Hugo Awards

Hugo Awards Season 2021

The 2021 Hugo Awards finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite grumbles and bellyaches. I’ve largely fallen off the Hugo bandwagon and I’m probably not going to play along this year, but I still find the process interesting. Congrats to all the nominees!

Best Novel

The Best Novel ballot is a pretty good illustration of why I’m not reading/voting this year. This isn’t to say they’re bad novels or anything, but there’s this tendency in the Hugo awards where certain authors catch on and get nominated year after year. One of the reasons I followed along with the Hugos (even before actively participating) was that they introduced me to new or different work. They got me out of my comfort zone. But they go in waves, and if a set of authors you don’t care for gets hot, then interest fades.

This year’s nominees have mostly been nominated recently, if they haven’t won recently. Four have had finalists in the last few years. One of the others (Network Effect by Martha Wells) is new to the Best Novel ballot, but it’s a sequel to a series of novellas which have entries that have been nominated and won. For the record, that’s the only one I’ve already read, and I really enjoy that series, so it’s a well deserved nomination in my book. The other is the second novel by an author whose first novel won the award in 2005. That’s also one that I might actually get to someday, award or no award. If you expand name recognition to the other categories, it gets even worse.

I suspect in a couple years I’ll take a look and see a bunch of new folks, at which point I might join in again. The genre is much larger these days, with much more volume than in the earlier days of fandom, so you’d think that the tendency for repeat names would be more limited now, but I guess the awards are more representative of the voters than the genre itself. For now, I’ll continue to follow the news, but not read along…

Short Fiction

Even here, I see a lot of familiar names, and it’s also kinda funny that every nominated novella is published by Tor.com. Is no one else publishing novellas? In theory, I like the idea of reading a bunch of short fiction – it’s could be like a sampler platter of what’s going on in SF. But I’m almost invariably disappointed in these categories. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but the bevy of familiar names don’t interest me that much.

Best Series

This award continues to baffle. In theory, it could be used to recognize series that have built up a readership over time and become more than the sum of its parts. Or something like that. In practice, it seems to be dominated by authors and series that also get best novel nominations. For instance, two of this year’s best series nominees also have an entry on the best novel ballot. On the other hand, there are some series here that do seem to fit the bill. Of course, there’s also the logistical challenge of this award. How can anyone have enough time to read all these series? I know this year’s voting period is much longer than normal (thanks Pandemic!), but it’s still got to be impossible to vote for this, unless you’ve already read most of the nominees (or if you only give each series a cursory read).

Best Dramatic Presentation

This award is always very strange, and it features this year’s weirdest finalist: what the hell is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga doing on this list? The list is otherwise pretty decent, though there’s obviously lots of smaller fare that the voters never seem to go for. Pour one out for the likes of: Possessor, The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Archive, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow (as usual, some of these may have eligibility issues due to weird distribution dates, but still). Also, how did The Invisible Man not garner a nom? It’s so squarely within the voter’s usual wheelhouse…

Other Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Awards

I’m perhaps being overly grumpy in this post. Congrats to all the nominees. I would still encourage folks to play along with the Hugo Awards at some point (2021 or not), as I’ve always found it interesting, even when I don’t love the books. That said, I know enough about this year’s crop to know that I probably won’t enjoy a lot of them, so I’m opting out. I’ll still be curious to see who wins and what the awards look like next year though.

SF Book Review – Part 34: MilSF Edition

I’ve been reading a lot of MilSF (that’s “Military Science Fiction” for you normals) lately. I’m far from an expert in the sub-genre, but I enjoy dipping into it from time to time. It just so happens that I’ve been dunked further than normal in the past few months, so here goes:

On Basilisk Station by David Weber – The first in the long running series featuring Honor Harrington, an officer of the Royal Manticorian Navy and ice queen extraordinaire. Having pissed off a superior officer, she gets posted to a backwoods star system. Low on resources but high on tactical awareness, Harrington must deal with drug-addled alien aboriginals, smugglers, corruption and oh yeah, this out-of-the-way locale is about to become a flashpoint for interstellar war.

There’s nothing especially surprising about the story, but it’s competent and entertaining. Weber isn’t exactly a prose stylist, but he knows his physics and military tactics. While there are occasional info-dumps (par for the SF course), he’s able to employ all this well enough. You’ve seen the setup before, but it’s always fun to see someone beat the odds and succeed when they’re being (unfairly) set up to fail. Truth be told, I’m more likely to go back and read more Horatio Hornblower (to which the Honorverse and seemingly a dozen other SF franchises are deeply indebted) than I am to explore more of this series, but I’m not, like opposed to it either.

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley – In this Hugo finalist, Dietz joins the war against Mars as a member of the infantry. Since traveling to another planet to wage war is time-consuming and costly, scientists have figured out a way to convert soldiers to electromagnetic energy so they can be transmitted to the battlefield at the speed of light. But something goes wrong with Dietz, and she’s experiencing her combat drops out of order. Can she retain her sanity and figure out what’s really going on with the war?

With this novel, Hurley is clearly attempting to enter the conversation that started with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and continued in Haldeman’s The Forever War (amongst other classics of MilSF over the intervening decades), but I don’t find it entirely successful on that front. Granted, I’ve never been a big fan of Starship Troopers, but for all its faults, it did pretty much single-handedly invent the sub-genre. Unfortunately, what Hurley seems to have glommed onto are the lectures (from a structure standpoint; clearly not a content standpoint). This is pretty much everyone’s least favorite part of Starship Troopers. Basically, Hurley takes Starship Troopers, scribbles “Capitalism Bad!” over the lecture sequences, and then biffs the military stuff, because who cares about that?

Look, I’ve never served in the military and am far from an expert, but I found myself nitpicking almost everything having to do with the military in this book. There are so many things that are just outright wrong here (basic stuff like what marksmanship is or how ranks work) that it’s hard to believe that Hurley cares one whit about the subject, except insofar as she can use it to denounce capitalism. Blatantly, in long, lecturing speeches.

It’s implied that the Martians have become so technologically advanced because they’re communists, but we never really see them. If you’re going to insist that communism will finally be made workable in the future world you’ve built, you should probably give some indication of how that happened, seeing as though it doesn’t have a particularly great track record here in the present and recent past. For example, Ian M. Banks’ Marxist paradise, The Culture, at least has some justification in the form of hyper-advanced AI Minds (I’m not entirely sure I buy it, but hey, at least he’s trying!)

Look, I’m not saying the complaints about capitalism are necessarily wrong, and the book does capture timely political ideas in a compelling way. The notion of putting conditions on citizenship (a clear lift from Heinlein, but still quite relevant) or the corporatization of government or the way media and propaganda can be leveraged by the malicious are all subjects worth exploring, especially in this day and age. It’s good that the book tackles these subjects! But it would be nice if there was some sort of path out of the hell Hurley creates other than just whining about it all. I’m not asking for much here. Even some form of handwavey magic would do the trick, but this book can’t even be bothered to go that far. At best, this makes the book’s ideas a “preaching to the choir” situation.

Alright, I’m being hard on this novel and I think it’s clear that I didn’t love it, but I do actually think it does some things well. As bad as a lot of the military mistakes are, Hurley does nail the interpersonal interactions of military service. Again, not an expert, but the relationships between the characters feel realistic and authentic. Likewise, while the transportation method of “light” is basically nonsense, the non-linear narrative that emerges is actually quite well done (a good example of handwavey magic getting the job done). I’m a sucker for time travel stories and this puts a nice spin on well worn ideas. It’s not quite the mindfuck that some seem to believe and the “twists” that happen aren’t very surprising, but it lends some weight to the proceedings. I don’t know, if you’re part of the choir that Hurley is preaching to, this probably works like gangbusters. Alas, I’m not singing in that choir.

The Lost Fleet Series, by Jack Campbell – I actually read the first book of this series, Dauntless, around two years ago. In that short review, I mentioned that I would probably pick up the second book at some point, and I finally got around to it. Then I got hooked, and read the remaining four books. To recap:

Captain John “Black Jack” Geary is a legendary war hero presumed lost in the early days of a war between the Alliance and the Syndics. The war isn’t going particularly well for the Alliance when they miraculously discover Geary, who survived in hibernation. Geary is shocked to learn that he’s revered as a hero, but resolves to do his duty, whip his fleet into shape, and dodge the onslaught of Syndics coming his way.

The first five books or so of the series basically consist of a “Long Retreat” through Syndic space, with the last book being a sorta return offensive (being a little vague here, so as to not spoil anything). At the macro level, this can get a bit repetitive, but if you go in for this sort of thing, it’s well executed and entertaining. Each novel basically consists of a few large engagements with the enemy coupled with some interpersonal relationships and fleet politics.

The military engagements lean more towards the thrilling and entertaining side than, say, the aforementioned On Basilisk Station, but author Jack Campbell does a good job establishing the parameters of how the military operates in space, and then abiding by them. Campbell is basically taking naval warfare and adapting it to space with minimal concessions to physics. He does take full advantage of the three dimensional space and acknowledges the difficulties of fighting whilst moving at relativistic speeds, but I’m sure there are plenty of nits to be picked with the way Campbell portrays combat in these novels.

That being said, Campbell manages to make each battle interesting by switching up tactics or devising new wrinkles within the system he’s set up. Sometimes combat is shaped by devious Syndic tactics, other times it’s driven by the need to feed the fleet’s auxiliary ships (which refine fuel and manufacture parts and munitions), and then some battles are avoided entirely. At one point, there’s even a ground action with orbital support. Your mileage may vary, but the need for each fight is well established, the goals are often different from one engagement to another, and the progress of each battle is well portrayed and entertaining. At the macro level, this might seem repetitive, but there’s a lot of variety in the specifics of each engagement.

I’m not entirely sure how this war could possibly last for over a century, especially given the way people and equipment are so frequently destroyed, but the series is action packed and well executed enough that this becomes a minor complaint. Campbell gets enough stuff right that I didn’t find myself nitpicking or dwelling on things I didn’t love.

The interpersonal relationships are perhaps a little less successful. Here, the repetition does become a bit stilted. In particular, a sorta love triangle develops between three main characters that works well enough to start, but eventually just keeps spinning its wheels. It’s not strictly bad, it’s just not as well varied as the military side of things.

Similarly, the fleet politics bits are quite pronounced at first, and represent a true and interesting threat to Geary’s command. Geary’s whole strategy revolves around a return to more traditional tactics and practices, which a lot of officers in the fleet disagree with, at least initially. Even as he gradually wins over most of the fleet, there are those that are scheming behind his back, and just when this fleet politics stuff starts to get a little too redundant, Campbell turns the tables in an interesting way in the later books.

Along the way, we’re treated to some other SF staples. Naturally, there’s an alien presence that’s been manipulating the war for a century or so, but they can only really be inferred from the evidence on hand. As the series progresses, that inference becomes a little more solid.

There are a few interesting bits about how Geary’s style is so different that it actually impacts the way the military software works. Rudimentary AI has been trained over a century on tactics that Geary is now trying to upend. This has unintentional consequences that are well played by Campbell.

One of the funny things about reading this series in proximity to The Light Brigade is that Campbell actually touches on many of the same themes. The Syndics are a hyper-capitalist society. They don’t have presidents or admirals or generals, they have CEOs. And they are clearly the villains. But Campbell doesn’t lecture, he just shows the logical, rational end point of some more extreme business-like behavior. I won’t claim that these are “important” novels, but I found it ironic that this series made me think about the same ideas while also being entertaining and well constructed.

I don’t think that Campbell is breaking any new ground here, but it’s very well executed and competent stuff. Well worth checking out if you’re in the mood for some MilSF.

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.

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…

Hugo Awards 2019: The Results

The 2019 Hugo Award winners were announced just a few hours ago, so now it’s time for the requisite jubilant celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I participated this year, but my enthusiasm has been waning over the past several years. For those who want to geek out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting and nomination stats are also available (.pdf).

  • The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal won best novel, which isn’t exactly surprising (it’s already won the Nebula and Locus awards), but I must confess, wasn’t really my thing. This makes four years in a row where my least favorite novel wins the award. Perhaps more of a statement of preferences and taste than anything else. My preferred pick, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver came in a relatively close second place, so there is that. As expected, Space Opera came in dead last but clearly had some ardent defenders (this seems like the sort of novel that performs poorly in instant-runoff votes).
  • Martha Wells’ Murderbot takes home the novella award for the second year in a row with Artificial Condition winning. Of note in the nomination stats is that the other two Murderbot Novellas released last year could also have made the ballot, but Wells must have declined nominations for those. This speaks to the popularity of this series, which is very much my jam. I did not have time to read all the novella finalists, but I suspect this would have been at or near the top of my ballot. Alas, we’ll have to wait for 2020 for the next Murderbot story, which will be a novel that seems like a shoe-in for another nomination.
  • “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow wins the short story award, and was also my choice.
  • Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series wins for Best Series, further cementing how weird this particular award is. I think there’s a place for rewarding longrunning series, but the devil is in the details and the results thusfar have been rather strange. This, for example, is a series consisting of three novels, two of which have been nominated for Best Novel already. I thought the point was the recognize stuff like The Wheel of Time – something immensely popular, but which never made it onto the Novel ballot. Weirdly, Wayfarers doesn’t seem particularly popular, though obviously popular enough that it could beat out The Laundry Files and October Daye, amongst others. I still remain opposed to this award due to the logistical complications around the award, most notably the near impossibility of reading all the nominated work in the time allotted.
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse wins for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. It was also my pick and certainly the best of the nominated works, but I remain vexed by this award, which almost always gravitates towards the most mainstream choices possible, while interesting stuff like Upgrade and The Endless don’t even make the longlist (though the latter may be disqualified due to potentially being viewed as a 2017 release). That being said, if you’re in the market for interesting SF movies, you should check those out. They’re great, and more worthy of recognition than, say, The Avengers.
  • Of the other awards, one winner stands out, which is “Archive of Our Own” for Best Related Work. I haven’t kept up with this category or the debate around this particular nomination, but I gather some controversy surrounds this site, which is essentially a Fan Fiction portal. Again, I don’t especially have any thoughts either way, but I’m expecting some bonkers takes on this award win.
  • The 1944 Retro Hugo Winners were also announced recently. I didn’t read extensively, but I was happy to see “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” by Lewis Padgett take the rocket, and Heaven Can Wait is the clear winner of Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. The Short Form award went to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which I do find surprising. I was expecting Bugs Bunny to run away with that one, but I guess not. I don’t think they’ve released the detailed stats yet, but hey, at least Batman didn’t win…

So there you have it. Congrats to all the winners. Not a bad year, but I do find my interest in the Hugos waning. I will probably submit a nominating ballot next year (since I already have the ability), but I haven’t been too enthused by the last few ballots, so who knows if I’ll continue to play along.

2019 Hugo Awards: Final Ballot

The voting deadline for this year’s Hugo Awards was last week, so I figured I’d post my final ballot. It’s mostly fiction awards, with a couple others thrown in for good measure, including some of the 1944 retro Hugo categories.

Best Novel

  1. Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik [My Review]
  2. Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee [My Review]
  3. Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse [My Review]
  4. Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers [My Review]
  5. Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente [My Review]
  6. The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal [My Review]

This is a modest year for the Hugo novels. I enjoyed my top two ranked entries, but neither were as good as other offerings from the same authors in the past few years. The next two are fine, but I’m not sure they quite hit the “best of the year” levels required by an award. And the bottom two really just didn’t work for me, even if they’ve got some redeeming qualities overall (no need to deploy No Award here). Of course, I’m the worst, so I haven’t read a ton of other stuff from 2018 that would qualify, and while I really enjoyed, for example, Scalzi’s The Consuming Fire, I don’t think it reaches Hugo levels either.

Best Novella and Novelette

I skipped both categories this year, mostly just because I ran out of time and would rather spend my time reading Stephenson’s new novel (which starts great, but appears to be trailing off…) than Shawshanking my way through these categories. Of what I read, I did enjoy The Murderbot Diaries stuff (looking forward to the upcoming novel) and The Tea Master and the Detective, so make of that what you will.

Best Short Story

  1. A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow
  2. The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker
  3. The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher
  4. The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander
  5. STET” by Sarah Gailey
  6. The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark

See My Reviews for more info. A mixed bag, as per usual for short stories, but I really enjoyed the first two ranked stories here. In an unlikely turn of events, I feel like both of those stories are frontrunners for the actual award as well, so obviously this will end up with one of the stories I didn’t love.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  2. Sorry to Bother You
  3. Annihilation
  4. Black Panther
  5. Avengers: Infinity War
  6. A Quiet Place

As per usual, this award gets filled up with the most mainstream stuff, but a couple of smaller things snuck their way onto the list, which is good enough, I guess. Of course, my number one is pretty mainstream, but it’s so great.

1944 Retro Hugos: Best Novelette

  1. “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” by Lewis Padgett (C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner) (Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943)
  2. “The Halfling,” by Leigh Brackett (Astonishing Stories, February 1943)
  3. “Citadel of Lost Ships,” by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, March 1943)
  4. “The Proud Robot,” by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner) (Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943)
  5. “Symbiotica,” by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding Science-Fiction, October 1943)
  6. “Thieves’ House,” by Fritz Leiber, Jr (Unknown Worlds, February 1943)

Not much to say here, I really enjoy the first two stories, the rest are a bit mixed.

1944 Retro Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Heaven Can Wait
  2. Phantom of the Opera
  3. Cabin in the Sky
  4. A Guy Named Joe
  5. Münchhausen
  6. No Award

No Award deployed because the 1943 Batman is hot garbage. Heaven Can Wait is the pretty clear winner here though, and it’s not especially close.

1944 Retro Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

  1. I Walked with a Zombie
  2. Super-Rabbit
  3. The Seventh Victim
  4. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
  5. Der Fuehrer’s Face
  6. No Award

No Award deployed because The Ape Man is awful. It’s funny that all the Val Lewton/RKO and Universal Horror movies are technically Short Form (because they’re all 70-75 minutes or so), but here we are. The Looney Tunes stuff is great too.

So that just about does it for the Hugos this year. The ceremony is in a few weeks, so stay tuned to see who actually wins…