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2014 Nebulas: Compare!

6th Jun. 2015 | 03:36 pm

I have to admit, I am disappointed with this year’s crop of Nebula nominees.

I made the decision not to break down the books by facet and give them ratings this year on a whim. I decided I wanted the freedom for my little posts to go wherever they led when I wrote them, but as it turned out, I used the old rating system as a guide for what to write about anyway. So the freedom thing didn’t work out that much.

Still, I’m glad I didn’t use a rating system this year, as I think it would have looked as if I was recommending one book more enthusiastically than the others. Let me be clear: this year, no book clearly stood out among the nominees, either as a winner or as a book I will remember in a few years. No book made an impression like Ancillary Justice and The Ocean at the End of the Lane last year; no book unexpectedly electrified me like The Drowning Girl two years ago or God’s War three years ago.

I was (and remain) puzzled why Coming Home by Jack McDevitt and Trial by Fire by Charles E. Gannon were nominated. The former was an enjoyable enough book, and the latter represents a subgenre that perhaps does not get all the respect it deserves, but I saw nothing that truly elevated them above the mass of books released last year. Each of them was a series book, which sapped their ability to surprise and innovate; neither of them said anything surprising.

Rationales for the other books are easier to construct. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie is a sequel to last year’s Nebula and Hugo winner. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is the first English language release by one of China’s most prominent science fiction authors, and the novelty (and fresh viewpoint) of a major Chinese science fiction release is compelling. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer is atmospheric and well written. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is … “hopeful” and conflict averse, which I must admit is novel — fiction is often supposed to be about conflict, yet Addison put together a novel that avoids it as much as possible.

But each of these have flaws — deep flaws, to be honest. Ancillary Justice and Annihilation suffer from being merely a part of a larger story; the latter because the story doesn’t advance enough and its consequences are seemingly so much less than the first book in the series, and the latter because it is too obviously only part of the story, which given the book’s length (only 195 pages) feels like a cheat. The Three-Body Problem’s antagonists are goofier than they are menacing, and readers are subjected to the world’s worst MMORPG (that most people are uninterested is mentioned in the book, though). The protagonist in The Goblin Emperor hopes, and does little else.

If I had to choose one of these nominees to win award, it would be Annihilation. It was the only book that made me feel anything other than annoyance, and its brevity never let me get tired of reading it. Its concept was fresher and stronger than any of the other books’. The unsatisfying ending is mitigated by the other two books in the trilogy being released within months (although that mitigation is, itself, unsatisfying when considering Annihilation’s merits).

If I had to guess which book would win the award, I would say the best bets are Ancillary Justice, riding on the goodwill, praise, and excitement of last year, or The Three-Body Problem, because of its novelty. I lean more toward Three-Body, in part because sci-fi literary heavyweight Ken Liu did the translation and in part because it’s more likely its excellence lies in my blind spot. It is possible I am missing some crucial element that makes Three-Body so widely praised; perhaps I cannot get beyond my own preconceptions and see its true merits. I do not know. I cannot see outside myself.

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2014 Nebula nominee #6: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

6th Jun. 2015 | 03:30 pm

Annihilation coverThe last of the Nebula nominees is actually the first that I read: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

Annihilation, the first book in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, follows four women sent to explore the bizarre Area X, a wild region that has a habit of destroying expeditions, although not through direct attacks. The unnamed narrator in Annihilation is part of the twelfth expedition into Area X … or that’s what she’s been told, anyway.

VanderMeer is aiming for creepy suspense, and he hits the mark. The biologist — the narrator is referred to only by her role, never by name — discovers the team leader, the psychologist, can control members of the team by post-hypnotic suggestion. Not her, though, which she surmises is because she inhaled a cloud of spores just after arriving in Area X — not exactly a reassuring immunity. The group also finds a shaft into the earth, which the biologist insists on calling a tower, for reasons even she does not understand; on the walls of the tower are written a rambling sentence in fungus. At the bottom is the creature writing the message, its intentions unclear. At a distant lighthouse, the biologist finds evidence that the Southern Reach, the corporation that sent her into Area X, has been lying to her about the history of Area X and the reason for exploring it. Between the lighthouse and tower are strange, somewhat human animals.

So: paranoia and danger abound.

The book’s main flaw is that it is too obviously the beginning of a trilogy. Annihilation ends with the biologist resolving to stay in Area X, but nothing is resolved about her journey or about the nature of Area X; the only closure is that the so-called twelfth expedition has ended. VanderMeer can’t reveal too much of the mystery; after all, the trilogy still has two more books to go. Still, I expected more to the ending than the unnamed biologist’s decision to roam the haunted Area X.

The lack of closure would be less unsatisfying if I felt much of a connection with the protagonist. However, there is not much to her. The narrator becomes withdrawn after her exposure to the spores; she is placid, almost stoned, at times when danger surrounds her. That and her anonymity makes it difficult to identify with the character and lessens the impact of her personal revelations. Who was she before she came to Area X? She has a deep interest in biology and she had a husband, who was on the previous expedition and came to a strange end. The biologist finds some answers about her husband, but she’s left with more supposition about him. Many of the book’s flashbacks go into their relationship, but I found it hard to sympathize with the relationship of unnamed reserved woman and outgoing unnamed man. (At least, I suppose, we did learn they were of different genders.)

This is not the first time VanderMeer has used fungus to frighten or give an alien feeling to his books. The antagonists in VanderMeer’s Ambergris books — City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch — all have a race of humanoid fungi as antagonists. In Finch, they have conquered Ambergris, and the entire city relies on unsettling fungoid technology: weapons, communications, even food are based on fungi. Still, fungi is a well that is not often gone to in other speculative fiction; even malevolent insects, I think, are used more often in science fiction / fantasy entertainment than fungus. That’s a shame, because fungi such as black mold are health problems in the real world, and playing off that fear would make for great fiction.

Despite what I perceived as flaws, Annihilation did leave me wanting answers, so it’s a success on that level. And with two more books in the series, that’s probably the best recommendation of Annihilation.

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2014 Nebula nominee #5: Trial by Fire by Charles E. Gannon

6th Jun. 2015 | 12:40 am

Trial by Fire coverIn Charles E. Gannon’s Fire with Fire, a Nebula nominee from last year, the world’s most perceptive man, Caine Riordan, talked with aliens, some of whom were hostile toward humans. At the end of Fire with Fire, humanity has been denied entrance to the very small alien United Nations, and dark times are prophesied.

In Trial by Fire, those dark times come to pass: In 2119, two races of aliens invade Earth for semi-mysterious reasons, setting up an occupation in Indonesia after brushing aside Earth’s space defenses. Riordan is still the main character in Trial, which is set mainly on Earth, but Gannon spends a lot of time with other (mostly military) viewpoint characters.

And that’s a relief, really. Trial by Fire is a modern take on a traditional military sci-fi book, and Riordan is not a soldier; he’s an analyst. His inexperience would interfere with what Gannon is trying to do in Trial: explain military sci-fi things. Weapons are described in loving detail. Ships … ships are not described in loving detail, although Gannon is sure to make sure we know there are a lot of different kinds of ships and drones. (He’s less clear on the different Earth factions that control these ships.) Physics is taken as seriously as I take baseball, although to be fair, Gannon doesn’t spend as much time explaining physics as I spend watching baseball in a week. (It’s a closer race than either of us would be comfortable with, I think.) Inferences based on evanescent data points are spun out into pages-long explanations about their meanings, which lead quickly into plans to exploit these conclusions. Military plans are … look, I hate using “porn” as a descriptor of non-sexual content more than anyone, but this is plan porn.

Holy God, sometimes I think half the book is taken up by describing the far-seeing, far-reaching plan that humans are using to destroy the invaders. No part of the plan is skipped; we even get a scene aboard freighters firing missiles — missiles whose only purpose is to confuse and harry the enemy anti-missile defense system. (That is, the missiles aren’t expected to do any damage.) The book is filled with leading questions, “Explain”s, “Huh?”s, and all manner of attempts by one character to elicit explication from another. Even when it is not in a queried character’s best interest, he or she feels compelled to answer, and answer in detail. The details! Often irrelevant, they are larded into the narrative so that no one can ever say, “I don’t understand,” without the author or someone else being able to say, “It’s clearly explained on pg. [x].” Gannon’s idea of subtlety is wrapping a brick in a thick, woolen sock before smashing someone in the head with it, over and over again.

As an example of what I mean: at one point an Australian soldier asks what a group American soldiers is doing in a part of Indonesia far from the main insurgency. The American officer responds — and I swear this is true — with an irrelevant three-page travelogue of how they got to the jungles of Indonesia. The character doesn’t even answer the question, but he takes three damn pages to do it. (Pages 286-8 in the TPB version, if you’re playing along at home.)

The aliens in Trial are defeated in part by an Indonesian insurgency supplied and often directed by other nations and by a dead spymaster’s long-term plan. Mostly they are defeated by ethics, the same sort of ethics that allow asymmetrical war to exist at all. That is, if these fearsome invaders were willing to venture upon genocide, then humanity could not have done anything about it. But by restricting themselves to the Indonesian battlefield and not taking hostages or choosing human targets indiscriminately, the invaders gave themselves a huge disadvantage — one the humans did not share, as they showed themselves more than willing to nuke Indonesia to win.

So the invaders’ morals (and fear of the consequences of genocide) make them vulnerable long enough for humanity to defeat them. What is the plan? Let the aliens think they’ve defeated humanity so completely that occupy Earth (or part of it) and split their fleet. Then take the ships the aliens thought they destroyed — what was really destroyed were half-completed decoys — and come back to attack months after the invasion, after the insurgency has sapped the ground-based forces. As the space battle is set to begin, the humans marshal all the assets and materiel they have stockpiled and begin a huge assault on the aliens’ landward assets.

It’s not a bad plan. It seems somewhat wasteful, though, substituting pre-war production capacity for actual inventiveness. And if I’m an Indonesian, I have a hearty “fuck you” in store for my fellow Earthicans after everything is over. Doubly so if I ever learn about the willingness to nuke Jakarta.

Trial by Fire is a book that would fit in well with Brad Torgersen’s Sad Puppies slate, and indeed, it is listed among the preferred Best Novel nominees. (It didn’t get a Hugo nomination because unlike Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars, Marko Kloos’s Lines of Departure, and Jim Butcher’s Skin Game, it was not also a part of Theodore Beale’s Rabid Puppies slate — something I will not link to.) Not only is it very earnest about its subgenre, and very clear about what that subgenre is, it’s a manly book, with traditional gender roles, and women are mostly in the background. Women are also very easily impregnated: The book has two supporting female characters, both of whom have been accidentally impregnated by the protagonist after relatively brief relationship. (Birth control 100 years from now is, evidently, nonexistent.)

I will not lie: I wanted so much to give up on this book. So, so much. It was the last of the Nebula nominees I had to read, but I still stopped reading for a week after page 50. I could not imagine putting up with the lumpen exposition, technical descriptions, and uninspiring prose for 550 more pages. But I did make it, it wasn’t as hard as I thought, and I am fairly ashamed that I thought of giving up — not that I’m ashamed of giving up but of entertaining such a rational thought on a project that is, after all, a waste of my time.

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2015 Hugo nominee #3 and 2014 Nebula nominee #4: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

5th Jun. 2015 | 05:37 pm

The Goblin Emperor coverIf the previous nominees that I have discussed seemed to have few action sequences, they seem like thrillers compared to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor.

Maia, the emperor’s fourth son, has spent his entire life exiled from the court because he is half goblin. (There seems to be little difference between elves and goblins other than skin and usual eye color.) When an air crash kills his father and three older half-brothers, Maia becomes the eponymous emperor. His guardian (and frequent abuser) makes sure he gets to the capital before his father’s chancellor can make Maia dance completely to his tune. From there, Maia struggles to … struggles to …

Hmm. To be the best darn emperor he can, I suppose.

A reader’s opinion of the book will likely depend on their opinion of the eponymous emperor. Maia is certainly good-hearted, a young man who embodies all the progressive virtues for his culture: he believes women should be able to be something other than mothers and wives; he treats all people, regardless of economic or caste status, as worthy of respect for what they do; he is not repulsed by homosexuality; unsurprisingly, he doesn’t believe in elven superiority or racial purity. He doesn’t have a prurient bone in his body. Maia seems almost impossibly without flaws —well, except for his passivity and timidity, as Maia seems to be unable to get on top of either the machinations of the elven court or his extreme lack of policy knowledge.

What does Maia want? Well, he wants to never see his abusive guardian again, which he eventually manages. He wants some privacy, which as an emperor is impossible. He wants to not be emperor, which he also can’t achieve. As for personal aspirations — he doesn’t have any. Maia’s a bit of a directionless mope, really.

Many of the reviews of Emperor have noted its hopeful tone. It is a hopeful book, and it is inarguable that Maia’s empire is much better at the end of book than it is at the beginning. But it’s also true that most of what Maia accomplishes is by hoping; his non-personal, non-carnal desires come true because of the respect given to his office. Maia makes few choices of his own, and the few times he is in trouble, he is saved by others. He makes one policy choice, which turns out well, but for most of the book, he’s floundering to understand what’s going on. In a normal book, the emperor would make heroic strides to rectify his ignorance, but Maia is not up to that task. His best act is one made blindly: he appoints as his secretary the courier who delivered the news that his father is dead, and Csevet turns out to be a supremely skilled personal secretary. On the other hand, Maia had no other candidates, so that’s attributable to luck rather than any evaluative skill.

If Csevet had an ounce of corruption in him, or any desire to foil Maia’s aims, Maia would have been doomed. In many ways, Csevet is the hero of the book, the one doing all the work: Archie Goodwin to Maia’s ignorant but lightweight Nero Wolfe. We learn little about Csevet, however.

The book seems to be saying Maia’s passivity is better read as a restraint of his own power, and that and his real concern for those around him allow the good people in his service to flourish and make the empire better. I am too cynical for that message to have any resonance with me. In a slightly more ruthless age, Maia would be utterly annihilated by his court and nobles. Perhaps it’s better to ask if we live in a more ruthless age; it certainly seems like we have the same sort of respect for the institutions of law and order as the elves, making the lessons Maia learns applicable for today.

Still, the message comes across as, “Wish, and it shall be so.” This may be true for an emperor, but the rest of us who wish for something and work toward it with the same dedication as Maia will find ourselves with little. (My father had a crude saying about comparing the product of hoping to elimination, and asking which one produced more concrete results, that I find relevant here.)

The villains in Emperor seem like credible threats, but given how easily they are defeated, I can’t say they are impressive. Maia survives a coup attempt because he and his nephew, whom the conspirators want to put on the throne, stall long enough for Maia’s personal guard to arrive. The book gives no indication the conspirators put much thought into their plan after abducting the emperor, which given how powerful the conspirators were, seems asinine.

Another attempt made on Maia’s life is the equivalent of a lone gunman, a single person striking out against the emperor; however, this loner was actually the head of the conspiracy that killed Maia’s father. So this man was able to think long term and put together an intricate plot that successfully removed the previous emperor without any obvious links to himself, but he can’t figure out how to get rid of the vulnerable new emperor except to pick up a knife and try to stab him before the emperor’s bodyguards get him. That’s … that’s not really consistent, no matter how much you try to say the man’s frustrations unhinged his mind.

The Goblin Emperor throws unfamiliar and barely explained names at the reader in an assault that does not let up. I suppose this should make us sympathize with Maia, who is similarly thrown into a world in which he knows none of the names, and the reader at least gets a glossary of names at the end to help out. (Not expecting there to be such an aid — it’s not listed in the table of contents — I had read half the book before I knew it was there.) On the other hand, Maia does know what the titles and honorifics are, and these are not listed in the glossary. They are listed in another section at the end of the book, although not exhaustively, and none of the honorifics that are added after the person’s name are mentioned in either spot. Finding the names can be difficult as well, as there’s no cross-references for characters that are usually referred to by one name; for instance, I looked in this glossary for Csevet, to double check on some biographical details, and he’s not listed under that name. He has a surname, but it rarely was mentioned, so I have no way of finding it.

Whatever the reason for this onslaught of the unfamiliar, it’s difficult to read a book when you’re stopping every five pages and asking, “Who the grawlix is this guy?” Perhaps it’s me; perhaps I’m getting old, and my brain is insufficiently flexible to take in so much. I don’t think so, though.

It’s rare to see a book that requires so little from its protagonist. Most fantasy books would see Maia do something to defend his crown or policies — leading men toward a battle, a rousing speech, even fleeing. The Goblin Emperor is entirely about governance: continuity, the importance of a light hand in policy, and responsiveness to the citizens. That's a nice message, but I don’t think I needed to read a 500-page book to get it.

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2015 Hugo nominee #2 and 2014 Nebula nominee #3: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

5th Jun. 2015 | 04:49 pm

Three-Body Problem cover The Three-Body Problem begins during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Author Cixin Liu shows readers a China that is alien to modern readers, a China in which intellectuals are punished for thoughts that ordinary in their fields but deemed reactionary by the government. Despite being drawn from real-world history, the persecution of Ye Zhitai and his daughter Wenjie is bizarre, almost unimaginable for modern Americans (and probably for many young urban Chinese). The prologue ends with Wenjie, slightly rehabilitated by the harsh environment and her punishment, ushered into the Chinese military’s version of SETI.

This opening gives the reader a setting both relatable and strange, with a strong science foundation. But it’s interesting to see how quickly the narrative flees from that. After the first 50 pages, Liu places his story in a modern-day China that is not that different from a Western setting. Nanomaterials engineer Wang Miao is summoned by the Chinese military to help explain the rash of suicides among cutting-edge scientists. Wang has no real explanation for the deaths or the strange results uncovered at particle accelerators around the world. Wang is then asked to infiltrate a worldwide scientific group, Frontiers of Science. In his dabblings in the world of the Frontiers of Science, he discovers the Three Body video game.

Wang is a colorless protagonist. He is an accomplished engineer with a wife and child, but his family (and Wang’s thoughts of them) disappear almost immediately. His work life is mentioned for the last time soon after he starts playing Three Body. Wang comes under assault from strange forces early on, and Liu communicates Wang’s fear and desperation in a way that makes him sympathetic. But once that threat is over, Wang never experiences any jeopardy, and the reader loses a great deal of empathy for him. Instead, Wang spends most of his time in the Three Body game.

The use of the Three Body video game is a mistake, I think. First, it’s not a very good video game; I can’t imagine who would want to play a game in which you play for subjective months (and probably objective hours) and wait to see if one person’s guess about the nature of planetary motion is correct. Second, this boring MMORPG is pretty much the opposite of science fiction — it’s an attempt to learn about science fact. And thirdly, it’s meant to introduce people and readers to aliens, but it makes the aliens seem cartoonish — they’re reduced to anachronistic avatars and seemingly silly computer mechanics.

Police Captain Shi Qiang is a much stronger personality and thinker than Wang (or anyone else in the book). Clever, possibly corrupt, and occasionally vicious, Shi is the only character who defeats the aliens and their human quislings either physically or intellectually. It’s a shame we can’t see more of him; I would trade all the sections on Three Body for one on Da Shi.

The villains of the piece are the aliens’ collaborators, but they don’t seem to do much, nor do they menace Wang or Shi. The villains have developed a schism, which results in one death and one attempted murder among the villains, but not much else happens. Readers barely even meet the leader of the genocidal group of collaborators, and he’s dispensed with before he can do any real damage.

Liu also spends very little time developing the aliens, whom he calls Trisolarians (from their planet’s three suns); I think he spends more time recounting their attempts to fold a nine-dimensional proton into two dimensions than in showing Trisolarian society. We learn that its civilization is astoundingly stable for a world in which its entire society is destroyed periodically by approaching too close to one of its three suns (or being too far from all three). The Trisolarians can dehydrate to enter suspended animation and can be later be rehydrated; they are more technologically advanced than humanity; and they are looking for a stable world to conquer and colonize. But that’s astronomical and biological information; the readers meet two Trisolarians — one who has compassion for humanity and is unsure whether Trisolarians should survive, and the Princeps, who is willing to destroy humanity for his people. Not exactly a great range, although it could be worse.

Three-Body Problem is an intellectual book, or at least it seems it is. It has little action outside the Three Body game. The book turns on one decision, told in flashback. Liu constructs one moment of suspense; it turns on a clever use of nanomaterials, but it lacks much excitement. The entire book is a fait accompli, with very few choices and a low-key tone that drains what little suspense the book has from the pages.

Three-Body Problem is translated by American author Ken Liu. Liu fills the book with helpful footnotes. The best thing a reader can say about a translation is that it’s unnoticeable that it’s translated, but Liu makes the deliberate choice to keep some of the features of the Chinese text — the dialogue, for instance, sounds stilted in English rather than fluid. I understand and respect that choice, but combined with the lack of action, the unimpressive video game, and colorless characters, it makes the book feel stiffer and duller than it perhaps is.

I don’t think Three-Body Problem is the best of the Nebula or Hugo nominees this year, but none of them are so overpowering that I can eliminate Problem as a possible victor. If voters are looking for a different perspective and voice, they might turn to this book. I just don’t see it as compellingly different, though.

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2014 Nebula nominee #2: Coming Home by Jack McDevitt

4th Jun. 2015 | 04:14 am

Coming Home coverI don’t understand why Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series keeps getting nominated for Nebula Best Novel awards. Not that I don’t understand why readers enjoy the series; each of the books I’ve read in the series has been enjoyable. But McDevitt is not an incomparable prose stylist; after so many books, McDevitt is certainly not a fresh new voice; there is little in these books to suggest McDevitt’s viewpoint is unique.

Despite being set millennia in the future on a far-distant planet, McDevitt’s series is firmly anchored in the present. Women take their husband’s names. The nuclear family is still strong. Religion and talk shows are an omnipresent facet of daily life. Except for better ground transportation and spaceships, Coming Home, the ninth book in the Benedict series, could almost have been set in the present day.

In Coming Home, Benedict and his assistant / narrator, Chase Kolpath, are searching for the lost artifacts of Earth’s space exploration days. A former client brings a genuine artifact from that era to Benedict, the result of her grandfather’s archaeological efforts. Where are the other artifacts? If her grandfather found no more, why did he just give up, despondent, almost a decade before his death?

While Benedict and Kolpath are trying to figure that out, unraveling the chaos of Earth’s mid to late third millennium, they also are waiting for the cruise ship carrying Benedict’s uncle, which disappeared in warp space more than two decades before. It will re-emerge for ten or so hours, but the evacuation is chancy — not everyone can be unloaded from the ship this time, and stopping the ship’s engines could doom everyone. Although Kolpath and Benedict have a close-up view and a personal stake in this operation, they don’t actually do much during it.

Benedict and Kolpath are likeable protagonists, with a detective / assistant dynamic that fits their mission: to find antiquities. The story has little derring-do or moments of real emotional impact for readers who have not had a long-term investment in the series. Most of the protagonists’ time is spent waiting or doing research; Benedict and Kolpath realistically have to pore through old sources to search for the artifacts’ location and conduct unfruitful interviews to get leads. (Still, Kolpath manages to fit in a personal life, one not out of line with what we might expect for a professional woman in 2015.) Neither is a core part of the rescue efforts for the cruise ship. McDevitt does try to spice up the rescue mission with a few peripheral moments of peril, but it’s not enough to inject the excitement the book too often needs. To be fair, McDevitt does include an effectively creepy scene in which Kolpath explores a cold, dead ship — one she’d seen disappear with a couple of friends only hours before — but she leaves the ship before stumbling across anything horrible or getting any answers. Those answers are delivered to her later.

The villains are … are not that effective. Physics is the most implacable antagonist, but it’s not a compelling one. (It is effectively defeated, off the page, by a character mentioned a few times but never met by the readers.) The human villains are literally blocking figures, able only to slow the protagonists because they are unwilling to stop them. These antagonists aren’t trying to be lethal, but the extent of their villainy is still underwhelming: lies, deception, (implied) insurance fraud … They are very sorry about what they have done, when they are caught. They merely wanted to protect an old colleague’s reputation. Is that so wrong? No. But they draw out the experience to fill out their half of a 350-page book.

There is almost nothing new in Coming Home. (As perhaps a sop to those who think the future might not be so much like the present, McDevitt does add a household of three lesbians living on an asteroid. That’s out of character for this series.) There is little excitement, little innovation, little unexpected insight. Again, I can understand the appeal of the series. I still can’t understand the Nebula nominations, though. Is it the understated nature? Is because the books fill the untapped niche of the sci-fi mystery? I just don’t get it. Somebody please help me.

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2015 Hugo and 2014 Nebula nominee #1: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

4th Jun. 2015 | 04:00 am

Ancillary Sword coverAncillary Sword has a hugely different tone than its predecessor, the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Ancillary Justice. The latter book was concerned with huge emotion and actions: revenge, assassination of an emperor, personhood, and a hidden civil war. Even when the protagonist, Breq, was wandering around an ice planet, preparing for her vengeance, everything felt portentous. In Sword, author Ann Leckie feels like she’s moving pieces around in preparation for the trilogy’s third book while attempting to give readers a story that will distract them from the low stakes.

The emperor — one of the emperors, that is — sends Breq, a former ship AI in a human body, as a fleet admiral to an out-of-the-way planetary system. Breq doesn’t mind the obscure posting; she’s not keen on fighting for the emperor (or any emperor), and the posting will allow Breq to meet and make supportive overtures to the sister of Lt. Awn, one of Breq’s favorite (and last) lieutenants from her ship days. Awn’s sister, Basnaaid, isn’t keen on taking funds or being granted vassalage by Breq, both because of the obligations (even though Breq insists Basnaaid wouldn’t owe her anything) and because of the appearance of subservience, both societal and sexual, those create.

So Breq spends her time righting wrongs. She cleans up the abandoned parts of the space station orbiting the planet, helping the squatters there — for are they not citizens as well? She tries to shield people from the abusive and overprivileged daughter of a powerful merchant and attempts to restore dignity to some of the planet’s common laborers and political dissidents. She keeps an eye on the small fleet she is nominally in command of.

If you think that’s a big comedown from the character who swaggered through Justice with an undetectable, unstoppable alien gun on a mission of killing the most powerful person in the empire, you’re not wrong.

Many of the facets that made Justice so fresh and appealing are still present in Sword: the genderless society; the ideas of personhood, both for a sentient ship and for the human shells it inhabits; the emperor’s ruthless attempts to cheat mortality, and the problems that causes. Sword hits personhood hardest, with Breq longing for the senses and information being a ship gave her and lamenting the limitations of her current body. Her concern for another ship’s ancillary — the human bodies ships can inhabit — is as touching to readers as it is bewildering to other characters.

But Leckie doesn’t add anything to replace or reframe those novel facets. Leckie hints that the villains in Sword — the feckless tea merchant and her class, the nearly cooperative captain who is Breq’s highest-ranking underling, the Presger (an immensely powerful alien race), the other faction of clone emperors — are involved in something more corrupt and intricate than a smoldering, secret civil war. But what that is will have to wait for the third book, Ancillary Mercy. They don’t pose much of a threat to Breq personally or to her ship, though, which makes them less than satisfying adversaries.

Breq’s campaign against local evils is satisfying, as far as it goes. We root for Breq in part because those who oppose her are so obviously wrong, unlikeable and venial and usually racist (or classist). But despite her power — her rank makes her the most powerful person in the planetary system — her victories are small and gradual. She effects no sweeping change, partially because she would have to invest too much to do that; she doesn’t risk too much of herself, spending only the excess power that she skims off the top of her duties. She’s focused on her own concerns, which mostly center around Basnaaid and Tisarwat, Breq’s lieutenant who is enamored of Basnaaid.

Sword continues the story of Breq and her world, and that gives readers a kind of enjoyment all its own. However, readers’ overall satisfaction with Sword — apart from any anticipation it builds for the conclusion of the trilogy — will most likely be wrapped up in how much pleasure they get from Breq redressing the ills of the planet she oversees.

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13th Mar. 2015 | 01:53 am

A muleSo, just a word of advice: if you are shipping anything in the U.S. mail, do not use standard post. Sure, it saves a buck or two when you get up to the window at the post office, but you could save almost as much by buying Priority Mail postage online, through PayPal, the USPS web site, or eBay (if you sold the item on eBay).

Standard post is awful. I've compared media mail to tying the package onto the back of a government mule, but the price really is unbeatable, especially as the packages get heavier. Standard post — which used to be called parcel post — is only a little bit cheaper than Priority Mail, and it is much slower than the three-day delivery time that Priority Mail promises. The delivery time for standard post is what you get when you tie the package onto the back of the speediest government mules. There's really no excuse for the mule abuse, especially with flat-rate shipping.

Plus Priority Mail gives you automatic $50 of insurance on the package, which will be useful when that quick government mule falls into a gully, breaks a leg, and is eaten by a coyote. If you're shipping me something I bought, you won't be out the entire purchase price when you have to give me a complete refund.

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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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