ase: Book icon (Books 3)
[personal profile] ase
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.

My litmus test for "does it have to be genre" is, does the core story change when you yank the genre elements out? TGE's core story is Maia's development as a person, when he is uncomfortable with the power and responsibility handed to him. This is brilliantly captured on the cover art of the hardcover, which shows Maia (presumably Maia) wearing a massive Court-shaped crown, flanked by arched construction that could be aqueducts, or a bridge. The art centers the city-crown, and shoves Maia deep into the bottom third of the design, away from any point the viewer's eye first lands on. It's a great cover that nails the feel of the book really well. But... none of these elements are particularly speculative; the biggest clues this is genre are the title, the airship off to one corner, and Maia's non-human-shaped ears. But take away the airship, and tweak the goblin-elf thing into a different racial or ethnic conflict, and... it's pretty much the same story.

Its engagement with the tropes and tools of the genre seems to be heavily mediated through recent social justice meta-discussion. Ironically, it's grappling with one of my favorite things, the human condition, but I am asking "how are the spec fic elements of this novel necessary to telling this story?" Its genre-ness might be there, but in a very different way than something with sorcery or nanobots or spaceships or psychic powers. (Imperial powers and responsibilities in SF/F: Elric of Melniboné, Paul Atreides, all those fat fantasy epics of the '90s and '00s I have been skipping over... and there there is Maia.) I would be willing to be argued around on this one, especially if the conversation could be heavily salted with examples. I feel the New Wave may be once again relevant to a discussion.

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. A Chinsese nanotech researcher is sucked into a mystery that is killing theoretical physicists. There are aliens, there is abuse of high-energy physics, there is characterization motivated by plot. For example, the protagonist, Wang Miao, has a wife and son who presumably are an important part of his life, but who he never mentions in the back half of the novel. He is entirely adsorbed in the plot (and its infodumps). Ye Wenjie's perspective on the worth of humanity is forever lowered by the Cultural Revolution, and her actions waver between belief that humanity is worth reforming, by alien intervention, and that it's only fit for destruction, by alien intervention. It's somewhere between compelling (character wrestles with What Is The Right Thing To Do, finding different answers at different points in her life), and baffling (character realizes stuff's out of her control, doesn't, you know, enlist allies to fix that). In the best traditions of the Golden Age, the science is a smokescreen for the philosophical questions: blah blah blah high energy physics, blah di blah nanotech - and let's not talk about the weird dynamics of the MMORPG - but really what matters is that Aliens Are Coming, How Do We React.

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.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-07-30 07:01 pm (UTC)
cahn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] cahn
...And you convinced me to put them all below No Award! Hee.

But yeah, I agree with pretty much all of this. (Up to also wondering why 3BP didn't make it on the puppy slate -- didn't get any farther than that, but am willing to believe non-Western-ness had a big role, and possibly Scalzi.)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-07-31 09:57 am (UTC)
cahn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] cahn
I am pretty harsh, I guess, but I think I would have been harsh in previous years too. For example, I would proooobably have ranked e.g. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance under No Award (but possibly not Cryoburn, which I also was not excessively fond of but which at least has interesting things to say about the economics of cryogenics). And definitely Wheel of Time, and probably Redshirts, which did actually win the Hugo, so we can see here that I may have a different opinion of what the Hugos should be doing than the average Hugo voter. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-07-30 08:18 pm (UTC)
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
From: [personal profile] rachelmanija
The speculative aspect of TGE is well in line with two well-established types of sff, which are historical and alt-historical fantasy, and anthropological sf that explores created cultures that do not and have never existed in our world.

Ursula Le Guin has several books that don't have magic or space travel or aliens, but are about people living in a culture she created. You could tell similar stories about people with similar character arcs in somewhat similar cultures, but they would not be the same story.

Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan and other works of historical/alt-historical fantasy have even less magic than TGE, and are much more closely based on real history. He could have told very similar stories using real history. But his books are considered within the realm of fantasy.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-07-31 05:07 am (UTC)
rachelmanija: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rachelmanija
Le Guin: Always Coming Home, Voices, Powers, and, IIRC, some of the short stories from Orsinian Tales and The Wind's Twelve Quarters.

So why not go with straight up historical fantasy?

Because no actual historical culture is the same as Maia's culture. It's a from-scratch culture that bears some similarities with various real ones, but it isn't a real one. You could rewrite the story to be set in Heian Japan or Renaissance France or some such, but you'd have to change virtually every scene and a lot of the character relationships, because they depend on cultural factors that don't actually exist.

To me, creating a culture is a completely valid work of storytelling. It's also a recognized, if small, subgenre of sff.

You can play the "but could this story be told in a non-sf setting (if you change a whole lot)?" question, and it's true of a surprising number of sff novels. Lots of space opera could be told if it was set in the era of tall ships, or epic fantasy as alt-history, so long as you change all the details and some of the character relationships. But the basic stories - say, a young person learning leadership and coming of age in a time of war - would remain the same.

What do the non-pseudo-historical tropes add to the story of Maia's development as a person, and as a ruler?

They're part of the culture that's part of Maia's story. Never getting to be alone, ever, is part of his story. The specific cultural roles of his bodyguards, wizards, scholars, and attendants are part of the story. The roles of women are part of the story. Etc. Sure, it could have been set in some specific historical place and time, but then everything would have to change to fit the reality of that time.

"Why not write a similar-but-different book? What does her setting add that is better than some other setting?" is a question that can be asked of almost any book. Almost all fantasy stories could be transposed into science fiction, for instance, and vice versa. Why do the Vorkosigan books have nerve disruptors and wormholes and spaceships instead of wands and magical gateways and flying carpets? Why does Lord of the Rings have elves and hobbits rather than different races of aliens?

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-01 04:12 am (UTC)
rachelmanija: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rachelmanija
It's interesting that you mention Doris Egan. Her Ivory books are sf, but they could easily be told without the sf aspects. Have the heroine stranded in another country rather than another planet, and you have essentially the same story. The sf elements are really minimal; what makes it sf is that it's a different culture.

"Why elves and goblins" is probably because it's in conversation with all the other fantasy novels about a young man raised in humble circumstances who ascends the throne. Typically in fantasy, that's the end of the story. TGE explores what happens afterward. I suspect a second conversation with a slightly different sub genre of fantasy, the ones in which there's lots of court intrigue and kind people are stupid and meet terrible fates. I don't know Monette's actual intention, but to me, elves and goblins and the minimal but present existence of magic functioned as a reminder of all those other books, that TGE not just in conversation with real history but also with the literature of fantasy.

That being said, I'm not sure that it was the best book in sff this year. I haven't read the others on the ballot, but I'm getting the impression that it wasn't a particularly strong year. The books I'v seen get the most press as artistically best, Station Eleven and The Girl With All The Gifts, were not on the ballot.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-07-31 10:15 am (UTC)
cahn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] cahn
I see your point about anthropological SF, although honestly I would have trouble with seeing some of those Orsinian Tales stories as Hugo-fodder -- the stories she created being concerned less with that culture (which is a bit pan-European) and more with working out the human relationships (e.g., you could set them in Vienna and tell the same story).

I also see your point about alt-history (I see, for example, that Man in the High Castle won a Hugo). I dunno about GGK. I mean, I know his works are regarded as fantasy, and I guess I think of them that way in my head too, but it's not clear to me that he's particularly interested in working out the implications of the alternate history, which to me is what I would need to consider it seriously for the Hugo. (But then again, as I noted above, I think I might be more grouchy and picky than the average Hugo voter.)

/agrees with you, but is feeling grouchy and nitpicky about details today :)

I'm troubled about TGE, though not because of the speculative aspect so much -- more because it's too... easy? That is, I really enjoyed it and I think it's a quite well-written book (much better written than 3BP, and depending on what Ancillary Mercy comes up with, quite possibly better written than AS), but I think I agree with skygiants' take on it.
Edited Date: 2015-07-31 10:22 am (UTC)

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