Friday, July 29, 2016

The Fifth Season (2016 Hugo Award Nominee)

By N.K. Jemisin

Early edition cover art: Unknown

Rating: ½
SF Hardness Rating: 5

Themes: Racism, Nature of Strength, Apocalypse

It is for novels like "The Fifth Season" that many literary societies put Science Fiction and Fantasy together into a single grouping. On the one hand, it is clearly a fantasy - we have a medieval realm with the equivalent of magicians who keep the peace and protect the kingdom from the earthquakes with which it is cursed with the help of unexplained crystals. On the other hand, the power in which those magicians deal is not random, but describes a natural process well known to science and the people who control the magicians do so by means of a technological implant in their brains.

No matter what box you put "The Fifth Season" into, it is an impressive work. Like "The Aeronaut's Windlass" this book has that same 'first in a new series' kiss of death on its cover. But unlike "Windlass," "The Fifth Season" overcomes that handicap by telling a rich back-story in an effective way through the use of a very creative plot device. Furthermore, the issues with which the characters grapple have more relevance, by analogy, to today's world and more significance in theirs. Quite frankly, where "Windlass" was simply fun, "The Fifth Season" has something to say and says it well, despite the sudden ending.

While I wouldn't put "The Fifth Season" ahead of "Uprooted" for my top vote, it is a worthy contender and definitely goes ahead of "No Award."  

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Seveneves (2016 Hugo Award Nominee)

By Neal Stephenson

Early edition cover art: Unknown

Rating: ½
SF Hardness Rating: 10

Themes: Extinction Event, Human Ingenuity, Racism

Giving "Uprooted" a run for its money is a most surprising novel. Those of you who have been following along with me know that I have no great love for Neal Stephenson (though I'm so far behind in my reviews, it's possible that hasn't been made clear quite yet). "The Diamond Age" remains the only book on my list I couldn't bring myself to finish. "Cryptonomicon" was better, but finished weakly after drifting for 900 pages. Despite its win, I still can't quite fathom why we needed to see the characters of "Cryptonomicon" transported to the renaissance to literally cavort with Newton, Hook, Lebiniz et al for 2700 pages in "The Baroque Cycle." It's likely that Stephenson is simply an artist whose work I can't appreciate (I feel the same way about Scorsese, for instance) but I tell you all of this to emphasize just how remarkable it is to think that I would even put a Stephenson novel in the same league as a masterpiece like "Uprooted." 

To find the seed, we must go back to Stephenson's 4th awarded novel, "Anathem." The novel is quite good, actually, though things do move a tad slowly and the ending is a bit ambiguous. In the latter part of the novel there is a short space scene where astronauts hunt down wayward packages in orbit. It is spectacular. I tell you: Heinlein, Asimov or Arthur C Clarke could not have done better. Who knew that Stephenson had that talent? 

Wisely, he has now written a whole novel focusing on what happens in orbit and the result is nothing short of spectacular as well. The first 600 pages of "Seveneves" where the human race frantically tries to get as much people and materiรจl into orbit before the surface is scoured clean is amongst some of the most thrilling science fiction ever written. The pacing is excellent, the writting is compelling, the subject matter and the stakes are truly terrifying. I simply couldn't put down my e-reader. I was grabbing every spare minute I could find just to get a little closer to knowing how things would turn out. 

Sadly, the last 300 pages aren't quite in the same league. The ending is good (by Stephenson standards) and the plotting is interesting. But it pales by comparison to the first 2/3rds of the novel. For that reason, Seveneves comes up just short in my estimation. But it makes me wonder - how would I have felt if the book had simply ended with the destruction of the Earth and the survivors making their way to safety?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Uprooted (2016 Hugo Award Nominee)

By Naomi Novik

Early edition cover art: Unknown

SF Hardness Rating: 2

Themes: Cycles of Life, Coming of Age

I don't typically think of myself as a fantasy fan, but I think Naomi Novik could convert me. After being disappointed by "The Aeronaut's Windlass," along comes the touching, efficiently-written tour de force which is Uprooted. The obvious comparison is with last year's "The Gobblin Emperor," another tale of a young person dropped into a strange and new world of magic who discovers their hidden inner talents. 

But where "Emperor" brought forth the bureaucratic side of running a magical kingdom (and managed to make it exciting!), "Uprooted" describes a world whose rules are much more fluid. No one really knows what the wood is, why it does what it does and why it has such a pull over the people who live near to it. As much as I enjoyed Addison's work, "Uprooted" is the better of the two and an early favorite to get my top vote. However, not only does it stand up well to the other nominees this year, but it also compares very favourably to some of the best awarded novels of the past half century.

I'm not alone here. Uprooted has already earned top honours at the Nebula Awards and at the Locus Awards* and must be considered a favourite for a Hugo as well. All I know is that I couldn't put it down, even though I was in the midst of my most interesting trip in a decade (traveling in Asia for the first time) as I was reading.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass (2016 Hugo Nominee)

By Jim Butcher

Early edition cover art: Unknown

SF Hardness Rating: 2

Themes: Loyalty & Honour, Coming of Age

This year's Hugo Awards Best Novel List begins with Jim Butcher's latest. You may recall from last year, that I was rather pleasantly surprised by the entertaining romp that was "Skin Game." So, having spent much of the last year reading technical articles, I decided that a guaranteed page-turner was a good place to start. That assessment proved accurate: the novel is well-written and plotted to propel you forward.  

And yet, this particular novel is not nearly as compelling as last year's offering. Part of the problem is the note that appears on the front of the hardcover edition. "The Aeronaut's Windlass," we are told, is to be the first novel of a new series: "The Cinder Spires." Such notes almost always can be interpreted as apologies for the excessive amount of exposition which will be found between the covers of the first novel. Many questions will be posed. Few will be answered. Overall, this novel does a much better job than did a similar "Book 1" from last year's Hugo ballot, but it is by no means a self-contained story.

There are positives: it is remarkable just how different a novel it is compared to Butcher's last. This is a straight-up Steampunk Fantasy, which contrasts severely with "Skin Game"s urban setting and reliance on mythology. Furthermore, the setting is interesting and richly detailed. We simply do not visit those places which seem so compelling from their descriptions. 

Ultimately, "The Aeronaut's Windlass" is a good read. Is it Hugo-worthy? I don't think that it is. Last year, I placed "Skin Game" just above the "no award" line. This year's Butcher novel falls just below.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards

 Logo of the 74th annual World Science Fiction Convention where the 2016 Hugo Award Winners will be announced.

After a great deal of pondering, I decided to go ahead, renew my membership and sign up as a supporting member of Mid-Americon 2 ("This time it's for money"). This, of course, permits me to vote for the Hugo awards again this year. I had been intending to read the nominated novels, in any event, so this gives me an excuse to comment on them here in this space and to weigh in on awards night. I've also got to say that, given how pleasantly surprised I was by the awards show last year, I'm looking forward to hopping on the web in a few weeks time and watching how it all turns out.

Hey, with the convention in Kansas City, I've even got a chance of being able to stay awake until the bitter end!

For those interested to see the list of nominees, they can be found over on the Hugo Awards website.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Skin Game (Hugo Nominee, 2015)

By Jim Butcher

Early edition cover art: Christian McGrath

Rating: ½
SF Hardness Rating: 3

Themes: The Importance of Family, Duty, Good and Evil

In a sense, it's hard to believe that I've never read Jim Butcher's work before. When I picked up a copy of "Skin Game" at the local library (it wasn't included in my voter's packet) I recognized the cover immediately. I had previously seen it on a subway poster. On the other hand, I can't say that urban fantasy is really my genre. Based on this book, it seems that I've been missing out. This novel was an absolute riot from start to finish. The plot is fast-paced (if somewhat predictable) and the main character, Harry Dresden, keeps up a sarcastic stream-of-consciousness color commentary that is plain hilarious. He's almost a fantastical version of Max Payne.

That said, you really really have to dig in this book to find any deeper meaning or something to really give you a reason to think deeply. There's the standard Good vs Evil. In this case represented by actual figures of religious and mythological significance who play their parts straight-up, in contrast to the complicated characters from Neil Gaiman's "American Gods." The other undercurrent running through the text is the importance of family and of obligations. Really, this is the sort of story where you can identify the good guys as the ones who always keep their word and for whom their children are the most important things in the world.

Unfortunately, while I ultimately decided to place this one above "No Award" on my enjoyment and the strength of its writing, "Skin Game" is not a story that is likely to age well. Strewn throughout the novel are cultural references and touchstones from movies, television and the news. This spices things up, but when combined with the action-packed story and the use of every well-known supernatural figure in creation, it gives the novel a slightly pulpy feel to it. Still, of all the novels on the Hugo list this year, it has likely sold the greatest number of copies.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Ancillary Sword (Hugo Nominee, 2015)

By Ann Leckie

Early edition cover art: John Harris

Rating: ½
SF Hardness Rating: 10

Themes: Brain Manipulation, Cloning, Artificial Intelligence, Gender in Society

Let me just come out and say it - I was disappointed by this particular novel. I'm not entirely certain what it was, precisely, that I was looking for. But whatever it was I didn't find it here. I will note that I have yet to read the novel which came before, previous Hugo winner from 2014 "Ancillary Justice" and as I have seen before, reading novels of a series in order can really help (Brin's "Startide Rising" doesn't actually make any sense to me without "Sundiver"). 

That's not to say that there isn't anything to like here. The cultural parallels are interesting and the idea of a ruler at war with other versions of themselves is up there with some of the more interesting ideas in Sci Fi. There are also shades of the ghost in the machine concept that we've seen several times before, from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress forward, with the novel twist that the ghost is our main first-person-personal character. 

But the problem is that the book doesn't really explore any of these (I presume that Ancillary Justice did that). Instead we've got a frightened governor of a small out of the way space station, a heavy-handed local military constabulary and the senior commander who comes in to clean up the mess and goes to bat for the underclass. It really is a small story, and while I'm certainly not opposed to small stories, it is set on a remarkably large canvass. I found my mind kept drifting to what might be going on in other parts of Leckie's universe and wanting to hear that story instead of the one that was being told. I kept waiting for a reveal - that there was some significance to the restricted plot beyond what was unfolding. But that deeper significance never came. Perhaps it's being saved for the next novel in the series.

At the end of the day, I struggled with where to rank this particular novel on my Hugo ballot and particularly with where to place it with respect to "No Award." Ultimately I placed it below the line as a very good, but in my mind not a great novel.