, I find value in exploring the history of Science Fiction, warts and all. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t read or like new science fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to track down a copy of Killdozer!

SF Book Review – Part 33: Hugo Nominees and Moar

I started this post a few weeks ago, but I had wanted to at least acknowledge what was happening in the world in the intro and that ended up becoming its own post. All of which is to say, stay Safe and Constructive out there everyone! A surprising amount of progress has been made in a short time, but now we’re in for more opportunism and potential backlash, not to mention wave two of the pandemic. Wallowing in social media probably won’t be very productive for a while and maybe losing yourself in a novel is a good way to reset. Here’s a few that I’ve read recently…

  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – January Scaller is the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, an enterprising collector of mysterious trinkets and curious treasures. Set in the beginning of the 20th century, the story follows January and her talent for finding portals to other worlds. She has discovered a book amongst Mr. Locke’s belongings, a book of adventure and doors that features elements eerily familiar to January’s experiences. It’s an interesting enough premise, and it hits on two popular tropes that could make for an interesting combination: the portal story and the book-within-a-book. The former is merely a tease. There are portals to other worlds in this novel, but if you think this is going to be a story about actually traveling to new and interesting places and having adventures there, well, you’d be wrong. There are tantalizing mentions of these other worlds, some of which sound like they could be really exciting, but that’s all we get. We’re mostly just stuck in turn of the 20th century world, which is fine I guess, but doesn’t really deliver on the promise of a portal story. As a result, the world building feels a bit incomplete. The whole book-within-a-book conceit doesn’t really do much for me either, other than wreak havoc with the pacing of the novel. As previously mentioned, it’s not exactly a rollercoaster to start with, so this addition was not especially appreciated. Furthermore, both of these narrative threads (i.e. January’s and the book’s) are told in first person as a retrospective, which also has an impact on the stakes of the story. The characters came off as a bit flat to me. The heroine is fine, if not especially special (which is weird, because we’re often informed about how unique she is, even as she resembles a million other similar characters). The villains are obvious mustache-twirly types whose motivations don’t make much sense. Frankly my favorite character was Bad, the good doggo that January takes on early in the story. The prose doesn’t help things along either, as it’s overly flowery and at times, preachy (yes, this novel shares the politics of every other Hugo nominee from the past few years and it sometimes comes off as a leaden lecture). Ultimately, with the pacing issues and overbaked prose, it feels like not a lot happens in the book, which is one of those things that just bothers me. I’m obviously in the distinct minority on this one, so I’ll leave it at that. I clearly didn’t enjoy this and as of now it’s at the bottom of my Hugo Awards ballot. If you’re going to open a bunch of doors, you should probably go through them at some point.
  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Gideon is a swordswoman attempting to escape a life of servitude for the Ninth House. Harrow is the heir to the Ninth House and a necromancer. When the Emperor summons the heirs to each house to find a leader so that he can defeat some threat on the horizon, Harrow enlists Gideon as her Cavalier. As the heirs to each house gather for their trials, dead bodies start to pile up, and mysterious bone creatures rear their ugly heads. I really ought to like this more than I do. It’s got a lot of winning elements. A Gothic whodunnit with bone witches and swordfights? What’s not to like? It’s got all the elements, and it comes together in the end fairly well, but there’s just a bunch of nagging complaints I can’t quite get over. A lot of people complain about the dense fog of jargon that is just sorta dropped on your head at the start, but that sort of thing usually doesn’t bother me. Some of the worldbuilding is unclear though, and that does lead to some confusion. The characters are a bit too snarky for my tastes. Gideon, in particular, seems awfully insubordinate for someone who’s supposed to be an indentured servant, and her relationship with Harrow is kinda weird. The whole odd-couple, enemies-to-friends thing is a time honored trope, but it only barely works here because the relationship is just so fraught with mistrust and pain that when things shift later in the story, it comes off as abrupt and perhaps unearned. The rest of the characters are a bit less defined and harder to care that much about, perhaps because there are so many of them (and they drop like flies as the story progresses). The story does seem to lapse into a repetitive state in the middle, but the conclusion is rousing enough. And along the way there are plenty of swordfights and necromantic creatures to keep things interesting. Ultimately, well, this isn’t really my preferred genre, but it comported itself just fine. It’s perhaps a bit too long and while it’s got all the right elements, there’s some tweaking needed to make it really sing. As with A Memory Called Empire and perhaps even The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I feel like this would be better served as a nomination under the Asounding Award (formerly the Campbell) for best new writer (all three of these novels are debuts, and thus it’s perhaps not so surprising that I have similar complaints). As a Hugo finalist, this can’t quite compete with the more developed storytelling that you get from Middlegame (which is still at the top of my ballot, even as I didn’t love that novel either…)
  • The Last Emperox by John Scalzi – The conclusion to Scalzi’s Interdependency novels (The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire) is, well, more of the same. Which, considering that I enjoyed the first two novels, is a good thing. I won’t call this Scalzi’s best work or anything, but it’s solid stuff and very entertaining. I don’t need to go into the plot much here because it’s kinda right there in the titles. The empire’s transportation network is collapsing and the Emporox must find a way to restore independence to each system before the become isolated while also fending off various assassination/coup attempts. Look, it’s getting a bit repetitive by this point and maybe it’s something that didn’t require a trilogy of novels to cover, but in general, I enjoyed spending time with these characters and while the scheming and intrigue are repetitive, Scalzi is actually pretty good at this sort of thing. Indeed, reading this not long after other Hugo nominees (particularly A Memory Called Empire, which has similar Empire-in-crisis vibes), put Scalzi’s talent for clever machinations and storytelling in stark relief. There were several surprises throughout, and even though some of them were fakeouts that some might find cheap, I rather enjoyed them. I won’t claim this should be nominated for a Hugo Award, but I do really enjoy Scalzi’s style. This isn’t his best work, but it’s highly enjoyable, and in these dark times, that’s laudible.
  • Randomize by Andy Weir – This is actually a short story, but I thought I’d give it a crack because I like Weir and while this has some interesting elements, it doesn’t fully gel for me. It basically tells the story of how quantum computing could wreak havoc on our world, though he focuses the story on a particular Casino. It’s a good idea and the Casino world is a good microcosm, but some of the machinations, particularly towards the end of the story, are strained and not quite believable. Still, I’m always curious to see where Weir goes. Nothing he’s written recently has been as great as The Martian, but I like his approach.
  • Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge – Towards the beginning of lockdown, I read two books that… start with plots about disease. This was not planned at all and felt a bit weird, but in this one, the disease was really just a delivery vector for something else. Once the story proper starts, the disease bit becomes background. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Robert Gu receives a series of medical treatments that basically cures him of Alzheimer’s disease. He was a world-renowned poet before the disease, but now he awakens to find a world that has dramatically changed. Also, he was apparently a prick before the disease, so he’s got a lot of baggage to wade through with his family and friends. Then he gets caught up in some sort of conspiracy involving that disease vector thing. Once again, reading this in comparison to recent Hugo nominees puts things in stark relief. The sheer idea content of this book is so much higher than anything nominated in the past few years that I’m wondering where this type of science fiction went (incidentally, this won the Hugo back in the aughts). The storytelling is a bit less successful. It’s overlong and some of the characters aren’t entirely likable at first, but it still functions well enough. It sorta meanders a bit at times though, which doesn’t help with the pacing, and while the conclusion pulls all the threads together well enough, it just wasn’t as satisfying as it should have been. That said, the aforementioned idea content is high and so even when it’s going off on tangents, it’s interesting. I really enjoyed this book, even if it isn’t Vinge’s best work.
  • Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear – Ah, and this is the other disease novel that I inadvertently started reading during a global pandemic. I mean, I guess I should have read the description more, but I like Bear and this has long been on my book queue to catch up with, so I just took a chance and started reading it. Fortunately, it’s a pretty darned good book! Molecular biologist Kaye Lang believes that ancient diseases encoded in human DNA could awaken and start infecting people. Christopher Dicken is a “virus hunter” for the CDC who is hot on the trail of an elusive flu-like disease that only infects expectant mothers and their offspring. Mitch Rafelson is a disgraced paleontologist who stumbles upon the preserved bodies of a prehistoric family in the Alps. Of course, all three plotlines are completely independent with no overlap whatsoever. Oh, wait, no, the opposite of that. To be perfectly honest, much of the details of Bear’s exploration of DNA and disease are way over my head. That said, it all sounds impressive and isn’t obviously wrong, so he’s got that going for him. The broad strokes of the story seem plausible enough and are easy to discern, and it’s an entertaining yarn. It’s the longest book covered in this post, but it earned its length I think. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for Bear’s dense style though, so maybe take that with a grain of salt. The ending perhaps leaves too much room for a sequel (which is out there) and thus isn’t as satisfying as it could have been, but it works well enough.

That’s all for now. I’ve actually got quite a backlog of books to cover, so we’ll probably have another of these posts sooner rather than later.

Hugo Awards: Middlegame

Middlegame is the fifth novel by Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) to be nominated for a best novel Hugo Award. She’s been nominated in and won the award in several other categories, but the best novel win has eluded her. Will this one do the trick?

Roger and Dodger are twins bred for a specific (but secret) purpose by rogue alchemist James Reed (himself an alchemical creation, reminiscent of Frankenstein, that’s been scheming for over a century on said secret purpose). Rodger is skilled in all things words and language. Dodger is a math whiz. Separated at birth and placed in foster homes, they somehow managed to connect via some sort of handwavey quantum entanglement; they can speak to one another and even see through each other’s eyes. Their parents and teachers generally attribute this to imaginary friends, but Reed knows it’s the pair’s latent powers beginning to manifest and he doesn’t want them to do so too early. He and his merry band of alchemical minions stop at nothing to keep the two separated until their powers can be fruitfully harnessed for whatever dreadful purpose they have in mind. Will Roger and Dodger manage to discover and subsequently foil Reed’s nefarious plans? Spoiler alert: yes.

Middlegame

While this novel is a bit too long and overly cryptic for its own good, McGuire is a good yarn-spinner and has developed two core protagonists that are likable enough such that the pages turn quickly, which certainly mitigates the issues I have with the novel. Roger and Dodger have a great chemistry together and McGuire is able to generate a lot of empathy for their various plights. The story requires them to be separated, sometimes forcibly, and McGuire is able to harness this conflict to induce a certain longing and desire to seem them connect.

The story suffers a bit when Roger and Dodger aren’t around, but those are thankfully brief little episodes and only make the connections they make more sweet. The overarching secret purpose at the core of the story does fall a bit flat in the end, but since we’re so invested in Roger and Dodger, it still works. Along the way, we get some nice surface explorations of mathematics and language and the interplay between both. It’s still firmly rooted in the fantasy genre, but it does incorporate some SF window dressing well enough. Dodger uses mathematics in some interesting ways and there’s even a bit of time travel (or, at least, an ability to reset a timeline); none of this is explored in a particularly SFnal way, but it works well enough in a fantasy story like this. Some of the story choices and various sub-plots might not entirely fit together, but the page turning nature of the novel and the likable protagonists mitigate that.

McGuire is a good storyteller and her craft is evident here, especially viewed in contrast to the other Hugo nominees I’ve read (both of the other two novels I’ve read are by debut authors, and while they pull off their stories in fine style, it’s clear that McGuire’s experience gives her an advantage). I enjoyed the novel and expect it to fall near the top of my ballot, though who knows, maybe one of the remaining three novels will really knock my socks off. All that said, I’m still not entirely sure this novel is award worthy. I haven’t read a ton of Seanan McGuire, but I get the impression that she’s capable of more, and while her talent is undeniable, I’m not sure it’s the best Fantasy novel of the year. But what do I know? It’s not like I’ve read a ton of this year’s fantasy offerings…

A few words, if I may, on the audiobook, which is at best functional and at worst awful. It’s read by Amber Benson of Buffy fame and while she’s got plenty of geek cred (and she’s an author in her own right), some of the choices she made in her reading of this book are just baffling. In particular, the exaggerated, emphatic verbal tics she employs for the alchemist Reed and his murderous minion Leigh are weirdly out of step with the tone those scenes should be generating. Just completely over the top. Like, sure, they’re kinda mustache twirling villains, but they aren’t straight up cartoons. Likewise, I’m not sure what she’s doing with Roger’s voice, but it ain’t a New England accent. The one character she is able to nail, though, is Dodger, so credit where credit is due. She’s suffused with nervous energy and Benson carries that off well. I got a very Jordan from Real Genius vibe from her reading of Dodger (this is also due to McGuire’s overall conception of the character, but Benson does add something of her own here.) It’s a testament to McGuire’s skill as an author that I came away with an overall good opinion of the work.

Hugo Awards: A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire is the debut novel from Arkady Martine and is a finalist for this year’s Hugo Awards. Mahit Dzmare, an ambassador from a small, independent mining colony is sent to the heart of the Teixcalaan empire, only to find that her predecessor has died. Under mysterious circumstances that no one wants to talk about. Fortunately, with the help of an Imago memory device, Mahit has an old copy of the former ambassador living inside her head. Unfortunately, that copy is far too old and doesn’t explain why her predecessor had such an outsized influence on Teixcalaan imperial court, up to and including a personal relationship with the emperor. This being a story that involves an empire, there is naturally political instability, uprising, succession woes, a potential coup, and so on. Naturally, the emperor has his own plans, and our little fish out of water must carefully navigate her way through an alien society, solve the murder of her predecessor, prevent the empire from annexing her mining colony, and deal with promises made to the emperor. Oh yeah, and apparently there’s some alien threat out there somewhere that’s been swallowing up ships.

There’s a lot to like in this novel. The worldbuilding is solid and I like the way the Teixcalaan empire isn’t inherently evil, even if it’s large and unwieldy and suffuse with all the baggage that goes along with imperialism and colonialism. It might not be a good thing and it’s not like the folks involved in the uprising don’t have a point, but the empire, even at high echelons, isn’t entirely filled with cartoonish, mustache-twirling supervillains. It’s an empire whose culture is at least partly based on poetry, for crying out loud. It’s just nice to see that not everyone in the empire is the absolute worst. For instance, when Mahit arrives in the Teixcalaan system, she’s assigned an attaché by the empire. In most stories, this attaché would be shifty at minimum and probably outright betray our protagonist at some point, but here the character Three Seagrass becomes an invaluable resource and cultural guide, loyal to both Mahit and the empire. Ditto for Twelve Azalea, another Teixcalaan character who lesser novels would have betray Mahit. As a result, I generally liked the characters and spending time with them wasn’t a chore, even if their are better examples of this sort of thing out there.

The Imago device at the core of the story is something we’ve seen a lot of in the past few years. Whether it’s Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire stories or even Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series, other stories of two people inhabiting a single brain have been surprisingly common of late (even amongst Hugo-nominated works). The one interesting thing that Martine does with this story is that she has the device malfunction, such that we don’t actually deal with the two characters/one head situation very much. On the other hand, the device becomes an important part of the plot in an obvious way that undercuts what should be revelations later in the story. This exemplifies the true issue with this book, which is that it drags rather heavily in the middle.

As I was sorta hinting at towards the beginning of this post, anyone who’s read a science fiction story about a galactic empire has seen what’s going on here a million times before. I won’t spoil it, but it takes far too long for our characters to suss out what’s really happening. Too much of the story takes place with characters just sitting around talking, and while this is a common convention of science fiction that I’m usually happy to put up with, it doesn’t help when these discussions seem repetitive and redundant. Martine does try to inject some action into the proceedings at times, but it all felt a bit muddled or underbaked. There’s this alien threat that’s hinted at all throughout the story, but we only get small snippits of what’s happening there, and are instead obliged to follow some obscure thread of court intrigue to its completely expected conclusion.

This is perhaps a bit harsh. There’s something to be said for a well executed version of a story we’ve seen before, and I did quite enjoy this novel and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in this sub-genre… but that doesn’t make it the best SF of the year, for which the bar should be higher. Fans of Anne Leckie and Lois McMaster Bujold will probably like this, which probably explains why this has gained so much traction with the Hugo set. This is an excellent debut novel and I’d love to see how Arkady Martine evolves as a writer, but this is only the start. I suspect this would be a better match for the Astounding award (formerly the Campbell) for best new writer. It’s also worth noting that I probably enjoyed this more than a lot of the nominees from the past decade or so, so there is also that to contend with (it would probably fall somewhere in the upper-middle tier). Its the first of the Hugo shortlist I’ve read this year, so it’s officially number one on my ballot and despite my misgivings, it might hold on to that spot for a while. Next up, we’ve got Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame (I’m about two thirds of the way through that one, and it’s pretty solid fantasy stuff…)

Hugo Awards 2020: Initial Thoughts

The 2020 Hugo Award Finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite whinging:

  • Best Novel has some interesting meta-characteristics. In terms of genre, we’ve got half science fiction, half fantasy (though at least one of the ones I’m counting as SF appears to be more of a mixture of SF and fantasy, and in looking further, one of the fantasy seems to have SF elements). Only two novels are part of a series, and they’re both the first in the series (and, one hopes, could operate well enough as a standalone read). Fully half of the nominees are first novels, though at least one of those authors has previously won a Hugo in a short fiction category… All of the nominees are written by women and this is, to my knowledge, the first time this has ever happened (though it was inevitable given the past few years; by my count women authors have outnumbered men 21-8 in the past 5 years, even if men have historically taken the cake). This is also the first time in a decade that I haven’t read any of the finalists before they were announced.
  • Of the nominated novels, I have already started Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and am enjoying it so far (I’m only about a third of the way through). Of the nominees, this was the one that was on my radar but for some reason I never caught up with it. I’ve not read a ton of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant), but I’ve generally enjoyed her work, which has been nominated quite a bit over the last decade or so, and Middlegame sounds fun. Alix E. Harrow won last year’s Hugo for Short Story (and it was my favorite of the nominees), so I’m curious to see if she can translate that success to novel size with The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Gideon the Ninth appears to be Tamsyn Muir’s debut, and it sounds like a fun fantasy in space. I’ve been mixed on Charlie Jane Anders in the past. On the one hand, I nominated her short story a few years back. On the other hand, I was more mixed on All the Birds in the Sky, which has a nice whimsical tone, but the mixture of SF and fantasy didn’t quite work for me. Her new novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, sounds similar to that. Finally, The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley appears to be military SF, but I haven’t particularly loved Hurley’s work in the past. Every year, I wonder if I should keep participating. This shortlist looks decent in comparison to last year, but it’s pretty heavily focused on fantasy, and even the SF seems less like my particular cup of tea. Then again, current circumstances have conspired to give me extra reading time and I’m actually looking forward to a couple of the fantasy stories, so perhaps I’ll soldier on.
  • In the shorter fiction categories, I see that two Ted Chiang stories from Exhalation made the list. I foolishly saw the publication history page of that book and didn’t realize that not all the stories were listed (i.e. I thought all the stories in that collection were previously published, but a couple were new and thus eligible). Of the two nominated stories, I really liked the novella “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”. I actually recognize a couple of the other novellas, but the rest of the pack is new to me, though most of the authors have been nominated before.
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form continues to befuddle me. On the one hand, I like the nomination of Us. On the on the other hand, how on earth does Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker make the list? Marvel movies always make the cut, but even this crop seems a bit weak. Also? Two different tv seasons were nominated? What’s going on here? Anyway, pour one out for Prospect and The Kid Who Would Be King, both worthy of your attention (and better and far more interesting than the likes of The Rise of Skywalker).
  • In an unusual twist, I’ve already seen 4 of the 6 nominees for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. But the question remains: if Watchmen was good enough to garner two nominations in the short form category, why weren’t people nominating it for long form? What criteria are people using to determine when a series should be rewarded in short form vs long form?
  • The 1945 Retro Hugo Award finalists were also announced last week. The thing that jumped out at me the most was Theodore Sturgeon’s novella “Killdozer!” which is about exactly what you think it’s about. Best Dramatic Presentation has the usual smattering of Universal monsters and RKO horror, but a couple other interesting nominees that I might have to check out…

I’ll probably make my way through at least some of this stuff, but then again, I’ve got the new Scalzi coming next week and the new Murderbot novel coming a few weeks later so… we’ll just have to see.

2019 in Books: A Belated Recap

Basically, I forgot to do this and had other fish to fry at the beginning of the year, so enjoy this belated recap of books I read in 2019. I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of fancy statistical visualization tools that give a nice overview of my reading habits over time, especially now that I’ve been doing so for… an entire decade! First up, a simple look at quantity of books read:

Number of books I read in 2019

I read 53 books in 2019, just a hair behind the record of 54, set just two years ago (and second in recorded history (i.e. the last decade)). See the full list. It’s worth noting that a good portion of these are short fiction, novelles, etc…, owing to my participation in the Hugo Awards. I’m also including audiobooks, which feels a bit like cheating, but is also a pretty key way for me to consume books these days. Of course, these caveats also apply to previous years, so there is that. There is also this:

Number of Pages I read in 2019

Even taking the inherent variability in page numbers into account, I blew the record out of the water, with nearly a two thousand page jump from last year’s record-setting run. Some more info:

Summary of 2019 books read

While I did read a bunch of short fiction this year, which inflates “book” totals, the average book length this year was a whopping 345 pages. This represents a huge improvement over last year’s 306 average pages, which was in itself a big improvement over the previous year’s 279 average pages. It’s still a few pages off the record, set in 2013, which was 356 pages (but then, that was only over 31 books), but it’s a pretty great showing. The longest book of the year was a reread of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, clocking in at 1044 pages (done in anticipation of its quasi-sequel Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, itself nearly 900 pages).

2019 Books by Publication Date

In terms of publication dates, I’m still annoyed at myself for having read Alice in Wonderland and The Picture of Dorian Gray in 2010, thus stretching out the vertical axis of this graph. I’ve done a decent enough job spreading out my reading, though there’s still a big recency bias here, probably owing to my participation in the Hugo Awards as well as generally keeping up with favorite authors. You can see the influence of Vintage Sci-Fi Month in Januaries on the graph, but it’s nice to see some vintage stuff throughout the year as well. Since the first few months of 2020 are included in this graph, I’ll just note that I seem to have spread things out extremely well in these three months, hitting up all the decades since the 1950s with at least one entry.

Goodreads includes books and pages over time, but the graphs aren’t super useful because of the spikes produced when I finish books at the beginning of a given month or when I read through, for example, the short story category of the Hugos (and the subsequent valleys). Given the number of books per year, it’s pretty obvious that I’m averaging about 1 book a week. Page numbers are more variable, but sometimes they also produce big spikes for the same reasons…

Some more assorted observations on the year’s reading:

  • 12 non-fiction books in 2019, a marginal improvement over last year’s 10 (and the previous year’s 7), but I suppose I’m moving in the right direction and I want to continue this trend in 2020.
  • 17 books written by women, another marginal improvement over last year, but a big drop from the previous year (where I was roughly 50/50 split). All of this happened in the course of normal reading without any sort of plan though, so we’ll see what 2020 holds.
  • The oldest book I read all year was Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson, a sorta SF/Horror hybrid I read during the Six Weeks of Halloween (and used as an example of the Intersection of Horror and SF in preparation for Vintage SF Month)
  • Somewhere on the order of 27 books were science ficiton, so a little more than half, perhaps a bit down from previous years, but within tolerances.
  • Since we’re well into 2020, I’ll make some brief observations. According to Goodreads, I’m 3 books ahead of schedule to hit my goal of 52 books this year (and am on pace to hit 60-64 books). Similarly, I’m doing well on page numbers, which are on pace to hit just shy of 20,000 this year. This appears to be driven by the current semi-quarantine status of the world right now, so this pace may slow down when/if things get more back to normal later this year. In the meantime, my reading habits seem to be in good shape.

So there you have it, a pretty solid year with no big changes in sight.

Hugo Award Season 2020

The nomination period for the 2020 Hugo Awards closed yesterday, so I figured it was time to take a gander at what’s coming. I didn’t read a ton of eligible works this year, or, at least, a bunch of stuff I read didn’t feel nomination-worthy. I did manage to nominate two novels and a novella though:

I estimate an approximate 1% chance that either of the novels will actually make the ballot, but I really enjoyed both of them and think they’re worth checking out. Bujold has secured nominations for the Penric novellas before (not to mention being in the running for most nominated author of all time, maybe?), so there’s actually a pretty good chance this one will be nominated (let’s say 75% chance).

I read plenty of other eligible works, but nothing that really rose to nomination quality. Longtime readers know I’m totally in the bag for Neal Stephenson, but while half of Fall; or Dodge in Hell was fantastic, the other half was a bit murky, even for me. My anecdotal assessment is that most eligible voters will feel the same way. Michael Mammay’s Spaceside was on the bubble and I enjoyed it just fine, but I didn’t feel like it did enough to warrant the nomination. I really loved Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, but it’s a short story (or novelette/novella) collection and… all of the components were already published before 2019 and thus not really eligible.

In accordance with tradition, my Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form will avoid the most mainstream options, but I fully expect the category to be dominated by Marvel/Star Wars anyway.

All three nominees did well in my year-end movie awards and Top 10/Honorable Mentions, but the only one that seems to have a real chance at making the ballot is Us. There are two other quasi-indie darlings out thre, Ad Astra and High Life, but I didn’t particularly enjoy either, so I left them off my ballot. Midsommar and The Lighthouse are more borderline cases, but I didn’t really go out on a limb for them because I don’t really love them either. I fully expect stuff like Avengers: Endgame (which, to be fair, I really enjoyed) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (which I did not love) to make the ballot, along with some other mainstream stuff.

There’s also a Retro Hugo Awards this year for 1945 (covering stuff made in 1944), but I sadly did not dedicate a lot of time to this stuff. I really should have sought out Theodore Sturgeon’s Killdozer! because it’s something I’d always heard about, but it can’t possibly be as good as the title implies, can it? There are a some Clifford D. Simak and Leigh Brackett stories that I’d probably be into reading too, but I never got to them. I only really nominated for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, with two pretty obvious entries:

There are a bunch of other Universal monster movies that could qualify that I never sought out, so I’m the worst. Also, there’s a movie called The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks that looks promising, but again, I never really got there. The Scarlet Claw seems like it could work too. Man, I should have spent more time on this (in fairness, I’ve been busy with the 1978 project).

No need for recommendations at this point, since nominations have actually closed, but I’m pretty curious to see how things play out. I’m actually on the fence as to whether or not I’ll participate this year. I don’t mind stretching myself or getting out of my comfort zone, but the last several years (i.e. almost the entire time I’ve formally participated) have been pretty rough, so… we’ll see what the nominations hold…

SF Book Review – Part 33

It’s been almost a year since I did a recap of recent science fiction reads like this (though there’s been plenty of one-off reviews), so I’m definitely missing some older reads, but here’s some recent SF I’ve read:

  • Summertide, by Charles Sheffield – Opal and Quake are twin planets due to pass close to their sun in a grand conjunction that only occurs once every 350,000 years. The event will unleash massive tidal forces on both planets, but especially the already more volatile Quake. Also of note, the two planets are connected by a massive umbilical that allows easy travel between planets, a “minor” artifact from long vanished alien Builders. The event has attracted the attention of numerous people, each for their own reason. One wants to study the artifact, thinking she’ll find some key evidence about the Builders. Others have reasons of their own. So this is a pretty solid example of the Big Dumb Object sub-genre, with the text covering several complex Builder artifacts, including the seemingly innocuous Umbilical (I think you can tell that there’s more going on there). The character work is middling at best, but functional. I did sorta space out during the second act and the finale isn’t entirely surprising, but Sheffield has played the game well, and the pieces all fit together. This is the first in a series that I’d not be opposed to revisiting…
  • Planetside, by Michael Mammay – Colonel Carl Butler is called out of semi-retirement by an old, powerful friend for what appears to be a routine investigation about a missing soldier in a warzone. Naturally, things are more complicated than they seem and conspiracies are abound. Mammay has a military background and it shows (this is a good thing), though the mystery at this story’s heart feels mostly stalled for far too long. It all fits together, though it does get faintly ridiculous towards the end. It’s entertaining and page turning throughout though, and Mammay is pretty good at action sequences. Butler is a fun character, and the supporting cast has a good presence as well. The ending features a morally questionable act that I’m not sure Mammay grappled with enough, but I guess it works well enough. I enjoyed this well enough to read the sequel…
  • Spaceside, by Michael Mammay – After the events of Planetside, Butler has been discharged, but mostly with just a slap on the wrist for that morally questionable act (again, not sure Mammay spent enough time reckoning with this), so he’s managed to find a cushy corporate security gig. Asked to look into a data breach at a rival company, Butler gets embroiled in a conspiracy related to the one from the first book. This is mostly more of the same, though Mammay manages a more evenly paced narrative this time, with interesting info doled out on the regular. Butler makes for a good protagonist, and he’s again surrounded by a solid supporting cast. These are entertaining little pot boilers. The SF is middling and nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s reasonably well executed, and Mammay has decent enough storytelling chops to keep things moving.
  • Berserker, by Fred Saberhagen – Berserkers are giant killing machines that are the sole remnant of a galactic war between two long gone civilizations. But the Berserkers are still there, and have made their way to Earth controlled space. Will we be able to withstand the killing machines that destroyed two civilizations? This is actually a series of short stories, and as usual, some are better than others. My favorites had to do with the ones where humans figure out ways to outsmart the Berserkers using some ingenious scheme or other. As a general menace and threat, the Berserkers are a great idea, but some of the stories go heavy on interaction with the Berserkers, and they don’t really act like the killing machines that are conjured by their general description. That being said, they’re pretty clearly a precursor to Star Trek’s Borg, and this is an interesting read because of that. I actually tackled this during Vintage Science Fiction Month, but never got around to writing it up (mostly due to having lots of 2019 Movie posts to cover, but also because I didn’t have that much to say about these stories) until now…
  • Recursion, by Blake Crouch – A mysterious wave of people who suddenly gain memories of nearly full alternate lives, a phenomenon dubbed False Memory Syndrome, sets a NYC cop and a memory researcher on a quest to find out what is causing this malady. I’d previous read Crouch’s novel Dark Matter, and this book has a similar sort of structure. He introduces a seemingly simple idea, then the idea is explored to its logical extreme. Despite the description involving False Memories, the mechanism by which that happens is something altogether different, touching on a couple of SF ideas that are explored pretty well. The idea at its core is reminiscent of a few things (kinda like time travel mixed with Groundhog Day, with some other references for flavor) while retaining its own identity. The characters are well drawn, if a bit straightforward, and the plot moves along at a brisk pace. Well worth a read.
  • Nexus, by Ramez Naam – In the near future, a drug named Nexus essentially turns the brain into a computer, capable of granting precise controls over one’s own body while also linking other minds together. A young researcher is caught experimenting with ways to improve Nexus and is thrust into a world of international espionage centered on the future of Nexus. This is a very well crafted thriller with a heavier dose of hard SF than usual, and Naam does an excellent job balancing the whole government espionage aspects with more traditional SF explorations. There’s some pretty hefty sequences in the book, such that it’s not always an easy read, but it’s a good story, well told. Definitely looking to read more from Naam.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned, Hugo season is approaching…

Vintage Science Fiction Month: To Marry Medusa

Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

Theodore Sturgeon once famously opined that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” It’s a funny adage, but unfortunately for Sturgeon, his own bibliography proves it to be a lie. Of course, I haven’t read it all, but he’s batting 1.000 in my book. To Marry Medusa was originally published under the less palatable title The Cosmic Rape (there are some wrinkles to the edited versions/titles that aren’t really worth going into; this is close enough for jazz), but what I read was the full novelization… that still only clocks in at 160 or so pages.

The story presents an unusual riff on the tired alien invasion genre. Dan Gurlick is a bitter, alcoholic hobo. His latest meal, snatched from a trashcan, is a half-eaten cheeseburger that just happens to contain an alien spore that has traveled many light years in search of an appropriate host. Once Gurlick eats the burger, the alien spore proceeds to eat him. Or rather, his mind. It turns out that the spore is the tool of an alien hive mind called “Medusa”, which has absorbed and assimilated the lifeforms of billions of other planets across multiple galaxies. And yet… humanity flummoxes it.

Medusa is able to infect Gurlick the normal way, but there’s no connection to others of his species. As a vast, nearly incomprehensible hive mind, Medusa can’t conceive of a species that isn’t already a collective. It thinks that humanity has fractured as a protective measure, and thus sets Gurlick on the task of collecting raw materials so that Medusa can create some self-replicating machines that will (re)unite humanity… and thus make them ripe for conquest. But is Medusa trying to play with something it doesn’t understand?

The story has an interesting, if scattershot structure. There are chapters covering the aforementioned exploits of Gurlick and Medusa alternated with various vignettes and character sketches of seemingly ordinary people in not-so great situations. There’s a creep seeking to rape a co-worker, a homicidal maniac named Guido who is animated by his hatred for music, a young boy named Henry who is abused by a smiling father, and an African farmer named Mbala whose yams are being stolen. Sturgeon’s fondness for the short story form is certainly evident here, and at first, I thought each of these secondary characters would only get short introductions, but then he starts to revisit folks we’ve already met. As you might expect, some of these work better than others, but that’s almost part of the point. Sturgeon literally refers to these stories as anecdotal (page 107):

These were people, these are anecdotes, dwelt upon for their several elements of the extraordinary. But each man alive has such a story, unique unto himself, of what is in him and of its molding by the forces around him, and of his interpretations of those forces.

It can be a bit disorienting, but the ultimate effect is that Sturgeon has managed to make humanity as a whole a character; at first metaphorically, and then literally. It’s a neat trick, and one that a lesser writer might not be able to pull off.

Sturgeon’s prose is stylish but lean, often moving in unexpected directions without being drowned in hooptedoodle. It’s funny, because a lot of characteristics of this book are things that I don’t normally enjoy (i.e. episodic structure, character sketches, pretty simple plot overall, very stylish prose, some overly dark situations, etc…), and yet Sturgeon makes them work for me.

Sturgeon is clearly fascinated by hive minds and collectives as evidenced by his earlier classic, More Than Human, which covers many of the same themes from a smaller perspective. To Marry Medusa is certainly great, but even though Sturgeon pulls off the disjointed nature of this story, it can’t quite compete with More Than Human. Both books are recommended though!

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Inherit the Stars

Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

Rumor has it that James P. Hogan, disappointed by the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s (and I suppose I should also mention Arthur C. Clarke’s) 2001: A Space Odyssey, made a bet with his engineer colleagues that he’d write a science fiction novel inspired by some of the ideas he liked in 2001 (presumably he liked the idea of finding something really weird on the moon). The result is Inherit the Stars, Hogan’s debut novel. It seems to be pretty well received and spawned a few sequels. Hogan would later become a notorious crank, but this debut is pretty interesting and well regarded.

Inherit the Stars

Explorers on the moon make a grim discovery: a corpse in a bright red spacesuit. By all measures, “Charlie” (as he is nicknamed) is human, the same as his discoverers. But no one can identify him. He doesn’t match the description of any missing astronauts and his spacesuit is not of any known manufacture. The mystery only deepens when scientists discover that the body had been lying dead on the moon for 50,000 years. Who was this man? Where was he from? Surely Earth, right? Why was he on the moon? Charlie had a notebook written in an unknown language, but once the translations start to progress, we begin to find some answers, and yet more mysteries also emerge. Soon, other “Lunarians” are discovered on the moon, as well as other evidence of their civilization and the conflict that destroyed them throughout our solar system. But mysteries still abound.

Published in 1977, Inherit the Stars feels more like something out of the 50s. The prose is straightforward and unremarkable, the info-dumps are bald and plentiful, the characterizations are basically an afterthought, and in terms of plot and storytelling, it’s a bit staid. The bulk of the story is just scientists talking to each other about confounding discoveries. I kinda love it. The sense of wonder remains fully intact, starting with the premise, and with the way characters slowly break down the evidence, piecing together what happened 50,000 years ago, hypothesizing explanations, and constantly revising their thoughts when new discoveries don’t fit with the current theories.

To some, the deep dives into how one deciphers a lost language could be tedious, and so too could the constant revisions of speculations about what is really going on. To me, though, this is the beating heart of science fiction. The potential explanations are, in themselves, mysterious and tantalizing, and grow moreso as we find out more information. I’m not entirely sure that the orbital mechanics work out perfectly, but everything generally fits, and the ending makes for a satisfying explanation.

While I was a bit hard on the characterization and plotting, it’s worth noting that the two main characters, while they have opposing theories of what happened throughout the story, are generally cooperative and one of the more impressive things about Hogan’s resolution is that he manages to allow both characters to be correct. It turns out that there’s one piece of evidence that, once discovered, removes all the apparent contradictions, allowing both scientists a victory.

People don’t write books like this anymore. Standards of storytelling and characterization have perhaps risen over time (and, frankly, this still feels like a bit of an outlier even for 1977). That being said, maybe the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Characterization is great and all, but these days, it seems to overwhelm the ideas and sense of wonder. In a book like Inherit the Stars, the idea is the hero, something that you don’t see often these days.