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".

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Scar month: the end (of the book)

To celebrate the tenth birthday of The Scar by China Mieville, I'm re-reading it and posting about the experience. There will be spoilers!
Currently at: finished!

June is over, but I've got a few more things I'd like to say about The Scar. So I've put it to a vote, and The Scar month is being extended until I'm done. Today, I'd like to talk about the way the book ends. Because there are bits about it that I really like, bits I dislike, and bits that I find baffling. (Beware: lots of major plot spoilers in this post!)

First, the grindylow. China Mieville seems to enjoy subverting reader expectations, and I really loved the way the grindylow subplot played out. Throughout the novel they were hunting down Armada using prototypically monstrous methods: kidnap, torture, dark magic. Everything about them seemed supernaturally evil, and indeed that's how everyone in the book thought of them. So it seemed perfectly reasonable that they would go to all of that effort to find the floating city for primitive, idolatrous reasons.

That's why it was so great when it turned out that their motives were completely ordinary -- they were simply trying to protect their borders. The magical artefact that everyone assumed they were so desperately seeking was basically irrelevant. They were completely misunderstood, ascribed mystical motives, because the civilised people of Armada feared what they didn't understand.

That was one of the book's successes. The actual climax, in which the city made its final push towards The Scar, was... Well. I don't really know what it was. Reaching The Scar was the culmination of The Lovers' plan. Every action taken in the book was striving towards or against that goal. It was meticulously foreshadowed, the title of the whole novel, and I'm not convinced Mieville really knew what to do with it.

I think perhaps Mieville trapped himself. After all that effort, he had to take us to The Scar. But the thing that he conceived was so vast, so deadly, that there was no way that voyage could end in anything but total destruction.

So he cheated. He sent us a familiar character from some alternate dimension, some version of the world where Armada did reach The Scar, and was ruined. That way Mieville could fulfil his promise, and still save his characters. It all makes sense in the context of the novel. But it's not entirely satisfying.

In Perdido Street Station, the book that preceded The Scar, Mieville made a pretty impressive argument against the conventional, comfortable ending in epic fantasy. I wonder if he was again trying to write against reader expectations? The thing is, in The Scar my expectations were of disaster. Subverting the happily-ever-after was satisfying, whereas subverting the disaster feels more like failing to follow through.

Finally, we come to the question that I always have when I finish reading The Scar, and which I always forget before I pick it up again. In the epilogue, Bellis Coldwine discusses her perspective on what has happened. She has come to realise that she has been manipulated throughout by Uther Doul, but she can't decide whether he was following a grand plan, or acting opportunistically. 

This always leaves me wondering if the book is actually about her, or if it is actually about Doul. I'm not entirely sure why it matters; surely the book can be about both of them? Perhaps after following Bellis for so long, I finally end up identifying with her feelings of manipulation. She claims to willingly renounce any possibility of ever really understanding, but I'm not sure that I can.

I think that says something about how thoroughly The Scar captures my imagination, that I keep wondering about this after it's done. It's probably also part of the reason I keep re-reading it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Scar month: an illustrative example

To celebrate the tenth birthday of The Scar by China Mieville, I'm re-reading it and posting about the experience. There will be spoilers!
Currently at: chapter 43, page 676

Shortly after my previous post on the characters in The Scar I came across a paragraph that illustrates what I was getting at. It's on page 589 of my edition, just at the start of chapter 37. In the immediately aftermath of the war with the New Crobuzon fleet, Bellis is wandering the streets of Armada, trying to process what has happened:
It was quite unfair, Bellis thought nervously, that so few of her own haunts had been harmed. By what right was that? She, after all, did not even care.
Mieville is writing in the tight third person here, and no doubt Bellis thinks she doesn't care. But it's not true. She does care, and I know she cares, even though she hasn't figured it out yet. (Actually, I think she knows, but she's not ready to accept it.) If the characters didn't have depth, then I wouldn't be able to draw that conclusion from the words Mieville has written.

Honestly, I think that's missing a bit from some of Mieville's later novels. I don't feel like he spends enough time developing his characters' internal lives for me to be able to pick up on contradictions like that. His focus, I suppose, is elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Scar month: Bellis

To celebrate the tenth birthday of The Scar by China Mieville, I'm re-reading it and posting about the experience. There will be spoilers!
Currently at: chapter 32

One of the more common criticisms of China Mieville's novels is that the characters are a bit weak. I think there's something to this. I can't, for example, remember the names of the main characters in Embassytown, Kraken, or The City & The City*, although I hasten to add that it didn't really affect my enjoyment of those novels. There's more than enough going on to keep me thoroughly engaged.

It is therefore interesting to me that I think one of the real strengths of The Scar is Bellis Coldwine, the lead character. I find her compelling, for a whole bunch of reasons. For a start, she's not your typical epic fantasy heroine**: she's a linguist, an adult (and, I suppose you could add, a woman). She's closed off and private, tightly controlled, independent and intelligent. And, frankly, not particularly likeable.

It's quite possible that choosing Bellis as the main point of view character contributes to the feeling of strangeness that I find so appealing about The Scar. It's also an excellent demonstration of the fact that you don't need to like a character to want to keep reading about her. The key there, I think, is that she is competent, clever and strong -- I may not like her, but I can certainly admire her. And understand her.

(This is the part where I point out that I've been trying to find time to write this post since about chapter ten, some three hundred pages ago. Since then, Bellis has become no less compelling, although I'm beginning to wonder at her interactions with the men in the novel. She's not a passive character, but it is beginning to seem like a lot of the doing is being done by the men around her. Tanner Sack delivering the message to the Dreer Samheri when Bellis couldn't find a way to do it herself, Silas Fennec preparing that message, Uther Doul feeding Bellis information for reasons that are so far unclear.

Perhaps it is relevant that Bellis is a translator. She's the conduit through which so much of the plot flows. In that sense, maybe it's appropriate that the people around her are the main actors. Being trapped by implacable forces is a bit of a theme not just for The Scar, but all of the Bas-Lag novels. Still, I'm beginning to be a little troubled by Bellis' lack of agency. Fortunately, I don't actually recall exactly how the book ends, so she may have her moment yet.)

I wonder if the reason that Mieville's earlier novels do better with characterisation is that they're so much longer. There's plenty of room for character development, whereas in his shorter subsequent novels the riot of ideas and plot pushes out the characters.

Or maybe -- and I'm really just guessing here -- it's that The Scar has a small ensemble of point of view characters: the Remade engineer Tanner Sack, and the young tough Shekel. I haven't mentioned them much because they play a smaller role than Bellis, but one of the things they do is illuminate Bellis' character through contrast. Shekel, so eager to learn to read, softens her. And Tanner Sack's love for the city that freed him throws Bellis' desperate need to be away from it into relief.

If you're reading along with me, I'm interested to hear what you think about Bellis and the other main characters in the book. Are you finding them as compelling as I am? 

* Although Sham ap Soorap in Mieville's newest, Railsea, is pretty memorable.

** I feel I should add here that I am not hugely well read in the epic fantasy (sub-)genre. I might be missing all sorts of great stuff, in which case I welcome recommendations!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hugos 2012: the short stories

I thought last year's Best Short Story Hugo ballot was pretty thin. I'm pleased to say that this year, three very good stories have been nominated. Here's the way I'm going to vote:
  1. "Movement" by Nancy Fulda
  2. "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" by E. Lily Yu
  3. "Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu
  4. No Award
  5. "The Homecoming" by Mike Resnick
  6. "The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City" by John Scalzi
I've revised this list three times since I started writing this blog post. I'm having a genuinely difficult time separating the top three stories, and that's a good place to be. Let's get the ones I didn't enjoy out of the way, before moving on to the rest:

"The Homecoming" is a terribly predictable story about Alzheimer's. Honestly, I don't think I've ever met a Mike Resnick story I particularly liked, and this one is no different. His writing always seems so mechanical. The science fiction element here -- a xenobiologist son transformed into an alien -- seemed to serve no purpose beyond establishing that this story should be called science fiction.

The John Scalzi was a joke story, taking aim (as I'm sure you can guess from the title) at a particular type of epic fantasy. I didn't seem much going on here beyond the joke, which was itself only mildly amusing.

I think I first heard "The Paper Menagerie" on the fantasy podcast Podcastle, and I really loved it then. It was aided by an excellent reading from Rajan Khanna. On re-reading it for this ballot, I felt it was a bit blatantly emotionally manipulative, hence it's third place. Still well worth a read, though.

I'm very, very tempted to put "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" at the top of my list. I really loved this story, in which a nest of sophisticated wasps conquer a nest of provincial bees, and in doing so grant them the keys to revolution. It's about the clash of societies, and the power of education, and it's lovely.

In the end, I think Nancy Fulda's "Movement" is my favourite. It's the story of a girl with an invented condition called temporal autism. She feels the flow of time differently to everyone else -- the second batter her as they roar past, and yet to the people around her she seems to move and to think so slowly.

I have no direct experience with autism, and the condition here is somewhat fictional, but I thought Fulda explored it beautifully. I also got a thrill at seeing a story on the often-conservative Hugo ballot that admits we, grown-up readers, might just misunderstand youth. Like "The Paper Menagerie", it's a sentimental story, but I felt it was less overtly manipulative.

Really, though, I'd be quite content if any of the top three in my list won the award. If I had to guess at the winner, I'd probably pick "The Paper Menagerie", but I wouldn't feel particularly confident about it.

(If you have access to the Hugo voters packet, take a look at the PDF of E. Lily Yu's Campbell works. The cover, drawn specifically for the Campbell ballot, is adorable.)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Scar month: swept up

To celebrate the tenth birthday of The Scar by China Mieville, I'm re-reading it and posting about the experience. There will be spoilers!
Currently at: chapter 8

Alright, I confess: The Scar's tenth birthday is just an excuse. I'm actually re-reading it because I love it. And I'm re-reading it now because I'm trying to think critically about the books and authors that I love. What are they doing that makes me love them so much?

I was a little worried that re-reading The Scar with this sort of thing in mind might damage my enjoyment of it. But I can see now that isn't going to be the problem. The problem is that I'm not sure I can read it critically at all. I was barely a tenth of the way in when I first noticed that I'd stopped thinking about what I was reading, and I was just -- happily, enthusiastically -- enjoying it.

There's probably an observation to be made about how I only fully engaged when Mieville stopped chopping and changing his tenses and narrative modes. I also suspect that my engagement has a lot to do with the way he handles mysteries and puzzles. They come at a faster pace than I'm used to in epic fantasy, and their pattern of resolution seems unusual. Apparently large mysteries are solved quickly, whereas smaller ones tantalisingly linger.

Whatever it is, I've been thoroughly swept up. There's every chance that all I'll be able to do for the rest of the novel is gush uncritically. I think I'm okay with that, but you have been warned!

Are you reading along too? Has it grabbed you already?

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Scar month: setting out

To celebrate the 10th birthday of The Scar by China Mieville, I'm re-reading it and posting about the experience. There will be spoilers! 
Currently at: chapter 2.

The Scar month started a little slowly for me. Partly that's because life got in the way, but it's also because I forgot about the effort I need to put in to getting started on door-stop fantasy novels. The Scar starts with the traditional descriptions of scenery and setting, and I've never found that hugely engaging. Early on, those details tend to slide straight out of my memory, and my focus wanders.

It's also a somewhat disorienting beginning, with a prelude in third-person present tense, then a third-person past tense opening chapter introducing the main character, broken up with a letter she's writing, and concluding with a first-person present tense narrative from a different, unnamed character. It feels a little rough, and the prose perhaps a bit forced.

Having said all that, I'm already seeing the thing that hooked me the first time around. The tone that Mieville sets in the opening chapters is dirty and industrial and chaotic. The structure may remind me of epic fantasies, but the mood is different, more like a horror novel. I think that's what grabbed me: the sense that something familiar had suddenly been made strange.

I also think it was a good choice to begin with a voyage away from New Crobuzon. That city was at the heart of the previous book in the series, Perdido Street Station, and by breaking with it so explicitly Mieville makes it very clear that The Scar is something completely new.

If you're reading along too, or have read it in the past, what are (or were) your opening impressions?

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Scar in June

The Scar by China Mieville was first published ten years ago next month. I'm intending to celebrate its anniversary by re-reading it, and posting about the experience here. If you fancy reading along with me, I'd love to have you on board. I'll be starting on June 1st, and reading until I'm done, so you've got a week from today to find yourself a copy!

(I was going to post the blurb, but I've just re-read it. It's pretty terrible. Don't let it put you off!)

Despite some pretty fierce competition the past few years, I think The Scar is still my favourite fantasy novel. It's one of a very few books that I've re-read; next month will be my fifth time. I'm particularly keen to give it another go now because I haven't read it since I started trying to think critically about the genre. Will it stand up? Will it excite me the same way it did a decade ago? Let's find out!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hugos 2012: the novels

The 2012 Hugo Voter Packet, containing all the written fiction nominees, has been released. I thought I'd celebrate by writing a post about how I intend to vote in the Best Novel category. If you've been following along, my choices won't be much of a surprise:
  1. Embassytown by China Mieville
  2. Among Others by Jo Walton
  3. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
  4. No Award
  5. Deadline by Mira Grant
  6. A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin
In the past, I've always considered this category the Big Award; I was reading all the Hugo nominated novels long before I started chasing up the shorter fiction. But this year, I confess, I'm not all that interested.

Partly that's because I read the majority of the books before the ballot was announced. Partly, I suspect, it's because the result seems a foregone conclusion to me (and it's not a result I can get behind). And partly, it's because other Best Novel ballots have excited me much more -- particularly the Nebulas and the BSFA Awards. Which isn't to say that the books on the Hugo ballot aren't worth reading; three of them are great.

I could very easily have put Among Others at number one; that I chose Embassytown instead probably just reflects my preference for science fiction. I think Christopher Priest has convinced me that Embassytown is more flawed than Among Others, but I also think it is reaching further. Trying for something a bit more complex. I'm going to tell myself that's why I'm voting for it. 

I've already spoken about my reluctance to nominate space operas like Leviathan Wakes for big awards. I'm still not comfortable with that, but there it is.

Voting for No Award ahead of both Deadline and A Dance With Dragons may be an overreaction. They (probably) aren't terrible books. But here's the thing: I can imagine recommending Embassytown to anyone who might like idea-rich SF, Among Others to anyone who'd enjoy beautifully-written fantasy, Leviathan Wakes to anyone who likes rollicking space opera. But I could only give Deadline or A Dance With Dragons to someone who read and enjoyed their prequels.

So those are my votes. I'm looking forward to the shorter fiction categories -- the two stories I've read already have been great, and that makes me hopeful.

My prediction: A Dance With Dragons, in a landslide.
Dark horse: Among Others, thanks to a nostalgic streak in Hugo voters.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Sequels and awards

A couple of weeks back, I started reading Deadline [2011] by Mira Grant. It's the sequel to Feed [2010], which I read when it was on the Hugo ballot last year, and liked well enough. Deadline is on the Hugo ballot this year; that's why I picked it up.

A quarter of the way through, roughly 130 pages, I made the difficult decision to stop reading. As far as I can remember, this is the first time I've ever given up on a book part way through. I didn't stop because Deadline was bad. I stopped because I felt like I'd read it before, when I read Feed

The plot was somewhat different (a logical extension of the first novel, as befits a proper sequel), and the characters had been shuffled around, but for all intents and purposes it was the same thing again: a gritty zombie conspiracy thriller. Which is fine if that sort of thing really excites you, or if you developed a particular attachment to the characters from the first novel. I didn't particularly, and so it ultimately didn't seem worth my while to keep reading.

That got me thinking about sequels in general, and specifically sequels on award ballots. Honestly, sequels on award ballots annoy me. For a start, they're rarely readable in isolation -- you couldn't possibly read A Dance With Dragons [2011] by George R. R. Martin without having read the previous four books in the series. Even if you could you probably wouldn't want to; much of the enjoyment of a sequel is in seeing how the story continues, or what happens to characters you love.

My second issue with sequels on awards ballots is more a matter of personal taste. I think a big part of my enjoyment reading science fiction and fantasy comes from a sense of discovery. I want to be surprised by an author's ideas, and I have lots of fun figuring new things out. I feel like a lot of that creative heavy lifting, with setting and concept and often character, occurs in the first novel in a series.

Which isn't to say that I dislike sequels. This last year I've read two series that I've really enjoyed: Elizabeth Bear's Jacob's Ladder series, and N. K. Jemisin's The Inheritance Trilogy. But I think I can honestly say that in each case, the first book in the series was the best.

There's one exception to this rule, and that's the sequel that utilises a familiar setting, but a completely new set of characters and situations. China Mieville's Bas-Lag novels fit the bill (I liked the second, The Scar [2002], best). So do (most of) Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space novels (Chasm City [2001] is my pick, the second in the series). Also Iain M. Banks' Culture novels (I'd probably go with Use of Weapons [1990], the third Culture novel).

I'm not going to go so far as to suggest that no sequel (of the continuing-story kind) should ever be eligible for an award. But I am going to contend that there has to be something really special going on for it to appear on a ballot. For me, sequels have an extra hurdle to overcome before I consider them worthy of award nominations. It's not enough that I love the series, or that I enjoyed the previous novels in it. It has to truly, honestly stand on its own.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Holiday reading: four reviews

I brought four books with me to New York. I've finished reading them, so I thought I'd write some short reviews. In the order that I read them:

In the Mouth of the Whale [2012], Paul McAuley

In the Mouth of the Whale is the third book in McAuley's Quiet War series. I have read the previous two (The Quiet War [2008] and Gardens of the Sun [2009]), and I didn't love them. So why did I bother to read the third one?

The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun were both very closely related. Same characters, with the action in the second basically picking up exactly where the first left off. In the Mouth of the Whale, however, jumped ahead something like 200 years, and moved the action out of our solar system to Fomalhaut, 25 light years away. I thought that was an interesting choice for the third book in the series, and that's why I decided to give it a go.

The book concerns three characters, and the ways in which their stories intersect with a war over Fomalhaut's gas giant. The Child is being raised in a post-catastrophic climate change Amazon, groomed for a mysterious future task. Ori, a genetically engineered slave, works on a scientific research station orbiting the gas giant, and gets swept up in the war to possess it. And Izak, a disgraced outcast who travels Fomalhaut clearing networks of viruses ("harrowing hells"), learns of a conspiracy threatening the Library of Worlds.

For the majority of this book, I felt like I'd finally found a Paul McAuley novel that I could love. It has all of the action and big ideas of good space opera, with more than a passing nod to real, or at least plausible, science. I particularly enjoyed the way McAuley imagined its virtual worlds; I think writers of far-future space operas often fail to consider the ways in which the genre's tropes are affected by digital technology.

Unfortunately, the last quarter or so of the book left me a little cold. It felt like an early draft. Like McAuley knew where he wanted to go, but wasn't entirely sure how to get there smoothly, and didn't have time to sort it out. The prose seemed less natural, with more info-dumps. It was a shame, because I enjoyed the rest of the book so much.

The Intuitionist [1999], Colson Whitehead

Unsurprisingly, this was the stand-out read in this batch. The Intuitionist is about Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector. Though it is never named, the setting is obviously meant to be New York (or perhaps some alternate-world version of New York?), late in the 19th century. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist; she inspects elevators by riding them, and getting a sense of how well they are operating. The opposite (dominant) school is the Empiricists, who inspect elevators by examining their machinery using the traditional tools of engineering.

The book begins with an elevator accident in one of Lila Mae's buildings. Before long, she's swept up in Department of Elevator Inspectors politics and the ideological war between the Empiricists and the Intuitionists. All of which is further complicated by hints that the father of Intuitionism, Fulton, may have invented the perfect elevator -- the "black box" -- before he died.

The Intuitionist was the most literary of the four novels reviewed here. It is rich with metaphor, particularly (although not exclusively) for social and racial progress. But it isn't only literary fiction. The plot has elements of a noirish mystery: dirty politics, organised crime and murky motivations. I'd also argue that the premise -- two warring philosophies in a powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors chasing the plans for the ideal elevator -- is quite science fictional. That's one of the things I love about it. You could read it all sorts of different ways.

It's not perfect. Sometimes I felt like Whitehead wasn't entirely in control, of his metaphors and his ideas. And, as I mentioned previously, I was occasionally distracted by the rhythm of the words. Nevertheless, I think this was a remarkable book. I'm very glad to have read it, and I think you should too.

The Kingdom of Gods [2011], N. K. Jemisin

This was also the third book in a series, called The Inheritance Trilogy. I enjoyed the first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms [2010], very much. Its sequel, The Broken Kingdoms [2010], was also very enjoyable, although I felt it lacked some of the flair of the first book. I feel exactly the same way about the third book, The Kingdom of Gods.

I honestly don't think I can summarise the plot of this book and have it make any sense to someone who hasn't read the first two. The Three, who are foremost of the gods, are central to the novels. At the beginning of the first book, everything is out of balance: Bright Itempas the Dayfather has slain Enefa, goddess of the earth, and imprisoned Nahadoth the Nightlord. The first book is concerned with redressing this imbalance. In the second, Itempas is attempting to atone for his sins. The third deals with the fallout of the conflict, when Sieh, trickster god and perpetual child, is somehow made mortal (and thus doomed to grow up).

And yet, those descriptions completely miss the point. The main characters in the first two books -- Yeine and Oree Shoth -- are mortals. They get caught up in the gods' lives, but neither is a passive participant. Jemisin writes powerful, interesting characters. Her endings are superb; they're never what I expect, and yet they manage to seem completely, naturally inevitable when they arrive. That makes for very satisfying reading.

In the first book, I particularly loved Jemisin's portrayal of the gods. They were flawed and complex, as befits any decent character, but I felt she also managed to really capture their alienness. As the series went on, I think that sense of alienness diminished. I'm not sure if that was something in Jemisin's writing, or if it was just my familiarity with them, but I felt it made the sequels slightly less compelling.

Having said all that, if you like fantasy at all, give The Inheritance Trilogy a go. My criticisms really are minor -- the good far, far outweighs the bad here, and it's rare that I'm still saying that three books into a fantasy series.

Undertow [2007], Elizabeth Bear

I have read three of Elizabeth Bear's science fiction novels -- the Jacob's Ladder series -- and I loved them very much. They were complex, fast-paced, and hugely inventive. I want to describe her prose as jagged; it's sometimes a bit challenging, but I really like it. I feel like I need to concentrate when I read her books, to keep track of everything, and that's a feeling I enjoy.

In many ways, Undertow was no different, except that somewhere about two-thirds of the way through I lost the thread. It might have been because there were too many characters (or too many forgettable names). Whatever the cause I could still follow the action, but I'd lost track of why it was happening. That made the reading a somewhat hollow exercise, and though I picked it up again by the end, it was too late.

Undertow is (blessedly) a stand-alone novel. It takes place on the damp colony planet Greene's World, and involves a revolution of the frog-like natives, a conspiracy inside the dominant Rim Charter Trade Company, an unusual use of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and a few other things besides.

I couldn't tell you if the book's failing was in the writing, or my reading. My feeling is that Bear might have slightly overstretched with this one -- too many concepts and plots rubbing together, none of them given quite the time they needed to fully develop. Fortunately, it still contained enough of the things I love about Elizabeth Bear's writing that my enthusiasm for reading more of her work is undiminished.

Okay, so maybe those reviews weren't so short after all. I enjoyed all four books. The best of them was clearly The Intuitionist, although it was too engaging to make perfect holiday reading. The Kingdom of Gods was an excellent read too; my issues with it really have more to do with my feelings on sequels than the actual book. Both In the Mouth of the Whale and Undertow were flawed, but with plenty to keep me interested. You could do worse than read either.

I also read the first quarter of Deadline [2011] by Mira Grant -- nominee for this year's Best Novel Hugo -- but I've decided to abandon it. I might talk about why next time.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

2012 Hugo nominations are out

The nominations for the 2012 Hugo Awards have been announced. Like last year, I'm intending to read all the nominated pieces of fiction and post my thoughts here. I can't really comment on any of the shorter fiction categories yet, but I can give some preliminary thoughts on the Best Novel nominees, three of which I've read. The list looks like this:

  • Among Others, Jo Walton
  • A Dance With Dragons, George R. R. Martin
  • Deadline, Mira Grant
  • Embassytown, China Mieville
  • Leviathan Wakes, James S. A. Corey

I'm just going to get this out of the way: I won't be reading A Dance With Dragons. I stopped reading the series at the third book, A Storm of Swords [2000], and that's a decision I'm quite comfortable with.

Two of my picks made the list: Embassytown and Among Others (my thoughts on them here and here). I'm pleased about that. They're both great books, and I think they deserve to be there. I've also read Leviathan Wakes, and although I did not nominate it, I enjoyed it very much (my thoughts here). I haven't read Deadline, but its prequel Feed was part of last year's Hugo ballot and I liked it fine.

Actually, that's kind of how I feel about this year's Best Novel nominees: they're fine. Plenty of variety -- literary fantasy, epic fantasy, zombies, literary science fiction and space opera. That's good.

But they're not exciting. Every time an awards ballot is announced, I'm hoping for surprises, for things I've never heard of, for books I feel passionately about. I would have guessed four out of the five books on this year's ballot, and the fifth (Deadline) is a sequel to a previous nominee. To be fair, I do feel pretty strongly about Embassytown, but given China Mieville's (well-deserved) standing in the field, its inclusion isn't particularly surprising.

I think I'm being naive, hoping for surprises from the Best Novel Hugo. It's a popularity contest, and this year's ballot has probably done a great job of summing up what's currently popular in the field. But I think I'd rather be voting on what's interesting in the field.

Which is why I'm going to read the nominees in the shorter categories -- short story, novelette, novella -- with interest. And next year, I think I'll look to the Nebulas for novels, rather than the Hugos.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


I've just finished reading The Intuitionist [1999] by Colson Whitehead. It was strange and great and I highly recommend it. It was also rich and complex, and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that the author was in complete control of all of his ideas all of the time. The prose was wonderful, but I was occasionally lulled by its rhythm so that I wasn't sure I was properly retaining meaning as I read.

In other words, I'm not sure I caught it all. I don't know if I completely understood everything the author was driving at. Much as I enjoyed it, I freely admit that I may not have fully appreciated its depth.

At times like these, I'm never entirely sure what to do. Sit and ruminate on it? Rush straight to the internet to see what other people have said about it? Re-read it straight away? I'd like to do the first thing, I think, but the temptation to do the second is very strong.

What do you do, in this position?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Mieville, Embassytown, Priest, etc.

I had always intended to spend this evening writing a blog post about why I love China Mieville's books, but then Christopher Priest posted his vicious (but wonderfully delivered) opinions on this year's nominees for the Arthur C. Clarke award. Embassytown [2011] by China Mieville is among them. I really enjoyed it. Christopher Priest clearly did not.

It seems a bit silly to let this stall me, but it has. Priest is significantly less qualified than I am to judge what I like, and that is really all I'm ever talking about here. Some of what he wrote is just plain nasty, and generally I prefer not to dwell on that sort of thing. What's stopped me in my tracks, though, is that there are some ways in which I completely agree with him, and that's caused me to ponder more carefully all the things I think I disagree with.

So the post I had intended to write is now going to be interspersed with some thoughts on where my opinions differ from Christopher Priest's, and perhaps also where they align. It's worth noting before I start that I'll be focussing specifically on Priest's comments about Mieville and Embassytown; I have read none of the other books that Priest mentions in his post.

My favourite thing about China Mieville's novels is that they make science fiction or fantasy feel lively and new. I think he does this partly by messing around with genre tropes (sometimes specifically undermining them, as in Perdido Street Station [2000] and Un Lun Dun [2007]), and partly through sheer, gleeful inventiveness. The things he writes are at once recognisably of their genre, and energisingly different from anything I've read before.

(It is interesting to me that I appear to be attracted to Mieville's writing for his indebtedness to the genres in which he writes, whereas Priest considers this a deficiency: "he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces". I think that Priest would argue that this implies I am an unsophisticated reader of genre fiction, and though I'm reluctant to agree, he may be right.)

I'm also really fond of Mieville's prose. I think it's pretty clear that he is in love with words, and that's a wonderful way to be. You can see it most overtly in Un Lun Dun's word games, but I think it's there in everything he's written. The names he has chosen for space travel and the people who perform it in Embassytown, for example, are clever and rich with meaning. I enjoy reading his words, on a line by line, sentence by sentence basis, and that's actually quite rare in science fiction and fantasy.

("A better writer would find a more effective way of suggesting strangeness or an alien environment than by just ramming words together," says Priest. This criticism is pretty much directly opposite to my views on Mieville's writing. I think I'm of the opinion that word games are fun, and that names for things matter. Besides which, it's quite possible to ram words together badly, or uninterestingly, and I think that Mieville does neither. But it seems to me that Priest's contention that "it is exactly this use of made-up nouns that makes many people find science fiction arcane or excluding" might be worth further thought.)

Perhaps my enjoyment of Mieville's books comes down to this: they are heavily informed by his love for the literary weird. Weird fiction, it seems to me, is about making the familiar appear strange. I find the idea of it intoxicating, and I think Mieville is an expert at it. There are few feelings that I enjoy more than "I never thought of that" (or, perhaps "I never thought of it like that"), and that sense pervades Mieville's novels. 

(Now here's the part where I point out that I have not loved every one of Mieville's books. Un Lun Dun was fun enough while I read it, but not much more than that, and I found Kraken [2010] difficult to fully engage with. While I enjoyed The City & The City [2009] very much, and still consider it a worthy Best Novel Hugo winner in 2010, it didn't excite me to quite the same extent as his other novels.

Two of Priest's criticisms may be relevant here. The first is that Mieville's characters are "weakly drawn". I'm not sure I'd be so emphatic about it, but I think there's some merit to the observation. It pains me to admit it, but I don't think I can recall the names of any of the characters in Mieville's novels. Bearing that in mind, it may be significant that the three books I didn't love as much were in genres I have no strong feeling for -- YA urban fantasy, urban fantasy, and the crime novel respectively. Priest again: "he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces".)

So there you have it. I'm not actually sure if this post has been particularly readable. If not, I apologise. I had intended to talk about my love for China Mieville's books, but Christopher Priest's outburst turned it into a conversation with myself about my own opinions. I don't know if they've been firmed up, but they've certainly been challenged, and that can only be a good thing. 

(As a counterpoint to Priest's evident distaste for Embassytown, I recommend reading this review of the book by another grand master of the genre, Ursula K Le Guin. Her reaction to Mieville's neologisms is particularly interesting: very different from Priest's, and much closer to mine.)

Incidentally, this June is the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Scar [2002]. It remains my favourite China Mieville novel, and so I might take that as an excuse to re-read it, and talk about the experience here. If anybody felt like reading along with me, I'd enjoy the company!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Choosing books for travel

I hope you'll forgive me if this post is a little self-indulgent. I'm jumping on a plane tomorrow to fly to New York, and so I thought I'd talk about the books I've chosen to take with me. It's something I think very carefully about. There are guidelines (often ignored) and goals (frequently missed).

The ideal travel book, in my opinion, is a mass-market paperback of middling length. Too thick, and it'll be a nuisance to carry. Too thin, and it'll be over before the plane has boarded. Thin trade paperbacks are okay, but hardcovers are right out. It should be engaging, but not all-consuming, so that it doesn't drag too much of my attention away from my surroundings. I want to enjoy it, but I also want to feel like it's okay to leave it behind when I'm done, in a youth hostel or train station, for someone else to enjoy.

I think the only time I've ever hit all these things perfectly was with The Lies of Locke Lamora [2006] by Scott Lynch.

I tend to prefer authors I'm familiar with, so that I know what to expect. There's not much worse than realising an hour into your flight that you hate your book. Having said that, I always include a complete newie in my luggage, in the hope of a pleasant holiday surprise. I also like to bring a mix of genres, although I generally stick with (old reliable) SF for my actual airplane books.

How many books to pack depends entirely on where I'm going. If I'm travelling to non-English speaking countries, I pack more. If the explicit purpose of the travel is relaxation (on a beach, say), I pack more. If I'm going somewhere like New York, where it'll be easy to find things to read, I feel like I can get away with fewer. Bare minimum is four books, and I've carried as many as seven.

So what have I packed this time? In my hand luggage, I've got two books: In the Mouth of the Whale [2012] by Paul McAuley, and Undertow [2007] by Elizabeth Bear. I'm actually faintly surprised that I chose the McAuley. Though they should be right up my alley, I have a somewhat troubled relationship with his novels. I think that's why I'm carrying the Elizabeth Bear as a backup.

In my checked luggage is The Kingdom of Gods [2011] by N. K. Jemisin, and The Intuitionist [1999] by Colson Whitehead. I'm reading the former because it was nominated for this year's Nebula Award. Actually, I'm reading it because I enjoyed the previous books in the series -- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms [2010] and The Broken Kingdoms [2010]. I'm reading it now because of the Nebula Award. And The Intuitionist is my wild-card. I knew as soon as I heard the premise -- the Intuitionists and the Empiricists, competing schools of elevator inspectors! -- that I had to read it.

I came very, very close to packing Last Call [1992] by Tim Powers, but I ran out of space. I still wish I could find a way to fit it in.

So what's your system for choosing travel books?

Monday, March 12, 2012

One of China Mieville's tricks

I'm building up to trying to say something interesting about Embassytown [2011] and China Mieville. That's going to be difficult for me. The temptation is just to gush uncritically. While I'm working on that, I thought I'd allow myself a very little gush over a world-building trick that Mieville uses, which I just adore. 

Every now and again, Mieville mentions names for things -- pieces of technology, or types of magic, or places -- that have nothing to do directly with the story. They often don't ever appear again. They're rarely explained or clarified. They just exist, as far as I can tell, to hint at a world outside the story. Here's an example from Embassytown:
Those who serve on exot vessels, who learn to withstand the strange strains of their propulsion -- of swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech -- go even farther with less predictable trajectories, and become even more lost.
That bit I've highlighted, that's what I'm talking about. Sentences like that make me kind of giddy. What are swallowdrives? How might they work? Who might use them? But -- deliciously -- we never hear about them again.

It's quite possible that everyone does this in their science fiction and fantasy, and I just don't notice. If that's the case, then it's probably because there's an art to the way Mieville does it. It's not just a random combination of words, but one carefully chosen to provoke exactly my response. 

Names matter. And China Mieville is very good at naming things.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Best Novel Hugo 2012 nominations

I've just submitted my nominations for the 2012 Best Novel Hugo. They are:

It's probably not a very surprising list, given what I've said here previously, but I'm quite pleased with it. If these were the five books that appeared on the final ballot, I'd have real difficulty choosing a winner. That may seem like a statement of the obvious, but it isn't; in a different year, I would have been very happy to nominate Grail by Elizabeth Bear or Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey, knowing full well that I wouldn't vote for them to win.

It's also a list that makes clear many of my preferences, and I suppose that's as it should be. There's more science fiction than fantasy, and the fantasy I did include -- Among Others and Mechanique -- isn't very traditional. Mechanique in particular is pretty genre-bendy (io9 called it "a steampunk/post-apocalyptic/magical-realist/paranormal adventure"). If I were hell-bent on classifying it, I'd probably rather call it weird fiction than fantasy.

Four of the five novels on my list are stand-alone, and the only one that isn't (The Quantum Thief) is the first book in a series; none of its sequels have appeared yet. I've also veered towards the literary end of the genre(s). That doesn't surprise me, but I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

If these were the five novels on the final ballot, I have some guesses about how the voting would go. Interestingly, at least to me, they're pretty much all based on my perception of the Hugo voting community, and not the novels themselves. 

I'd pick Embassytown to win -- I think Hugo voters like China Mieville, and they tend to prefer science fiction over fantasy. Among Others would have to be in with a chance, though, thanks to its loving nostalgia for the science fiction genre. Nostalgia was a prominent feature on last year's Hugo ballot, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of Hugo voters have reading histories quite similar to the protagonist in Among Others.

I don't see any way that Soft Apocalypse could win, mainly because it's quite confronting. My feeling is that books like that, no matter how good, don't win popularity contests. Probably Mechanique faces similar difficulties. The Quantum Thief could be a bit of a dark horse. Normally I'd call it unlikely, because it's a demanding read. But it is rich with science fictional ideas, and that is something that I suspect the Hugo readership likes.

Anyway, enough speculating about a list that may correlate only weakly with the actual final ballot. The official announcement of the nominees is a month from today, on April 7th. What do you reckon the odds are that George R. R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons will make an appearance? And that it'll go on to win? And that I'll be grumpy about it?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Awards, space opera, and Leviathan Wakes

The nominees for this year's Nebula Awards have recently been announced. The Nebulas are an interesting counterpoint to the Hugo Awards; anyone who is willing to cough up $50 can vote on the Hugos, whereas the Nebulas are professional awards, voted for by active members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. This year's Novel category -- the only one on which I'm even slightly qualified to comment at the moment -- looks like this:

  • Among Others, by Jo Walton
  • Embassytown, by China Mieville
  • Firebird, by Jack McDevitt
  • God's War, by Kameron Hurley
  • Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine
  • The Kingdom of Gods, by N. K. Jemisin

That looks like a pretty great ballot to me. I've already mentioned how much I like Among Others and Mechanique, both of which I intend to nominate for the Best Novel Hugo this year. The Kingdom of Gods is the third in the series that began with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I enjoyed very much when I read it last year. I'm looking forward to Embassytown, but I don't know much about Firebird or God's War. I'll have to hunt them out.

Between the Nebula announcement and reading for the Hugo Awards, I've been thinking quite a bit about what these awards actually mean to me. Is the 'best' novel simply the one I enjoyed the most? Perhaps not -- I think I try to choose the novel that I believe would cast the genre in the best light if I were to give it to a critical reader (whatever that means).

Which brings me to Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (who is really Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). It was published last year, so it's part of my reading for the Hugo ballot. I just finished it yesterday, and I had a great time. I'm a real sucker for big, action-packed space operas, and this was a particularly good one. I realised as I read it, though, that I was never going to nominate it for Best Novel. And if it did appear on the final ballot, I probably wouldn't vote for it. 

Why is that? I've spoken about this before, but I think I believe that a book should be judged against its own goals. There's not really much point in comparing a plot-driven thriller against a literary character piece (although Best Novel awards force you to try). If I really believe that, though, why isn't a space opera that absolutely nails it just as worthy of a Best Novel nomination as anything else?

I feel like the answer might be ambition -- a space opera just seems like a less ambitious undertaking than, well, many other things. But that's not a feeling I'm particularly comfortable with. It implies an inescapable, objective hierarchy of value: these books over here are 'good', by definition, and these other ones are 'trashy'.

And worse than that, it's a paralysing feeling. I love space operas. I think they'd be really fun to write. But I never try. Maybe I should nominate Leviathan Wakes for the Best Novel Hugo -- embrace it, rather than give into the temptation to marginalise it. Because really, I enjoyed it very much.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Among Others, by Jo Walton

I don't think I'm going to write a review of Among Others, by Jo Walton. Constructing reviews feels like a fairly mechanical process to me, and I think that might cheapen my entirely pleasant experience with this book. That and I think somewhere along the way my affection for it became completely uncritical, which probably isn't ideal for a review.

Among Others reminds me a little of Rachel Swirsky's novella from last year's Hugo ballot, "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window". I went into both stories expecting they wouldn't really be my thing, and I fell for both of them. Among Others is the diary of a 15-year old Welsh girl who loves classic science fiction. She is also the daughter of a witch, and she sees fairies.

I expected those things to be obstacles to my enjoyment -- I haven't read much classic SF, and I generally dislike the sort of story that has fairies in it. But they weren't obstacles at all. Really, I just thought the whole thing was charming. Jo Walton's affection for SF, for SF fandom, and for Wales, was quite infectious. Maybe if you weren't already susceptible to that sort of thing, or had a dislike for nostalgia in general, this book would do nothing for you. But I'm not that person, and I really enjoyed it.

And now, for something completely different, I'm having a go at Leviathan Wakes [2011], a blockbuster space opera by James S. A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham). I expect explosions.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Highest Frontier, by Joan Slonczewski

I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to say about Joan Slonczewski's The Highest Frontier [2011], but then a blog post by the author threw a spanner in the works. See, I thought that The Highest Frontier was intended as a Young Adult book; that's what they said when I first heard of it, on The Coode Street Podcast. 

I was going to talk about how impressed I was with Slonczewski's imagined young adult reader, who I took to be about 15 or 16 years old. Smart, socially and politically aware, interested in science, but of course worried about relationships and taking the first steps into adulthood. I was going to say that I admired Slonczewski for writing to such a reader, but that I thought she might have pitched it just a little too high. I think I would have struggled with this book at that age.

But then I read this blog post, in which Slonczewski writes of her surprise at finding The Highest Frontier in the Young Adult section of the Locus 2011 Recommended Reading List*. And that threw the neat little story I was going to tell about my response to the book into complete disarray!

The Highest Frontier is both hard biological SF, and a school story. It focusses largely around Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, a freshman at the Earth-orbiting Frontera College. Born into an influential political family (those Kennedys), her life is a hectic mix of classes, new friends, coming to grips with the death of her twin brother, sport, College professors, and a US Presidential campaign in which her family is intimately involved. 

The book is rich with science fictional ideas. It's like a constant stream of really interesting thought experiments: what if future shock really took hold amongst vast swathes of the (American) population, what if you could genetically engineer for wisdom, what if political parties got so good at manipulating their message that all elections ended in a statistical tie, and dozens more. If you like that sort of thing -- and I do -- then you're going to have fun reading this book.

If that isn't your thing, though, I'm not sure there's enough here to carry you through The Highest Frontier. I felt for much of it that the plot was happening to the characters, rather than being driven by them**. Although the characters were descriptively interesting, in practice they seemed a little flat.

I think The Highest Frontier has a lot in common with many science fiction classics. It's filled with intriguing ideas, wonderfully imaginative, and actively challenges the reader to consider the sort of society we're creating for ourselves. The characters and plotting, however, are less compelling. Lovers of the genre will find a whole lot to enjoy here. Others, perhaps not so much.

* It's perhaps worth mentioning that the hosts of The Coode Street Podcast -- Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe -- are both involved in putting together the Locus Recommended Reading List.

** Although I do wonder if this is a feature of the school story genre. The only other example I've read is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone [1997], and I felt that it too was filled with passive characters.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Science? Pfft.

I'm currently reading The Highest Frontier [2011], by Joan Slonczewski, and I've run into something that I don't recall reading before. The Highest Frontier is a science fiction novel, set in America (well, an American orbital habitat) something like a hundred years in the future. The book features a powerful political faction, the Centrists, who don't believe in outer space. Rather, they believe that the Earth is surrounded by a vault on which the stars are painted (the Firmament).

This wouldn't be particularly surprising if Slonczewski were writing a post-apocalyptic novel, but she isn't. She's writing plausible (although, I hasten to add, not predictive), moderate-future hard SF. No knowledge has been lost to cataclysm, at least as far as I can tell. The Centrists -- and this is the bit I find really interesting -- don't believe in the core conceits of the genre they're in.

There's no question that the Centrists are wrong; the novel isn't set in a universe where the Firmament literally exists*. But their wrongness is sort of beside the point. Their belief in the Firmament is irrational, but they are people, and they are powerful (the president is a Centrist), and so they cannot just be dismissed.

It's worth noting that although there is a connection between Centrism and religion in The Highest Frontier, it isn't a one-to-one relationship. There is, for example, a prominent religious character who doesn't believe in the Firmament. The Centrists aren't caricatures, and it's not just code for 'science good, religion bad'. 

I think this is an interesting subject for hard science fiction to confront, and I don't thing I've seen it done before**. How do you deal with people (not simply bad guys) who cannot be persuaded by science? That is, after all, exactly the problem we're facing now.

I'm only about half way through the book, and very interested to see how it plays out. This is just one of a great many issues and ideas that Slonczewski has raised so far; I'm yet to work out if it is a prominent one, or just an intriguing part of the background.

* Although that sort of thing has been done, and well. You might consider reading Mainspring [2007] by Jay Lake, or a number of Ted Chiang's short stories -- "Tower of Babylon" and "Exhalation" in particular.

** Anyone got any suggestions for things I've missed?