Tag Archives: sci-fi

Hugo 2017: The Highlights and Reviews

I threatened a few days ago to post reviews of the Hugo pieces that I found worthy, and here I am to deliver the goods.

NOVELS
Honestly, every novel in the Hugo nominee list this year is worth your time. I didn’t love each of them the same, but at least none of them wasted my time like a few have in the past (*coughs* Seveneves, I’m looking at you). I’m not here to write full reviews; you can find great ones everywhere.

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is a striking novel with a strong female lead, a far-future world with interesting social structures, mathematics-as-magic, and a galactic space war on a grand scale. This book really grabbed my attention. It doesn’t easily slip into any identifiable story category, though I’d say the two-person (protagonist/antagonist) relationship that drives the main character’s plot is critical to the book’s success. I’ve already ordered the sequel.
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer kept me turning pages, and I nearly listed it first on my Hugo ballot. (The honor went to Ninefox.) Palmer is a University of Chicago historian, and this book reads like an 18th century Alexander Pope was transported forward a few hundred years. She imagines a future world that isn’t shot to hell, and I found that refreshing considering the shitstorm that is 2017 after the hellfest of 2016. Her world offers us a view of what rapid transportation could do in helping humanity develop new “nations” not organized around geographical location. Imagine aligning yourself with people who pursue your same vocational goals — and even better, imagine reorganizing the central family unit into an extended collection of “relatives,” both blood-related and not, who come together to live in collectives centered around common interests. Sign me up, I’m ready to join a ‘bash!
  • The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin continues her fantastic series that earned her a Hugo Award for the first book, The Fifth Season, last year.  (One of my favorite reads of 2016.) The sophomore entry expanded the story yet stands tall in its own right, building more of the world and giving us even more characters who face difficult ethical choices. The overarching tale offers commentary on issues of race and climate without (to me) being preachy. The series continues to defy genre categorization – is it sci-fi? fantasy? does it matter? Speculative fiction it is, and a great example. Start with The Fifth Season if you’re jumping in.
  • All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, tells the story of a computer engineer and a witch in San Francisco. Another genre-bender, this novel goes down easy with snappy dialogue writing and a good examination of the conflict between science and the metaphysical. I can’t say this novel asks Big Questions, but it does offer a good view of the microcosm of conflict among people with different goals and values. Plus, she clearly lives in SanFran and peppers the book with lots of local details.
  • A Closed and Common Orbit is Becky Chambers’s second novel after her strong debut The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Not wanting to jump in on book two, I read both this spring. This series is like Firefly and Star Trek having a baby in John Scalzi’s trunk: There’s all the ensemble camaraderie of Firefly (down to the female engineer), the thrill of space and battle and Big Questions of AI vs human intelligence, and the snappy dialogue writing of Scalzi. At times it was almost annoying – like Chambers is trying so hard to emulate her hero Scalzi that we’re losing her voice at times. She’s a young writer, and you can feel that in the writing. But she shows much potential, and I look forward to reading more entries in this series. Chambers will come into her own rapidly and probably have a very successful career, drawing in many people who would walk straight by the piles of hard sci-fi in bookstores. My main criticism of both books is that she tends to be preachy. Hopefully she’ll relax about that.
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu wrapped up my ballot. I had such high hopes for this book, having enjoyed The Three Body Problem in 2015 and swept off my feet by last year’s The Dark Forest. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I loved or even liked Death’s End. I can appreciate some elements of the storytelling – the three fables in the center of this giant novel were a wonderful plot device – but I hated most of everything else. Liu is an ideas man; he doesn’t really write characters. That emerged as a major weakness as he tried to wrap up his idea-fest-turned-novel-series. I hated the ending too. When I get to the end of a 600 page book and feel like I wasted my time, it makes me angry.  All that aside, I’m glad Liu’s books were translated for an American audience, even if this one is at the bottom of the list for me.

SHORT STORIES
Finally the drama of the Puppies controversies is over, but the short story category was still a bit weak.  On the upside, I can link to a few of these since many are published digitally nowadays and publishers sometimes make them generally available since they were nominated. I’m listing my top picks here (in the order I voted for them).

  • My top short story pick ended up being NK Jemisin’s “The City Born Great,” posted at Tor.com (full story here). Jemisin lives in NYC and she infuses her love for the pulsing City into this story, but with her typical genre-bending twists. Is it sci-fi? Is it urban fantasy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar is available in full on the Uncanny Magazine right now. This is a fairy tale polished to a gleaming brightness, turning cliched plot points into a thoughtful look into a friendship between two women, each imprisoned in their own ways. I’d happy read this story in a lit class for the sake of the ensuing discussion.
  • Carrie Vaughn’s story “That Game We Played During the War” drew me in and held me from start to finish. Full text here. It’s not a complex story, and it’s not a stunner, but I really enjoyed the interpersonal nature of the tale. Also #chess.

The other three nominees in this category were very weak. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” seems to be trying too hard (IMO) to establish itself as a TIME MANIPULATION STORY.  *shrugs*  But it’s not a bad read.   Second, though I loved Brooke Bolander’s entry in last year’s Hugo (one of my favorite stories ever), this year’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” was a huge disappointment.  It just…. *sighs*…. too preachy; too little plot; too little of anything I want to read. A revenge story, barely.

Finally, I don’t even want to waste words on John C. Wright’s “An Unimaginable Light.”  Wright is the darling of the right-wing Rabid Puppies, and after shoving him down our throats for the past few years, a change in the Hugo nominations process served as a barrier to having to read much of him this year. Thank God. The man apparently can’t devise a plot worth more than two shits (this is my assessment after three years’ of nominations of his drivel).  Honestly. If you’re going to put someone forward as the poster boy for conservative man-centric science fiction, for the love of pete, could you at least pick someone who can write?  John C Wright is an embarrassment to writers everywhere.

NOVELETTES
Again, a few of these are worth pointing out, if you can find them to read them. Novelettes are just long short-stories; you can read them in a single sitting, though you might realize your butt is tired by the time you’re done. (Contrast this with Novellas, which kill your butt if you try to read them straight through without at least getting up to get more coffee.)

  • “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon shows what a master storyteller in folk tales and Native American culture can do in a science fiction/fantasy setting. It doesn’t matter if this tale is alt-reality or near-future; it’s a great example of the power of simple tales.  Read the novelette at Apex Magazine.
  • I really wanted to vote Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story “Touring with the Alien” #1. Man, it was so close. Maybe I should have. This could have been a pedestrian walk through a boring, tired sci-fi concept. Except it wasn’t. It was fantastic. Thoughtful. Provocative. One of the better “intelligence” and “alien” stories I’ve read in a long time. Clarkesworld Magazine has the full novelette available online.
  • “The Jewel and her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde is an example of fantasy writing that I can get behind. I really enjoyed this tale, mostly because Wilde built a world where some gems have power, and the way the people adapted to handle the risks and rewards of that power was genuinely fascinating.  If she has more stories in this world, I will read them.  Read the introduction at Tor.
  • Also in the category of “fantastical folk tales” is “You’ll Drown Here if you Stay,” by Alyssa Wong. Cool story.  I put it 4th, because I felt the others were stronger, but still a great read for those who enjoy the way traditional folk tales (and their structure) blend well with science fiction and fantasy. Read it at Uncanny magazine. 

The other two stories really aren’t on my recommended list. “The Art of Space Travel” is a people story; it has almost zero connection to speculative fiction; I’m not sure why it was nominated.  Memo to people: Just because your story includes an astronaut doesn’t make it science fiction. 

NOVELLAS
Still reading this category – I didn’t enter Hugo votes because I didn’t get a chance to finish these. Will return once I’m done and offer a couple thoughts, if I find something worthy.

GRAPHIC NOVELS
Man, some great writing here! I recommend reading each of the Hugo nominees. They were all good.  Monstress Vol 1 was my top pick, but it was genuinely hard to pick a favorite when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the Black Panther collection, and so many others were interesting and beautifully drawn.

RELATED WORKS
This is the category for everything that isn’t fiction…. like Ursula LeGuin’s essays, Neil Gaiman’s essays, a personal memoir from Carrie Fisher, and more.  Dive in and read, especially Le Guin and Gaiman, if you get a chance.

I voted in other categories like Dramatic Presentation, Short Form and Long Form, and some of the editor categories, but I won’t bore you with those here.

Bottom line – this year’s Hugo nominees are worth your time!  Even the weaker categories (short stories) offer fiction worth reading. So if you’re out of beach books and want something good for August, hit your library or bookstore and help an author eat next month. 😉

Hugo 2016 wrap-up

Here are the winners of the 2016 Hugo Awards | The Verge

Thrilled that my top picks (or #2 pick, in one case) in the major categories for the Hugo were awarded top honors yesterday. Especially thrilled that good writing came out on top, from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds and cultures.

Please go check out the year’s winners if you need some new books in your life.  In some cases, I found all the nominees in one category to be good reads – I noted that in my reviews:

Novel: The Fifth Season (review)

Novel: Uprooted (review)

Novellas

Novelettes

Short Stories

Hugo Awards 2016 – Novellas

Yay! I am happy to report that I genuinely enjoyed every selection in this category. These long works of short fiction (oxymoron, no?) have the space to develop good characters and deliver a good plot punch within their 50-100 pages. If you can find any of these, and some are online, they’re each worth your time.

In case you’re curious, I’ll rank them in the order that I used on my ballot, but I can recommend each to any general reader of fantasy or sci-fi.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor, imagines a girl from the reclusive Himba tribe of Namibia, or whatever Namibia ends up being a few thousand years from now, who chooses to leave everything she knows to accept the invitation to study at a huge intergalactic university. On the journey, she finds herself at the center of a life-and-death situation, one that highlights her unique perspective on communication, culture, and negotiation.  The story blends in magic realism, some science fiction elements, and a warm cultural feel that made me nestle into the tale and make myself at home. I genuinely loved this novella, and I’m so glad to see Okorafor get attention for tackling cross-cultural communication within science fiction from the perspective of a non-Western culture.  This was even cooler since I’d just happened to run into an article about the Himba, so the cultural references made sense.

Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds, explores a relatively familiar dilemma in science fiction tales – that of the prisoner ship – but spins the question into a new direction by adding the “slow bullets” technology. These projectiles are used by armies to permanently “tag” their soldiers with a record of everything the soldier has ever done, along with information about their families, some familiar photos, and other snippets of memory. But terrorists can also use these “bullets” to burrow slowly, excruciatingly through a prisoner’s body. With that background in place, Reynolds soon takes the action to the aforementioned “prison ship,” allowing familiar themes like amnesia and extinction to complicate matters. But the ending left me genuinely surprised and pleased. It’s a good read.

After these two, it gets hard for me to rank the remaining stories – I think they’re all good and worth your time. So don’t take it too harshly that I ranked one above another.

The Builders, by Daniel Polansky, uses animals in ways that remind you of the best of Watership Down (but not as heavy) or Redwall. If Jacques had written his Redwall books for adult lovers of action and adventures, we would have gotten The Builders much sooner. Maybe with some Quentin Tarantino thrown in…. I smiled a lot as I read it, racing from page to page to get to the finish. If you’ve never imagined a salamander as a character in Firefly … well, now I know your imagination is actually missing out. The characterization just sparkles in this tale, and I hope you find a copy and read it.

Penric’s Demon was authored by one of established fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold, and her experience crafts each sentence in this story to fit the mold perfectly. It’s not stunningly original, but it’s well written and fun to read. I liked the characters, I liked the story, and her world needs little exhaustive introduction. If you’ve ever read a fantasy story, played a tabletop RPG or delved into a fantasy video game, you’ve been there. And that’s ok. It gives us room to enjoy the story, which features a man coming to terms with his literal inner demons.

Brandon Sanderson’s Perfect State hardly deserves to be listed last, but I felt the others were a little more original and maybe a shade better written, if one can split hairs like that at this point? Imagine The Matrix, but spin the central question more toward the boredom that would set in for the intelligent minds occupying known cyber-reality. What happens when some just can’t stomach the fact that programmed antagonists and crises aren’t as interesting as human to human conflict?  The cyber-reality subgenre is a little tired for me, but the story does ask a good question, and I absolutely agree that Sanderson’s work deserves the nomination.

Thumbs-up all around to the long-form story writers. Good stuff here, and I’m sure several more great ones that never hit my radar since they weren’t nominated.

*****
I did read several of the ancillary works, fan writing, semipro-zines, etc etc. But I won’t take time to blog about those.

I’m glad that sci-fi/fantasy has such an active fan culture, especially in the blogging age, but I’ll be thrilled to put the Rabid Puppies nonsense far behind us.  Bottom line:  I want to read good stuff in each of the nominated categories. And by “good,” I mean a) well-written; b) centered on interesting questions or content; c) not trying to beat me into a particular point of view. Of course, we’re all going to haggle over the details, but perhaps we could move back toward haggling with some grace and kindness.

*****
Not sure what’s up next on my fiction reading list. I subscribe to Lightspeed magazine but rarely have time to read it each month. Might return to more short stories, since I love those, and try to plow through my massive backlog of Wired magazines and Comment.

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: Hugo Awards 2016-Short Story nominees

Well, that was a waste of my time.

If you are following the Hugo Award ballot, the annual fan-nominated and fan-elected winners for excellence in sci-fi and fantasy writing, you are aware of the Sad / Rabid Puppy controversy.

If you aren’t familiar, or if you just want to read an outstanding article on the issue, Wired Magazine wrote a great piece last year, in the wake of Puppy Scandal 2015. It’s hard to boil down, but the Puppies claim the Hugos have been taken over by pretentious liberals who are pushing their “agenda” into the stories, while the rest of us, whether we think the Puppies have a point or not, are tired of crap being shoved into the Hugo Award balloting as a protest move. And these Puppies do seem hell-bent on shoving women and people of color out of science-fiction, in the name of “making sci-fi fun again.” (Did these guys read The Forever War? “Sandkings”? 2001?  Those aren’t “fun” novels…..)

The Culture Wars are raging at the highest levels (and all corners) of American society. Substitute weaponry for verbiage, and this could easily be the stuff of a sci-fi novel…..

Now, in the same year that the so-called mens’ rights movement was driven into a froth by Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Charlize Theron seeks to rescue a bunch of women from sex slavery (and Max is little more than a sidekick), another flashpoint emerged: Puppygate.

In our telephone call a few weeks back, Beale explained that his plan was a “Xanatos gambit.” “That’s where you set it up so that no matter what your enemy does, he loses and you win.”

Source: Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters | WIRED

Last year, many of the Puppy-nominated works were, to be frank, total shit. They were badly written, frothy, of little value literarily or conceptually. But the problem remains: Anyone who wants to shove crap into the Hugo ballot can do it if they’re organized enough. And the Puppies followers jump when they’re told.

*****

So that explains why I spent my early afternoon groaning at the short stories nominated for the Hugo this year. I will be voting “No Award” for this category, and here’s why:

  • “Asymmetrical Warfare,” by SR Algernon:  Cute. If this story had been written in 1931, it would be fresh and interesting. In 2016, it’s basically a copy of an idea that’s been written to death. I think I had middle-school writers who hit on similar ideas. This isn’t worthy of a major award.
  • “Cat Pictures Please” took the place of “The Commuter” on the ballot; I’m not sure why; some authors withdraw from the contest when they realize they’re being used as pawns in a political/cultural war. Aside from that, this was my favorite story of the set. But it, like the one above, is a familiar idea. No novel thinking here.
  • “If you were an award, my love” published on the Vox Day blog is a hate-parody of a winning story from a few years ago that the Puppy people despise. This entry is simply a puerile pot-shot at John Scalzi, a sci-fi author who’s happy to tangle with Puppy stupidity in public and reveal its foolishness. Nominating this for an award is like celebrating some junior-high kid’s dick drawing that he taped in Stevie’s locker just because he wanted to be an asshole to Stevie.
  • “Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao: With a tone-deafness toward its racial stereotyping, this story also suffers from a decided lack of interest or even plot. He imagines a scenario in which China releases a super-virus to kill all the black people in Africa so they can take the land. Ummmmm….. I feel like this guy will probably vote for Donald Trump.
    …and that brings me to … I can’t even believe I’m writing this….
  • “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” by Chuck Tingle:  If gay dino porn is your genre, Chuck Tingle is your man. The fact that this was nominated is nothing but a slap in the face — or a dick in the face, if you will — to the people who actually want the Hugo Awards to be something that matters.

So there you go.  In past years, I might have read gems from the likes of Ursula LeGuin, George RR Martin, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick, Ted Chiang, and countless other great authors who put honest work and craftsmanship into their writing.

Instead, because some controlling asshat who just wants to watch the nerd-world burn is angry that there are too many non-male, non-white, non-straight people all up in his grill and competing against him for readers and sales, I had to spend waste an hour of my time skimming stories about dinosaurs banging a lonely astronaut or tired, worn-down ideas that have been floating around for decades.

The Puppies claim they’re just trying to prove that Hugo voters don’t care about quality, that we will simply vote for people we agree with.

No.  I want to vote for people who can actually write. And if these WASPy men can’t get their shit together and promote stories that might be worth my time to read, they sure as hell don’t deserve any place among the Hugo nominees.

Unfortunately, the Hugo ballot — like the American ballot in 2016 — is deeply broken.  I don’t know if we’ll ever recover.  And that’s pretty hella sad.

*****
Next up: Novellas and Novelettes. The slates of nominees are entirely dominated by works recommended by the Sad and Rabid Puppies, but many nominated authors had little to do with that. I’m hoping there’s some valuable reads here.

*****
If you’re looking for some good, recent sci-fi short stories, try subscribing to one of the fan magazines. Or grab the “Best of…2015” short story collection next time you’re at B&N or BAM.

I enjoyed several of the short stories that Microsoft released as part of a collection last year, Future Visions, especially the story by Annie Leckie that closes the book.

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.

View all my reviews

Review: Seveneves

SevenevesSeveneves by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Buy a copy: Kindle/Print

If there’s a cardinal sin for a novelist, it’s to fail to recognize when he’s trying to combine too many stories into one. I understand that Stephenson is known for packing in lots of ideas rather than building great characters, and that’s fine. But I was deeply disappointed, after blazing happily through the first ¼ of the book, to find myself marooned in a bog of details one moment and then whiplashed forward to some other subplot in the next as he attempted to drag us all through an Epic Story About The Survival Of Humanity.

He really should have listened to his editor. And if the man doesn’t have an editor with the balls to stand up to him and say, “Dude. Either turn this into a series or cut out half this shit,” then he’s being poorly served by his publishing house.

I’d have to describe this novel primarily as “overwritten.” I am stupidly stubborn when it comes to finishing books so I slogged through 20 pages on a future humanoid setting up her glider. What. The. Hell. It didn’t further the story, it didn’t connect me to the character. It was Stephenson showing off that he’s done a lot of thinking about gliders. Great. Good for you.

The novel’s premise isn’t new, but Stephenson sets it up pretty well. But then the story diverges into too many directions at once. Is this a book about an apocalyptic ending of the earth? about survival? about the role of genetics in determining behavior? about how humans are pretty shitty most of the time? about future space tech? I’m not sure. I think it’s all of those. I call this “Chappie Disease” — potentially good stories are damaged by their authors when they bury them under the other 19375646328 ideas they forced into the narrative.

Mild spoilers ahead:

I have to comment on the odd decision to co-opt character development in some cases by inserting currently famous people into the novel, yet not as their actual selves, but as a weird form of archetype or stock character. Thus, Neil deGrasse Tyson becomes a sort of stereotype of “the popular astronomer” in the form of Doc Harris, a man in the book that I liked quite a bit, but only because I couldn’t escape seeing Tyson’s face, imposing my opinions of him as a real person, and hearing his warm voice. It was kind of creepy actually, as if someone I knew got possessed by a totally different soul. Harris was Tyson but not. Ditto the Elon Musk “tech guy who takes matters into his own hands,” the Hillary Clinton-esque asshole/paranoid woman president (kinda offensive really), and — perhaps the most potentially objectionable — Malala (“Camila”) the Famous International Woman who gets a ride away from death only to be duped by the Evil Female President into hatching her Ridiculous Plan which never shows up again. Gah. The “real” Malala survived the Taliban, and now she’s going to be turned into a foolish, quavering stooge to fit Stephenson’s narrative? >.<

This kind of writing strikes me as lazy. He didn’t have the space (due to the sprawling plot structure) to build his own characters, so he grabbed personalities we would recognize, and hung some new clothes and faces on them. It’s also going to date his novel terribly within a few years. And in 50, no one will get the comparisons.

While I’m on a rant …. Does anyone else find the constant references to genetic predispositions in the new seven races a bit…. racist? I mean, we have races now and through natural processes, differences between them (as we consider specific examples) can be pretty stark. But Stephenson’s races are so stereotypically predictable that I’m actually uncomfortable reading the last portion of the book. If his story-scientists had bred blacks and Asians instead of Mourns, Ivans, and Teklans, he would written about “insatiable, instinctive hunger for fried chicken” or “a strange affinity for math,” and acted like that was totally ok. (It’s not.)

There was a lot of potential here, and Stephenson did build a story that kept me coming back to find out what happened in the sweeping arc of the narrative. I mourned the death of some people, and I was strangely gripped by some of their dilemmas (and bored to tears by others). I’ve learned about orbital mechanics and I understand much better why meteors probably destroyed the dinosaurs.

But that doesn’t make up for the fact that Stephenson’s novel is, structurally, a mess.

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