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.