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.