Science Fiction

Hugo Awards 2020: The Results

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

Best Novel

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

Short Fiction

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

Best Series

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

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

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

Best Dramatic Presentations

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

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

Retro Hugos

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

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

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

SF Book Review – Part 33: Hugo Nominees and Moar

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

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

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

Hugo Awards: A Memory Called Empire

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo Awards 2020: Initial Thoughts

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

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

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

SF Book Review – Part 33

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

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

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

Vintage Science Fiction Month: To Marry Medusa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Inherit the Stars

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

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

Inherit the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

Vintage Science Fiction Month: The Intersection of Horror and SF

Vintage Science Fiction Month is an annual call to celebrate, read, and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction. I’ve participated in this for the last few years and have found the process rewarding. This non-challenge was the brainchild of Andrea from Little Red Reviewer, and this year, there’s been a concerted push to get more participation, which is why I’m posting this now. It’s never too early to start thinking about what you want to read and discuss. The only real rule for participating is that you do so in January.

Vintage Science Fiction Month

Since it’s October and I’m already wallowing in the Halloween season, I figured it would be worth taking a look at the intersection between horror and science fiction. While both genres are distinct, there is surprising amount of overlap, even in the histories of those genres. Of course, defining genres is a task fraught with drama and controversy, but my goal here is not to strictly define what science fiction and horror are, but to explain how my understanding of horror has informed my thoughts on science fiction (and vice versa). It’s easy enough to come up with a definition for a genre that covers straightforward examples, but those definitions always get blurry around the edges, and cross-genre works become difficult to categorize. Again, it’s not my goal here to define some works as “not real SF” or whatever, just to explore that blurry, fuzzy area between science fiction and horror. And there’s a lot to explore, going all the way back to the origins of science fiction.

Gothic horror novels like The Castle of Otranto or more famously Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus contain the roots of what would become science fiction, even if the genres eventually diverged considerably. Other nineteenth century authors, like Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Luis Stevenson, made similar forays beyond normal horror tropes to include science-related activities.

If you look in a bookstore, though, you probably won’t find this stuff in the science fiction section. This separation of horror from science fiction is a marketing decision, but then, that’s the point of genres in the first place. Assigning a work to a genre generates a set of expectations in the reader. Such expectations can manifest as tropes, codes, references, and even expressive prose techniques, all in service of providing the reader with an experience consistent with genre conventions. While both genres often portray spine-tingling confrontations with a terrifying unknown, the chief difference between them is not the events depicted, but how the response to those events is characterized. The horror or gothic response is generally one of acceptance and surrender, while science fiction’s reaction is one of rational curiosity. To drastically simplify the sitation: horror thrives in a lack of understanding while science fiction sees such threats as a challenge to be overcome, a problem to be solved. These are generalizations, of course, and there are certainly exceptions and cross-genre exercises that straddle the line. As science fiction matured though, these distinctions became more pronounced.

If you read vintage SF and gothic fiction, you can see this transition happening in the early 20th century, and accelerating once John Campbell took over editing duties for Astounding. Funnily enough, Campbell’s most famous story from his time as an author is Who Goes There?, a fantastic horror story turned into SF by the way in which the characters confront the shapeshifting “Thing” from another planet. It’s telling that filmic adaptations of this story emphasize the horror elements by instituting a more ambiguous ending not present in the story (in which the terrifying alien is now understood and rationality is re-established). In any case, Campbell’s work as an editor did transform science fiction and hasten the divergence between horror and science fiction.

Overlaps between the two genres are still common, of course, but often as a way to emphasize which genre we’re really in. Take William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist; pretty definitively categorized as horror, but when you actually read the book, a very large amount of time is spent on ruling out more mundane, science-based explanations for the situation. Indeed, the notion that something is happening that science cannot explain is part of what makes the story scary (though there are other things that also contribute). You see this technique in a lot of horror stories to this day, but what makes them good horror is that the problem is often left unsolved or at least, poorly understood. Even when an evil is defeated, it’s often portrayed as a short-term, localized victory and that the evil will likely return.

So what are some examples of vintage SF novels that tackle horror tropes from a science fictional perspective (or science fiction tropes from a horror perspective)? Here’s a few recommendations:

  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954) – This study in isolation and grim irony leans heavily on science fiction tropes; for instance, it takes the normally supernatural explanation for vampires and turns it into a communicable disease (i.e. something that can be studied and possibly cured). The plot eventually slants more towards horror, but it’s difficult to explain why without spoiling the story. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty fantastic novel worth reading this time of the year. Also of note, various film adaptations of this novel do not hold up very well when compared to the source material, so don’t write this off because you didn’t like the movie.
  • Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon (1961) – Another story I don’t want to spoil, but one which starts mundane, verges on supernatural, then pulls back and posits a purely psychological explanation for the events of the story. I read this a couple years ago for my annual Six Weeks of Halloween marathon, and was quite pleased with it. It makes for a good companion piece with I Am Legend as well (while that one posits a physiological explanation for the seemingly supernatural, this one posits a psychological explanation). It’s a little slow and may not be as surprising or twisty to a modern audience, but I really enjoyed it.
  • The Professor’s Teddy Bear by Theodore Sturgeon (1948) – A short story about a time-bending vampiric maybe-alien Teddy Bear, this one is a little more mind-bendy and difficult to categorize, but it’s short and fun and seasonally appropriate.
  • The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft (1928) – Probably more horror than SF, but Lovecraft’s entire oeuvre is generally based on the SFnal notion of a rational universe… it’s just that, as humans, we can only perceive or tolerate a small portion of that reality. That sort of ecstatic surrender to blasphemous, unknowable terror is certainly not an SF response, but Lovecraft often managed to use SFnal notions to underline his work.
  • Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson (1948) – I’m currently reading this novel (just because Vintage SF month is in January doesn’t mean you can’t read any of it for the rest of the year!), so I will reserve judgement for later, but it does inject science fictional elements into a story featuring witches and werewolves. Indeed, so far, the novel seems to be squarely within the SF tradition moreso than horror, positing explanations based on quantum theory and probability (for a more modern and less horror-based take on this, see The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.) as well as genetic engineering and selective breeding. I have reservations about some aspects of the story, but the SF elements are interesting. Of course, this was originally published in Unknown, which was John Campbell’s dumping ground for less rigorous SFnal or fantasy tales.

Arthur C. Clarke once infamously observed that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” One of the ways that SF has evolved is to widen the perimeter of explainable phenomena. This quickly moved beyond unknown planets and aliens and other scientific speculations to include ideas that originated in myth and fantasy and horror. One particular sub-genre of SF that is relevant here is the technology-of-magic story, which depicts seemingly supernatural powers, but then provides plausible explanations in order to defuse the situation. Most of the above mentioned stories are doing exactly that, even if some of them stop a little short. It’s important not to mistake the stage furniture for the genre. Just because there’s a vampire or werewolf in the story doesn’t mean it can’t be SF. Similarly, just because there’s lasers and spaceships doesn’t mean that horror can’t present itself.

We could go on like this forever. There’s a lot to unpack within each genre, and we could spend years ferreting out what makes each of them tick. I’m a big tent guy and I enjoy both genres, so I’m more than happy in that fuzzy space between the genres… but I can see the benefits of taking a stricter approach as well. In some ways, Horror and SF are diametrically opposed in their goals and aspirations, and it’s worth considering that. I’ve read plenty in both genres, but there’s always room for more knowledge, which is one reason I participate in Vintage Science Fiction Month. It’s only a couple months away, so you best start planning your reading for January now too!

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

When I was a teenager, I once picked up a copy of Paradise Lost and immediately bounced right the hell off of it. Something about the blank verse or Milton’s particular style was just impenetrable to me. As Samuel Johnson once quipped: “Paradise Lost is a book that, once put down, is very hard to pick up again.” And lo, I did not pick it back up again. As such, when news of Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, pitched the story as “a high-tech retelling of PARADISE LOST featuring some characters from REAMDE” or “Paradise Lost by way of Phillip K. Dick”, I was a little apprehensive. Was my hesitation warranted? Maybe! Despite some serious gripes, I ultimately enjoyed the book.

As Fall starts, we center on the titular Richard “Dodge” Forthrast (a character from Stephenson’s earlier thriller, Reamde, though Fall could easily be read as a standalone) as he goes about a routine day leading up to a minor medical procedure… that results in his death. Spoilers, I guess, but this is at the start of the book. As it turns out, when video-game magnate Dodge came into money a while back, he signed a will dictating that his body be frozen after death, with the assumption that future technologies would be able to revive him. As his niece Zula and friend Corvallis (both also from Reamde) parse through the will and manage the estate, they come to the conclusion that the state of the art is not to freeze the meat, but to preserve the brain’s connectome. Eventually, this leads to a high resolution scan of Dodge’s brain, which is then uploaded into a computer, wherein it becomes aware and starts doing… stuff. The process is not perfect, and thus things like memory and identity aren’t fully resolved in the uploaded system, but the disembodied mind of Dodge, seeking qualia, is able to construct a body for himself as well as a virtual landform to exist upon. As time goes on, more brains are uploaded and must coexist. Naturally, some conflicts break out in the uploaded bitworld, and hijinks ensue.

The book is essentially told in two parts. First is the real world, where Zula and a cast of familiar characters from Reamde as well as other Stephenson works (including the Waterhouse clan and Enoch Root from Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle) deal with the legal implications of Dodge’s death and complicated estate (he’s obscenely wealthy, so there’s a lot to do there) over the course of decades. Second is in the bitworld, which eventually evolves into a sorta Biblical-flavored high fantasy story. The novel starts in the real world, then starts to interleave chapters in the bitworld, which eventually takes over the narrative completely until a brief interlude in the real world at the end.

The real world portions of the novel are fantastic. Stephenson’s usual digressions are present in full force here, but are as cogent and relevant as ever. Which, naturally, means that some of them maybe feel misplaced or extraneous, but are interesting in their own right (for example, the opening of the book is likely to garner some side-eye, as it features Dodge ruminating about lots of seemingly irrelevant topics like alarm clocks and soap bubbles and whatnot). The initial explorations of the will’s legal implications and the notion of preservation moving from meat to connectome is handled in detail, but with Stephenson’s usual wit.

As the story progresses, we get some jumps in time which allow Stephenson to extrapolate on some of our current day woes. For instance, relatively early on, there’s an elaborate hoax that spreads like wildfire on the internet, despite being rather quickly debunked. The whole event is eye opening and tense; Stephenson captures the unfolding drama and the way in which it’s received perfectly. The notion of people creating neat little echo chambers for themselves on the internet has always been a concern, but the rise of social media seems to have accelerated some of the complications, and Stephenson does a great job encapsulating the problem and hypothesize the consequences. Some of this might veer too far into hyperbole (the short trip into Ameristan is a good example of that – entertaining and interesting for sure, but a little strained in terms of plausibility), but other aspects are absolutely dead-on. The notion that the internet will become so embedded into daily life and yet so untrustworthy that we’ll have to hire full time personal editors to keep things straight is interesting and fraught with dilemmas (only a tiny fraction of which are dealt with here, but done well enough that the reader can generalize). Some of the wrangling around the philosophy of the brain processes that are running on computers are also well rendered in this side of the story, and the conflicts generated on this side of the divide feel real enough.

The uploaded world portions of the novel are… less successful. At their best, they take on an archetypal, mythic quality that lives up to the billing as a “retelling of Paradise Lost”. At their worst, though, they’re just dull as as spoon. A lot of time is spent, for instance, describing geographic features in unnecessary detail. While this might be expected as Dodge generates the landform, it is still present much later in the story (which is a little strange, as the book contains several detailed maps, as required by Fantasy literature law). And there’s plenty of stuff inbetween. When Dodge first regains consciousness and must figure out how to exist again, it’s not exactly thrilling, but it holds at least some interest.

It doesn’t help that these uploaded brains don’t really resemble their real world personas, except in vague ways. As the novel progresses, many of the characters we know in the real world die and get uploaded… but the processes of scanning and uploading are lossy at best, and the world they inhabit is oddly limited by Dodge’s initial choices (amongst lots of other constraints that are not very clearly laid out). As a result, the characters in bitworld feel like regressions of their original selves. There are a number of newly introduced characters that don’t really connect well, and all the interactions in bitworld can’t help but feel a little flighty and airless.

On a thematic level, there’s plenty to chew on, but again, since bitworld is so aimless, it’s hard to really attribute any real depth or meaning to the happenings there. Sometimes it works better than others, but it ultimately can’t help but mute the themes. You might expect that a novel influenced by Paradise Lost would feature a moral component, and this certainly does… but again, the very nature of bitworld mutes any morality here. The parallels are not exact, to be sure, with Dodge kinda personified as both God and Satan at various times, which does bear thought.

Stephenson’s stated intention here was to embed a high fantasy within a more conventional SF or techno-thriller narrative, so maybe some of my complaints are nitpicks, but the interaction between bitworld and the real world seems ripe for exploration that Stephenson almost completely ignores. One would think that someone whose beloved relative has died and been uploaded into bitworld would, you know, want to reconnect with their dead relative. There is a brief mention of some sort of method developed by the villain of the piece that allows some form of communication from bitworld back to the real world, but it’s just a passing reference that isn’t mentioned again. What’s more, the bright folks in the real world quickly realized that a lot of the activity in bitworld resembled a physics simulation and were able to create a landform visualization tool that allowed people to watch what was happening in bitworld. Once you have that, it seems almost trivial to devise a way to open up communications between the two worlds. I can think of, like, five different ways off the top of my head. Sure, some of these are rudimentary at best, but that’s all you’d need at first. As it is, the book covers almost a century of real world time, but somehow, while real world folks can watch bitworld, the information flow is only in that one direction and no one seems that interested in expanding that flow (yet people have started to change their real world behaviors to make sure their brain can be uploaded once they die, despite knowing squat about what happens there). Plus, well, the bitworld doesn’t seem like much of an afterlife.

As the bitworld portions progress, they do managed to pick up some steam and by the time the final quest and showdown arrives, it’s chugging along well. Assuming you’re able to get past some of the bitworld’s shortcomings, it’s got a reasonably satisfying ending (though given Stephenson’s reputation for endings, I don’t think this would be a particularly good rebuke to the haters). As a whole, the narrative comes off a bit disjointed, though much of that is intentional. There’s a bunch of time jumps and corresponding new characters, which can sometimes be disorienting, and a little weird when, say, Dodge himself disappears from the story for several hundred pages.

Once the narrative shifts to the bitworld, most of the real world stuff still remains great. Some of it provides needed context to the happenings in bitworld, some of it is just further ruminations on existential themes, and some of it is really quite tantalizing. At one point, Stephenson casually approaches the notion that the “real world” portions are also a simulation. That all of existence might be a Turtles All The Way Down series of simulations within simulations (this might even help explain what’s up with Enoch Root). He wisely keeps this idea vague, something that might bother me in other contexts, but which feels well calibrated here. Lots of food for thought in this book.

Samuel Johnson also said of Paradise Lost that “None ever wished it longer than it is.” I suspect the same could be said of Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, which does clock in at a hefty 883 pages. About par for the Stephenson course, to be sure, but it does feel like the bitworld portions could be streamlined, which could make for better pacing. Ultimately, I enjoyed this novel for what it was, and while I don’t think the bitworld fantasy is entirely successful, I have to admire the ambition. But then, I’m a total sucker for Stephenson, so your mileage may vary. Still, while this novel probably works as a standalone, I don’t think I’d recommend it as a starting place for Stephenson. Reamde might actually be a pretty good choice for that, given its more mainstream techno-thriller bent (it’s sole difficulty on this front is its 1000+ page length). Still, it was nice checking in with Dodge and Zula and characters from other Stephenson books. I remain intrigued by pretty much anything Stephenson writes, and am already looking forward to his next story, whatever it may be (sadly probably a few years out).

Hugo Awards: Space Opera

Comedian Martin Mull famously quipped “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” This is something of a problem for Catherine Valente’s Hugo-nominated novel, Space Opera, seeing as though the story is about a Eurovision-style Galactic Grand Prix music contest. Earth is home to one of the latest discovered species and must thus prove their sentience by competing in the Grand Prix. Of course, if they come in last place, they face sudden and complete extermination. The Galaxy helpfully provides a list of Earth musicians who could perhaps stand a chance, but the only living musician on the list is one Decibel Jones, a washed-up David Bowie wannabe glam rock act.

If this all sounds rather stupid, well, that’s because it is. Valente herself proclaims it to be so during the opening of the novel while unceremoniously doing away with the Fermi Paradox by claiming that “…life is the opposite of rare and precious. It’s everywhere; it’s wet and sticky; it has all the restraint of a toddler left too long at day care without a juice box. And life, it all its infinite and tender intergalactic variety, would have gravely disappointed poor gentle-eyed Enrico Fermi had he lived only a little longer, for it is deeply, profoundly, execrably stupid.” The refrain that “Life is beautiful. And life is stupid.” is frequently bandied about, and I suppose its meant to inoculate the novel from its mostly dumb premises (Narrator: It does not.) This is the sort of thing best used with restraint, and tends to collapse when used to prop up an entire novel. The prose is written with an unearned confidence and contempt that gets old real fast, and ultimately makes no sense (she takes lots of potshots and what I’m sure she deems easy targets, and it comes off smarmy at best). Of course, it’s all meant to be comedy, and there are some nice turns of phrase and I maybe chuckled a few times, but this comes nowhere near the heights of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett (while being indebted to both authors).

The plot isn’t even particularly original. In particular, the same basic premise was used in a Rick and Morty episode from a few years ago… and it didn’t even particularly work well in that case. You could thus say that it’s a ripe premise to steal and do it right this time, I guess, but that didn’t particularly happen here either. The plot is paper thin, besotted with nonsensical and uninteresting tangents, and the characters are childish and unlikable. Unoriginality isn’t necessarily a death blow; look no further than this year’s nominated Spinning Silver, which is clearly based on well-known European folklore, but manages to spin and add to its influences in original ways. Space Opera has no such redeeming qualities when it comes to its derivative ideas.

So no, I did not like this book. But! I can kinda see why it’s nominated. The plot and the characters are uninspired, to be sure, but the prose does sometimes, er, sing. To be sure, there’s a fine line between interminable run-on sentences and Pynchon-esque panache, and for me it was much more the former than the latter, but I can see how some would cotton to the style and think it worthy of a nomination. Take, for instance, this quick digression:

You might think that Musmar the Night Manager could not possibly have known about the regional human holiday known as Halloween, but by one of those many curious coincidences that comprise the only real evidence for a divine and wobbling hand in the design of the universe, some variant of Halloween is celebrated by every sentient species in the galaxy. There is, it would appear, something about the achievement of sentience that immediately fills the afflicted with the longing to become something else, something brighter, something wilder and more fearsome and morbid and covered in felt and glue and glitter, to escape into the mask of some other impossible life, and to afterward consume vast quantities of sweets.

As a big fan of Halloween, I rather liked that bit… but as mentioned earlier, this sort of thing gets old fast. Your mileage may vary, but this does seem like the sort of thing where a small but devoted coterie of readers loved this so much that they got it onto the ballot, while the masses aren’t really willing to put up with this sort of style over substance. I can see and respect the stylistic flair here, but only on an intellectual level. Mostly I just don’t get it. It’s all just dancing about architecture.

As you can no doubt tell, this will be at or near the bottom of my ballot. Interestingly, I suspect that this will do well in the first round of voting (the Hugos use an Instant Runoff Voting system), but drop off a cliff once the second round commences. Spinning Silver will be getting my number one vote at this point, with Revenant Gun and Trail of Lightning taking the number two and three spots respectively (I go back and forth on ranking these two though), followed by Record of a Spaceborn Few, and finally Space Opera and The Calculating Stars bringing up the rear. This wraps up the Hugo Best Novel finalists. I may find some time to do novellas and/or novelettes, but I’ve got plenty of other stuff to read at this point, so who knows?