Sunday, August 23, 2015

2015 Not A Hugo Award Nominees

So here I am, cranking up the handle on the long-disused blog. The 2015 Hugo Awards are freshly awarded (and, frequently, not awarded). That means the nominating stats are available. And that means we can reconstruct what the ballot would have looked like* if the two Puppies slates had not been involved. Tobias Buckell has already done the hard work there; you should check out his blog post.

All of that means it's time for the 2015 Not A Hugo Awards.

This is my plan: I'm going to read the works that would have been nominated in the four fiction categories. I'm going to pick my favourites. If anyone else wants to read along with me, I'm happy to collate votes**, and award the winners completely-unofficial, in-no-way-affiliated Not A Hugo Awards. So, on with the nominees:

Best Novel

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US/Orbit UK)
The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) (Tor Books)
The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu, Ken Liu translator (Tor Books)
Lock In, John Scalzi (Tor Books)
City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennet (Broadway Books/Jo Fletcher Books)

Three of the five Not A Hugo novels were also nominated for Hugo Awards, so hopefully this one should be easy for Hugo voters.

Best Novella

The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Patrick Rothfuss (DAW)
The Regular, Ken Liu (Upgraded, Wyrm Publishing)
Yesterday's Kin, Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications)
Grand Jete, Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Press)
The Mothers of Voorheesville, Mary Rickert (

Two of the nominated works are available to read free online at the links provided: Grand Jete by Rachel Swirsky, and The Mothers of Voorheesville by Mary Rickert. In the remaining three cases, I've linked to the publisher's websites, where you can find lots of places to buy. None of these stories were nominated for Hugo Awards.

Best Novelette

The Day the World Turned Upside Down, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed)
Each to Each, Seanan McGuire (Lightspeed)
The Devil in America, Kai Ashante Wilson (
The Litany of Earth, Ruthann Emrys (
The Magician and Laplace's Demon, Tom Crosshill (Clarkesworld)

Happily, all five of these stories can be read online for free, at the links provided. Only one--The Day the World Turned Upside Down by Thomas Olde Heuvelt--was also nominated for a Hugo Award.

Best Short Story

The Jackalope Wives, Ursula Vernon (Apex)
The Breath of War, Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
The Truth About Owls, Amal el-Mohtar (Kaleidoscope, Twelfth Planet Press/Strange Horizons)
When it Ends, He Catches Her, Eugie Foster (Daily Science Fiction)
A Kiss with Teeth, Max Gladstone (

Again, all five nominees can be read for free at the links provided. None of these stories were nominated for Hugo Awards.

At some point I'll come back and set a deadline for the 2015 Not A Hugo votes. In the meantime, suggestions welcome!

* There are caveats, of course. Tobias Buckell points out that two of the short stories--the Eugie Foster and the Max Gladstone--may not have received enough votes to climb above the 5% threshold required for nomination. Like him, I'm including them anyway. Also, without digging carefully through the numbers I can't say with 100% confidence that none of the Puppies' nominees would've made it under their own steam. I'm excluding them anyway.

** If I do receive any votes, I'm totally using the official Hugo Awards voting system.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A quick note on 2013 Hugo nominations

Nominating ballots for the 2013 Hugo Awards are due on March 10, so I'm starting to think about which books I'm going to put forward. I've managed (largely by accident) to read seven eligible works so far:
  • Railsea by China Mieville
  • Dinocalypse Now by Chuck Wendig
  • A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix
  • The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan
  • Redshirts by John Scalzi
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
  • The Games by Ted Kosmatka
The Drowning Girl and Jack Glass are definitely on my ballot, and Railsea is highly likely. I absolutely adored Dinocalypse Now, but like Leviathan Wakes last year, I just don't think I can bring myself to nominate it.

So what am I missing? I've probably got time to squeeze in another two or three books before the deadline. What should they be?

I'm currently reading Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds, so I've got that one covered. I'm going to skip 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson for now -- I expect it'll appear on the final ballot without my help. I'm also expecting Empty Space by M. John Harrison to be a contender, but I'm not sure if I should hold off on that one until I've (re-)read the other books in the Kefahuchi Tract series. vN by Madeline Ashby? Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed? Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear? Hannu Rajaniemi's Fractal Prince?

Anyone have any suggestions?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Edge of Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

I've had the discussion around Paul Kincaid's 'The Widening Gyre' essay in the back of my mind since its publication, in September of 2012. In that essay -- actually a review of three SF anthologies --  Kincaid argued that there is a sense of exhaustion in the genre. "No longer sure of the future," he wrote, "an SF writer's options seem to be to present a future that is magical or incomprehensible ... or revert to older, more familiar futures". The essay prompted a great deal of discussion in the SF community; for helpful summaries, as well as refinements on his original position, check out Paul Kincaid's follow-up essays.

I'm really not sure what I think about Kincaid's argument, and that's a big part of why I've been silent here for the last few months. My gut reaction is to agree that science fiction has lost faith in the future, but to see this as less of a failing of the genre than as a simple reflection of our time. And isn't that all that science fiction ultimately does: reflect the fears, preoccupations and (occasionally) hopes of the generation in which it is written?

And yet, I miss starships. Since the cancellation of Stargate: Universe in 2011, there haven't been any on television, and I feel like I see fewer and fewer of them in SF short stories and novels. The end of the space shuttle programme, for all its failings, seems strongly symbolic of our turning away from space. I suspect many would argue that this is right and proper -- the starship is an artefact of old-fashioned SF, no longer plausible, and no longer worthy of our imagination.

But, honestly, I don't think I'm ready to let starships go.

So this is how I came to Jonathan Strahan's Edge of Infinity, an anthology of solar system SF. Strahan's introduction to Edge of Infinity is not dated, and so I can't tell if it was written prior to Kincaid's article (Edge of Infinity was released in late November 2012). Nevertheless, Strahan appears to reference the discussion when he talks about SF turning away from the romance of interstellar travel, in favour of a more practical, Earth-bound future.

I read Strahan's introduction as a reaction against the idea that SF has given up on the future. Okay, sure, the stars are beyond our reach. But perhaps the solar system isn't, and that's where an anthology like Edge of Infinity comes in. It's about "stories set firmly in an industrialised, colonised Solar System" -- unashamedly science fictional, rejecting a purely Earth-bound future, but striving to be thoroughly plausible (although by no means predictive).

In a sense, Edge of Infinity does exactly what it says on the tin. It is filled with believable, solar system-based futures. Many of the stories are blue-collar, focussed on engineering rather than cutting-edge science. That can make them feel somewhat old-fashioned, like updated versions of science fiction classics. Very few of the stories seem digital -- perhaps only three of the thirteen ("Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh" by John Barnes, "Bricks, Sticks, Straw" by Gwyneth Jones, "Tyche and the Ants" by Hannu Rajaniemi).

As I was reading, though, I couldn't shake the sense that the stories were largely undermining the optimistic, forward-looking premise that Strahan laid out in his introduction. They were doing this, I felt, from two different directions. I'm going to call them the 'it's too hard' school, and the 'dream bigger' school.

The poster-child for 'it's too hard' must surely be "The Road to NPS" by Sandra McDonald and Stephen D. Covey. In it, a Samoan wage-slave undertakes a dangerous drive across Europa, in the desperate hope that he can raise enough cash to buy out his contract and return to his wife on Earth. It's not the only such story, though: Kristine Kathryn Rusch's grimly comic "Safety Tests" is all about how tremendously dangerous flying a spaceship is, and An Owomoyela's "Water Rights" makes the point that exporting water into space only exacerbates already challenging water scarcity issues.

On the other hand, Hannu Rajaniemi's "Tyche and the Ants" seems to be a metaphor for resisting a mundane future, and striving for something larger and less practical than the other stories in Edge of InfinityGwyneth Jones' "Bricks, Sticks, Straw" -- a real standout -- seems to exemplify this conflict in the anthology. It concerns software avatars, trapped in the outer solar system when their probe is damaged by a solar flare. They fight to re-establish contact with Earth, with all the tenacity one would expect of optimistic SF. And yet the story ends with the melancholy sense that ordinary, Earth-bound human concerns will ultimately trump adventure.

That isn't to suggest that there are no stories that enthusiastically embrace humanity's future in the solar system. The ending to An Owomoyela's aforementioned "Water Rights" manages to be both hopeful and charming.  True to form, Alastair Reynolds' "Vainglory" amply demonstrates that solar system stories can be just as epic as any galaxy-spanning space opera.

But the true heart of the anthology is Paul McAuley's "Macy Minnot's Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler's Green, the Potter's Garden". Set in the solar system of his Quiet War series, it is beautiful and human and gentle. It has a sense of comfort and inevitability to it that many of the other stories in the anthology, striving and conflicted, lack.

Taken as a whole, I think Edge of Infinity is a really interesting snapshot of the difficulty science fiction is having in coming to grasp with the future. On the surface, it's all about mankind successfully inhabiting our solar system. But it seems to me that it is also filled with longing for something larger, with fear that it all might be too hard, and with a lack of conviction that we're actually up to the challenge. 

As with all anthologies, the quality of the individual stories varies, but there were a number of standouts -- particularly the Barnes, Jones, Reynolds, and McAuley. Strahan has done a commendable job sequencing the stories, too; I encourage you to read it in the order in which it is presented.

Lots to think about, and yet it doesn't leave me any clearer on how I feel about the current state of the field.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Best books I read in 2012

It's been a little while since I posted here. I may talk about why in a later post, but I thought I'd get things moving again with some words on the best books I read in 2012.

Science Fiction: Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh

I read Soft Apocalypse way back in January, and it stayed with me throughout the year. Far and away the most frightening apocalypse I've ever read, perhaps because it was so thoroughly believable. My memory is of a gentle, sometimes self-deluding central character, striving for companionship during a societal collapse that is as casual as it is horrifying.

There was a lot of talk this year about science fiction losing its faith in the future. I haven't fully unpacked my feelings on that -- I probably never will -- but it is perhaps telling that Soft Apocalypse was the most convincing science fiction novel I read in 2012. 

Honourable mentions: I want to call out two books for honourable mentions at more length than usual, because I didn't talk about either of them earlier in the year. The first is God's War, by Kameron Hurley. God's War is Hurley's first book, and so it isn't without its flaws. It is, however, one of the most inventive (and brutal) things I read in 2012. It felt a bit like reading Vandermeer's Finch or Mieville's Perdido Street Station for the first time -- unexpected, weird, and sort of inspiring. I look forward to reading more from Hurley.

The second book I want to mention is Jack Glass by Adam Roberts. Roberts was a bit of a puzzle for me -- in 2012 I started to notice people talking about him as if everyone already knew how good his books were. But if that was the case, how had I never heard of him?

I've since read two of his books -- By Light Alone and Jack Glass -- and he really is that good. Jack Glass, his thirteenth novel, is an impressive deconstruction of golden-age science fiction and detective stories. It's very readable, and if you wanted you could leave it at that. There's a lot more going on, though; it seemed to me that Roberts wasn't so much playing with genre tropes as he was actively interrogating them. Great stuff.

After you've read the book (and you should), take a look at this fascinating review by Jonathan McCalmont. 

Fantasy: Railsea, by China Mieville

It almost feels like cheating to put a China Mieville novel in my best of the year. We all know he's good, and we all know I like his books. But Railsea was probably the most fun I had all year. It's Mieville's take on Moby-Dick: Sham ap Soorap rides aboard the moletrain Medes, hunting her captain's great nemesis, the monstrous mole named Mocker-Jack. 

There's a little bit of latter-day Quentin Tarantino in Railsea, in that Mieville is being pretty self-indulgent. If that sort of thing frustrates you, so might Railsea. I found Mieville's affection for his source material, and the fun he was having, completely charming.

Honourable mentions: Dinocalypse Now, by Chuck Wending; The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Which maybe isn't really a fantasy novel. Whatever it is, it's excellent.

Other Thing: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

Okay, so this is another cheat. You'll find The Intuitionist in the literary fiction section of the book store, but I think you could make a very solid argument that it is equally a genre novel. Its plot is science-fictional, with a healthy dose of mystery: an ideological war between two schools of elevator repair, the Intuitionists and the Empiricists, and a search for the perfect elevator. But its prose, and its concern with race relations and social progress, are pure literary fiction.

However you want to label it -- and really, does it matter? -- The Intuitionist is a wonderful book. It may have helped that I read it while I was visiting New York (where it is apparently set), but I suspect I would have enjoyed it anywhere.

Honourable mentions: This is how you lose her by Junot Diaz; Atomic Robo, written by Brian Clevinger and drawn by Scott Wegener.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Dinocalypse Now by Chuck Wendig

What's the perfect thing to read at the end of Hugo voting season, when the pressure is off and I no longer have to carefully consider worthiness for awards? How about a book with a blurb like this:
When the Century Club is called in to prevent the assassination of FDR, it's just another day on the job -- but what they discover puts not just the President, but the entire world in jeopardy.

With psychic dinosaurs taking over Manhattan and beyond, it's up to Sally Slick, Jet Black, Mack Silver, and the other Centurions to save humanity -- from extinction!
Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? Turns out it was even more ridiculous than that, in exactly the right way.

Dinocalypse Now begins when the aforementioned psychic dinosaurs (!) attack a public appearance of President Roosevelt in Manhattan. The Centurions Sally Slick, Jet Black and Mack Silver work out pretty quickly that the dinosaurs aren't after FDR, they're after the heroes themselves. It's all part of the Conqueror Ape's plan to take over the world -- knock out the heroes first, and the rest will be easy.

Naturally Sally, Jet and Mack escape by the skin of their teeth, along with a few other Centurions from around the world: Professor Khan, the gorilla from Oxford; Amelia Stone, the two-fisted heroine from Paris; and Benjamin Hu, the mystical detective from Hong Kong. As I'm sure you've guessed, the heroes have to regroup, work out what exactly is going on, and save the world.

A while ago, I wrote a short post on how much I love stories that don't seem to care whether they're weighty, or important, or deep. They're just in it for the fun, and that makes them joyful. In that post I was specifically praising "Zeppelin City" by Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn, but pretty much everything I wrote then could just as easily apply to Dinocalypse Now.

If pulp heroes duking it out with psychic dinosaurs, intelligent apes, and Neanderthals from Hollow Earth doesn't seem like your sort of thing, you're probably not going to enjoy this book. Dinocalypse Now is the distilled essence of that sort of thing, carried off with considerable flair, and to really enjoy it I think you have to buy in.

The book moves really fast (as it must). It has a large cast of characters, and yet Wendig does a really great job at giving them all an arc, and making them all feel unique. It's like the style of the story changes from character to character -- mystical detective to educated ape to all-American hero -- and it's all done economically, while the plot careens along.

I tend to think this kind of writing requires considerable skill to really carry off. There are so many roadblocks that have to be overcome. The premise is silly, and I suspect the natural tendency in a writer is to cringe at it, or apologise for it, or undermine it. Some of those techniques might even work, but you're going to end up with a totally different story. One with considerably less wide-eyed fun.

It's worth noting that Dinocalypse Now ends on a huge cliffhanger. Ordinarily I'd consider that a mark against it, but it's hard to imagine it ending any other way ("tune in next time...!"). Thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign there are two more books to be written by Chuck Wendig, and a further four starring some of the same characters written by other authors*.

I realise I'm gushing, perhaps more than a pulp novel may seem to warrant, but I loved this book. Remember that good-versus-fun thing I spoke about a while back? Dinocalypse Now is the absolute definition of fun. It's not perfect, it's not deep, it's quite silly, and it certainly isn't for everyone. It's particularly not for people who take their reading very seriously. But it is wonderfully executed gonzo pulp, and I eagerly look forward to the next book in the series.

* Those authors are Stephen Blackmoore, Brian Clevinger (the author of the stylistically similar, and very excellent, Atomic Robo), Harry Connolly, and C. E. Murphy. It'll be interesting to see how these authors handle the characters that Wendig has so neatly captured in Dinocalypse Now.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Hugos 2012: the novellas

Even as I sit down to write this, I have no idea how I'm going to choose between Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente, and "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson. I may just have to toss a coin. In fact, I really enjoyed most of this year's Best Novella Hugo ballot. There was only one story I actively disliked, and three of them were outstanding. Here's the part of my vote that I'm sure about:
  1. "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu
  2. "The Ice Owl" by Carolyn Ives Gilman
  3. "Kiss Me Twice" by Mary Robinette Kowal
  4. No Award
  5. Countdown by Mira Grant
Countdown is a prequel to Mira Grant's Feed. It suffers from a failing all too common in prequels: everything happens simply because it must. That made for a boring -- and occasionally silly -- story.

"Kiss Me Twice" by Mary Robinette Kowal is a noirish sci-fi mystery. I generally find that sort of thing quite enjoyable, and for most of its duration this story was no different. Unfortunately it stumbled at the end, with a dully conventional culprit. That left me less able to forgive earlier plot contrivances that I might otherwise have overlooked.

I really enjoyed "The Ice Owl" by Carolyn Ives Gilman while I was reading it, but now that I come to write about it I find that little of it has stayed with me. It's a coming of age story for a young refugee girl in an interesting space-operatic future, but I felt that the ending was too convenient. The snap, immature choice made by the main character was without consequences, and so had little impact.

My third choice is "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu, but on a slightly weaker ballot I would have been very happy to put it first. Written in the format of a documentary, it uses a remote-viewing time travel device to explore a range of complex issues: cultural appropriation; post-WWII relations between China, Japan and America; political and societal responses to ethical and scientific issues; the immigrant experience, and a bunch more besides.

Like "Paper Menagerie", Ken Liu's other 2012 Hugo nominee, I think that "The Man Who Ended History" is a bit blunt. This may be deliberate -- Liu certainly doesn't pull any emotional punches -- but my feeling is that the story could have benefit from a touch more subtlety. Although it is extremely well executed, I'm also not a huge fan of the documentary-style format.

That brings me to my two favourite stories on the ballot: "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson, and Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente. There are a whole bunch of reasons why it feels unfair to have to choose between them. They are both excellent, sure, but they're also quite unlike each other. It's hard to know how to compare them. I wish they could both win.

Kij Johnson had short stories on the Best Short Story Hugo ballots in 2011 ("Ponies") and 2010 ("Spar"). Both were sharp, angry stories. See was also nominated in 2009 for "26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss". My memory of that story is hazy, but I think I found it sad. In contrast to all of this, "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" is a gentle story. It's about a man who comes to a pair of small towns to build a bridge. 

In some ways, it feels like a fantasy story, with the mysterious Mist and the strange creatures that dwell in it. And yet it also reads like a science fictions story, in which engineers bring progress that changes everything. It's deeply immersive, with richly drawn characters. It's both resigned and hopeful. I really loved it.

If the Kij Johnson story was a joy to read, Catherynne Valente's Silently and Very Fast was much harder. Valente writes rich, folkloric prose that I am quite unable to read quickly. Make no mistake, though -- this is a science fiction story through and through. It's probably even fair to call it hard science fiction, although I suspect few lovers of traditional hard SF would agree.

Silently and Very Fast is a story about the birth and nurturing of artificial intelligence, told from the point of view of the first AI. I think it's about identity, and mythology, the way that we understand ourselves, and the way that an artificial intelligence may come to understand itself. It's also about prejudice and fear and even, amusingly, a brutal dismissal of the common 'robots will kill us all!' plot. But it's so dense, I'm willing to admit that I might only be scratching the surface. Or even missing the point entirely.

Last year's Hugo Award for Best Novella went to Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects, which was also about the creation of artificial intelligence. The two stories are really interesting companion pieces, because Chiang and Valente are quite unlike each other as writers. Strangely enough, despite Chiang's talent for rigorous scientific SF, there's something about Silently and Very Fast that feels more true to me.

Alright, I think I've finally figured out how I'm going to vote:
  1. Silently and Very Fast, by Catherynne M. Valente
  2. "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson
Oh, but I wish I could vote for both!

My prediction: Countdown by Mira Grant, because the Hugo voters seem to love that series.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Hugos 2012: the novelettes

The Best Novelette category of the Hugo awards is a bit of a funny one for me. I really love novella-length fiction, and a good short story is a beautiful thing, but I find it hard to get excited about the novelette. It just sort of hangs around in the middle there. Sometimes good ones come along*, but more often I struggle to muster any enthusiasm.

That's largely the case this year. I didn't hate any of the stories, but I only really liked one of them. Here's the way I'm intending to vote**:
  1. "Six Months, Three Days" by Charlie Jane Anders
  2. "What We Found" by Geoff Ryman
  3. "The Copenhagen Interpretation" by Paul Cornell
  4. "Fields of Gold" by Rachel Swirsky
  5. "Ray of Light" by Brad R Torgersen.
If I were feeling less charitable, I might consider voting No Award ahead of "Ray of Light" by Brad Torgersen and "Fields of Gold" by Rachel Swirsky. Neither left much of an impression on me. I was particularly disappointed not to like the Swirsky story, given how much I enjoyed her novella on last year's Hugo ballot. I just couldn't figure out what "Fields of Gold" was supposed to be about. If it was intended to be funny, it didn't really succeed, and I felt it lacked any emotional punch.

I also wanted to like "The Copenhagen Interpretation" by Paul Cornell, an alternate reality tale of spies and embassies and delicate relations between Great Nations in a universe where spacetime can be folded for all sorts of interesting purposes. Unfortunately, I found it a bit confusing. I thought the terminology used to describe the science-fictional element was a little hard to parse, and I'm fairly unfamiliar with the historical period that the story is altering. Those two things in combination left me a bit lost.

It was also the science-fictional element in "What We Found" by Geoff Ryman that tripped me up. It's a well written story about a Nigerian scientist and his family, told in a very realist mode. The SF element concerns the decline effect, wherein the statistical significance of a scientific result is seen to decline with repeat experiments. There are lots of good reasons why this might be happening, but Ryman takes the idea that the act of observation is causing the laws of nature to unravel.

Under ordinary circumstances, I think I'd find that an interesting artifice. It's clearly not hard sci-fi, but that's no problem. The thing is, I felt the fantastical SF element clashed with the realist mode of the rest of the story. The main character's family life was compelling and believable, and that just made his science seem ridiculous to me.

I thought "Six Months, Three Days" by Charlie Jane Anders was the real standout of these five stories. It's about a relationship between a couple, both of whom can see the future. He sees a single path, fixed and unchangeable. She sees a wealth of possible futures from which she can choose. It's a beautifully told story about predestination and choice and the way in which we are changed (or not) by our experiences. The protagonists are utterly believable, and the fantastical element handled so delicately that despite being central to the story, you barely notice it's there.

My prediction: anyone's guess, but I'll say "What We Found" by Geoff Ryman.
Dark horse: "Fields of Gold" by Rachel Swirsky, because I've got a feeling it's a very American story.

* I seem to remember enjoying a few in 2010: "The Island" by Peter Watts and  "It Takes Two" by Nicola Griffith were both excellent.

** Huh. Turns out I've put the stories in exactly the same order as Nicholas Whyte, although I've been a touch more forgiving on "Ray of Light".