Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A quick note on 2013 Hugo nominations

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

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

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

Anyone have any suggestions?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Edge of Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Best books I read in 2012

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

Science Fiction: Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantasy: Railsea, by China Mieville

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

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

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

Other Thing: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

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

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

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