Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Dark Between the Stars (Hugo Nominee, 2015)

By Kevin J. Anderson

Early edition cover art: Unknown

Rating: ½
SF Hardness Rating: 7

Themes: Space Opera

This is a difficult novel to review, and I think the reasons why have to do with how the business of science fiction has changed since the Hugo Awards were first given out in 1953. This is the longest of the novels up for this year's Hugo Award, and yet it probably contains the least amount of story. Furthermore, it is filled with a dizzying array of characters. Each one competing for very little individual development, subdivided as the book's nearly 700 pages are into 139 chapters. 

If this book was in the Austin Powers canon, the lead character would be Basil Exposition. 

In fact, it is arguable that there isn't really enough here to review. Perhaps that's not terribly surprising. If you take a look over at the cover art, you'll notice that this book is subtitled "The Saga of Shadows - Book 1," so this is intended as the first of a series, not really a stand-alone work at all. Which, as Eric Flint has pointed out, is a far more common format for science fiction in this day and age. I rather like Mr. Flint's proposition for re-balancing the award categories towards longer forms. 

But unfortunately, the 2015 Hugos don't recognize series and I can only review the works on the basis of the individual novel. Unfortunately, "The Dark Between the Stars" just doesn't measure up. What development there is seems slight and nothing here really jumps out as particularly new. I can understand that - Anderson hardly wants to reveal all the secrets of his universe in book one. But on the whole, with apologies to the author, it means that I'm going to have to rank this one below "No Award."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Three Body Problem (Hugo nominee, 2015)

By Liu Cixin (with translation by Ken Liu)

Early edition cover art: unknown

SF Hardness Rating: 10

Themes: Nature of Reality, First Contact, Nihilism

Of the five Hugo nominees, this novel was the most intriguing, but also the most daunting. I decided to tackle it first. Liu Cixin is, perhaps, the most decorated Chinese science fiction author out there - but would his work translate well into English? Luckily, Ken Liu's rendering is more than competent and the writing flows well. 

The plot is an interesting combination of the very large and the very small. At times, the protagonist is dealing with the apparent total failure of modern physics and questions the basic laws that underlie the universe. At other times, the plot pinches down to a good old fashioned police procedural. Through it all, there is a fresh take on the extraterrestrial experience of first contact that hits worryingly close to home, but more on that below the cut (you have been warned!)

Yet, there is a certain something that I couldn't put my finger on which was jarring. Perhaps it was my relative ignorance of the particulars of the cultural revolution. Perhaps the worldview and upbringing of the characters was just too different from my own, giving them a slightly 2-dimensional feel. Heck, it could even have been the fact that I teach celestial mechanics and my brain kept wanting to have an argument with the author (yes, but!). On the whole, I suspect that this is at least a half star better in the original. If Delany's Babel-17 taught us nothing else, it is that some things just cannot be translated.

Still, I think this is worthy nominee and will definitely rank above "No Award" on my ballot.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Addendum: On Puppies, as a Hugo Voter

Though you would not be remiss to think it, dear reader, I have not quite given up on my project of reading and reviewing the Hugo, Nebula and Locus lists of Science Fiction. While these reviews are currently mired at the close of the 2nd millennium (1999), I have continued to use my daily commute to read on and have now finished all the way up to 2011.  I do plan to write it all down, in time.

What has changed is my burning desire to write more about what I am reading. That's not a commentary so much on the quality of the novels as it is a side effect of growing into my new job. Previously, my work was based around focusing utterly on a single (or small set) of problems. In that context, thinking deeply about Science Fiction was a welcome palate cleanser. Now, the key skill seems to be an ability to manage a blossoming number of different projects akin to keeping many spinning plates twirling in the air. This has left less time for writing about what is, let's admit it, a pleasant hobby. And sadly, so much switching of gears has meant a reduction in the amount of brainpower deployed here to quench the insatiable need to discuss a thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction.

But these opening two paragraphs are only by way of an apology; there is indeed real meat that brings me back to speak to you now in this venue. By that I am referring to the current controversy surrounding what is now known to the internet as "puppygate." In short, there is a group which refer to themselves as the "puppies" (some "sad," others "rabid") who feel that the Hugo awards have strayed ideologically in recent years and decided to do something about it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Hugo; Locus, 1999)

By Connie Willis

Early edition cover art: unknown

SF Hardness Rating: 10

Themes: Temporal Puzzles, Complications of Causality, War and preservation of the past 

What can I say about this novel by the Queen of Time Travel, Connie Willis? It is nothing more and nothing less than a page-turning book of pure delight. Those familiar with the mystery genre will recognize the novel's structure immediately. In effect, this novel is a kind of science-fiction who-done-it with the complication of time travel that keeps you guessing until the end - no easy feat for a novelist. While the story is a bit light on deeper meaning, aside from an exploration of chaos, the puzzle contained within is so expertly crafted, so carefully revealed and the characters so appealing that I feel it has earned its fourth star*. It truly is an archetype for this sub-genre. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Rise of Endymion (Locus, 1998)

Foreword: Now here is an interesting situation. The best novels have a habit of continuing to grow in one's estimation the more time passes after the reading. Much like with the recent "Forever Peace," "The Rise of Endymion" is one that has not stood up as well to the intervening time. Now, don't misunderstand - this is still a fabulous novel and perhaps one of the best love/adventure stories that I have read. And yet, where I had thought in the aftermath that this was a superior novel to "Hyperion," now that first novel sticks out much more in my mind. It's an interesting effect and I've decided that for this title, I will not edit the review I wrote immediately afterwards, just over a year ago. Please contrast this review with the one on "Forever Peace."

By Dan Simmons

Early edition cover art: (unknown)

SF Hardness Rating: 8

Themes: Time, Space and the fundamental meaning of all things, interconnectedness, life after death, redemption, interstellar/pan-galactic conflict, love

Science Fiction is not always considered to be high art in the same way that standard literary novels are. The genre itself is best known for it's future-looking perspective and the creative baubles of the possible viewed through that lens. 
But the appeal of Science Fiction isn't just cerebral. By being able to strip away pieces of our own world and to invent worlds yet to come, the science fiction author is given additional degrees of freedom with which to experiment and in which to build soaring plot-lines and characters which cannot easily exist within the narrow confines of our present reality. In short, there is the opportunity to create great works of the heart as well as of the head.

What really gives Science Fiction its impact is that it remains much more of our world than if the slate were entirely swept clean, as in pure Fantasy. The best of the genre is relatable to us in our own terms. More so, it builds upon that relatability by providing us with something we all crave: a story of what may yet come to pass, and in that, assurance that we can, as a people, become more than what we are. Thus, it satisfies our internal desires for immortality and of growth. It is for these reasons that I feel that Science Fiction, more than any other genre, has the potential to give us truly transcendent stories that help us to understand better ourselves and our relationship to the larger universe.

I tell you all this, here at the start, because in finishing Dan Simmons' "The Rise of Endymion" this morning, I have completed the epic Hyperion Quartet (or "Cantos" to those familiar with the novels). More than any others, these four novels exemplify the true potential of Science Fiction and are, collectively and in my humble opinion, very simply one of the finest works of literature I have ever read.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Forever Peace (Hugo; Nebula, 1998)

By Joe Haldeman

Early edition cover art: Bruce Jensen

SF Hardness Rating: 10

Themes: Motivations for Aggression, Future Technology, Unintended Consequences

You would be forgiven for thinking that Joe Haldeman's 1997 novel "Forever Peace" is a follow-up to his iconic 1975 story "Forever War.*" The two do share some DNA in terms of the ultimate pacifistic conclusions of their main characters and both deal with the unintended consequences of conflict. However, it is there that the resemblance ends. Where "Forever War" describes an interstellar conflict waged across both time and space, "Forever Peace" describes a much nearer future in which heading off to combat for a soldier means plugging himself or herself into an immersive environment in a lab. From this virtual perch he or she controls a mechanical fighter called a SoldierBoy which kills from afar. Think of it as the remote version of the fighting suits from "Starship Troopers."

Again, the crux of the story is the psychological aspect and how the soldiers are changed by their experience in unexpected ways. Much more than with the Forever War, this ripples out to change the world utterly, ending the possibility of war forever. Whether this change is a perfect solution is subject to debate and it is these shades of grey that keep this novel from quite living up to the shadow of its predecessor. That said, it is still an excellent read and if you are a fan of the robotic sub-genre of science fiction (particularly popular in Japanese Science Fiction) you will find a lot to like in this novel.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Moon and the Sun (Nebula, 1997)

By Vonda McIntyre

Early edition cover art: Unknown

Rating: ½
SF Hardness Rating: 8

Themes: Alternate history, Treatment of alien Species/Races

The last time we ran into Vonda McIntyre she described to us a post-apocalyptic world of nuclear dangers and bio-engineered medicine. Well, The Moon and the Sun is about as far from Dreamsnake as you can get while still remaining within the realm of Science Fiction. In this novel, we go inside the 17th century palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. In his court, the new science and technology of the Renaissance co-exist with long-held traditions. As the story opens, one of the most trusted of the king's retinue returns from a long ocean-going voyage. His prize? A living mermaid - a sea monster which McIntyre presents as a sentient and intelligent other, heretofore hidden from human eyes. 

The mermaid takes up residence in one of the king's fountains and the sister of its captor, a woman named Marie-Josephe, is assigned as its keeper. As the king debates what to do with his latest acquisition, this talented and headstrong young woman finds a way to communicate with the creature. In the course of their interactions, Marie-Joseph comes to see that as a learned person who is ahead of her time, she is just as alien a creature in Louis the XIV's court as is the sea monster. The two of them must work together (with the aid of some sympathetic outsiders) in order to save both their lives.