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.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Fallout from the 2015 Hugo Awards

That was really something, last night. Along with about 3,000 others on ustream and 3,000 live in attendance, I took in my first Hugo Awards. And I've got to tell you - it was a whole lot of fun. Thinking back on it now, who knew that writers could pen such witty and eloquent acceptance speeches? (who else!) While the show wasn't quite as polished as the Oscars, there was a certain inviting campiness about it, as if someone had invited you to join them in a great big family gathering and did their best to make you feel at home and included in the jokes that they had been telling each other for years.

Of course, everyone was on tenterhooks, and not just for the usual reasons. No, it wasn't just anticipation about who would win and who would loose. No, this time there were factions and each award was a salvo in a battle between opposing ideologies about what this gathering should be about. Would the conservative puppies triumph? Or would the so-called "trufans" come to the rescue. Or would the nihilists on both sides succeed in burning everything to the ground? For my part, this was the first time I've ever had a horse in this race, so, of course, I also wanted to see how things would turn out.

Today, all sides are claiming victory, but from where I sit it seems clear that those who favour a more inclusive, more open Science Fiction, Fantasy and fandom are ascendant. Only a single slated candidate took home a rocket, and it's hard to argue that the 2nd highest grossing movie of 2014, "Guardians of the Galaxy," was pushed over the top by the puppy reccomendation. In every other category every single other puppy candidate lost. In those categories where there was no one but puppies, "No Award" was triumphant.

If that looks like a total victory for the "trufan" side, you couldn't be more wrong. The battle metaphor is apt, and even with the mission accomplished there were casualties. In the first 72 years of worldcon, the "No Award" option was used only five times. On Saturday, the number of "No Award" envelopes opened equaled this unfortunate record in a single night. It makes you think that there was an awful lot of talent this year that went unacknowledged. Which up and coming young writers lost their chance to get that boost to their careers? Who had written the novelette, novella or short story of their life only to see their masterwork passed over? We may never know, though the nomination numbers do give a hint.

And what of the future? That, I think, looks a bit brighter.

First, the awards themselves may allow for some change. Already, some are talking about reform to the voting rules. I don't think reform is critical to preserve the Hugos: if the community was once asleep about the importance of nominations, I think they are wide awake now. The puppy campaigns will have a much harder time next year repeating their performance.

However, if professional sports can tinker with their formula each year, why not these awards? Of all the suggestions I've heard, the ones I like best are (1) to increase the number of nominees forwarded to the final ballot (courtesy of the Hugo pre-show) and (2) The suggestion to re-balance the award portfolio towards longer fiction, like trilogies and series, from shorter fiction (courtesy of Eric Flint). One of the reasons that the puppies had so much success nominating in the shorter fiction categories is that so few people actually read enough of this material to feel confident in nominating. If you look at best Novel which sees more nominating votes, the puppies only had enough oomph to get 2 out of 5 on the ballot.

Also, the community itself may change. In the lead-up to the awards, much hay was made of the large number of "new" voters. In fact, even today most of the news stories are citing the "56% increase over the previous record" statistic. But no one was quite certain until last night who these people were and how they will change the worldcon family. This morning, most sites seem to think they are the "trufans." I'm perhaps in the minority in that I believe we still don't know who these people are.

But I have an inkling.

The clue is the number of Supporting Memeberships. Let me explain why. I expect there are a lot of people out there who are familiar with the Hugo awards and that many of them have read an awarded book or two which had some significance in their lives. They recognize the award as a mark of quality and may even read SciFi or Fantasy with some regularity and enjoy it. But the idea of travelling across the country or the continent does not appeal to them. Their lives are busy and they are content to let those people who read more of the genre and who have some connection make the selections. After all, they've been great choices up to this point! And I fully admit to being one of these: I had plans today and gave up watching the ceremony at 1:00 AM after the In Memoriam section before my votes were even counted. Not because I wasn't enjoying the show immensely, but simply because I had higher priority things to do.

Additionally, the images that come out of the conventions (at least what I have seen previously) are typically of the more extreme elements of fandom. Not in ideology per se, but, from a casual reader's perspective, it can seem that some of those who attend are awfully serious about their SFF and aren't afraid to let the world know what they like in word, deed, music and dress. While I appreciate that this provides a way for people to come together and share their passion with their like-minded friends, to the casual reader it can seem daunting. Especially as I suspect that readers of the genre include more then their fair share of introverts who aren't so prone to extravagant social displays. In fact, reading can be a very personal and private thing, done and enjoyed as we go about our hectic lives. We've all seen someone on the bus absorbed into a novel.

These are the people who I think were mobilized in response to the events of this year, those for whom the Hugos mean something, perhaps even something very dear. But not people who we would normally call "fans" at least in the classic sense. Under the rules they could participate as a sort of silent majority through the supporting memberships. I suspect for many, what moves their votes is that openness and interest in new ideas and new ways of thinking about things and their honest desire to hear new stories from new perspectives. That's similar ideology to that of the "trufans" which is why we got the result that we did.

That said, having been one of those introverts I described above, the experience of participating this year was interesting and, to my surprise, I would be tempted to get a bit more involved in the future. Not to mention that the awards ceremony did quite a bit, I think, to make the Worldcons themselves more welcoming. I expect that I'm not alone in developing an increased interest here, which could be a very good thing. Based on the hand-raising exercises during the ceremony, the Worldcons could do with some more younger members.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Hugo Ballot

While I will continue to roll out my reviews of the nominated works for this year's Hugo awards, those who know this space are no doubt aware that my postings are anything but regular. Thus, with the start of Sasquan today and (if I read the schedule correctly) Saturday reserved for the unveiling of the winners, I'll go ahead and jump to the chase and reveal my own Hugo ballot.

As for myself, I am not in Spokane - my membership was of the supporting variety. Still, I found the exercise to be an interesting one and very appropriate for this space. Why not break the fourth wall and be a part of the selection of 2015's best novel? So, without further ado, here were my ranked choices, with more details below the cut:

My Ballot (e.g. What I think Should Win)
1. The Gobblin Emperor ½
2. The Three Body Problem
3. Skin Game ½
4. No Award
5. Ancillary Sword ½
6. The Dark Between the Stars ½

What I think will likely win:
The Three Body Problem

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Goblin Emperor (Hugo Nominee, 2015)

By Katherine Addison

Early edition cover art: Anna and Elena Balbusso

Rating: ½
SF Hardness Rating: 4

Themes: Racial Intolerance, Coming of Age, Fabric of Society, Machinations of Government

I don't often read fantasy, but when I do I like it to be as skillfully and economically written as was this novel. This particular title attacks some big issues and gives them a patient and well-explored treatment. As with the best classic science fiction and fantasy, the approach is through an analogy that proves illuminating by comparison with reality. Is having a goblin in charge of the elfven government inherently wrong? Why certainly no more than an alien who is painted half black and half white with the white on the right should hate another alien whose coloration has the white on the left

Yet despite these themes in the background, the portrayal is never heavy handed. That's largely the result of a rich setting and a very relatable main character. Our gobblin, Maia, doesn't come to the imperial throne by design, nor by sinister machinations, but completely by accident. It's a situation that he is utterly unprepared for, but which he grows into with grace, ultimately achieving a kind of peace and confidence. 

That his situation feels so very tangible is largely due to the amount of detail and background structure which Addison employs to color his world. Largely for this reason, it's a relatively "hard" fantasy. Though there is the odd touch of magic employed by the characters, the story doesn't depend on its use.

You are probably wondering where I place this novel with respect to the other nominees. Of the five titles, this was the most thoughtful and the best written. It was also the one which appealed to me the most, personally. For those reasons, it received my top ranking for the 2015 Hugo Award, edging out "The Three Body Problem."

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.