Sunday, October 2, 2016

Parable of the Talents (Nebula, 1999)

By Octavia E. Butler

Early edition cover art: Unknown

SF Hardness Rating: 10

Themes: Post-Apocalyptic Future, Science as Inspiration

Now here's a topic which has lain dormant for some time - Science not opposed to religion, but rather as a driving structure for belief in its own right. That is the faith of the main character of Butler's difficult to read novel "Parable of the Talents" and her terrible story set in post-apocalyptic California. The novel's setting is reminiscent of the setting of "The Postman" while there are also shades of "Stranger in a Strange Land." But those shades remain in the background, motivating the long game but not the short one. 

Instead, this is the tale of a brutal portion of life for the cult she creates, an experience that ultimately steels her to follow her goals, but at great cost. Before the novel is over, she will lose her husband to death and her daughter, that unforgiving narrator of the tale, to another philosophy. If our students are our children of the mind, that loss is no less great. But ultimately, she will triumph in her life long ambition and will travel to the stars.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Thoughts on the 2016 Hugo Awards (Or: Whither Supporting WSFS Members?)

I, along with about a thousand others, watched online with bated breath last Saturday night to see the Hugo Awards announced. There was a lot to like in the ceremony. Certainly, things seemed a bit more sedate than last year when the Hugos faced what appeared to be an existential crisis. There were touches of pomp and circumstance - some awardees accepted in tails, top hats and sequinned dresses. And there were indications that some in the wider world considered this event to be significant. Most visible here was NASA who sent two Astronauts to accept awards on the behalf of Andy Weir's two wins in the Campbell Award and Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form where the adaptation of his "The Martian" picked up top honours. Presiding over it all, the pleasant background hum of Pat Cadigan's shtick glued everything together.

Good works were awarded and in greater numbers - only two categories were without a winner in 2016 as compared to five in 2015. In fact, the 'nuclear option' of 'No Award' was very rarely used. In categories that only had one or two quality works, this year we saw those works actually selected for an award where last year a 'No Award' would likely have been given. This is a good thing. I particularly enjoyed the gracious acceptance speech of Naomi Kritzer ("Cat Pictures Please") who noted that Chuck Tingle's nomination gave the society 'something to talk about.' I can't think of a better way to blunt and redirect the intended effect of the nomination of 'Space Raptor Butt Invasion.'

Yet, I find myself wondering, in the aftermath, whether or not to vote again next year. Those of you who read this space know that it was not an obvious decision for me this year. Indeed, many of those who flocked to purchase supporting memberships to Sasquan (swelling the rolls to over 5653 individuals, based on best novel) did not do the same for MidAmericon II (2903 voters, based on best novel) and it showed with a larger percentage reduction on the online feed from over 3,000 viewers last year to barely 1,000 this year.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Ancillary Mercy (2016 Hugo Award Nominee)

By Ann Leckie

Early edition cover art: Josh Harris

SF Hardness Rating: 10

Themes: Nature of Individuality, Artificial Intelligence

You might recall that last year I wasn't particularly impressed with "Ancillary Sword." This one is better, in fact Ann Leckie's 3rd installment of her "ancillary" series is her best. It's a solid story which brings her tale to a nominal close, yet leaves some room for later additions.

The protagonist, fleet captain Breq - a shard of an AI occupying a human form - remains an interesting character and the Radchaii universe she inhabits is unique. While eastern cultures are no stranger to science fiction, this rendering seems somehow more authentic, rich and detailed than do many others.

Still, this is a novel that doesn't feel to me as if it covers a whole lot of ground in its plotting or on an emotional level. Don't get me wrong; what it does do is well accomplished. But the stakes are even lower, the plot is even smaller and the ideas are not particularly fresh, especially after two prior installments. For instance, that artificial intelligence (whether in the brains of humans or in computers) might be beings in their own right is not a new concept in science fiction. Furthermore, the most interesting character - the unpredictably hilarious translator Zeiat - is somewhat peripheral.

Overall, unlike "Ancillary Sword" I would rank this one higher than No Award, but given the strong competition this year, I'd place it no higher than 4th out of 5 titles.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

My Hugo Ballot (2016)

My Hugo Picks for 2016: "Uprooted" for Best Novel, "Slow Bullets" for Novella and "The Martian" in Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

In the tradition I began last year, I wanted to briefly summarize my Hugo ballot (now submitted) and take a moment to compare and contrast the works. For fun, I'll even provide a few predictions - hey, I did successfully predict the victory of "The 3-body problem," so maybe I'm not as bad as this as I think at sussing out the worldcon voters?!

This year, I provided votes for three categories: (i) Best Novel, (ii) Best Novella and (iii) Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. Let's visit these in reverse order, after the cut:

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.