Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.
These are the voyages of the Space Beagle. It’s continuing mission: to explore intergalactic space, encounter new life forms, new civilizations, and survive their deadly advances. Yes, A.E. van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle is a pretty clear precursor to Star Trek, right down to the episodic nature of the narrative. Of course, that’s mostly because this is a prime example of what was called a “fix-up” novel, a book comprised of a compilation of four previously published stories. The title of the book is also a pretty clear reference to Charles Darwin’s book about his five-year mission (another Trek connection) of scientific exploration on the HMS Beagle.
The first story details an encounter with Coeurl, a starving, intelligent cat-like creature that plays dumb in order to trick the crew of the Space Beagle into allowing access to the ship. Several members of the crew are killed before they wise up and manage to trick the beast into an escape capsule and strand it in space.
The second story follows the chaos resulting from telepathic contact with a race of bird-like aliens. One member of the crew recognizes that the signals are meant to be a benign, friendly message, but the form of the message is incompatible with the human mind, and only quick actions by the aforementioned crew member saves the ship.
The third story has the Space Beagle picking up a red creature called Ixtl, which seeks to reproduce by kidnapping members of the crew and implanting eggs in them. Some details of this story are close enough to the film Alien that van Vogt actually sued for plagiarism (the case settled out of court, and for the record, the filmmakers deny any influence).
Finally, the fourth story shows an encounter with a galaxy-spanning consciousness that has, more or less, consumed its entire galaxy. The crew must devise some sort of strategy to deal with this situation, especially given that they don’t want to lead this entity back to our home galaxy.
In fixing these stories up for the novel, van Vogt would establish a new central character, Elliot Grosvenor, the lone “Nexialist” onboard the Space Beagle. Nexialism is van Vogt’s name for a sorta holistic approach to knowledge. As he describes:
Nexialism is the science of joining in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields. It provides techniques for speeding up the processes of absorbing knowledge and of using effectively what has been learned.
The problems which Nexialism confronts are whole problems. Man has divided life and matter into separate compartments of knowledge and being. And, even though he sometimes uses words which indicate his awareness of the wholeness of nature, he continues to behave as if the one, changing universe had many separately functioning parts.
In essence, Grossvenor is van Vogt’s equivalent of Heinlein’s competent man. As Heinlein famously quipped, “Specialization is for insects.” At times, you can feel the “fix-up” nature of the novel, as it seems Grossvenor fades too much into the background of the narrative. Also, though the stories have satisfactory conclusions, they do feel a bit repetitive, and while the holistic approach of Nexialism is certainly admirable, the solutions aren’t quite clever enough to really justify the idea. Still, there’s something fundamentally optimistic about van Vogt’s vision that is refreshing in this cynical age. It’s telling that the alien creatures are all undone by their own egotism and selfishness, while the crew of the Space Beagle prevail through decency, self-sacrifice, and cooperation. Of course, there’s plenty of infighting amongst various specialized factions of the crew, but that’s the point of Grossvenor’s holistic approach.
This is almost certainly one of those books that suffers due to it’s influence. So much of what has followed in its footsteps have improved on the ideas that going back to read this now makes it feel quaint. It is certainly an interesting exercise to see such ideas in their embryonic form, even if the terminology used can be a bit stiff or even laughable (the crew repeatedly brandish a weapon that van Vogt calls a “vibrator” – it’s not his fault that the term has taken on other meanings since then, but still), but at this point, it’s probably more suitable for students of the genre than anyone else.
None of which is to say that the novel is bad, per say, just that it doesn’t quite hang together as well as you would generally want from a novel. Not entirely unexpected, given the “fix-up” nature of the novel, but it’s ironic that a novel with the theme that holistic thought is critical would be so episodic and disjointed. From what I can tell, van Vogt’s concept of Nexialism lead him to start thinking about how humankind would need to transcend its limitations, and thus followed Space Beagle up with the novel Slan, which represents a more cohesive vision from van Vogt. Still, if you want to see how early Space Opera stories influenced much of the current Science Fiction landscape, Voyage of the Space Beagle is a pretty good place to start (if perhaps not the earliest).
Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.
When you think of Christmas stories, the first genre that comes to mind is probably not Science Fiction. But decades of initially flippant but increasingly earnest proclamations that “Die Hard is a Christmas movie!” indicate that perhaps the notion of what constitutes a “Christmas Story” is somewhat malleable. Naturally, none of this is new. Witness To Follow a Star, a collection of nine science fiction Christmas stories published in 1977, featuring stories from Golden Age stars dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. One of the great things about reading vintage SF is the continual discovery that everything old becomes new again at some point (in this case, debates about what makes something a “Christmas Story”).
On its surface, the notions of Science Fiction and Christmas represent something of a contrast, but such conflicts can be useful in storytelling. As is typical of collections like these, the stories are a bit uneven, but it’s always nice to read something along these lines during the holiday season. Quick thoughts on each story:
Christmas on Ganymede by Isaac Asimov – Cute little short story written in Asimov’s traditional non-style, with a button of an ending that you might see coming, but which brought a smile to my face.
Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus by Frederik Pohl – Naturally Pohl takes on the commercialization of Christmas and imagines a far flung satirical future in which “department stores begin celebrating the Christmas sales rush in September”, imagine that absurdity! (I don’t talk much about my day job here, but I work for a digital retailer that starts their Christmas sales rush in July, so I had a nice chuckle at this part of the story.) Amusing predictions aside, this is perhaps not your typical romantic Christmas story, but that’s ultimately where its heart lies.
Santa Claus Planet by Frank M. Robinson – A man crash lands on an alien planet, and finds that the natives have rather odd and perhaps gift-giving traditions. An interesting, if exaggerated and fatalistic, exploration of the power dynamics inherent in gift giving. Not terribly Christmassy, to be sure, but interesting.
Christmas Tree by John Christopher – Short tale of a space traveler who plays with fire and ends up getting grounded (i.e. stranded) on the moon because his body can no longer the trip back to earth. Spoilers, I guess, but while the character will miss Christmases back home, this is not especially Christmassy either.
The Star by Arthur C. Clarke – One of Clarke’s most famous short stories, this won’t exactly put you in the Christmas mood, but pitting the cold hard science against the faith of believers (in this case Christians) will certainly make you think. This is not the first time I’ve read this story, and even knowing where it’s going – an excellent rug-pull at the end of the story where everything clicks in a devastating way – does not diminish its power.
The Christmas Present by Gordon R. Dickson – I guess they wanted to put all the bummer stories in the middle of the collection, which makes sense. This is another story about how aliens learn about Christmas, this time with tragic results. It stands in stark contrast to Asimov’s earlier story in this collection (which also deals with aliens trying to figure out Christmas), which is a nice touch.
Christmas Treason by James White – Much is made of the “lies” we tell kids about Santa and Christmas, and as you might expect, science fiction authors (and fans, for that matter) are the type who will not accept traditional explanations of the logistics of Santa’s delivery service. In the case of this story, kids with teleportation and psychokinesis powers assume that Santa must have a series of underground bunkers secreted throughout the world to support his Christmas Eve shenanigans. The only thing is: these bunkers are actually nuclear missile silos. While certainly a recipe for disaster, James White takes a decidedly more fun view of the situation and does a reasonable job balancing the tone of the story (which does need to walk a rather tight line).
The New Father Christmas by Brian W. Aldiss – In an increasingly automated world, will the machines and AIs adopt Christmas traditions in strange ways with unforeseen consequences? I suspect the writers of Futurama might have been inspired by this story in their conception of Robot Santa…
La Befana by Gene Wolfe – Christmas is about the birth of Earth’s savior, but what about other planets? Neat idea, and Wolfe uses one of my favorite Santa precursor legends in this short story.
As already mentioned, it might seem odd to see mixtures of Science Fiction and Christmas, but as it turns out, I’ve read several collections of Christmas Science Fiction stories, and there are probably a bunch of others. There are other collections from various authors, like Isaac Asimov’s Christmas (which is a collection of stories from Asimov’s magazine, rather than the author himself), but also some specific authors who seemingly specialize in the holiday, like Connie Willis’ A Lot Like Christmas and John Scalzi’s A Very Scalzi Christmas. All of these collections have their charms, in part because I like the contrast inherent in this micro-genre, and To Follow a Star is no exception (though I think I would probably recommend Willis and Scalzi books ahead of this one, for whatever that’s worth).
Next up for Vintage Science Fiction Month: Space Beagles!
Hard to believe it’s been over a year since the last one of these, though there’ve been plenty of other posts covering the Hugo Awards or Halloween Reading, and so on. Still, I’ve built up a backlog of SF books that need reviewing, so here goes nothing:
Reunion by Christopher Farnsworth – Four teenagers save the world in a small town during an event that became known as “New Year’s Evil.” Twenty years later, and the cyclical evil has returned. The four heroes, now cynical adults, must return home to go to their high school reunion and face the evil again. Or do they?
It’s a premise that recalls Stephen King’s It in more than a few ways, though Farnsworth obviously puts his own spin on it and clocking in at just 332 pages, it’s clearly not going for the epic sensibility King was working through in his novel. Farnsworth does make ample use of archetypes though, and it’s almost like he’s using It as a structural archetype. Each of our heroes follows a well established model. Eric is a magician, a la Merlin. Carrie is the girl detective, as in Nancy Drew. Alana is the Warrior Princess, like Xena. And Danny is the boy genius who goes on super science adventures in the manner of Jonny Quest. Each character is introduced in a sorta where are they now chapter, then they come together to confront evil (again), and each also gets flashbacks extolling their teenaged adventures. It all culminates in dueling climaxes, where we get the true story of “New Year’s Evil” cross cut with a redux in the present.
I was a little hesitant at first, but the book quickly won me over, and by the end I was wishing it was an It sized doorstop. It’s a story that does play to Farnsworth’s strengths, as in his President’s Vampire novels, where he gets to mix and match various bits of classic folklore and modern urban legends to craft a page turning adventure. There are some twists and turns and unexpected character revelations, which all worked well enough for me, even if some of them are a tad predictable. It’s still fun seeing each character leverage their talents, then team up to defeat a seemingly unstoppable evil by using clever combinations of said talents. It’s clearly drafting on its archetypes, right down to the structure, but hey: they’re archetypes for a reason. It all resonates quite well in the end. Solid page-turning beach-read type stuff, and a lot of fun.
Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells – NASA discovered an alien ship hidden in the asteroid belt in the 1960s and the entire space program has been a covert attempt to develop the technology to reach it. Dr. Jane Holloway is a linguist recruited to help decipher any alien language they stumble upon. When they reach the ship, Holloway discovers it’s not completely uninhabited. A disembodied voice guides and helps the astronauts as they make their way through the ship. But is the voice on their side? Or is it manipulating them for some nefarious purpose?
Straightforward space opera comfort food, this turns the pages and presents a few interesting conflicts that drive tension throughout, but it’s also not going to blow your mind with anything especially new. Plenty of SF tropes and info-dumps, but nothing too unusual for the genre. Alas, the biggest issue here is that it’s all in service of a larger series of books, and while the ending is a natural conclusion for some of the characters, there are still lots of open questions that will presumably be explored in later books. That being said, I might be amenable to reading at least one more of these, which is usually a good sign…
Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi – This is the third novella in a series about “dispatchers”, people who are legally empowered to take a life (except in this world, anyone who is murdered survives – they just wake up in their home after being murdered. Natural deaths still occur uninterrupted, only murders are affected). It’s a silly premise, but Scalzi has set up internally consistent rules and used them to tell tightly plotted murder/mystery stories that rely on the vagaries of the dispatching process in some way. As per usual, lots of snappy dialogue and light humor keep the tone playful and the pace moving sprightly. For some reason, this entire series was conceived as an audio book exclusive (though I think the first two eventually got a print edition), but they’re solid listens and Zachary Quinto does a good job reading the stories. This has been a fun series and I look forward to more installments (for the record: each story is a self-contained mystery, so it’s not the kind of series that leaves you with lots of loose threads and open questions.)
Freedom™ by Daniel Suarez – The sequel to and conclusion of the story started in Suarez’s Daemon, about a quasi-AI system that attempts to take over the world after its inventor dies. I found that first book to be enjoyable enough in a surface-level pulpy fiction way, but was not inclined to immediately seek out the sequel. But I did seek out more Suarez, and he’s grown on me as an author, so I have finally circled back to this sequel. The first novel primarily saw the Daemon as a villain, but in this book Suarez attempts to soften the image a bit. It’s still a situation where the Daemon has to break some eggs to make the omelet, but maybe that omelet is worth it?
There are some interesting ideas floating around here about better ways to organize a society and its various supply chains given a high tech base to start from, though it all still feels like we’re only really scratching the surface, and a lot of plot elements are far-fetched to say the least. That being said, that sort of thing can be a lot of fun if you can get on its wavelength and don’t ask too many questions. I’m glad I read it and enjoyed it well enough, but my complaints from the first book remain and this would not be the first Suarez I’d recommend (if you’re interested, go for Influx or Delta-V first…)
Still a few more books to catch up with, and we’ve got Vintage Science Fiction Month coming soon too, so stay tuned…
The Results of the 2022 Hugo Awards were announced last night, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I jumped back on the participation bandwagon this year, though I didn’t really end up reading much beyond the novels (which, in my mind, were something of a mixed bag). In any case, congratulations are due to all the winners! For those who want to really nerd out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting stats for the 2022 Hugo Awards are also available (.pdf).
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine takes home the rocket, the second book in the series and the second Hugo win. Good for Arkady Martine, and I enjoyed this novel just fine (it was third in my ranking), but book series are difficult when it comes to awards. All things being equal, I tend to prefer standalone works (or maybe works that are starting a series, though I guess some series are comprised of basically standalone entries that are only loosely affiliated, like Becky Chambers Wayfarer’s books).
Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki is the runner up, which actually fits my ranking, but Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, came in dead last (it was my #1). More indication that I’m not exactly in lockstep with the rest of the Hugo voter community… Then again, it did reasonably well in the first pass of voting (#3), so there is that.
As mentioned above, I didn’t read much of this year’s short fiction (certainly not enough to vote), so I don’t have much to say here, other than that we do see a lot of familiar names. Typical for a populist award like the Hugo, but given that my tastes don’t run particularly close to other Hugo voters’, I think I’m entering a bit of a fallow period when it comes to participation.
Wayward Children, by Seanan McGuire wins best series, which is interesting because I feel like Seanan McGuire is the most nominated author over the last 15 years or so, but this is only her second fiction win. Congratulations! I have not read anything from this series, but I’ve always enjoyed McGuire’s work. Still, the thought of being able to read enough of each series nominated in order to make an informed vote is daunting, which has always been my biggest complaint about this category…
Best Dramatic Presentation
Often a strange category, but this year the answer was pretty obvious and the voting went pretty much as expected: Dune takes home the rocket, as it should. Naturally, the two finalists that are the most off the beaten path, The Green Knight and Space Sweepers, come in at the bottom of the voting. I suppose it’s reward enough that they got nominated at all. Anywho, pour one out for Werewolves Within, I’m Your Man, Finch, and Malignant, amongst others not nominated (even in the longlist of nominees, only I’m Your Man had any traction, and it was pretty low on that list).
Other Thoughts on the 2022 Hugo Awards
Cora Buhlert takes home the award for Best Fan Writer, which was nice (she was #1 on my ballot), and there’s a few other winners that I was pleased to see (Naomi Novik won the Lodestar YA award, and I’ve enjoyed several of her novels, so it’s nice to see some recognition for her). Congrats again to all the winners. Given the nature of the awards, I have access to nominate next year, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I will not want to participate much next year. As usual, I’ll probably keep an eye on things, but as mentioned above, I feel like my preferred style is not in fashion much these days, but I guess we’ll see what the future brings.
The voting deadline for the 2022 Hugo Awards is this week, so this is about as final as my Ballot will get. The categories I’m voting in are a bit on the slim side this year, but you only have time and motivation to do so much. Let’s take a gander:
Everything after #2 could shift around a bit depending on my mood, and a part of me thought about throwing a “No Award” at #3 and leaving it at that, but that’s unfair. These are all solid books, even if some are not especially my cup of tea. I have no idea what to expect when it comes to the winner. Project Hail Mary seems to be getting a lot of criticism because there’s too much science and math (in Science Fiction? No way!) and not enough character, but it’s always hard to tell how representative such sentiments are…
Harder to complain about voters’ tendency to favor bland blockbusters over anything artistic or weird when you’ve got The Green Knight as a finalist. Even Wandavision takes some pretty bold chances (even if the ending rubs me the wrong way). Still, pour one out for Werewolves Within, I’m Your Man, Finch, and Malignant, amongst others.
I took a look at some short fiction categories, but didn’t get anywhere close to having read enough to actually vote.
I might catch up with the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form episodes I haven’t seen yet (but I doubt any would surpass For All Mankind: The Grey.
I might also catch up with some of the fan awards (Fan Writer and Fanzine both have folks I already follow, so might as well make it official).
And that about covers the 2022 Hugo Awards Final Ballot… stay tuned in a few weeks for the results!
Just a series of quick hits on my media diet (and sometimes, uh, regular diet) of late:
Obi-Wan Kenobi – Perfectly cromulent but completely unnecessary. It feels like a two hour movie drawn out to five hours, but I’ve always liked Ewan McGregor’s take on Kenobi and it’s fun enough hanging out with him. It’s a little weird that people being offed with light sabers seem to keep surviving and one of the things I’ve always been disappointed by was that all the Jedi were hunted down and killed by people other than Darth Vader. We do get some Vader though, and it’s all reasonably well done. Not disappointed that I watched, but again, it’s unnecessary.
For All Mankind – What if the Soviets landed on the moon first? This alternate history NASA chronicle is a little overheated and sweaty, a space program soap opera, but it’s quite entertaining. Now in its third season, having jumped through the space program from the late 60s through the 80s and now the 90s and with the race for Mars in place, it’s holding up reasonably well… except for an ill-advised subplot from the second season that they inexplicably doubled-down on in the third season (the weird Karen/Danny relationship is just cringe in the extreme, I can’t believe they are still trying to draw it out like this.) Recommended!
Only Murders in the Building – I initially resisted this, then when my Amazon firestick kept crashing during one of the first episodes (which I looked up and was apparently a known issue for several months at least) I kinda fell off the train. Once the second season rolled around I picked it up again and immediately binged the entire first season (I guess they fixed the bug). It’s quite fun, Steve Martin is great, Selena Gomez is fantastic, and they have a solid restraining effect on Martin Short’s excesses. The chemistry between them is unconventional but well done, and the story offers enough twists and turns and stylistic gambles that it all comes together in a balanced way. The second season is starting off alright, though I think Amy Shumer is a distinct downgrade from guest stars from the first season…
Stranger Things – Season 4 comports itself as well as ever, though the strain of characters and geography are starting to show. Too many characters being spread too far apart geographically is not helping, though they do manage to pull it off reasonably well. As usual, the Steve/Robin/Dustin thread is the best (perhaps because they quickly link up with Max/Lucas/Nancy), while the Mike/Will/Jonathan/Argyle crew is clearly the worst. Eleven is separated from most for the bulk of the season (leading to amusing “we usually rely on this psychic girl we know to fight these things” moments), but her story is illuminating and you can see the overall arc of the series taking better shape (maybe a little retconny, but still). The initial 7 episodes play pretty great and lead to a solid finale, but the next two feature-length episodes are perhaps less successful, in part because there’s so much maneuvering to get people back together for next season, but then, I’m looking forward to the next season, in part, because a lot of the characters are back together, in one place.
Hustle (2022) – Solid Adam Sandler Basketball movie (not a recipe guaranteed for success at Kaedrin HQ, to be sure, but they pulled it off). It’s got some fun little procedural elements of a basketball scout, and it’s largely set in Philly, which is always a plus. Not perfect, by any means, but a solid underdog sports flick that’s worth a watch. **1/2
The Princess (2022) – An inverted medieval take on The Raid‘s episodic, video-game-esque battle through a tower. There’s a bit of a fairy tale component to it and the whole story is cheesy, but the action sequences and choreography are great and quite entertaining. **1/2
Stone Cold (1991) – A last gasp of 80s action tropes that I’d definitely seen bits and pieces of back in the day, but had never sat down and watched from start to finish before. Totally ludicrous cops and criminals action genre comfort food. Brian Bosworth felt a bit hokey at the time, but looking back at his absurd excesses is fun enough these days, and boy, they don’t do car crashes and explosions like they used to anymore… ***
Electra Glide in Blue (1973) – A quintessential 70s movie, riffing on an inverse Easy Rider premise about a highway patrol motorcycle cop in Arizona angling to become a detective. Apparently derided in its time, it seems like it’s due for a revival. Really great filmmaking and visual style throughout, with set pieces ranging from an action car chase, to tense cops vs hippies confrontations, to a woman emasculating a corrupt cop at a biker bar.
It’s deeply cynical stuff, which usually isn’t my bag, but it’s well made and interesting in a lot of ways. Recommended for fans of that sort of 70s dusty crime road movie sub-genre. ***
What’s Up, Doc? (1972) – Pretty much the complete opposite in tone to Electra Glide in Blue, this is something of a screwball comedy starring a young Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, with supporting turns from lots of folks you might recognize, like Madeline Kahn and Austin Pendleton. The whole thing revolves around four identical suitcases and the various wacky schemes people are going through to get their hands on one or the other of these bags, only to find it’s been inadvertently switched with another. It’s really fun! ***
Mad God (2021) – Famous effects guy Phil Tippit spent decades hand crafting the stop motion animation for this sprawling passion project filled with visually spectacular imagery…
Almost no plot or dialogue, but lots of squishy sound design and creative creatures and monsters and gross out body-horror-esque sequences. I generally prefer more plot or story meat on the bone, but it’s hard to deny the visually spectacular imagination at work here (definitely a shoe-in for the Most Visually Stunning Kaedrin Movie Award). **
Ambulance (2022) – Alright, who let Michael Bay get his hands on a drone? Pretty great action flick about a heist gone wrong with a few robbers hijacking an Ambulance and driving it all around LA to avoid the cops and so on. There’s some typical Bay style macho dudebro posturing, but Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Eiza González are a compelling trio, and the action is the real standout here. Clocking in at 136 minutes, it maybe overstays its welcome a bit, but this sort of non-green-screen action is worth celebrating these days (and this was definitely underseen in theaters). Worth a look for action fans.
The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi – The usual enjoyable Scalzi experience, snappy and fun, but clearly middle tier at best, perhaps in line with his Lock In or Head On offerings. Actually, that comparison is quite apt, as that series also had clumsy worldbuilding and a protagonist whose gender is unclear. The plot of Kaiju takes a while to formulate itself and relies on a cliched, shortsighted corporate CEO villain, but even when the story is bogged down in establishing various Kaiju protection schemes (ranging from mildly clever to outright silly), Scalzi’s page-turning ability, likeable, competent characters, and zippy dialogue keeps everything afloat. I still generally look forward to all of Scalzi’s releases and while this is hardly his best, it’s entertaining and fun.
The Broken Room, by Peter Clines – A young girl escapes from a government science project and enlists the help of a former CIA operative. Decent little thriller with some nice procedural spy business and a supernatural body-horror element that gets more pronounced as it goes. Nothing particularly new here, but it’s brisk and nimble with a few twists and turns and solid action.
Into the Black Nowhere, by Meg Gardiner – A minor improvement over Gardiner’s first Unsub novel, this is another serial killer thriller that strikes that page turning airport novel balance, but isn’t especially doing anything special. Still, it’s entertaining enough and I’m looking forward to Gardiner’s co-written sequel to Heat coming soon.
I’ve been playing along with the 2022 Hugo Awards and it’s time to take a look at the Fantasy novel finalists (the ballot is split evenly between fantasy and science fiction, and we’ve already covered the SF novel finalists in another post). For the record, I do tend to lean more towards science fiction than fantasy, so you’ll need to take what follows with the appropriate boulder of salt.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark – Set in an alternate Cairo in 1912, this novel tells the story of Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, as she investigates the murder of an entire secret brotherhood dedicated to a famous magician.
As a genre, fantasy has been focusing more and more on stories that eschew Tolkein’s vaguely medieval, Western European worldbuilding. There’s still tons of elves and orcs and wizards and whatnot out there, but this year’s Hugo nominees tend towards more diverse settings and magics. P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Cairo is an interesting place, but the format of the novel remains familiar. It’s a police procedural, complete with a fantastical mystery, some political intrigue, even a heroine who insists that she works alone forced to partner up with an enthusiastic rookie cop.
At its best, this novel sets up situations that are resolved with a duel of wits, as when Fatma makes deals with a djinn (who are famously tricky in their literal, punishingly ironic interpretations of requests). At its worst, you get a climactic battle with a Wild Wild West-style mechanical djinn. Spoilers, I guess, but while you probably won’t see that particular tidbit coming, the Scooby Doo-esque villain reveal was the least surprising thing in the book. In between, we’re left with a series of scattershot tangents and various character bits that don’t entirely land.
It doesn’t help that the mystery at the core of this novel isn’t particularly well done. Fatma is great at dealing with djinn, but she doesn’t seem to be much of an investigator. When the story awkwardly turns towards a more international intrigue angle, Fatma is even less impressive (this turn feels much more like an excuse for Clark to delve into the perils of colonialism, a favorite topic of the Hugos over the last decade, and boy do the British take a pounding here). As usual with this sort of thing, Clark tries to head off this complaint by explicitly calling it out in the story: when someone tells Fatma something she should have discovered herself, she thinks “what kind of investigator was this unaware of what was going on right in front of her eyes.” Indeed! Unfortunately, self-awareness of incompetence doesn’t make up for that incompetence (this is a particular pet peeve of mine; clearly others are fine with it.)
Another example: throughout the story, Fatma runs into an acolyte to one of the old Egyptian gods. Every time she sees him, she’s struck by his odd appearance, and it seems like he’s actually transforming into the god he worships. You’d think that an agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, living in a world with djinn, goblins, ghouls, and all manner of magical objects would at least consider the possibilities, but she simply writes it off as a crazy man disfiguring himself (spoiler alert: he’s not.)
It’s an interesting setting, but all too often, despite the ample cultural vocabulary and distinct locations, it’s only used as window dressing for a derivative story. That’s not inherently a bad thing, and I’m sympathetic to a familiar trope if it’s executed well. This isn’t a terrible novel, and there are times when it captures that X-Files-style procedural transported to a historical Cairo vibe that the premise calls to mind (a type of story that scratches an persistent itch for me), but there’s nothing here that makes me think this is the best genre novel of the year.
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan – In 1345 China, the starving peasant Zhu family is hanging by a thread. When a bandit attack orphans the two children, and the son quickly succumbs to grief and starvation, this leaves the daughter alone to fight for survival. She hatches a plan to use her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, she must hide her true identity as she learns what the monastery teaches. Once the monastery is destroyed, she joins the rebellion against Mongol rule, eventually becoming a general destined for greatness.
This is basically a fictionalized account of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. The key difference here, of course, is that he was not a woman in disguise. The premise of a woman taking on a man’s role is a classic trope, and while this obviously calls to mind Mulan, She Who Became the Sun is obviously a much more serious take on the idea.
The gender swap is clearly the driving force behind the story, and the implications are many. For instance, when Zhu joins the monastery, she must be careful to avoid feminine-gendered tasks:
Zhu felt a sickening lurch, as of the world reorienting itself. She’d assumed that everyone could braid, because to her it was as natural as breathing. It was something she’d done her whole life. But it was a female skill. In a flash of insight so painful she knew it must be true, she realized: she couldn’t do anything Chongba wouldn’t have done.
Later, as she rises through the ranks in the rebellion, she leverages these gendered roles to win battles in unexpected ways. The character of Zhu is well established and explored throughout the novel. Later, though, a secondary protagonist appears. The Mongol general Ouyang was the last surviving son of a Chinese family sentenced to death by the Mongols. To avoid death, Ouyang accepted castration and servitude to the Mongols, eventually rising through the ranks, in part thanks to his relationship with the prince’s heir, Esen. Unfortunately, Ouyang’s story feels a bit awkward and extraneous, especially as it gets encumbered by the court intrigue between Esen and his brother Wang. Still, the gendered nature of Ouyang, frequently described as having a feminine appearance, is a sorta mirror of Zhu’s experience. I can see why this secondary story exists, but it muddles the overall narrative a bit and impacts pacing as well.
The story is punctuated with various battles and political scheming that befits your typical epic fantasy, and some of these are well done, but it’s clear the focus here is on characterization and in particular, the sexuality and gender of our characters and how they subvert or queer gender for their own purposes. Another aspect of this story that I don’t see people talking about is how one’s expectations and seeking out of greatness and power can hollow out the soul. Zhu frequently laments that her actions have crossed a line that she will have to pay for dearly in the afterlife, and these actions get more and more troubling as the story goes on. While successful on these character building fronts, it’s another tick against the momentum of the story.
I can see why this novel is popular with Hugo voters, who have an obsession with gender and sexuality, but the biggest complaint I have here is that this is barely a fantasy. It reads much more like historical fiction than anything else. There are some scenes where Zhu sees ghosts, but they play no role in the story at all and are there purely as a symbolic or thematic note. I guess this is sorta alternate history, but there’s not really a sense of “what if” going on here (the result is ultimately the same as our history). I will fully admit that I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, but I’m glad I read it, and I do think it’s really well done. I’m just struggling with how to rank it within a genre that it doesn’t really represent very well…
Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki – Once upon a time, Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil. If she doesn’t deliver seven souls to hell, she will forfeit her own. A violinist by trade, Shizuka has already enticed six of her students to sell their souls for fame and success, and she is now searching for her seventh and final student. Katrina Nguyen is a transgender runaway with no prospects, but she catches Shizuka’s eye (or, er, ear) with her raw talent and obsession with violin. Oh, and there’s also an incognito alien refugee who owns a donut shop that Shizuka falls in love with, just to complicate matters further.
This might seem like an odd agglomeration of plot elements and it really shouldn’t work as well as it does, but color me surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel. Sure, it’s obsessed with sexuality and gender, just like the grand majority of Hugo nominees over the past several years, and the occasional passage feels more like a Twitter talking point than prose, but this novel does back that up with a deeper exploration of those surface level ideas.
The kindness that Shizuka shows towards Katrina is well established throughout the story, and the traumas of Katrina’s past mean that Shizuka has much to learn as well as teach. Of course Shizuka’s kindness is tempered by the ultimate fate she intends for her student, which is a source of tension that drives the story. Indeed, it almost feels even more cruel to show that sort of kindness only to condemn someone’s soul to eternal damnation. But without getting too into spoilers, this is ultimately a hopeful story.
While this is clearly an atypical fantasy novel, we’re treated to numerous procedural bits and details that would interest someone with a science fiction mindset. For instance, there’s several sequences involving a woman at a violin shop who repairs and restores violins, and it’s not just a passing reference. The book goes in depth on carpentry, wood, strings, bridges, famous historical violins, even cursed violins. Shizuka talks a lot about what makes music tick, and while the novel clearly doesn’t gloss over the transgender social elements, much of it is discussed in relation to music. There’s lots of things that Katrina does that are driven by her identity that are almost ironic compared to what Shizuka is used to from her students. Where A Master of Djinn used its Egyptian setting as window dressing for a conventional story, this book more thoroughly integrates its disparate elements.
For instance, at one point in the story, Katrina’s trans identity is revealed online (by a demon, naturally) and her Youtube videos, which previously had lots of comments about how inspiring the music was, start attracting vicious culture war comments and so on:
Furthermore, Shizuka immediately noticed something even more insidious than the hate. For not all the responses attacked Katrina’s womanhood. Some people where vehemently defending her right to gender representation. Some were calling out racism. Some messages were well wishes and hearts and “Your so inspiring,” and “Good luck.”
Some people were accusing others of being Nazis, while others said Katrina deserved justice.
But in all this, where were the comments about the music?
Culture war stuff can be exhausting in part because it reduces people’s identities to one simple axis, and everything else gets lost in the shuffle. Here, Aoki is able to maintain a more wholistic sense of character dynamics.
There are some things that didn’t quite work for me. I tended to appreciate the donut shop aliens more than most readers, but the “Endplague” that they are trying to escape from isn’t particularly well explained. Stylistically, Aoki has a tendency to shift perspectives frequency. Not just chapter to chapter, but mid-scene or mid-conversation. This can be a bit disorienting at times, and while some authors can get away with this (Pynchon comes to mind), I can see this stylistic tic rubbing some folks the wrong way. Ultimately, these are only minor issues for me.
One again, I’m probably not the target audience for this novel and it touches on lots of things that don’t especially interest me… Like, I enjoy the occasional donut and violins can make great music, but I’m not exactly intrigued by either subject (and I don’t mean to imply this is all that’s in the book, these are just two examples). But he way that Aoki weaves all of this together impressed me, and made me interested in things I normally wouldn’t seek out. It’s quirky and weird and doing something new with well worn tropes (it’s not as if Faustian bargains are an untapped sub-genre, you know) in a way that clearly isn’t for everyone, but which worked surprisingly well for me. It’s clearly my favorite of the fantasy nominees, and I’ll probably rank it higher than at least one of the SF nominees (even if this probably won’t take the top slot).
That about wraps up the 2022 Hugo Awards novel finalists. Top slots in my ballot will probably be Project Hail Mary and Light from Uncommon Stars.
Since I’m playing along with the 2022 Hugo Awards process and I’ve made good progress on the novels, I figured I’d split out the SF finalists in one post (look for another post covering the fantasy finalists coming soon).
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir has already been reviewed and remains at the top of my ballot. I’m not particularly sanguine about its chances, given the current Hugo voter’s obsession with social issues and character, as opposed to the science or ideas that drive Weir’s book. I suspect they’d see it as a bit of a throwback, but then, it did make the ballot in the first place, so who knows? I only have one book left, but I don’t see it budging this one from the top of my ranking.
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine – The sequel to the 2020 Hugo Best Novel, A Memory Called Empire, this one is essentially more of the same. Which is to say, it’s competent space opera fodder that I enjoyed quite a bit! Is it good enough to be the best SF of the year? That’s the rub.
One of my complaints about A Memory Called Empire was that while it hinted at an alien threat throughout the story, it mostly covered a predictable thread of court intrigue and political power struggle right up to its completely expected conclusion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and there’s something to be said for a well executed take on standard tropes.
This sequel shifts focus to that alien threat, and once again, it feels like Martine is playing with the standard playbook – this time for first contact stories. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that and it’s reasonably well executed, but Martine seems far more interested in exploring the galactic empire she’s set up, and all the baggage that goes along with imperialism and colonialism, especially as it relates to the relationship between our two main protagonists. Which is well drawn and I enjoy spending time with those characters, even if it feels like we’ve been down this road before. In general, this focus on character over action does muck with the pacing, and the more military SF aspects of the story get shorter shrift. There’s also a thread involving the emperor-to-be and imperial communications that feels a bit tacked on, though it is eventually tied back into the overall narrative well enough.
It’s ultimately a worthy sequel to the first novel, better in some ways, but ultimately there’s not much new here. It’s a totally cromulent experience for sure, but if you’ve read a bunch of first contact stories before, you won’t be particularly surprised, and if you have been following along with the Hugos for the past few years, similar social issues and character beats have been hit pretty hard by other nominees. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that and there’s something to be said about well executed versions of standard tropes, but I don’t know that this rises to the level of best SF of the year.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers – At this point, I’ve read all of the books in Chambers’ popular Wayfarers series and have come away with somewhat mixed impressions. As I summarized on Chambers’ most recent Hugo-nominated entry in the series:
I’ve generally enjoyed the books in this series, a space opera that focuses on nice people, rather than grim despair or dystopia (as a lot of modern takes go). The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a character-driven, episodic narrative about the crew of a hyperspace tunneling ship that had seen better days. Most of the events covered in the book were well done but underwhelming, though it ended on a relatively strong note and the characters were enjoyable. The next book, A Closed and Common Orbit, focused much closer on two of the characters from the first book, and was significantly better for it. Like the first book, the stakes and tension weren’t particularly high, but the two characters at the heart of the story were endearing and interesting and once again, the ending was strong.
Alas, the third entry in the series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, was my least favorite so far. A set of day-in-the-life character sketches almost completely devoid of tension or drama, it really didn’t work for me at all. At first glance, this most recent entry in the series has a similar tone.
The story takes place at the Five-Hop One-Stop, a sort of truck-stop in space, as three visitors and the proprietor get stuck together due to a freak accident in orbit around them that prevents any traffic from coming or going. All the characters are from different alien races, and none are human. As you might guess from Chambers’ generally positive attitude and optimistic vibes, this isn’t going to be a pressure-cooker situation where inter-species conflict threatens to explode, but there’s actually lots of interesting exploration going on here. Sure, most of it just comes down to various characters talking and attempting to understand one another’s cultures and perspectives, or even other races not present in the book, but it works a lot better than the previous book. Naturally these conversations hit on a lot of topics of interest to human readers, even if the characters aren’t human, and given the general politics of the Hugos the past few years, I think you know what you’re in for – though it’s nowhere near as ham-fisted or preachy as some other nominees have a tendency to be…
This lends itself to some mild tension and conflict, though it never really boils over into anything even remotely threatening. Perhaps the most memorable discussion involves us humans and our weird obsession with cheese and how it’s made, and how disgusting it is to the aliens, which is very funny. There’s one genuine argument between two of the characters, but that’s understandable enough, even to the characters themselves. One character has a bit of separation anxiety with their sibling stuck in orbit, but that’s not played up too hard. And there’s an incident involving a child in danger, but we all know it will work out fine in the end, and of course it does. I guess that’s a spoiler, but not really.
All in all, it’s another enjoyable entry into an enjoyable series, with likable characters and a nice positive attitude. I can see why it’s popular, especially with Hugo voters, and while I enjoyed it well enough, I don’t think it rises to the level of best SF of the year. Indeed, I’d put it about on par with A Desolation Called Peace with a similar notion of being a generally well executed version of something we’ve seen before. If Chambers is ever able to harness her storytelling powers to generate something more compelling, and populate it with these likable characters she’s so good at creating, that would be a true winner. These slice-of-life sketches are all well and good, but they don’t tend to stay with me…
So that covers the 2022 Hugo Awards SF finalists. Stay tuned for a look at the fantasy-oriented finalists. I only have one book left to go there, but it may be a few weeks. In the meantime, maybe I’ll give the Short Stories a whirl…
The 2022 Hugo Awards finalists were announced last week, so it’s time for the requisite congratulations and/or bitter recriminations. I fell off the Hugo bandwagon last year, but got back in this year and submitted some nominations, so let’s take a look at the finalists and see how I did:
I’ve only read one of the finalists for Best Novel, but it was one of the books I nominated. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir was probably my favorite SF of the past couple of years and it was naturally one of my nominations, so it’s clearly the book to beat on my ballot.
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, is the sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which won Best Novel in 2020 and which I enjoyed quite a bit. I’ve already started this one, and it seems to be stepping up a bit from the first, which is a good sign.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers, was on my radar and Chambers has been frequently nominated (this book is part of a series that won Best Series a couple years ago), but I never got around to it. I’m somewhat mixed on her Wayfarer’s books. I really loved one of them, thought another was solid, and didn’t particularly care for the last one. This sounds interesting enough, so we’ll see how it compares…
Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki, is completely new to me. The title makes it sound like SF, but the blurb is pretty definitively fantasy: featuring cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts. Those are some interesting ingredients, but it also sounds like the sort of thing that might not cohere for me.
A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark, sounds like a fun little fantasy mystery set in Egypt. Apparently part of a series that Clark established via novellas the past few years, he’s been a mainstay of the Hugos for a while now, though this is his first novel.
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan, sounds an awful lot like a more serious take on Mulan. It seems to be a solid story, but honestly, I’m not seeing much in the way of SF or fantasy elements, though I guess there could be some alternate history tropes going on here… I guess we’ll find out soon enough!
Overall, it’s an interesting ballot. In terms of genre, we’ve got 3 SF and 3 Fantasy. Interestingly, the three Fantasy novels are all debuts, while the SF are from established authors. Three finalists appear to be part of a series, though only one of those seems to require you to have read a previous book. A male author (2 male authors) shows up on the best novel ballot for the first time since 2018. As of right now, I’m still assuming that Project Hail Mary will top my ballot, but you never know.
A lot of common names show up on the Novella ballot, and actually all the shorter fiction categories have authors that are popular with Hugo voters. I’ll probably take a swing at Short Stories again this year, even though I’m inevitably disappointed by the category (though they are easy to read, since they’re so short)…
Best Dramatic Presentation
The big surprise here is that Hugo voters actually put some more thought into this ballot than usual. Oh sure, you’ve still got Marvel and Disney entries, and Dune was pretty much a lock, but the big surprise is that The Green Knight garnered a spot. Space Sweepers is also nominally interesting here as well, as Hugo voters don’t typically go for foreign flicks. I suspect Dune will still win it, but it’s a more varied ballot than usual. In terms of the Short Form award, it’s nice to see 5 nominees from shows that haven’t been nominated before. This is a far cry from when this category was generally referred to as “Which Dr Who episode should we give an award to?” (which, granted, has been a while, but still.)
Other Categories and Assorted Thoughts
Congrats to all the nominees, it seems like a fine set of finalists.
Best Series continues to be something of a popularity contest, but then, that’s generally what the Hugos are… At least none of these series are also nominated in the Best Novel category this year. I’m guessing it’s Seanan McGuire’s year, but you never know.
Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book has one novel I actually read in preparation of the Hugos this year, but didn’t particularly love. Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer, probably makes more sense as a YA book. Some interesting ideas about AI and the way apps/games/algorithms can impact privacy and security, but it felt a bit messy to me…
So there you have it, the 2022 Hugo Awards in a nutshell. I’ll definitely be reading the novels, and maybe some of the short stories too, so keep an eye out for reviews…
When the premise for Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock, was announced, I admitted to a little trepidation. It’s essentially a near-future climate change thriller, so there are plenty of landmines an author needs to avoid in order to produce something that won’t clash with readers’ probably complicated thoughts on the subject. Fortunately, Stephenson is up to the task. His stylistic mainstays of digressions and fascination with unexpected consequences all fit with the story being told here.
Any worries that the novel would devolve into indulgent, self-important lectures were allayed relatively early on in the novel. Once Stephenson started talking about feral hogs and their intersection with meth gators, well, I knew he wouldn’t let the seriousness of the themes overwhelm the need to tell an entertaining story. That sort of approach is much more likely to have an impact than a lot of climate-based science fiction, which has a didactic tendency to preach to the choir.
Of course, Stephenson’s idea of an entertaining story might not mesh with a lot of readers, and indeed, it features plenty of info-dumping and digressions on topics that you may or may not find interesting. Most of these explorations are driven by unexpected consequences of climate change or the idiosyncratic and varied adaptations humans have made to deal with it. I’ve already mentioned the feral hogs and meth gators, but there’s also fire ants, which are attracted to the ozone produced by air conditioner relays, which aren’t easily replaced due to globalized supply chain issues, so people start abandoning their homes in favor of RVs, campers, etc… Naturally, that gave rise to sprawling truck stop/gas station complexes that are almost like miniature cities.
The owner of those complexes is a cantankerous billionaire who has noticed that climate-based issues are driving down real estate values, and so he decides to engage in a bit of geoengineering. He hoards sulfur, then builds a giant subterranean cannon that will shoot the sulfur up into the atmosphere. The sulfur will reflect a sizeable portion of sunlight back out into space, thus lowering temperatures on earth (and apparently providing spectacularly beautiful sunsets). This is not a new idea, nor is it something that we have not observed in nature before. Some volcano eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991, have resulted in exactly this sort of thing. Of course, the effects of such a strategy are inconsistent. We’re talking about global climate here, so models can only tell you so much. Yes, global average temperature will go down, but what sorts of local effects are you likely to see? What impact will this have on sea-levels in the Netherlands? What about the monsoon season in India?
The book is filled with these sorts of speculations and adaptations to climate change. Most are not good long-term solution, but it gets at the decentralized way people respond to these sorts of issues, and they do provide mitigating effects while longer-term strategies like carbon capture are being set up. As I’ve often observed, human beings don’t so much solve problems as they exchange one set of problems for another in the hopes that the new set is more favorable than the old. Such tradeoffs are covered in depth throughout the novel.
The big sulfur gun geoengineering scheme is often cited as the big idea of this book, but the real theme here is that the problem of climate change will be broken down into a series of smaller, more focused challenges and solutions. The big sulfur gun isn’t actually that big. At best, it’s a delaying action. But it is something! And we’ll need to do a lot of somethings, big and small, if we’re going to tackle climate change. The problem is too big, too complex, involving too many people, too many governments, and too many agendas to solve it any other way. This book illustrates the distributed way that this sort of thing will happen. Sure, maybe all the governments of the world will come together in peace and harmony and completely rework globalized energy networks, our financial system, and so on, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for that one.
At first glance, the story threads in the book are a bit scattered, but it’s not an uncommon approach from Stephenson. You’ve got a thread about Dutch royalty, a partial Native American on a Moby Dick-like quest to kill a specific feral hog, the aforementioned Texas billionaire, and a Canadian man of Indian descent who gets involved in a strange border conflict with China. The usual Stephensonian distractions and digressions are out in full force, touching on all manner of seemingly disconnected subjects from falconry to drone-assisted hunting to obscure martial arts to deepfakes to large scale engineering. It feels like Stephenson is just obsessing over things he finds neat, but something about the way he lays these things out and integrates them into the larger story works for me. It does all come together in the end, and I think Stephenson fans will find plenty to chew on. I’m a big fan of Stephenson though, so your mileage may vary. Some of the things I’m praising in this novel are things that I often don’t like in other books. In any case, I liked this enough to nominate it for a Hugo award, and I hope it does find a large audience.