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.