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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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As a form of bonding with a non-geek coworker, I watched "The Notebook". In the spirit of enjoying things for what they are, not what you want them to be, I will note there were several moments where I was moved: the young lovers' screaming fight that acknowledges the character flaws that will be part of their relationship if they're going to continue as a couple; the meditation on love and choice when Allie's mother reveals her own youthful fling to her daughter; and the very end, where the lovers romantically pass away on the same night, the night Noah sneaks into Allie's room at the nursing home. But by all that's holy give me friends to lovers with ridiculous snark and banter, or true love in the context of a bigger world, or a character study with science, for my go-to entertainment.

The new Avengers movie is on this week's to-do list.

The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison / truepenny aka Sarah Monette) (2014):. Fantasy novel about the ascension of Maia, the Elvish emperor's disregarded fourth son, to the throne of the Elflands. The novel opens with Maia shaken awake to learn his father and three brothers have been killed in an airship explosion, right before he is whisked from an impoverished country estate to the imperial palace, so this is not a big spoiler.

This novel is a warm fuzzy blanket of feelings. It's like Monette took what she learned from writing the Mirador quartet (which I loathed), combined it with wolftimes feedback, and produced this tempered work borrowing from the hurt-comfort tradition with beautiful attention to structure and sequencing of information. The interwebs tagged it "fantasy of manners", which does not seem inappropriate. People keep spontaneously offering to teach Maia. Maia keeps figuring out how to deal with people! Maia charts path toward being a good person and a good Emperor! Maia connects to his remaining family! This could have been a byzantine political novel; instead, it's a complex humanist novel. In a stronger Hugo year, I probably wouldn't expect The Goblin Emperor to make the ballot, but I'd pick it up for comforting rereads for years.

Katherine Addison is Monette rebranded, as mentioned multiple times on her livejournal. If you haven't read Monette's work, and liked this novel, you might or might not like her previous work. Look it up, but if you don't like the first chapter of The Mirador, set it aside before you're tempted to hurl it into a wall later on. (Wow. As I write this, I find I am still disgusted with the obligation d'ame in The Virtu.)

The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi) (2009): 23rd century Bangkok, generations after peak oil, faces a number of environmental, technological, and biological challenges to its existence. I liked the structure, and like that it tries to break out of the northern hemisphere, but it feels, how to put this, exactly like it was written by a Western man. There is a habit of attention, a certain angle on the world, that is rooted in that heritage and experience.

But within that frame of reference, there's a lot going on. The post-oil economy, a sincere effort to write a future Krung Thep that is energy-poor; at constant risk of being drowned by the rising ocean; poor, and fiercely defiant of the "calorie men" of the West.

The structure is amazing, a loose ricchochet collection of multiple PoV characters whose actions influence each other in direct, indirect, and generally unexpected ways. The yellow card refugee Hock Seng schemes to rebuild the wealth and stability of his old life in Malaysia, destroyed along with his family during ethnic purges, by stealing a Maltese Falcon plot device from the factory where he is employeed. The factory is a front for Ken Anderson, one of the calorie men of the West, in Thailand to find and exploit a rumored seedbank, a priceless treasure in a future ravaged by genetically engineered plagues. He is thwarted by the Environmental Department's Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, and his lieutenant, Kanya, sworn to protect Thailand against the aggressive bioengineered life forms: beetles that have claimed entire forests; crop diseases that blight harvests, threatening famine; viruses and bacteria that rip through human populations like a scythe. They're professionally and personally disgusted by the New People like Emiko, the "windup girl" of the title. Emiko is a genetic construct, originally from Japan, abandoned by her owner and left to survive in Krup Theng, where she is considered so much biological trash to be recycled, and maybe beaten to death first. Emiko survives under the questionable patronage of a foreign pimp, one of Anderson's acquaintances. Her experiences are related in detail bordering on torture porn, so this is probably a skip for people who nope out of sexual assault descriptions.

I love this sort of plot. I love the ping-ponging cause and effect which become the causes of more effects. I love that Emiko struggles with her biological constraints and deep-seated psychological programming to find agency. I do not love that The Windup Girl will probably date very quickly, because of its topics and its approach to subjects that we're struggling with in the here and now, like climate change and genetic engineering. But it was enjoyable in the moment, and probably has a few more year before it's too dated to recommend without caveats. That's the problem with science fiction: the more detailed and interesting the extrapolation from the current body of knowledge, the less well it ages. Read it if you like kinetic plots with thoughtful future science.


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April 2017

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