Arts & Letters

The Dominance of Story (plus: once-and-for-allism)

In his forward to the short story collection Night Shift, Stephen King opined on the dominance of story:

All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer’s craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven.

Night Shift, Page xxx

It’s a good notion and I think it captures what a lot of people look for out of stories (whether they be books or movies or whatever), as evidenced by King’s outsized success. Of course, nothing is absolute and attempts to boil storytelling down to a simple rule are probably doomed to failure. This reminded me of the opening lines from Clive Barker’s Imajica (I quoted this before, in reference to genres, something similarly difficult to boil down to their essence):

It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course-thousands in fact-but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center. And even this essential trio would not remain intact; or so he taught. It would steadily diminish as the story unfolded, three becoming two, two becoming one, until the stage was left deserted.

Needless to say, this dogma did not go unchallenged. The writers of fables and comedies were particularly vociferous in their scorn, reminding the worthy Quexos that they invariably ended their own tales with a marriage and a feast. He was unrepentant. He dubbed them cheats and told them they were swindling their audiences out of what he called the last great procession, when, after the wedding songs had been sung and the dances danced, the characters took their melancholy way off into darkness, following each other into oblivion.

Imajica, Page 1

Likewise, there are lots of books and movies that challenge King’s assertion that story value dominates other aspects of fiction. There are some that even succeed. Indeed, King wrote that line in 1977, and in the intervening decades, even he has written stories that are perhaps less story focused than that line might imply. Like a lot of things, it’s good to have a guideline, but you can break it if you know what you’re doing. Alas, it turns out that breaking these sorts of guidelines is quite difficult.

All of this came about this morning as I flailed about, trying to find something to put on the blog, and stumbled across the King line in my notes right after reading Tyler Cowen’s piece on the intellectual mistake of once-and-for-allism:

“Once-and-for-allism” occurs when people decide that they wish to stop worrying about an issue at the margin. They might either dismiss the issue, or they might blow up its importance but regard the issue as hopeless and undeserving of further consideration. Either way, they seek to avoid the hovering sense of “I’ve still got to devote time and energy to figuring this out.” They prefer “I am now done with this issue, once and for all!” Thus the name of the syndrome.

I see once-and-for-allism with so many issues, but one recent example would be the forthcoming path of Covid and Long Covid. Most people just don’t want to think about it any more, and so they settle on something (“it’s just a cold!” or “it will bankrupt the nation!”) rather than having to do lots of intellectual revisions based on the stream of new data.

He gives lots of other examples in his post (like crypto, UFOs, abortion *ahem*, etc…), and perhaps one we could add storytelling and/or genre definitions to that list.

The Book Queue

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of these Book Queues, but since the TBR pile is getting larger, I figured it’s time. Back when blogs were a thing, posts like this were common enough even if they aren’t particularly useful, but I do find that posting it publicly does motivate me to actually read the books I have sitting on the shelf (as opposed to picking out something new and shiny and reading that instead). So let’s get to it:

  • Authority and Freedom, by Jed Perl – Subtitled: “A Defense of the Arts”, this looks to be an exploration for the enjoyment of the arts as art (as opposed to art as political statement, or personal confession, or whatever deeper meaning people insist on projecting into a lot of art). It’s a subject that I’ve been thinking about recently, and will hopefully provide some new avenues of exploration.
  • The Immediate Experience, by Robert Warshow – Subtitled: “Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture”, this looks to be a variation on the theme of the previous book. Warshow was apparently annoyed by the critical establishment’s dismissal of popular culture (in favor of higher art, etc…)
  • A Culture of Fact, by Barbara J. Shapiro – In this age of practiced disinformation, fake news, and social media, taking a look at how we, as a species, came to respect facts in the first place, might be a good idea. I’ve had this on my list since Neal Stephenson kept name-checking it during his interviews promoting Fall and now Termination Shock, but I finally found a copy. It seems to be somewhat of a dry, academic tome, but certainly a worthwhile subject.
  • Reunion, by Christopher Farnsworth – Alright, that’s enough with the snooty non-fiction, how about some trashy fiction? I actually don’t know anything about this book other than that it’s written by Farnsworth, who I’ve enjoyed since discovering his President’s Vampire series, which were a whole boatload of fun. Not sure when he’ll get back to those vampire books, but in the meantime, he’s written several thrillers and other fun little stories.
  • The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi – Another one based solely on the author. Scalzi has this habit of glomming onto some fun cultural meme and turning it into a book that I’m not in love with (see also: Redshirts), but his books are generally snappy and fun, so I always check them out.
  • Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki – The last of the Hugo novel finalists on my list, I’ve actually started reading this. It was probably my least anticipated of the nominees, but despite (or perhaps because of) that, I’m finding it surprisingly good. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, and it really shouldn’t work, but so far, it’s actually pulling off a decent balancing act. It’s still early and there’s plenty of room for a downturn, but still happy enough with this so far…
  • XX, by Rian Hughes – This feels something like a cultural heir to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Lots of visual experimentation with typefaces, modern epistolary (i.e. story told partially through emails and wikipedia pages and the like), images, collages, and so on. It’s more based around alien signals from space than the haunted house of House of Leaves, but it sounds interesting (and oh, it’s, like, a thousand pages, great).
  • Upgrade, by Blake Crouch – I’ve enjoyed Crouch’s last few books, in part because the appear to be one-off stories rather than series. This one hasn’t been released yet, but it’s definitely on the list…
  • Heat 2, by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner – Not sure what inspired Mann to revisit the characters from Heat in novel form, but I love that movie, so I’m certainly onboard (perhaps it was a pandemic project, like what Tarantino did…) This book is cowritten by Meg Gardiner, who has been writing police procedurals and serial killer novels for a while. I checked out Unsub, which was solid airport thriller fare, even if it isn’t doing anything particularly new. I might check out more from that series too… Heat 2 doesn’t come out until August, but I’m onboard.

I’m sure you’ll be seeing more about these in coming months, so stay tuned.

SF Book Review – Part 39: 2022 Hugo Awards SF Finalists

Since I’m playing along with the 2022 Hugo Awards process and I’ve made good progress on the novels, I figured I’d split out the SF finalists in one post (look for another post covering the fantasy finalists coming soon).


Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir has already been reviewed and remains at the top of my ballot. I’m not particularly sanguine about its chances, given the current Hugo voter’s obsession with social issues and character, as opposed to the science or ideas that drive Weir’s book. I suspect they’d see it as a bit of a throwback, but then, it did make the ballot in the first place, so who knows? I only have one book left, but I don’t see it budging this one from the top of my ranking.


A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine – The sequel to the 2020 Hugo Best Novel, A Memory Called Empire, this one is essentially more of the same. Which is to say, it’s competent space opera fodder that I enjoyed quite a bit! Is it good enough to be the best SF of the year? That’s the rub.

One of my complaints about A Memory Called Empire was that while it hinted at an alien threat throughout the story, it mostly covered a predictable thread of court intrigue and political power struggle right up to its completely expected conclusion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and there’s something to be said for a well executed take on standard tropes.

This sequel shifts focus to that alien threat, and once again, it feels like Martine is playing with the standard playbook – this time for first contact stories. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that and it’s reasonably well executed, but Martine seems far more interested in exploring the galactic empire she’s set up, and all the baggage that goes along with imperialism and colonialism, especially as it relates to the relationship between our two main protagonists. Which is well drawn and I enjoy spending time with those characters, even if it feels like we’ve been down this road before. In general, this focus on character over action does muck with the pacing, and the more military SF aspects of the story get shorter shrift. There’s also a thread involving the emperor-to-be and imperial communications that feels a bit tacked on, though it is eventually tied back into the overall narrative well enough.

It’s ultimately a worthy sequel to the first novel, better in some ways, but ultimately there’s not much new here. It’s a totally cromulent experience for sure, but if you’ve read a bunch of first contact stories before, you won’t be particularly surprised, and if you have been following along with the Hugos for the past few years, similar social issues and character beats have been hit pretty hard by other nominees. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that and there’s something to be said about well executed versions of standard tropes, but I don’t know that this rises to the level of best SF of the year.


The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers – At this point, I’ve read all of the books in Chambers’ popular Wayfarers series and have come away with somewhat mixed impressions. As I summarized on Chambers’ most recent Hugo-nominated entry in the series:

I’ve generally enjoyed the books in this series, a space opera that focuses on nice people, rather than grim despair or dystopia (as a lot of modern takes go). The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a character-driven, episodic narrative about the crew of a hyperspace tunneling ship that had seen better days. Most of the events covered in the book were well done but underwhelming, though it ended on a relatively strong note and the characters were enjoyable. The next book, A Closed and Common Orbit, focused much closer on two of the characters from the first book, and was significantly better for it. Like the first book, the stakes and tension weren’t particularly high, but the two characters at the heart of the story were endearing and interesting and once again, the ending was strong.

Alas, the third entry in the series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, was my least favorite so far. A set of day-in-the-life character sketches almost completely devoid of tension or drama, it really didn’t work for me at all. At first glance, this most recent entry in the series has a similar tone.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within book cover

The story takes place at the Five-Hop One-Stop, a sort of truck-stop in space, as three visitors and the proprietor get stuck together due to a freak accident in orbit around them that prevents any traffic from coming or going. All the characters are from different alien races, and none are human. As you might guess from Chambers’ generally positive attitude and optimistic vibes, this isn’t going to be a pressure-cooker situation where inter-species conflict threatens to explode, but there’s actually lots of interesting exploration going on here. Sure, most of it just comes down to various characters talking and attempting to understand one another’s cultures and perspectives, or even other races not present in the book, but it works a lot better than the previous book. Naturally these conversations hit on a lot of topics of interest to human readers, even if the characters aren’t human, and given the general politics of the Hugos the past few years, I think you know what you’re in for – though it’s nowhere near as ham-fisted or preachy as some other nominees have a tendency to be…

This lends itself to some mild tension and conflict, though it never really boils over into anything even remotely threatening. Perhaps the most memorable discussion involves us humans and our weird obsession with cheese and how it’s made, and how disgusting it is to the aliens, which is very funny. There’s one genuine argument between two of the characters, but that’s understandable enough, even to the characters themselves. One character has a bit of separation anxiety with their sibling stuck in orbit, but that’s not played up too hard. And there’s an incident involving a child in danger, but we all know it will work out fine in the end, and of course it does. I guess that’s a spoiler, but not really.

All in all, it’s another enjoyable entry into an enjoyable series, with likable characters and a nice positive attitude. I can see why it’s popular, especially with Hugo voters, and while I enjoyed it well enough, I don’t think it rises to the level of best SF of the year. Indeed, I’d put it about on par with A Desolation Called Peace with a similar notion of being a generally well executed version of something we’ve seen before. If Chambers is ever able to harness her storytelling powers to generate something more compelling, and populate it with these likable characters she’s so good at creating, that would be a true winner. These slice-of-life sketches are all well and good, but they don’t tend to stay with me…


So that covers the 2022 Hugo Awards SF finalists. Stay tuned for a look at the fantasy-oriented finalists. I only have one book left to go there, but it may be a few weeks. In the meantime, maybe I’ll give the Short Stories a whirl…

Hugo Awards 2022: Initial Thoughts

The 2022 Hugo Awards finalists were announced last week, so it’s time for the requisite congratulations and/or bitter recriminations. I fell off the Hugo bandwagon last year, but got back in this year and submitted some nominations, so let’s take a look at the finalists and see how I did:

Best Novel

I’ve only read one of the finalists for Best Novel, but it was one of the books I nominated. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir was probably my favorite SF of the past couple of years and it was naturally one of my nominations, so it’s clearly the book to beat on my ballot.

A Desolation Called Peace

A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, is the sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which won Best Novel in 2020 and which I enjoyed quite a bit. I’ve already started this one, and it seems to be stepping up a bit from the first, which is a good sign.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers, was on my radar and Chambers has been frequently nominated (this book is part of a series that won Best Series a couple years ago), but I never got around to it. I’m somewhat mixed on her Wayfarer’s books. I really loved one of them, thought another was solid, and didn’t particularly care for the last one. This sounds interesting enough, so we’ll see how it compares…

Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki, is completely new to me. The title makes it sound like SF, but the blurb is pretty definitively fantasy: featuring cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts. Those are some interesting ingredients, but it also sounds like the sort of thing that might not cohere for me.

A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark, sounds like a fun little fantasy mystery set in Egypt. Apparently part of a series that Clark established via novellas the past few years, he’s been a mainstay of the Hugos for a while now, though this is his first novel.

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan, sounds an awful lot like a more serious take on Mulan. It seems to be a solid story, but honestly, I’m not seeing much in the way of SF or fantasy elements, though I guess there could be some alternate history tropes going on here… I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

Overall, it’s an interesting ballot. In terms of genre, we’ve got 3 SF and 3 Fantasy. Interestingly, the three Fantasy novels are all debuts, while the SF are from established authors. Three finalists appear to be part of a series, though only one of those seems to require you to have read a previous book. A male author (2 male authors) shows up on the best novel ballot for the first time since 2018. As of right now, I’m still assuming that Project Hail Mary will top my ballot, but you never know.

Short Fiction

A lot of common names show up on the Novella ballot, and actually all the shorter fiction categories have authors that are popular with Hugo voters. I’ll probably take a swing at Short Stories again this year, even though I’m inevitably disappointed by the category (though they are easy to read, since they’re so short)…

Best Dramatic Presentation

The big surprise here is that Hugo voters actually put some more thought into this ballot than usual. Oh sure, you’ve still got Marvel and Disney entries, and Dune was pretty much a lock, but the big surprise is that The Green Knight garnered a spot. Space Sweepers is also nominally interesting here as well, as Hugo voters don’t typically go for foreign flicks. I suspect Dune will still win it, but it’s a more varied ballot than usual. In terms of the Short Form award, it’s nice to see 5 nominees from shows that haven’t been nominated before. This is a far cry from when this category was generally referred to as “Which Dr Who episode should we give an award to?” (which, granted, has been a while, but still.)

Other Categories and Assorted Thoughts

Congrats to all the nominees, it seems like a fine set of finalists.

  • Best Series continues to be something of a popularity contest, but then, that’s generally what the Hugos are… At least none of these series are also nominated in the Best Novel category this year. I’m guessing it’s Seanan McGuire’s year, but you never know.
  • Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book has one novel I actually read in preparation of the Hugos this year, but didn’t particularly love. Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer, probably makes more sense as a YA book. Some interesting ideas about AI and the way apps/games/algorithms can impact privacy and security, but it felt a bit messy to me…

So there you have it, the 2022 Hugo Awards in a nutshell. I’ll definitely be reading the novels, and maybe some of the short stories too, so keep an eye out for reviews…

Termination Shock

When the premise for Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock, was announced, I admitted to a little trepidation. It’s essentially a near-future climate change thriller, so there are plenty of landmines an author needs to avoid in order to produce something that won’t clash with readers’ probably complicated thoughts on the subject. Fortunately, Stephenson is up to the task. His stylistic mainstays of digressions and fascination with unexpected consequences all fit with the story being told here.

Termination Shock book cover

Any worries that the novel would devolve into indulgent, self-important lectures were allayed relatively early on in the novel. Once Stephenson started talking about feral hogs and their intersection with meth gators, well, I knew he wouldn’t let the seriousness of the themes overwhelm the need to tell an entertaining story. That sort of approach is much more likely to have an impact than a lot of climate-based science fiction, which has a didactic tendency to preach to the choir.

Of course, Stephenson’s idea of an entertaining story might not mesh with a lot of readers, and indeed, it features plenty of info-dumping and digressions on topics that you may or may not find interesting. Most of these explorations are driven by unexpected consequences of climate change or the idiosyncratic and varied adaptations humans have made to deal with it. I’ve already mentioned the feral hogs and meth gators, but there’s also fire ants, which are attracted to the ozone produced by air conditioner relays, which aren’t easily replaced due to globalized supply chain issues, so people start abandoning their homes in favor of RVs, campers, etc… Naturally, that gave rise to sprawling truck stop/gas station complexes that are almost like miniature cities.

The owner of those complexes is a cantankerous billionaire who has noticed that climate-based issues are driving down real estate values, and so he decides to engage in a bit of geoengineering. He hoards sulfur, then builds a giant subterranean cannon that will shoot the sulfur up into the atmosphere. The sulfur will reflect a sizeable portion of sunlight back out into space, thus lowering temperatures on earth (and apparently providing spectacularly beautiful sunsets). This is not a new idea, nor is it something that we have not observed in nature before. Some volcano eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991, have resulted in exactly this sort of thing. Of course, the effects of such a strategy are inconsistent. We’re talking about global climate here, so models can only tell you so much. Yes, global average temperature will go down, but what sorts of local effects are you likely to see? What impact will this have on sea-levels in the Netherlands? What about the monsoon season in India?

The book is filled with these sorts of speculations and adaptations to climate change. Most are not good long-term solution, but it gets at the decentralized way people respond to these sorts of issues, and they do provide mitigating effects while longer-term strategies like carbon capture are being set up. As I’ve often observed, human beings don’t so much solve problems as they exchange one set of problems for another in the hopes that the new set is more favorable than the old. Such tradeoffs are covered in depth throughout the novel.

The big sulfur gun geoengineering scheme is often cited as the big idea of this book, but the real theme here is that the problem of climate change will be broken down into a series of smaller, more focused challenges and solutions. The big sulfur gun isn’t actually that big. At best, it’s a delaying action. But it is something! And we’ll need to do a lot of somethings, big and small, if we’re going to tackle climate change. The problem is too big, too complex, involving too many people, too many governments, and too many agendas to solve it any other way. This book illustrates the distributed way that this sort of thing will happen. Sure, maybe all the governments of the world will come together in peace and harmony and completely rework globalized energy networks, our financial system, and so on, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for that one.

At first glance, the story threads in the book are a bit scattered, but it’s not an uncommon approach from Stephenson. You’ve got a thread about Dutch royalty, a partial Native American on a Moby Dick-like quest to kill a specific feral hog, the aforementioned Texas billionaire, and a Canadian man of Indian descent who gets involved in a strange border conflict with China. The usual Stephensonian distractions and digressions are out in full force, touching on all manner of seemingly disconnected subjects from falconry to drone-assisted hunting to obscure martial arts to deepfakes to large scale engineering. It feels like Stephenson is just obsessing over things he finds neat, but something about the way he lays these things out and integrates them into the larger story works for me. It does all come together in the end, and I think Stephenson fans will find plenty to chew on. I’m a big fan of Stephenson though, so your mileage may vary. Some of the things I’m praising in this novel are things that I often don’t like in other books. In any case, I liked this enough to nominate it for a Hugo award, and I hope it does find a large audience.

Hugo Awards Season 2022

The nomination period for the 2022 Hugo Awards ends in a few weeks, so it’s worth thinking about the year in SF. After taking a year off from the awards, I decided to jump back into the fray this year due to a couple of really strong nominees (that will, hopefully, become finalists) that I wanted to support. As per usual, I didn’t actually read that much eligible stuff, so I’m scrambling a bit at this point to catch up with some things. Assorted thoughts below.

Best Novel

I’ve read 6 books that would be eligible for the best novel award, and these two are the best SF I’ve read in a while:

Both books are exceptional and highly recommended. My experience nominating novels is somewhat mixed, but I estimate that both of these have a good chance of garnering a finalist spot on the Hugo ballot, and they’re probably my favorite I’ve gotten to nominate in the approximately one decade in which I’ve been playing along.

I quite enjoyed Artifact Space by Miles Cameron, a fun little space opera that I’d probably nominate in a normal year, but pales in comparison to the above two. Similarly, I had a lot of fun with Master of the Revels by Nicole Galland, but I don’t think it necessarily stacks up. I might just plop these two on my nominating ballot if I have space, but I doubt either will garner a finalist slot. I want to catch up with Machinehood by S.B. Divya and Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky before the nomination period ends, but time is tight, so who knows if I’ll get to both?

Short Fiction

I’m not particularly great at keeping up with short fiction, but I did read two of the best and yet most boring choices for nominees released last year:

Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells

I say these are boring choices because, well, the Murderbot stories that Wells writes have already won several Hugos, including Best Novel and Best Series just last year. Bujold might be the most awarded author in the history of the Hugos, and the above work is the tenth novella in a series that has been nominated before (and part of another Best Series). That being said? They’re both fantastic. What can I say, I’ll try to mix things up next year. I’ll try to catch up with some short stories before the nomination period ends, but I don’t really have much on my radar at the moment.

Best Series

I still have reservations about this award from both a logistical (who can read all these series in time to vote?) and purpose (winners tend to have already won Hugos for the novels in the same series, sometimes in the same year) perspective. That being said, it is an award, and I think the spirit of the award is meant for something like this:

One good thing about this award is that a lot of the obvious choices are now ineligible this year (because they’ve already won or been nominated too much), but there’s still quite a large number of possibilities. I like the Bobiverse books a lot, even if an individual entry doesn’t quite rise to the level of a Hugo Best Novel. This is kinda what the award is all about though, so I’ll throw this a nom.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

The Hugo Voters tend to have strangely generic taste in movies, often nominating high budget superhero fare over smaller, more thoughtful independent stuff. I always try to nominate stuff that’s off the beaten path (with a nod towards some of the mainstream stuff, if it’s great), but they rarely make the cut with Hugo voters. A decent crop this year though:

I really wanted to throw some love to Malignant, but there’s an approximately 0% chance of it getting other votes. Horror tends to do poorly when it comes to the Hugos, and I’m already pushing it with Werewolves Within. Anyway, I fully expect the finalists to consist of things like Spider-Man and The Matrix, but I hold out hope that something like I’m Your Man could sneak onto the list.

Other Categories

Some assorted nominations in more obscure categories:

That about covers it for what I’m nominating for the 2022 Hugo Awards (for now). I have a busy few weeks coming up, so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to get to ahead of the nominations deadline, but this is a good start, I think.

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Belated Double Feature

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January. Eagle eyed readers may recognize that it is now February, so yes, I’m playing a bit of catch up here. That said, I read both of the below during January and better late than never.

Vintage Science Fiction Month

Judgement Night by C.L. Moore – Moore is one of those early female SF authors that are often glossed over in genre discussions. She was one half of the foremost husband-and-wife team in SF history (the other half was her husband, Henry Kuttner), and they were quite prolific together, publishing under numerous pen names (most famously Lewis Padgett), but also wrote solo stories. The standard take is that Kuttner was faster and more prolific, but Moore was more original and more highly regarded as a writer. There’s also complicating factors because some of Moore’s stories were published under Kuttner’s name, owing to the fact that he had a higher word rate than she did. Still, the notion that their strengths and weaknesses offset each other is the prevailing narrative, and it does make a certain sort of sense.

This 1952 novel is one of Moore’s later solo efforts, and I think I can see some of the dynamics here. The story is about Juille, headstrong daughter of the emperor, an amazon warrior who wants to take a hard line against the barbarian hordes that threaten the empire. It’s a story about an empire, so naturally it all hinges on an attempt to overthrow the emperor. Both sides are developing frightening weapons of great power, and seem hellbent on destruction. Egide is a leader of the barbarian faction, and he develops a rather strange relationship with Juille. There’s a simultaneous attraction and repulsion between the two that is consistently revisited throughout the story, and represents the emotional core. There are other factions and the requisite schemes and betrayals, as befits this sort of tale.

The proportion of exposition is perhaps a bit too high given the simple adventure story, leading to some inconsistent pacing. However, Moore is great at evocative atmosphere, and she pulls from all sorts of elements that we’d be familiar with. There’s definitely a Western vibe to a lot of the setting, though instead of horses and swords you get spaceships and fire swords (perhaps one of many precursors to the light saber?) For some reason everyone still walks around with spurs on their boots too, which I found kinda funny. The star-crossed lovers trope is certainly common, but it’s common for a reason, and it’s well done here. Moore’s prose is colorful and creative, especially when it comes to Cyrille, a sorta pleasure planet (moon?) that features tons of artificial environments. I kinda thought of it like Risa from Star Trek, and we see it a couple of times throughout this novel.

The ending is surprisingly downbeat for a golden age work, but it absolutely fits with Moore’s common themes (and actually, her husband’s as well). She described the fundamental theme she revisited in her work often as “The most treacherous thing in life is love,” and she summarized her husband’s too: “Hank’s basic statement was something like, ‘Authority is dangerous and I will never submit to it.'” The ending of Judgement night is certainly fitting with both of these; a powerful statement on the folly of war, if not particularly satisfying. As Moore herself comments towards the end “The human mind is not constructed to accept defeat even in the face of finality.” I think she pulled it off and this represents an interesting deviation from the genre at the time, but it’s probably not an entry point or must-read.


The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance – Another story about a power struggle in a monarchy, this one with considerably more idea content that reaches for that fabled SF sense of wonder. Young Beran Panasper’s father and Panarch of the planet Pao has just been murdered. Beran must flee his home to survive, and is aided by a man named Palafox from the planet Breakness. Growing up in this foreign planet, Beran learns their ways while struggling to maintain his Paonese culture and mindset. Meanwhile, Palafox works with the current leader of Pao, who is unpopular with his people and vulnerable to an outside threat. But Palafox is basically setting up Pao to meet his own needs, and Beran will need to find a way to navigate back to Pao, save it from its current leader (thus avenging his father’s death), fend off other attackers, and eventually defeat Palafox himself.

This is one of the earlier works of SF exploring linguistics and in particular, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The idea is that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ worldview to a large degree. Vance rather directly presents these ideas in the text:

“Think of a language as the contour of a watershed, stopping flow in certain directions, channeling it into others. Language controls the mechanism of your mind. When people speak different languages, their minds work differently and they act differently…”

The Languages of Pao, Page 41

This idea has been a powerful influence on the field. For instance, it’s the driving principle behind Ted Chiang’s 1998 “Story of Your Life” (which was adapted into the film Arrival in 2016). In The Languages of Pao it is perhaps more contrived, but no less interesting. To make it work, Vance creates two very different societies. Different from each other, and different from our own. Pao is a very passive, accepting society, almost communal in nature. Breakness is extremely individualistic. Pao’s indifference makes them vulnerable to outside attack, and in order to defend against it, they develop several new languages in order to generate a warrior class (as well as a technology class and a merchant class). Eventually these new classes are successful, but at what cost? If language changes your outlook away from traditional Pao society, are you still Paonese?

This is a short book, and despite the rather bald way some of these ideas are presented, the pacing is still quite brisk. It actually represents an interesting contrast to Moore’s Judgement Night, which definitely gets bogged down in its atmospheric prose. Vance is perhaps not as much of a stylist, but he’s clear and concise, and while the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is debatable, it does still make an intriguing basis for a story. As I understand it, this early Vance work is not one of his best, though it is something of a turning point for him. After reading this, I’m definitely curious to seek out more from him, which is usually a pretty good sign. I enjoyed this well enough and it has all the right elements, but the balance feels a bit off. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in the genre’s usage of linguistics…

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Slan

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

Not long after Superman made his debut in the pages of Action Comics in 1938, A.E. van Vogt was pitching a more scientific version of the idea to John Campbell, the infamous editor of Astounding magazine (the resultant novel Slan would be serialized in that magazine in 1940). van Vogt had already been exploring the idea that humans would need to transcend themselves in order to better explore the universe. He proposed a novel wherein a new species of Homo Superior emerges out of humans as we presently know them. Because van Vogt proposed that the story be told from the perspective of the new, higher order being, Campbell initially rejected the idea. His main point was that you couldn’t tell a superman story from the superman’s viewpoint… unless you were a superman yourself!

In what Campbell would later describe as a “beautiful trick”, van Vogt’s solution to this conundrum was to tell the story from the point of view of an isolated, immature superman who had not yet come into his full powers. As Slan begins, nine-year old Jommy Cross has just seen his mother captured and killed. Young, vulnerable, and on the run, he spends the rest of the novel seeking to learn more about himself and his kind.

Slans are the next phase in human evolution, named after their creator, one Samuel Lann. They are stronger, faster, and more intelligent than their human counterparts, and even exhibit fantastic psychic powers, including the ability to read minds. Humans, lead by the dictator Kier Gray, are fearful of slans and plotting ways to exterminate the entire population.

I won’t get into more specific plot points because part of the joy of this novel is the way in which van Vogt continually recontextualizes information that has been laid out earlier in the story. He accomplishes this through a tightly connected series of episodic conversations. Sure, there are the occasional action setpieces involving daring escapes, spaceships, and secret passages, but the real fireworks are in the scheming battles of wits between various characters. Whether it be young Jommy Cross guardedly interrogating a suspected fellow slan or dictator Kier Gray fending off political foes, these conversations constitute the bulk of the novel.

I certainly wouldn’t characterize van Vogt as a tremendous prose stylist, but he does have a tendency to employ a dreamlike vagueness in the way he constructs his sentences. This sometimes comes off as a clumsy turn of phrase, but it can also provoke a creative response if you get on its wavelength. So the story initially appears to have a lot of open questions or silly elements, but there is an almost mystical method to this madness, such that the nitpicking parts of my brain tended to be overcome by the more imaginative impulses that a good story can induce. A steady stream of twists and turns coming at a rather fast pace also doesn’t hurt… Not everything works perfectly (I’m thinking of a particularly abrupt death that, while certainly surprising, also felt a bit cheap – especially at the very end when you get those final couple twists that call back to this moment), but it puts on a good show.

One recurring motif that occurs several times throughout the novel is the scene of mutual recognition. When Jommy finally meets a fellow Slan and they both experience a simultaneous rush of discovery, it’s quite well done (there are several similar sequences throughout the book). This apparently struck a nerve with early fandom, with people jokingly referring to their communal living spaces as “slan shacks” and developing the slogan that “fans are slans!” Again, this was more of a joke than anything else, but it does bely early fandom’s comradery, pleasure at discovering a fellow fan of SF, and willingness to aspire to something more (i.e. slanhood!)

Reading this novel 80 years later, I’d say that it’s a fairly representative example of what made Golden Age science fiction so popular. Lots of ideas and twists, awkward prose that nevertheless possesses a deceptively clever underpinning, short and sweet. It is not a perfect novel, but it is interesting that as a novel about the the next stage of evolution amongst humans, it’s also a clear step forward for the science fiction genre. I enjoyed catching up with it…

2021 in Books

As time marches inevitably on, it’s usually a good idea to take a look back at the year that was, and while it’s arbitrary and something of a cliché to do this at the end of the calendar year, it is the natural time to do so. After another year of pandemic fun and other political and cultural strife, it’s actually somewhat of a relief to take a closer look at something as mundane as the books I’ve read over the year.

I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of rudimentary statistical visualization tools that give a nice overview of my reading habits over time, especially now that I’ve been logging books there for over a decade.

Graphs

I read 63 books in 2021, slightly off the pandemic fueled record pace set last year (69 books, nice), but there are always complicating factors that we’ll get to.

Graph of Number of Books Read

You can see the full list on Goodreads. This falls short of last year, but is otherwise still far above previous years. While pandemic restrictions eased a bit this year, things are still not back in full swing, so that still drives plenty of reading time. Or listening time, as audio books still comprise a pretty significant proportion of the list.

Average page length clocks in at a measly 312, far below last year’s robust 343 and the previous year’s 345, not to mention my personal record of 356. This was mostly driven by the inclusion of a serialized series of short stories and novelettes that pumped up the overall count of books while dropping the average page numbers (the count of books would probably still be above pre-pandemic numbers, but this certainly had an impact).

Graph of Number of Pages Read

Of course, we must acknowledge the inherent variability in page numbers, but this still feels about right. Still better than pre-pandemic numbers, but not as overwhelmingly so.

The Extremes

The Shortest and Longest Books of the year
The Most Popular and Least Popular books of the year

The obvious clarification needed here is that the “Least Popular” book is Pain Don’t Hurt, by Sean T. Collins, a non-fiction book where a film critic decided to write about the Patrick Swayze film Road House every day for a year. It gets a bit repetitive and it could use more pictures (especially when discussing the minor side characters and mostly unnamed trustees of modern chemistry), but it’s an amazing book worth reading for any fan of that film. I suspect it would be more popular if Collins actually released this book through more traditional means (it’s not really available at major retailers – you can find it online, but it is pricey, even though it’s a signed edition). For the record, Pain Don’t Hurt is also the highest rated book I read all year, though that’s most likely due to the low number of ratings.

Anywho, I’m glad to see that Project Hail Mary was so popular. It’s probably my favorite Science Fiction novel of the year and if I were participating in the Hugos this year, I would definitely be nominating it.

Assorted Observations and Thoughts

At this point, I’d normally show the graph of books read by publication date, but ever since I read Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare, the chart’s Y axis got so large that the graph is essentially ruined. I’ll try to make up for that with some observations below.

  • Slan by A.E. van Vogt was the oldest book I read in 2021. Published in 1940, I was actually trying to get ahead of Vintage Science Fiction Month and just finished it a couple days ago.
  • 20 non-fiction books in 2021, a minor increase over last year but given the lower count of overall books, it’s proportionally higher too. A little less than 1/3 non-fiction feels alright, but I suspect we’ll continue to see this number go up over time.
  • 18 science fiction books in 2021, a significant decrease over the past few years. The difference this year was mostly due to an increase in thrillers, horror, and crime fiction. I suspect not formally participating in the Hugos also has something to do with it.
  • Only 8 books written by women in 2021, which is a significant decrease over the last few years. Of course, this was not intentional at all, but maybe I should pay some attention to that in 2022.
  • Without doing any formal analysis, despite a few vintage reads, this year was mostly above 1990 in terms of age, and recent releases were a higher proportion than usual I think. Nothing wrong with that and again, nothing intentional here, but maybe worth looking into older reads in 2022.

So it’s been a pretty good year in books. While I’m a massive introvert and greatly enjoy reading books, I’m still happy to see that the pandemic appears to be easing a bit, though who knows what Omicron will bring (I suspect the next month or two will be ruff, but after that…). Still, while I love staying home and reading or listening to audio books on long walks, it would be nice to get out into the world again in 2022. Unless we see a significant worsening of the pandemic, I’m guessing the reading numbers will decrease a bit again in 2022… (and as much as I love books, that will still be a good thing!)

Hugo Awards 2021: The Results

The Results of the 2021 Hugo Awards were announced last night, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. At this point, I’ve fallen off of the Hugo bandwagon from a formal participation standpoint, but still like to keep an eye on things. Populist awards like this go in waves, so they tend to get repetitive, as we’ll see. In any case, congratulations are due to all the winners! For those who want to geek out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting stats for the 2021 Hugo Awards are also available (.pdf).

Best Novel

Network Effect, by Martha Wells wins! It’s the one novel of the nominees that I actually read last year and I’ve very much enjoyed the whole Murderbot series to date. For the uninitiated, you’ll want to start with the original novellas (beginning with All Systems Red) before getting to this novel, but it’s a fun, action packed series with a compelling protagonist, some interesting ideas, and a nice cast of regular side characters.

Network Effect

Of course, this is part of a long running series that has won before (although this is the first novel), which speaks to the repetition I was speaking of above. The other nominees didn’t hold much interest for me, seeing as though I’d either read previous novels in the series or enough work from the author that I wasn’t especially excited to read more of. The one exception might be Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, but I’m not in a rush there either.

Short Fiction

I didn’t even dip my toes into the shorter fiction categories this year, but I do see a lot of familiar names here, even among the winners. However, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, by Nghi Vo did win the novella category and that’s a new name, so there is that. Sarah Pinsker and Ursula Vernon took home the other two fiction awards, and they’ve been mainstays of the past few years. Despite (or because of?) the controversy around Isabella Fall’s Helicopter Story, it did not do so well in the voting.

Best Series

The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells wins here as well, proving once again that the original intentions of the series award aren’t really being served here. Don’t get me wrong, as previously mentioned, I love the Murderbot series and it’s eminently deserving of praise… but it’s already won multiple Hugo awards. This is just an also-ran for that series, while other series languish in obscurity (or, er, lack of recognition? They all seem pretty popular.)

I always thought the point was to recognize series that didn’t already get recognition in the other awards. The idea being that hey, maybe we can include more one-offs in the best novel ballot because entries in a series can be recognized here. Or series that people love that nonetheless don’t have standout individual entries can still be recognized. But in general, the award has gone to hugely popular series that had already been recognized, sometimes in the same ballot (like this year, with the novel and its series winning).

As I understand it, this award narrowly passed a vote considering its future, so it will continue to show up in future years. I remain a little skeptical of this one, not least of which because I don’t think it’s likely that most voters have read all the series nominated (not to mention the logistics of reading that many stories in the time allotted).

Best Dramatic Presentation

Always a weird award, and this year is no different. The long form award goes to… The Old Guard? A little surprising, as I didn’t realize that movie was particularly loved. I mean, I enjoyed it plenty and it was great pandemic watching, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly original or great SF. Of course, the other nominees aren’t especially accomplished either. I’m still quite baffled that Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga even made the ballot in the first place. It’s not especially surprising that Tenet didn’t do very well, though it would probably be my favorite of the nominees (at least, as SF it would – I think Tenet does have its flaws). For whatever reason, Hugo voters tend to go lower-brow when it comes to movies. Anyway, pour one out for The Invisible Man, PossessorThe Vast of NightColor Out of SpaceArchive, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow. There are always great works left off of a given awards ballot, but this year seems particularly egregious (I mean, come on, Eurovision?).

Short form goes to The Good Place. Again. I really enjoyed The Good Place, but it has won the award four times in a row, which seems silly. I would have probably gone more Mandalorian on this ballot, though perhaps the vote got split because there were two different episodes nominated (but then, the whole instant-runoff thing kinda mitigates some of that and looking at the actual numbers, The Good Place had a really strong win here – it wasn’t even close.) The Expanse ended up taking a distant second place. Now that The Good Place is over, it’ll be interesting to see where things fall next year. I suspect we’ll see a strong showing for Marvel TV shows…

Other Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Awards

It wouldn’t be Hugos without some sort of controversy, and this year had no shortage of questionable events. Personally, this stuff gives me the hives, but near as I can tell much of the controversy surrounded China’s bid to host Worldcon in 2023. Naturally, there were some concerns there because of, you know, the genocide, censorship, and high profile disappearings. But then a competing bid from Winnipeg pulled out a big ol bag of dirty tricks to try and win, which wasn’t great either. I mean, not genocide-level bad, but not great. Then of course you get the whataboutisms and how the US sucks (and I guess so does Canada?) and Raytheon sponsored a part of this year’s Hugos (which I can kinda see why someone would want to sideye and all, but still) and the whole thing is just a garbage fire at this point. I don’t really want to delve more into it.

Next year’s awards could be interesting though. I’m already curious to see if my two favorite novels from this year make next year’s ballot, and I actually think there’s a fair chance that both will. It might be enough to get me to dive in again. (Of course, one of these books comes from a popular author that’s been nominated several times and even won before, so there is that, but still.) I suppose time will tell. Anywho, congrats again to all the winners of the 2021 Hugo Awards!