Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: Hugo Awards 2016 – Novelettes

What is a novelette? you ask.

It’s what, as an English teacher, I would’ve called a short story just a little bit too long to assign for one night’s homework. (That makes novellas, to me, about a week’s worth of high school homework.)

I found more to like among the Novelette nominees for the 2016 Hugo Awards, though the Sad and Rabid Puppies certainly left their muddy paw prints all over this category. All 5 nominated works were on one of the Puppy slates, but usually not both.

The nominees continue to suffer, in these shorter works, from poor selection but perhaps that’s as much a result of fan voting as it is the Puppies’ attempt at chaos and domination.

In order of my appraisal:

  1. “Obits” by Stephen King is going to be my top pick in Novelette, though my #2 selection is within a hair’s breadth of taking my top vote.  But it’s hard to deny the feel of sentences coming off the pen of a man as experienced and talented as King. It’s like holding a real $20 bill after checking out some counterfeits. Sure, his writing has weakened in the past decade (that auto accident did something to him, I think) but he’s still a master of the craft, and I’ve always liked his shorter fiction the most.
    This tale is nearly perfect – the “voice” of the main character just fits, the way it’s supposed to. Every word slots into its the sentence, painting exactly the picture King wants you to see and feel.

    This story, like a good sci-fi/fantasy tale, pushes people to the forefront to carry the plot, allowing the non-realist elements to create a rich background tapestry that absolutely supports the plot without shouting it down. I enjoyed pretty much every line.  The conceit of the tale isn’t a new one, but King handles it well, and I think that’s worth a lot.

  2. “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingling, trans. Ken Liu surprised me in several ways. The story would be at home in the dystopian future of Paolo Bacigalupi, a world in which man’s inability to care for himself and his planet yields ugly consequences.In this story, Beijing in the future has been engineered so that the richest 10% of the population lives in spacious homes and parks for 24 hours, then the city “folds” itself, origami-style, and rotates, giving a second group of people 12 hours of daylight. That second group represent a minority class of educated professionals who rush to get everything done. Finally, the bulk of Beijing’s 50 million inhabitants are crammed into the teeming, squalid third realm, which emerges in the last quarter of the 2-day folding cycle to see 12 hours of night.

    Against this rich background Hao tells us a story of love and loss that’s poignant and touching.  The writing is a little bumpy – I know Liu is a good translator – perhaps there’s something about the cultural shifts and language usage that isn’t quite coming over clearly. But this is a story well worth your time to read.I’m not sure if this next story deserves a Hugo, but I sure enjoyed it:

  3. “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander mashes up two of my favorite genres into one lively and darkly funny story that still manages to be very human and very perceptive.  She takes the cyberpunk world of Blade Runner or Android Netrunner and inserts the kind of hard-bitten characters you want to find in 1950s pulp detective fiction. But her protagonist, Rhye, blows through any gender stereotypes, presenting as a tough-as-nails street tomboy with a mouth like a sailor. (I noted that several folks on Goodreads gave up on this story quickly due to the flying F-bombs in just the first paragraph.)

    As a woman who happily inhabits gamer culture, I found this story like stepping into online multiplayer – a bit crazy, a bit vulgar, and very fun. It wasn’t exactly new thinking, but the writing was great. Plus, even as a Puppy nomination (Sad, not Rabid …. since I can’t envision any Rabid Puppy being supportive of a Strong Female Lead), this story shows that “classic” sci-fi themes aren’t destroyed when authors bend the genders and honor the culture of gamers/cyberpunk with good character writing.These two stories will fall below the “No Award” bar on my ballot, for sure

  4. “What Price Humanity” by David VanDyke was interesting enough, but the Big Idea has been done before (many times) and the story itself was a little ham-handed in its construction and plot pacing.  I guessed the twist at the end easily; the frame tale that attempts to give the story some context feels disjointed and preachy. Even the Big Question that VanDyke is trying to wrestle with falls flat.  It could have been provocative, but … it wasn’t.

    SPOILER ALERT…. I don’t want anyone who’s planning to read the story to see this accidentally so again — Spoiler!! — but VanDyke didn’t even raise a deep ethical quandary IMO. Is there anything unethical about copying a human’s consciousness and having it control a weapon? well, doesn’t that depend on whether the human whose consciousness is being copied gave his/her consent or no? and it’s so materialist (in the philosophical sense) to ground a story in the idea that copying someone’s brain pattern exactly (an engram) would somehow recreate a whole *person.*  Nah.  This is a bad knock-off of cloning ethics, at least in the way he handles the story here, and I’m confused why VanDyke didn’t learn anything from the other, similar stories in this vein that surely he’s read.

  5. “Flashpoint: Titan” by Cheah Kai Wai is the personification of what I expect the Rabid Puppies want in their foreign policy. I found the story to be a bit naive, slightly racist, overly reliant on stereotypes, and dull due to its reliance on technical details.  It had good moments, and I didn’t mind reading it through to the end. I even liked the main character and his crew, and I learned things about space warfare that I hadn’t considered (like the incredible cost to delta vee and propulsion systems that a simple redirection of course would take).

    That said, this story – like “Seven Kill Tiger” on the Short Story ballot, from this same collection There Will Be War – feels like a bunch of 50-something Republicans who like to shoot guns but never actually went to war decided to chew the fat about how much they hate Muslim terrorists and the Chinese, and turned that into a short story instead.

    Cheah’s story is at best tone deaf when it comes to racial stereotyping, totally unaware of how playing into 40s and 50s era pulp caricatures of other countries should strike 21st century readers as offensive. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the Rabid Puppies who nominated this work consider that kind of insensitivity a badge of honor.

One final thought —

Military sci-fi can be brilliant (I thought The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu presented amazing military/space dilemmas) and very thought provoking (Joe Haldeman’s Forever War) even when it’s “fun” (eg: Hammer’s Slammers by David Drake).  But Drake and Haldeman write like men who experienced combat — because they did —  and their stories focus on the human side of war, not the details of the warfare itself.

To me, that’s a key difference between military sci-fi worth my time, and military sci-fi that reads like it was sponsored by the Koch Brothers.

*****

Next up (and already in progress): Novellas! I’ve read 2.5 and enjoyed them so far. Looking forward to writing that review.

Review: The Fifth Season, by NK Jemisin

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. (Since you asked, Goodreads, “What did I think?”)

I rarely read fantasy. I generally find the genre vacuous and tedious, reveling in arcane magic babble and tired story patterns. Rarely do fantasy novels explore deeper, valuable questions about humanity … which is why I usually consume fantasy in the form of video games. But this novel breaks that mold. Grinds it to pieces, really.

I find that sci-fi and fantasy can reach new heights when the authors writing them are people outside the “mainstream,” people who bring a new voice into the genre. And people of color have been serving up some of the best new writing in sci-fi and fantasy (IMO). NK Jemisin absolutely delivers with this excellent novel about an alternate earth. Is it sci-fi? Is it fantasy? Well…. I’d say it’s fantasy with a sci-fi edge. It’s not magic, it’s “orogeny,” the ability to manipulate the actual earth, to harness its power to stabilize earthquakes or maybe level a city. Brilliant.

I loved the voice of the narrators. The shifting pronouns (using both 2nd person and 3rd person) could have been annoying but I found them a useful narrative device, drawing a tighter bond between author and reader. The plot fit tightly together, moving at a fast clip but forcing this eager reader to slow down and wait for things to develop, a tactic that builds tension and makes the ensuing “release” all the more enjoyable.

This book is earthy (other readers will get the pun – don’t groan) in all the right ways. The characters feel quite real, even though their cultures are foreign. We unite through the folkways and familiar threads of daily life, and that familiarity makes the characters sympathetic (or despicable, since they are believable and relatable). This book sets up a vivid universe and offers the potential to become a memorable series. I can’t wait for book 2…. is it out yet??!

I read this book because it’s one of the Hugo Award nominees for 2016. Honestly, since Dark Forest by Cixin Liu was snubbed in the Hugo nominations this year, I expect my top vote will go to The Fifth Season. I think it was that good.

Any critiques? Not really. I can find little to complain about, and much to celebrate. I guess if you’re prudish about people “getting it on” in the pages of your book, you might be offended by that. *shrugs* Fictional people gotta reproduce too…. Or if you’re the Grammar SS, the 2nd person narration will set your teeth on edge. Whatever. Go police somewhere else.

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Review: Uprooted, by Nina Novik

UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not usually a big fantasy reader, but this book is commendable and ought to be on your list if you’re at all interested in the genre. Many people seem to bail out after only a few chapters; don’t do that. Give Novik the opportunity to spin her tale for you – it takes about 50-60 pages to really get rolling. From there, it builds to a strong ending.

In fact, I’d say even if you don’t like fantasy very much, this novel merits at least an attempt.

This isn’t a fantasy story built from worn-out tropes. While many familiar elements make their way into the narrative, Novik reworks them to give them value. I felt the familiar worn edges of strong themes from centuries of good stories; I saw plenty of familiar fantasy elements. But I also enjoyed the rich and thick development of new meanings for what could have been tired and boring – the girl who learns to control her magic, the aloof wizard, the budding romance, the courtly drama, the forbidding enchanted wood.

Novik turns these tropes sideways so they work to her advantage. She turns the story too, not in a “cheap shot” yank-you-around kind of way, but artfully, shaping the reader’s journey through what seems like a familiar landscape to find what’s actually something new and rewarding.

So yeah. It’s a solid book. It’s up for a Hugo Award. That’s not a fluke. I’ve found myself thinking about this story even after I read the final pages, and I think it’s because Novik understands that good stories aren’t created by the trappings of the setting or by cheap plot devices; they’re built from the backbone of realistic characters grappling with credible problems, clothed in fluid prose. I don’t think this will be my top Hugo pick, but it’ll fall above the “no award” line for sure.

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If it’s good, it’s good.

Something amazing has happened in the past 15 years, I think.

sci fi ship

Sci-fi is nearly “mainstream.”  The flood of sci-fi, comic book, fantasy, and stories set in an alternative universe has brought a wonderful world of stories to our doorsteps. My friends who used to raise an eyebrow at the idea of going to a “weird movie with aliens or orcs” are lining up to read Game of Thrones.

Some who love the niche-i-ness of sci-f and fantasy culture may lament the fact that their beloved underground passions aren’t so niche anymore. (Great article on geekdom and marketing Dr Who popped into my feed today)

The quintessential Hipster™ refuses to like anything once more than a few thousand people care to think about it. These two attitudes come from the same source, I think:  priding oneself in being on the leading edge of a trend rather than on the bandwagon.

And hey, that’s cool. I get it. I too enjoy a tiny sense of pride knowing that I listened to Mumford & Sons long before they were popular in the US (but only because some other, more-musically-aware friends of mine had already started talking about them).

But really, people —

Good music, good TV, good stories: These are good because of intrinsic quality, not because they’re popular.  I agree that the popular taste can seem like the lowest-common-denominator, but it doesn’t have to be.

Why wouldn’t we be THRILLED that more people love the stories and tunes that we’ve come to love?  I’m excited that I can connect to more people now because of  sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, anime, and video games.

Living in 2013 is so cool.   Go watch/read/hear something you would have never considered…. and encourage the rest of us to do the same.