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2014 Hugo nominee #5: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

8th Sep. 2014 | 02:59 am

The fifth and final nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel is the entire Wheel of Time series, by Brandon Sanderson and the late Robert Jordan.

The Wheel of Time is a fifteen-book fantasy series that has been published over the course of nearly a quarter century; The Eye of the World was published in 1990, and the final book, A Memory of Light, came out last year. The series stretched out so long it outlasted its creator: Robert Jordan died in 2007, and the last three books were a collaboration (to some degree) between Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.

There is no damn way I am going to read all fifteen books. Actually, I’ve already read the first two books, but there’s no way I’m going to read the others. Technically, the books are on my reading list, but … No.

I have no idea what to do with this nomination. It’s not in any way comparable to the other nominees, for good or for ill. The Wheel of Time was allowed to be nominated because it was a serial work, published in parts, and finished in 2013. Also, none of its individual parts were nominated for a Hugo, which is both a requirement for nominating the entire series and a commentary on the parts, I think. This isn’t unprecedented: Connie Willis’s Blackout / All Clear was nominated a few years ago and won the Hugo, somehow, despite being stimulating in the sense that chewing aluminum foil with a mouth full of fillings is stimulating.

I have had the chance to read more of the series; volumes three through nine and twelve are sitting on my shelves downstairs. Based on The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt, I felt no real rush to read them. That says enough about the series to me.

Even if I did finish the series, I have no idea how to compare it to the other nominees. Fifteen books vs. single novels? Apples and oranges doesn’t begin to describe it. The Wheel of Time has a greater breadth and scope, but I can’t imagine reading the series and not giving it major demerits for all the false starts, bloated plot lines, and other small elements that together add up to huge frustrations.

In short: It was a neat idea to nominate the series; hopefully, it will inspire the voters to eliminate this loophole. But since none of the individual volumes were seen as impressive enough to deserve a nomination, I don’t think reaching the end of the series — especially after needing two authors to complete it — is enough to qualify the series for victory.

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2014 Hugo nominee #4: Warbound by Larry Correia

8th Sep. 2014 | 02:55 am

The fourth nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel is Warbound by Larry Correia:

Warbound coverPlot: Superheroes touched with a tinge of magic and dropped into the ‘30s. In 1933, people with superpowers — called “Powers” by the public at large and the superpowered people as well — face threats from two fronts. One, leaders around the world are rounding them up, either under armed force or the guise of benevolence. Two, an alien creature is coming from space to destroy the Power, the extradimensional creature that gives Powers their abilities. Unfortunately for those with powers, not many people believe the creature, termed the Enemy, even exists.

So Jake Sullivan, a hero from the previous two books in the series, leads a group of Powers to find the bit of the Enemy that is on Earth and destroy it before it can send a message back to the rest of the creature. Unfortunately for Sullivan and his cohorts, the bit of the Enemy is housed in Japan, which, like in our world, is an expansionistic power. Unlike our world, the Japanese have created a superpowered unit called the Iron Guard, and they have created the infamous Unit 731 years ahead of time to experiment on Powers. Meanwhile, another Power, Faye Vierra, is battling a curse that makes her more powerful with every death in her vicinity while learning about what too much power does to Powers. And in America, we learn about what industrialist Francis Stuyvesant is doing to combat FDR’s potentially disastrous Powers policies: nothing.

The plots are straightforward, and you can see most of the twists coming well ahead of time. I was blindsided by one twist in Sullivan’s story, though, and I admit it was effective and emotional; it was, in fact, a bit difficult to read the horrible reversal suffered by the protagonists. Still, since most of the rest of the book was pretty predictable, the reader’s satisfaction depends on how satisfying the resolution of the plot threads are. I was not overly impressed.

On the other hand, Warbound put its characters through actual danger and subjected them to potentially mortal threats, and that’s more than either Parasite or Neptune’s Brood even thought about doing. 3 of 5

Protagonists: Warbound has three main point-of-view characters: Jake Sullivan, a density alterer; Faye Vierra, a teleporter who is growing with power with every death around her; and Francis Stuyvesant, a rich telekinetic. (The book has numerous other minor viewpoint characters as well.) Jake is a stand-up palooka, a guy who has a moral code and a compulsion to do the right thing. Faye is a mixed-up kid who has done awful things but doesn’t know whether she is morally capable of even worse. Francis … well, Francis is rich, but despite his wealth, he’s politically impotent, unable to do anything to stop FDR’s horrible decisions.

The character arcs promise moral quandaries that don’t pay off in any way. Jake is the most compelling character, although there is little surprising about him. He’s a bit of a cliché — a heroic bruiser with a heart of gold — but the cliché exists because people take to it. Jake’s talents lend themselves to smashing things, and that’s mainly what he does; he does have some intelligence and team-building skills, but everything comes down to his fists and guns. He augments his powers in a way that he fears will drive him mad, but nothing comes of that. Francis lacks any power despite his money, and his plot is hardly necessary; it may be a payoff for loose threads from the first two books, but he never shows any ability to combat the major challenges put in front of him, and the constructive action he does complete could have easily been edited out of the book.

Faye is obviously going to aid the other Powers fighting the Japanese, and although a few of the specific steps are not obvious, her final opponent and the outcome are predictable. She’s under the constant specter of her growing powers corrupting her morals, leading her to think expeditiously rather than ethically about the value of human life, but her internal struggle doesn’t come to much; she thinks she has a line she won’t cross, and she never gets a chance to cross it. It makes the time she spent with her mentor a waste of pages, a holding pattern designed to keep her in the book until the stage is set for her hero moment. 2 of 5

Villains: The book has a big bad — the Enemy, which is trying to eat the entity that gives the Powers of Earth their abilities — and all the Enemy’s tools, which includes many among the Iron Guard. The Iron Guard and its allied Japanese forces are powerful and played as a challenge for the heroes to defeat; they do manage to inflict some grievous wounds on the protagonists. Finally, villains I can take seriously! The Enemy also surprises the heroes by changing its tactics; it had ventured to Earth around 1900 and tried to conquer with force but failed. Rather than court defeat in the same way, the Enemy decided to be sneaky, catching the heroes completely by surprise.

You can make the usual complaints about the villains being built up as unbeatable, then being defeated by a few heroes, but if you’re going to make that complaint, you have a lot of books and movies you need to get to before complaining about Warbound. 4 of 5

Inventiveness: Warbound is a straightforward superhero book set in the ‘30s … the combination hasn’t been quite been done to death, but pulp heroes’ adventures and superhero pastiches / throwbacks are often set during that time period. The adventure isn’t dissimilar from superheroes in World War II, and that concept has plenty of miles on it.

The characters’ powers have a unifying cause, although so do the characters in the Wild Cards books, and I don’t see anyone nominating those books for awards. (Although maybe they would have been nominated if they were first published today, now that editor and co-creator George R.R. Martin is a big deal.) The Powers are out and open in the world, even fighting in special units during World War I, but none of this makes Warbound a cutting-edge story. 2 of 10

Fun: Superpowered combat is hard to translate to print, but Correia does a good job of it. Still, something is missing from Warbound, something that would make it more involving, and I can’t put my finger on what it is. Possibly it’s because I’m entering the series in the third book, although Correia explains the back story as quickly and efficiently as necessary. Perhaps it’s because the shifting POV dilutes the focus on the individual characters. Probably it’s both: the lead characters would be much more interesting if I’d been reading about them for two books before I came to Warbound.

Still, although it dragged at times, it was more fun that I thought it would be. 3 of 5

Total: 14 of 30. Huh. Much better than I expected.

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2014 Hugo nominee #3: Parasite by Mira Grant

23rd Aug. 2014 | 03:29 am

The third nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel is Parasite by Mira Grant:

Parasite coverPlot: Biomedical thriller combined with incipient zombie invasion! Or, if you prefer, Outbreak combined with zombies. More than a decade in the future, SymboGen, a biomedical company, has created a genetically modified tapeworm that dispenses medication to its owners, curbs allergies, and even dispenses insulin to diabetics. By 2027, millions of people have an “Intestinal Bodyguard.” It’s great!

Until a bunch of people come down with “sleepwalking sickness,” in which they lumber around without purpose and are unable to be revived. Worse is when some of the sleepwalkers become inexplicably violent, sometimes killing humans they approach, sometimes seemingly causing the violent strain of the sleepwalking sickness instead.

This should be terrifying, but it is not. The reader can easily guess what’s causing the sleepwalking sickness — and you probably can too — and it makes it frustrating that the humans who should know better do not guess the same thing. Well, SymboGen does know what causes the sleepwalking sickness, but they do not want to cause a panic, which would have horrible consequences on society and their bottom line, so they try to find a cure in private. SymboGen’s ethics should scare us as well, but, you know, they were selling parasites. This is such a ludicrous idea that the in-universe book Grant references for how SymboGen could convince people to get a parasite is called Selling the Unsellable.

The sleepwalkers should be frightening, but they seem to be foiled quite easily by windows, which are plentiful and easy to hide behind. The sleepwalking sickness is confined to a subset of the population most readers probably don’t think they would ever be part of, and the lack of general contagiousness saps the story’s jeopardy quotient. Only giving the sleepwalkers the ability to magically slip out of hospital bed restraints makes them unsettling, but any scares the reader feels is tempered by the realization that the sleepwalkers never should have been able to escape in the first place. 2 of 5

Protagonists: Sal (nee Sally) Mitchell was involved in a car wreck six years before Parasite begins; declared brain dead, she miraculously awakened and had to relearn everything, from walking to English to social mores, from that point on. Sally is dead; her parasite saved her, and gave birth to Sal.

Sal’s life, other than the headaches and constraints put on her time by SymboGen, is pretty sweet. She’s frightened of riding in cars and unable to drive herself, but she has a dedicated and sweet boyfriend, she picks up a good doggie, she has a job at an animal shelter that she seems to rarely have to show up to, and her family doesn’t seem to overtly resent her for replacing the daughter they knew. Sal shows surprisingly little curiosity about Sally, and given the theme of identity floating around in the background of Parasite, I thought she might be a bit more interested in her predecessor. She doesn’t care, though, and her family rarely reminds her of who she was.

That’s disappointing, as what little we see of Sally is more exciting than all of what we see of Sal. Sally was headstrong, loud, and a little stupid, and Sal is determined, quiet, and reflective. Just as Sal can’t drive a car, she also has trouble driving the plot; she makes a few choices, but she doesn’t do anything. When confronted with sleepwalkers, she waits to be rescued. She can’t see the obvious reason for her birth or SymboGen’s interest. She is introverted, unwilling or unable to seek out anything interesting to do.

I guess I’m saying that as amiable and easy-to-get-along-with as Sal is, she isn’t a compelling character to narrate a 500-page book. 2 of 5

Villains: Parasites! Voluntarily ingested! Again, if you do not think you could be convinced to swallow a parasite, these parasites will hold little terror for you.

So the real villain has to be SymboGen, right? Well, of course they are. They are a corporation that convinces people to swallow bio-engineered tapeworms. There is approximately a zero percent chance that SymboGen is not villainous. They study Sal frequently, for unexplained reasons — but these unexplained reasons are probably pretty easy for the reader to guess. SymboGen helps out with Sal’s considerable medical costs, and they exert a strong pull on her life, but even with a corps of jackbooted thugs, SymboGen is surprisingly not scary. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: Very little. Grant has revisited zombies for the fourth book in a row. (I know; she’s written other books under her real name, Seanan McGuire, during the four years since Feed was published.) Parasite isn’t set in the same universe as the Newsflesh trilogy, but were it not for the different mechanism of the zombie infection, it could well have been a prequel.

Admittedly, Grant is exploring a different aspect of the concept — identity rather than societal fear — but given Sal’s lack of introspection on the matter, the differences between the series seem negligible. The book is hesitantly approaching the idea that while a human being dies after a monster takes over its body, the monster can be a person, at least eventually. If the monster is a person, can we justify destroying the body of the human in the transitory state, when the human can’t be saved but before the monster can potentially become a person? Grant doesn’t present a compelling argument that we can’t, but her characters at least hesitantly approach the idea.

Oh, and the fictional children’s book Sal’s boyfriend and his mother quote from is much too on-the-nose to function as … well, anything. The book’s plot parallels Parasite’s big reveal, and Grant uses the children’s book with the subtlety of a zombie in a butcher’s shop. 3 of 10

Fun: If you haven’t read the Newsflesh trilogy, this could be fun. However, I have, and this doesn’t measure up in any way. Parasite could have used some tightening, and there’s only so much day-to-day minutiae and people acting like idiots I can endure. The book does not have enough terror, and the big revelation everything was leading to was a huge letdown; it was obvious to the reader before the halfway point, and Sal’s reaction to it does not make it an enticing entre to the next book in the proposed trilogy.

On the other hand, Grant’s prose is always readable. It’s just not readable enough to make up for the lack of a compelling plot. 2 of 5

Total: 10 of 30. The book is actually more enjoyable to read than the rating would leave you to believe, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is the difficult second album for Grant (even though it isn’t): trying to emulate what everybody liked from the first one, but trying to add something new. Tough to pull off, and it doesn’t work here.

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2014 Hugo nominee #2: Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

21st Aug. 2014 | 03:16 am

The second nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel is Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross:

Neptune’s Brood coverPlot: Accounting combined with more accounting, with a bit of space travel and robots. Readers might be put off by accounting, but space travel and robots are good, right?

Well.

In a post-human future centuries after Saturn’s Children, banking is very complex. Interstellar distances without faster-than-light travel has necessitated a form of currency that can withstand the long time frames — decades, centuries — it takes to travel between systems. The solution is slow money, which essentially gains low but compound interest over long periods of time, which makes it extremely valuable. Slow dollars are used to finance the huge debts interstellar colonies initially run up, and that debt is generally paid off by spawning future colonies. Transferring slow dollars can be difficult, taking multiple signatories in different systems, with the information transferred via laser beacons; sometimes one signatory relinquishes possession, but the recipient does not accept, for various reasons: death, incapacity, etc. Neptune’s Brood follows Krina Alizond’s attempt to redeem the Atlantis Carnet, a huge slow-dollar transaction linked to the famous vanished colony of Atlantis, which was either sabotaged or a scam (or both).

Krina is followed by a stalker, an extremely crooked church, insurance pirates, a disapproving mother, and the agents of a subaquatic kingdom while she hunts down the transaction and tries to find her missing her sister, her ally in the search for the Atlantis Carnet. With those complications and a relatively short page count (325), Brood shouldn’t be a drag. But it is. None of the things that put Krina in jeopardy ever seem very dangerous — except for her sister’s help, which is the most menacing event that happens to Krina. The crooked priests aren’t revealed as crooked until Krina has escaped them. The stalker is foiled by a heavy door after one attack. The insurance pirates actually hire Krina. Stross also decides to skip the part where the police of the subaquatic kingdom are actually menacing in favor of showing the readers when they release Krina and how they are helpful. In the final confrontation, the heroes are so far ahead of the villains there’s no drama.

Brood is not helped by Stross’s choice of first-person omniscient as a narrative point of view. Krina’s story is frequently interrupted, reasonably enough, by Stross’s digressions into banking theory and the history of Brood’s world. But frequently interrupting the narration with events Krina could not have known about is illogical, and it takes away from any suspense that could have been built. Usually, though, these scenes exhibit the cardinal sin of being boring. 1 of 5

Protagonists: Krina is a drab little historian of accountancy who flits from crisis to crisis on the sufferance of strangers. She has no real personality traits of note, other than a tendency to lecture, and she has a singular inability to get herself out of trouble. To be fair, she doesn’t get herself into trouble very much either, but when trouble appears, someone rescues her … frequently before she has to trouble her little head about there being any danger in the first place. 1 of 5

Villains: Brood has a lot of villains. They are all screw-ups, or secret allies. Their level of menace is somewhere between the robbers in Home Alone and an enraged sloth. The stalker makes one attack, then is forgotten for the rest of the book. The church has a completely unnecessary coup, and the danger the instigator of the coup poses to Krina isn’t revealed until she is rescued. (The reader has no idea up until then either, so I’m not sure what the point of revealing it is.) All the villains are at least one step behind Krina at the beginning and losing ground fast; even the big bad at the end, a supposedly cunning and resourceful criminal, has one plan, doesn’t consider her enemies might have one of their own, and falls like Goliath facing David, except David has a bazooka and air support rather than a slingshot. The worst thing done to Krina was perpetrated on her by her sister, ostensibly to help her. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: Stross wanted to explore the mechanisms of money and debt in a sci-fi setting. Unfortunately, he doesn’t use a worthwhile plot or characters worth caring about to do so.

Still, his discussion of debt and money is what is driving Brood’s critical support, and it’s not a subject that is often integrated so fundamentally into a novel’s foundation. I enjoyed The Baroque Cycle’s discussion of economics more, but that’s neither here nor there; Brood raises questions for those who are philosophically or economically inclined to think about them, and he does the reader the courtesy of not adding anything interesting to distract the reader while he or she thinks about these questions. 5 of 10

Fun: This is a book that is heavily invested in accountancy. This focus does not mean the book has to be dull; however, a simple test shows that is has made Brood dull. That test is this: when you cross an accountant with a pirate, do you get a cool accountant, or do you get a boring pirate? In Brood, you get a really boring pirate. The robots are incredibly human, with very little exotic about them — Stross’s dialogue and narration are severely rooted in modernity, and his allusions stretch into our literary past. Even space travel … space travel, when treated in a realistic way, is kinda boring (although apt to be punctuated by moments of severe terror, as the sayings go), and Stross writes a very realistic version of space travel. 1 of 5

Total: 9 of 30. I do not understand why this novel is receiving so much praise. It is a book I had to force myself to read; had it not been a Hugo nominee, I would have put it aside after 100 pages, just like my wife did.

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2013 Nebula nominee #8: Hild by Nicola Griffith

19th Aug. 2014 | 03:05 am

The eighth and final nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is Hild: A Novel by Nicola Griffith:

Hild coverPlot: Historical fiction combined with … speculative biography? Hild (the eventual St. Hilda) lives in seventh-century England and is the daughter of a queen, which is a lot better in those days than not being the daughter of a queen. Even better, her mother prophesied that she would be the light of the world. But her father is poisoned while she is still a girl, and Hild is forced into the court of her uncle, Edwin, also a king. There, she and her mother work to make Hild out as a seer and a valuable part of Edwin’s court so that Edwin will need her and not kill or abandon (allowing someone else to kill) her.

The plot isn’t compelling; I found it difficult to muster interest in the ongoing story. That’s because for most of the book, Hild has few goals other than her own survival and the survival of those close to her. She has trouble influencing Edwin’s courts except at moments when her prophecies can tip his policy one way or another, and she has even less influence in the world at large.

Because of her royal birth, Hild is under constant threat … but she lives a comfortable life, given those threats and her era. Hild mentions plots by Hild’s mother, other kings, and priests, people trying to bend the weave of fate to their ends. But Griffith seems to choose to forgo writing about the actual moments of excitement, at least early on when the reader’s interest is building; Hild’s first taste of battle is skipped over, and only one moment from the battle is referred to, occasionally, as a brief memory. Much of the book is concerned with more quotidian concerns. This emphasis on the everyday may be realistic, but it did not interest me. 1 of 5

Protagonists: Early in the book, one of the female characters quotes Margaret Atwood, saying, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” That sums up the delicate balance Hild has to strike: enough power to save herself and her loved ones but not enough to be seen as a threat.

Hild is a child throughout the book, and the book ends when she is not too far into her teenage, nubile years. She is trying to understand the world and change its course while understanding and controlling her own desires. For Griffith, this is a difficult path to hew to; she shows Hild as intelligent, a child who cows adults by presenting a fearsome, mystical façade. But the readers see Hild learning, taught by teachers who occasionally find her slow. The moments she is not all-knowing should seem to undermine her reputation, but it never does; no one who matters sees them, even though those moments don’t seem to be private.

Somewhere past halfway through the book, just as Hild begins adolescence, she wants to sex her half brother. (He wants to sex her, as well, although he doesn’t know she’s his half sister.) She can’t, although that’s as much because being close to him might show others that he’s the son of a king as it is about the incest taboo. I admit, I have trouble sympathizing with her desire for her brother, and I have more trouble with their forced marriage being presented as a happy ending.

Griffith resists giving Hild any sort of cathartic moment or a display of power that would be satisfying to the reader. Even at her highest, Hild is riding the waves created by the plans of others. Again, it’s realistic … but it’s not compelling. 2 of 5

Villains: In Hild’s world, everyone with power is a villain. They are, however, mostly unaware they are the villain in Hild’s story, and they continue their scheming and warring without being much aware of her.

A central villain would have driven the story or at least given the story a center to move around. Unfortunately, it would have been unrealistic. As such, the rising Christian priest, Paulinus, is the closest thing to a villain; he is nakedly ambitious and eager to discredit the young, female seer, and Hild’s inability to make sense of many points of Christian doctrine make them natural opposites. But Paulinus does not appear that much, and most of his efforts revolve around bending Edwin to his own ends and converting the unwilling. In other words, he’s a villain, but he’s not Hild’s villain. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: Hild has no fantasy or science fiction elements. It is, as I mentioned above, historical fiction. As Griffith said in her author’s note at the end of Hild, she wanted to write about St. Hilda’s early life, for which no sources exist; this forced Griffith to come up with the biography that the world around Hild and the existing historical record suggested. That claim suggests a less dogmatic and more historical story than, say, Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, but I lack the historical grounding in seventh-century England to say one way or another.

Regardless of Hild’s literary or historical fiction merits, it is not a fantasy novel, and not even Hild’s self-serving prophecies — which are entirely pragmatic and have nothing of the supernatural around them — can change that. 0 of 10

Fun: Hild is a struggle to read. Until I reached pg. 400 of the 540-page book, I was not able to read more than 40 pages per night, which is a rarity for me. Between the emphasis on the everyday and the vague threats, the book was like a lead weight, both physically and metaphorically. Seriously, even the sex scenes (lesbian sex!) didn’t make it compelling. 1 of 5

Total: 5 of 30. Easily in last place for this crop of Nebulas, but that’s largely because it was historical fiction, and I don’t care for historical fiction. (After all, I read the fantasy and science-fiction award nominees, not the historical-fiction award nominees.) Now, do I think Hild is a worse book than Connie Willis’s Blackout / All Clear? Good God, no — I’d read Hild twice more before I’d pick up B/AC again.

But Hild doesn’t fit among the nominees.

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2013 Nebula nominee #7: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

17th May. 2014 | 02:22 am

The seventh nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler:

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves coverPlot: Animal rights! In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Rosemary Cooke attends UC-Davis, where nobody knows her past: her psychology professor father and academic mother raised her with a chimpanzee, named Fern, who was the same age, but Fern was sent away before Rosemary began school. Rosemary felt — and still feels — Fern’s absence; Fern was not a lab animal or pet to her. Fern was her sister.

WAACBO is not a traditional science fiction novel. Fowler advances no speculative technology or counterfactual statements or widespread social or epidemiological changes. WAACBO takes place in the world we live in. WAACBO is a science fiction novel because it is fiction about science; the kind of experiment Rosemary and Fern went through has been done in real life. Fowler looks at how the child and family who were performing the experiment (and were its subjects) might feel after the experiment’s end. Additionally, Rosemary has to make sense of her separation from Fern, an event that confused the four-year-old girl. It’s an exciting journey of clarifying and reconstructing memories! 2 of 5

Protagonists: Rosemary is remarkably well adjusted for someone who was raised, for her first four or so years, with a chimpanzee as a sister, then had that sister snatched away from her. In school, Rosemary had to adjust to purely human ways of acting, something her development with a chimpanzee ill-prepared her for. She had to learn to not talk so much — Fern spoke only a few dozen words of sign language, and Rosemary translated the rest of Fern’s desires — and to not touch other people so much. It was also hard for her to accustom herself to the absence of the attentive graduate students who had formerly surrounded her.

She also has to deal with the splintering of her formerly tight-knit family. Her mother went into seclusion for months. Her father turned to the bottle. Her brother became a rebel who eventually fled town to find Fern. Losing the closeness of her sister and the constant academic attention is difficult for Rosemary, of course.

But it’s not that Rosemary who’s telling the story: the narrator is an adult, mature Rosemary, who is telling the story from the vantage point of how everything seemed when she was a senior in college. That’s not quite as interesting as a younger Rosemary — the years water down the visceral losses that she has endured, and after all, she’s learned to be “normal” — but Fowler needs a Rosemary who has the narrative ability to tell the story, and that’s an adult Rosemary. Might have been better to tell the story with the college-age Rosemary, who is re-learning and re-experiencing all the awful things that happened when she was a child, but, well, I’m not a Nebula-nominated author, so what do I know?

Rosemary spends a lot of time thinking about her brother, Lowell, and a decent amount of time with a fellow college student, Harlow Fielding. Lowell turns out to not have that much effect on the plot, and Harlow is an annoyance. But she’s a free spirit! 3 of 5

Villains: None, really, unless you count scientific testing on animals, which Fowler doesn’t go out of her way to condemn. WAACBO concentrates on making the reader see Fern as a person, not an animal, so the scientific testing apparatus is complicit; however, the book avoids giving the readers a face for that complicity. It helps show us we are all part of the system that makes those like Fern into abused non-humans, so it’s effective that way; it isn’t as effective when presenting a compelling story, though. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: What makes WAACBO stand out is the insistence that Fern, a normal chimpanzee, is more than an animal. Fern is not a super-smart ape; she’s not augmented by cybernetics or computer connections of any kind; she’s not anything more than a mostly domesticated chimpanzee. Not only is Fern more than an animal, she’s as much Rosemary’s sister as any human could have been.

WAACBO has no other speculative fiction elements; even Fern’s “personhood” isn’t a speculative fiction element. Fowler spends the entire book attempting to convince us that Fern (and by extension others like her in the real world) deserve some sort of legal elevation beyond animalhood. That’s wise, since the book will succeed or fail on how much you believe Rosemary’s assertions that Fern is her sister. I found it mostly — but not completely — successful. 5 of 10

Fun: Rosemary has a sarcastic, fun delivery, but the actual material of the book is a nearly non-stop downer. In the present, Rosemary has to deal with a fugitive brother, alienation from her parents, and a sponging thief of a friend; in the past, she dealt with a tragic splintering of her family, which may have been her fault, and a childhood being called the “monkey girl.” That level of torment is tough to spackle over with low-grade sarcasm. The obvious message of the book doesn’t help in this category, either; WAACBO is rarely preachy, but without some fantastical element to divert attention from what the book is trying to drive home, the depressing lesson we are supposed to learn (we are continually, as a society, exploiting and oppressing animals who deserve better) is always on the reader’s mind. 2 of 5

Total: 13 of 30. WAACBO is a good book, well written, but its lack of speculative fiction elements might give it too much of a handicap to win, even without strong contenders like The Ocean at the End of the World and Ancillary Justice.

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2013 Nebula nominee #6: The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata

14th May. 2014 | 04:46 pm

The sixth nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata

The Red: First Light coverPlot: Military SF crossed with rogue AI. In the near future, Lt. James Shelley leads a five-person squad, where each soldier fitted with exoskeletons and linked to each other and a military overseer through electronic skullcaps, on patrol through the Sahel in Africa. Wars in this future are ginned up by defense contractors, who control elected representatives and use kickbacks to get their policies enforced. Shelley’s squad is understaffed, underpaid, and underprovisioned, on alert 24 hours a day; sleep is chemically or electronically induced, they use fortified water to deliver nutrients and energy drinks for energy, and the military lets them know their equipment is much more important than they are. The squad fights insurgents and has good relations with the locals, although everyone knows they shouldn’t be there.

And Shelley frequently has premonitions that warn him of incoming dangers — dangers that no one else in the squad or watching through satellites, drones, or the soldier’s own feeds know about.

First Light doesn’t stay in the Sahel, moving to the United States after the squad’s mission in Africa wraps up, and the gritty world, with its constant feeling of danger, is replaced with a different setting, one less compelling. Still, Nagata never stints on the action — gunfire, killing, and danger always seems to be just ahead for Shelley, even as the reasons for that drift farther from the reality we know. Fortunately, the pace is fast enough we never have time to think about how unlikely the plot is. 3 of 5

Protagonists: Shelley starts the novel smart and cynical. He wouldn’t have joined the military if he hadn’t been offered the chance to get rid of a conviction for recording and releasing a video of police abuse at a public protest. Rather than spending a short stint in prison, Shelley jumps at the offer of ten years in the military instead. He is immediately made a lieutenant, and at the beginning of First Light, he’s three years into his sentence. As long as he does his job, the military allows him to be as creative and insubordinate (he has no one above him in the chain of command at the fort he runs) as he wants. At the start of First Light, as long as he’s allowed to do his job and be himself, Shelley is a fun, interesting character to follow. Once he gets back to the United States, the presence of military and civilians makes him more regular Army and less himself, which is dull.

Shelley has a powerful father who opposed his entry into the military and a wonderful girlfriend who also thinks he’s an idiot for joining the military. Shelley’s father isn’t an important character; the girlfriend is. Unfortunately, she’s not a believable character; she’s madly in love with Shelley, even though they broke up years before and she completely disagrees with his career choices. She melts every time he has a romantic interlude with her; she’s a shockingly regressive female character for a modern SF novel, really. She’s a great girlfriend, a computer programmer, and … I don’t know what else.

It doesn’t help that the rest of the supporting character are either religious or dedicated to the armed forces. It does limit the number of viewpoints, though … although I’d forgotten Shelley’s journalist friend, Elliott, whose job it is to exposit news from the wider world and respect Shelley’s viewpoint. Blah. 2 of 5

Villains: The main villain is the military-industrial complex, which is represented by defense contractor Thelma Sheridan. She’s rich, crazy, and crazy rich, with enough money to buy off the government and enough religious paranoia to set off an armed resurrection. Unfortunately, once past her money, Sheridan herself is not much of a threat, and she’s so distant from her proxies that she doesn’t exert much direct villainy.

The book does not definitively say whether The Red, which is what Sheridan and others call the computer intelligence on the Cloud that gives Shelley his advanced warning, is a villain. It does aid Shelley many times in the Sahel and beyond, but as Shelley points out, it nudges other people as well, and they sometimes end up dead for their pains. The characters debate the Red’s purpose and intelligence and get no answers; we as readers can’t even be sure the Red exists, even if the characters are sure it is bending them to whatever end it desires. This characterization of the Red gives it menace and the book a feeling of creepiness, but it doesn’t do anything for the Red’s credibility as a villain. 2 of 5

Inventiveness: Rogue AI, near-future military SF, advanced prosthetics … The most noticeable trappings of the story aren’t all that new. The idea that defense contractors constantly gin up wars is a good idea, even if this and most of the social commentary feels straight from an Occupy movement. I admit insinuating the Red is a rogue marketing program, trying to optimize consumers, is funny, though. The innovativeness of the book is mainly in combinatorics: of all the different tropes of science fiction and fantasy, few books have these tropes and only these tropes. 2 of 10

Fun: The first section of the book is thrilling, real page-turner stuff. First Light is excellent when it details combat situations, and the jittery danger in the firefights in the Sahel are outstanding. The rest of the book, I’m not so sure about — the physical rehab bits drag on, and as I mentioned above, I’m not sure I buy the romantic scenes between Shelley and his girlfriend — but when First Light is exciting, it’s very exciting. 3 of 5

Total: 12 of 30. A respectable showing, but First Light was never going to compete on the same level as The Ocean at the End of the World or Ancillary Justice. Still, for a self-published book, this is an achievement; I don’t know whether Nagata chose to self-publish or had the decision thrust upon her, but with a book this good, she certainly deserves for it to work out for her.

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2013 Nebula nominee #5 and 2014 Hugo nominee #1: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

13th May. 2014 | 01:05 am

The fifth nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel and the first nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel is Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie:

Ancillary Justice coverPlot: Rogue AI plus revenge plot. Breq is a fragment of a ship’s AI — a version of the ship’s mind put in the body of a dead human — who goes on a two-decade quest to kill the Radchaii emperor she served after that emperor destroyed her ship and its crew. Between the flashbacks (around the time the ship was destroyed) and the present action, Breq has accumulated a fortune, established an identity, and located a gun that will allow her to kill the emperor. The book begins with Breq closing in on the gun, on an ice planet where she discovers a drug-addled citizen of the Radch; for some reason, she decides to take the former captain in and give him a second chance.

The flashbacks, leisurely paced as they are, give the book a bit of a padded feel; just as the book gains momentum in the present, readers are thrown into the past on a swamp planet the main story will never, ever visit. It saps the plot of its vitality, and although its purpose (I suppose) is to give backstory and show Breq’s relationship with Lt. Awn, the human she works most closely with, it slows the story down considerably. Additionally, Breq’s plan is less than stunning in its brilliance; although this is partially because of the Radchaai’s deterministic philosophy, it throws the story into a holding pattern in most of the last third of the book, before everything is resolved with explosions. Also, although the book gets a satisfactory resolution, this is the first book in a series. Demerits to the publisher for not letting the reader know that at the outset. 2 of 5

Protagonists: Breq is an AI, all that remains of the Justice of Toren. Breq is in the body of an ancillary, one of the frozen and mind-wiped people who were on the wrong end of the Radchaai’s annexations. Although we don’t get to see most of the steps Breq takes to secure her revenge, she is near the end of her quest: all she has to do is get the gun, and then the killing can begin.

Breq is a study in contradictions, in part because of the viewpoint of her creators, the Radchaai. Breq is logical, programmed to want to obey her emperor. But Breq’s intelligence also means she has her own favorites — which ones do their work the best, work best with their colleagues, work best with the ship — and when she loses her favorite and her entire ship, she experiences grief. Her constant association with the Radchaai means she has taken on their acceptance of fate. Things will happen as they are meant to happen, the Radchaai say, and Breq was never so hyperintelligent she could see all the variables. Her plans and the Radchaai’s plans, no matter how well designed, were always open to chance, and although Breq plans for her meeting with the emperor, she allows for fate to give her an opportunity: if she’s meant to kill the Radch emperor, after all, she’ll get her chance.

The people who serve under her are fine, though naming two closely intertwined and important characters “Awn” and “Awer” was probably a misstep. I’m not sure about Seivarden Vendaai, whom Breq picks up on the ice planet; he (one of the unambiguous Radch “hes”) has a weighty backstory and a drug addiction, but we don’t get a good handle on his motivations. Partially that’s because of Breq’s disinterest and inability to read human motivations, but I still think readers should have had a better insight into him, given how much time we spend with him. 4 of 5

Villains: The villain in all this is the Radchaai emperor — or rather “emperor,” as Anaander Mianaai is cloned, with hundreds of bodies at all ages spread throughout Radchaai space. This makes Breq’s quest to kill the emperor more quixotic than practical, although in the end, revenge’s practical worth is overvalued: the symbolic and emotional weight of revenge generally outweighs its practical value. (Surprisingly, though, the sheer numbers of emperors makes getting to Annander Mianaai easier for Breq.) The emperor’s ruthlessness and her insistence on a “nothing personal” attitude to all of her decisions makes her less a villain we hate and more a malign presence that destroys lives — an interstellar tornado who can’t be predicted, contained, or vanquished. 3 of 5

Inventiveness: The Radchaai language allows for no gender. Breq refers to everyone in her narration as “she” and “her,” and although the humans who served on and around her have no trouble determining gender for those activities that have definite gender requirements, Breq is completely at a loss when she has to deal with societies that have gender in their language. She occasionally offends the locals by not being able to tell male from female. Her inability to discern what is, for her, a non-issue makes sense; why would the Radchaai waste the programming or processing ability of an AI with something that is of no concern to it and little concern to society?

At first, I found this mono-pronouned society confusing — all the “shes” and “hers” make the Radchaai seem like a gynarchy with a lesbian space armada — although I got over that fairly rapidly. For half the book, I still tried to figure out the sex of Radchaai characters before realizing it was unnecessary. Why did I care? That information didn’t matter to Breq, and it didn’t matter to the story; while Lt. Awn has an affair with another character, it doesn’t matter which character was male and which female, or whether they were both the same sex.

It didn’t matter, and that’s a remarkable accomplishment. It would have been a deficiency in the story if it had been Awn’s tale or someone else’s, but Breq doesn’t care about gender in a society that has largely done away with the limitations of the concept (although to be fair, the Radchaai attitudes on homosexuality and transsexuality aren’t spelled out).

This is a book about an AI on a quest for revenge, balancing the rationality of a computer with some semblance of emotion quite well. But I’m going to remember the gender component for much longer than anything else in Ancillary Justice. 10 of 10.

Fun: Breq is not a laugh a minute, being an emotionally effaced computer stuck in a meatbag. The plot does move along at a good clip, especially when the flashbacks are done; however, the alternating chapters of flashback and present action make it more difficult to get into the story. The book does not go for moments of unalloyed triumph, and the even-keeled Breq is accompanied by an irritable drug addict for the present action and the morose, pessimistic Awn for most of the flashbacks. Although Ancillary Justice has enough action to keep the plot moving, this is a book that is admirable more for its characters and gender-neutrality than its entertainment value. 2 of 5

Total: 21 of 30. Holy crap, that’s closer to The Ocean at the End of the Lane than I thought any of the books would come. There’s a reason Ancillary Justice was also nominated for a Hugo award, I suppose. Still, given the difference in literary stature between Gaiman and Leckie, I would be extremely surprised if Ancillary Justice won the Nebula award.

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2013 Nebula nominee #4: The Golem and the Jinni

5th May. 2014 | 07:30 pm

The fourth nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker:

The Golem and the Jinni coverPlot: Immigrant story combined with urban fantasy, transplanted into a bed of historical fiction. In 1890s New York, a golem walks ashore after her master dies onboard a ship, and a tinsmith releases a jinni from his centuries-long imprisonment in a brass vessel. Both must learn, with the help of their benefactors, to deal with this new world, humanity, and their own natures.

The novel is full of detail and interesting characters, and the story itself is strong. However, Wecker inserts so many different viewpoint characters (see below) that the novel feels padded. It isn’t, or at least the plot isn’t padded by the usual narrative suspects. The plot hits the right amount of complication, Wecker doesn’t include excessive details, and the characters who are given significant time are necessary in some way. But the extra pages it took to introduce each particular character’s opinions and situations bogged down the book at points. 3 of 5

Protagonists: The Golem, who is given the name Chava, and Jinni, who is called Ahmad, are supernatural immigrants who must learn to fit in. They are nicely matched as opposites: the Golem must listen to others, is timid and always thinks of the consequences of her actions, and must suffer the restrictions of her female form, while the Jinni is a solitary creature trapped in the largest American city, is careless of the collateral damage his actions cause, and his maleness allows him all the freedoms of the city, despite his obvious “foreignness.” It’s a nice match, not only in character but in supernatural creature type, and I enjoyed their friendship. (I don’t care much for golems being common — I like the idea that the Golem of Prague being singular — but Wecker does an excellent job with the Golem, so I can’t complain.) I don’t particularly buy how the relationship between the main characters ends up, but that’s a minor complaint.

Unfortunately, Wecker has too many viewpoint characters. I didn’t care about the story of Saleh, who was possessed by an ifrit and now can see only death, or Michael Levy, the nephew of the rabbi who takes in the Golem, or Sophia, the society woman the Jinni briefly dallies with, and I resent the brief interludes spent on them. Another half-dozen or so viewpoints could be excised without trouble. Frankly, I don’t even need to spend time in the head of Arbeely, the tinsmith who helps the Jinni adapt to the modern world. Most of the information we need to know about these secondary characters could be gleaned from the Golem and Jinni’s point of view, especially given the Golem’s ability to sense the wants and needs of others. I admit that the rabbi who guides the Golem needed to be a viewpoint character (briefly); the rest seem like an extravagance. I like the Golem and the Jinni; every moment spent on those secondary characters is a moment not spent on those two. Perhaps more time spent with the two of those would have sold the ending better. 3 of 5

Villains: The antagonist for both the Golem and the Jinni is Yehudah Schaalman, a Jewish mystic who created the Golem and in a previous life imprisoned the Jinni. Schaalman is a wicked man, searching for the secret of eternal life as he dabbles in the mystic traditions of Judaism. I think he would have worked much more effectively as a surprise, someone popping up when least expected, but Wecker’s penchant for including multiple viewpoint characters means we learn Schaalman thoughts as well. We learn his story early on and watch him skulk through the characters’ lives, taking some of his menace from him without giving him any humanity to make us sympathize. It’s a poor trade, really, and it brings him down as a villain.

The “past lives” shtick doesn’t help either; it draws Schaalman closer to the two protagonists — like them, does he do what he wants, or are his actions circumscribed by a predetermined nature? — but the novel raises the question without exploring it much. 2 of 5

Inventiveness: It’s an American immigrant story, and those have been done to death in just about every genre imaginable. Still, the two supernatural races of the protagonists were chosen so well I can’t hold that against Wecker. Jinn are unusual protagonists for books, especially in books set in America, and she places the Jinni among an unusual group, from an American point of view: the Maronite Christian community in Little Syria. I want to give this novel more points for the well-done research into late-19th century New York, but that’s not inventive (or fun).

The main thematic question of The Golem and the Jinni is whether we can change our essential nature. The final conflict gives a mixed answer but nevertheless leads to a cheerful conclusion I’m not sure the evidence indicates should have be happy. The most neutral reading of the ending is that those of us who have a free disposition can rein it in, and loners can opt to associate more with others, but those who are more restrained can change but little. It’s a stereotypical romance novel reading of human nature — the bad boy can become the good man for the heroine, who doesn’t have to change much — and even though I don’t know if it’s wrong, I wish it would have been explored more. Without a more definitive exploration, I don’t think this theme qualifies as inventive. 5 of 10

Fun: The Jinni is fun, exploring New York how he wants at night, meeting the night people and seeing sights no one else sees. The Golem is a bit of a downer, tightly wound and afraid of hurting others or revealing herself, but her half of the story is necessary, and she’s more interesting when she interacts with the Jinni. Also, we always enjoy the story of those who do what they want, as long as they don’t actively harm others, but we need to be reminded of the flip side: those who can’t do what they want, lest they hurt others.

Really, the only drag on the book’s enjoyment level are all those extraneous viewpoint characters, although for the first half of the book, that’s a considerable drag. 3 of 5

Total: 16 of 30. An impressive total, but it’s not close to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Frankly, even in a year without Ocean, I doubt The Golem and the Jinni would win the award, even if I would have given it to this book; it’s a bit too conventional and contemporary for the Nebula. Still, I enjoyed it.

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2013 Nebula nominee #3: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

2nd May. 2014 | 01:18 pm

The third nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar:

A Stranger in Olondria coverPlot: Memoir mixed with haunting. Jevick, the son of a pepper merchant on the island of Tinimavet, takes over the business when his father dies. What does that entail? Not a hell of a lot, really; the business seems to be run by Sten, his father’s chief servant. Jevick’s main duty seems to be selling the pepper in Bain, the city of poetry and legends, where Jevick has wanted to go since he started learning from his Bainish tutor.

Jevick can’t even get carousing and appreciation of Bain’s cultural activities right, and before he completes his first trip to Bain, he’s haunted by the ghost of a fellow islander. The haunting inflicts a deep trauma on Jevick, although Stranger’s narration, with its emphasis on metaphor and imagery, is unclear on what causes this trauma: the fear of seeing the dead, some taint of the grave, an inadvertent mental attack? Something else? This affliction throws Jevick into the middle of a political dispute, which drives the rest of the story; you’d think that would be exciting, but other than a couple of sharp moments of conflict, the story plays out languorously. Forty pages of the last ninety are given over to the ghost’s story, which is the story of a young girl dying of a genetic disease.

The plot has little impetus, which is probably how the story is designed. Samatar’s prose is dreamy, poetic, and meant to evoke a rich, imagined literary tradition, the province of thinkers rather than men of action. Samatar does this well. Unfortunately, that means the plot doesn’t move that much. 1 of 5

Protagonists: Jevick is a chore to follow. He is a child of privilege, besotted by beautiful images of a far-away city, who exerts very little pressure on his own story. His father arranges for his tutor, who introduces him to the wider world. He follows his father into the pepper business — well, the ownership of a pepper plantation, as we see Jevick do no actual work. In Bain and Tinimavet, Sten runs everything. He doesn’t escape when institutionalized; he allows those who liberate him to guide his every move. When the ghost gives him a way to get rid of her — write down her story — he refuses. Why should I care what happens to him when he obviously doesn’t want to expend the energy to help himself? He writes well, though. 1 of 5

Villains: Stranger does not have an identifiable villain. Worse, the book lacks an identifiable antagonist or blocking figure for most of the novel since Jevick is his own biggest foe. Who else do we blame? The ghost, who only wants Jevick to record her story, giving her a limited sort of immortality? The priests of the Stone, who don’t believe in ghosts and keep Jevick locked up to treat his delusion and to keep his heresy from spreading? (I suppose they could work in a pinch, but they don’t try very hard to keep him from escaping.) The priests of Avalei, who spring Jevick from the institution and push him (very gently) toward talking to ghosts? Maybe. But it’s a shame that, in a book that has no protagonist to feel strongly about, there are no antagonists to feel strongly about either. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: On one hand, Samatar builds a literary tradition out of nothing, then plays off that in the narration of the story. Although the allusions and references seem vague and stilted at times, it is an impressive accomplishment. On the other hand, in Jevick’s hands, this often feels like literary cheerleading — readers are the best people! — and although I believe Samatar feels very strongly about reading worthy works, it comes across as original as a rock band telling its audience, “Cleveland fans are the best fans!” (However, this cheerleading is more subtle than Jo Walton’s in Among Others.)

I suppose the most daring decision is not giving the readers anyone to feel strongly about, although I don’t think that was what anyone was going for. 5 of 10

Fun: Jevick is dull at best and a buzzkill at his worst. How can a young man so dedicated to experiencing the pleasures of life in the world’s most cosmopolitan city become so boring, so fast? Yes, yes, the haunting, but the effaced nature of Jevick’s literary narrative style fails to bring across the … horror? madness? suffering? he endures. 0 of 5

Total: 8 of 30. This is a better book than I have been making it sound. If you are the kind of person who delights in the richness of language and feels most popular books don’t take any pride in the craftsmanship of their prose, Stranger is a book that will appeal to you. But it doesn’t do well in my categories, and I was almost always bored by it. Every year, I set myself a goal to read all the Nebula and Hugo nominees; if Stranger hadn’t been a nominee, I would have put this aside less than halfway through.

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2013 Nebula nominee #2: Fire with Fire by Charles E. Gannon

30th Apr. 2014 | 02:47 pm

The second nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is Fire with Fire by Charles E. Gannon:

Fire with Fire coverPlot: First contact combined with politics and a dash of spy thriller. That sounds great, doesn’t it? Well … Caine Riordan is accidentally shot and frozen by troops from the thinktank / cover spy agency IRIS. When he is awakened more than a decade later, IRIS gives him a codename (“Odysseus,” and the codenames for other characters — “Calypso,” “Mentor,” “Telemachus” — are based off that). IRIS trains him as an operative, then sends him to Delta Pavonis Three to investigate rumors of primitive sentient creatures.

That sounds like an exciting plot, right? But it’s over by page 100 of a 475-page book. Then there are covert negotiations over world government, possible induction into an interstellar UN, and lots of attempts on Riordan’s life. This still sounds exciting, but most of the plot is made up with deductions — mostly Riordan deducing all sorts of things, but also other characters deducing things on their own as well. This book is clever people all the way down, readers, and you better take the time to appreciate it. If not, this is going to be a slog for everyone involved, because you’re going to hear a lot about what tenuous clues in speech, body language, and messages mean.

Gannon livens up the spaces between deductions with various physical challenges for the protagonists — usually surviving assassination attempts. I can’t deny this gives the plot some oomph it clearly needs; on the other hand, the book has trouble transitioning from between assassinations and downtime. The characters are like Flitcraft in the Maltese Falcon: they adjust themselves to killers hunting them down, and then when no more killers are obviously on the hunt, they adjust themselves to killers not hunting them down. 2 of 5

Protagonists: Caine Riordan is awesome. He can intuitively put together unconnected facts, sees what others have hidden, and fights off assassins every week or so, despite being “protected” by armed guards at all times. These accomplishments, by themselves, should be enough to let me know how great Riordan is, but do you know how I’m sure Riordan is awesome? Because every character tells me so, over and over again: his bosses, his bodyguard / lover, allies, aliens … This is aggravating, in the way anyone gaining constant praise is irritating, but even more frustrating is that his cognitive leaps never have to be tested; everyone sees their elegance and begins praising him, and the book assumes his insights were correct.

Funny; he never puts his two biggest leaps — that someone took humans to the stars thousands of years ago and that an alien race is somehow interfering with human affairs without being observed — together in the obvious way. He also doesn’t reject the connection, which means I thought of something the most amazing human mind of the future did not consider. I am amazing! (Also: it’s hard to write genius characters that everyone thinks is amazing.)

Also frustrating is Riordan’s reaction to losing more than a decade to cryogenic freezing. Yes, he’s angry he’s lost the time, and he’s irritated that the people who froze him are his best and perhaps only viable employers. But he never seems to miss the life he left behind — he doesn’t try to track down parents, siblings, old colleagues or lovers. He adjusts to the future without a blink. (Imagine the changes to the world if you had gone in a coma in April 2001, then were awakened today. In Riordan’s case, he missed development of faster-than-light space travel and interstellar colonies, which he shrugs and accepts.) He never tries to recapture any part of the life he left behind. Riordan lost the four days immediately prior to his cryogenic preservation, but it’s as if that loss has formed a wall between him and the entirety of his past. 2 of 5

Villains: An unknown malefactor codenamed “Circe” by IRIS and the Ktor race. Oh, and I suppose the Colonial Development Combine, a company formed to exploit Earth’s colony worlds, but they are little more than an occasional irritation after the first hundred pages. (“Circe” is a dumb codename, as Odysseus ended up having sex with Circe for a year after she tried to turn him into a pig; “Poseidon” is a better name for a powerful, unseen figure trying to prevent Odysseus from reaching his goals.) Circe shows up a few times, is enigmatic for a few pages, and bad things happen. The Ktor are making a power play among the Accord, the council that oversees the starfaring races; the Ktor will have a huge effect on humans in the future, but humanity has little chance to affect the Ktor at this point in the story. And yes, CoDevCo is bent on xenocide, destroying the primitive sapients on a colony world. But really, that’s a minor consideration.

The villains are generally represented by assassination / kidnapping teams. While no doubt exciting — something has to spice up the intervals between Riordan’s astute assessment of the situation — it seems a little random, and Gannon doesn’t build a sense of dread in the characters, who seem to feel they have everything under control until they don’t, and they deal with it admirably. Circe is at the root of all the attacks, but the characters never learn that, and his vague machinations are sinister without being menacing. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: Of everything in this book, I think the most unusual part is that the Accord consists of only three alien races, with the humans and a similar race being considered for inclusion in the last third of the book. That’s not what I’m supposed to be marveling about, I think; what I consider sections heaping praise on Riordan are probably designed to show how large conflicts are not solved by action but by negotiation and understood agreements. Gannon aims for a sort of realism, the kind that requires five pages to describe the faster-than-light drive humanity uses. But it’s the future. How will I know what is real? 3 of 10

Fun: When it’s fun, it’s fun: I can’t deny Gannon knows a good action sequence. But Gannon’s writing is unable to make the parts between action sequences entertaining. I keep thinking of a scene during negotiations with the Accord, when the representative humans decide to hold a party to introduce themselves. I think of what Lois McMaster Bujold would make of that scene: witty and dangerous, I would care about the characters and what happens to them. In Fire, I feel the scene is as choreographed as a waltz; Riordan is a bit too self-satisfied (or Gannon is too proud of him) to make me care about happens to Riordan in those negotiations. Riordan is going to do as well as any human could, and probably better. 2 of 5

Total: 10 of 30. Not bad, but it’s not going to win the Nebula — not if I were giving the award, and not from the people who are giving the award.

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2013 Nebula nominee #1: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

29th Apr. 2014 | 02:48 am

The first nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane coverPlot: Childhood cosmic horror vs. magic farmer folk. The unnamed narrator, a seven-year-old boy, seeks the help of Lettie Hempstock, a slightly older girl who lives on a nearby farm, after locals keep getting money in weird and harmful ways. Lettie takes him along when she banishes the spirit responsible for the money, telling him not to let go of her hand; he accidentally does, and this mistake lets a powerful evil into the world.

The book is a brisk 190 pages, and the story progresses quickly, satisfactorily escalating until the climax. The book is a bit straightforward with its plotting — complication, solution, further complication that comes from the solution, resolution — and the characters are a little thin (in a Pratchett sort of way, playing on archetypes), but since the plot doesn’t lag and the characters and story are enjoyable, there’s little to complain about. 4 of 5

Protagonists: The unnamed narrator doesn’t do much, but he’s only seven. His major acts of courage are his willingness to name the evil that has invaded his home and to escape from his home when the evil babysitter has him convinced no one will believe him. It’s so easy at that age to believe no one will take your side, even when you aren’t at fault, and Gaiman exploits this to the fullest. When his one mistake seems to imperil the world, he’s also willing to sacrifice himself to save it.

The Hempstocks are the ones who get things done, of course. Lettie is near the narrator’s age, and the narrator tags along with her more than her mother, Mrs. Hempstock, or her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock. Being the youngest — about 11 years old, but as the narrator asks, how long has she been that age? — Lettie tries to banish Ursula, has to shoo her off the property, and sees to calling in the exterminators. The older Hempstocks get to be gruff, motherly, wise, and powerful while doing farm chores; despite being greatly powerful, at the end the narrator realizes they cannot solve everything … much like adults. 3 of 5

Villains: It’s premature for me to say this, of course, but Ursula Monkton will probably be the most vivid and believable villains of this year’s award nominees, and Gaiman taps into the fears of childhood to make Ursula hateable and plausible. She’s a babysitter who splits siblings from one another, parents from children, husbands from wives. She whispers dreadful punishments for acts that don’t deserve punishment and convinces the narrator he will never be believed by any adult. Her very presence raises hackles that have stayed down since we were children, reminding us of the unjustness of life in a very elemental way. Ursula is fun — and so easy — to hate.

Children insist on fairness even as adults tell them life isn’t fair, but it’s obvious to children adults are the reason life isn’t fair. Ursula embodies that principle of adult authority and obtuseness. 5 of 5

Inventiveness: Combining a bucolic childhood story with age-appropriate cosmic horror is uncommon, although the horror begins with a creature who plays on human desires to get what it wants and ends with creatures that serve the cosmos by preying on parasites like Ursula. It’s a simple predator / prey relationship, satisfying but without a great deal of depth; however, it doesn’t need a great deal of depth, and the Cthulhu mythos exists for anyone who wants a more disturbing horror. But I still have to dock points for magic farm folk. I appreciate that Gaiman doesn’t link their magic with some mystical or elemental tie to the land, but they’re still magic farmers. 6 of 10

Fun: Ocean is full of Gaiman-esque wonder, and the shortness of the book means he doesn’t get time to get too twee. At the margins of the book lurks a larger universe, and I much prefer that Gaiman lets them go unexplained than for him to nail down every little thing. The book has serious downers — a kitten dies in the first few pages — and I find the box narrative somewhere between disturbing and a cheat, but despite the danger and unfairness to the narrator, Ocean remains entertaining. 4 of 5

Total: 22 of 30. Hard to beat, I think, although when it comes to the actual voting, I don’t think Ocean is the juggernaut The Graveyard Book was.

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This is weird ...

12th Sep. 2013 | 02:48 pm

You can buy the song “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell at Amazon for $1.29. Not very unusual these days, I know, as the $0.99 download slowly fades away.

But you can buy “You Know My Name” as an MP3 album at that page for $0.99. So for some reason, you can buy a one-song album for cheaper than you can buy one song. It’s the same song, no difference in version, artist, or length. Just 30 cents cheaper.

I’m sure there’s a reason for that pricing structure, but danged if I can find it.

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2013 Hugo nominee #5: Blackout by Mira Grant

31st Aug. 2013 | 01:21 am

Here we are again, with another year of speculative fiction award nominees! Grading the Hugo and Nebula nominees in plot, protagonists, villains, inventiveness, and fun — with inventiveness being the most important — seemed to work the last few years, so I thought I would try it again in 2013.

The fifth Hugo nominee for Best Novel is Blackout by Mira Grant:

Blackout coverPlot: Zombies crossed with governmental conspiracies and cloning. Sure, why not? In the first book in Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, Feed, ambitious young bloggers followed a presidential campaign in a world filled with zombies, and their journalistic zeal unmasked a conspiracy to make Americans even more frightened of the largely controlled zombie menace. Two the three protagonists, however, died in the attempt. Sean, the survivor, went a little crazy in the second book, Deadline, and his inability to deal with both his sister’s death and a Centers for Disease Control conspiracy lead him to see and hear his dead sister while he seeks revenge. In Blackout, Sean Mason and his outlaw band of bloggers deal with the latest CDC perfidy — mosquitoes carrying the zombie virus hitting Florida — while a new Georgia, Sean’s sister, finds herself decanted from the CDC’s cloning labs.

Unfortunately, Deadline’s pace is shambling, the plot developments come jerkily when they arrive at all, and the characters’ attempts to reach their goals seems only half there. Sean’s group has trouble completing any of its big missions; a trip to Florida from Oregon gets turned around in Berkley, and their secondary goal blows up as well. Georgia spends more than the first half of the book sitting inside government labs, getting a slow drip of information. The danger of mosquitoes laden with the zombie virus doesn’t turn out to be so awful that anyone does anything about it. The protagonists’ caution saps the plot of the jeopardy necessary to keep the reader interested, which should never happen in a zombie book. At no point did I ever get the idea that Sean or Georgia was going to die, which is ironic, because Georgia has already died once in the trilogy. 1 of 5

Protagonists: Sean is still crazy and still immune to zombie-ism. Despite being a clone with a dead girl’s copied memories, Georgia is still herself, having few doubts about her identity. But Sean and Georgia are no longer normal people dropped into a horrible, zombie-filled world. The more the two drift from relatable, normal characters, the less readers can be engaged with them. Sean’s insanity — the hallucinatory Georgia he talks to and only he sees and hears — is taken for granted by everyone around him, and Georgia … somehow, the clone is less interesting than Georgia herself was.

The Mason kids are no longer compelling leads. Neither Sean nor Georgia has a great plan to gain control of their lives, and they are always swept along by whatever new plot development comes along. They are not going to risk incredible odds to save the day, and they’re unlikely to take decisive action until the last moment. Mostly, they get moved from one place to another by other groups because, well, what choice do they have? The Masons and their followers are reasonable about their chances, and they aren’t going to put a plan that just might work into effect, either.

Continuing readers probably still have considerable empathy for the siblings, but that might be in jeopardy once Sean and Georgia admit the extent of their relationship. It’s been hinted at before, but I admit my respect for Grant grew when she just straight-out had the two admit it. 2 of 5

Villains: Zombies and CDC conspiracies, la la la. This is the second straight book in which the zombies have had lessened lethality, and Blackout doesn’t have the collateral damage that even Deadline had. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: This is the third book of a zombie trilogy. I don’t think we can really expect much inventiveness here. Clones are a new addition, as is the suggestion about how zombieism might / might not be contained or cured. On the other hand, clones don’t really fit with zombies, and the cure for the zombie virus doesn’t go much further than “the CDC has an impractical one, and it hasn’t worked toward more practical treatments.” 2 of 5

Fun: Blackout was a quick read. I was reading 100-page chunks at a time, and that is not the hallmark of a dull book. Being able to devour large sections of the book did help mitigate the book’s crawling pace, but Sean’s parts of the books feel like a rehash of Deadline, and Georgia’s return feels more like fanservice than an interesting development. Occasionally, the readers get glimpses of the wider, zombie-filled world, but it’s not enough to lift this book. 2 of 5

Total: 8 of 30. Diminishing returns have definitely set in, which is a shame, since I enjoyed Feed immensely and wanted to like Blackout. What is really bizarre is that I thought Deadline’s last chapters promised an off-the-rails, intensely crazy third book, but Blackout fails to deliver that. I’m not sure I mind a saner Blackout, but Grant failed to replace the crazy with excitement.

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West Virginia Power vs. Greensboro Grasshoppers, 7 August 2013

29th Aug. 2013 | 04:38 am

Tuesday the Pittsburgh Pirates traded for Marlon Byrd and John Buck, giving up Dilson Herrera and a player to be named later to the New York Mets. I wasn’t happy about this — the Pirates are chasing the Cardinals in the National League Central — but for once, I was happy that I knew something about the prospect being traded.

Herrera played for Pittsburgh’s low-A affiliate, the West Virginia Power. Two weeks ago, my wife and I stopped in Charleston to see the Power play the Greensboro Grasshoppers, an affiliate of the Miami Marlins. It was a gorgeous night for watching baseball. A gorgeous night for doing anything outside, actually, but to sit at a baseball games, in jeans, in August, and not sweat was an exceptional experience. The box score noted the temperature was 68 degrees, but by the later innings, I was glad my wife and I had brought a blanket.

Of course, the box score also said the attendance was 1,253, but I can guarantee that many did not come through the turnstiles. Disappointingly, the stands held only a couple of hundred at most. I have to wonder about a team’s future when a good team like the Power — they lead the South Atlantic League’s Northern Division by a game, with a record of 41-24 — can’t put more people in the stands on a perfect night. Maybe everyone decided to enjoy the beautiful night somewhere else.

Despite the small crowd, the Power did have a dedicated cheering section, which had heckles and cheers for specific players. They tended toward the rote, though; Grasshoppers third baseman Colin Moran gave the crowd a lot to jeer at, but the fans didn’t seem to take the opportunity. Maybe they had some sympathy toward the young men just starting their careers and didn’t want to get too personal.

Appalachian Power Park, right fieldAppalachian Power Park is built into an old neighborhood near I-64, surrounded by brick buildings and situated to give fans some interesting views. From the first base concourse, fans can see the golden capitol dome. Across the interstate a couple of blocks beyond the stadium’s outfield wall is a large hill; on top of the hill is a cemetery (see below; apologies for the camera phone pix). Don’t often see cemeteries near baseball stadia, especially ones with commanding views of the stadia. The park is also on the flight path to Yeager Airport in Charleston. A variety of aircraft flew toward the airport during the game: private planes, commercial passenger craft, a FedEx plane, and several large USAF planes. (According to Wikipedia, the West Virginia Air National Guard Base also uses the airport, making it likely that the two or three USAF planes that I saw were their C-130 Hercules. If Wikipedia is correct, of course.) By the later innings, before twilight made them too hard to see, the planes were frequently more interesting than what the hitters were doing.

The food at Appalachian Power Park was excellent. Because of the sparse crowd, some of the stands weren’t open, but my wife ate at Paterno’s at the Park, a full-service restaurant. She says her salmon salad was the best she’d ever eaten. I was swayed by the pulled-pork nachos; they were tasty, but I discovered there’s a reason barbecue isn’t generally served with cheese: the mellow flavor of the cheese doesn’t meld well with the tangy barbecue.

Appalachian Power Park, left field with cemetery in backgroundThe game itself was a blowout. West Virginia scored nine runs in the first inning, knocking Greensboro starter Austin Brice out before he could complete an inning. Brice didn’t help himself with his considerable wildness — he walked two and hit two others — but even though he gave up all nine first-inning runs (two earned), he allowed only four hits. Poor defense was partially to blame; Moran committed an error to allow the first baserunner of the inning, and I was shocked how far he was from cleanup batter Jordan Steranka’s double down the line. (Probably a result of positioning, since Steranka is a lefty, but Moran was nowhere near a ball that usually would have been turned into a double play.) Moran made another error in the second, and he didn’t convert a fielding chance until the fourth.

Greensboro didn’t put up a fight. The Grasshoppers scored one in the first without a run, aided by Power starter John Kuchno’s wildness — he walked two and threw three wild pitches. Kuchno didn’t give up a hit until the sixth, when catcher Tony Caldwell singled to center; Caldwell was immediately erased on a double play because of his own poor baserunning. Neither Kuchno nor two Power relievers gave up any other hits. West Virginia expended all their hitting in the first inning; after the first, West Virginia tallied one run and three hits against the Greensboro bullpen. Fans showing up after the first inning missed all the excitement, as was the case for the over-cologned fan who showed up in the fifth and spent the rest of the evening having a “textversation” with his girlfriend.

The game featured two prospects on John Sickels’s preseason top-20 list for Pittsburgh and only one on Miami’s. The Miami prospect was Brice, #20 according to Sickels; Brice was shelled. Rightfielder Josh Bell (#7) was 2 for 4 with two RBI, and Herrera, the reason for this post, played second base and was 0 for 4 but scored twice.

I know it’s not nice to make fun of people’s names, but some names need to be highlighted because of their uniqueness:
Jheyson Manzuto, P (Greensboro)
Rehiner Cordova, SS (Greensboro)
Veosurgy Rosa, DH (Greensboro)
Kawika Emsley-Pai, C (West Virginia)

Hearing those names over the loudspeakers baffled me. How do you spell “Veosurgy”? How can you make heads or tails of “Kawika Emsley-Pai” as a string of syllables shouted in your general direction? I had trouble understanding “Manzuto,” but I had no idea of how badly I had misspelled “Jheyson” until I saw the box score.

For those of you who cringe at people who think of foreign names as funny, Greensboro had pitcher Dane Stone relieve Blake Logan at one point. Those names seem like they should belong to secret guardians of the Bro Code or something.

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2013 Hugo nominee #4: Redshirts by John Scalzi

11th Aug. 2013 | 03:33 pm

Here we are again, with another year of speculative fiction award nominees! Grading the Hugo and Nebula nominees in plot, protagonists, villains, inventiveness, and fun — with inventiveness being the most important — seemed to work the last few years, so I thought I would try it again in 2013.

The fourth Hugo nominee for Best Novel is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi:

Redshirts coverPlot: TV sci-fi crossed with metacommentary. Andy Dahl, fresh out of the Universal Union Academy, is posted on the Intrepid, the Union’s flagship. But he and the other new ensigns realize something is strange on the Intrepid: science doesn’t make sense, officers and enlisted crew make incredibly dumb decisions, and the fatality rate for crew and low-level officers is absurdly high, even if no one else seems to notice. Dahl and his four compatriots have to figure out what’s causing this idiocy before they bite it on an away mission.

Yes, the references are clear: Scalzi gives the readers a Star Trek setup and has the low-level crew realize what would be obvious to an outside observer: so very many things don’t make sense. Once they figure out what’s going on — and it’s not an arcane solution; you might have guessed already — they have to use their universe’s rules to save their lives. The plot follows a straight line from there — perhaps too straight of a line — but Scalzi keeps up a sense of jeopardy. After all, these are redshirts. 3 of 5

Protagonists: Scalzi gives us five redshirts to root for: Andy; Jimmy Hanson, Andy’s rich friend; Maia Duvall, an ensign transferring to the Intrepid to escape from a too-forward superior officer; Finn, a troublemaker with a ready supply of recreational drugs; and Hester, Finn’s not-quite friend. Although each crew member has a role to fulfill, the plot spends most of its time on Andy, with the others being called in for their various expertise or connections. Andy is an amiable hero, mentally agile enough to wrap his head around the science-fictional plot while resisting the bizarreness of the author’s plot just enough. Although he’s intelligent, he’s not going to be racing too far ahead of the reader (if he’s ahead of the reader at all); that can be seen as a detriment or positive, so take your pick. Andy also manages a decent sense of humor, given the situation. He also manages to deliver a few deserved moral dressings-down to his superiors without seeming too much of a prig — and really, those are his only distinguishing emotional moments, which is probably about par for the course for a redshirt. He’s a little bland: he’s a redshirt, after all. 4 of 5

Villains: Redshirts has no real villains, unless you count the Intrepid’s bridge crew. The captain, his first officer, chief engineer, chief medical officer, and astrogator lieutenant (dragged along on away missions for no real reason and always getting horrifically injured) aren’t malign, however; an outside force makes them oblivious to the ludicrousness of their environment and the overall toll it takes on the crew. They are occasionally amusing, but they are only as menacing as any dumb fictional bad luck charm. 2 of 5

Inventiveness: As one of Scalzi’s character’s admits in the first of the three codas, having fictional characters aware of their status isn’t exactly new — he lists a half dozen writers who have dealt with the same idea, some of them in comedies. (The closest analogue seems to be the movie Last Action Hero, a spoof of action movies the character disdains but I enjoyed.) I can think of another half dozen similar stories, off the top of my head. But I admit the metafiction has rarely been crossed with science fiction (other than to serve as a vehicle for the metacommentary), and never with old-school Star Trek. On the other hand, as with movies like Pleasantville, the original story’s flaws are fish in a barrel, as well as being targets others have taken plentiful potshots at. You have to do something clever with the genre to truly stand out, and I’m not sure Redshirts and its tacked-on codas are that clever. 4 of 10

Fun: Redshirts is seriously meta, and I know that can put a lot of people off. But if you’re the kind of person who enjoys the references and in-jokes, Scalzi mostly nails them without going overboard. The hit rate for jokes in Redshirts is high, making this a very funny book. Looking through the nominees, Redshirts is the funniest book I’ve read in the last three years of Hugo and Nebula nominees. Given that the nominees are generally a bunch of downers plus the works of Lois McMaster Bujold and Jack McDevitt, though, that’s not surprising. Still, Scalzi manages to keep the plot moving and the danger to the protagonists at a simmer, so there’s little joke fatigue. 5 of 5

Total: 18 of 30. Looks like Redshirts, despite not being filmed in award-winning Depress-O-Rama, will by my winner, unless Mira Grant pulls something exemplary out of the final nominee, Blackout.

More impressively, Redshirts scored the same as The Drowning Girl. I think Drowning Girl is manifestly a better book. I enjoyed reading Redshirts far more, don’t get me wrong; it’s an enjoyable book. But Drowning Girl is a high-quality book that will last with me a lot longer, and I think that’s a mark of a better book. But how did the two books score the same?

These scores are meant to determine what I think is the most award worthy. On first glance, these scores suggest I should rethink my scoring system, since I have stated Drowning Girl is a better book. And I might change the system — downgrading the number of points awarded in the “fun” category is the obvious change — but I’m not sure I need to. Drowning Girl is a serious book, one that is absorbing, unusual, and haunting. But its connection to speculative fiction is tenuous, at best; like Among Others by Jo Walton, which won both Nebula and Hugo last year, I downgraded it because I don’t think mental illness is science fiction or fantasy. (Among Others, taken at face value, has fantasy elements, although I don’t believe they are “real” within the context of the story — no matter what Walton says.) The relatively lighthearted and less durable Redshirts scores the same as Drowning Girl because Redshirts is clearly speculative fiction, and that’s makes it more worthy for a speculative fiction award until other criteria are taken into consideration.

Not that it matters. Drowning Girl didn’t win the Nebula, and I would be shocked — shocked! — if Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold or 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson didn’t win the Hugo.

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2013 Hugo nominee #3: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

31st Jul. 2013 | 02:34 am

Here we are again, with another year of speculative fiction award nominees! Grading the Hugo and Nebula nominees in plot, protagonists, villains, inventiveness, and fun — with inventiveness being the most important — seemed to work the last few years, so I thought I would try it again in 2013.

The third Hugo nominee for Best Novel is Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold:

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance coverPlot: It’s a Vorkosigan Saga book. I usually try to say these nominees are X crossed with Y, but this isn’t anything crossed with anything. Well, maybe science fantasy crossed with romance, with a touch of P.G. Wodehouse thrown in. But mostly it’s a Vorkosigan Saga book; if you’ve read one before, you know what to expect with this one — except the protagonist is the laid-back Ivan Vorpatril rather than his driven cousin Miles Vorkosigan.

Serving on Komarr, where resentments against the conquering Barrayans still simmer, Ivan Vorpatril, a captain in Barrayar’s military and an heir to its throne, is asked to save a damsel in distress. Tej is the daughter of an overthrown merchant house on freewheeling Jackson’s Whole, and assassins are still after her and her sister / servant Rish. Of course — of course! — romance and duty intersect for Ivan, and Tej is awful amorous for a woman on the run from death squads.

Much like in her previous Hugo nominee Cryoburn, I feel Bujold has forgotten to complicate the plot much. Once Tej gets off Komarr about a quarter of the way through Alliance, the tension drains from the book. The question of whether Tej and Ivan will fall for each other is rhetorical. Every character ignores the obvious solution to the book’s central problem — Tej’s family reclaiming their merchant house after they end up on Barrayar — to the point the reader must assume no one has thought of it, which beggars belief. Also like Cryoburn, the climax Bujold works toward is less than explosive. Only the possible fallibility of the previously infallible Simon Illyan, former head of Imperial Security, gives the book a nudge toward uncertainty. 2 of 5

Protagonists: A supporting character in most of the other Vorkosigan Saga books, Ivan is a great protagonist and a welcome break from the hypercompetent Miles. Ivan has spent his life avoiding responsibility and commitment, but in Alliance he quickly gets in over his head. Ivan is more than a little reminiscent of Bertie Wooster from P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series; Ivan is more competent and doesn’t have a Jeeves, but he’s frequently at a loss when asked for help (and equally helpless to resist helping), and he’s the solid rock the anger of others breaks upon.

Tej, his romantic interest, is the point-of-view character for about half the book. There’s not much to Tej, who has been well educated while remaining sheltered from the universe at large. Tej is loyal to her family but not interested in the family business of business. She’s attracted to Ivan. Those character elements work together in non-surprising ways to create her character. 3 of 5

Villains: Like Cryoburn, Alliance doesn’t have much in the way of credible human threats to the protagonists’ happiness. The closest is Tej’s family, but they are more clumsy than villainous. The assassins are few and ineffectual, unfortunately. 0 of 5

Inventiveness: This is the umpteenth book in the Vorkosigan Saga, and although it’s the first to feature Ivan as the protagonist, Bujold has explored most of Alliance’s interesting elements — Komarr, Jackson’s Whole, hypercapitalism, Barrayar society — in other books. The romantic and heist angles aren’t novel, except for the method of tunneling on the heist, and that might as well be “magic potion.” Ivan does give the book a different feel, though. 2 of 10

Fun: Alliance is the most fun nominee of this year’s crop so far. Looking back through all the award nominees I’ve rated, only 2011 Nebula nominee Firebird scores as highly, and it’s not as fun as Cryoburn. Ivan’s struggles with competence are amusing, the romance is sweet, and Ivan’s relatives are a treat every time they show up. Alliance is not the most fun of Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, but it is a joy to read in a way that few award-nominated books are.

That may be because Bujold doesn’t get too heavy into conflict, though. 5 of 5

Total: 12 of 30. This leaves Throne of the Crescent Moon in the lead for the Hugos, but in a practical sense, Alliance is just ahead of its chief rival, 2312. In many ways, Alliance is the opposite of 2312. Alliance is all character and interaction, and the world-building is overlooked, since the heavy lifting has been done in previous books. 2312 focuses on hard science, while Alliance isn’t concerned with the nuts and bolts of much anything. Of course, neither has a strong plot, but I suppose it was too much to ask for them to be perfect opposites.

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2013: A Year of Rejection

6th Jul. 2013 | 02:35 am

In the past, I’ve been slack about submitting short stories to magazines. I suppose a reluctance to be rejected by editors and sub-editors has kept me from polishing the mostly finished stories I have lying around. (That, and I hate editing original drafts into something someone would actually want to read, as that is hard work.)

In 2010 and 2011, I received one rejection a year. (Realms, a semi-pro magazine, also bought one of my stories and went out of business sometime after.) Last year, I accepted eight rejections, all form letters. All of them were for one story. Eight rejections in one year feels like a lot — is a lot? — but I know I’m not trying hard enough. I knew I could be rejected more often if I tried.

And this year, I have been! Fifteen rejections have already crossed the threshold (all but two of them electronically). Two have not been form letters, which shocks me. Also, one of the rejections I think is a form letter says, “I hope we shall see more stories from you in the future.” Some submissions pages and writer’s advice columns say this means exactly what it sounds like — the editor liked something and is encouraging further submissions to her or his magazine. This particular publication’s submission guidelines don’t include that clarification, and I have trouble believing a letter that ends with “Good luck in your ongoing endeavors” is anything but a polite kiss-off.

At the moment, I have three stories out, waiting for their newest rejections. The least rejected of these has been tossed back to me only five times. The most hopeful thing I can say at this time is one of the stories — the one that has been rejected thirteen times — has been with one editor slightly longer than the publication’s mean response time. The longer a magazine has your story, the more likely it is to accept the story; so the legends of my people go. Or it could be the editor is buried under a monumental slush pile, or the story has been lost, or … any number of things, I suppose. Given the number of rejections I and this story have earned, it’s illogical to get excited by a delay of less than a week, when the magazine generally takes a month to respond. On the other hand, after getting rejections within 24 hours, it’s impossible for every day of “not no” to transmute the doubt in my mind into “maybe yes.”

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2012 Nebula nominee #6: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

30th May. 2013 | 02:56 am

Here we are again, with another year of speculative fiction award nominees! Grading the Hugo and Nebula nominees in plot, protagonists, villains, inventiveness, and fun — with inventiveness being the most important — seemed to work the last few years, so I thought I would try it again in 2013.

Yes, I know: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson has already won, but I’m going to see this through to the end. The sixth and final nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin:

The Killing Moon coverPlot: Dream magic combined with ancient Egypt! The city of Gujaareh is ruled by its prince, but the priests of Hananja, the goddess of dreams, exert influence equal to or greater than the prince. The greatest of the priests are the Gatherers, who take the lives and “dreamblood” of the hopelessly sick and the corrupt; the dreamblood then can be used to heal. The conflict between the two powers cannot remain in stasis forever, and the prince makes his move against the prelists as he prepares to create a Gujaaran empire.

The plot throws together a pair of Gatherers with an ambassador from the nation the prince seeks to invade; together, they have to survive, spread the word about the coming war, and take down the prince. The plot does not twist very much after it passes the halfway point, and even the first half’s plot surprises are not very surprising. It moves the action along, and it doesn’t fall into buddy-film clichés, but it wasn’t strong enough to keep me from counting how many pages remained until the end. 2 of 5

Protagonists: Jemisin has shown in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Kingdom of the Gods that she likes trios. In those two books, a single protagonist has a deep relationship with two other beings; in Killing Moon, three different protagonists spend time as point-of-view characters. (A few chapters are written from the point of view of characters other than these three, but they aren’t that important.)

Sunandi is an ambassador to the prince’s court in Gujaareh, sent to ferret out Gujaareh’s war preparations. Ehiru is a Gatherer, and Nijiri, his assistant, will soon be a Gatherer himself. Nijiri loves Ehiru, although his love has no physical component because of their vows of celibacy. Ehiru is sent to gather Sunandi, although he quickly determines the accusations of corruption against her are fishy. Nijiri and Sunandi loathe each other.

Readers may have difficulty engaging with Nijiri and Ehiru for what I will call, for lack of a better term, the Jedi Problem. In the Star Wars prequels, the Jedi are supposed to be emotionally balanced and not become attached; this makes them seem bland and too cold for viewers to sympathize with … until things start going wrong with them and the world, and then their emotions are seen as problems. The Gatherers in Killing Moon are much the same: they are efficient warriors and priests until things get difficult, and then their humanity is labeled a weakness. The readers never see Ehiru at his best, and he spends the book an emotional wreck whom everyone expects to snap and kill dozens. Nijiri spends most of the book helplessly worrying about Ehiru. Sunandi, for her part, isn’t saddled with the Jedi Problem, but her time is occupied with staying one step ahead of her killers and being disgusted by the Gatherers’ very existence. She doesn’t display much ingenuity in her escape, calling on contacts she established before Killing Moon’s beginning to smuggle and hide her.

What I’m trying to say is I didn’t care much for the protagonists. Didn’t dislike them, to be fair. But I never warmed to them. 2 of 5

Villains: Killing Moon’s main villain is a power-mad pharaoh — sorry, prince — who is perverting the dream magic for his own ends. This is not an original concept, and while the prince lies smoothly and has a credible chance to reach his evil goals, he never shows the charisma needed to be a truly memorable villain. The prince controls a Reaper, which is a Gatherer who has been perverted by his power. The Reaper is fearsome in combat, but he doesn’t menace the heroes often. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: Killing Moon marks the beginning of a new series for Jemisin, so the book doesn’t borrow on her established canon. The story has two areas in which distinguishes itself in invention: the setting, which is based on ancient Egypt, and the magic system, which is based on dreams. I don’t agree with Jemisin when she says, in her self-conducted interview in the back of the book, that Egypt has been overlooked by Western historians and scientists; in the popular press it certainly has received more attention than some Western civilizations, and the early 20th century did see a big Egyptology boom. But Egypt did flourish a little too early for it to be used often as a fantasy analogue. As for the dream magic … I am leery of any books dealing with dreams, because dreams are always seen as powerful in fantasy, and prophetic dreams are too often used as a crutch by characters and writers. But the characters in Killing Moon aren’t interested in the content of dreams, just that the people in general have them and that the power of these dreams is useful.

Also: Points for the basic assumption of characters’ skin color being black. 7 of 10

Fun: Plenty of euthanasia, executions, and a man losing his mind and soul to an insatiable hunger. Killing Moon isn’t the least fun book I’ve read in a while, but it wasn’t a joy to read, either. A few action sequences increased the ol’ pulse rate, but the novel has no pretentions to romance, and the protagonists rarely have to exercise ingenuity or run a gantlet to get to their goals. 1 of 5

Total: 13 of 30.

So, our final standings for this year:

1. The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan — 18 of 30
2. The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed and Glamour in Glass by Mary Kowal Robinson (tie) — 15
4. The Killing Moon — 13
5. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson — 11
6. Ironskin by Tina Connolly — 10

2312 won, so my opinion is irrelevant, and it’s the second year the book I put at #5 won the Nebula. What do I know? I know what I like. And like Jon Snow, I know nothing.

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2012 Nebula nominee #5: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

12th May. 2013 | 08:11 pm

Here we are again, with another year of speculative fiction award nominees! Grading the Hugo and Nebula nominees in plot, protagonists, villains, inventiveness, and fun — with inventiveness being the most important — seemed to work the last few years, so I thought I would try it again in 2013.

The fifth nominee for the Nebula award for best novel is Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal:

Glamour in Glass coverPlot: Jane Austen Regency characters who can use low-key magic thrown into Napoleonic Europe! In this sequel to 2010 Nebula nominee Shades of Milk and Honey, Jane and her husband, Vincent, travel to Europe after Napoleon’s exile to visit another practitioner of glamour, the magical illusions typically taught to women as part of their regimen of man-snaring arts. While there, Jane has to deal with all manner of troubles: the challenge of storing a spell in glass, the limitations her sex places upon her, her husband’s troubling silences and absences, and the still-present Napoleonic politics.

The plot, unfortunately, is a little slow to unfurl. The first third of the book sets up Jane and Vincent’s honeymoon trip to Belgium and experiments in glamour, and the second third explores developments in Jane’s relationship with her now-distant husband. It isn’t until the last 100 pages that Kowal adds jeopardy and action, with Napoleonic politics rearing its dangerous head. None of the thirds are bad; unfortunately, the middle lacks interest because Jane has little to do, and the story remains within her own head as she worries and frets about her family. I think Glamour would have been much improved if the middle of the story had been distributed throughout the book, as a subplot, while something else drove the narration. Still, each part of the story kept me interested. 3 of 5

Protagonists: Removed from her English countryside, Jane becomes a vastly more interesting character than she was in Shades of Milk and Honey. Working with her husband, Jane develops a bit of professional ambition, and she even a bit of a rivalry with Vincent. She has to confront the limitations having a family will place upon her professionally (pregnant women aren’t supposed to use glamours). No longer can the reader mistake Jane for a bit of Regency frippery (albeit an abnormally intelligent one); Jane confronts questions that vex the modern reader, albeit still in a Regency setting. Kowal also allows Jane to be a hero, and the novel ends on a heartbreaking but believable — almost necessary — note. I still can’t forget Jane’s origins, but she is a far more interesting character in the sequel than in the original. 4 of 5

Villains: Napoleon’s partisans and spies. Their presence doesn’t become evident until the final third of the story, which is too late to build much menace. The main spy isn’t condemned as much as he / she should be, and the Napoleonic partisans are almost cartoonish in their villainy. Zut alors! 1 of 5

Inventiveness: I didn’t think Shades was that inventive. While I don’t find the explorations of glamour’s implications — can it be recorded? what happens to a pregnant woman who tries to weave glamour? — that interesting, Kowal’s exploration of areas that Austen didn’t touch on as much are interesting. Glamour‘s delving into Napoleonic Belgium, pregnancy, and a woman’s professional ambition all suggest more imagination than Shades‘s tale of courtship and sisters in the well-off English countryside.

On the other hand, it’s a sequel to a book that welded together Austen and illusions, so it’s not going to blow your mind or strain your mental energies like Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren or anything. 3 of 10

Fun: On the other hand, Glamour is never impenetrable or a chore to read, unlike Dhalgren or 2312, which I read immediately before Glamour. I think that sequence in my reading list made Glamour feel far more fun than I expected; reading 2312 was like driving uphill in low gear with the parking brake on, while Glamour was like hitting the top of the hill, popping the parking brake, and shifting through the gears while roaring downhill.

I didn’t find Shades that fun, but in Glamour, Kowal backs off on the archaic (but Regency-appropriate) spellings and allows herself to venture beyond the strictly Austenian surroundings of the first book. It makes all the difference. Jane is unapologetically more modern, and the novel makes the development believable. I may not have found Napoleon’s followers compelling villains, but that doesn’t make the heroes’ struggle against them less exciting; I even found the magical experimentation interesting. Vincent is a bit of a dope, and the distance between him and Jane is occasionally tiresome, but I admit I found Glamour unexpectedly compelling. 4 of 5

Total: 15 of 30. Shockingly high; with only one book to go, Glamour is tied for second with Throne of the Crescent Moon

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