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Highly relevant to my tiny fandom interests, exhibits one and two. We’re officially ready to start writing the actual Alliance Rising book, and along with it, we’re going to put Finity’s End into Closed-Circle. That’s a hundred or so years on…some of the same bunch. It's a little fuzzy which end of canon the new novel is set in, and I don't care, I'd cheerfully read anything Alliance-Union. Can it be publication time now?

Moving Day

Oct. 21st, 2016 12:07 pm
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Last night my landlord emailed that he wants his house back for an entirely legitimate owner move-in eviction. So my roommates and I are looking for another place to live. Send good vibes, and if you know someone renting out a 3 bed 1.5 bath inside San Francisco's city limits, for roughly market or a bit under, maybe put us in touch. Or a studio, but it would be nice to keep the household together.
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I reread In the Garden of Iden (Kage Baker) (1997) in the run-up to vacation, because sometimes what you really need is some slapstick with tragedy. It's been... a decade? More than a decade? Since I originally read this, so I'd forgotten some of the set pieces: the "unicorn", the Christmas celebration, the dubious consequences of Sir Walter's deal with the Company. Iden has most elements of the Company series, in a nutshell, including that pompous git Mendoza's boyfriend. It's so good! The writing is fluid and smart and funny and the plot flows together wonderfully. Baker's early death was a great loss to the SF/F writing community.

The Winged Histories (Sofia Samatar) (2016): Samatar's second novel, set in the same universe as her first, A Stranger in Olondria. It's Samatar's take on epic fantasy. Histories is divided into four parts, presenting four POVs on a civil war in Olondria. I bogged down at the opening of the third part, almost exactly halfway though, which opened with second person present tense. (And by "bogged down" I said, "oh, no," and pulled the next book in the to-read queue.) This is nominally standalone, but I struggled to assemble a sense of the characters, their relationships, and what made their stories sufficiently compelling that I should keep reading. Histories also suffered from the tension of being epic fantasy and being critical of epic fantasy. It's hard to reach for an affecting touchstone Crowing Moment of Awesome while taking a hard look at the assumptions that make that Crowing Moment of Awesome so affecting. Also, epic fantasy just isn't my genre. On the outside, it looks like it should be. It's a genre that runs long in wordcount and intricate in worldbuilding. But epic fantasy rarely digs into the spin-off of the worldbuilding assumptions, the second order assumptions. GRRM unintentionally nailed it: The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. They don't care what games the high lords play. I want to know what causes the Westeros wacky seasonal variation, how that impacts the society - I want some impact on society - and I really don't care about a bunch of people fighting over power. Power is boring, limitations set the state for interesting stories. Histories has the right idea - the characters have limits - but again, the execution is almost there.

Also, there's an xkcd graph that is relevant to this novel. I thought the plethora of fictional plants, animals, trade goods, what have you, was a Le Guin style ethnographic argument on cultural contextualization and atomization or something, but it's an example of epic fantasy imitating the forms of the genre's founders while forgetting that one of the founding giants was an obsessive philologist whose smash hit was a spin-off of his conlang projects (note the projects multiple). Okay, I exaggerate? But to make my point that the outward shape is reproduced, not the inner truths readers found in the reading experience.

Points for ambition. I want to like The Winged Histories, but the execution didn't do it for me on this pass. But apparently I want to talk in detail about its ambitious failure, which might get me to try other fiction by Samatar, or even grit my teeth and finish the second half. Eventually.

Lab Girl (Hope Jahren) (2016): I think this might have been an NPR book? It paid off very well for an NPR read, if so. Memoir by a die-hard plant nerd, focusing on the adventures of life in pursuit of the tenure track and also on the awesomeness of plants. It's a 304 page account of a lifelong love affair with green things. There's a relaxing effect of the writer skimming across her experiences, touching on the tenure track struggle, the desperate state of research funding, the experience of being a woman in academia and a field research science, adventures and misadventures in mental health, family relationships, and not delving too deeply into any one of these, except maybe the awesomeness of Jahren's partner in crime and research.

The City of Bones (Martha Wells) (1995): Scrappy loner with wacky survival abilities thanks to long-vanished Ancients - and his partner in dealing Ancient relics - are reluctantly drafted to save the world. Scrappy loners are one of Wells' go-to character types, which is useful for talking about societies, and the odd things that make up the culture, like burning people's bones to prophesy, or trading their sanity for mage powers, or engaging in high risk trades in Ancient relics, because money, against a backdrop of postapocalyptic desert scarcity. It's a bit Mad Max, minus the cars. And also with the strong female protagonists - loner Khat and his partner Sagai are drawn into high level intrigue by Elen, a junior Warder of the city-state Charisat. Elen and Khat have contrasting emotional arcs: Khat struggles to keep his distance from Sagai and Sagai's family, Elen struggles with stepping out of her mentor's shadow. If you like Wells' other fiction, you'll probably like this too.

Vacation!

May. 22nd, 2016 10:53 pm
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I cleverly scheduled my trip to friends in Wisconsin to coincide with Wiscon. If anyone else will be at Wiscon and would like to hang out, ping me. I should be there Saturday and Sunday. If you would like something from my vacation - post cards, for example - leave a comment! Comments are screened.

Now I just need to address the really fraught packing questions, like what books pack along in hardcopy and which are acceptable in ebook.
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Games Wizards Play (Diane Duane) (2016): Nita, Kit, and Dairine mentor younger wizards in a wizardly science fair: Dairine's mentee presents a spell that can stop earthquakes... if she can work through a few issues with her large and wizardly connected family... while Nita and Kit struggle with a mentee whose personality is even more flamboyant and flawed than his ambitious solar spell.

Climax destroying spoilers. )

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (David Talbot) (2012): Popular history of San Francisco from the Summer of Love through the HIV crisis. The focus is the welter of conflict that gripped the city through the '70s, culminating in the devastating two weeks of November 1978 when the Jonestown deaths rippled through the Bay area and Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot by Milk's fellow supervisor Dan White in city hall.

Talbot's uplifting redemptive finish is Feinstein's nine-year mayoralty. The HIV crisis is presented as San Francisco getting its act together, compared to what came before, which strikes me as a little off-base.

The Martian (Andy Weir) (2011): Fictional account of the survival of an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Spoilers, I suppose. Spoilers of meh. )

Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home (Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, 1990) (trans. Aliyu Kamal, 2012): a littattafai na soyayya novel, one of the occasional series I think of as "NPR books", ie, books I read becuase NPR made it sound interesting. This is a story of virtue rewarded and misdeeds punished: the wife and mother Rabi is thrown out of her husband's home at the insistence of a new wife, and must support herself and her nine children in Kano, Nigeria. The bad behavior of spouses is the recurring theme of this novel, as Rabi's oldest daughter Saudatu catches the eye of a wealthy businessman and finds her virtue rewarded with a loving and wealthy husband, Abubakar. Alhaji Abubakar casts off his previous wives as their flaws come to light. Greed, selfishness, and irreligiosity play their roles in revealing who is moral and upstanding and who is not. Ultimately, Abdu's fortunes crumble and he is forced to take back the hardworking Rabi, though now Rabi is in charge. "She was the one who handed out the day's provisions, who distributed the detergent and soap. She was the one responsible for giving the house a lick of paint when needed, and deciding what should go where."

To say this is outside my usual reading is an understatement. And I love that! Sin is a bit of a soap opera and a bit of a romance and perhaps a bit chicklit, or at least the story of dense community. Rabi appeals to her siblings for support, her brother-in-law chastises her husband, her children pitch in, her neighbors are part of her support network. Saudatu is able to catch Abubakar's eye when she is visiting with an aunt. But it's also threaded through with profoundly Islamic and Nigerian ideas: routine polygamy, separate spaces for men and women - when Rabi begins selling food from her house, the novel casually mentions her sons helping to take food outside to adult male customers, since of course these men cannot step foot in her house, it would violate purdah - the routine Islamic prayers, woven into the fabric of the characters' lives. It's a short, fascinating look into someone else's culture.

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars (Nathalia Holt) (2016): Pop sci history. The JPL computer department, founding to its transition from "computer" to "engineer".

This is a little more memoir than I like my pop sci. Rise of the Rocket girls is descriptive. It's subjective. It recounts women coming to JPL, their experiences in and outside the computer department. It doesn't go the extra step to correlate this to wider trends. It mentions that the JPL computers hired a black women, it doesn't explore the link that to a century of racial discrimination in the sciences. It passes over the the hiring of a first generation Chinese woman without thought. It mentions that the JPL computer department consciously and consistently hired only women for decades, from almost its inception until its dissolution, and treats this lightly, rather than turning it around from all its fascinating angles: is this a form of affirmative action? Is this a variation of reverse discrimination? Did this impact the payment, the structure, the labor assigned to computers at JPL, compared to mixed or male-only computer groups? There's recounting that women left to get married, left for their first child, came back because they missed working, came back and got divorced, left to salvage their marriages, and the creeping change from "babies end careers" to "single mother supporting her family" happens utterly unremarked, it's just another variation in anecdotes. JPL launched a rocket, so and so got hired, JPL proposed a space mission, so and so left right before the birth of her child, and so forth and so on. It doesn't put in the work to step from fluffy to significant. And that's a shame. This book about these women, and this moment in the history of space exploration, of women's involvement in the military-industrial complex, of women as computer programmers and engineers and mentors and advocates for their junior colleagues, is so slight it's going to slip right out from notice and take these stories with it. Rise suffers a lot from failing my hopes; it disappointing and frustrating that such an interesting topic is not assayed with more rigor and depth.
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In December and over the holidays I read a number of Damon Runyon's short stories collected in The Bloodhounds of Broadway and Other Stories (1981). A writing giant of the 1930's, Runyon has a wonderfully distinctive fictional voice and smashing comedic timing.

A coworker lent me Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale (1983), which is a brick-long love story to New York City, in the mode of magical realism. Amazing prose, inconclusive plot. )

It's a hot mess and I like it. The plot is a mess with absurd resolution, when any thread resolves at all, and the prose is over the top, and it doesn't matter, it's so bizarre it takes the reader right out of the world into the world of the story.

I tripped and reread Martha Wells' Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy (2004-2005), some of the Ile-Rien and Cineth short stories collected in an ebook in 2015. It's hard to succinctly talk about why I enjoy these so much. I love the way The Wizard Hunters drops the reader into the troubles Ile-Rien and Cineth face and gets the multiworld ensemble working together against their common enemies, and against the frictions individual characters face with "their" people. The Ships of Air develops the cultural blind spots both sides discover alongside a breakneck action plot. The Gate of Gods almost sticks the landing; there's a lot of landing to stick (Tremaine and Ilias! The reason for the Gardier invasions! Giliead and sorcery! Ixion! Florian and Ixion! What's going to happen to Arisilde! And oh yes, defeating the Gardier.)

And there is snark. So much snark and sarcastic humor.

"It's a grend," Tremaine explained, keeping her voice low. "It's got Gerard trapped."

"You saw him?" she demanded. "What's a grend?"

"A big... thing." Tremaine flapped her arms in a vague gesture. "We didn't see him, but he's got to be there. If it had already eaten him, surely it wouldn't still be hanging around."

Florian stared, taken aback. "You know, when you're optimistic you have a strange way of phrasing things."


Then I read The Death of the Necromancer (1998) for the first time. The Death of the Necromancer is set a generation earlier, focusing on the adventures of the previous generation as Nicholas Valiarde's attempt to avenge his foster-father's murder is derailed by someone else's plot, one that smells of banned magics. One of the joys of The Death of the Necromancer is seeing Nicholas surrounded by characters in his weight class. Co-conspirators Madeleine and Reynard have their own histories, ambitions, and agency - Madeleine's particular defiance of family tradition plays a role, as do Reynard's disavowed military connections - and mad brilliant drug-addled Ari, repeatedly called the greatest or most powerful sorcerer in Ile-Rien, is least as much a problem as a sorcerous help. I love the sense of place the descriptions of Vienne evoke. I also like Inspector Ronsarde and Doctor Halle, whose antecedents are fairly obvious and I do not care at all.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2016): Being the latest in the Vorkosiverse, this time focusing on Vicereine Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and her burning desire for six daughters; and also the start of a post-Aral romantic relationship with Admiral Oliver Jole, who has some life decisions of his own to make.

The e-ARC hit my smartphone on October 21st of last year, and I wasn't able to bring myself to open the book until March, when time and the tenor of other readers' spoiler-cuts had given some hints about how to adjust my expectations. And then I had lots of feelings that assume you've read the novel. )
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Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie) (2015): Moving on from Lifeboats to another sort of ship. Excuse me, did the trilogy just stick the landing? Extensive spoilers for all three novels. )

Also, Leckie's tumblr is a delight. See especially #peep-peep-peep-peep.
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So, er, I found some book logs I started in July, and put somewhere unusual for me, and just found this week. And I remembered I had finished Lifeboats, so here's some novels.

Ancillary Mercy is getting its own post. It's moved me that much.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami) (1997 trans. Jay Rubin): Absolutely surreal Japanese fiction about a milk-mild fellow, Toru Okada, and a dry well. Also mysticism, Japan's collapse on the Manchuran front during WW2, fate and free will, and Noboru Wataya, an academic, rising politician, and also the brother of Kumiko, Toru's wife.

It's a floating novel, as Okada wanders through life with very little idea what he wants, or what he stands to lose, until he loses the thing that defined his life. The narrative is fragmentary, filled with negative space during Okada's periods of unemployment and isolation, and with elliptical loose connections between the characters who erratically interact with Okada: May Kashiwara, a teenaged girl who lives in Okada's neighborhood; Malta Kano, a clairvoyant, and her sister Creta Kano; Lieutenant Mamiya; Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka, mother and son in a clairvoyant family business; Mr. Hondo, another clairvoyant. It's a little tricky to judge prose and style across translation, but what has survived the translation is something extremely controlled and literary, with a control of language that gives the reader the sense Murakami knows exactly what he's doing. It took me a really long time to get into the novel, but at the end I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and start rereading in light of knowledge revealed by the end of the novel.

"Penric's Demon" (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2015): A novella in the Five Gods universe, about an accident with a demon and a Very Nice Young Man. It's a nice Bujold novella, that doesn't break any new ground if you're familiar LMB's fiction, but average Bujold is still very solid entertainment.

Lifeboats (Diane Duane) (2015): Joins "Not On My Patch" and "How Lovely Are Thy Branches" as the third minor "interstitial" story between A Wizard of Mars and Games Wizards Play. At 90,000 words, it's not terribly minor. And thematically, it doesn't feel minor: Kit, Nita, and most of the usual suspects are called up on an emergency mission of mercy. As a story about when flashy displays of wizardly power aren't the solution, I really liked it. The teenage angst about Valentine's Day was cute, in a sappy "aw, teenagers" way. It's a lot of fun watching Nita and Kit grow up; I'm enjoying how Duane is developing their characters and relationship.
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I just finished Ancillary Mercy.

Now that was an ending. And Seivarden! I was not expecting Seivarden of all people to be promoted in my affections. Unlike [spoiler] who is awful and steals the show with awesome one liners from pretty much the first second onstage. And [epic spoiler]! Enjoy the salad. With fish sauce.
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The 2015 Hugo Awards have been announced! Congratulations to the winners in this historic year.

The awards ceremony was livestreamed. Watching it in real time with [personal profile] norabombay in chat was a blast. I hope future Worlcons continue to make the awards ceremony available live for those of us offsite. A potentially fraught ceremony was handled with grace by the MCs, David Gerrold and Tananarive Due.

Nomination and voting statistics are up for this year's awards and are being crunched, as you would expect from SF/F fandom.

tl;dr comments )
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For some time I've had a tab about Samuel Delaney and this year's Hugos open in my browser. It's a good article because it discusses racism and the Hugos, and it's not an article I'm comfortable with because it's continuing the theme of Delaney The Token Black Science Fiction Writer. It's a work in progress, but the science fiction community is becoming more diverse.

Race issues aside, it says something that this year's Hugo drama has been covered by mainstream journalism. Whether something about the science fiction community, or about the movement of geeks from a fringe group to a more central place in American culture, or something else, I'm not sure.




Too many words on my voting experience. )

So now I have evaluated the puppy slates on their own merits, and having done that once, I can say I can use any future slates as guidelines of work I can skip without missing something amazing, or even likely relevant to my interests, either in excellence in genre or particular types of SF/F.
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Two nominees got punted on Did Not Finish grounds, but the other three - Addison's The Goblin Emperor, Leckie's Ancillary Sword, and Liu's The Three-Body Problem - have had me dithering.

3BP is good but flawed. If I can tell the physics is silly and inaccurate, the physics is really silly. AS is very much a middle novel; it's a competent middle novel, but my evaluation of its quality will be greatly influenced by Ancillary Mercy, out this October. And TGE is operating in such a different register from the other two novels, to the point where I ask whether you could strip out the genre aspects and have the exact same story.

In a good year, the Hugos are an embarrassment of riches, a diverse slate of competing innovative well-written ideas. I'm pleased these three novels give me a taste of that. I say with all my heart there is merit in stories where writers are figuring out their craft, or roughing out new things, or getting the bills paid in a competent but not brilliant fashion. But there's a difference between a story that demonstrates promise or developing talent and a story that merits Hugo recognition. That's why there's a lot of No Award going around this year.

My novel rankings right now are:
1 The Three-Body Problem
2 The Goblin Emperor
3 Ancillary Sword
4 No Award

But yesterday I had AS up top, and I still have a day to change my mind.




Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie: already read, and reread it too. In case you were wondering whether I liked it, ah, yes, I did.

The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J. Anderson: There are so many problems, and I'm only 100 pages in. You know what? I'm 100 pages in, there have been 13 PoV characters in 16 chapters, it's exactly like reading Exile's Song only I'm not 14. The terrible prose, the illusion of depth that would likely be shattered by reading the rest of the series, the failures at basic mechanics of storytelling, the gratuitous Indiana Jones bad archaeology... I can stop now! There's been enough exposure that I know how I plan to rank this when I cast my ballot!

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison / Sarah Monette: already read it. And I reread it while considering rankings. It's sweet and cute and at the end of it I asked, "does this have to be genre?" The story of TGE works equally well as a Ruritanian epic: substitute trains for airships and the goblins for a European power, and you've got something not entirely unlike, say, Philip Pullman's The Tin Princess.

Cut for space. )

Skin Game, Jim Butcher: The prose is slick, though the protagonist is ridiculous. The story opens with Harry Dresden hanging out on an island with certain eldritch properties, mostly playing parkour and waiting to... die from a magical brain tumor... or... something. Clearly I am coming into the middle of this series!

I only read the sample chapters of Skin Game, which were enough to convince me of Butcher's qualities as a writer without generating sufficient interest for me to check the full novel from the library. Beach reading; competent but not award winning.

(Parkour in the eldritch catacombs. Oh, Harry.)

The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu; Ken Liu translator: Now this is unquestionably science fiction. Spoilers. )

This is so very rooted in genre conventions. The aliens are hostile; the most critical science is cutting edge physics; a classic physics problem is a key aspect of the backstory. I'm fascinated that the author's note included with the English translation tells us that Chinese science fiction usually writes aliens as benevolent, since that's not my experience of the American approach to life in the skies.

I'm also surprised 3BP didn't show up on the Puppy slates, being the sort of gosh-wow SF they claim to support, but then I found Cixin Liu's Big Idea on Scalzi's blog, and for those of you who have been blissfully ignorant, the people behind the puppy slates are not rational on the topic of John Scalzi and anyone associated with him. Also, dare I suggest that a group that has consistently behaved as through straight white men of a certain socioecomic classes are the only group that counts might have, ah, not welcomed the contributions of a non-white non-American? Maybe I'm mistaken, but it seems like such an oversight not to include 3BP, when writers like KJA, Marko Kloos, and Larry Correira made it on the puppy slate in the novel category.
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The novelettes were a step up from the short story and novella categories, but still not exactly brilliant material. I'm on the fence about voting any of them over No Award.




"Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium", Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014): Old man dies on planet colonized by humans, then recolonized by aliens, and uses his death to rebel against the aliens' death rituals, in the first step to triggering a conflict between the two colonizing groups.

After the previous categories, this... isn't bad. It's got a beginning, middle, and end; it's not brilliant but it tells the story it set out to tell. It's not masterful. It's not introducing new ideas to the field, or demonstrating award-worthy levels of skill with prose, worldbuilding, or plotting. It's not that insightful about the material it's retreading. What's the difference between humans rebelling against their alien oppressors, and Iraqis in conflict with Americans? The lack of nuance is enough of a failure for me to knock this way down the rankings.




"Championship B'tok", Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014): Part two of a series about interstellar civilizations knit together by a lightspeed transmission network of... intellectual property? The story treats this as a background element to the unmasking of a conspiracy spanning millennia, but I kept getting hung up on the radiowave IP thing. It's like the backstory for Cherryh's Company novels smashed into Vinge's Qeng Ho, except without the things either of them do well. Both Cherryh and Vinge call out the lightspeed lags and the surprises that pile up between transmissions and reactions to transmissions, and how that plays out. "Championship B'Tok" foregrounds an in-system plot, which cuts down on your lightspeed lags, but treats the interstellar plot as the big reveal. It's a very distracting flaw in the story, which has sidetracked me from the dicey prose and flat characterization. If the plot and worldbuilding were better, I'd be able to overlook the prose and characterization, but that's not the case. Ambitious but flawed.




"The Day the World Turned Upside Down", Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014): the next time someone is asking what nice guy syndrome looks like, look no further! Girlfriend ditches boy, magical realism happens, Young Flower Of Untouched Innocence appears, Symbol of Our Relationship suffers at ex-boyfriend's hands, ex-BF quits this plane of existence in a way that is supposed to show how over everything he is. You can tell because he's mentally telling his ex how so very over her he is in the last paragraphs of the story.

The "romantic breakup = world turned upside down, NO LITERALLY" is actually executed well. If I were doing magical realism, I'd want to have cool ideas like that.

However, the execution relies on me caring about a Nice Guy who pines until he is totally, really over her when he discovers - gasp - there is another man in her life! She contaminated her purity by seeing another man after she dumped him!

Spare me.

It's hard to tell if this is suffering in translation from the subtle difference between the characters being jerks, and the author being completely aware of the intended effect, and the protagonist being a waste of my time because that is the author worldview. Negative one million points for Nice Guy protagonist souring my week.

n.b. this was a non-slate nomination. In the immortal word of Carolyn Hax, wow.




"The Journeyman: In the Stone House", Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014): This... isn't awful. It feels like a chunk hewn out of a larger story, but it has an acceptable beginning, middle, and end; mangles English in service of the story; and assembles the worldbuilding and characterization in a way that puts this that smidge over "Flow" where I cared enough to finish the story without skimming. The plot is, again, Ringworld natives; but it's competent Ringworld natives.




"The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale", Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014): Space cadets - Exoplanetary Explorers in training - pick a fight in a bar, get detailed to punishment duty packing up a failed project, and save the project from failing by noticing things overlooked by all other personnel assigned to the project in the last 30 years.

Wiki tells me the golden age of SF is 1938 - 1946, with some scholars advocating the '50s as the true Golden Age. My assessment is that the Golden Age of SF is twelve, when you're old enough to read adult works widely and indiscriminately, before you suss out the qualitative differences between Piers Anthony and Lois Bujold. But going by the golden age as a historic time period, the subtitle is spot on. This is from the "golden age", with the stiff prose, cocksure protagonists, and lack of grounding in actual human psychology you'd expect from that era. I started reading, I started skipping, I started flipping ahead to the end. It might not be bad, but if there's a brilliant idea lurking in there it's hobbled by the deadly words "I don't care about any of these characters, or the thing they're exploring" that escaped my thoughts a fifth of the way through.
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Since I suspected the novella category would be the hardest to read, I decided to tackle the novellas after the short stories. I'm ranking "No Award" as my first choice for this category. I finished only one of the nominees, hurled another aside with great force, and declined to spend time on the other two novellas the writer had gotten on the ballot in the novella category.




"Flow", Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, 11-2014): A competent adventure of a young man in a place that might or might not be a future Earth. Rist travels to the "warmlands" from his cold northern home with a group of "icemen" who guide and sell the icebergs that calve off his homeland's glaciers. The prose is stiff, and prone to infodumping, in the tradition of the Future as Travelogue; in fact, the juxtaposition of infodump and remnant technology reminded me a bit of Niven's Ringworld, as did Rist's adventurous personality. That's the strength and the weakness of this story: it could have been written any time in the last fifty years without changing a beat. The treatment of women only as "birthers" and sexy things to have sex with is a step down from Ringworld and other stories of the '60s and '70s, when science fiction was rediscovering that women are people too. Teela Brown at least gets her own scrap of story in Ringworld; in "Flow", Rith's mother is the only named female character, even though one might think the prostitute he screws - twice - might be another way our adventurous young lad could talk to and learn about the new horizons opening to him. In a stronger year, I'd have equally competent and more innovative choices to rank above this; for the 2015 awards, this is the only novella I actually read most of the way through. I started skimming at the two-thirds mark, but I finished it.




Big Boys Don't Cry, Tom Kratman (Castalia House): Super-sized tank with some level of AI is in her final battle and is scrapped for salvage by her human creators. ("Her" is correct; the the tank is definitely gendered by the narrative.)

I was recently pitching a story idea to a third party, with interleaved flashbacks as part of the structure. She gently and firmly nixed the structure.

This is an example of why she said to toss the flashback stricture. Stories benefit from chronological order. If the story will be told out of order, it better be for a really good reason. Thematic clustering, where theme is overpowering every other element of the storytelling. It's bouncing between linked stories set during World War Two and the '90s and have more than 300,000 words to play with (hi, Cryptonomicon). It's tracking River Song and the Doctor's hop-scotching personal timelines. There is a very specific information game it's playing (hi, Ancillary Justice). Whatever reason is in play, it helps to have strong technical skills when approaching the story's tone, prose, themes, and characterization that will help make or break the structural choice. The technical skills on display in this story aren't up to the challenge.

Big Boys Don't Cry opens in a "now" frame, told from a super-sized tank's PoV. Then it breaks for a didactic history lesson that reminded me of nothing so much as the opening of Cyteen, only with more riots and hanging. Then it jumps back to the tank and a salvage team. And then there's a bunch of character and temporal shifts into the tank's past, the salvage team doing its job in the now, and the tank in the now, with occasional outbreaks of Didactic Textbook Voice, aka infodumps. Made it to chapter 4 of 10, where the dying hulk flashes back to her first combat mission, and noped out.




One Bright Star to Guide Them, John C. Wright (Castalia House): Not read.




"Pale Realms of Shade", John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House): Not read.




"The Plural of Helen of Troy", John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House): I started reading this before I read Wright's nonfiction, hit multiple "nope" items in quick succession and skipped to the end. Structurally this attempts to disguise Wright's extensive technical weaknesses by telling the story in reverse chronological order. Because it's a time travel story, get it?

Wright does not have the technical chops to pull this off. I did not lightly toss aside "The Plural of Helen of Troy", I deleted it off my ereader with great force.
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For the Related Works category of the Hugo packet we have "John C. Wright's Patented One-Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction", an essay from Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth. I want to burn it and take a shower.

I cannot believe I am putting this behind a cut for sexual content in an essay on basic fiction skills. And yet, here is a cut with a warning about surprise gross objectification of women in an essay on basic fiction skills. There's bonus slurs on non-Western beliefs. )

When an artist has mastered his or her craft and does amazing things with it, it's possible to have engaging debates about the merit of art versus the artist's personal failings. Sometimes there are good people who are not great at their chosen craft, but we'd like them to find success to reflect the quality of their character, even if their work isn't to one's taste. My exposure to Wright's fiction and nonfiction work fulfills neither of those categories. In fact, I'd characterize his fiction as amateur work unworthy of the Hugos, and the nonfiction I have read as actively harmful to building a vibrant community of high quality writers capable of engaging with the questions of speculative fiction, be those extrapolation of contemporary hard science, examining the human condition, exploration of space and the future of humanity, or... take your pick. Wright's advice on writing is lacking as his fiction is lacking.

In light of what I interpret as bad writing and a general vibe of "off", I won't be reading anything else be Wright for this year's Hugos and will be leaving his work off the ballot.
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Recognizing that people have different interpretations and relationships with fiction, and also that shorter fiction just doesn't hit my buttons the way a fat novel will, I usually try not to just say, "wow, I hated this story." However, I suspect that exposure to this year's Hugo short story nominees actually killed some of my brain cells. I almost certainly will be marking No Award for this category.

Comments are in alphabetical order by surname.




"On A Spiritual Plain", Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2, 11-2014): Chaplain makes journey to release the spiritual remains at a physical site, for Reasons.

Meh. Just... meh.




"A Single Samurai", Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen Books): Sword-wielder in Japan-flavored setting strives to kill a monster the size of a mountain.

It's an unpolished story, which suffered by comparison to "Pacific Rim" every time the author wrote "kaiju", but good try!




"Totaled", Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, 07-2014): Woman dies in car accident, becomes a component of her own research study.

This gets points for actual speculation on technology and its impact on the human condition! The execution is not awesome, but it's competent. I would read something else by this writer.




"Turncoat", Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House): AI-powered warship votes "no" on killing fleeing civilians, opts to defect to the enemy.

"Turncoat" is so cute! It's like reading a David Weber short story, only with even less grounding in science and also even clunkier prose! Take a look:

If I were a superannuated Homo sapiens sapiens, I suspect fear would have taken hold of me at that moment. Instead, I run a rapid analysis of the pros versus the cons of having my entire operating system rebooted and my memory banks wiped. The outcome is decidedly in favor of the cons.


In this story, suspicion is not an emotion, but fear is, okay. Cybernetic death is bad, and also that conclusion is delivered in a bizarrely convoluted sentence, okay. But the cumulative effects don't add up to a coherent vision. Weak, but I give it a few points for being oddball enough I kept reading to figure out the worldbuilding, even if the entire story was telegraphed by the title.




"The Parliament of Beasts and Birds", John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House): Animals meet, discuss humanity's departure from the mortal plain, are elevated to Manhood.

It's like C.S. Lewis, minus Lewis' mastery of the tools of writing. The style choices are all over the place, slip-sliding between parable, pulp, and contemporary irony. Look at this quote, emphasis mine:

And there were pleasure houses where harlots plied their trade, and houses of healing where physicians explained which venereal diseases had no cures and arranged for painless suicides, and houses of morticians where disease-raddled bodies were burnt in private, without any ceremony that might attract attention and be bad for business.


Whoa. Total tone-break right at the end of the last sentence. Also, minus one million points for working in a reference to "harlots" in a story with no women.

The erratic capitalization adds on to the style issues. First there is When Raven and Wolf came to where Hound and Horse and the slow and solemn Bull were all exchanging whispered eulogies and reminiscences, and put their question to him, the Hound shrugged philosophically. The animals' names are proper nouns! A paragraph later it's The wolf said... and The hound shook his shaggy head. Whoops, proper nouns dropped. Why? What is going on here?

It's hard to screw up pacing at this length, but the story really tries to. And the science is wrong. There aren't black lions. You can't have the waning moon rise at sunset, it doesn't work like that. If these are supposed to be a signpost of the End Days, or that we're in a fantasy story, well, the slip-sliding prose does not make that evident.
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I have cracked the Hugo Nominations packet! It's an exercise in suffering! No, really, I see writers I've "noped" out of in the past! For example, I have been hating on Kevin J. Anderson's mediocrity as a writer since the Jedi Academy trilogy was published in 1994! (Sorry, KJA. I am glad other people like your writing enough to support you as a professional writer, but I am profoundly unmoved by the overwhelming "meh" of your fiction.) I will be doing my best to apply my usual questions to what I read:

Are the ideas compelling?

Does the plot interest me?

Do the spelling and grammar conform to a contemporary style guide?

Have the spelling and grammar been mangled for good reasons that support the idea or plot?

Based on previous experience with Hugo nominees in general and some cursory perusal of the nominees so far, I have serious doubts about some of the nominees doing well when judged by these questions. To keep my head from exploding, there will be a very special guideline for this reading project:

Do I have serious reservations about the writer's grip on her or his prose? Stop reading.

Usually I am a die-hard finisher. Sometimes this is justified: Possession was a slog for hundreds of pages and came together in a dead brilliant fashion at the end. However, from the very first page it was clear Possession was in the hands of a writer who had a very clear grasp of what she was trying to do and the impact of each word and sentence, plus the cumulative effect of each little building block as the story unspooled into paragraphs and chapters and a complete novel.

I do not have faith each and all of the Hugo nominees will demonstrate such subtlety or control over their tools. So watch this space as I suss out the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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