Hugo Awards

Hugo Awards: Semi-Final Ballot

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

Best Novel:

  1. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Ken Liu translator) [My Review]
  2. Skin Game, by Jim Butcher [Tentative, review forthcoming]
  3. The Dark Between the Stars, by Kevin J. Anderson [My Review]
  4. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie [My Review]
  5. The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison [My Review]

The only caveat here is that I have not finished Skin Game. I will definitely finish before the voting deadline, but even halfway through, I think I know where I’m falling on it (in short, I have a soft spot for heist stories, and this one is doing a reasonable job thus far). For the most part, I’m not tremendously excited by this lineup, but I don’t see a need to deploy No Award here either.

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

Best Novella:

  1. One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright
  2. Big Boys Don’t Cry by Tom Kratman
  3. “Flow”, by Arlan Andrews, Sr.
  4. No Award
  5. “The Plural of Helen of Troy”, by John C. Wright

See My Reviews for more details. Left off the ballot is “Pale Realms of Shade”, also by John C. Wright, because having two nominated stories on the ballot is probably enough. Depending on my mood, I may remove “The Plural of Helen of Troy” as well, but it’s aged better in my head than I thought it would. It’s still weird that Wright has 3 stories in this one category. My only deployment of No Award this year. I tend to go light on that sort of thing, but it seems like the rest of fandom is throwing it around with reckless abandon. There’s a decent chance that all the short fiction categories will end up No Award. If that happens, I might just have to tune out entirely. This controversy is getting old.

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

Best Novelette:

  1. “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, by Rajnar Vajra
  2. “Championship B’tok”, by Edward M. Lerner
  3. “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, by Gray Rinehart
  4. “The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, by Michael F. Flynn
  5. “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

See My Reviews for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

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

Best Short Story:

  1. Totaled, by Kary English
  2. Turncoat, by Steve Rzasa
  3. On a Spiritual Plain, by Lou Antonelli
  4. A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond
  5. The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright

See My Reviews for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

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

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:

  1. The Lego Movie
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy
  4. Edge of Tomorrow
  5. Interstellar

See my recap for more details. All nominees listed, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: The Lego Movie

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

Quasi-Hugo Awards: Terms of Enlistment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo Awards: Novellas

The other shorter-than-a-novel-but-longer-than-a-short-story category, these tend to be longer reads, which is a shame because I didn’t particularly care for any of them. It’s also one of the weirder categories in that three of the five nominees are from the same author. Two of the stories are also significantly expanded versions of much shorter stories (which, given my complaints below, would probably have been much better for me). None of the nominees are particularly terrible, per say, I just failed to connect with them, and it makes me wish there was a little more variety here. I don’t want too dwell on this, so let’s just get to it:

  1. One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright – This was pretty clearly my favorite of the bunch, a baroque tale of magic that evokes Arthurian legends, C. S. Lewis (complete with an appearance by a giant lion), Tolkien, and maybe even Stephen King’s Gunslinger series. The problem with this approach is that I would much rather be reading the works that served as inspiration than the novella itself. Still, of the other stories on the ballot, this was the most successful story and at least Wright’s style seemed to fit this narrative. It’s not a story I love, but I don’t mind having read it and it’s well constructed and written.
  2. Big Boys Don’t Cry by Tom Kratman – A few years ago, I read Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang, not realizing that it appears to be the template for so many other stories of sentient vehicles. I didn’t even enjoy the book, as its episodic structure was frustrating and left me cold. Kratman’s vehicle is a massive, sentient tank named Maggie (short for Magnolia) who, like McCaffrey’s singing ship, undergoes a series of episodic adventures that left me feeling disconnected from the story. Some of these episodes are actually pretty well executed though, and Kratman is pretty good at writing combat sequences, but there are more battles than necessary here, they’re disconnected from one another, and they’re interweaved with weird infodumps that grind the pace to a halt. This was apaprently one of the stories that was originally published in shorter form, then expanded to novella size… I haven’t read the original, but I’m betting the expansion did a disservice to the story. Still, there are interesting questions here about the motivation of sentient vehicles, especially when it comes to the complete lack of respect from their human masters. The ending of this story takes a pretty dark turn, and is almost comically didactic, but it at least gives the story a conclusion.
  3. “Flow”, by Arlan Andrews, Sr. – The tale of northerners selling an iceberg to the Warm Lands, then running afoul of the local religious inquisition or some such. There’s some interesting stuff hinted at here, but it never really goes beyond hinting, and I really could care less about our main protagonist. This is one of those stories that just sorta flies by (not in the way of a page turner, though, it actually took a while to read this one), leaving almost no impression whatsoever. It’s not terrible, I just could not connect with it.
  4. “The Plural of Helen of Troy”, by John C. Wright – I should like this story. All the hooks are there, but it’s like Wright forgot to attach the fishing line, so once he hooked me and attempted to reel it in, nothing really happened and now I’ve got these hooks all over me and I’m not one of those people who loves piercings, John! Seriously though, it’s a time travel story told with a Memento-like reverse non-linearity. Or something. The protagonist is a detective hired by one John F. Kennedy to kill a future JFK with the help of a middle JFK and maybe an alternate timeline JFK, all because Marilyn Monroe is Helen of Troy and is also a slave of the evil JFK, who is going to become a timelord or something. Look, I enjoy the byzantine structures of time travel plots, poring over details and making diagrams with straws, and so on. But Wright’s baroque style simply doesn’t fit here, and the rules of time travel and whatnot don’t seem particularly well established (or are elided to the point of incomprehensibility). I get the impression this is part of a larger collection of stories within a similar setting, so maybe that’s what I’m picking up on. Regardless, this seemed about twice as long as it needed to be and while the details kinda fit, I found myself caring less as time went on. Again, I should really like this story. But I don’t.
  5. “Pale Realms of Shade”, by John C. Wright – Another story with a pretty neat hook, a psychic detective who dies and comes back as a ghost (or maybe he’s going to become an angry poltergeist), visits with his ex-wife and business partner, along with a “fixer” (i.e. the devil) and a priest for some redemption. Along the way, we find out why and how he died, and so on. It’s actually a pretty complete narrative, but it’s one of those things that just really made me want to see more about this detective’s exploits taking down vampires and werewolves back when he was alive. As it is, we’re left with a dour, depressing tale that I never connected with. Wright’s style just doesn’t seem to connect very well with me.

For the first time this year, I’m actually thinking about deploying No Award on my ballot, if only to get past the ridiculous notion that one author wrote the three best novellas of the year or something. I mean, I guess such a thing is possible, but not with these three stories. That being said, Wright also wrote my clear favorite of the bunch, so I’m not slotting No Award very high.

Hugo Awards: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

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

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

This year, we have at least two nominees that were deserving (and that didn’t have Upstream‘s impenetrable style), including Coherence (to be fair, there are some eligibility concerns on that one), The One I Love, and maybe even Snowpiercer (a film I kinda hated, but it seems up the voters’ alley). Alas, they did not make it, and to be sure, Hollywood had a pretty good year, putting out plenty of genuinely good movies. Indeed, I even nominated 3 of these, so I guess I shouldn’t complain! My vote will go something like this (I’m going to be partially quoting myself on some of these, with some added comments more specific to the Hugos)

  1. The Lego Movie – Writer/Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made a career out of making movies out of seemingly stupid premises, and this movie may be their crowning achievement. This sounded so much like a cynical cash-grab by Hollywood, but I found myself immediately charmed by the film’s fast paced humor and wit. The thing that tips this to the top of my vote is that it is actually very impressive from a visual standpoint. It’s got great jokes, and some of them are visual jokes. This is a movie that actually uses its medium in a way that few movies do these days.
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Marvel firing on all cylinders, this is a dramatic improvement over the first Captain America, topping it in everything from action set pieces to consistent interpersonal touches. Considering the wider context, this movie makes some pretty bold moves too, channeling paranoid 70s thrillers (and even casting Robert Redford to underline that point) and throwing a huge monkey wrench into the whole Marvel universe (something I admire about it – as a standalone, it would be fine, but the fact that there are seemingly lasting consequences helps here). I’m actually on the fence with where to place this in relation to Guardians, but for now, it take the #2 slot.
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy – This could have failed so miserably in so many different ways, but my guess is that James Gunn’s goofy personality is what saved the whole thing (even if it’s toned down a bit here). Once again, it’s the interpersonal touches that makes these Marvel movies tick, even this one, which is almost completely disconnected from all the other movies. It’s also a big ball of fun, so there’s that.
  4. Edge of Tomorrow – There’s a lot to quibble about with this movie, but I’ll tell you, it really worked for me. From a filmmaking craft perspective, the editing here is incredibly well executed. The ending has some issues and Cruise has his own baggage, but I had a whole lot of fun. I actually voted for this on my ballot, not thinking it would garner enough votes (it was fairly underrated and underviewed last year, even by mainstream audiences), but even then, it would have ended up towards the bottom of my ballot…
  5. Interstellar – There’s a lot to like about this film, but it never quite congealed into something as cohesive as Nolan’s previous work. Certainly gets points for ambition, but the film is a little clunky in its execution. It all fits together, and there are great ideas and emotional moments at its core, but perhaps could use some smoothing over some of the rougher edges (of which there are, sadly, many). A clear last place finisher for the Hugos. Not an entirely unworthy nominee, but I’d have much rather seen a few other movies in place of this one…

So there you have it. Maybe I’m being a little too hard on voters, as this is a pretty good slate, and it’s nice to comment on something and not have to even bother with the whole controversial nonsense that has snowed us in this year.

Hugo Awards: Novelettes

Novelettes! Good old novelettes! What do you call something that’s longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel? A novella, of course, but that’s too easy. Let’s invent something between a short story and a novella, and call it a novelette! On the one hand, it is a bit odd that SF/F seems to be the only genre in literature that makes this distinction (something about a legacy of SF’s pulpy magazine roots, where different sized works had different pay scales) and it seems rather pointless and confusing for no real reason. On the other hand, it just means we get to read more fiction, which is actually a pretty cool thing. Once again, none of my nominees made the final ballot, but such is the way of short fiction awards. Last year’s Novelettes were pretty darn good (with one obvious and notable exception), and it looks like this years will rival that:

  1. The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale“, Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014) – My clear favorite of the bunch, this tale of Exoplanetary Explorer cadets redeeming themselves after getting caught up in a bar fight is well written, well paced, and entertaining. It tells a full story, presents some interesting puzzles, and uses reason and logic to resolve the problems that arise. I don’t know that it’s particularly deep in terms of thematic heft, but it’s deeply entertaining, which is usually enough for me (and so many other stories seem to forget that part) and this story struck the right chord. I feel like I should be saying more, but this is the one story on the ballot that I definitely would have put on my nominations if I had read it earlier.
  2. Championship B’tok“, Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014) – This one is a bit of an odd duck in that it feels kinda like a pilot episode of a TV show. In a colonized solar system, various unexplained breakdowns have been occurring with increasing frequency. This includes both human and alien settlements, and while the humans were able to weather the aliens’ initial invasion 20 years ago, tensions are high. The aliens are hiding something, the mysterious sabotage is hitting everyone, and the humans are getting ready to launch a new interstellar starship. I actually quite enjoyed the setup, but then, that’s mostly what this is: setup. It’s got a lot of great storytelling elements in play. Intrigue, subterfuge, conspiracy, and so on, but this feels like one of those stories that is really just an excerpt from a larger work. This sort of thing is always weird to judge when it comes to awards like this. I think it says something that I do really want to follow up on this story at some point, because that speaks to how engaging it was. But how to judge an incomplete experience when it comes voting time? Also worth noting is that Lerner’s prose style is a bit on the stilted side. I can see why some of the more literary Hugo voters are annoyed by a story like this. Often I read people’s complaints about this sort of thing and shrug them off, but they may have a point here. For instance, this sentence appears in the text: “Something long dreaded was at long last at hand.” Look, I’m not the most talented writer in the world, but even for me, this is a pretty obvious clunker. That said, it had some great ideas and the storytelling was on point, so it ends up falling higher on my list than lower (depending on how I feel, this may drop down a peg when voting time comes).
  3. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium“, Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014) – This feels almost like the inverse of Championship B’tok. In this scenario, aliens and humans clashed in the past, but this time the aliens won and are keeping the humans kinda bottled up in their colony. The story concerns a man who is dying. His last wish is to be buried, a practice that he thinks might throw their alien masters for a loop. It’s a neat little puzzle and a complete story, but it’s not quite as entertaining or fun as the above two.
  4. The Journeyman: In the Stone House“, Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014) – This is the weirdest of the bunch, a strange tale of various quasi-primitive clans coming together to train and set out on an expedition. Or something. This one is a bit light on plot. It’s got some nice character moments and a couple of great one-liners (particularly Sammi o’ th’ Eagles), but it seems to be somewhat lacking in the realm of points. Flynn’s style also threw me for a loop, as it’s pretty ornate and detailed, but didn’t really flow well for me (also annoying – the voters packet only had this on pdf, which has an annoying interface.) I did not hate it, but I never really got into it either.
  5. The Day the World Turned Upside Down“, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014) – Remember above when I said that a lot of well written stories forget to be entertaining? Yeah, here’s a good example of this. The premise is that one day, gravity reverses itself. Most everyone who is outside simply falls off the planet, while those inside are slammed up against their ceilings, and so on. Interesting, I guess, but don’t go looking for explanations (fine) or even logical consistency (how are people still able to breath, why doesn’t water in rivers, etc… fall, and so on…). It reminded me of last year’s short story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, only this one is a little less coherent. There’s a guy and his girlfriend just recently broke up with him, making this the second time the world turned upside down for him (zing!) and he makes a trek across the city to get to his girlfriend’s apartment. Along the way, he meets a little girl and some other characters, but it’s all pretty pointless, and pretty emphatically not my sort of story.

So there you have it. I’d say that this compares pretty favorably to last year’s slate, and that it’s maybe slightly better than this year’s short story slate.

Hugo Awards: The Dark Between the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo Awards: Short Stories

My feelings on short stories are decidedly mixed, because most of the short fiction I read is from collections that are, by their very nature, uneven. As with Anthology Films, I generally find myself exhausted by the inconsistency. Also, as someone who tends to gravitate towards actual storytelling rather than character sketches or tone poems (or similar exercises in style), a short story can be quite difficult to execute. A lot must be accomplished in a short time, and a certain economy of language is needed to make it all work. There are some people who are great at this sort of thing, but I find them few and far between, so collections of short stories tend to fall short even if they include stories I love. In my experience, the exceptions tend to be collections from a single author, like Asimov’s I, Robot or Barker’s Books of Blood. That being said, I’ve been reading significantly more short fiction lately, primarily because of my participation in the Hugo Awards. I found myself quite disappointed with last year’s nominated slate, so I actually went the extra mile this year and read a bunch of stuff so that I could participate in the nomination portion of the process. Of course, none of my nominees actually made the final ballot. Such is the way of the short story award (with so many options, the votes tend to be pretty widely spread out, hence all the consternation about the Puppy slates which probably gave their recommendations undue influence this year). But is the ballot any better this year? Only one way to find out, and here are the results, in handy voting order:

  1. Totaled by Kary English – Told from the perspective of a brain that has been separated from its body (courtesy of a car accident) and subsequently preserved in a device that presumably resembles that which was used to preserve Walt Disney’s head or something. In the story, this is new technology, so the process is imperfect and while the brain can be kept alive for a significant amount of time, it still only amounts to around 6 months or so. Fortunately, the disembodied brain in question was the woman leading the project, so she’s able to quickly set up a rudimentary communication scheme with her lab partner. Interfaces for sound and visuals are ginned up and successful, but by that point the brain’s deterioration has begun. This could have been one of those pointless tone poems I mentioned earlier, but English keeps things approachable, taking things step by step. The portrayal of a brain separated from the majority of its inputs (and outputs, for that matter), and slowly regaining some measure of them as time goes on, is well done and seems realistic enough. One could view some of the things portrayed here as pessimistic, but I didn’t really read it that way. When the brain deteriorates, she eventually asks to be disconnected before she loses all sense of lucidity (the end of the story starts to lilt into an Algernon-like devolution of language into simplistic quasi-stream of consciousness prose). I suppose this is a form of suicide, but it was inevitable at that point, and the experimental brain-in-a-jar technology allowed for a closure (both in terms of completing some of her research and even seeing her kids again) that would have otherwise been impossible. I found that touching and effective enough that this was a clear winner in the category.
  2. Turncoat by Steve Rzasa – This was the only nominated story that I’d actually read before the slate was announced, and it nearly made my ballot, though it was knocked off as I read other stories. This tale of an AI that inhabits a ship is certainly covering well tread ground, with stories like The Ship Who Sang or last year’s Hugo Award winning novel Ancillary Justice going deeper into the subject. However, the thing that’s really stuck with me in this story is the role and actions of the “uploaded” humans. I’d love to believe that such a thing would be possible in the long run, but how would we ever know the exact relationship between an uploaded human and its original, biological brain? What is lost and gained in the transition, and this story gets at some of the more troubling aspects of such suppositions. This is all world-building, of course, as the story itself is a fairly effective military campaign where an AI, disturbed by its uploaded masters, defects to the opposing side to try and save biological humans. I can see why this approach would rankle folks not into MilSF, but that’s a sub-genre that generally works for me, so here we are.
  3. On a Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli – A spiritual and heartfelt tale of humans discovering that the soul is actually a real, quantifiable thing, thanks to an alien planet’s strange magnetic fields. There is less of a story here, though there are some similarities to Totaled, where someone dies but is given a temporary reprieve so that they can glean some sense of closure. That closure is less effectively portrayed here, perhaps because this story is not told from the ghost’s perspective, but it is certainly implied. This actually reminded me of Timothy Zahn’s Conquerors trilogy, though Antonelli seems much more taken with the more spiritual implications than Zahn (who used a similar device for a more story driven purpose). There are some oddities about this that left me scratching my head, though I guess it makes sense from a more thematic perspective. Still, this is supposed to be SF, and I would have expected less of a rush to allow the ghost to pass on… In the end, it’s a decent story and I enjoyed it well enough, not too far behind Turncoat, but clearly inferior to Totaled.
  4. A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond – The tale of a single samurai taking on a mountain-sized Kaiju monster, this has stuck with me surprisingly well, even if there are a bunch of things that don’t quite jive with me. There are, for instance, a bunch of stylistic affectations that don’t really work for me at all. The story being told is effective enough though, and is what lets me enjoy it for what it is. There’s a decent sense of scale, and our protagonist is a man of honor who, while not perfect, manages to figure out how to defeat the monster. Could perhaps swap places with On a Spiritual Plain, though those stylistic affectations bother me for some reason (note: that usually doesn’t stop me if I think the story in question is interesting enough, which I guess isn’t enough in this case).
  5. The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright – Yeah, I don’t really get it. I guess there’s some interesting stuff in here somewhere (“the poopflinger has a point”), but there’s little story here. If the stylistic affectations of A Single Samurai bothered me, the affectations here downright bored me. It’s about a bunch of animals talking to each other in the wake of the Twilight of Man, trying to decide who will lead, or something like that. There are lots of Bibilical intonations, but the whole thing feels more poetic than story-like, and I did not particularly care for that. As part of the Puppy coterie complaining about the lack of good ol’ fashioned storytelling (a sentiment I admit that I have sympathy for), I have to wonder what’s up with this piece. As much of the Puppy slate has been derided, I have enjoyed a fair amount of it for its back-to-basics approach, but this does not fit there, and feels more like last year’s slate (albeit with a more Religious slant than last year’s stories). It’s fine for what it is, but it is pretty emphatically not my thing.

I definitely found this list an improvement over last year’s slate, which again, I did not particularly enjoy. With the possible exception of Totaled, I generally prefer the stuff I nominated to the finalists above, but then, I would think that, wouldn’t I? I don’t see the need to deploy No Award in this category, though I would not be surprised to see Wright’s story fall below that threshold (and we’ll see how I feel when the time comes to actually finalize my ballot, I guess).

Hugo Awards: The Goblin Emperor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Action and Reaction

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

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

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

Once you enter even more complex realms like psychology and sociology, forget about it. These systems don’t even pretend to be predictable. Take the political movement of Liberalism, as Chris Wenham explains:

Each of the major political movements active today have changed drastically from what they were a few centuries ago. What was called Neoliberalism, for example, whose economic policies of laissez-faire, deregulation, low taxes and restricted monetary supply are now more closely associated with neoconservatism, or just “conservatism” in general. Or how modern Liberals are now said to be in favor of big government and managed economies, while Classical Liberalism, from the time of John Locke and Adam Smith, is about the opposite.

The point here, which Wenham observers, is that:

Engineers have long noted a tendency for complex systems to grow and evolve until they perform the opposite of what they were built for.

He goes on to comment on a frankly bizarre argument against Intellectual Property that compares it to human slavery, but the general idea of a system that opposes what it was built for is a fascinating one that has a basis in scientific fact, and seems to crop up just about everywhere.

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

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

The first was low key and did not gain much traction, so I will not spend much time on that. The second was significantly more successful… from Correia’s point of view. I suppose some background is in order. In 2011, a freshly minted Correia was actually nominated for a Campbell Award for Best New Writer (not technically a Hugo, but administered as part of the same process). Correia recently explained his experience:

So I went out on the internet and started searching my name, trying to find out what the buzz was for the Campbell nominees. I started calling friends who belonged to various writer forums and organizations that I didn’t belong to, asking about what people thought of my books in there.

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

Meanwhile, I’m like, but did they like my books?

No. Hardly any of them had actually read my books yet. Many were proud to brag about how they wouldn’t read my books, because badthink, and you shouldn’t have to read books that you know are going to make you angry. A handful of people claimed to have my read my books, but they assured the others that they were safe to put me last, because as expected for a shit person, my words were shit, and so they were good people to treat me like shit.

Regardless of what you think of Correia or actually believe these things happened to him, I think you can see why he feels the way he does. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Correia launched Sad Puppies with the explicit purpose of getting authors with the “wrong” politics on the ballot so that the world could see the response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will leave you with this anecdote about Charles Darwin’s rhetorical strategy (emphasis mine):

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

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

It only took a couple of years for Darwin to formulate the idea of evolution by natural selection. It took thirty years to frame that idea in a way that would convince other scientists and the general public. Both the idea, and the rhetorical strategy that successfully communicated it, were great innovations.

I’ve blogged about this before, and as I mentioned then, I think perhaps the author simplifies the inception and development of the idea of evolution, but the point holds. I’m sure Darwin and his supporters were infuriated by the initial response to their ideas, and I’m sure plenty of hateful rhetoric was employed at the time. But Darwin didn’t allow it to spiral, he knew evolution was important enough that it would have to be accepted if he communicated it in such a way that people could accept it. I, for one, am glad he did. I don’t know that the solution to the challenges facing the Hugo are, but I know it’s not vitriol. And I hope it doesn’t take 30 years!

The Three-Body Problem

The ascension of geek culture in the United States has meant that long marginalized genres like Science Fiction have become more acceptable, or at least tolerated. Ironically, this acknowledgement from the literary mainstream seems to be part of the current culture war, what with Sad Puppies whining about message fiction and anti-puppies trying to counter the surprisingly successful efforts to return SF to the gutter (as it were). While many have cast this as a political issue, and there certainly is a political component, I’ve always thought that Eric S. Raymond’s analysis of the situation, based more on the qualities of literary fiction, was more cogent:

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.

Into this weary situation comes The Three-Body Problem, by China’s most popular science-fiction writer Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu, no relation). In China, the situation is somewhat different. After decades in which Chinese SF was subject to the whims of Communist Party rule, first as a way to “popularizing science for socialist purposes”, then as a pariah that was “promoting decadent capitalist elements”, it appears that SF is on the rise again. Liu has capitalized on the rising sentiment, and his most popular books are now getting translated and generating buzz amongst SF fandom.

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

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

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

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

There are some fantastical elements that threaten to break it away from SF, especially earlier in the book. As mentioned above, these do come together well enough in the end, though Liu’s cleverness is in the way he sets it up. The early, nearly complete lack of realism sets a point of reference such that, when Liu does get around to explaining why these things are happening, it feels acceptable even though it’s mostly hokum. Chaos Horizon explains it well:

While some of the scientific sections are sound, others are deliberately exaggerated. Near the end, there’s a bravura sequence where an alien civilization “unravels” a proton from 11 dimensions to 1, 2, and 3 dimensions, and then inscribes some sort of computer on that seemingly miniscule space. It’s one of the most fascinating pieces of bullshit I’ve read in years, but it is bullshit nonetheless.

Fascinating bullshit, indeed. I was more than willing to go with it.

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

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