Science Fiction

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?

Hugo Awards: The Calculating Stars

In 1952, a huge meteorite lands off the eastern coast of the U.S.A., obliterating Washington D.C. and the surrounding environs. This initial destruction is only the start, however, as the strike boils enough water to initially result in dramatic cooling on a global scale. But water vapor is a greenhouse gas, so after this initial cooldown, the earth will experience an accelerated greenhouse effect, potentially to the point where the oceans will boil and the earth will become uninhabitable. Elma York and her husband Nathaniel are scientists and mathematicians who managed to survive the initial impact, and quickly become embroiled in a new space race, but instead of the soviets, we’re racing global warming to establish a colony on Mars. So goes the initial setup of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo nominated novel The Calculating Stars.

It’s a cool premise with lots of potential… and if it sounds a little familiar, that’s because it’s rather similar to the idea behind Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. Kowal attempts to differentiate this by shifting the timeline back to the 1950s, drawing out the timeline to get out to space, and narrowly focusing on characters and woke social issues. After the initial burst of action from the meteorite hit, the novel slows considerably as Kowal focuses on Elma’s battles against the sexist, racist, anti-semitic forces aligned against her, not to mention a crippling anxiety problem. It’s never boring and Kowal’s style is crisp and clear, mostly free from hooptedoodle, but my mind kept wandering. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but most of my questions about the worldbuilding or technology or even some of the characters basically went unanswered.

The frustrating part about this story is that it’s clear that Kowal knows her space-race era stuff, but is primarily content to leave that in the background. Tidbits and tantalizing hints of fascinating engineering challenges and space travel problems are dropped here and there (showing that Kowal probably spent a lot of time researching and thinking about these things) and they keep the story just interesting enough, but they are clearly not the focus of the novel. Maybe she just assumes most of the people reading her book are already quite familiar with early NASA technology and practices (a fair assumption), but this is supposed to be a science fiction book, and we get precious little of that sort of geeking out. Alright fine, so it’s more a novel about how Elma and friends combat bigotry in an effort to save the human race, right? Well, sure, but even that gets pretty short shrift. There’s a lot of prose devoted to that, to be sure, but Kowal tries to be so inclusive that a lot of it comes off as only being a cursory examination of a particular issue. A huge, diverse cast of characters is introduced, but are rarely fleshed out beyond their differentiating characteristics, ironically leaving many of the portrayals feeling rather stereotypical.

Indeed, the biggest thing holding Elma back from achieving her goal is not sexism or anti-semitism, but rather her crippling anxiety when confronted with reporters and TV interviews (she’s fine under pressure as a pilot or doing complex equations in her head, but she gets severe stage fright whenever she has to give an interview). This struggle with anxiety is actually the best portrayed issue in the book and the only one that really stands out effectively (it is rare to see this sort of topic tackled well), but that only serves to undercut the other issues she frequently brings up. Even that issue is solved rather easily by taking a medication that doesn’t result in complications, other than the fact that she tries to hide it from the space program (which the main villain of the piece tries unsuccessfully to use against her – spoilers, I guess, but it’s not hard to see where this is going).

As a result of the narrow focus on characters, the rest of the worldbuilding also left me wanting. Washington D.C. is destroyed, but we don’t see much of the fallout of that (much more time is spent on our protagonist’s relatives, who lived in the region). There’s a brief mention that the Soviets were hit hardest by the miniature ice-age and that the union dissolved or somesuch. China is briefly addressed. There’s some food riots that happen at one point (after all, the meteorite hit in Spring, meaning that summer crops were probably not very successful), but only peripherally. The space program is better covered, but never really takes full shape because we’re so laser focused on a small group of characters. Ditto for the sense of urgency, which seems awfully vague considering the planet is supposed to be rendered uninhabitable in the near future. As with the whole space program details above, it seems like Kowal thought about all this and developed a realistic alternate history, but consigned it to the background.

After I finished the book, I went on a mini-binge of space-race stuff. Apollo 11 is a recently released documentary with restored, high-definition footage from the moon landing mission. It’s spectacular, featuring never-seen-before footage that looks amazing and while I’m not exactly a scholar of the era, there were a few tidbits that I’d never seen portrayed before. Highly recommended! From the Earth to the Moon is an HBO mini-series from the late 90s (a sorta precursor to prestige TV) that covers a lot of ground in the Apollo program (I’m about halfway through this rewatch, and it’s about is good as I remember – I particularly love the episode titled Spider, which is about the design of the lunar module). Then I watched Capricorn One, a schlocky conspiracy thriller about faking a Mars mission. Certainly not high-art, but better and more fun than I’d have expected.

Kowal covers a lot of ground in The Calculating Stars, but the issue is that it’s already well tread ground. So well tread that I kept thinking of other things that did it better, even in non-fiction. From Seveneves to Hidden Figures to diving down a rabbit whole wondering who the woman in the control room was in the aforementioned Apollo 11 documentary (her name was JoAnn Morgan and she has an interesting story), I got more out of all this supplementary stuff than out of the book itself. Maybe that’s unfair? But we don’t read in a vacuum, all these things are connected and I can’t help but wonder about the premise here. The idea of establishing colonies in space using 50s era technology is great, but it’s a shame that this book only skims the surface of so many fascinating parts of that. Even the areas focused on don’t feel entirely baked. There is a sequel to this novel called The Fated Sky, which seems like maybe it would cover more dorky space stuff or get at some of the other things I was interested in, but I can’t really gin up any enthusiasm to proceed (and it’s not nominated either, which it easily could have been given the way the Hugos work).

I’m clearly in the minority here when it comes to this book though. It’s been well received and most readers seem to get a lot more out of it than I do, which is great. Not everything has to be for me, and I can respect a well constructed novel (which this is), even if I didn’t entirely connect with it. That being said, it will end up somewhere near the bottom of my Hugo ballot.

Hugo Awards: Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver is a standalone fantasy novel by Naomi Novik and it’s been nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards. A previous novel, Uprooted, was also nominated a few years ago, and I quite enjoyed it (I was one of the ones nominating it). Alas, it lost out to the Jemison juggernaut. This year’s entry seems like it could fare better.

In a small village, a young Jewish girl named Miryem lives with her father, a particularly ineffectual money-lender who is barely able to keep the family afloat. When her mother falls ill, Miryem takes up the mantle and starts collecting debts from their neighbors, who had clearly been taking advantage of her father’s incompetence. It turns out that she has quite a knack for it. She’s so adept that she gains a reputation of being able to turn silver into gold, which draws the attention of the Staryks, wintery fae folk who live in the forest and torment the locals. The icy Staryk king leaves a bag of silver for Miryem, insisting that she turn the silver into gold. She takes the silver to a jeweler who fashions it into a ring, which they sell to the duke for gold. Unphased, the Staryk king continues to ask Miryem to convert silver into even more gold two more times, which results in a necklace and crown, both sold to the same duke. The duke hopes the fancy jewelry will attract the Tsar to marry his daughter Irina, which he does (though not apparently because of the jewelry).

Having converted ever increasing amounts of silver into gold, the Staryk king reluctantly pledges to marry Miryem, making her the queen of his ice kingdom. For her part, Miryem finds that in the Staryk realm, she is actually able to magically transform silver into gold, but she’s obviously not happy being married to a monster, and seeks escape. Meanwhile, Irina has married the Tsar, but found him oddly disinterested. Her jewelry, made from Staryk silver, has magical powers that let her walk through mirrors into a snowy landscape. She quickly realizes that the Tsar is possessed by some sort of fiery demon that wants to literally consume her, so she uses her jewelry to hide in the mirror, thus foiling the fire demon.

So Miryem and Irina are both stuck in unwanted marriages to minor deities, and must find a way to extricate themselves from the situation, all while protecting the common folk from the dangerous conflict that’s brewing. It’s a song of ice and fire, if you will, but much more compact (and less grim).

If some of the plot details sound a bit familiar, that’s because Novik has based a fair amount of this story on European folklore, particularly the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but with other legends like the Chernobog weaved in for flavor and depth. And of course, this is obviously a much expanded and more detailed story than Rumpelstiltskin (which is probably shorter than this review).

As with Novik’s previous Hugo nominee, Uprooted, this is a standalone novel, which is a breath of fresh air in the series-laden fantasy genre. I think I may like that earlier book a bit better, but this one will clearly do well on my Hugo Novel ballot this year. It’s a good story, told well.

I was quite pleased with the novel, but I do have a few minor complaints. One is that the grand majority of the novel is told in first-person, but switches viewpoints seamlessly, meaning that it takes a minute before you realize which character you’re with. Also, while this is a standalone, the pacing does flag a bit in the middle, especially once you glean the general direction of the various plotlines. The two main threads, with Miryem and Irina, fare pretty well, but there is a third thread featuring a woman named Wanda, who Miryem had hired as an assistant (Wanda’s labor is basically paying off her drunken father’s debts). Wanda’s story generally drags a bit, and doesn’t quite have the heft of Miryem and Irina’s predicament (it shares thematic similarities, but those events end up feeling a bit redundant). It takes a bit too long for Novik to pull the various plot threads into a cohesive whole. But tighten those threads she does, and in pretty satisfying and sometimes unexpected ways. The ending left me fully satisfied, though there is one odd grace note, a romantic pairing that seemed like it was a bit too abrupt (and probably could have been seeded better earlier in the story). All in all, these flaws are easily overlooked, especially in a genre known for expansive bloat.

The story carries with it much in the way of thematic heft, touching on economics, the power dynamics of marriage, climate-change, and anti-semitism (amongst other ideas), but doing so in a largely organic way that emerges from the story. Nothing feels bolted-on or out of place. Likewise, there’s no hectoring lectures here. But the themes are present and allow for thought and exploration.

So it’s a fun little fantasy story, well written and satisfying, and as such, I’m expecting it to be near or at the top of my Hugo ballot. I still have to finish two additional nominees, but from what I’ve read of those so far, I don’t see anything overtaking this one.

Hugo Awards: 2019 Short Stories

I’m not entirely sure why I keep reading the Hugo finalists for the Best Short Story category. Actually, strike that, I know exactly why: they’re short and I can get through all of them quickly. And theoretically, they should be a really nice sampler pack of what’s going on in SF. In practice, I’ve really liked about 3-4 of the stories I’ve read over the past 6 or 7 years. A bunch of others are fine if unremarkable, but whatever the case, it’s not a good batting average. This year’s nominees illustrate a couple of my issues. One is that only two of the stories actual deign to tell a real story (they’re both decent, at least). Another is that they’re basically all fantasy stories, and the one that ostensibly has an SF idea doesn’t seem terribly interested by the idea (which, to be sure, is a decades-old idea and partial reality these days). I know the awards are for SF and F, but I tend towards SF. Likewise, some of this has to do with personal preference, and these stories just aren’t pressing my buttons. Perhaps some year they will?

  1. A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow – A librarian (who is also a witch) notices a troubled teen who is drawn to stories of escape. It doesn’t take long to see why and what this kid needs, but can our librarian friend find a way to help? Spoiler alert, yes she does, and I can’t help but feel charmed by this stories insistence that escapism can be a pretty decent thing, especially in our troubling times (like any good thing, its possible to overdo it, I guess, but this story does not go there, nor does it need to). Its also in its favor that this is an actual story with actual characters and a real (if short) arc. You’d be surprised how few Hugo finalists in the short story category can meet such a lofty goal.
  2. The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker – Chronicles a young street urchin who becomes obsessed with street magic (which are really just tricks), then jumps at the chance to learn “real” magic. Like any good consideration of actual magic, this one has a price. Another actual story with a beginning and an end, albeit a more bittersweet tale. That being said, this is quite good and well worth checking out.
  3. The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher – A group of fae sit around a campfire and reminisce about a puny mortal named Rose MacGregor who managed to trick all of them before settling down with her true love, a blacksmith. It’s a kinda charming structure, and the idea of the trickster fae getting the tables turned upon them is nice and all, but then, there’s not much meat on the bone here. It’s mostly told in flashback, and the story, such as it is, doesn’t have much of an arc. It’s still enjoyable for what it is, but it just doesn’t have enough oomph to make it higher than this ranking.
  4. The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander – A bumbling and idiotic prince makes his way into the dangerous hunting grounds of three raptor sisters, who are so dumbfounded by this fellow’s lack of fear that one of them figures it must be a trick and follows him back to his castle. She is promptly imprisoned, and the other two sisters seek to break her out, with the help of a witchly princess. The story relies heavily on a sorta fairy tale tone; everything is hightened and a little silly, but it ultimately ends up feeling rather slight. Again, there’s little in the way of story here, just vague tones and mild themes that are barely worth digging out. To be sure, it’s not exactly bad, and I had no problem reading it, but it didn’t particularly grab me, and I can feel its claws slipping, such that I’m pretty sure I won’t remember a thing about this in a few days.
  5. STET” by Sarah Gailey – Ostensibly written in the form of some sort of academic publication, complete with footnotes that are longer than the text, editor’s notes/obelisms (the term “STET” is latin for “let it stand”, which is what an author uses to let the editor know that a note/correction should be ignored and the original text should remain in place). The subject matter concerns autonomous cars and the inevitable deaths that would result from decisions made by AI, etc… However, the “story” is much more concerned with the author processing through some sort of grief (obviously caused by an self-driving car killing a loved one). It’s an interesting, if slightly hard to follow, format, and the subject matter is worth exploration (and indeed, the many complications of self-driving cars has been explore elsewhere)… its just that I don’t feel like there’s enough story here, just a vague sense of grief and rage. This is the only finalist that even comes close to being actual Science Fiction, but it doesn’t do much on that front, preferring instead to focus on the aforementioned grief and rage. It reminded me of the infamous “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” (tiny hint of an SF idea, weird experimental format, wallowing in grief, etc…), but I could see something along these lines working quite a lot better… However, in its current form, it didn’t do a whole lot for me.
  6. The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark – George Washington is famous for having “Wooden Teeth”, but while he had multiple sets of dentures, none appear to have been made of wood. Some were made of ivory, some with various alloys and metals, and most morbidly, some were made of actual human teeth. Said human teeth were almost certainly from slaves, though some of the teeth may have come from desperately poor folk. This story takes this fact and describes the people the teeth came from. Each one has certain characteristics that are sorta imprinted on the tooth, and thus causes some sort of ironic consequence (i.e. a tooth from a slave that escaped often falls out of the denture). These are mundane at first, but get more fantastical as it progresses. He goes through nine teeth… and then the story just sorta ends. By which I mean that it’s not much of a story, per say. Well written and some of the teeth have interesting nuggets, but there’s not a whole lot here, and in fact, I found researching Washington’s actual teeth more interesting than the sorta fantastical stuff in the story.

So there you go. I don’t generally deploy the “No Award” designation in my voting, but I’m a little tempted to reverse my normal stance and only vote for the top 2, with No Award at 3. That seems somewhat silly though. We’ll see. I’m working my way through the fourth of six novels right now, and I’m not sure if I’ll get to all the Novellas/Novelettes this year (I will read at least a couple of the ones that interest me)…

Hugo Awards: Record of a Spaceborn Few

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book set in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers universe, but like the other two, it is mostly self-contained. There’s an offhand reference to the events of the first book, but it’s from the perspective of a new group of characters. 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. I enjoyed that second book enough to nominate it for a Hugo Award, and it did become a finalist (I ended up ranking it #2 on my final ballot). Record of a Spaceborn Few is also a finalist for the Hugo Awards, so I was looking forward to catching up with it.

At this point, I would normally go for some sort of plot summary or describe the premise, but… there’s not really much to go on here. It’s really just a series of day-in-the-life character sketches, similar to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but with even less tension or drama. The characters are nice and all, but I find that this book doesn’t add much to the universe Chambers has created, and the almost total lack of stakes doesn’t help either. It’s not bad, per say, but the Hugo nomination does it no favors in the expectations department.

The characters are a mixed bunch. Tessa is a mother raising her family as best she can while her husband is often working far away. Kip is a teenager going through a by-the-numbers coming of age story. Eyas is a professional undertaker, which is more important in space because of the way bodies are disposed of (or, er, recycled back into the fragile ecosystem of people living in space), etc… Isabel is an archivist who teams up with an alien ethnologist. Finally, Sawyer is a naive newcomer to the fleet, unsure of his place and struggling to fit in. Each characters’ story has small intersections with the others, but the general lack of plot lessens the impact these can have. At least two of the stories are variations on stories we’ve seen a billion times before (such that honestly, using the word “variation” to describe them is a stretch). Only one has any sort of conflict built into it at all, and it’s one that we readers can see coming a million miles away, but the character in question is too daft to even realize what’s going on. That one, at least, has a genuine surprise built into it, and that surprise drives the last half or so of the book (directly and indirectly).

Again, it’s not bad, and I do think there’s a place for this sort of book, but I don’t think that it’s “best SF novel of the year” material. It’s true that I rarely enjoy slice-of-life storytelling though, so maybe others will get more of a kick out of it. Mixed in with the character sketches are some decent SF worldbuilding bits, but they’re all disconnected and feel more like window-dressing, thanks to the meandering plotlines. The nuts and bolts writing craft is certainly up to standard, and I enjoy Chambers’ style and general positivity, so I’m still very open to reading more in this series. As it is nominated for a Hugo though, I think this book is ranking towards the bottom of my ballot (at least, of the three that I’ve read so far – I could see this sticking right in the middle of the ballot once I finish the others).

Hugo Awards: Trail of Lightning

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning is a Hugo Awards finalist for best novel. In the wake of a climate catastrophe most of the world has drowned, but the former Navajo reservation, now dubbed Dinétah, has survived. It appears that the tumultuous flooding has summoned the Native American legends of yore, bringing with them gods, heroes, tricksters, and of course, monsters. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter gifted with clan powers who seeks to foil a scheme of witchcraft which threatens her homeland. Along the way, she reluctantly enlists the help of a young, unconventional medicine man and a trickster Coyote with his own agenda, eventually realizing that she must confront her past if she wants to defeat the monsters she faces.

The premise reminded me a bit of Sean Stewart’s Resurrection Man books, where magic returns to the earth in the wake of the horrors of WWII (golems appear in concentration camps, etc…), though Trail of Lightning obviously updates the catalyst to climate change and the magic to Native American folklore.

My only previous experience with Roanhorse’s work was her Hugo Award winning short story of yesteryear, Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™. In that story, a guy runs a VR simulation of Native American vision quests for customers, but he eschews the authentic experience in favor of Hollywood-style pap and eventually faces consequences. So I should say that as a white man who speaks with forked tongue, it’s probably not my place to comment on the authenticity of the folklore in Trail of Lightning, not to mention the tribal politics, but it does indeed feel accurate and accessible without appearing to be dumbed-down. Roanhorse knows her stuff, and uses it in service of the story.

Beyond the Native American themes, the story is a pretty straightforward Hero’s Journey style adventure with the requisite spins and twists towards the end of the novel, which I must admit did manage to surprise me a couple of times. While this is the sort of thing we’ve seen countless times before, it’s well executed and entertaining, short and sweet, with some added complexity from the somewhat unique setting. Roanhorse’s style is more prosaic and approachable, making this more of a page turning experience than a lot of Hugo nominees manage.

As this is only the second book I’ve read from the Hugo shortlist, it’s hard to say where it will fall, but I suspect it will teeter towards the middle of the pack. Obviously this could change as I make my way through the rest of the nominees, but for now, I’ll just say that I found it quite enjoyable and am happy that I read it.

SF Book Review – Part 32

Catching up on recent SF reads before Hugo season starts (or, uh, you know, write half this post and then procrastinate until we’re well into Hugo season):

  • The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner – Set in a dystopian early 21st century America where the government has turned into an oligarchy that oppresses its people through computer networks. Nicky Halfinger has escaped from Tarnover, a quasi-corporate government program intended to find and indoctrinate gifted children to help keep the computer networks running, and so on. He’s a fugitive, but he’s able to use his knowledge of the networks to evade capture by continually changing identities. Soon he discovers he’s not alone, and sets about working against the oppressive government system. Published in 1975, this is a pretty precursor to what would later be known as “Cyberpunk” and hugely influential in the nascent computer hacker scene. Indeed, if you ever read any early histories of computer hacking (see: Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier for an example I recently read which unexpectedly contained references to Shockwave Rider), you’ll see the people breaking into systems and releasing worms/viruses often reference The Shockwave Rider as an inspirational text. The book itself is a bit tame by modern standards and has some odd narrative tics. A good portion of the novel is told in flashback, which when combined with our protagonist’s tendency to constantly swap identities can be a bit disorienting at times. This sort of narrative complexity sorta disguises that the plot itself is rather straightforward, though not without its requisite twists and turns. At this point it feels more interesting as a book that contextualizes later works (like stuff from Gibson, Sterling, Rucker, etc…) than as a story in itself. This is mostly just because I’ve already consumed a lot of what this influenced, so it doesn’t feel as fresh as it obviously did to nerds of its day. Enjoyable enough for sure, and it didn’t trigger a lot of my usual complaints about dystopia, but it’s seemingly fallen into the trap of being so influential that I’ve already internalized most of its lessons, so while it’s still interesting to see where it comes from, it also doesn’t add a ton to my understanding.
  • Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee – The ostensible conclusion to Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, this novel has been nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards. Shuos Jedao wakes up in a befuddled state. His memories tell him that he’s a 17 year old cadet, but he’s in the body of an older man. He’s been resurrected by Hexarch Nirai Kujen, who hopes to use Jedao’s military genius to reconquer a fractured empire… but Jedao’s ailing memories make that a bit of difficult. Making things more difficult is Jedao’s opponent, one Kel Cheris, who knows more about Jedao than he does about himself. So I guess I could get more into the plot here, but this series is dense stuff and thus it sorta defies short summaries. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed the series. There’s plenty of handwaving about the whole “Calendar” system, but Lee at least seems able to set consistent boundaries and rules around it, such that it never really spirals too far out of the reader’s goodwill. I do find Jedao to be a fascinating character, but on the other hand, it’s hard to pin him down. Part of the issue is that we never really get a good feel for the character. He’s been uploaded, chopped up, and spun around so much during the course of the series (indeed, before the books even begin) that you always see Jedao through some sort of intermediary. In the previous books, he shared a brain/body with Kel Cheris (thanks to a sneaky calendrical attack in the first book, she retains his memories, but not his consciousness). In this book we follow both Cheris and a reincarnated Jedao (a sorta backup with incomplete memories). Both characters struggle with Jedao’s past, which includes a traitorous massacre (this could be interpreted in other ways, I think?), but since neither character is actually the one who committed those actions, how responsible should they feel? This is a meaty conundrum for sure, but I don’t know that there’s ever going to be a satisfying answer. A part of me wishes we got a more simplistic, straightforward Space Opera set before this series that could then be recontextualized, but that’s unfair (oh, and we already got something like that, albeit a short one). The other characters and overarching narrative suffer a bit from the focus on Jedao, or at least, don’t hold interest as much. Some aspects of the worldbuilding remain unexplored (it’s sometimes intimated that the grand majority of the Hexarchate live pretty decent lives, but all we see is the beaurocratic nightmare of the military and political classes and the horror of calendrical attacks), but what we get is interesting and reasonably well done. I’ve long enjoyed Yoon Ha Lee’s work, so I’m curious to see what he tackles next. In terms of Hugo voting, I have not yet read the other nominees, but this one suffers a bit from being so heavily integrated in a series… but then, it’s still very good. I expect a middle of the pack showing, but only time will tell.
  • Arkad’s World, by James L. Cambias – I greatly enjoyed Cambias’s debut novel, A Darkling Sea. His follow up, Corsair, was perhaps not quite as great, but still really enjoyable. I liked some of his short fiction as well, so I was looking forward to tackling his latest novel. Alas, this one doesn’t quite live up to the standards that Cambias previously set. The story follows the titular Arkad, a young man who happens to be the only human being on an alien world. He makes his way through the planet in street urchin fashion, barely scraping by on the lawless streets. The arrival of three humans searching for a priceless artifact that could help free earth from the grips of an alien invasion offers a promise of escape for Arkad, who knows a little something about what is being sought. The group must make their way across the planet, traversing dangerous landscapes, negotiating passage with litigious aliens, fending off various bandits and monsters, amongst other hijinks. I’m finding that this sort of episodic storytelling often rubs me the wrong way, and this book is not an exception. There’s a lot going on and there’s some ambitious worldbuilding, but none of it is as clever as Cambias’ previous efforts. Some of the alien interactions contain the kernal of an interesting idea, but it’s rarely explored in depth. Some choices could be interesting, such as the oddly literal language tics employed by some of the aliens, but even those get played out by the end. Plus, since we’re covering so much ground, no one episode is able to impart the kind of depth Cambias was able to achieve in previous books. It’s certainly not bad, but it’s a distinct step down from the past couple of books.
  • The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi – The sequel to Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, this book picks up right where that one left off and progresses things well enough from there. The Flow, a transportation network that allows access to all the human planets/colonies/habitats, is collapsing. The first connection has already been blocked off, and one of our protagonist scientists has worked through the math well enough to predict future collapses (and even potential reopenings, etc…). Emperox Grayland II is doing her best to help the scientists out while fending off looming civil war from unruly governing houses. Will her political enemies gain the upper hand? Hijinks ensue. Scalzi’s delivered another page-turner that is quite entertaining in its execution, complete with his usual snappy dialogue and clever twists. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding is starting to show some strain. They call the network of planets ruled by the Emperox the “Interdpendency”, a reference to the fact that each Human colony is desperately dependent on the other colonies to survive. This was mentioned in the previous book, but this book drives home how dumb an idea that is. Ok, sure, no one expects the transportation network to collapse… but then, we find out that this sort of thing is not entirely uncommon, and indeed, we even see an example of an isolated human colony that’s only barely managed to survive being temporarily cut off from the network. There are some other twists and turns that could mitigate some of these concerns, and to be sure, the story and plot progress well enough, even if some aspects of the worldbuilding can’t withstand scrutiny. In fact, I rather enjoyed the novel, perhaps more than any other in this post. Scalzi is good at plotting and dialog, which keeps the pages turning, and he manages a decent enough climax, which is always a big challenge in the second book in a series. Despite any qualms I might have with the worldbuilding, I’m very much looking forward to the next book.

Phew, that’s all for now. I’m finishing off a couple of non-Hugo books at the moment, but I should be able to start some of the Hugo nominees shortly thereafter…

Hugo Awards 2019: Initial Thoughts

The 2019 Hugo Award Finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite joyful praise and bitter recriminations.

  • Best Novel has a reasonably balanced mixture of elements. 4 of 6 are part of a series… but two of those are the first in a series (which can often operate in a standalone way, though far too many do not), one of them seems to be a standalone novel set in the same universe, and one is the third in a series (and decidedly not standalone). 4 of the 6 are also pretty squarely Science Fiction, which is about par for the course of late (and generally reflects my preferance). 4 of the 6 authors have nominations for Best Novel before, and all 6 have nominations in shorter fiction categories in recent years too. This could probably be better, but the Hugos have a long history of this sort of thing and it’s somewhat unavoidable given the popularity contest aspects of the way Hugos are administered.
  • The only Best Novel finalist I’ve read is Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun, the third in his Machineries of Empire series (the previous two entries in the series were also nominated, but did not win). I quite liked it, but did not nominate due to it’s place in the series. I have not read Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers or Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik, but based on previous experience with both authors, I’m anticipating that I’ll enjoy both. Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse has an interesting premise that I’m sure I can sink my teeth into, despite my moderate ambivalence to her Hugo-winning short story of last year (I ranked it middle-of-the-pack). It’s also always nice to see a new name on the Novel ballot, which tends to fill up with the same names year after year (as mentioned above, most of the authors have been nominated for best novel before…). The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal seems to be based on a previously nominated novelette, which I thought was good, even if it didn’t really scratch my sense of wonder itch and fell to the middle of my ballot that year. Finally, there’s Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente. The concept sounds interesting enough I guess, but everything I’ve read about this indicates that it’ll be an uphill battle for me. I’m not much into musicals or character sketches, and this seems filled with both. I will dutifully give it a shot though…
  • Best Novella has a couple of stories I’m interested in, namely another of Martha Wells’ Murderbot stories (which I read and enjoyed greatly) and The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard, which was on my reading queue, I just didn’t get to it in time. A couple of the nominees are completely new to me, and a couple others are from authors that I’ve had mixed reactions to in the past. Also of note is that 5 of the 6 finalists are from Tor. Granted, they’ve made a concerted push for Novellas in recent years, and it’s nice to see the Novella enjoying a general resurgence, as it’s long enough to provide depth, but not so long as to always be a slog… I feel like a lot of Novels these days are far too long (ditto for a lot of long-form storytelling in TV shows). I can’t tell if that’s just because I’m getting older and more impatient, or if there’s something more broad going on. On the one hand, I generally feel like every Netflix season I’ve watched is about 5 episodes too long and a lot of novels over 500 pages don’t warrant the extra length, on the other hand, I love Neal Stephenson’s unwieldy tomes.
  • Short Stories and Novelettes feature a bevy of familiar names, which is again, par for the course when it comes to the Hugos. Still a few new names here and there though, which is nice.
  • Best Series continues to vex. Aside from logistical concerns (if any of the series are new to you, how on earth are you supposed to read all the qualifying material or even enough to get a good feel for the series?), it does seem a bit weird that fully half of the series finalists have the actual latest installment also nominated by itself in the other fiction categories. I thought part of the impetus for this award was to give recognition to series where none of the individual installments was nominated, but the series as a whole is still beloved. This made a lot of sense a few years ago when The Wheel of Time got nominated in the Best Novel category (certainly a stretch, even if technically not against the rules), but so far, the award hasn’t exactly served its purpose. I mean, I love Lois McMaster Bujold as an author, but it’s not like the Vorkosigan Saga or Five Gods universes got no recognition before… (while several of the other nominees fit the mold well enough, I guess, though again, who has the time to read through all of it if you haven’t already…) This again speaks to the popularity contest aspects of the Hugos, I think.
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form is about what you’d expect, though it’s nice to see smaller indie-esque fare like Annihilation and Sorry to Bother You make the cut. Still, there’s no stopping the Marvel juggernaut. A little surprised to see A Quiet Place make the grade. It’s got horror/suspense chops, but as SF it’s pretty dumb stuff. Pour one out for actual indie flicks that were deserving: Upgrade and The Endless, both well worth your time.
  • The 1944 Retro Hugos have some interesting stuff in there. No Heinlein, owing to his work during WWII and thus not publishing anything in 1943, which clears the field a bit for some of the folks Campbell turned to in his absence, like the Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore duo, Fritz Leiber, and A.E. van Vogt. Asimov somehow squirmed his way onto the ballot, but then, popular names always do, even when the story is by all accounts minor. H.P. Lovecraft also makes an appearance, which is interesting because I don’t normally peg him as a Hugo favorite. More interesting to see are multiple noms for Leigh Brackett, and some stories from the likes of Hal Clement and Eric Frank Russell… Some of this stuff interests me more than present-year nominees in shorter fiction categories. Maybe I’ll focus more on the Retros this year. It’s always an awkward set of nominees though, as most people aren’t especially familiar with all the 1943 works (only 217 nominating ballots for the Retros, three of which were on paper), and thus you end up with the really common names. But then, you end up with that in present-day too, so it’s not too surprising.
  • The Retro Dramatic Presentation categories are interesting too. It seems that the 75 minute features favored by Val Lewton and Universal get categorized as “Short Form”, and it’s great to see Lewton’s work in particular get recognized. Great to see Heaven Can Wait on the list, which to my mind is the clear favorite. The Batman serials, on the other hand, are hot garbage and presumably only made the list due to the general recognizability of a popular superhero. I wasn’t particularly impressed by The Ape Man, though Bela Lugosi is always entertaining. Would have rather seen something like The Leopard Man (arguably not SFF, but it makes feints that direction) or even Son of Dracula (look, I get it, Lon Chaney Jr. makes for a terrible Dracula, but the movie itself is decent; certainly better than The Ape Man). There’s a few nominees that I don’t recognize, but I should be able to catch up with them easily enough…

So there you have it. I just took on a couple of long-ish books, so I’m not going to get to any of this for a bit, but there’s plenty to seek my teeth into here…

Hugo Award Season 2019

The nomination period for the 2019 Hugo Awards has been open for a little while now, and since I’m finally done whinging about 2018 movies, it’s time to get with the Hugo program. I’ve read somewhat less eligible works this year than usual, and naturally not everything I’ve read made the cut. In fact, as of right now, only two novellas will make the cut in the fiction categories:

I also considered Bujold’s The Flowers of Vashnoi, but didn’t nominate because it’s so far down the series that while I enjoyed it a lot, it doesn’t really rank among the best Vorkosigan stories, and I’m much less willing to put installments from long-running series on my ballot unless they’re truly standalone (which I don’t think this is).

When it comes to novels, I read several eligible and even enjoyed most of them, but almost all are part of a series, and none really blew me away to the point where I’d consider nominating. The closest I’ve come is Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun (third of a trilogy) and John Scalzi’s The Consuming Fire (second in the series), both of which I think are really good, though I don’t know that they’re the best of their respective series or good enough to make my ballot this year (the preceding entries for each were nominated last year, so there’s a fair chance they’ll still make it on the ballot).

As per usual, I’ll continue to avoid the most mainstream choices for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (i.e. Star Wars and Marvel don’t need my help here and will most likely make the ballot, but these movies are definitely worthy of consideration… alright, technically one of these involves Marvel, but not in an MCU way):

Of those, Annihilation is the only one I’m not super enthused about (in my year end roundup, I gave it a Quantum Jury prize, meaning that it exists only in a quantum superposition of two or more states, and that every time I think about it, I experience something like a wave function collapse and get a different answer as to whether I like it or not). That being said, who are we kidding, Black Panther is going to win this award and it probably won’t even be close. I like that movie and all, but I suspect many voters will not have seen most of my above nominees, and that’s a shame.

This year we’re also going to have a Retro Hugos for 1944 (i.e. works produced in 1943). Looking at what I’ve read from this period, I’ve only found one short story that I’m going to nominate:

It’s funny though, many of the typical Golden Age names are mostly absent from 1943, perhaps due to participation in WWII (i.e. no Heinlein or Asimov, not even short stories). Others picked up the slack for sure (i.e. Moore/Kuttner/van Vogt/Williamson, etc…), but I’m not as familiar with their work. Will be curious to see what gets nominated in the retros for fiction categories precisely because I’m not as familiar with those other authors. In the meantime, SF Magazines has a pretty good roundup of eligible stories (complete with links to the Internet Archive scans of various magazines, etc…)

In terms of Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, the pickings are a little slim, mostly fantasy or horror, but here are my current picks:

Not sure what I’m going to put in the fifth slot there, but it feels like it’ll be another Universal monster movie (Son of Dracula) or Val Lewton RKO picture (The Seventh Victim). In case you can’t tell from the nominees, I have a soft spot for both Universal monsters and Lewton, but on the other hand, Heaven Can Wait is clearly the superior film that would qualify this year (highly recommended!) Pickins are slim though, and none of these are particularly adept as “Science Fiction”, but fantasy elements are present in all, to some extent.

Any recommendations or suggestions are welcome!

SF Book Review: Part 31

Vintage SF Month has ended, but it appears that I’m still way behind on doing even cursory reviews of recent reads. Let’s get to it:

  • The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken – Meet Belisarius, a genetically engineered human that was part of a failed experiment to help humans better understand quantum physics. In theory, Belisarius should be able to enter a trance-like state to channel all his brainpower into understanding various quantum phenomena, amongst other things. In practice, these trances are quite dangerous to Belisarius, and as a result, he’s redirected all his talents into various cons and nefarious schemes (least his overactive brain would drive him crazy, or somesuch). This book tells the story of one such con, an attempt to smuggle a fleet of warships through a wormhole. To accomplish the task, Belisarius assembles a crew of friends and former business associates, then sets about executing an ambitious plan. There’s a layer of straightforward heist story here that is quite nice, not quite the fizzy Ocean’s 11 style, but close enough. It’s got all the requisite tropes: assembling a crew, devising a plan, improvising escapes when the opponent successfully anticipates a move, etc… Künsken attempts to add some depth with his explorations of genetic engineering. Belisarius is the primary target of this, and we get a repetitive deep dive into his motivations and the ways in which he copes with his intense instinct to do things that his body simply can’t handle. The Puppets, a whole race of genetically engineered slaves that have evolved into something even weirder, are also well covered. Unfortunately, the fizzy heist set amidst dystopian elements, while an interesting mix, didn’t quite hit home for me. The heist elements work, but often feel interrupted by the more serious themes, which ultimately doesn’t serve either element well. The SFnal elements, while well done, are also somewhat derivative (take, for instance, the trance-like state that Belisarius enters, a clear nod to the Emergent’s “Focus” from Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness In The Sky). Perhaps I’m being too hard on this book; I enjoyed it well enough for what it was, but I don’t think I’ll be nominating for a Hugo.
  • The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts – The Eriophora is a relativistic ship built inside an asteroid and controlled by an AI known as The Chimp. Sunday is part of a crew that is only awakened for very short intervals in order to help the ship build wormhole gates. The crew has been at it for 65 million years (though obviously they’ve been asleep for the grand majority of that time), and they’re starting to get a little antsy… to the point where mutiny is on the table. But how do you execute a mutiny when you’re only awake for a few days every thousand years or so? So Watts generally doesn’t craft the most friendly of settings, but makes up for that with great ideas and good storytelling. This story is obviously reminiscent of other runaway relativistic stories like Tau Zero, but Watts puts enough spins on it that it still reads fresh. The ending isn’t exactly a happy one, but it is oddly satisfying. Definitely one of the most interesting things I’ve read from 2018, and will probably be on my Hugo novella ballot.
  • Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells – Ah, the continuing adventures of Murderbot, the security android who just wants to binge-watch TV shows, but always gets entangled with humans who have no security sense whatsoever. The first novella, All Systems Red, won the Hugo last year, and I judge a fair chance that Exit Strategy will this year (I’ll be nominating it). The four novellas released so far are episodic in nature, but there is a throughline that gets resolved in Exit Strategy. Along the way, we’re treated to well plotted action and adventure in a pretty standard space opera setting. It’s all very entertaining, and I was happy to see Murderbot reunited with Dr. Mensah and crew. Apparently Wells is working on a Murderbot novel, and if these four novellas are any indication, I’m sure it will be great.
  • Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn – Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the more enduring creations in the Star Wars expanded universe (even if it has been deprecated), but he wasn’t always a Grand Admiral. This newish novel tells the story of how Thrawn came to the Imperial Navy and quickly rose through the ranks. Along the way, we’re treated to some Imperial Academy sequences, early battles, and a final showdown with an insurgent uprising. At the outset, Thrawn befriends an obscure Ensign, Eli Vanto, and becomes his mentor, teaching him everything from combat tactics and leadership to his trademark usage of art to see what animates the enemy. As a normal, competent but uninspired officer, Vanto provides us with perspective on Thrawn, and it’s entertaining to see Thrawn win Vanto over. Eventually Vanto starts to demonstrate abilities of his own. It’s all great fun, and Thrawn’s tactical prowess and observational abilities are well portrayed here (the use of Vanto’s vantage helps – writing a genius character has to be somewhat difficult, but writing about him from a more mundane perspective makes it easier). It’s a bit episodic and while the ending does have an element of closure to it, it doesn’t really feel like a major climax. Still, it was a very entertaining book. Zahn has always been a Kaedrin favorite, and this one is well worth checking out if you’re a Star Wars fan (assuming you’ve already read Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy).
  • Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn – Alas, this sequel to Thrawn isn’t as great. Both a prequel and a sequel, it tells the story of Thrawn’s initial meeting with Anakin Skywalker in the past (implied but not detailed in the previous book), cross cut with Thrawn’s collaboration with Darth Vader in the present/future/whatever. Weird as it may be to say, Skywalker/Vader’s presence here just doesn’t work for me at all. The Clone Wars era never particularly interested me and Anakin’s whiny nature is a turnoff. Vader isn’t quite as imposing in this story either, though I can’t quite pinpoint why. He’s more petty and shortsighted than I’d normally peg him as. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just not quite at the level of the first book. Also, I miss Eli Vanto here. He was a good window into the events of the story, but that sort of thing is sorely missing here. Still curious to see where else Zahn takes this Thrawn series, even if this one was a bit of a misfire for me…

And that’s all for now!