Tag Archives: science fiction

Hugo Award Reads: 2019 Short Story Nominees

Howdy, all!  It’s Hugo ballot season for me, and I am in the thick of reading a lovely pile of fiction and non-fiction (and graphic novels and media and art….) so I can cast my ballot for the 2019 Hugo awards.

I’m happy to see the Hugo nominations overall return to what I’d consider an all-round high level of quality. The “sad puppies” years crammed some real crap onto the ballot, to little end. If anything, I feel like the Hugo nominations are breathtakingly diverse this year, and women writers have overwhelmingly earned nods in most of the categories.

As per my usual, I like to blog my thoughts as I complete categories. I haven’t settled on my votes in this category yet, but if I were to cast the ballot today, here’s how I would rank these excellent works.

SPOILERS BELOW  I’m not going to run any endings here, but I recommend that you try to read the stories without any prior information, including my comments below, if you can. These stories are all VERY short – you can read each one in 15 minutes, on average, so there’s no reason not to enjoy them unspoiled.

  • “STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)

Gailey packs into a very short story one of the best summarizations of the coming AI morality crisis that I’ve ever seen. It’s an excellent example of a highly crafted short fiction piece, not a word wasted, with most details implied rather than stated.

If possible, read this as a PDF rather than e-book, so you can see the markings as she originally intended. The piece is constructed as an editor’s handwritten notes on a galley, with the author’s responses. Their conversation in the margin amplifies the tension, driving home Gailey’s point with terrifying clarity. Her use of the short story form is exemplary, and I think she deserves top nod on my ballot.

If we do not begin now to recognize and address the moral code so thoughtlessly baked into our algorithms, we will not see the consequences coming until they’ve torn into us. Everything reflects a moral outlook; our choice is whether to acknowledge this and work to build tech tools that push us toward a society of fairness and goodness….or pretend that ignorance is an excuse for injustice.

Read Gailey’s story in the original layout, if at all possible. The handwritten notes make all the difference — they ARE the story here.

 

  • “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

As a former librarian and high school teacher and foster care relief parent, I found this story hit me in all the feels. I’ve been thinking about it all day. I processed this story in my gut, in the parts of me that carried the stress of kids who were deeply in danger when they had so little hope that life could get better. Seeing books as a balm in this world, the main character (a librarian) attempts to bring light to a young man’s existence by recognizing that “escapism” is sometimes a life survival skill.

The story structure is relatively traditional but with library catalog numbers inserted as a record of what the youth was reading, moving the plot forward.  It works.  I felt like Harrow gave us a good crisis (decision point) for the main character and a meaningful ending. Plus, I love books. And libraries.  Wins all around.

It’s possible that some might see this story as reinforcing white-saviorism, and I look forward to reading informed critique as more people read and vote in the Hugos. But I’ve known a lot of librarians and teachers who would throw lifelines to any kid foundering off the shore, so not sure that the racial tones here are the point or that they detract from the story.

  • “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)

It was really hard for me to decide which of the next two stories I would place third. What is the determining factor? Is it theme? Artistry? Precision? Interest?  The ballot-filler’s dilemma.

This story is Djeli Clark’s interesting and fantastical (yet gripping and historical) jaunt through nine Black slaves whose teeth (supposedly) ended up in George Washington’s dentures. I had to stop steveral times and hit Wikipedia to fill gaps in my historical knowledge of slave narratives and culture. I hope this story makes it into millions of literature textbooks for that reason. It’s artful and provocative.

It’s 2019 (2018 when he published it), and #resistance is more important than ever. So is deconstructing the white imperialism and colonialism that’s so tightly wound into American history, we aren’t even aware of it…..until someone sets it in our faces that America’s first president owned scores of slaves and everybody thought that was normal. Even his teeth.

  • “The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)

Good fantasy stories nearly always involve magic (I’m here for it), and strong magical systems recognize that power doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The best authors infuse their magic with a cost — recognizing that nobody gets something for free. If you want to bend the natural order to your will, somebody somewhere will hurt for it. And even more basic, that power comes at a cost.

Pinsker, who is one of my favorite Hugo-nominated authors in recent years due to the amazing quality of her work, gives us a reason to question the cost of power, and the way that people who wield power on behalf of a ruler are complicit in those decisions.  It’s a vital theme anytime we question the morality of our government, so I’m not surprised Pinsker wrote published this in 2018.

So. When you recognize the cost, how do you balance the personal expense (power always takes a toll) with the social benefits? And who decides who wins?

Excellent story.  I may have to move this one up. *decisions are hard!*

The next two stories sit in the growing tradition of spec-fic authors subverting fantasy tropes, usually empowering the women and breaking down class and gender stereotypes. Naomi Novik’s excellent novel Spinning Silver is on this year’s Best Novel ballot for this very reason. I enjoyed both stories, not sure how I will order them on my ballot.

  • “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)

Men. They are such heart-breakers. Erm, wait……

  • “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)

I’ve loved Brooke Bolander since I first read her blood-drenched story of cyberpunk revenge back in 2015 (maybe 2014?). Her style is straightforward with a strong focus on female empowerment. In the age of #metoo and #timesup, take enjoyment from this cross-species example of women sticking together to sort it all out.

**********

Honestly, I enjoyed every story I read in this category. Some are stronger Hugo nominees than others (depending on what criteria you use to make that determination), but that doesn’t diminish from each story’s value. If I were teaching this fall, I’d happily build a project around all 5 of these.

Review: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse- Hugo Award Reads

Trail of Lightning, Roanhorse, Review - Hugo Awards 2019Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse is the first of a new series called The Sixth World (Amazon) and listed as a Best Novel nominee on the Hugo Award ballot in 2019.

I was so excited to read this book; I’ve enjoyed Roanhorse’s short fiction thanks to nominations in previous Hugo years, and I am drinking in stories from such a delicious variety of authors, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

However, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped.

The positives

Roanhorse sets this not-urban fantasy in a near future Southwest US Navajo reservation, a sliver of the 1/3 of North America that survived a catastrophic climate event which flooded much of the US and created vast upheaval.  She doesn’t take time to detail the disaster much; I appreciated not having to wade through a political or science treatise to get to the story. (I say that as someone who’s deeply concerned about the rate of climate change and the US’s stubborn refusal to confront it.)

I liked the setting and the general premise, that Maggie (main character) is a Navajo and also a monster hunter. In the fiction, the disaster has somehow awakened the old gods and some Navajo experience “clan powers” — their maternal and paternal heritage links them to powerful spirits? magic? demons? and thus they experience greatly enhanced abilities in crisis moments.  Kind of superpowers.

Maggie’s “powers” are speed and a bloodlust that lets her kill non-human monsters (and monstrous humans, if necessary) with relative ease. As a fan of the Witcher novels and games, I was ALL IN on this premise.

The atmosphere is …solid….but not so well developed that I can rave about it.  Roanhorse uses Navajo words and cultural elements to enhance the setting, and honestly I think the setting may be the strongest element of this novel.

I should highlight a great scene about 3/4 through; I won’t spoil it, but you get to see — really see — some of the magical/fantasy elements present among the Dine’e (Navajo) people, and I loved her descriptions in that chapter. I felt like Roanhorse’s writing hit its peak at that point; very little in the book otherwise comes close.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the presence of Coyote the Trickster in the story. Anyone who’s read indigenous folktales will recognize Coyote. Roanhorse uses the stock character from the tales as the basis for a genuinely interesting character who delighted me whenever he appeared.

The weaknesses

The story follows a basic mystery structure, introducing us to a few key characters and a former mentor/lover. (No spoilers; you learn that in the first chapter.)  I can’t really say this book has much “meat.”  There are some good fights, and they’re written clearly — you can follow what happens. That’s a decent baseline.  I wanted more.

Likewise, the characters are laid in with general strokes – a “strong bad-ass heroine with a dark past”; “a handsome yet mysterious partner who joins her”;  “the mentor who was also a lover but it’s complicated”; “the caring father-figure.”  And so on.  Flip through any TTRPG character creation guide, choose the urban fantasy setting, spin the wheel.

Perhaps the greatest flaw to me is that Roanhorse leans on two tired tropes. First, we have an emotionally stunted “loner” heroine thanks to past trauma. I don’t mean to downplay the traumatic impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples, but violence against women is too easy of a crutch for an inexperienced writer to lean on, in place of creating a fully rounded character who makes deep and meaningful choices. I feel that Maggie is lacking here, and I hope Roanhorse gives her a better future in the next book(s). Also, her trauma isn’t linked to imperialism; it’s a tragic backstory and violent act of crime that reminds me of the boilerplate way comic books tend to substitute “gee that’s horrible!” for a genuine backstory.  I’m not asking for Roanhorse to write a book that confronts American imperialism, but … I mean…. can her story do its best work by ignoring this almost completely?

Second, the entire book is written in the present progressive. I try really hard not to be a prescriptivist grammarian, but I had to grit my teeth at this. True, the present progressive lends a sense of immediacy to the action, but this is — to me —  nearly always a gimmick to create energy in weak prose, unless it’s wielded by a genuine master craftsman. (Even then, I’m still not sure I can get on board with long fiction written in present progressive.) I desperately wanted Roanhorse to work with a better editor.

I do need to critique my assumptions regarding the grammar; for example, the folktales in Native American culture as I’ve encountered them use a simplistic story structure and vocabulary. That doesn’t make them simplistic stories or less valuable than wordy modernist novels. I guess the problem here is that I can’t tell if this book is weakly written or if it’s following stylistic choices rooted in an unfamiliar culture.  Given no clear evidence of a cultural underpinning, I see it as inexperienced writing.

I noticed that many Goodreads reviewers assumed this book is YA rather than new fiction/ new adult fiction. I’ve got nothing against YA, but most of what’s on the shelves won’t win awards for writing or deep themes and plot. Despite the descriptions of violence, this book probably fares better when compared to YA rather than the typical Hugo nominee.

*****

I did enjoy the book overall. It’s not a bad book. I’m glad to see new voices and perspectives flagged for attention in the sci-fi universe.

That said, Trail of Lightning is a very weak Hugo nominee. Not as weak as what the “Rabid Puppies” got onto the Hugo ballot in 2013-15 (hoo boy, there was some shitty writing there), but still – weak. I want to see Roanhorse succeed, and I hope this series improves as it goes, because this world deserves to be explored.

And I kind of wish a different indigenous author had been the first to land a Hugo nomination, because the first person past the post may be the only author from an underrepresented group that the average reader will ever encounter.  Roanhorse’s work does provide a perspective rarely seen in sci-fi/fantasy, and for that I am grateful.

Buy a copy: Kindle/Print

Review: 2.5/5

Recommended for those who like urban fantasy or are craving a Native American viewpoint for their dystopian future. Content warning for sexual violence and violent crime.

Hugo ballot position: bottom

Review: The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal – Hugo Award reads

Calculating Stars, Kowal-Reviews / Hugo Awards The Calculating Stars (Amazon)

I remember Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent short story, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” from my award list reading a few years ago. It went through some nomination drama and eventually appeared on the 2014 novelette ballot (I didn’t vote that year), winning the category.  That story launched this series, as I understand it, by introducing us to Elma York – America’s first woman astronaut in an alt-history world where humans took to the stars much earlier.  You can read the novelette for free on Tor.com.

SPOILER BIT SO SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE NOVELETTE:  To me, the strength of the novelette lies in the excruciating choice that Elma must make in the twilight years of her life, to accept the mission because sending an aging body into space means the radiation won’t destroy the health of a younger astronaut, but trade away her chance to spend time with her dying husband in his final weeks of life. I knew nearly nothing about Elma or Nate (obviously), but the emotional punch of that story has not faded in the least since reading that story.

OK, SPOILER FREE AGAIN.

So I was genuinely interested in this first book of a two-prequel series by Kowal that promises to fill in the background of this “Lady Astronaut” who clearly (we know from just the title of the novelette) made it to Mars.

The world Kowal builds in The Calculating Stars is detailed and precise. It’s a nearly exact 1950s USA with one HUGE difference – a meteor strikes the seabed just off the coast of DC and Baltimore, obliterating the Eastern seaboard.  The US is forced to confront the reality of impending climate change (this is a similar theme to Stephenson’s Seveneves, which I hated so much).  Two chapters in, I knew I was reading a better book than Stephenson’s.  Kowal packs in the necessary scientific explanations of how a meteor strike would alter the earth’s climate to be hostile to life (cf: dinosaurs, way back when) and man’s only option is to take to space. So… they do.

This is the story of Elma York, a Jew and “calculator” who crunches numbers in the pre-digital era, echoes similar themes that occur in Hidden Figures. (My goodness, if you haven’t seen that movie yet, drop everything and go find it (like on Prime). And I’ve got the book on my pile to read, because I’ve heard it’s far more extensive than what they could fit into a film.).

That said…. this just wasn’t the book for me. Maybe it’s me? The writing is very good – crisp sentences, solid plotting, clear structure.  The story has stuck in my brain and keeps returning to my mind, so clearly the characters meant something to me.  But it felt too much like a history book that I hadn’t signed up to read, you know?

Elma  discrimination as a woman; she’s told outright that no women will fly to Mars, though she knows (as should everyone) that eventually a colony would need women around.  Of course, she’s a crack WASP-era pilot and spunky intelligent woman….but not without flaws that could imperil her trip into space.

I’m so divided about this book. I feel like I’m supposed to root for it, like it, give it to everyone I know, and feel smug because it’s progressive and all.

I think that’s the problem. Maybe I didn’t need Elma’s history filled in for me, because I’d rather read the actual history of the women in the 50s and 60s and 70s (and for decades centuries previously) whose contributions to science have always been overlooked.

Somehow, the alt-history tale of American misogyny and innovation falls flat (to me) compared to the actual horrors of 2019 or 1969 or Jim Crow, or the actual achievements of the Apollo project and Grace Hopper and Sally Ride and Mae Jemison (America’s first black woman in space).

Rating: 3.5/5  – it’s not you, Kowal, it’s me.

Buy a copy: Kindle | Print

Recommended for folks who enjoy the space program, the nuts and bolts of the relevant engineering problems, and alt-history.

Hugo Ballot: Middle

Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers

Review-Record Spaceborn Few-Chambers-Hugo Awards 2019Record of a Spaceborn Few (Amazon), by Becky Chambers, is the first book I picked up this spring when the 2019 Hugo Award nominations were announced. Having read and enjoyed her first two – not without flaws, but a very promising start for a new writer — I was excited to dig into book 3 of the Wayfarer series.

Clearly, this book sparks strong reactions. Goodreads reviews fork between 4’s and 2’s. Chambers is quickly growing as an author with the sensitivity to personal and social issues relevant to space opera stories. She’s not LeGuin, but there’s a lot of Ursula in her.

RoSF is a quiet book. It moves smoothly from scene to scene, not quite as smooth and snappy as a Scalzi (he’s almost too snappy, honestly, in recent works, bordering on becoming his own cliche), but flowing from point to point like a backwood stream.

Chambers’s Wayfarers series tells unconnected stories (so far) of various people in the same universe, where Earthers had to leave our planet in generational ships due to the destructive effects of climate change. They were limping along in deep space when an alien race found them and share crucial technologies  (power production, materials, food, etc) and laid the foundation for the Terrans to join the galactic community.

This third entry in the series takes time to explore what earlier books had not — the life of the humans who have elected to live in the orbital community of still-functioning generational ships, rather than leaving to work on transport ships or moving to a planet.

In many ways, the Earth fleet is a backwater small town, and its citizens face many of the same questions as someone from Nowhere, USA:  do I stay? leave? Are there jobs here that I want to do? What will I lose by leaving my community? What would I lose if I stay?

And likewise, there are always at least a few folks moving back, either because they seek their roots, or there’s something about the life on the fleet that appeals to them. The promise of the Earther fleet: we will feed you, house you, clothe you. No one will go hungry, or be left without aid. But in exchange, you will work, you will conserve materials and resources, you will learn to be part of the community.

*****
The novel tells its story by weaving together the journeys of five disparate residents of one Earth fleet ship:  a teen boy trying to decide what he’ll do with his life, a woman whose husband is gone on long-haul mining runs while she raises their two kids alongside their extended family, a 20-something drifter who left his lackluster planet life to find his roots in the generational ships, an ship archivist who cherishes her role preserving culture and making interspecies contact, and a young woman who serves as one of the Collectors of bodies once a person dies – nothing is wasted on a spaceship; human remains are composed and become part of the life cycle of the ship.

I enjoyed Chambers’ quiet revelations of these characters’ lives and decisions. Sometimes books need to be all explosions and action — and there are moments of fast-paced drama in this novel, though not many.

But big setpiece spectacles can leave out the quiet questions that would follow any sentient being into space, until eternity — why am I here? What am I supposed to do with this life?  How do I balance the tensions of family and community obligations against my own ambitions?

Books hit you differently at different times in your life. Perhaps I would have tired of Chambers’s third novel had I read it as a teen, but as a 40-something woman staring hard at the second half of her life, I appreciated Chambers dedication to asking the human questions that persist, regardless of whether we take to the stars or stay here.

The Collectors’ rituals especially interested me. Death is part of life, so how could we make loss more meaningful and purposeful? I loved the image of a “caste” of caretakers who help families navigate grief partly through training and partly by helping return the bodies to the “ground” whence they came, to be composed into the soil for the ship’s gardens.  Rituals reveal what a culture values, and Chambers’s future humans offer us an inspiring template (though not without its flaws).

Some criticize Chambers’s world for being too optimistic, lacking the ugly edges of a real human society.  I prefer to see her as standing in the best of the optimistic sci-fi tradition o Star Trek (for example), holding firm in the belief that we all stand to gain much by seeing examples of humans who have solved some of the worst problems of humanity.

Buy: Kindle / print

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for fans of her earlier books, and those who appreciate the quiet social science of LeGuin (but don’t expect that level of craftsmanship in the writing).

Hugo ranking – I haven’t set my 2019 voting ballot yet, but I will put RoaSF somewhere in the upper half.

Hugo Award Reads: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Review)

It’s Hugo Award Season! I love when June rolls around and I get to read books for 2 months with the excuse “I’m reading for the Hugo ballot voting!”  Not that I need an excuse to read books; our house is practically composed of stacks of books. But still…. it’s nice.

I’ve already read three of the nominees for Best Novel earlier in the year, so I’m picking up the other two.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Amazon link)

Robinson is a big name in sci fi but this is the first of his books to land on my reading pile. My husband, who is a voracious reader of sci with increasingly discriminating tastes, doesn’t love Robinson, so he’s not been as much on my radar.  Based on this novel, I will likely give his Mars series a shot.

New York 2140 is a big wandering novel told from multiple points of view (one per chapter, kind of in Game of Thrones Style). The novel introduces multiple themes of interest:  the realistic effects of global warming and climate change, the real effects of putting a coastal city under water, the lopsided wealth distribution, a sense of near-future tech applied to near-future climate problems, an exploration of the battle between political fortitude and the lure of lobbyist money.

It’s also a book about characters, more so than tends to be typical for an “ideas book.”  And this is what sold it for me.

I have head that Robinson is accused of creating “paint by number” characters, as have so many of the “idea guys” in science fiction. What they’re good at is building worlds and asking questions; the people in those stories exist only to carry on the plot and showcase the ideas.  I think Cixin Liu’s series (Three Body Problem, etc) are a good example of an idea guy who can’t really create believable human characters. (Though I have to give Liu a bit of a pass, since I could be missing the Chinese cultural nuances that a native speaker reading his novels in Chinese would see, and we might be losing more in translation than we realize. But the poor characterization ruined Death’s End for me.)

New York 2140 isn’t going to win a Pulitzer for characterization, but the New Yorkers here struck me as legit: with all the can-do and fuck-off attitude that NYC has delivered anytime I’ve been within its borders.  Of all cities on earth to find itself spit in half by a rising ocean, dealing with housing millions of people in a broad intertidal zone that bisects its critical districts, New York would survive.  New York would find a way to thrive. And New York would find a way to make money off that fight for survival.

I don’t want to tell you much about the plot – you can find summaries everywhere, but who wants to ruin a story like that?  Some have complained that the novel took too long to get started. *shrugs* If you enjoy sitting on a bench in Union Square and watching people for two hours, you won’t be bored by the novel’s opening. This book always drew me back for more, and honestly, it was usually to discover whether these people were going to be ok. That’s a good sign for a science fiction novel.

If you’re interested in how New York in particular would stare down a 50-foot rise in the oceans, this is the novel for you.

If you’ve never really thought about how rising sea levels will bring an apocalypse, but then a New Normal, this novel may interest you.

If you sense that our government  isn’t really much of a democracy any more, but we’re run by a rich-old-boys oligarchy, this novel might get you thinking about the natural consequences of that.

If you’d ever wanted to go treasure hunting in New York harbor, this book might intrigue you.

But really, if you enjoy visiting The City and soaking in everything New York has to offer, from brilliant minds to piss-soaked streets, read New York 2140. Just as New Yorkers got about their business after 9/11, they will find a way to get about the business of living once the oceans reclaim the coastline.

Pick up a copy of the book on Amazon.com (affiliate)

*****

Hugo Ballot thoughts:

I’m working to finish Ann Leckie’s Provenance and then I still need to read Six Wakes. What I’ve read of Provenance thus far doesn’t suggest it’s going to be a top contender, so at the moment I’ve got Jemisin’s Stone Sky and Lee’s Raven Stratagem on my short list for Hugo Best Novel.  Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire was a fun read and I’ll pick up the others in that series, but it doesn’t rise above the others IMHO in my balloting.

I don’t think Robinson’s novel rises above either of my top picks at this point. His ideas are solid and it’s a good novel.   But for the Hugo, I look for striking originality or truly novel ideas.  I think Robinson will do a lot to help the general public understand the real effects of climate change, though I hold little hope that anyone is willing to pay the price to reign in our overconsumption and reliance on fossil fuels in order to make life better for people who won’t be born for another 100 years. Robinson’s voice is added to the pile of those saying, “Hey! This is bad, y’all!”

For me, the question is, should Robinson’s novel stay above the “No Award” line?  I believe the answer is a firm Yes.  This is a good read and hopefully an influential one.

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. 😉

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.

View all my reviews