The 2022 Hugo Awards finalists were announced last week, so it’s time for the requisite congratulations and/or bitter recriminations. I fell off the Hugo bandwagon last year, but got back in this year and submitted some nominations, so let’s take a look at the finalists and see how I did:
I’ve only read one of the finalists for Best Novel, but it was one of the books I nominated. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir was probably my favorite SF of the past couple of years and it was naturally one of my nominations, so it’s clearly the book to beat on my ballot.
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, is the sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which won Best Novel in 2020 and which I enjoyed quite a bit. I’ve already started this one, and it seems to be stepping up a bit from the first, which is a good sign.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers, was on my radar and Chambers has been frequently nominated (this book is part of a series that won Best Series a couple years ago), but I never got around to it. I’m somewhat mixed on her Wayfarer’s books. I really loved one of them, thought another was solid, and didn’t particularly care for the last one. This sounds interesting enough, so we’ll see how it compares…
Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki, is completely new to me. The title makes it sound like SF, but the blurb is pretty definitively fantasy: featuring cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts. Those are some interesting ingredients, but it also sounds like the sort of thing that might not cohere for me.
A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark, sounds like a fun little fantasy mystery set in Egypt. Apparently part of a series that Clark established via novellas the past few years, he’s been a mainstay of the Hugos for a while now, though this is his first novel.
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan, sounds an awful lot like a more serious take on Mulan. It seems to be a solid story, but honestly, I’m not seeing much in the way of SF or fantasy elements, though I guess there could be some alternate history tropes going on here… I guess we’ll find out soon enough!
Overall, it’s an interesting ballot. In terms of genre, we’ve got 3 SF and 3 Fantasy. Interestingly, the three Fantasy novels are all debuts, while the SF are from established authors. Three finalists appear to be part of a series, though only one of those seems to require you to have read a previous book. A male author (2 male authors) shows up on the best novel ballot for the first time since 2018. As of right now, I’m still assuming that Project Hail Mary will top my ballot, but you never know.
A lot of common names show up on the Novella ballot, and actually all the shorter fiction categories have authors that are popular with Hugo voters. I’ll probably take a swing at Short Stories again this year, even though I’m inevitably disappointed by the category (though they are easy to read, since they’re so short)…
Best Dramatic Presentation
The big surprise here is that Hugo voters actually put some more thought into this ballot than usual. Oh sure, you’ve still got Marvel and Disney entries, and Dune was pretty much a lock, but the big surprise is that The Green Knight garnered a spot. Space Sweepers is also nominally interesting here as well, as Hugo voters don’t typically go for foreign flicks. I suspect Dune will still win it, but it’s a more varied ballot than usual. In terms of the Short Form award, it’s nice to see 5 nominees from shows that haven’t been nominated before. This is a far cry from when this category was generally referred to as “Which Dr Who episode should we give an award to?” (which, granted, has been a while, but still.)
Other Categories and Assorted Thoughts
Congrats to all the nominees, it seems like a fine set of finalists.
Best Series continues to be something of a popularity contest, but then, that’s generally what the Hugos are… At least none of these series are also nominated in the Best Novel category this year. I’m guessing it’s Seanan McGuire’s year, but you never know.
Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book has one novel I actually read in preparation of the Hugos this year, but didn’t particularly love. Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer, probably makes more sense as a YA book. Some interesting ideas about AI and the way apps/games/algorithms can impact privacy and security, but it felt a bit messy to me…
So there you have it, the 2022 Hugo Awards in a nutshell. I’ll definitely be reading the novels, and maybe some of the short stories too, so keep an eye out for reviews…
When the premise for Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock, was announced, I admitted to a little trepidation. It’s essentially a near-future climate change thriller, so there are plenty of landmines an author needs to avoid in order to produce something that won’t clash with readers’ probably complicated thoughts on the subject. Fortunately, Stephenson is up to the task. His stylistic mainstays of digressions and fascination with unexpected consequences all fit with the story being told here.
Any worries that the novel would devolve into indulgent, self-important lectures were allayed relatively early on in the novel. Once Stephenson started talking about feral hogs and their intersection with meth gators, well, I knew he wouldn’t let the seriousness of the themes overwhelm the need to tell an entertaining story. That sort of approach is much more likely to have an impact than a lot of climate-based science fiction, which has a didactic tendency to preach to the choir.
Of course, Stephenson’s idea of an entertaining story might not mesh with a lot of readers, and indeed, it features plenty of info-dumping and digressions on topics that you may or may not find interesting. Most of these explorations are driven by unexpected consequences of climate change or the idiosyncratic and varied adaptations humans have made to deal with it. I’ve already mentioned the feral hogs and meth gators, but there’s also fire ants, which are attracted to the ozone produced by air conditioner relays, which aren’t easily replaced due to globalized supply chain issues, so people start abandoning their homes in favor of RVs, campers, etc… Naturally, that gave rise to sprawling truck stop/gas station complexes that are almost like miniature cities.
The owner of those complexes is a cantankerous billionaire who has noticed that climate-based issues are driving down real estate values, and so he decides to engage in a bit of geoengineering. He hoards sulfur, then builds a giant subterranean cannon that will shoot the sulfur up into the atmosphere. The sulfur will reflect a sizeable portion of sunlight back out into space, thus lowering temperatures on earth (and apparently providing spectacularly beautiful sunsets). This is not a new idea, nor is it something that we have not observed in nature before. Some volcano eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991, have resulted in exactly this sort of thing. Of course, the effects of such a strategy are inconsistent. We’re talking about global climate here, so models can only tell you so much. Yes, global average temperature will go down, but what sorts of local effects are you likely to see? What impact will this have on sea-levels in the Netherlands? What about the monsoon season in India?
The book is filled with these sorts of speculations and adaptations to climate change. Most are not good long-term solution, but it gets at the decentralized way people respond to these sorts of issues, and they do provide mitigating effects while longer-term strategies like carbon capture are being set up. As I’ve often observed, human beings don’t so much solve problems as they exchange one set of problems for another in the hopes that the new set is more favorable than the old. Such tradeoffs are covered in depth throughout the novel.
The big sulfur gun geoengineering scheme is often cited as the big idea of this book, but the real theme here is that the problem of climate change will be broken down into a series of smaller, more focused challenges and solutions. The big sulfur gun isn’t actually that big. At best, it’s a delaying action. But it is something! And we’ll need to do a lot of somethings, big and small, if we’re going to tackle climate change. The problem is too big, too complex, involving too many people, too many governments, and too many agendas to solve it any other way. This book illustrates the distributed way that this sort of thing will happen. Sure, maybe all the governments of the world will come together in peace and harmony and completely rework globalized energy networks, our financial system, and so on, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for that one.
At first glance, the story threads in the book are a bit scattered, but it’s not an uncommon approach from Stephenson. You’ve got a thread about Dutch royalty, a partial Native American on a Moby Dick-like quest to kill a specific feral hog, the aforementioned Texas billionaire, and a Canadian man of Indian descent who gets involved in a strange border conflict with China. The usual Stephensonian distractions and digressions are out in full force, touching on all manner of seemingly disconnected subjects from falconry to drone-assisted hunting to obscure martial arts to deepfakes to large scale engineering. It feels like Stephenson is just obsessing over things he finds neat, but something about the way he lays these things out and integrates them into the larger story works for me. It does all come together in the end, and I think Stephenson fans will find plenty to chew on. I’m a big fan of Stephenson though, so your mileage may vary. Some of the things I’m praising in this novel are things that I often don’t like in other books. In any case, I liked this enough to nominate it for a Hugo award, and I hope it does find a large audience.
The nomination period for the 2022 Hugo Awards ends in a few weeks, so it’s worth thinking about the year in SF. After taking a year off from the awards, I decided to jump back into the fray this year due to a couple of really strong nominees (that will, hopefully, become finalists) that I wanted to support. As per usual, I didn’t actually read that much eligible stuff, so I’m scrambling a bit at this point to catch up with some things. Assorted thoughts below.
I’ve read 6 books that would be eligible for the best novel award, and these two are the best SF I’ve read in a while:
Both books are exceptional and highly recommended. My experience nominating novels is somewhat mixed, but I estimate that both of these have a good chance of garnering a finalist spot on the Hugo ballot, and they’re probably my favorite I’ve gotten to nominate in the approximately one decade in which I’ve been playing along.
I quite enjoyed Artifact Space by Miles Cameron, a fun little space opera that I’d probably nominate in a normal year, but pales in comparison to the above two. Similarly, I had a lot of fun with Master of the Revels by Nicole Galland, but I don’t think it necessarily stacks up. I might just plop these two on my nominating ballot if I have space, but I doubt either will garner a finalist slot. I want to catch up with Machinehood by S.B. Divya and Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky before the nomination period ends, but time is tight, so who knows if I’ll get to both?
I’m not particularly great at keeping up with short fiction, but I did read two of the best and yet most boring choices for nominees released last year:
I say these are boring choices because, well, the Murderbot stories that Wells writes have already won several Hugos, including Best Novel and Best Series just last year. Bujold might be the most awarded author in the history of the Hugos, and the above work is the tenth novella in a series that has been nominated before (and part of another Best Series). That being said? They’re both fantastic. What can I say, I’ll try to mix things up next year. I’ll try to catch up with some short stories before the nomination period ends, but I don’t really have much on my radar at the moment.
I still have reservations about this award from both a logistical (who can read all these series in time to vote?) and purpose (winners tend to have already won Hugos for the novels in the same series, sometimes in the same year) perspective. That being said, it is an award, and I think the spirit of the award is meant for something like this:
One good thing about this award is that a lot of the obvious choices are now ineligible this year (because they’ve already won or been nominated too much), but there’s still quite a large number of possibilities. I like the Bobiverse books a lot, even if an individual entry doesn’t quite rise to the level of a Hugo Best Novel. This is kinda what the award is all about though, so I’ll throw this a nom.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
The Hugo Voters tend to have strangely generic taste in movies, often nominating high budget superhero fare over smaller, more thoughtful independent stuff. I always try to nominate stuff that’s off the beaten path (with a nod towards some of the mainstream stuff, if it’s great), but they rarely make the cut with Hugo voters. A decent crop this year though:
I really wanted to throw some love to Malignant, but there’s an approximately 0% chance of it getting other votes. Horror tends to do poorly when it comes to the Hugos, and I’m already pushing it with Werewolves Within. Anyway, I fully expect the finalists to consist of things like Spider-Man and The Matrix, but I hold out hope that something like I’m Your Man could sneak onto the list.
Some assorted nominations in more obscure categories:
That about covers it for what I’m nominating for the 2022 Hugo Awards (for now). I have a busy few weeks coming up, so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to get to ahead of the nominations deadline, but this is a good start, I think.
Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January. Eagle eyed readers may recognize that it is now February, so yes, I’m playing a bit of catch up here. That said, I read both of the below during January and better late than never.
Judgement Night by C.L. Moore – Moore is one of those early female SF authors that are often glossed over in genre discussions. She was one half of the foremost husband-and-wife team in SF history (the other half was her husband, Henry Kuttner), and they were quite prolific together, publishing under numerous pen names (most famously Lewis Padgett), but also wrote solo stories. The standard take is that Kuttner was faster and more prolific, but Moore was more original and more highly regarded as a writer. There’s also complicating factors because some of Moore’s stories were published under Kuttner’s name, owing to the fact that he had a higher word rate than she did. Still, the notion that their strengths and weaknesses offset each other is the prevailing narrative, and it does make a certain sort of sense.
This 1952 novel is one of Moore’s later solo efforts, and I think I can see some of the dynamics here. The story is about Juille, headstrong daughter of the emperor, an amazon warrior who wants to take a hard line against the barbarian hordes that threaten the empire. It’s a story about an empire, so naturally it all hinges on an attempt to overthrow the emperor. Both sides are developing frightening weapons of great power, and seem hellbent on destruction. Egide is a leader of the barbarian faction, and he develops a rather strange relationship with Juille. There’s a simultaneous attraction and repulsion between the two that is consistently revisited throughout the story, and represents the emotional core. There are other factions and the requisite schemes and betrayals, as befits this sort of tale.
The proportion of exposition is perhaps a bit too high given the simple adventure story, leading to some inconsistent pacing. However, Moore is great at evocative atmosphere, and she pulls from all sorts of elements that we’d be familiar with. There’s definitely a Western vibe to a lot of the setting, though instead of horses and swords you get spaceships and fire swords (perhaps one of many precursors to the light saber?) For some reason everyone still walks around with spurs on their boots too, which I found kinda funny. The star-crossed lovers trope is certainly common, but it’s common for a reason, and it’s well done here. Moore’s prose is colorful and creative, especially when it comes to Cyrille, a sorta pleasure planet (moon?) that features tons of artificial environments. I kinda thought of it like Risa from Star Trek, and we see it a couple of times throughout this novel.
The ending is surprisingly downbeat for a golden age work, but it absolutely fits with Moore’s common themes (and actually, her husband’s as well). She described the fundamental theme she revisited in her work often as “The most treacherous thing in life is love,” and she summarized her husband’s too: “Hank’s basic statement was something like, ‘Authority is dangerous and I will never submit to it.'” The ending of Judgement night is certainly fitting with both of these; a powerful statement on the folly of war, if not particularly satisfying. As Moore herself comments towards the end “The human mind is not constructed to accept defeat even in the face of finality.” I think she pulled it off and this represents an interesting deviation from the genre at the time, but it’s probably not an entry point or must-read.
The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance – Another story about a power struggle in a monarchy, this one with considerably more idea content that reaches for that fabled SF sense of wonder. Young Beran Panasper’s father and Panarch of the planet Pao has just been murdered. Beran must flee his home to survive, and is aided by a man named Palafox from the planet Breakness. Growing up in this foreign planet, Beran learns their ways while struggling to maintain his Paonese culture and mindset. Meanwhile, Palafox works with the current leader of Pao, who is unpopular with his people and vulnerable to an outside threat. But Palafox is basically setting up Pao to meet his own needs, and Beran will need to find a way to navigate back to Pao, save it from its current leader (thus avenging his father’s death), fend off other attackers, and eventually defeat Palafox himself.
This is one of the earlier works of SF exploring linguistics and in particular, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The idea is that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ worldview to a large degree. Vance rather directly presents these ideas in the text:
“Think of a language as the contour of a watershed, stopping flow in certain directions, channeling it into others. Language controls the mechanism of your mind. When people speak different languages, their minds work differently and they act differently…”
The Languages of Pao, Page 41
This idea has been a powerful influence on the field. For instance, it’s the driving principle behind Ted Chiang’s 1998 “Story of Your Life” (which was adapted into the film Arrival in 2016). In The Languages of Pao it is perhaps more contrived, but no less interesting. To make it work, Vance creates two very different societies. Different from each other, and different from our own. Pao is a very passive, accepting society, almost communal in nature. Breakness is extremely individualistic. Pao’s indifference makes them vulnerable to outside attack, and in order to defend against it, they develop several new languages in order to generate a warrior class (as well as a technology class and a merchant class). Eventually these new classes are successful, but at what cost? If language changes your outlook away from traditional Pao society, are you still Paonese?
This is a short book, and despite the rather bald way some of these ideas are presented, the pacing is still quite brisk. It actually represents an interesting contrast to Moore’s Judgement Night, which definitely gets bogged down in its atmospheric prose. Vance is perhaps not as much of a stylist, but he’s clear and concise, and while the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is debatable, it does still make an intriguing basis for a story. As I understand it, this early Vance work is not one of his best, though it is something of a turning point for him. After reading this, I’m definitely curious to seek out more from him, which is usually a pretty good sign. I enjoyed this well enough and it has all the right elements, but the balance feels a bit off. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in the genre’s usage of linguistics…
Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.
Not long after Superman made his debut in the pages of Action Comics in 1938, A.E. van Vogt was pitching a more scientific version of the idea to John Campbell, the infamous editor of Astounding magazine (the resultant novel Slan would be serialized in that magazine in 1940). van Vogt had already been exploring the idea that humans would need to transcend themselves in order to better explore the universe. He proposed a novel wherein a new species of Homo Superior emerges out of humans as we presently know them. Because van Vogt proposed that the story be told from the perspective of the new, higher order being, Campbell initially rejected the idea. His main point was that you couldn’t tell a superman story from the superman’s viewpoint… unless you were a superman yourself!
In what Campbell would later describe as a “beautiful trick”, van Vogt’s solution to this conundrum was to tell the story from the point of view of an isolated, immature superman who had not yet come into his full powers. As Slan begins, nine-year old Jommy Cross has just seen his mother captured and killed. Young, vulnerable, and on the run, he spends the rest of the novel seeking to learn more about himself and his kind.
Slans are the next phase in human evolution, named after their creator, one Samuel Lann. They are stronger, faster, and more intelligent than their human counterparts, and even exhibit fantastic psychic powers, including the ability to read minds. Humans, lead by the dictator Kier Gray, are fearful of slans and plotting ways to exterminate the entire population.
I won’t get into more specific plot points because part of the joy of this novel is the way in which van Vogt continually recontextualizes information that has been laid out earlier in the story. He accomplishes this through a tightly connected series of episodic conversations. Sure, there are the occasional action setpieces involving daring escapes, spaceships, and secret passages, but the real fireworks are in the scheming battles of wits between various characters. Whether it be young Jommy Cross guardedly interrogating a suspected fellow slan or dictator Kier Gray fending off political foes, these conversations constitute the bulk of the novel.
I certainly wouldn’t characterize van Vogt as a tremendous prose stylist, but he does have a tendency to employ a dreamlike vagueness in the way he constructs his sentences. This sometimes comes off as a clumsy turn of phrase, but it can also provoke a creative response if you get on its wavelength. So the story initially appears to have a lot of open questions or silly elements, but there is an almost mystical method to this madness, such that the nitpicking parts of my brain tended to be overcome by the more imaginative impulses that a good story can induce. A steady stream of twists and turns coming at a rather fast pace also doesn’t hurt… Not everything works perfectly (I’m thinking of a particularly abrupt death that, while certainly surprising, also felt a bit cheap – especially at the very end when you get those final couple twists that call back to this moment), but it puts on a good show.
One recurring motif that occurs several times throughout the novel is the scene of mutual recognition. When Jommy finally meets a fellow Slan and they both experience a simultaneous rush of discovery, it’s quite well done (there are several similar sequences throughout the book). This apparently struck a nerve with early fandom, with people jokingly referring to their communal living spaces as “slan shacks” and developing the slogan that “fans are slans!” Again, this was more of a joke than anything else, but it does bely early fandom’s comradery, pleasure at discovering a fellow fan of SF, and willingness to aspire to something more (i.e. slanhood!)
Reading this novel 80 years later, I’d say that it’s a fairly representative example of what made Golden Age science fiction so popular. Lots of ideas and twists, awkward prose that nevertheless possesses a deceptively clever underpinning, short and sweet. It is not a perfect novel, but it is interesting that as a novel about the the next stage of evolution amongst humans, it’s also a clear step forward for the science fiction genre. I enjoyed catching up with it…
The Results of the 2021 Hugo Awards were announced last night, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. At this point, I’ve fallen off of the Hugo bandwagon from a formal participation standpoint, but still like to keep an eye on things. Populist awards like this go in waves, so they tend to get repetitive, as we’ll see. In any case, congratulations are due to all the winners! For those who want to geek out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting stats for the 2021 Hugo Awards are also available (.pdf).
Network Effect, by Martha Wells wins! It’s the one novel of the nominees that I actually read last year and I’ve very much enjoyed the whole Murderbot series to date. For the uninitiated, you’ll want to start with the original novellas (beginning with All Systems Red) before getting to this novel, but it’s a fun, action packed series with a compelling protagonist, some interesting ideas, and a nice cast of regular side characters.
Of course, this is part of a long running series that has won before (although this is the first novel), which speaks to the repetition I was speaking of above. The other nominees didn’t hold much interest for me, seeing as though I’d either read previous novels in the series or enough work from the author that I wasn’t especially excited to read more of. The one exception might be Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, but I’m not in a rush there either.
I didn’t even dip my toes into the shorter fiction categories this year, but I do see a lot of familiar names here, even among the winners. However, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, by Nghi Vo did win the novella category and that’s a new name, so there is that. Sarah Pinsker and Ursula Vernon took home the other two fiction awards, and they’ve been mainstays of the past few years. Despite (or because of?) the controversy around Isabella Fall’s Helicopter Story, it did not do so well in the voting.
The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells wins here as well, proving once again that the original intentions of the series award aren’t really being served here. Don’t get me wrong, as previously mentioned, I love the Murderbot series and it’s eminently deserving of praise… but it’s already won multiple Hugo awards. This is just an also-ran for that series, while other series languish in obscurity (or, er, lack of recognition? They all seem pretty popular.)
I always thought the point was to recognize series that didn’t already get recognition in the other awards. The idea being that hey, maybe we can include more one-offs in the best novel ballot because entries in a series can be recognized here. Or series that people love that nonetheless don’t have standout individual entries can still be recognized. But in general, the award has gone to hugely popular series that had already been recognized, sometimes in the same ballot (like this year, with the novel and its series winning).
As I understand it, this award narrowly passed a vote considering its future, so it will continue to show up in future years. I remain a little skeptical of this one, not least of which because I don’t think it’s likely that most voters have read all the series nominated (not to mention the logistics of reading that many stories in the time allotted).
Best Dramatic Presentation
Always a weird award, and this year is no different. The long form award goes to… The Old Guard? A little surprising, as I didn’t realize that movie was particularly loved. I mean, I enjoyed it plenty and it was great pandemic watching, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly original or great SF. Of course, the other nominees aren’t especially accomplished either. I’m still quite baffled that Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga even made the ballot in the first place. It’s not especially surprising that Tenet didn’t do very well, though it would probably be my favorite of the nominees (at least, as SF it would – I think Tenet does have its flaws). For whatever reason, Hugo voters tend to go lower-brow when it comes to movies. Anyway, pour one out for The Invisible Man, Possessor, The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Archive, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow. There are always great works left off of a given awards ballot, but this year seems particularly egregious (I mean, come on, Eurovision?).
Short form goes to The Good Place. Again. I really enjoyed The Good Place, but it has won the award four times in a row, which seems silly. I would have probably gone more Mandalorian on this ballot, though perhaps the vote got split because there were two different episodes nominated (but then, the whole instant-runoff thing kinda mitigates some of that and looking at the actual numbers, The Good Place had a really strong win here – it wasn’t even close.) The Expanse ended up taking a distant second place. Now that The Good Place is over, it’ll be interesting to see where things fall next year. I suspect we’ll see a strong showing for Marvel TV shows…
Other Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Awards
It wouldn’t be Hugos without some sort of controversy, and this year had no shortage of questionable events. Personally, this stuff gives me the hives, but near as I can tell much of the controversy surrounded China’s bid to host Worldcon in 2023. Naturally, there were some concerns there because of, you know, the genocide, censorship, and high profile disappearings. But then a competing bid from Winnipeg pulled out a big ol bag of dirty tricks to try and win, which wasn’t great either. I mean, not genocide-level bad, but not great. Then of course you get the whataboutisms and how the US sucks (and I guess so does Canada?) and Raytheon sponsored a part of this year’s Hugos (which I can kinda see why someone would want to sideye and all, but still) and the whole thing is just a garbage fire at this point. I don’t really want to delve more into it.
Next year’s awards could be interesting though. I’m already curious to see if my two favorite novels from this year make next year’s ballot, and I actually think there’s a fair chance that both will. It might be enough to get me to dive in again. (Of course, one of these books comes from a popular author that’s been nominated several times and even won before, so there is that, but still.) I suppose time will tell. Anywho, congrats again to all the winners of the 2021 Hugo Awards!
I’m still catching up with recent SF reading and I figure it’s best to get this out before the Six Weeks of Halloween revs up. This post covers stuff I read from June right up until last week, so we’re pretty much caught up. Naturally, we’ll cover some horror books during the 6WH, so it may be a while before returning to SF proper. Anywho, let’s get to it:
First up is the Long Winter Trilogy:
Winter World, by A.G. Riddle – A new, inexplicable ice age has descended upon earth. Desperate for answers, scientists send probes out into the solar system and discover mysterious objects disrupting solar energy. James Sinclair is a disgraced roboticist serving time in prison, but is nonetheless tapped to be on the team that will confront the forces disrupting earth. Will this team be able to figure out what’s happening and find a countermeasure? A sorta light space opera/first contact tale in the vein of Blake Crouch or Peter Clines (to name two folks I’ve read recently that operate in a similar way).
Old SF hands might not find a ton of new ideas here, but it’s well executed and entertaining. Some of the twists and turns are foreshadowed hard, so hard that maybe they’re not supposed to be twists? I mean, some things that are blindingly obvious to readers somehow surprise some characters in strange ways. As an opening shot in a trilogy, it’s just fine. Won’t blow your mind, but it’s a well told story and it’s achieving what it sets out to do…
I’ve avoided spoilers thus far, but talking about the next two books will necessarily mean a little bit of spoilers (overall, an entertaining light SF trilogy that manages to hint at some actually fascinating stuff towards the end). Alright, Spoilers aho:
The Solar War, by A.G. Riddle – This picks up where the first book led off, with earth and humanity enjoying a brief respite from the winter. They’re using this time to prepare for the return of the Grid, who will no doubt be focusing more energy on getting rid of humanity this time around. That’s not just meant as a metaphorical turn of phrase: the Grid is almost entirely motivated by the collection and conservation of energy. Their original plan was to harvest our Sun’s energy in such a way that humanity would be quickly destroyed in the process. In the first book, humanity managed a small victory, but now the Grid has returned. They’ve flung asteroids at earth, but will humanity’s defenses hold up? Eh, sorta.
Like a lot of middle stories in a trilogy, there’s a lot of water treading here, and setup for the next book. I’m of two minds as to how this all goes down. On the one hand, humanity did seem awfully outmatched and only managed success in the first book because the invaders weren’t really trying that hard. On the other, it’s not especially entertaining seeing the humans get nearly obliterated, and Riddle spends an awful lot of time on the nuts and bolts survival aspects of the story. All well and good, but the overarching narrative isn’t advanced much. Also, the deal that the Grid offers doesn’t make a ton of sense, even if the humans in the story are appropriately suspicious. In any case, the tone and pacing are pretty much par for the course here, and this is a similar experience to the first book. Nothing really new here, but well executed and entertaining enough that I wanted to see what would happen next.
The Lost Colony, by A.G. Riddle – The remnants of humanity now number in the thousands, and have settled on an eyeball planet around a low power star that the Grid doesn’t find interesting enough to harvest. This plays out like two novellas smushed into a novel. The first story is all about survival in the new wilderness, which contains deadly predators (along the lines of a T-Rex), vicious storms caused by celestial mechanics, and smaller scorpion-like threats. Like in the second book, this feels a lot like water-treading… but the second phase of this novel recontextualizes in an interesting way.
In fact, the entire series thus far is recontextualized. Riddle really swings for the fences in the second act of this book, devising an origin for the Grid that is novel and fascinating. I’ve described the previous two books as a sorta light SF that you’ve seen before (if well executed), but this second half of the third book does offer something new. Does it entirely work? Did we really need to march through two and a half books to get here? Do the physics actually work out? Does the Grid’s plan hinge on too much chance? Are the ethical implications of what’s really going on justified? Maybe not? But I can appreciate the ambition and effort. Perhaps it’s just the notion of being lulled into that feeling of a familiar, derivative story being shattered by something kinda out-there that did the trick, but I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. Overall, I enjoyed the series and I liked how bonkers the ending got, but I wish there was less water-treading throughout the series and more of that sense of wonder stuff interspersed throughout.
The Engines of God, by Jack McDevitt – Humans have expanded beyond their solar system and they’ve begun to find mysterious alien artifacts. They’ve dubbed the aliens Monument-Makers, but have been unable to discern anything about them. Each artifact is different and beautiful, but they defy explanation. Then a team of scientists discover an artifact that appears to have played a role in a lost civilization. Previously discovered artifacts can also be tied to lost civilizations, making them somewhat more ominous. Earth itself is facing ecological disaster – do the Monument-Makers have something in mind for us?
It’s an interesting spin on the big dumb object sub-genre. Instead of a giant unknowable artifact, we get lots of smaller ones. McDevitt does a good job setting all this up, perhaps somewhat less so of establishing characters and plot mechanics. Like the Long Winter books above, there’s a significant portion of this book that’s focused on episodic tales of survival or races against the clock. All well and good, but spending a bunch of time fending off throngs of crab-like monsters doesn’t really advance the narrative much. Progress is made in the end though, and the explanation makes sense. I’ll cut this a little more slack because it’s all completed in a single novel, though there are apparently additional stories set in this universe. I will probably make my way to those sequels at some point, which says something, I think. Not exactly top tier stuff, but well executed and interesting enough.
Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson – One night when they were ten years old, Tyler Dupree and his neighbors Jason and Diane Lawton were playing in the yard when the stars went out. There was a brief, bright flash, then the sky just went black. Scientists eventually discover that earth has been placed within some sort of “spin membrane”. Outside the membrane time is moving at a hugely accelerated pace – about 3 years outside per second inside, or 100 million years on the outside per year inside. How will this development affect humanity? How will we respond? What about the Hypotheticals – the aliens who put the membrane in place? What’s their endgame?
It’s a great setup, and to be sure, Wilson puts the premise to good use and develops some great, extra-crunchy SF ideas throughout. For example, the time passing outside the spin membrane is terrifying, but it also opens up some avenues that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Because time is moving so fast, the notion of terraforming Mars becomes much more feasible. That’s a neat extrapolation from the base idea, and there are others throughout the book. However, the bulk of the story is comprised of character-based drama surrounding the three kids as they group up during the spin. Jason becomes a scientist working to understand the spin and develop various strategies to work around it, but he’s also struggling under the grip of an overbearing father not to mention his own medical problems. Diane retreats from society, basically joining a cult. Tyler just sorta meanders about, eventually coming to work for Jason but still struggling to find a way to reach Diane (who he’s clearly in love with). They’re all well drawn and fleshed out, even if I sometimes had a difficult time connecting.
This is a book for those folks who like to define SF as “all about the human condition” or some such. Those of us who are in it more for the sense of wonder and idea content will have plenty to chew on, but the proportion is far more focused on character than it is on ideas. So I’m a bit torn here. I really love the SF ideas , but I didn’t quite connect with the characters enough to love all the time spent on their foibles. Your mileage may vary…
Murder by Other Means, by John Scalzi – The second novella in this series about “dispatchers”, people who are legally empowered to take a life (except in this world, anyone who is murdered survives – they just wake up in their home after being murdered. Natural deaths still occur, only murders are affected). It’s a silly premise, to be sure, but both novellas are fun mystery thriller type stories suffused with Scalzi’s usual tight plotting, snappy dialog, and light humor. For whatever reason, these were conceived as Audible originals and initially released only on audiobook. It’s read by Zachary Quinto, who does an admirable job. This particular installment involves shady business deals, a dispatching gone wrong, and a frame job on our hero. All quite entertaining and fun. I know Scalzi can rub some folks the wrong way outside of his books, but the stories themselves are almost always fun and worth checking out.
And we’re all caught up. Stay tuned for Week 1 of the Six Weeks of Halloween!
I’m woefully behind on my science fiction book reviews, so let’s catch up, shall we? I read some of these in the February/March timeframe, so bear with me. Also of note, I did do full reviews for a couple important release, including Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary and Nicole Galland’s Master of the Revels, so it hasn’t just been 1978 movies for 6 months. Anyway, let’s take a look at a few of these books.
Heaven’s River, by Dennis E. Taylor – The fourth book set in Taylor’s “Bobiverse”, where a man named Bob was turned into a Von Neumann Machine and duked it out with competing Von Neumann programs. The original trilogy was very enjoyable and came to a satisfying conclusion, but of course there were some dangling threads that could be pursued in sequels, so here we are.
At the start of Heaven’s River, original Bob and his closest descendants want to seek out their old friend Bender (one of Bob’s replicants that had gone off exploring in the previous books), but the issue of replicative drift means that future generations of Bob are becoming less and less Bob-like, so internal strife is on the rise. Especially with an internal faction that refers to itself as Starfleet. Things get so bad that a civil war is brewing, and meanwhile, other external threats are emerging.
It’s all par for the Bobiverse course. Which is to say, it’s quite entertaining and involving and Taylor continues to put these ideas through their paces. It’s episodic but not completely disjointed, and I generally enjoy spending time with the various incarnations of Bob. This is certainly not a place to jump into the series (start with the first book), but it’s a solid way to continue the series. Looking forward to the next installment.
Colonyside, by Michael Mammay – The third book in Mammay’s series about Colonel Carl Butler and the various mysteries and conspiracies he gets embroiled in, usually from some military angle. This time Butler is brought on to find the missing daughter of a CEO, and naturally there’s more here than meets the eye. I’ve generally enjoyed this series, but it’s never quite delivered on the potential of the premise. A sorta mixture of Military SF and Hard Boiled Detective fiction should be more fun than this… which is not to say that this is bad, per say. As I mentioned, it’s enjoyable, but the mysteries never quite give you the rush that great detective fiction manages, and while the action is solid, it’s not quite Military SF grade action. I’m on the fence about reading the next installment (assuming there is one), but if Mammay can wrangle the two genres better, it could be really something.
Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells – The sixth Murderbot story is actually a pretty good example of what Mammay is trying for. Murderbot gets embroiled in a mystery involving human trafficking in a space station around her friends’ planet. Good characters, a well drawn mystery, great action, propulsive pacing, and a satisfying conclusion. The only real complaint is that it’s perhaps a bit too short, but that’s one of those “leave them wanting more” good things. I actually didn’t realize that this would be a novella-sized story when I got it. I just assumed that because the last entry in the series was a novel, this one would be too. Anyway, that’s not really a complaint. If you’re not on board the Muderbot train, it’s worth purchasing a ticket (or, uh, the first novella in the series, you know what I mean).
Year Zero, by Rob Reid – Hey look, it’s a book that isn’t part of a series! Low level entertainment lawyer Nick Carter (not that Nick Carter) is visited by aliens desperate to license music. The problem? The entire universe, teeming with life, is terrible at music… except Earth. When our music is discovered, aliens enjoy decades of pure joy… and also wind up committing the biggest copyright violation in the history of the universe. The resulting fines and penalties would bankrupt the entire universe several times over.
It’s a great premise, and in case you can’t already tell, this is a SF Comedy owing much to the likes of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Big shoes to fill and for sure, Reid isn’t operating on that level. It’s not terrible or anything, and I quite enjoyed the novel, but the beginning is the best part and as the novel progresses and the silliness of various characters and concepts start to compound, it gets to be a bit much in the middle. The ending works well enough, though, and if you can stomach the constant Pop Culture references, you’ll have a good time with this. Personally, I’m not really a music expert, so I’m sure some of the music references went over my head, but I enjoyed it all well enough. It’s not going to change your life or anything, but it’s a fun time.
The Assassins of Thasalon, by Lois McMaster Bujold – The latest Penric & Desdemona story is longer than usual (technically it’s novel-length, though it’s short by today’s novel standards), but that doesn’t matter because this series is great. Penric’s brother-in-law (General Arisaydia) has been enduring various assassination attempts as a result of political turmoil in his homeland (I’m simplifying a little here – events in previous Pen & Des novels flesh this out a bit), so Penric and General Arisaydia attempt various hijinks to deal with the issue. The usual sorcery and intrigue abound, and Bujold’s ability to introduce new side characters that you can immediately connect with is on full display (plus, the series has been going on long enough to have a regular stable of well-established side characters to draw upon). As usual, the series as a whole is highly recommended.
Still have a few books to go, but this is a start at least…
Andy Weir first rose to prominence with his self-published novel of an astronaut stranded on Mars, The Martian. It caught on with readers, eventually got picked up by a big publisher and even adapted into a pretty great Ridley Scott movie. He followed that book up with the moon-based Artemis, a novel that clearly didn’t hang together as well as The Martian, but had its moments I guess. Still, the Sophomore Slump felt real. Now we come to Project Hail Mary, Weir’s third book and I’m happy to report that it represents something of a return to form.
Earth’s sun is dimming and the cause is traced back to a microscopic life form (dubbed the Astrophage) that lives on the sun and uses its energy to migrate to Venus. The dimming effect is accelerating and will eventually cause catastrophic changes on earth and potentially wipe out humanity. What’s more, most of our neighboring stars are also dimming… except for Tau Ceti, a star that’s twelve light-years from earth. Project Hail Mary is quickly assembled to visit Tau Ceti, devise a solution to the Astrophage, and save all humankind. We learn all of this in flashback, as Ryland Grace, a middle-school science teacher wakes up with a nasty case of amnesia. He quickly deduces that he’s on a spaceship and his memories start to come back. Will Grace be able to find a solution in time to save Earth?
Some minor spoilers up there, I guess, but there’s lots more to this story that I will try not to spoil too much. As with The Martian this is a novel about a lone astronaut sciencing the shit out of things to save himself and in this case, humanity. The science is handled well and in detail. It’s not diamond hard science fiction that’s difficult to understand, it’s actually quite accessible and while sometimes tedious for the characters, mostly not for us readers. I suppose it could wear you down though, especially when you get towards the end of the story and you know where it’s going, but Weir puts Grace through the paces as he attempts to find a needle in a haystack. Still, it’s well drawn and clearly explained. All of which serves to keep the story grounded, even when Grace does some crazy stuff to, for example, snag a sample of a potential Astrophage solution.
The technology is mostly present-day stuff. Since Project Hail Mary is humanity’s last hope, the plan relies on old, well-established technology that’s pretty much guaranteed not to fail. Except, of course, for the new spin drive propulsion system that can help the ship traverse interstellar distances. But here Weir finds a clever solution.
Indeed, one of the impressive things about the book is that Weir takes one counterfactual, the Astrophage, and once established, he puts it through a whole battery of extrapolations that have far and wide implications. There’s lots of things in this book that are surprising, but at their core, they are explained by a relatively simple microorganism. It speaks to one of Science Fiction’s broad strengths. Establish something simple and relatively innocuous, then tease out the implications until things start to get weird. Weir also manages to weave this sort of thing into the plot too, which shows some storytelling chops.
It’s hard to get into the rest of the story without getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at that. Fans of The Martian will certainly enjoy this, though it may come off a bit samey. Weir is great at presenting complicated science in an accessible manner, but he’s not exactly a prose stylist. Characterization isn’t a strong suit either. Ryland Grace is your typical competent man SF hero (much like Mark Watney from The Martian). Weir does attempt to flesh him out a bit, especially with a late revelation that didn’t quite sit right with me, but he’s still a pretty familiar SF archetype. As with a lot of older SF, the ideas at the core of the story are the real hero. It does a great job evoking that vaunted sense of wonder that’s at the core of SF. That’s what makes a book like this work, and it’s the sort of thing that’s missing from a lot of modern SF.
Modern SF has a tendency towards extreme cynicism, dysfunction, angst, and oppression, and fans of that will likely see this book, with its optimism in the face of disaster, competence, and happy ending, as jejune and unsophisticated. I found it to be a breath of fresh air and ultimately loved the book, flaws and all. It’s a throwback SF vision that we could probably use more of these days.
The 2021 Hugo Awards finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite grumbles and bellyaches. I’ve largely fallen off the Hugo bandwagon and I’m probably not going to play along this year, but I still find the process interesting. Congrats to all the nominees!
The Best Novel ballot is a pretty good illustration of why I’m not reading/voting this year. This isn’t to say they’re bad novels or anything, but there’s this tendency in the Hugo awards where certain authors catch on and get nominated year after year. One of the reasons I followed along with the Hugos (even before actively participating) was that they introduced me to new or different work. They got me out of my comfort zone. But they go in waves, and if a set of authors you don’t care for gets hot, then interest fades.
This year’s nominees have mostly been nominated recently, if they haven’t won recently. Four have had finalists in the last few years. One of the others (Network Effect by Martha Wells) is new to the Best Novel ballot, but it’s a sequel to a series of novellas which have entries that have been nominated and won. For the record, that’s the only one I’ve already read, and I really enjoy that series, so it’s a well deserved nomination in my book. The other is the second novel by an author whose first novel won the award in 2005. That’s also one that I might actually get to someday, award or no award. If you expand name recognition to the other categories, it gets even worse.
I suspect in a couple years I’ll take a look and see a bunch of new folks, at which point I might join in again. The genre is much larger these days, with much more volume than in the earlier days of fandom, so you’d think that the tendency for repeat names would be more limited now, but I guess the awards are more representative of the voters than the genre itself. For now, I’ll continue to follow the news, but not read along…
Even here, I see a lot of familiar names, and it’s also kinda funny that every nominated novella is published by Tor.com. Is no one else publishing novellas? In theory, I like the idea of reading a bunch of short fiction – it’s could be like a sampler platter of what’s going on in SF. But I’m almost invariably disappointed in these categories. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but the bevy of familiar names don’t interest me that much.
This award continues to baffle. In theory, it could be used to recognize series that have built up a readership over time and become more than the sum of its parts. Or something like that. In practice, it seems to be dominated by authors and series that also get best novel nominations. For instance, two of this year’s best series nominees also have an entry on the best novel ballot. On the other hand, there are some series here that do seem to fit the bill. Of course, there’s also the logistical challenge of this award. How can anyone have enough time to read all these series? I know this year’s voting period is much longer than normal (thanks Pandemic!), but it’s still got to be impossible to vote for this, unless you’ve already read most of the nominees (or if you only give each series a cursory read).
I’m perhaps being overly grumpy in this post. Congrats to all the nominees. I would still encourage folks to play along with the Hugo Awards at some point (2021 or not), as I’ve always found it interesting, even when I don’t love the books. That said, I know enough about this year’s crop to know that I probably won’t enjoy a lot of them, so I’m opting out. I’ll still be curious to see who wins and what the awards look like next year though.