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2018 Hugo nominee #6: Provenance by Ann Leckie

18th Aug. 2018 | 03:04 am

Provenance coverThe sixth and final nominee for the Hugo Award for best novel is Provenance by Ann Leckie:

What is this book about? Ingray Aughskold, the adopted daughter of an influential politician, makes a desperate bid for her mother’s affection (and to be named her mother’s heir over her charismatic brother). Ingray pays more than everything she has to have a notorious criminal sprung from Space Prison, then hopes to use his knowledge of the theft of important cultural artifacts to be a hero. Or run a confidence game. Or something else — she hasn’t really thought that far ahead. But when the man she frees claims to be someone else, her plans are ruined, and she keeps getting involved in complications: She engages a trip home on a ship that an alien diplomat claims is stolen, and when she gets home, an archaeologist from another planet is killed while enjoying her mother’s hospitality. An investigation ensues, followed by the alien ambassador looking for his ships …

Why was this book nominated? Leckie’s first three books — Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Mercy, and Ancillary Sword — were all nominated for the best novel Hugo. Provenance is set in the same universe, although it’s in a far-away part of space. (However, Provenance lacks the narrative distinctiveness and impact of the Ancillary books.) I’m assuming Ingray’s struggle to belong to her adoptive family and prove herself touched some receptive nerves, though I felt nary a tingle.

Is this book enjoyable to read? For the most part, yes. Ingray is a sympathetic narrator, and she keeps the story moving. The book never — never! — dwells on anything too long, avoiding the plot and character cul-de-sacs that so often weigh down a book convinced of its own self-importance. Leckie’s style is breezy but manages to summon more weight when its necessary.

Where does this book succeed? Provenance works best when it reminds us that it’s set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary books. The Radch embassador is the funniest character in the book, in part because she is so discomfited by her non-Radch surroundings and because we know what the Radch are like most of the time. The Geck are intriguing, and I’m caught between wishing we learned more about them and worrying that more explanations would ruin their mystique.

Where does it fail? Boy. As pleasant as this book is to go through, the book has a lot of details that could have been fleshed out into an entire novel, and because those get shunted to the side, the book feels aimless. The artifacts Pahlad, the “thief” Ingray freed, supposedly stole weren’t stolen and replaced with fakes; instead, Pahlad reveals they were always fakes. This should be a major plot point, but it’s shunted to the side. The murder plot should be incredibly important, but Ingray decides who did it about halfway through, and that’s left in the background. The possibility that the media will discover Ingray’s family’s misdeeds hangs over the narrative, but it never comes to fruition — frankly, the press seems toothless, even though that’s not what is implied. The Geck’s interference is resolved with a minimum of complications. Even a romance plot is tepid and underdone.

Ingray’s position as an orphan from a public crèche makes her wonder about her position and future legitimacy as an Aughskold, and there is an inverted parallel in the most cherished Hwaean cultural artifacts being fakes. But even though the main plot and the subplots are perfunctory, the book doesn’t spend enough time on Ingray’s familial or internal struggles or the parallel with the Hwaean obsession with souvenirs of notable events. We’re told Ingray’s attempt to free Pahlad is a result of her need to unseat her brother as her mother’s favorite, but all her preparations happen before the book begins, and we are rarely shown any of Ingray’s actions that demonstrate her intense need to establish her place in the family. Not making Ingray interested in those souvenirs — called “vestiges” — makes it harder for the reader to understand the Hwaean obsession with them or why anyone would think a government could be convinced to give up major concessions for their return. I mean, if Russians stole the Declaration of Independence and Liberty Bell, then asked for access to invade Canada for their return, I’d hope we’d tell them to go to hell. (Although with the current White House …)

The final set piece makes little sense. It’s never explained how Ingray escapes her Public Safety escort to offer herself as a hostage in exchange for all the children held. Although I understood why the Omkem released the children, I have no idea why they blithely let Ingray’s mother go as well, given her prominence. The Omkem plan doesn’t make any sense whatsoever; holding the First Assembly and the Hwae vestiges hostage would have gained them a momentary advantage, but it wouldn’t have lasted long enough to gain what they wanted. And their backup plan, which involved making their tool Prolocutor Budrakim look like a heroic hostage negotiator, wouldn’t have helped them in the long run; it would be hard for him to argue for Omkem interests when the Omkem had just launched an attack on a Hwae base.

What larger issues does this book address? Ingray has some anxiety about her place in the family, not only because of her adoption but because her mother is emotionally distant and because Ingray was adopted from a public orphanage. There’s a lot to unpack there — belonging, the notion of family, economic inequality — but Leckie doesn’t delve deeply into any of them. (Or possibly she is too subtle for me.) Similarly, the fake vestiges and the near theft of the most important Hwaean vestiges raises the question of who a people are if their artifacts are more props than historically accurate, but that question gets brushed away pretty quickly.

Does this book have a chance of winning the award? Oh, I don’t think so, but there are more inexplicable choices among the nominees, so it’s not impossible.

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2018 Hugo nominee #5: 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

17th Aug. 2018 | 07:05 pm

New York 2140 cover The fifth nominee for the Hugo award for best novel is New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson:

What is this book about? By 2140, the world has experienced two massive increases in sea level as a result of climate change, with the new sea levels about 50 feet higher than in our day. New York continues to function like New York: a population center and a center of high finance, a cith that people flock to for reasons that elude me but I’m sure every inhabitant would try to lecture me about at length.

New York 2140 follows nine New Yorkers — of the future! — as they go about their day-to-day lives. Homeless orphans Roberto and Stefano hunt for the gold-laden Revolutionary War wreck of the HMS Hussar, with help from their elderly friend, Mr. Hexter; Mutt and Jeff (really) are Wall Street quants kidnapped for their attempts to treat late-stage capitalism as a computer bug; Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir investigates their disappearance occasionally; Charlotte Armstrong works with refugees and the homeless and brings Mutt and Jeff’s disappearance to the police’s attention; Franklin Garr works for a Wall Street hedge fund; Vlade runs the Met Life building, which Mutt and Jeff disappeared from (and the others live in); and Amelia Black hosts a popular wildlife show — the popularity is aided by the proclivity of her clothes to suddenly go missing — from her blimp. The disappearance of Mutt and Jeff is somehow related to sabotage of the Met Life building and a mysterious attempt to buy the building from its residents, which should be the inciting incidents that spur 2140’s action, but the missing quants are found almost accidentally halfway through the book, and a massive hurricane, rather than anything the characters do, puts the kibosh on the skullduggery around the Met Life building.

People spend a lot of time living their lives in a half-flooded city, is what I’m saying.

Why was this book nominated? Because it was written by Kim Stanley Robinson, I’m guessing. Also because it deals with the consequences of the massive buildup of greenhouse gasses that we’re enjoying right now. Otherwise, I’ve got nothing.

No, that’s not precisely true: Because it deals with a radically different New York that feels not so different. The idea of a flooded New York continuing on, more or less the same, with streets and taxis transformed into canals and water taxis, sounds intriguing, but in actuality, this “SuperVenice” never feels unique; it feels like life has gone on without a radical transformation. That, most likely, is Robinson’s point: life will go on, with people putting one foot in front of another until the end (or making one swimming stroke after another), and unless they are forced to make a drastic change in the way they live, they won’t. He is — again, most likely — right, but that doesn’t make the resulting 2140 a rewarding read (see below).

Is this book enjoyable to read? No. It isn’t difficult to read, but Robinson has put the book through a highly technical process called tension extraction, and while I admire his dedication to the process, it leaves a book that has no real stakes or complications or danger. When a hurricane with huge storm swells hits Manhattan, the Met Life building is fine, and most of the characters are safely sheltered; the two that are not appear back at the building a day or two after the hurricane with little explanation. (I mean, I didn’t want to read about their ordeal, as I was sure I’d be bored, so I shouldn’t complain.) Life after the hurricane, in a New York hit by shortages — especially in housing — does not change for the viewpoint characters in 2140. The search for and the eventual salvage of billions in gold from the Hussar does not change anyone’s life. One character running for the House of Representatives is presented in the most low-key way possible. The buy-out attempt and the building sabotage plots peter out. Even two characters being kidnapped and renditioned somewhat ordinarily to a shipping container at the bottom of the Hudson is played for as little tension as possible, even when one of them fall deathly ill.

Again, I understand that this is the point: crises come, crises go, and life goes on. That doesn’t mean I want to read about that process, and it doesn’t mean that no one is allowed to react strongly — justified or not — to these crises. The only person who seems to have a strong emotional reaction to anything is the utterly extraneous Amelia, who has an emotional crisis when the polar bears she relocates to Antarctica are murdered. (This reaction is human and normal; it’s telling, though, that this incident is completely divorced from the events the other characters go through and that Amelia is portrayed as the least emotionally competent character.)

Where does this book succeed? 2140 does an excellent job portraying the mundanity of life in a remarkable city. Despite a setting that might seem more conducive to a YA melodrama, Robinson shows, again and again, that life will go on — in the midst of catastrophe, crisis, and change, people will keep living their lives, they will keep living them in New York, and they will keep telling us how wonderful New York is. (When not complaining about all New York’s problems.)

Where does it fail? As mentioned above, 2140 forgoes many chances to inject excitement into the book, and readers are rarely concerned about the fate of the characters. Also, despite the book’s belief that capitalism and finance are far too unfettered, the characters rarely suffer from their exploitation, and their largely upper middle-class existences lack the inciting influences that would lead readers to see the injustices of the system. (See below.)

What larger issues does this book address? Even though you might think 2140 is a climate-change novel, Robinson is more concerned with capitalism’s role in the crisis depicted. Finance is singled out, and many of the characters rail against the commodification of the necessity of people’s lives and the government’s propensity to let financial institutions take 100 percent of profits while the citizenry are obligated to cover most of the risks. 2140 could use more focus on this issue; it’s a strong one, likely to excite readers one way or another, but the book wanders too far from the issue too often, and even when the characters are involved with finance’s culpability in the world’s failures, they are at a remove — part of the book’s dedication to mundanity, yes, but sometimes an author can’t expect the reader to bring along their own visceral disgust to a dry issue such as finance. Even when the characters grapple with the causes and corrections, it feels like they are only fumbling with the levers, which may move other levers to start causing change; only the emotional Amelia feels like she makes a change, when she uses her show to call for a rent strike. (That she makes this call — her only point of contiguity to the rest of the plot — on a show dedicated to wildlife conservation makes me think this is the only reason she was included as a viewpoint character.)

Does this book have a chance of winning the award? Yes, but only because it’s written by Kim Stanley Robinson. I can’t imagine this book winning if it had an unknown’s name on it, but I can just about see Robinson winning for it.

Then again, maybe my imagination is deficient.

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2018 Hugo nominee #4: Raven Strategem by Yoon Ha Lee

16th Aug. 2018 | 09:43 pm

Raven Strategem cover The fourth nominee for the Hugo award for best novel is Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee:

What is this book about? After surviving an assassination attempt at the end of the previous book (or did he?), Jedao — the consciousness of a long-dead, possibly insane general who never lost a battle — hijacks a military space fleet to defeat the invading alien Hafn. The Hexarchate, the government Jedao served and now protects despite its lack of desire to be protected by him, functions through consensus (enforced by torture, if necessary), and this rigidly imposed harmony allows the Hexarchate to generate exotic technologies through their tight-knit thought alone: long-range space weapons, invisible shields, and other abilities are available to the ruling castes. The Hafn seem immune to the Hexarchate’s abilities, but Jedao feels certain he will defeat them … but then what’s the long-dead, long-tortured general going to do with his fleet if he defeats the Hafn?

Why was this book nominated? Raven Strategem is the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, which was nominated for the Hugo last year. As you might expect from a sequel, Raven isn’t as novel as Ninefox, with Raven mostly building on the concepts from its predecessor. Raven advances the plot and continues the unusual concepts from the first book, so I imagine a contingent of voters really enjoyed Ninefox.

Is this book enjoyable to read? Yes. Even as the multiple points of view dilute the book’s focus, they do keep the story humming along, allowing Lee to switch to a new character whenever the viewpoint character’s story has come to a lull. (Of course, ending the scene would do the same thing.) Lee keeps the political and military plots simmering throughout, although surprisingly the most important event happens off-page, downplayed to a surprising degree.

Where does this book succeed? Raven admirably continues the story begun in Ninefox, putting readers into a world of formation instinct, cindermoths, and space fortresses creating doctrinal orthodoxy in the surrounding space. In a book sprinkled with such evocative names, Raven ostensibly focuses more on the conflict between the Hexarchate and the alien Hafn, although the Hafn remain mostly as mysterious and unsympathetic as they were at beginning of the book. Instead, Lee focuses on characters who are intriguing and sympathetic without ever becoming comfortable, generals and killers and liars who do things for reasons that are probably for the greater good … but these deeds are being performed by generals and killers and liars, so who can say if they’ll turn out good enough to justify all this chaos?

Where does it fail? There’s no doubt Raven is a high-stakes book, but it’s easy to lose track of those stakes. Jedao’s actions will have immense consequences throughout the Hexarchate — if it survives — but we don’t really get a feel for what he’s put into motion. Lee focuses on two types of characters: seemingly indolent and crafty hexarchs and straightforward soldiers. We don’t get much of a feel for the little people of the Hexarchate; one diversion focuses on a member of a minority facing genocide (the Hexarchate’s response to Jedao’s refusal to return his fleet), and a couple of officers’ flashbacks show scenes from life outside the military or government. After reading two books, I’m not sure how many worlds are in the Hexarchate (other than many).

What larger issues does this book address? Raven Strategem glances as the big questions of the individual’s responsibility to the group vs. the group’s responsibility to the individual. In Raven, the group — the government, in this case — has taken too much from the individual, and Jedao and others believe some of that power should be given back. That’s not to say this is an anti-government screed; the opposite side — the side believing that joining a group and belonging to that group can legitimately require giving up a great deal of autonomy and personality — is represented by the military caste, the Kel, who believe in their service, their comrades, and their caste despite what they have suffered from their superiors. I wouldn’t exactly call it nuanced, but more of a “How much is too much, even with these benefits?” arguments.

Does this book have a chance of winning the award? I don’t think so. N.K. Jemisin won the Nebula award this year with The Stone Sky, and Ann Leckie, John Scalzi, and Kim Stanley Robinson have all won the best novel Hugo before. Lee doesn’t have the name recognition, and the first book in this series lost to Jemisin last year. I would like to see Raven Stratagem triumph, but I don’t think it will.

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2018 Hugo nominee #3: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

15th Aug. 2018 | 11:49 pm

The Collapsing Empire coverThe third nominee for the Hugo for best novel is The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi:

What is this book about? As Cardenia, the born-out-of-wedlock, unexpected emperox of the Interdependency, ascends to the throne of her family’s space empire, revolution is occurring on the far-off world of the End. This frequently happens on the End, so what’s more important is that a scientist Cardenia’s father dispatched to the End has confirmed his fear: The Flow, the phenomena that allows for faster-than-light travel through the Interdependency’s interstellar settlements, is failing, and soon each world in the Interdependency will be on its own — bad news for an empire named after each settlement’s dependence on the others.

As Cardenia is attacked by unknown assailants and courted by the unremarkable eldest son of the powerful Nohamapetan family, the scientist dispatches his son, Marce, to the emperox on the Hub. To sneak Marce past the youngest Nohamapetan scion, who is playing both ends against the middle on the End, the scientist gets help from Kiva, a member of another powerful family, rivals of the Nohamapetans.

Why was this book nominated? This book was nominated because it’s by John Scalzi and because the book is pleasant to read. Scalzi has won the Hugo for best novel before — for the thoroughly enjoyable and clever Redshirts — and although Collapsing Empire isn’t as clever or enjoyable as Redshirts, it isn’t a failure. Add in the popularity of Scalzi’s books and his online presence, and that’s more than enough to get a nomination.

Is this book enjoyable to read? Yes. Other than Spoonbenders, Collapsing Empire is the most fun to read of any of the award nominees this year. I was able to tear through it in a few days, never putting the book aside before reading at least 100 pages in a session. That breeziness can be seen as a disadvantage, though — there weren’t any moral questions or plot twists that made me stop and think in any depth.

Where does this book succeed? Scalzi has an easy humor that propels the book along even when it dips into irrelevancies. His style is entertaining enough to distract the reader from the book’s various narrative cul-de-sacs, and it makes for some vivid characters. Scalzi isn’t quite as irrelevantly funny as, say, Neal Stephenson at his best, but he’s very good. Even though I don’t think Collapsing Empire will win the Hugo, and I’m not even sure it should have been nominated, I didn’t begrudge the time it took to read the book.

Where does it fail? The book takes its time to get to the point. The imminent collapse of the Flow takes up the entire book, with the sinister Nohamapetan family — sinister, but not doing anything — throughout. When the Flow starts falling apart and the Nohamapetans finally reveal their plan to the emperox, the book ends, and invites you back for the sequel. (I won’t be back to the Interdependency, unless The Consuming Fire is also an award nominee.) Collapsing Empire feels like an idea that should have been wrapped up in a single book, but Scalzi couldn’t part with certain viewpoint characters and wouldn’t cut out large chunks of the text. The corrections seem obvious to me: This should be Cardenia’s story, mostly. Marce’s story, while not uninteresting, feels extraneous to the overall events of the book, and if we had been introduced to him and his bombshell about the Flow when he showed up on Hub a third to halfway through the story, little would have been sacrificed. And Kiva is irrelevant if you cut out all the stuff on End — hell, Kiva is mostly irrelevant anyway. Mind you, Kiva is an entertaining character, but she’s not vital to the plot.

What larger issues does this book address? Collapsing Empire is a book designed chiefly to entertain, and making the reader think is a secondary concern. One could say Collapsing Empire looks at good science vs. poor science and the necessity of peer review (the Nohamapetans’ have a scientist working alone on the changes in the Flow, and she comes to the wrong conclusion) or the responsibilities of government in a time of rapid, catastrophic changes in the environment. But the latter idea is saved for the sequel, and the former is a staple of science fiction — it is science fiction, after all.

Does this book have a chance of winning the award? Yes, I’d say so, but that lies almost entirely on Scalzi’s reputation. I don’t think he’s going to have much of a chance against N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, but Scalzi has won the award before, and it wouldn’t be the most shocking event if he won again.

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2017 Nebula nominees

19th May. 2018 | 12:52 pm

So here are your seven Nebula nominees for the best novel award, listed in what I think is the descending probability that they will win the award:

  • The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
  • Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
  • Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee
  • Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
  • Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

    For the record, I think any of the top three could win, and I’m probably underselling the likelihood of Autonomous winning. But I think this is Jemisin’s year, and I eagerly await the awards tonight, when I will be proven wrong.
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    2017 Nebula nominee #7 and 2018 Hugo nominee #2: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

    19th May. 2018 | 12:40 pm

    Every year, I attempt to read all the nominees for the best novel in both the Hugo and Nebula awards. For many years, I have tried to quantify elements of those novels, giving them a total rating out of 30 in five categories. I’m tired of that. I’m switching to a more freeform review of the books, and since no one reads them, I don’t expect any objections. If you do have any objections, you can probably figure out where to lodge them.

    Six Wakes coverThe seventh nominee for the Nebula for best novel and the second nominee for the Hugo for best novel is Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty:

    What is this book about? The crew of a spaceship carrying cryogenically frozen settlers to a new planet wake up in clone bodies to find their previous bodies have been murdered, they have no memory of the quarter century of their voyage, the ship’s gravity is off, the AI is on the fritz, their personal data has been wiped, and the cloning banks have been disabled. A little investigation reveals not all of the crew had been killed — the captain, cloned with the rest of the crew, has a previous body in medlab, beaten into a coma a couple of days before the rest of the crew were killed.

    With no clone backups (an unfamiliar feeling for the crew) they must restore the ship to full operation and figure out what happened before they were cloned back into existence, all while not knowing who to trust or even the full backgrounds of their shipmates.

    Why was this book nominated? Six Wakes is a traditional science-fiction sort of book: it takes a technological advancement — in this case, cloning — and tries to extrapolate what effects it might have on a society. Like some of the great sci-fi books, it then puts that setup into an exciting fantastical setting — a cryoship — and gives the characters a difficult plot to overcome. It is, in many ways, more traditional than most nominees are in 2018, but the diverse cast and female author separate it from the science-fiction books of a half-century ago.

    Is this book enjoyable to read? Yes, it was — the most enjoyable among the nominees after Spoonbenders. The murder-mystery elements drove the book forward, and although Six Wakes occasionally bogged down in backstory or discursive dialogue, Lafferty puts the book back on track soon after. The dialogue allows itself to lighten up from time to time, getting genuine laughs from the reader.

    Where does this book succeed? The six characters seem to be a disparate mix of personalities and backgrounds for the first third of the book, but over the middle third, Lafferty weaves together the characters, and you see the linkages — not only between the characters, but also in how they relate to the world Lafferty has created. It’s well done, the kind of subtle-but-obvious narration and planning that a book like this — one with both a mystery and a lot of worldbuilding to accomplish — requires.

    Lafferty also does a great job in setting up a disorganized murder scene, strewing tantalizing clues everywhere — suicide, mysterious notes, hemlock, etc. Tying it all together, on the other hand …

    Where does it fail? The book’s ending doesn’t quite land. Lafferty does a good job putting the characters into a difficult situation — no cloning backups, no mindstate recordings to preserve their memories of what they’ve figured out, and a homicidal killer running around — but the solution to one of those feels arbitrary and almost literally a deus ex machina. The workaround for the failed cloning banks was foreshadowed well, but the mindstate preserver came out of nowhere, with no explanation of where the technology came from or why it had been provided to the crew at all.

    I also found the solution to the initial murder … I don’t want to say unconvincing, but it’s definitely simpler than I wanted. With five murders and a severe assault, I was hoping there would be multiple assailants, with more guilty parties among the crew. But the crew decided the evidence showed only one person was guilty, although another killed in self-defense. I’m still not sure what purpose the hemlock poisoning served, given how the rest of the murders played out.

    Also: I’m shocked by the punishment given to the murderer. The crew had evidence that the specific punishment they chose would breed resentment and anger, but they then gave a homicidally irrational person that punishment, and without taking away that person’s ability to control vital parts of the ship. That sounds cruel and stupid, which is a combination generally left to the villains.

    What larger issues does this book address? Six Wakes looks at the issue of cloning to effect immortality. Each of the characters has flashbacks to the Earth and the lives they left, where cloning is allowed under strict rules: no alterations of DNA or the transferred mindstates, no propagation by clones, no having more than one body at a time. In return, clones get to be the heirs of their previous bodies, and they get to pick up where the other body left off. These rules do not prevent clones from being denounced as unnatural — by religions, by the philosophical, by the squeamish, by the bitter.

    To make this world seem more real, Lafferty would have needed to spend more pages on that Earth. Some elements seem absurd — those with genetic diseases and defects are not allowed to have them corrected when they are cloned, and as cloning has more than 200 years of regulation, it would make sense that governments would allow the genetic repair of selected conditions. The effect of having the same personalities dominating public discourse for centuries is not examined; the larger percentage of people who are clones should clear the way to loosening on the restrictions on cloning, since they make up a bigger part of the electorate, but would it make society more conservative, since the old, rich clones never clear out for the truly young to take more control? The characters say lovers come and go when they’ve been cloned, and long-term relationships seem a rarity, although that may be a side effect of who the characters are.

    We get only a glance at these points; it isn’t necessary to see them play out for Six Wakes to be an enjoyable read, but it does handicap its chances at the award.

    Does this book have a chance of winning the award? A chance, I think, but not a large one. Overall, it’s an exciting book, more plot-driven that issue obsessed, and I don’t think Lafferty has the history to make voters forget that.

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    2017 Nebula nominee #6 and 2018 Hugo nominee #1: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

    19th May. 2018 | 12:24 pm

    Every year, I attempt to read all the nominees for the best novel in both the Hugo and Nebula awards. For many years, I have tried to quantify elements of those novels, giving them a total rating out of 30 in five categories. I’m tired of that. I’m switching to a more freeform review of the books, and since no one reads them, I don’t expect any objections. If you do have any objections, you can probably figure out where to lodge them.

    The Stone Sky coverThe sixth nominee for the Nebula for best novel and first nominee for the Hugo for best novel is The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin:

    What is this book about? Well, if you’d read the first two books in the trilogy, you’d have a pretty good idea. But if you haven’t: Essun is a powerful orogene, which means she can manipulate seismic activity and transform energy, to a degree. Her world has been shattered many times, first by a mysterious event that knocked the moon from its orbit and most recently by a former mentor / lover / colleague who used the mysterious obelisks floating in the sky to rip a rift in the earth and send the world hurtling toward an ash-filled winter. At the end The Obelisk Gate, the previous book in the trilogy, Essun used the obelisks to move the moon into a course where another use of the obelisks might be able to bring it back into orbit with Earth. Unfortunately, using her powers or the obelisks turns part of her to stone, and Hoa, a strange being called a Stone Eater, will devour any part of her that does.

    Essun’s attentions are split in three ways: she wants to find her daughter, Nassun, who is also an orogene and has also shown an ability to use the obelisks; she needs to be in position to put the moon back into orbit at the right time, although that will probably kill her; and she wants to help shepherd her community, a combination of orogenes and normal humans, as it journeys to a city that will shelter it through the latest catastrophe.

    Why was this book nominated? Jemisin is an awards-season perennial by this point, so it would be more surprising if she wasn’t nominated. But Stone Sky still has the same touch points the rest of the trilogy did: a world in peril, survival threatened by dangerous humans and an unforgiving environment, a race to set everything right … it has all the stakes of a sci-fi / fantasy thriller, plus it has an examination of the role of and the experience of being an exploited slave class. The latter is probably the more salient reason the book was nominated; explorations of race and culture are more likely to get critical attention than entertainment.

    Is this book enjoyable to read? Weeeeeeeelllllll … I would not say so. I was never so uninterested or frustrated that I felt like tossing the book aside, but I wanted more than a few sections of the book to end so we could move on to the next plot point. Shifting between first-, second-, and third-person narration, the past and the future, and various points on the planet is not a good way to keep me interested in the book’s plot; every time the narrative built up any momentum, we were shifted to another place, another time, and we have to struggle to overcome narrative inertia again. The goal of the past section is disappointing, informing us that the atrocities of the recent past are rooted in atrocities of the far past. I could have guessed the orogene’s exploitation had an antecedent that was both explanation and prologue, mindless and purposeful.

    Where does this book succeed? Nassun is guided toward her meeting with destiny, the obelisks, and her mother by Schaffa. Nassun’s relationship with Schaffa is strange: he used to be a Guardian, one of the near-immortals who guide, terrorize, and control orogenes (he was Essun’s Guardian as well), but he has fought off his programming and fills a father-figure role with Nassun. He is constantly in pain, and his pain added to the suspicion and hatred Nassun is subjected to wherever she goes makes Nassun feel the world should be burned to a cinder rather than saved. Schaffa’s horrible past is ignored by Nassun in exchange for his love; Schaffa’s love bulwarks Nassun’s natural teenage angst and overreaction. It’s an interesting symbiosis, and one I can believe in more as Nassun becomes more powerful and less of a dependent.

    Where does it fail? The book’s second-person narration is annoying — I find it difficult to believe that I am Essun, since I share nothing in common with her, and using second-person narration drives that home without increasing my empathy for her — but that’s a feature of the entire trilogy. (The explanation for the second-person narration is given in Stone Sky, but it’s not a convincing one.)

    More specific to criticism of Stone Sky: The society Essun joins never feels like it’s important to the story. Essun has to pull the moon into the correct orbit for things to get better again, a task she’s unlikely to survive, so the reader has to suspect she will be unable to rejoin the community after her arc is over; she loses her ability to use her orogeny, which means she sits apart from the comm, not able to use her principle ability and not able to escape its stigma either. Everything — including her lover — feels disposable, even as the book spends so much time on it.

    What larger issues does this book address? Whereas the previous books have dwelled more on the world’s history of exploiting and degrading the orogenes, Stone Sky is more interested in their role in the world to come. Can orogenes be accepted by those who vilified orogenes, considered them less than human, and then used their powers to maintain and improve the world? (The reverse, whether orogenes can live with their former oppressors, isn’t a concern of Jemisin’s in Stone Sky; she’s constructed a world in which it’s impossible for orogenes to live without powerless humans.) She aptly observes that oppression often continues because those who hold the weakening whip hand imagine what they had done to the oppressed will be eventually done to them, but the book does not seem to consider that orogene powers make that more of a concern in Stone Sky’s world than it is in ours. Orogenes are angry and powerful, but in the conclusion of the trilogy, with the status quo definitively upended, they have no desire to subjugate or dominate.

    Does this book have a chance of winning an award? The second book in the series won the Hugo award, and given the number of books Jemisin has had nominated, it will be shocking if she doesn’t come up with a best-novel Nebula at some point in her career. Stone Sky caps off a trilogy in which the previous books were also nominated for either the Hugo or Nebula (or both), so some voters who didn’t vote for Stone Sky’s predecessors may have been waiting to see whether the trilogy would deliver.

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    2017 Nebula nominee #5: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

    19th May. 2018 | 12:23 pm

    Every year, I attempt to read all the nominees for the best novel in both the Hugo and Nebula awards. For many years, I have tried to quantify elements of those novels, giving them a total rating out of 30 in five categories. I’m tired of that. I’m switching to a more freeform review of the books, and since no one reads them, I don’t expect any objections. If you do have any objections, you can probably figure out where to lodge them.

    Autonomous coverThe fifth nominee for the Nebula for best novel is Autonomous by Annalee Newitz:

    What is this book about? Jack Chen, a patent pirate who creates knockoff drugs, releases a copy of Zacuity, a focus enhancer used by office drones who need to keep their minds on their jobs. Unfortunately, the original version of the drug — and Jack’s perfect copy — causes some people to become addicted to the work they are doing, and they literally work themselves to death. Using her network of drug hackers, researchers, and sketchy types and accompanied by a slave that shows up on her submarine, Jack races to find a cure for Zacuity. Meanwhile, the manufacturer of Zacuity, Zaxy, sics a pair of Intellectual Property Coalition cops on Jack, and human intelligence officer Eliasz and robot scout Paladin spend the book picking up on Jack’s trail by unraveling other nodes of Jack’s network.

    Why was this book nominated? Well, it’s got robots. Can’t underestimate the appeal of robots! (More relevant than the pure coolness of robots is Autonomous’s examination of what separates robots’ consciousness from humans’ in similarly controlled environments.)

    A more likely reason Autonomous was nominated is that it’s a first novel from an author who has reported on and been part of the genre for years now. Autonomous also deals with prescription drug patents and the ethics of strict intellectual property controls, which are very relevant issues now, but I have a feeling neither issue is going to age well. (Just a hunch.)

    Is this book enjoyable to read? Eh, not really. The book follows both Captain Jack and the IPC agents, Eliasz and Paladin. Frankly, neither runs into much resistance along their paths, and neither seems in much danger of failing. (Jack’s biggest problem is separating herself from the former slave, ThreeZed.) The two threads would seem to be on a collision course, given that the IPC agents are hunting Jack, but the action makes it seem as if there’s nothing inevitable about their confrontation. (Jack’s flashbacks don’t help the book focus on the main plot either.) Frankly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Newitz had opted for an ending that had Jack getting away with everything because Eliasz and Paladin decided to do something other than their jobs.

    Where does this book succeed? Newitz spends a lot of time concentrating on Paladin’s groping toward personhood, exploring not only the robot’s individuality but also its decision on whether to be gendered and how to experience sexual feelings. Paladin exists in a narrow portion of the world in which she is allowed to be herself; the IPC owns her, doesn’t care about her personhood, and will likely wipe that personality at a whim. Paladin’s fellow robots give her advice and caution her about the humans around her, but Paladin allows herself to be shaped by her male human partner, Eliasz, then tells herself she has made her own choices. Ha ha, we’ve all been there — right, ladies?

    One unusual step toward personhood that Paladin makes: It’s OK to kill humans! The dead human was an intellectual property criminal who abused robots, so he’s a bad person, but I never got the feeling that former was particularly important to Paladin. She could kill the human, who had upset her, so she did.

    Where does it fail? In humanity, mainly — or I suppose in class and humanity. In a future in which those enforcing intellectual property for drug companies can murder with impunity and slavery is mostly legal, the readers don’t get a sense that the rest of humanity really cares. Jack and her friends are solidly middle class and above; they don’t have to worry about a struggle for basic human rights, basic sentient rights, or the consequences of the drug companies’ power. (Not until the IPC comes a-knockin’, which wouldn’t have happened if these people hadn’t once, sometimes decades before, known Jack.) Newitz hints at a dystopia, with franchises that must be purchased, nations replaced by commerce-driven economic regions, and an Arctic warm enough to support major cities, but the characters are largely well enough off that they have bought their citizenship and don’t have to worry about the problems of existence.

    Robots’ search for autonomy is supposed to be held up as a mirror to humanity’s susceptibility to control by custom and environment, but that doesn’t land for me — it’s easy for me to see vast differences that may or may not be there. Robot and human slavery also seems vastly different, despite the obvious parallels. Robots can be wiped and destroyed as property, but our only glance at human slavery — technically “indentures,” but they are so loosely overseen that the word means slavery at the bottom end of the economic spectrum — is in ThreeZed, whose attitude toward his situation comes off as indifferent; none of the indentures readers see engages in activities that would be out of place for the truly economically desperate. But surely slavery should be so horrible the readers should be able to viscerally tell the difference, right?

    What larger issues does this book address? This book hits a lot of big ones: consciousness, intellectual property, corporate oligarchy, prescription drug access, economic disparity (although that’s more of a miss, it’s brought up) … Autonomous is definitely the most issue-oriented book among this year’s nominees, and these issues range from the most traditional (robot grappling with humanity) and extremely timely (prescription drugs and intellectual property).

    Does this book have a chance of winning the award? Yes. Discussions of consciousness in a hard-science sci-fi novel always have a chance to win (to say nothing of the other issues), and I think Newitz’s name — like Goss’s — and newness to novels will be an asset.

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    2017 Nebula nominee #4: Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

    19th May. 2018 | 01:30 am

    Every year, I attempt to read all the nominees for the best novel in both the Hugo and Nebula awards. For many years, I have tried to quantify elements of those novels, giving them a total rating out of 30 in five categories. I’m tired of that. I’m switching to a more freeform review of the books, and since no one reads them, I don’t expect any objections. If you do have any objections, you can probably figure out where to lodge them.

    Amberlough coverThe fourth nominee for the Nebula for best novel is Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly:

    What is this book about? In Amberlough, a city much like Weimar-era Berlin, the cosmopolitan city produces many delights. One of these delights is the Bee, a cabaret where stripper Cordelia enchants and emcee Aristide entertains — and meets his lover, Cyril, who is a spy meant to uncover who’s behind Amberlough’s smuggling but who has decided to keep as close as possible to that smuggler (Aristide) as possible. However, another power is rising in Gedda, the country Amberlough is part of: The One-State Party, which wants to seize control and forge a more centralized, more restrictive state. It becomes obvious early on that Amberlough’s spy services are not up to the challenge of stopping the OSPies …

    Why was this book nominated? This is Donnelly’s first novel. The book features two gay protagonists and a female protagonist who looks to be making the transition from an underestimated pretty face to a real power in Amberlough. The Weimar-era vibe, just before the Nazi takeover, is strongly evoked, and the parallels to modern American anxieties about the rise of Trump are too strong to ignore. Even though I have doubts about its ability to win the award, Amberlough’s nomination was a no-brainer.

    Is this book enjoyable to read? No. It should be! It should exciting, either because of the spy story or because of the descriptions of Amberlough’s louche demimonde. Instead, Donnelly splits the book’s attention between the two, and the Weimar-era feel gets sidetracked, then buried behind Cyril’s maundering “I’ve tried nothing and I’m all out of ideas” struggles. Many times I put Amberlough aside, unable to will myself into trying to overcome Cyril’s own inertia.

    Where does this book succeed? Amberlough’s setting — the roughly pre-war city, where British words slip into the narration despite the author’s Americaness — is the book’s strength. Amberlough feels like a real but previously undiscovered city from our past. Donnelly spends the most time at the Bee, emphasizing both the entertainment and the pleasant sleaziness the theater provides. The performances are titillating without being pornographic, and it’s easy to see why the performers and audiences love the Bee.

    Where does it fail? For a book that has a spy as one of its viewpoint protagonists and purports to have an espionage component, Amberlough abandons the concepts of spycraft early and never looks back. Cyril, the spy, is metaphorically and symbolically gutless, and he’s decided espionage is no game. That’s a fine starting point, but he evidently decides that since it’s not fun, he’s not going to participate. His life (and the life of his lover) is threatened, and rather than use his training to fight back or at least explore the edges of the control his opponents have against him, he … does nothing. As readers, we hardly even see him suborn others for his new masters as he has been suborned; the only success we see involves him stumbling onto the levers he needs by pure accident.

    Really, neither side appears very good at covert operations; Amberlough’s side (as embodied by Cyril) seems disinterested in doing anything. Their opponents — and Cyril, on occasion — score victories because they are the only ones putting forth any effort, and their efforts are sporadic and desultory.

    Part of the failure can be traced to the book’s use of multiple viewpoints. Theoretically, in the middle third, Cyril should be walking a fine line: looking like a loyal servant of Amberlough to his employers and coworkers but betraying them in private. But because we never see his coworkers and rarely see his boss because the book is concentrating on life at the Bee, his payoffs and enticements to others seem to happen in a vacuum. Amberlough is usually looking elsewhere, and that makes Cyril’s dangerous actions seem successful only because no one else in Amberlough’s spy section is paying attention.

    What larger issues does this book address? I have trouble figuring out whether we’re supposed to believe the authorities in Amberlough are too blithe about the OSPies or outmaneuvered by their enemies, but the book does warn us that our liberties — especially those granted to those on the fringes of society — and our governments need to be defended from those who would trample them both. The citizens of Amberlough are definitely too blasé about the coups at home and abroad, and only the politically active protest.

    For most of the book, as OSPie takeover is portrayed much like Americans would feel about a complete GOP takeover of America — rights would be rolled back, some would welcome a return to traditional values that put certain people in their place, but it wouldn’t be a totalitarian state. When the OSPies come, though, it’s clear they are Nazis. I can’t tell if the OSPies are good at hiding their ultimate goals, if we can’t don’t get enough info on the OSPies, or if I should have expected it because, duh, they’re launching a coup. No one launches a coup if they’re not going to do whatever they want. (I know — parallels to Nazis, whose atrocities the international community were blind to. But readers don’t know what Amberloughians are supposed to be blind to until the jackbooted thugs hit town.)

    Given that Aristide and Cyril are both gay, there is surprisingly little specifically directed at LGBTQ issues; gays exist at the fringes of Amberlough society, tolerated and perhaps looked down upon like strippers but not receiving any real harassment until the OSPies take over. Amberlough seems more tolerant than modern America, most of the time.

    Does this book have a chance of winning the award? I doubt it. Since this is Donnelly’s first novel, she hasn’t accumulated a large following (as far as I know). Amberlough’s strengths aren’t enough to overcome its weaknesses, and it doesn’t lean hard enough on the issues that could get thrust it into prominence. Its secondary world setting isn’t all that different than our world, so despite its vividness, it doesn’t succeed as truly distinctive setting. I’d say Amberlough has the least chance of winning the award of any nominee.

    Of course, given my record of picking the Nebulas (one of eight!), you should take my recommendation with a grain of salt. But since I’ve been reading these, Nebula voters have never chosen a book with such a slight speculative fiction element.

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    2017 Nebula nominee #3: The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss

    19th May. 2018 | 12:49 am

    Every year, I attempt to read all the nominees for the best novel in both the Hugo and Nebula awards. For many years, I have tried to quantify elements of those novels, giving them a total rating out of 30 in five categories. I’m tired of that. I’m switching to a more freeform review of the books, and since no one reads them, I don’t expect any objections. If you do have any objections, you can probably figure out where to lodge them.

    The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter coverThe third nominee for the Nebula for best novel is The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss:

    What is this book about? Female characters from 19th-century science-fiction literature join together to solve the Jack the Ripper murders. Mary Jekyll’s mother has just passed away, leaving her in a financially precarious situation, and after poring through her mother’s papers and finances and engaging Sherlock Holmes, she finds links to Mr. Hyde — specifically the existence of Diane Hyde, Mr. Hyde’s daughter. The mystery gathers characters from 19th century literature, both villains and their victims, with the latter transformed into heroes.

    Why was this book nominated? Goss is an acclaimed short-fiction writer, and her work has been nominated for numerous awards. It’s no wonder that her first novel would be also draw positive critical attention and a Nebula award nomination. The unusual literary and critical conceit — that female 19th-century literary characters would get an opportunity not only to tell their own continuing stories but to comment and speak against their original stories — turned the possibility of Strange Case’s nomination into a probability, if not a certainty.

    Is this book enjoyable to read? Hmm — overall, yes. The idea for the plot is engaging, and the prose flows nicely. The characters are fun to spend time with. I was never bored; no dull stretches tempted me to put the book aside. The book doesn’t live up to the plot idea, though, with the lurid and sensational aspects played down and the mystery itself falling short. The protagonists frequently interrupted the narrative with their own comments, and since each character getting to tell her own story forced several changes in points of view, the narrative’s momentum was sapped all too often.

    Where does this book succeed? The book forms a pleasant, cohesive whole, and readers can get invested in the characters easily. Goss doesn’t make these characters, abused and neglected as they mostly have been, into objects of pity; their struggles and their character development give each of them dignity. Even Justine Frankenstein — the servant girl who was intended to be the bride of the monster, although Shelley’s story says Frankenstein destroyed the body before he reanimated it — works to not harm others, becoming a vegetarian and an artist.

    Where does it fail? The investigation is not as compelling as it could be. The narrative is more concerned with the question of how women characters were treated in the 19th century than with developing suspense and excitement. Strange Case details an enquiry into the Jack-the-Ripper murders, as investigated by Sherlock Holmes and a group of women straight from the pages of early science fiction. The plot should be gripping; the mystery should be page-turning excitement. A crime as notorious as the Whitechapel murders deserves an examination with more depth and more attention than Goss gives it; Goss seems content to make a weak link between the murders and the violence visited upon female characters in Victorian literature.

    Side note: The women (and girl, in the case of Diana) agree to form a family very quickly; the most reluctant takes only a night to consider the proposal. The women had not known each other for very long — less than a week. It seems like an absurdly short amount of time to decide to be a family. I can easily understand becoming friends, even very close friends, in that short of time, but “family” is a concept that, to me, can gel only over a longer period of time.

    But I admit: I’m just one person, and my perceptions of such a nebulous issue are not necessarily the most accurate. I would imagine Victorians to be too reserved and, well, xenophobic to form such a tight-knit group quickly, but maybe I don’t understand how other segments of humanity react. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Is it their “monstrousness” that causes them to bond so quickly? But Mrs. Poole and Alice, Mary’s servants, aren’t monsters, and they are considered part of the family. (Mary denies the monster label as well.) Or is it their gender, and the difficulties that presents, that cements their connections? Maybe women in general are more likely to be willing to form a family.

    What larger issues does this book address? Female representation, especially in Victorian literature but in a larger sense in narratives up to the present day. Each character is given an opportunity not only to retell their stories from their own point of view but to comment on the story itself, as written by Catherine, the puma-woman from The Island of Dr. Moreau. (Goss gives Catherine her name here; Goss has also created Mary Jekyll and Diane Hyde.) Goss gives these characters considerably agency; when Sherlock Holmes enters the story, Mary and her friends do not disappear into the background like most of the great detective’s clients but actively aid in the investigation, using their unique talents in ways their original authors never would have imagined.

    Does this book have a chance of winning the award?Yes. Theodora Goss has won awards for her short fiction, so her name already carries a considerable cachet. This is her first novel, which also gives Strange Case a bit of a boost. Throw in a feminist examination of 19th-century literary characters, and the cynical side of me says Strange Case will be difficult to beat.

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    2017 Nebula nominee #2: Jade City by Fonda Lee

    19th May. 2018 | 12:15 am

    Every year, I attempt to read all the nominees for the best novel in both the Hugo and Nebula awards. For many years, I have tried to quantify elements of those novels, giving them a total rating out of 30 in five categories. I’m tired of that. I’m switching to a more freeform review of the books, and since no one reads them, I don’t expect any objections. If you do have any objections, you can probably figure out where to lodge them.

    Jade City coverThe second nominee for the Nebula for best novel is Jade City by Fonda Lee:

    What is this book about? The island of Kekon is home to both jade deposits and a race of people who can, with training, wield jade to perform amazing feats of martial arts. A generation before Jade City begins, Kekon was dominated by the Shotarians, but those who could use the jade (called “Green Bones”) led the Kekonese in rebellion. Now Kekon is free and prosperous, selling limited amounts of the jade abroad and drawing tourists. Its capital city, Janloon, is divided between the control of two clans — Mountain and No Peak — but it becomes clear the Mountain clan is preparing for an economic and martial takeover of No Peak.

    The No Peak is led by the Kaul family. Lan is the Pillar, head of the clan, a position he inherited from his revolutionary hero grandfather; the grandfather is still alive, and Lan worries that will undermine his authority in certain quarters, even though his grandfather is growing senile. Lan’s brother Hilo is the clan’s Horn, in charge of No Peak’s army of Green Bones. Their younger sister, Shae, had an affair with a foreign naval officer and went overseas for her business education; now she returns to Kekon, although she is determined to make her way without her family’s interference. Meanwhile, their adopted brother, Anden, finishes his Green Bone training.

    Why was this book nominated? Jade City distinguishes itself by concentrating on a society in a secondary world not based on a European society. Kekon is not only structured on East Asian cultures, but it also depicts a society that is a generation removed from colonial domination. The book furthermore advertises a fair amount of wuxia, and that’s going to gain attention from critics who look for novel elements and from readers just looking for something cool.

    Is this book enjoyable to read? Yes. Lee keeps the plot moving and the world immersive and believable, which distracts the reader from wondering where the promised martial arts are. Chapters on Shae tend to sap the book of its momentum, but that is less of a problem as the book goes on.

    I don’t think the gangster movie / Godfather comparisons help the book — part of The Godfather’s reputation is based on the frisson between our sympathies for the Corleones even though we know they engage in horrible criminal acts — since the Kaul family aren’t criminals; they appear to be a civic government fighting a war against another government. In that sense, we can root for the Kauls without guilt.

    Where does this book succeed? Life in Janloon and the Green Bone lifestyle is vividly portrayed. Lee does an excellent job in transporting readers to a world that is unfamiliar to most readers (and probably heartwarmingly familiar to others). The immersion is carried off nearly flawlessly, and the Green Bones themselves come across as strong, confident warriors, who range from bullies to proud protectors of the clan.

    I generally dislike books with multiple points of view, but Jade City’s shifts in perspective do allow the reader to become invested in all the Kauls. In the climactic battle between Hilo and the forces of Gont Asch, the Mountain Horn, I was riveted, wondering who would survive and whether they would remain intact if they did survive. (See below for my complaint about the multiple POVs, though.) Hilo is the best: a headstrong warrior who also knows how to make the Green Bones under his command follow him loyally even as he stumbles with gaining the loyalty of politicians and businessmen.

    Where does it fail? Although I would argue the book’s pace is off — despite the stakes, the main characters rarely seem to be in jeopardy until the second half of the book — the book’s main failing is in grounding the characters in a larger world. Hundreds of pages in, it seems the Mountain and No Peak clan are the only real law in Janloon and Kekon, and even after governmental figures are introduced, it becomes clear the government is powerless before the Mountain clan’s plans and helpless before Green Bones in general. No Peak’s early plans against the Mountain clan are predicated on the general disapproval of the people being focused on Mountain after their plots are exposed, but nothing in Jade City shows the people have any real power, and those who have economic power are caught between loyalty and the threat of physical force. Lan and Shae are portrayed as more intelligent and long-term planners, but nothing in Jade City refutes Hilo’s belief that the people and government don’t matter in the clan war — and that’s a real problem.

    Smaller versions of this same problem bother me as well. Since this is a secondary world, the author creates automakers and vehicles, but she never differentiates them, even though theoretically describing them would help characterize Lan, Hilo, and Gont Asch, since they each have luxury automobiles that are dear to them. It’s a missed opportunity. The technology level and geopolitics are left hazy. The technology seems to be at late ‘60s / ‘70s levels (television has proliferated across Kekon in the last decade, light rail exists in Janloon, Kekon has an airport, and there are no computers), but I can’t be sure I’m just not getting details. The Espenians and Ygutanians are — I don’t know. Rivals? Enemies? Implacable foes? Superpowers? Regional powers? Their rivalry matters. Although martial arts (in a fantasy wuxia style) are an important part of the book, the actual combat happens rarely, and I don’t find the descriptions very convincing.

    As I said, these are smaller flaws. But it’s a 500-page book! There’s room to describe these important elements.

    The multiple points of view do have one major consequence. At the end of the book, Anden makes a major decision, but given the pages that focus on him throughout the book, I don’t feel the ground work for that decision was laid out well enough. If Anden hadn’t been a viewpoint character, I would’ve accepted his sudden turn, perhaps even been intrigued by it, but after so much time in his head … it just didn’t work. Contrast this with Wen, Hilo’s girlfriend at the book’s beginning. I wanted to know more about her, and in the second book in the series, I could see Lee making Wen a viewpoint character. But I think that would be a mistake — Wen is an intriguing character because we don’t know much about her, and her viewpoint chapter in Jade City feels like an unimportant diversion rather than time spent with someone I wanted to know better.

    What larger issues does this book address? “Address” is a bit strong. It touches upon the legacy of colonialism and what a struggle for self-determination turns into after the colonial oppressor is no longer there to struggle against, but that’s not a major issue in the book. The difficulty of women’s struggles to rise to the top of a male-dominated society is also a background note, but the diffusion of points of view means that doesn’t get foregrounded enough for this category. Loyalty is a major theme, but that’s hardly an issue.

    I suppose Jade City examines the responsibility of a government to those they govern through the prism of a non-traditional rulership structure. (Or a structure not generally considered functional in a non-corrupt way.) I don’t know that it says much about the concept, though; Hilo’s doctrine that existential threats require everyone to submit so that the government can survive is the clearest statement, although it isn’t challenged much and I don’t know that it’s a novel formulation.

    Does this book have a chance of winning the award? Maybe. I think Jade City is a bit too much on the popular side of the spectrum to win the Nebula, but on the other hand, a book that immerses the reader in a world this novel is always going to sway some amount of voters.

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    2017 Nebula nominee #1: Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

    18th May. 2018 | 06:33 pm

    Every year, I attempt to read all the nominees for the best novel in both the Hugo and Nebula awards. For many years, I have tried to quantify elements of those novels, giving them a total rating out of 30 in five categories. I’m tired of that. I’m switching to a more freeform review of the books, and since no one reads them, I don’t expect any objections. If you do have any objections, you can probably figure out where to lodge them.

    Spoonbenders coverThe first nominee for the Nebula for best novel is Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory:

    What is this book about? The Amazing Telemachus family was a famous psychic family in the ‘70s, but they were debunked on the Mike Douglas Show, and everything fell apart: the mother, Maureen, died soon after of cancer; the eldest child, Irene, was ground down by having to take care of her father and brothers and by her ability to know whenever someone was lying to her; middle child Frankie never learned how to harness his telekinesis effectively; and the baby of the family, Buddy, felt an almost impossible need to make sure his precognitive visions come true. By the ‘90s, everyone but patriarch Teddy has been beaten by life, something Irene’s son Matthias is eager to avoid, even if he’s unsure about how to harness his own greatness.

    Why was this book nominated? I suppose because it’s well written and often funny, but those qualifications rarely get books nominated for the best novel Nebula. Spoonbenders doesn’t check the normal boxes — first novel, addresses contemporary issues, explores new and fantastic ideas, explores a viewpoint of a non-white hetero male. Even the speculative elements are low key: it’s set in Chicagoland in 1995, and the Telemachuses don’t warp the setting’s reality at all.

    Is this book enjoyable to read? Yes, and it was the most enjoyable of the nominees by far. At no point did I considered throwing the book away, setting it aside for a while, or cursing those responsible for its nomination. (You’d think that’s a low bar to clear, but for a Nebula / Hugo nominee, it is not.) The book made me laugh frequently. Except for Frankie, the characters all are compelling, and even Frankie has an apt and acid tongue at times. The peril they face is kept well below a simmer for most of the book, but that gives the reader a chance to spend more of a relaxed time with each of them.

    Personally? The book’s setting is somewhat familiar to me, and one of the characters’ stories ends in a Denny’s near where I used to live, a place I can remember going to with my family. But this is a niche interest at best.

    Where does this book succeed? Spoonbenders is frequently laugh-out-loud funny without ever devolving into farce or mugging in a way that shows how hard it’s trying to be funny. That’s no small trick, and I especially appreciate it among Nebula nominees, whose tones frequently range from “dour” to “too serious for civilized society.”

    Gregory keeps the stakes small for most of the book, but he also makes the characters charming in their way and worth reading about — again, except for Frankie. (Although I’m not a fan of splitting a book among so many protagonists, a little background on why Frankie’s wife, Loretta, puts up with him would be nice.) Irene has a sharp sense of humor, and Teddy has an incredible sense of style. Poor Buddy is paralyzed by his precognitive powers, afraid any action will derail the future he has seen while also knowing not setting up the future scenes he has witnessed could derail the future as well. His worries about the future leaves him mute and seemingly mentally deficient, his actions baffling to those who can’t see time the way he does; sadly, over twenty years, he sees one moment of happiness for himself, and to make it come true he burns through the trust he has with this brother. Buddy’s end is predictable, but it’s no less enjoyable for that.

    Where does it fail? The book frequently dips into failure porn territory, especially with Frankie, a bad businessman who has fallen into debt with the mob and doesn’t even have his business any more. Frankie wallows in flop sweat, and his main strategy for getting out of the crippling debt with rising interest is to wait for his nephew to master his own powers. Buddy and Irene seem to be in an almost inescapable pit of loserdom for the first third of the book, and Matthias is pathetic in his own way (the way he manages to trigger his out of body experiences is to touch himself in a sexual way while thinking of his non-biologically related cousin).

    If you are not bothered by failure porn, then the inaction of Frankie and the lack of urgency shown by all the characters could still be a stumbling block. In the first third to half of the book, the protagonists do very little to improve their lives or drive the action. Part of that is because Buddy’s precognitive abilities mean he’s doing a lot of scene setting in the guise of doing nothing constructive.

    What larger issues does this book address? This is not a book about issues. Spoonbenders is set in suburban Chicago; although the characters are “different,” they have no struggle with society for acceptance, and their struggles with their own powers don’t move much from the ruts Gregory tells us the characters laid down before the book began. The mafia lurks throughout the story, but there’s nothing controversial about their role; Teddy believes in bilking the government, but he believes in bilking everyone, so that’s hardly an aberrant position. One of the characters falls in love with a transsexual prostitute in Alton, Ill., but that’s a very small detail — almost an afterthought, really.

    Does this book have a chance of winning the award? Looking at the last eight Nebula winners — the years in which I’ve read all the nominees — I’m guessing the chances are slim. Voters seem to like bigger stories: bigger stakes, bigger issues, bigger ideas. Spoonbenders is deliberately smaller in scale, named after the types of psychics with the lowest and most useless ability.

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    Dungeons & Dragons #16: City at the Edge of Midnight

    8th Sep. 2017 | 06:02 pm

    City at the Edge of Midnight title card

    Original air date: 22 September 1984
    Writer: Michael Reaves and Karl Geurs

    It’s almost midnight in a pleasant suburban bedroom. A child — later we’ll learn his name is Jimmy Whitaker — is in his bed, groggy with sleep. Jimmy’s a sci-fi / fantasy fan; he has two Dungeons & Dragons action figures on his dresser (Bowmarc with a sword instead of his shield and a miscolored Ogre King with a mace (?) instead of his shield). He also has an “Olter Space” poster, which is weird — who has a poster of “Outer Space,” and why would you put it on the wall with such a horrible misspelling?

    Jimmy Whitaker's bedroomAnyway, the floor under Jimmy’s bed turns red and starts to glow. This wakes Jimmy, who calls for his father. This is prescient of young Jimmy, as the red glow starts to pull him under the bed, with strange moaning noises coming from beyond the void. Jimmy tries to hang on to the bedding, but the power of the glow overwhelms his cheap J.C. Penney sheets. His father — pretty obviously voiced by Frank Welker, who gives Mr. Whitaker a mature Fred Jones (from Scooby-Doo) sound — bursts into the room and manages to grab Jimmy’s hands. Rather than trying to hold onto Jimmy with both hands, Mr. Whitaker uses only one, and Jimmy slips away.

    The red glow fades. Mr. Whitaker whispers, “Jimmy? Son?” He flips the bed up, finds nothing. He shouts: “Jimmy, where are you? Jimmy!”

    Outside, a police car pulls up. It’s a subtle, almost artistic touch.

    (If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “City at the Edge of Midnight” on Youtube. (It has the Season 1 intro.) Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

    Eric, Hank, Sheila, and Uni in the desertMeanwhile, in the Realms, the kids are lost in a desert with crystal stalagmites pushing up through the ground. This time, however, the heroes are all about putting the blame on someone. Three guesses who that is, and the first two don’t — yes, you don’t have to shout, I can hear you. Of course it’s the Cavalier who gets blamed. When someone else leads them astray and they end up wandering without an idea of where they are, no one gets named. But let Eric make a mistake, and everyone knows who’s to blame. Eric defends himself: “OK, so I made a wrong turn. Trust me: I figured it out. We just head that way, and …” He’s interrupted by Presto walking by on his knees, croaking, “Water …”

    Eric has had enough, and I think he’s got a point here. He hasn’t named names in the past, and this time he’s trying to make it right. The complaining of others, as he well knows from his own stints as the complainer, don’t help. He sits down to sulk, saying he knows exactly where they are; Presto says, sure he does: “Hundred miles from nowhere, and fifty miles from any place.” That’s a good line, Presto, but you’re picking on the wrong target.

    Eric's finger almost touches Dungeon MasterEric emphatically points in the direction they should go and is disgusted when he almost touches Dungeon Master. Man, I wouldn’t want to touch him either. Everyone’s overjoyed to see Dungeon Master but Eric, who puts his head in his hands. I’m with you, Eric. Hey, would it kill the gnome to give the kids a compass and a map? No, but it would make them less dependent on ol’ DM, and he can’t have that.

    This is the portion of the show where Dungeon Master doles out cryptic advice, and his stooges lap it up. To save time, I’ll give you the summary: “You will find both safety and danger ahead.” (“Do we have to find both?” Sheila asks. If anyone else gave Sheila guff for opinions that would get Eric accused cowardice, that question would be OK, but since no one else will say anything: Shut up, Sheila.) “You must find the City at the Edge of Midnight … You will find your way — or rather, your way will find you — and time is on your side. But heed this warning: There are others who are more lost than you shall ever be. Children from this world, and yours.” (That’s not a warning, per se. That’s advice, or maybe it’s a platitude.) “It is up to you to save them.”

    Sparkling sand washes over Hank, Diana, Sheila, and BobbyThis time Dungeon Master adds a new exit into his rotation: he disappears in a blast of sparkly sand. Well, I suppose I’d get tired of just disappearing around a tree or a rock too; even if you leave the rubes open mouthed all the time, you’d want to challenge yourself with a more difficult trick every now and then. The kids show no appreciation for the more impressive escape, showing their usual befuddlement and grousing over DM’s lack of straightforwardness.

    When Presto wants to put the responsibility for choosing a new direction on Eric, the Cavalier refuses. “Oh, no … I quit.” When Presto explains he was only kidding, Eric says, “You can find another fall guuuuuuuuuuy —” and falls down a dune into a tree. The writers have one rule they must abide by — never let Eric exit a scene with any dignity — and they put that rule into full effect here.

    Eric slams his crotch against a treeA bunch of flowers falls on Eric as he hits the tree crotch first. Evidently, his armor comes with a steel codpiece because his voice doesn’t immediately elevate three octaves. The other kids are just as surprised by the tree (and the oasis it’s part of) as he is, but he insists everything is a mirage, even as Bobby, Diana, and Uni splash around in the pool in the middle of the oasis.

    Then the hook horrors attack, making his insistence that his friends are frolicking in an oasis a moot point. (Again, to rob Eric of his dignity, he leaps into the arms of Bobby like Scooby-Doo leaps into Shaggy’s arms. Bobby falls over, dumping them both into the water.)

    Who are those guys?” Presto asks, while Sheila asks, “What are those guys?” Eric has the relevant answer: “I’ll tell what they are: They’re surrounding us!”

    Hook horrors attackAs the monsters move to attack, Hank eventually realizes he has a ranged weapon and fires, shooting off sparks when his arrow hits the water near a hook horror. That one runs away, but the others aren’t frightened … until a guy in a turban and swinging a scimitar rams his mutated elephant into a nearby wall. “What in the world?” Eric asks, seemingly more amazed by this guy than the hook horrors. I suppose it makes sense: He must be used to all sorts of weird creatures trying to kill him by this point, but someone with style who wants to help them? That’s just bizarre.

    “You dare to enter this beautiful oasis!” the most interesting man in the Realm shouts at them. “You dare to frighten these poor, defenseless, miserable little creatures!” He’s winking at the other kids, who are in on the joke, and he immediately picks on Eric. This man knows which way the wind is blowing immediately. “Well?”

    Eric standing alone “Well what?” Eric asks, honestly confused by the man’s question. This is a good choice; Eric sometimes quails in front of people who want to talk, but I think having him shout back at them or just talk is a better idea. The man laughs in response, then proposes that they “knock the monsters’ socks off.” While the rest of the group rushes off for a battle montage, Eric remains behind, befuddled. “Will somebody tell me what’s going on? … Who is that guy?”

    The man says the party is “hot stuff,” although mainly what they’ve done is annoy the hook horrors. In punishment for Eric demanding answers, the man and the rest of the party allow Eric to be surrounded by the monsters. Just as it seems Eric is about to be eaten for his insolence (read: reasonable questions), the man taps his scimitar on a stone. It becomes a sonic weapon, allowing him to drive the horrors away and trap them in their caves with rockfalls. After this show of effective magic item use — something they rarely see — the kids flock to the man, with Bobby and Sheila quick to embrace him.

    Eric complaining to Ramoud while Bobby glares at EricThe kids give the credit to the older man — a reasonable choice — but the newcomer says “we” did it. “What do you mean ‘we’?” Eric asks. “‘We’ means ‘us,’ me and them. I know who they are, they know who I am, but who are you?” This confusing, frustrated question gets the man to introduce himself: Ramoud, a caravan merchant from Qadesh.

    Ramoud calls Eric “the brave one” because Eric was the first to enter “the Forbidden Oasis of No Return.” That name is trying too hard, really. “Forbidden Oasis”? Great name. “Oasis of No Return”? Ominous, although you don’t think of oases as things you return from (or don’t return from). But both names together … I don’t know, man. The oasis is sort of an evil Brigadoon, according to Ramoud: The oasis pops up once every year, “a trap for unwary travelers.” So maybe the singers of tales wanted to double down on the warning to travelers, because “spending the night … changed [people] into monsters.”

    Ramoud offers the kids a chance to join his caravan, but frankly, we never see anyone in his caravan but him — well, him and his grummels, the mutated elephants that he crosses the desert on. It’s hardly a caravan. The party jumps on that offer like the attention-starved (and food-starved) kids they are. Eric tries to counsel caution, but he hears the cries of the hook horrors from the oasis and quiets his objections. Before the scene can end, though, he has to be humiliated one last time: The command to make his grummel move forward is “k’trash,” but Eric has trouble saying it because he can’t roll his r’s. Hey, I can’t either, so I don’t think it’s funny. Ramoud approaches his grummel while the party looks onWhen he finally gets the grummel to move, it gallops after its fellows, to the amusement of the others.

    (Geek aside: Hook horrors appeared in the Fiend Folio. They have no spoken language, speaking to one another with a series of “clacking noises with the exoskeleton — an eerie sound which can alarm the unwary as it echoes around dungeon corridors.” Despite this and the horrors being nine feet tall, “there is only a 10% chance of surprising a hook horror.” I wouldn’t plan a birthday party for one, then. Regardless of what Ramoud says, the FF gives no indication the horrors were once human.

    Grummels were created for the cartoon.
    )

    ***

    Oh, if you’re waiting for Venger to show up, he won’t. This is the fourth episode, after “Beauty and the Bogbeast,” “The Garden of Zinn,” and “P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster,” that he doesn’t appear in.

    ***

    Despite being the only person in his “caravan,” Ramoud has set up several immense pavilions, and he serves the kids a sumptuous banquet in one of them. What are the other tents for? I think one is filled with his laughter; Ramoud is an overly jolly guy.

    Ramoud and the party feastEveryone but Bobby and Eric have finished their meals, with Presto and Uni so overfull they’ve already drifted to sleep. Even Bobby can’t eat forever, though, and he has to pass the rest of his dessert on to Eric, who’s no fool: He knows he can never count on future meals with Hank in charge, so he’s eating as much as he can put away. Eric enjoys the quality as well as the quantity, though: “This is better than anything back home!” he says. Sheila makes a gentle crack about the way to a man’s stomach, which … does Sheila mean Ramoud is trying to romantically ensnare Eric? Or that Eric might now have romantic fixations on Ramoud? I’m confused.

    This is Ramoud’s cue to get slightly inappropes with Sheila: “Dear Sheila, your voice reminds me of my daughter. Well … time for bed.” Uh, no, old man — I don’t care how it is in your family.

    Fortunately, Eric is not in the mood: “Nah, I could eat all night.” But then Eric makes the faux pas of asking about Ramoud’s daughter. This seems like the sort of oblivious mistake Eric should make, rather than falling down hills and such. The rest of the party glances at each other, embarrassed, and Eric picks up on it. “Did I say something?” he asks.

    “She is not here any more,” Ramoud says. “She … disappeared from my palace one night, a long time ago.” Eric asks if Ramoud has looked for her, then stammers that the party can help him look. Hank and Presto voice their support for the idea; “It’s the least we can do!” Presto says. No, Presto — the least you can do is absolutely nothing. If you ever figured that out, you wouldn’t be roped into doing all of Dungeon Master’s dirty work. Ramoud declines their offer, saying, “I know where she is. There is just no way to reach her yet. It’s a long, long story, and we’re already almost to the commercial break!”

    Ramoud stands in front of the partyOK — he doesn’t say anything about the commercial break; I lied about that. He tries to get the party back on track by standing and calling them a family, but the colorists make a poor choice here: His pants are the same color as his skin, which makes him look like he’s pantsless and smooth as a Ken doll. He’s acting like a particularly confident and brazen cult leader, frankly. Given that the party has followed him without question for food and affection, I’d say he’s found the right people to welcome to his odd little sect.

    Actually, I’m not sure these kids, especially the core Getalong Gang members, should return to our world. If any of them got caught alone by a nice man looking for a puppy or offering candy from his white panel van, they’d just disappear again — until their bleached bones are found in some isolated Southern California valley or alongside some freeway.

    ***

    Hank near the water clockThey are not bleached bones now, though. The kids go to bed, with Hank blowing out the lamp next to the water clock. Hey, did you know “clepsydra” is another name for a water clock? It’s true! Now you know this useless info as well.

    Hank tells the others they’ll start looking for “that city,” which I suppose means the City at the Edge of Midnight. The others are united in their grumbling; for once, Eric’s part of the group. “Can’t we stay?” Presto asks. “Ramoud’s awfully nice, and I’ve already promised him all my worldly goods if he keeps calling me his son.” OK, OK — he doesn’t say he’s promised Ramoud anything, but Presto totally would if Ramoud asked.

    “He’s the next-best thing to having a real dad,” Diana says, and we get a brief glimpse Eric’s home life when he says, “Are you kidding? He’s better than my dad ever was.”

    Sheila crying over a dollThen Ramoud sneaks up on the kids. Oh, he intimates he was checking to see if they were asleep, but I’m sure he was making sure no one was speaking badly of the cult father (i.e., him). He tells them to go to sleep, then gives Sheila a doll (“to hold you safe in your dreams”) and a kiss on the forehead. Oh, of course he chooses the white girl to give the doll to. Poor Diana — even in the Realms, her dark skin makes her second-best to the white girl. The doll belonged to Ramoud’s daughter, Ayesha, and however heartbroken Ramoud is about the loss of his daughter, he’s grooming Sheila as a replacement. Sheila tries to refuse the gift, but Ramoud insists: “If I never find her, I would like to know it is loved by one as lovely as she.”

    Exit tent left, Ramoud. Sheila cries while holding the doll. Sheila is a crier, though, so I wouldn’t make too much of it.

    The clepsydra counts down to midnight. Uni rouses itself and starts growling at nothing. Unicorns growl, I guess? Sure, why not? The reason Uni growled is soon revealed: The ground under Bobby glows red, and then the glow envelops him as Uni bleats in terror.

    ***

    When we return from commercial break, Sheila is screaming her brother’s name as Bobby is drawn into a grave-shaped hole in the earth. Evidently, both he and Uni moved from his bed in time not to be dropped into a lurid underworld, but now it draws him in, despite his sister’s attempts to hold him in this world. Hank decides the proper course of rescue is to shoot the hole. Sure, why not? Better than trying to hold onto Bobby with his weak, noodly arms — I mean, Sheila’s got that angle covered.

    Nightwalker appears in red glittery energyBut shooting into the hole has an effect, as it starts gouting red energy, followed by the emergence of a giant humanoid figure in bondage armor. I suppose I shouldn’t make value judgments about the otherworld; if they want to live the freaky life, how does that hurt me?

    Ramoud, who was drawing his scimitar as we came back from commercial, has been waiting for this. “It is him!” he shouts. “I have found him at last! All I had to do was offer him more children!” No, again, Ramoud doesn’t claim to have offered the kids as bait for the creature who stole his daughter. But I think we all know he did. Why else was he lurking in their tent at midnight?

    Ramoud charges; the creature uses a breath weapon on him, knocking him to the ground. The monster then picks up Bobby (whose scream is voiced by Adam Rich, the voice of Presto). “This one,” bondage giant says, “is mine.” He then disappears, as does his rectilinear hole in the earth. Sheila beats on the ground where the hole was, which should be expected.

    “He is gone, little one,” Ramoud says, comforting Sheila. Hank demands to know where Bobby went, and Ramoud replies: “To the City at the Edge of Midnight. This … this is what happened to my daughter. My Ayesha … stolen by the Beast Who Has No Name. He is known only as the Nightwalker.”

    Wait — you just said he had no name, and then, in the very next sentence, you said his name was the Nightwalker. I know you’re upset, man, but start making sense!

    (Geek aside: The nightwalker did not appear in the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons [AD&D is what people mean when they say “Dungeons & Dragons”]. This episode is creature’s first appearance; in 1985, the nightshade appeared in the basic version of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that had been superseded by the advanced version. The nightshade had three subtypes: nightcrawler, nightwing, and nightwalker. The nightwalker is the only one of the three that does not share a name with a superhero. The creature first appeared in the main D&D game in 3rd edition.)

    Ramoud and the party reopen a portal with energyThe clock strikes midnight. Eric recants his resistance to heading to the City at the Edge of Midnight (CatEoM), saying, “Let’s get that thing open!” Which is a great goal, but how do you open a portal to the CatEoM? That’s certainly something they couldn’t figure out before — Ramoud never figured it out, certainly — and they haven’t talked about it since. But everyone seems to know instinctively what to do: Presto conjures purple star magic out of his hat, Diana lets Ramoud activate his sonic scimitar on her staff, and Hank fires his arrows at the spot where the two converge. Voila! A magic reddish-purple grave! Now they can all jump in and die — which they do, with Toei Animation doing an impressive job of shading their faces with the magic light as they fall.

    ***

    The CatEoM is a sort of Gothic European town, built of stone, and completely deserted.
    “Somehow I don’t think we’re in Kansas City, guys,” Diana says. Of course you aren’t — everything’s up to date in Kansas City, and as Eric notes, the clocks aren’t working in the CatEoM. They’re a couple of minutes slow — the edge of midnight, one might say. Also, Kansas City has very few demon creatures skulking around the alleys and doorways — at least not since the eradication projects of the ‘80s — and the CatEoM is lousy with them.

    Tiny demons pour out of a buildingPresto thinks the party is being watched. Hank, the boy who has never heard of a jinx, says, “That’s OK, long as they want to do is watch.” As soon as he says that, the little demons start pouring out of doorways and windows, emitting weird barking and quack / hiss noises. Good one, Hank.

    The party flees, and they let themselves get trapped in a dead-end alley. It was Hank who led them down there, too. But oh, let anyone question Hank’s competence, and that person is the problem. Ramoud still wants to fight their way past the lil’ nightstalkers, but Sheila counsels giving up. She doesn’t phrase it like that, though — “They might take us to Ayesha and Bobby,” she says to Ramoud — and Hank and Ramoud decide surrender might be the best option.

    “Sheila, you are as brave as my own Ayesha,” Ramoud says, “but if any harm comes to you, then the Nightwalker will pay.” I … I thought you already wanted the Nightwalker to pay. I mean, he did steal your daughter already — your biological daughter, I mean.

    ***

    As the clocks in the CatEoM strain toward midnight without ever reaching it, the little demons take the party to the Nightwalker and his captured slave children. As it turns out, surrendering was the right idea! It allowed them to get where they wanted to go — inside a giant clock tower — and the demons didn’t disarm them. That’s not being captured; that’s being given an escort.

    Kids hammering a chock into clock gearsThe kids stolen from their beds are all working their hardest to keep the clock from advancing: pulling against the gears, driving chocks where the gears mesh, pushing a post like Conan did as a child. One kid, exhausted, falls to the floor; a night creature snarls at her until she resumes her pushing. Diana wonders what they’re doing.

    “They hold back the wheels of time,” the Nightwalker says. “They keep time frozen forever, for the clock must never strike midnight.” You know, dude, I don’t think that’s how time works; I can smash all the clocks I want, and time keeps dragging on. But I shouldn’t tell you what to do: You’ve got a successful child-abducting / clock-stopping business going on.

    On the other hand: You’ve just told your enemies what you don’t want to happen. They’re going to make it happen, bondage goblin.

    The Nightwalker plans to put the party and Ramoud to work with the kids, including Bobby and Ayesha, who are supposedly working high in the tower. The Nightstalker wants to get in a little light blasting before putting the kids to work, though, so he shoots a beam of POWER! at the kids. Eric catches it on his shield; Hank counters with an arrow, but the Nightstalker brushes it aside. The Nightstalker’s little helpers come to Big Daddy’s aid, and despite Ramoud’s sonic scimitar, there are too many to fight. The party is forced to retreat.

    The party heads for that thingAs they run toward part of the clock mechanism, Hank says, “Get up on that thing!” What is that thing? Who knows! Three groups of children are holding it down with ropes, though, and once everyone but Eric is on it (he’s withstanding another Nightstalker blast), Hank severs the ropes with his arrow. Eric manages to grab Ramoud’s hand as the surface rises …

    … oh, it’s a counterweight. I get it now. So the party has escaped, but Sheila’s already complaining: “Now what? How do we find Bobby and Ayesha?” Diana reminds her that the Nightstalker said the two were in the tower, and that’s where they’re going, so … you know, they’re on the right track, Sheila. Tone down the whining for once. Eric complains the weight is rising too quickly, but Presto puts his blind faith in Dungeon Master: “Dungeon Master said time’s on our side, and he’s been right about everything so far.”

    You shut your damn gob, Presto. Yes, DM was right about safety and danger, but that’s so vague it could be part of any sideshow psychic’s bag of tricks. Of course he knew other kids were more lost than you; he can see everything, and you’ve already found kids more lost than you in the past (c.f. “The Lost Children” and “The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow”). And yes, your path found you, but that always happens — and frankly, if you start off without a plan or idea of where your destination is, it will always be true. You should believe Dungeon Master because he wants you to safely jump through his hoops, not because he has precognitive powers.

    Hank, through a belabored series of exclamations, realizes that getting the clock running again would be to their benefit. Well, if the bad guy’s trying to stop it …

    Eric loses his cool at Bobby (offscreen)The grand plan to get off the weight is to jump — I could have thought of that one — although there might have been some attempts to swing the weight back and forth before that. (The view of the characters is askew, but not moving. Not the best job by Toei there.) The weight smashes something at the top of the clock, and the destruction gains Bobby’s attention, allowing everyone to regroup. Bobby immediately asks if they brought something to eat; Eric exclaims, “What? After all we’ve been through, all you can say is — ”

    “Cool it,” Hank says. You know what, Hank? F*$& you. When Eric complains about his hunger — in scenes that do not immediately follow large feasts — everyone wonders how he can think about his stomach (c.f. “The Treasure of Tardos”), and you don’t say one damn word. But as everyone just fell asleep stuffed, Eric’s reaction is reasonable, yet you still shut him down. You are the worst, Hank — just the worst: a jumped-up straw boss whose leadership qualifications lie mainly in his coiffure.

    Bobby hasn’t seen Ayesha, which enrages Ramoud: “The Nightwalker lied!” I know, right? You used to be able to count on the word of a demon who stole children. As Ramoud’s call for Ayesha draws only little demons, the party goes back to restarting the clock. Bobby smashes … stuff, ropes fray, gears move, and then —

    The nightwalker disappears, surrounded by red energyMidnight strikes. The Nightstalker contorts in pain, surrounded by sparkle-magic and red contrails. The children are released from the Nightstalker’s spell; Hank guesses they’re going back home, which is a good guess but not one we have confirmed.

    The Nightstalker disappears. The party hears braying laughter, followed by, “That’s the end of the boogey-man.” The laughter comes from Jimmy Whitaker, who wonders how the others got into his dream. The others try to convince him this isn’t a dream and to tell their parents they’re OK and will be home soon. (That last bit is a bit optimistic, but OK.) Jimmy doesn’t believe them, though, as this is the Sunday after (or the same day) the others went to the amusement park. Evidently Jimmy had to stay home to do homework instead of heading to the park. “See in you in the morning at school,” he says as he disappears.

    As the party itself disappears to leave the CatEoM, Eric is incensed: “One chance to get a message back home, and it had to be Jimmy Whitaker.” Not one chance; this is the second, after Terri in “The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow,” who presumably figured out how to get a message to your parents. Anyway, given that the police have been called and the kids will be missing on Monday, Jimmy will presumably figure things out. “I always told you guys Whitaker was a wimp, but did anybody listen? No! If we ever get home, I’m going straight over to Whitaker’s house and — ”

    DM and EricA pratfall is one way to end a tirade of righteous indignation, and because this is Eric, that’s what the writers have chosen. Eric falls off the edge of a dune, falling at the feet of Dungeon Master. “Welcome back, Cavalier!” Dungeon Master says, cheerily. If ever there were a time for you to use a shield bash, this would be it, Eric.

    But no, the moment passes when Dungeon Master calls Ramoud “your majesty,” and he is reunited with Ayesha. As Ramoud orders a celebration, Sheila approaches Dungeon Master; she’s confused by the title, and Dungeon Master explains that caravan merchant is “a disguise he has used while searching for his daughter. Ramoud is a king — a king of many kings, ruler of a vast land to the east.” Sheila wonders why this great man would call them his children, while I’m wondering how an emperor could just quit being an emperor for a while. I mean, the man has responsibilities to thousands, if not millions, of subjects! What if his viziers can’t handle the responsibility? What if those he handed his duties to are corrupted by power? What if civil war overtakes his lands in the absence of a strong, wise ruler? Ah, but he found his daughter, and that makes it all worth it.

    Dungeon Master says, with a sad expression, “That is the next choice you must face.” Dungeon Master is sad because someone might obstruct his child endangerment hobby.

    ***

    “This is for you, Sheila, for always,” Ayesha says, allowing Sheila to keep the doll Ramoud gave her. This sounds generous, but Ayesha’s tone of voice is one of a political prisoner being forced to say something against her will. Has Ayesha traded one controlling master for another? No! It’s just bad voice acting.

    Hank and Ramoud embraceRamoud provisions the kids for “many weeks.” Golly! We might not open next episode with them starving or thirsting. He turns to Hank. “How can I ever thank … you?” He gives that last word a sensual emphasis I find disturbing. Hank’s reply — a bashful “You’ve already thanked us, your majesty” — doesn’t help, nor does the embrace Ramoud, in his flesh-tone pantaloons, insist upon.

    “I’m sorry we can’t stay,” Hank says. I’ll bet you are. “It’s just that we’ve got to keep searching for the way back home.”

    Ramoud agrees and says goodbye. (Evidently he’s also giving them the grummels as well. Generous man!) As everyone is shouting farewells, we get a repeat of an earlier joke: Eric can’t roll his r’s to command the grummel, but when he gets close enough (not very close), it takes off over the desert, nearly throwing him to the ground. Hilarious!

    Meanwhile, roll these lessons over your tongue:

    • To open a door to another world, just keep hitting the ground with all your power until a portal appears.
    • Cult leaders and flesh-colored pants go together like Kool-Aid and cyanide.
    • Don’t be afraid to jump into a glowing grave.
    • Hank is the worst.
    • The parable of the good shepherd holds true in the Realms, as long as the lost sheep is a close biological relative. In that case, who cares how many sheep are put in jeopardy?
    • If you don’t believe you have enough time at work to complete your tasks, sabotage as many clocks and watches as you can find to stop time.
    Going home tally: No portal is mentioned this time. They’ve found five portals home; two of those times they’ve briefly gone through the portal.

    Monster tally: One from the Fiend Folio. Totals: MM: 32; FF: 6; L&L: 1; Dragon: 1.

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    2017 Hugo nominee #6: Death's End by Cixin Liu

    4th Sep. 2017 | 02:16 pm

    So the sixth Hugo nominee is Death’s End by Cixin Liu. I have a confession to make about this book: I could not finish it.

    After reading every Hugo nominee for the last umpteen years, I could only get through a third of Death’s End. Because of that, I’m not going to evaluate the book like I did the other nominees. The book was the dullest form of entertainment I believe I have experienced in the last decade. An example: after finishing a chapter in which aliens treacherously betray their human allies, I turned the page to see the next chapter was titled “Ten Minutes to Armageddon.” I thought, “Well, that’s as good a place to stop as any. I can’t imagine anything interesting will happen in that chapter.”

    As it turned out, I was right, but I knew I would be correct only because nothing interesting ever happened.

    The future, as it turns out, is populated by non-entities, absolute drips who have nothing to recommend them as party guests or conversationalists. They are supremely uninteresting, so the only people the book follows are in the future because they froze themselves so to be revived for cures (or time tourism). The people of the future are as bad at democracy as we are, which I expect is a criticism of the entire idea of democracy by Liu. The woman who is more-or-less the protagonist is a wet noodle of a human being, born in the 20th century, becoming important in the 21st, and dooming humanity in the farther future. (I can’t figure out whether Liu is telling an elaborate joke in which the punchline is, “You had one job — literally one job,” or whether I’m supposed to take everything at face value.)

    Science fiction has trouble portraying suitably alien aliens. Although I don’t find the aliens in Death’s End incomprehensible, I do find the storytelling alien. Why am I supposed to be interested in this story full of characters with no personality, a society so unchallenged it can’t maintain a simple plan that involves flipping a switch or even have a contingency plan? I can’t imagine why I would be interested in this book.

    But my relief in no longer forcing myself to read this book was disturbed by the near-unanimous praise Death’s End has received both critically and on Amazon. Was I reading a different book than these people? I can’t bring myself to care about the technical challenges to humanity that reviewers marvel about because I can’t bring myself to care about this ineffectual humanity Liu has imagined; the only thoughts provoked by this book was, “Maybe humanity deserves to be eaten by aliens, given current events and what Liu envisions the future to be like.”

    Actually, that would be a great twist. I can imagine picking up Death’s End again if I found out aliens did eat humanity, and the last half of the book was a cookbook.

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    2017 Hugo nominee #5: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

    4th Sep. 2017 | 02:12 pm

    Too Like the Lightning coverThe fifth Hugo Nominee is Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer:

    Plot: Retro-futuristic utopia — with a flaw! (And I’m not saying that because this is only half a novel.) The 25th-century world of Too Like the Lightning is unlike our own in almost every way. Ultra-fast transportation has made it possible to commute anywhere on Earth for work and play. This transport revolution has made the nation-state and its old rivalries obsolete — why live where you were born when you can live somewhere more compatible to your temperament and still work the same job? The nation-state has been replaced by seven large ethical allegiances, which anyone can choose to join. The family has been radically changed, with biological bonds downplayed for the bash’, a grouping of like-minded people who come together during college to form a household. (A bash’ may continue for generations, adding and losing members as the years go on.) That old divisive topic, religion, is downplayed, with public proselytizing and displays forbidden; nu-priests called sensayers counsel those they are assigned to, giving overviews of many views of ethical and religious thoughts to all life’s problems, and only they are allowed to speak to more than two people at a time about religion. All the ethical arguments the characters have highly depend on Enlightenment thought.

    The book kicks off with the investigation of what is a small kerfuffle: one of the 7-10 lists, which rank the most influential people in the world, has been stolen and placed in the house of the bash’ that remotely pilots most of the world’s cars. That kicks off a desultory investigation into who would have done it and why; frankly, the book is more interested in describing the world’s leaders and power structure than plot development. Mycroft Canner, the narrator and a reformed serial killer, is the narrator, and he alternately helps and hinders the investigation, which is not assiduously pursued by anyone we can see.

    Lightning is heavy on world-building, and by world-building, I mean justification of the book’s premises through philosophy. It is tiring to listen to characters tell each other (and the reader) just how reasonable the world Palmer has constructed is. I do not care, honestly; I will accept a lot of strange premises and move on, but the more I’m told how logical everything is the more suspicious I get. Perhaps I should be very suspicious — after all, Enlightenment thinkers were mostly upper class and not known as the most enlightened when it came to the common man, and for all their thinking, they weren’t all outspoken about the evil of slavery. Palmer gives some hints we should be suspicious, but they aren’t very strong.

    Like Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Lightning is only half a complete story, and the reader is not given an indication of that until pg. 400 or so out of 430. No attempt is made to wrap up a story — any story — in the final 100 pages. The plot twist that caps Lightning is one that would have occurred about halfway through a mystery novel, and it’s not enough to get me to return to the sequel. (Although I suppose the twist’s placement is halfway through this story as well.) To be fair, the incompleteness of Lightning isn’t as egregious as it is in Hyperion; I wanted to beat Simmons around the face and shoulders with a copy of Hyperion after finishing that book, but my reaction to Lightning’s end isn’t that extreme. 1 of 5

    Protagonists: Mycroft, the story’s narrator, is a serial killer in a world where that crime is vanishingly rare. Most non-dangerous criminals are used as a slave caste, forced to work for whomever wants them to labor, and their only recompense is food. (Somehow, the world powers believe Mycroft to be neutered, although most of Earth’s populace believed he was executed.) Mycroft murdered an entire bash’, although we are never told why, exactly; it probably has something to do with that influential family’s erroneous political and economic theories. I suspect Palmer is saving the revelation for the sequel / second volume, but whatever his reasoning is would be much more interesting than the story Palmer has told.

    Mycroft has connections to every important person in the world of Lightning, and I kept waiting for any indication that that was significant, other than allowing us to get a glimpse of the powerful. Mycroft gives us only the barest hints that he may have a plan that would be facilitated by being close to the world’s elites, and that’s not good enough. I listened to Mycroft for 400+ pages, and I want some indication he has a plan to influence his surroundings, rather than being ordered from half-completed task to half-completed task by overly philosophical, overly smug heads of non-states.

    Mycroft claims he is not the protagonist, which is understandable. He doesn’t move the plot, in most cases, even though he chronicles it. However, the person Mycroft nominates as protagonist is Bridger, a 13-year-old boy who can bring the inanimate to life and create anything his imagination can come up with. Mycroft says Bridger is the protagonist because he could change the world, which is true, but he doesn’t actually do so. In the book, he’s a boy who is kept sequestered from the world and is protected by other characters. His actions influence the plot not a jot. He is hunted without taking any significant counteractions to elude his hunters. Really, he’s a Macguffin, not a character.

    So who’s the protagonist? Mycroft, I suppose. But he’s a pretty unsatisfying one. 0 of 5

    Villains: Who knows? The big plot twist is that an entire bash’ may be serial killers, subtly ridding the world of non-entities that have some connection to the powerful to further political stability. I have no real investment in the idea, as Palmer has so thoroughly directed the readers’ attention away from the idea of instability that I don’t take any of it seriously. The lone survivor of the family Mycroft killed is a rabble-rouser warning of the concentration of political power, but that character is mostly a non-entity, and Palmer also does such a lackadaisical job highlighting the interconnectedness of the elites that I can’t be sure if the rabble-rouser is a villain or if it’s literally everyone else in the book.

    I do want to kick a lot of self-satisfied, hypocritical aristos in the crotch, but I have no idea whether that’s because they’re bad people or annoying people. I’d have to read the next book to find out, and the only way I would read it is if I did get to kick those people in the jubblies. 0 of 5

    Inventiveness: Creating an ideal society based on a set of philosophical precepts is an idea literally older than Christianity, and a future that is unrecognizable because the foundations of society have been washed away is a mainstay of science fiction. Combining the two isn’t that different either. But I admit, not many books use the Enlightenment so obviously and literally to create a future. I think (although I’m not sure) that the way worldwide transportation has made everything meaningless — distance, nation, allegiances, traditional family, freedom — is different.

    The dust jacket says the world of Lightning is “as strange to our twenty-first century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s.” I don’t think that’s true, as many of the ideas are extensions of present theories and technology (growing secularism, more non-nuclear, non-traditional families, hyperloop, etc.). The 25th century is as unlikeable as the 1500s, though. 6 of 10

    Fun: Not the least fun book I’ve read this year, although that’s damning with faint (and literal) praise. Usually, even a difficult book becomes engaging enough I can depart from forcing myself to read X pages per night by about halfway through; the book becomes interesting enough reading is no longer a chore. However, it was only in the last fifth of the book that I had any investment in what was going on.

    Philosophy does not necessarily make for exciting reading, I’ll tell you that, and the book has no action to speak of. It doesn’t even have any investigations of note to move the plot along; instead, Mycroft is dispatched from locale to locale at the whim of others, learning nothing (in part because Mycroft seems to know everything already), and I can’t bring myself to care. 1 of 5

    Total: 8 of 30. A different sort of story, indifferently told.

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    2017 Hugo nominee #4: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

    4th Sep. 2017 | 02:08 pm

    A Closed and Common Orbit coverThe fourth Hugo nominee is A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers:

    Plot: The Pinocchio syndrome in space! Except the AI given a body isn’t sure she wants to be human-like — or humanoid, for that matter.

    At the end of Becky Chambers’s first book, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, ship’s AI Lovelace endured a catastrophic failure and had to be rebooted, losing much of her memories and accumulated personality along the way. As one of the ship’s crew was in love with Lovelace (and she with him), Lovelace’s continued presence was considered too painful to remain on-ship, so her rebooted personality was downloaded into a humanoid shell and sent away.

    Lovelace, who adopts the name Sidra, now must adapt to a life she didn’t choose — her personality before the reboot, not her, had considered being downloaded into the kit — and has to conceal her true nature, as it’s illegal for to AIs to reside in shells that look sentient beings. This is an excellent setup, and it should lend itself to a great deal of conflict and excitement.

    It does not. Chambers is conflict-averse, and while Common Orbit isn’t as bad as Angry Planet in that regard, Chambers passes up obvious points to inject tension into the story. What’s the riskiest, most revealing thing Sidra does? She gets a tattoo. What comes closest to revealing Sidra’s illegal nature? A bad reaction to the tattoo nanobots, which displays her nature to the tattoo artist, Tak. Tak is taken aback by the revelation, but quickly comes around; from the readers’ point of view, Tak immediately accepts Sidra’s true nature. The narration says it takes a few tendays, but the conflict is resolved within a few pages — Tak reconciles his previous prejudices with a new point of view. He has to, right? What else could a rational being do in Chambers’s world of tolerance and empathy?

    Common Orbit is most interested in acceptance, so characters rarely run into prejudice, runaway egos, or anything dangerous. (“Acceptance” is even used in a back-cover blurb from Wired’s Geekdad: “Sweeping in scope but human at heart, A Closed and Common Orbit is a very moving examination of what we all crave most: acceptance.”) I don’t agree with any of the superlatives — the scope is pretty narrow, given the small cast and limited settings, and I don’t remember ever being moved — but there’s no doubt we’re supposed to agree with or immediately buy into this secular, non-judgmental society whose only hang-up seems to be its AI restrictions (and acceptance of less-than-perfect societies). Chambers spends an entire page on the sexes of Tak’s race — an irrelevant set of details — but that’s more space than we get about any dissenting views to … well, anything. In this universe, prejudices seem to be held because of an unthinking acceptance of current mores; engaging with these erroneous opinions causes them to go away. But that’s not the way humans are, and it makes Chambers’s narrative fall flat: Sidra achieves acceptance, yes, but she does it with so little pushback that it feels inevitable.

    Part of the problem is that Chambers splits the book into two, interweaving Sidra’s story with that of her human guide / friend / protector, Pepper. Pepper’s story is exciting — she survives in a junkyard her entire teen years with the help of an AI in a derelict ship — but as the readers already know how it will end, the story’s tension is undercut. Pepper’s story, fleshed out into a full-length novel, would have been a more satisfying read, especially if the reader didn’t know the ending. But as tense as some bits of Pepper’s story are, her tale has no extraneous characters we can worry about, no stakes other than the one we know will pay off. It’s very linear, and it doesn’t even feature much conflict between Pepper and the AI who helps her except for a very brief bout of teenage surliness that runs against the AI’s middle-aged weariness.

    I guess what I’m saying is: Throw some damn rocks at your characters. 1 of 5

    Protagonists: Ah, the protagonists. Living in a world filled with Pepper and her friends would be marvelous; there would be few arguments about political distractions and trivialities, and they’re easy to get along with. As compelling personalities, however …

    Sidra is the main character, and her struggle is mainly internal. This struggle manifests itself externally in such compelling ways as “getting a tattoo” and “wanting to retreat into the artificial womb.” Sidra’s difficulties are mental, despite the ostensibly real, physical dangers of her existence, and that makes it harder to empathize with her conflicts. One could easily find a correlation between the problems her programming makes for her and mental illness, but given the ease with which she overcomes those problems, I don’t think the comparison would do anyone any favors.

    Pepper’s early life is difficult, and she’s the scrappy, confident protagonist that it’s easy to like and cheer for. Pepper’s internal dialogue seems a bit juvenile, even for a 10 year old, but I suppose her sheltered upbringing stunted some aspects of her self-exploration. 2 of 5

    Villains: The villains are a judgmental society that won’t let AIs have full rights. This is bad, but by this logic, pretty much every human society in history is far, far worse.

    On the other hand, Common Orbit can also be read as a careless band of sentients willingly complicit in allowing an AI to change her own programming however she wishes, thus ushering in the soul-crushing rule of the machines … no, sorry, I can’t endorse that reading. In Chambers’s universe, even the soul-crushing rule by AI would be mostly benevolent and accepting. The AI would really empathize with the crushed souls. 0 of 5

    Inventiveness: I’m not sure what’s new in this book; nothing even has the veneer of newness. The world of Common Orbit is the same as Angry Planet, and even if we see new areas of the universe, they don’t feel any different. The people certainly feel the same: tolerant, tech-savvy creatives without sexual, religious, or racial biases.

    Sidra’s story certainly has been done before, and it doesn’t tread any new ground. The differences between AIs and organic sapients are ignored in favor of their commonalities, so nothing is really explored, and we certainly tread no new ground. Pepper’s story is traditional young-adult territory — a young girl is forced to survive in a hostile environment completely different from the world she was taught to expect — although I admit being raised by a sympathetic AI is a little different. Not enough different for this category, but different. 1 of 10.

    Fun: The Sidra parts of Common Orbit are dishwater dull, full of parties that would hardly entice the most ardent social butterflies and contemplation of the small questions of AI, such as, “How can I adjust to one pair of forward-facing eyes when I once had cameras everywhere?” Pepper’s story brings the interest level up; it starts out promising, with an inquisitive 10-year-old girl in a world that is not what it seems, but it frequently gets bogged down with day-to-day minutiae. 2 of 5

    Total: 6 of 30. I want to make this clear: Common Orbit is not a bad book. It wasn’t a chore to read, and it was relatively short; I’d read this five times consecutively before I would read half of Blackout or Three-Body Problem. It’s just a book with low stakes, low conflict, and for the first three-quarters of the text, low interest. But Chambers is improving: my interest in Angry Planet was nonexistent until the last tenth.

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    2017 Hugo nominees

    4th Sep. 2017 | 02:05 pm

    So. I missed getting the Hugo posts up before the Hugos were actually announced, way back in the middle of August. I actually had the three recaps done, but I thought I had another week. I did not! I blame the Finns, but really I should be blaming myself.

    After I missed the real deadline, I saw no reason to hurry with the posts. The week after the Hugos were awarded, I went to GenCon; the week after that, I watched the eclipse in Illinois and suffered through a cold. Last week I was just lazy.

    But now I’m posting what I had written. Although The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin won the best novel award — congratulations to her! — I would have chosen Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Not enthusiastically, but really, no other book came close to it according to my arbitrary and not-well-thought-out criteria.

    The full list of Hugo nominees:

    The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
    All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
    Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
    A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
    Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
    Death’s End by Cixin Liu

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    2016 Nebula nominees

    20th May. 2017 | 12:34 pm

    This year, the Nebulas have only five nominees for best novel. Thank goodness; I’m not sure I could have taken another eight-candidate slate or seven. I’m not even sure I could have made it through six.

    This year’s nominees are:

    The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
    All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
    Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
    Borderline by Mishell Baker
    Everfair by Nisi Shawl

    The Nebulas will be awarded today, May 20. I meant to spread my evaluations of these books over the week before the awards, but, well, that didn’t happen. So that means a quick dump of my thoughts on the five nominees. But it’s not like anyone is anticipating these posts or will read them, so I’m not disappointing anyone or shortchanging myself.

    Enjoy!

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    2016 Nebula nominee #1 and 2017 Hugo nominee #1: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

    20th May. 2017 | 11:50 am

    The Obelisk Gate coverThe first Nebula nominee and first Hugo nominee is The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin:

    Plot: Middle book of what looks like a trilogy. Jemisin picks up where she left off at the end of The Fifth Season, and if you don’t remember where that was, then tough luck, buddy. You’ll have to figure it out as you go along, because Jemisin isn’t providing a recap or list of characters.

    Jemisin’s plot goes through familiar middle territory, slowing the story down and making characters who were of tertiary importance in the original book into viewpoint characters. Essun, the protagonist, has abandoned the search for her daughter, kidnapped by her husband after he murdered their young son. Now she is residing in an underground community, preparing to survive a Season, a long winter caused by volcanic ash and seismic disturbances.

    Essun is an orogene, a persecuted and enslaved minority that can control seismic vibrations and (to a limited extent) thermal energy. Her former mentor / lover / friend / rival / enemy Alabaster caused the cataclysm that created the current Season, and as he’s hurt and dying, he wants to teach Essun how to end the Season. But he doesn’t teach her anything, so Essun’s portion of the novel are mostly filled with laments at her slow pace of learning, Alabaster’s poor teaching skills, disputes within the community, and a glacial subplot in which another community comes to attack Essun’s new home. Every time the focus returned to Essun, I groaned: nothing was going to happen, and it was going to not happen very slowly. At the end, everything comes to a head, but it’s too little payoff for too long a wait.

    In Gate, Jemisin also shows readers what happened to Nassun, Essun’s abducted daughter; she fled with / was kidnaped by her father, then joined a community with orogenes. Turns out she’s had it rough too! She has had to deal with her father’s murderous anti-orogene feelings, and then she runs into her mother’s previous keeper. Her relationship with her father progresses to a resolution, and her powers develop, but her story feels like a distraction rather than the main plot; her relationship to the powerful obelisks surrounding the planet feels more like a complicating factor to her mother’s relationship with the obelisks.

    The less said about Hoa, a mysterious being known as a “stone eater,” and Schaffa, Essun’s cruel former master, the better. Their sections seem a waste. 1 of 5

    Protagonists: Essun has lost the single-minded focus on finding her daughter that she had in the first book, and that’s to the novel’s detriment. Essun spends her time waiting for epiphanies, passing time that, with apocalypse looming, seems to demand action. She doesn’t seem to learn much either, all of which combines to make Essun appear weak — especially compared to the combative, chain-breaking badass in Fifth Season. Readers may feel for Essun and root for her, but most of the good will they have for the character was built during the previous book. (Or they might cheer for Essun because her enemies are so evil.) Either way, Essun is a shell of herself, and her daughter isn’t interesting enough to take up the slack. 2 of 5

    Villains: The stone eaters, an offshoot of humanity who have evolved in strange ways and acquired great powers, loom behind a lot of the action in Obelisk Gate, and it’s unclear what they want exactly — some of them back Essun, some back her enemies — until the end of the book. Jemisin could play up their menace more, I think, but they get short shrift.

    Schaffa, Nassun’s instructor and surrogate father, is a more interesting case. He once “taught” (read: tortured and enslaved) Essun, and now, with his brain radically altered, he has found Nassun. He’s kinder now than when he taught Essun, but he’s more unhinged, and he reveals a sinister intelligence tells him to do cruel things. Here is where the real menace lies in Obelisk Gate: what is Schaffa up to, and when will he snap? And what will happen when he does? 3 of 5

    Inventiveness: Well, this is a sequel, with most of what is in this book set up by Fifth Season. Jemisin does bring the stone eaters and obelisks more to the fore, but they are almost as mysterious as before. The stone eaters have mysterious factions with mysterious goals, but that isn’t exactly new.

    Every plot element is built upon something from Fifth Season, and there’s no new direction or surprise to replace or serve as a foundation for a third book. (Well, I suppose “genocide is OK, if it’s the right people being killed” is a surprise, but even that builds upon Alabaster’s world reaving in the first book.) The surprising plot structure of Fifth Season, in which Jemisin retold Essun’s life story from three different time periods, when she had three different identities, without revealing they are all Essun, is not replaced with anything as entertaining; the best Jemisin can do in Obelisk Gate is different viewpoint characters. 1 of 10

    Fun: Although I’ve gone on about how slow Obelisk Gate is, it isn’t always dull. The prospect of a fight at the end of the novel does give the book a slow build of tension, and the resolution of Essun’s learning about the obelisks is some degree of satisfying — if for no other reason than she can stop not knowing things. Nassun’s storyline also gives a few surprising plot twists as she explores her abilities under the twisted mentorship of Schaffa.

    Overall, though, this is a book that could use something more — more action, more humor, more focus, more revelations. 2 of 5

    Total: 9 of 30. I’ve rated a few books this low, and Obelisk Gate is better than all of them; it’s better than some books that are rated higher. But unfortunately, Obelisk Gate coasts on what Fifth Season has created and doesn’t reach for more.

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    2016 Nebula nominee #2 and 2017 Hugo nominee #2: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

    20th May. 2017 | 03:13 am

    All the Birds in the Sky coverThe 2016 Nebula award slate has a manageable five nominees for best novel. The second nominee for the Nebula for best novel and the second nominee for the 2017 Hugo best novel award is All the Birds in the Sky by Charley Jane Anders:

    Plot: Harry Potter (without Hogwarts) mixed with Neal Stephenson (without the optimism), set 15-minutes in the future. Patricia Delfine is a witch, although the world tries to convince her otherwise while she’s young; Laurence Armstead is a scientific genius, although everyone acts as if his accomplishments are not noteworthy. As middle-school (?) classmates, they form a bond that isn’t quite a friendship because Laurence is a bad friend and they’re awkward teen / tweens.

    As adults, they are thrown into a world that’s rapidly dying from climate change and resource depletion, and they use their gifts in different directions. Patricia’s witch colleagues allow her to use her abilities sporadically in unobtrusive ways; meanwhile, Laurence’s employer has him creating a way to get off Earth and transport as many humans as possible to an exoplanet. When that device has a possibility of destroying the Earth, the previously passive and unhelpful witches become less passive and more unhelpful — even though the device’s creators agree not to use it except as a last resort.

    If someone related every bit of the plot and setting to me, I would agree that each individual step makes sense. But having read all of Birds, parts of the novel feel like they don’t belong with other parts, and overall, the book seems to hang together like a suit jacket created by three tailors working at the same time, veering from ridiculous to deadly serious to lighthearted. Also, the world feels barely sketched in at times. The witches’ school at Eltisley Maze is mostly names and room descriptions without mythology; for such an important part of the plot, it gets short shrift. The Nameless Order of Assassins, which Theodolphus, a chief antagonist, works for, feels like a joke, despite Theodolphus’s importance to the plot. The place Patricia and Laurence grew up in —a town in New York or New England? — failed to make much of an impression on me, which is surprising. Anders’s San Francisco is mainly restaurants and other urban gathering places, which have little character.

    Also: The answer of “I don’t know” to the riddle “Is a tree red?” is considered a profound response, a climax to 300 pages of story. Perhaps if the protagonists could have used this epiphany to influence the story or their development, perhaps I would buy it. I mean, that answer has some wisdom to it — sometimes you must know when to admit your ignorance — but it’s not a useful note to end a novel on. (Besides, “Sometimes” is a more riddle-like answer and more helpful as an answer.) 2 of 5

    Protagonists: Laurence and Patricia are marked as special from the start. Laurence’s brilliance at science is shown throughout the book, even if no one at his school or at home seems to be willing acknowledge or encourage it. Patricia learns how to speak with animals by herself, so that’s impressive, but it’s never mentioned whether that ability is something everyone can learn or if only certain gifted people can. I suppose, in that sense, is no different from Laurence’s scientific abilities: technically, anyone can learn physics, but we all know that’s probably not true. Each mind has its limitations.

    Similarly, it’s not clear how Patricia becomes as powerful as she does, but even though Laurence’s path is clearer, the answer is probably the same: aptitude and application. We don’t see much of the application for either — the schooling and early career of both is glossed over —so their growth seems mysterious, and their power at times seems unearned. I understand their growth isn’t the story Anders wants to tell, and at times it’s not germane to the story. But with more than a third of the story being devoted to their crappy youths, leaving out their growth leaves a hole in the story.

    Anders does a good job of showing the two protagonists circling each other throughout their lives. They are drawn to each other for different reasons throughout the book; at some points, it’s only familiarity or nostalgia that pulls one into the other’s orbit. As adults, they are strong and independent, each with existences beyond the other, so that even when they come together the reader can wonder whether they will stay together.

    Patricia’s attack on energy extractors in Siberia while a student witch is brought up often, and when the story is told in flashback, it sounds as if it should be significant — basically, a student dies when Patricia and her friends launch an ill-conceived attack on a Russian drilling operation. But it doesn’t feel significant, and Patricia usually sounds more irritated when it is brought up than affected by the death of another (and the possible acceleration of Earth’s death spiral the operation caused).

    I would have sympathized with the protagonists more if their plights had been more relatable — and I don’t mean that in the sense that I wished their worlds were more grounded. I know I’m reading speculative fiction; I don’t need serious-literature realism. But neither Patricia nor Laurence used their gifts to fight against those who tormented them as children; in a world where the impossible exists, neither one can fight their real (if unrealistically powerful — see below) antagonists.

    Oh! There’s also an artificial intelligence named Peregrine, who fittingly wanders in and out of the plot. He’s not important, for the most part, except when he uses his mighty cloud-based plothammer to smack events into the right shape. He’s created by Laurence, mostly, with some help by Patricia, and then is forgotten until almost the end, when he becomes not quite a god but more like amicus potens ex machina. 3 of 5

    Villains: The main antagonist is that dread villain Miscommunication. A versatile baddie, he / she is. In the first half of the book, teenage / tweenage awkwardness causes Patricia and Laurence to be unable to express their feelings for one another and not to be there for the other at their moment of need. In the second half, Patricia’s cabal wraps itself in secrecy, and Patricia and Laurence are only marginally better at expressing themselves. In the first half, becoming who they want to be prevents the protagonists from arriving at tragedy; in the second, nothing does. This is the most realistic part of the book, and it is the most jejune.

    The conflict in the first half of Birds is fomented by Theodolphus, an assassin-cum-guidance counselor. His secret assassins’ organization has prevented him from killing the two lead children, but since he’s seen that they will someday destroy the world, he decides to use counseling to destroy their lives. I’ve long thought guidance counselor was an underrated profession for villains, and Theodolphus uses the position to further his agenda splendidly.

    But Theodolphus’s success hinges on the community’s alternating disinterest and hatred of Patricia and Laurence. In Birds, no adult listens to a single child ever; the mob of children and their hatreds rule all perception, and Patricia and Laurence are always doomed. I know we’re supposed to be impressed by the powers of the forces, both mighty and mundane, arrayed against them, but I think we must consider everyone around young Patricia and Laurence as awful human beings, and their parents — especially Laurence’s — are despicable parents who probably should not have had children.

    What I’m saying is Anders lays on the difficulties of growing up different a bit thick. Divorcing Birds’s setting from the real world and making the purportedly special protagonists passively accept their punishments emphasizes the unreality of their tormentors. 2 of 5

    Inventiveness: Birds envisions a world that’s mostly like ours except for a few technological twists. Laurence constructs, as a child, a time machine that advances him two seconds into the future, although no one finds that remarkable. This advanced science also exists in a world with witches and secret assassins, although the latter are surprisingly non-entities. The science is not remarkable to the run-of-the-mill population (except for the electronic personal assistant / iPad knockoff unfortunately named Caddy), and none of the witches are allowed to reveal themselves. This emulsion of science and magic is not uncommon.

    What this book seems to be aiming for — and based on the cover blurbs, it succeeds for some people — is Whimsy and Enchantment and Insight. (Also: based on the cover blurbs, the science / magic admixture is far more captivating than I give it credit for.) As I mentioned earlier, I do find the book strangely unreal; perhaps that’s what people are picking up on. I don’t find it appealingly so, and I’m not sure the unreality was what Anders was going for. 3 of 10

    Fun: Birds is an entertaining book, and it rarely gets bogged down or lets the plot stall. The end of the world is not as gloomy as one would think either. The parts of the book I don’t find convincing were generally breezy and understandable glosses (the witches’ school, the two-second time machine), but I found the San Franciscan tech / hipster bubble the protagonists lived in in the second half of the book offputting. I mean, I know that it’s real (or a reasonable extrapolation of reality), but the characters talking about the end of the world while surrounded by frivolous nonsense and luxury is irritating. 4 of 5

    Total: 14 of 30. I have a feeling Birds will win, no matter what my process says.

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