Aug 022020
 

Chicago 2012

In my recent review of A Memory Called Empire I posted

“there is nothing exceptional about this. It’s…. fine. It’s fine. But it’s not good. It’s certainly not genre-defining or among the best things published that year. It’s just a space opera story being stretched out to meet publisher demands for a series. That is not inspired, and it’s not inspiring.

I know there’s at least one Hugo nominated novel that I just don’t get every year, but I don’t think anyone is doing Martine a favor by pretending they think her novel is a Hugo contender. I feel bad that this happened.”

A few days later, A Memory Called Empire won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

This has made me really reflect on myself, SF in general, and what The Hugo Awards are/mean. Here’s what I’ve come to–

The Hugo Awards are given out by the participants of The World Science Fiction Convention. It’s a fancon run by huge SF fans, and it’s great. :) They read a lot of SF, and at some point in the past decided “Hell, we have this big ol’ party/con every year, why not vote on what our favorite books/stories of the last year were, and give them an award?”

As these cons are attended by people who read A LOT of SF, they were pretty decent at picking out really good examples of SF lit. Since the con is often attended by people in the SF publishing industry, and frequently by VERY big name authors in the SF field, the awards they gave out started to get some attention. In time they became a marker of overall quality in the field.

And yes, ultimately it’s a popularity contest. That means works by popular authors are more likely to be noticed, and outstanding novels by unknowns will sometimes be missed. That’s just how things are. Nonetheless, usually things that are really good become popular, so it works out enough that one accepts that The Perfect should not be the enemy of The Good.

But of key importance in a popularity contest is who the audience is. If you are a vegetarian, the Best BBQ In The South of 2020 isn’t gonna matter to you, because as good as it may be considered among BBQ aficionados, it just isn’t for you.

This is why I never bothered with Lit Fic awards. I don’t care how great some piece of LitFic is, I’m not gonna like it cuz it’s LitFic. The Hugo Awards were what I really cared about, because the people who voted on them were like me. They were nerds and dreamers who got excited about fantastic magical devices and weird alien societies, and heroes going through scarring trauma but saving the day in the end. They created a big ol’ nerd con they could all go to once a year where they’d all geek out together over the latest Fantasy epic or SF mind-fuck.

For the last several years, this has been less and less the case. And before we go nuts, I want to stress this is not a bad thing in itself. I’ll explain myself.

When guys hear I’m in a book club, they always assume I’m the only dude in a sea of women. This is because that’s what most non-SF book clubs are like. Ours is different, we have a nearly 50/50 split, sometimes favoring men a little. I assume this is because SF/F is typically viewed as a Guy Thing. There’s a stereotype of the SF nerd, and he’s not female.

We are fortunate to have a wide variety of people in my book club, and it makes for interesting discussions. We even have what I nowadays think of as “the white woke woman.” She’s not a social justice warrior. But she is white, well-educated, politically liberal, works in academia, etc. I want to stress here that none of these are bad things. We all love her, she is a joy to be around, and I consider her a friend. If you were to picture the type of lady that attends monthly book club meetings reading Lit Fic, you’d see her.

She loved most of the things nominated for this year’s Hugos. She was far more into the shorts than anyone else, they really spoke to her. And that is wonderful. It is always a pleasure to see a friend taking true delight in something! It is good for there to be joy in the world, and watching people experience that joy is great, and I don’t want to take that away from anyone.

But it strengthened my impression that the typical WoldCon attendee has been trending further and further away from the SF nerd that used to include me, and now consists mostly of the woke lady reader. I didn’t think anything of the fact that A Memory Called Empire was nominated — every year there is always some nominee that has no place in the Hugo pantheon IMO, but got in through a fluke of popular convergence. They are always sifted out during the voting process. This year, the sifting out decided that A Memory Called Empire is indeed the highest peak that one can aspire to within WorldCon circles.

This isn’t that surprising, when one thinks about it. Men Don’t Read. Not literally true, but when you look at the numbers, women consume FAR more written fiction than men do. If you want to be a successful author, your best bet is to write Romance, that’s where the majority of the money is. Failing that, LitFic aimed at women audiences is also huge. Whether this is because men are inherently less interested in reading, or if it’s because our sexist society systematically discourages male reading, or something else entirely, is unimportant. Women read a lot more, and they predictably have differing tastes in the aggregate.

In the past, SF had a certain aura about it that kept it mostly restricted to SF nerds. Most non-nerds stayed away, in part due to the aura of weird nerd crap that SF exuded. There were definitely nerd women in those circles (like I said, half our book club is women), but they were way outnumbered by the men. Also, they had tastes pretty similar to the other nerds, which is why they pushed through that aura of nerddom in the first place.

In the past decades, SF/F has become very mainstreamed. Normies read and love it now. Which is great! I love when people love things. :) But it means that the ghettos that used to be populated by SF nerds have been gentrified by regular readers. And most of those readers are woke women. They are educated and fairly well off. (It’s not a coincidence that going to WorldCon is far more expensive now. It’s also often an international destination event.) That’s simply how the demographics work out when a written genre becomes popular. Most heavy readers of most fiction words are educated, well-off, and women. Demographics aren’t good or bad, they’re just the way the world is.

So the Hugos are now, in effect, an award given out by a type of person with tastes very different from my own. I am glad they have a community they are happy in, and an award they can give out to celebrate works they love. I admit I am sad to be evicted from a place I used to consider a home. But I ain’t fancy, I’m a basic boi that reads a bunch, and I don’t fit in anymore. When all your friends move out, ultimately you gotta realize it’s time for you to move on as well.

What does this mean for me? It means I can no longer say anything is “Hugo material” or not, because my judgements of quality do not mesh with the audience of the Hugos. It means I don’t really need to bother reading Hugo works, any more than I read LitFic award winners, because they don’t say anything useful about what I will appreciate. And it means I gotta go looking for a community that is more like me, and likes the things I like, so I can go geek out with them and feel at home again. Maybe we can even throw a con for ourselves so we can meet up IRL and fanboy about the latest thing with cool swords and explosions and tormented heroes and freshman philosophical quandaries. :)

On the plus side, WorldCon was my nerd home for a while, and I’ll always have those memories, and the friends I made there

Jul 302020
 

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Synopsis: A diplomat from a space station makes friends with high-level officials of a space empire.

Book Review: The book starts with a really interesting situation. The diplomat has the memories and personality of the previous diplomat uploaded into her head, and the two of them have to integrate into a new unified personality. She deals with foreign reflexes and intrusive emotions, and can speak with the old diplomat in her head to a fair extent. It was a delight to read, and I was looking forward to a great rollercoaster of interaction and personality conflicts. Which was good, because with the setting being a boring diplomacy gig in a safe embassy, the action outside her head was pretty dull.

And then a few chapters in the uploaded personality & memories are wiped out.

Most of the rest of the book is a slog to get through. The stakes are low, we don’t really care about the protagonist’s mission, and the political intruige is poorly done. The personal assistant that gets assigned to our protagonist seems to be fawningly in love with her and her home station, showing far more loyalty to this stranger than her own people. I assumed she was a very bad double-agent for being so unrealistically loyal, but it turns out she really does just exist to give the protagonist an unswerving ally.

Which is a good thing for our protag, because she’s a complete idiot. Early on she, her assistant, and a friend play a game of “Let’s build trust by telling each other secrets!” The assistant reveals a minor sexual fetish for foreigners. The friend reveals something equally innoculous. Our protag reveals the most sensitive state secret of her people. I /foreheaded. Turned out to be fine though, because her assistant is just so loyal!

I get the feeling this book was trying to be A Song of Ice and Fire In Space. There’s a great, inhuman threat descending from the North deep in the galaxy, which cannot be reasoned with or understood, and the small border state that knows it’s coming has to appeal to a larger empire to defend all of humanity, but gets caught up in the machinations of a power struggle within the empire. The problem is that the machinations of the power struggle have to be interesting. GRRM knew how to write political intruige. Martine does not. Ideas are easy, execution is hard, and the execution here left me alternately rolling my eyes and bored.

Deep into the book, a few chapters from the end, the action picks up and SOMETHING worth writing about finally happens in the story. We get quite a bit of fireworks, and it’s actually fun reading for a few chapters! Then the news of the approaching alien onslaught is delivered to the people who can do something about it and the book ends.

This book could have been titled “Space Opera: Prologue.” Because that’s what it is — a prologue that was spun out into a novel for no good story reason. It was done for a pretty good financial reason. As has been bemoaned on this blog before, everything has to be a series now to make any money, and so what should be a prologue within a novel is sold as a seperate novel… even if it has to be padded out with a hundred thousand words of filler. Bleh. A thousand curses upon this dumb trend. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: There’s not much to talk about in a book of such thin substance. Not Recommended

Hugo Note: I’m being a bit harsher on this book than I would normally be. This is because I came in with high expectations. This is a perfectly servicable fluff book for times when people just want to kill time wandering through a space opera prologue. It is mediocre, but it’s a first novel, and most authors need several novels to get their writing legs under them. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I recognize there’s a place for these sorts of things. If I had come into this like any other book, I wouldn’t have expected something really good from the get go, and I would have been able to enjoy it a bit more.

But I didn’t come into it like any other book, because it has been nominated for a Hugo. A significant number of people put this forward as a book that may very well be one of the best SF books written in 2019, a book which may alter and redefine aspects of genre fiction, and a work that any other novelist should be proud to aspire to. So I came in with some expectations. Turns out those were ridiculous expectations and it really hurt the novel that I had them, because there is nothing exceptional about this. It’s…. fine. It’s fine. But it’s not good. It’s certainly not genre-defining or among the best things published that year. It’s just a space opera story being stretched out to meet publisher demands for a series. That is not inspired, and it’s not inspiring.

I know there’s at least one Hugo nominated novel that I just don’t get every year, but I don’t think anyone is doing Martine a favor by pretending they think her novel is a Hugo contender. I feel bad that this happened.

Jul 232020
 

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley

Synopsis: A fascist footsoldier becomes unstuck in time, realizes war is hell, and turns against the system that created her.

Book Review: First, an apology. I moved this month, and that process has drained away a lot of my time. I read this book well over a month ago, and this review is very late. Some of the details are already a little fuzzy.

I was impressed by Hurley’s decision to go with a protagonist that is a fascist in the current political environment. The novel doesn’t glorify fascism, quite the opposite in fact, it shows how evil a system it is. But such nuance can often be missed by people looking to get outraged, so it wasn’t the safest choice. It was a good one though. Portraying how a fascist system is destructive and abusive even to its own members is powerful, and was well executed. The Light Brigade isn’t some cartoon dystopia you find in YA fic, where the snobby elites kill kids for the lulz in a stable evil empire. This was a thoroughly real, crumbling dystopia in a war of all against all, reminiscent of original cyberpunk. It is gritty, and gritty is something Hurley does very well.

I also really enjoyed that the novel stays bitter and angry all the way through. There is no Conversion Moment where the protag joins the holy order and dedicates herself to righteousness and things improve locally. There is only deepening bitterness, and a refocus of anger from what her masters want her to kill, to what actually deserves destruction. This is my cup of tea, and I love it.

The theme is also exactly up my alley — a recognition that violence begets violence and is awful, but done in a way that allows us to see maximum violence along the way, because I get a visceral thrill out of the spectacle even as I abhor it IRL. Any book that gives me violence thrills while making me despise violence generally gets my support. :) This is message fiction done well!

The downside is, I didn’t get anything new here. The protag becomes unstuck in time, and so we get the distorted, chopped-up narrative common to other well-known anti-war books. It felt very reminiscent of both Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. While I consider that high praise, I don’t think it cleared the bar the same way those works do, and so suffered in comparison to them. As I read I felt a number of times that this would be really cool if it was the first time I was experiencing it… but it’s not, I’ve read it before, and I don’t think it improved the recipe. I don’t want to diminish what Hurley has done, because this is better than a lot of things I’ve read in the past couple years, but it honestly felt like a remake that didn’t live up to the original.

I’m not sure how to go with the recommendation on this. Will this turn out to be something that I look back on years later and wonder why I didn’t love it at first? I don’t know. Maybe. If this sounds interesting to you, I don’t want to dissuade you from picking it up. But I would put other things on my reading list above it, so, though I may regret this later, I can’t quite recommend it.

Book Club Review:  This is pretty good for a book club book. The time-loop shenanigans are fun to puzzle over together. Most of the book club found the protagonist to be rather unlikable, which I had to admit is a fair cop, and gave us further things to discuss. I don’t think other readers liked it as much as I did, but the discussion went well, which is a big part of what makes a good book club book. One reader did point out that this is another book that unfortunately trivalizes torture and its effect on the victim, so there’s that. But nonetheless, I think the meeting we had tips it just over into Cautiously Recommended for book clubs. (Cautiously because there is a lot of violence and despair, some book clubs may want to avoid it for that reason… but of course those book clubs would want to avoid any realistic war novels as well.)

Jul 212020
 

Sorry for the long delay, I guess sometimes “tomorrow” means “in over a week”!

I.

Anyhow, yes, Emergency Skin is meant to be funny. I don’t think this should be controversial. I mean, there’s a dick joke in the first paragraph. Not only does the poor protag obviously not know what is desirable in a human body (long thighs?), but he’s being sold a long penis when we all know a long, thin penis is no one’s friend.

Most of the humor in the story is of this style – we see a naive protagonist being lied to by a narrator that is taking advantage of him. It’s a sort of comedy of errors, as we see a couple of complete idiots bumbling about in a Three Stooges-style fiasco, getting more and more wrapped up their buffoonery. Like, how can you not laugh at a society that thinks they’re The Best Evar but apparently hated women so much they replaced them all with “pleasurer robots?” Their entire society is so mentally and culturally deficient that it’s pretty clear that they were politely given the tech to leave by a humanity that really wanted them to move away, and they’ve lied to all their descendants claiming that they were so very smart that they found a way to leave the planet when no one else could. As if they’d had the capability to do cutting edge research, or accumulate vast wealth, with the three brain cells they had left. :D

Anyway, this would just be a straight-up farce if it was simply a depiction of this society of charicatures, but it turns into a satire when we see one of these flunkies coming back to Earth to interact with normal people. At that point, Emergency Skin reads very much like a take down of bad message fiction. It’s holding up a mirror to writers of bad message fic and saying “See, this is what you look like when you don’t do this well.” Writing good message fiction is a skill, and takes a lot of work. When it’s bad, it’s really bad. Satire can point this out via demonstration, and make us laugh along the way.

The really cool part of Emergency Skin is that you actually feel sympathy for the protag here, because he’s so niave and doesn’t know any better. He’s being used by the narator, and so we cheer when he sees through their lies and decides to go back and help his fellow citizens. There’s an actual good character arc, which is pretty unusual for a short satire piece.

II.

Poe’s Law is an artifact from the atheism wars on the early internet, which states that it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the views being parodied. No matter how ridiculous of a religious claim you made, someone would think it was serious, because why not? Religions are already looney toons. Religious people would often get upset about this, saying that it was plain freakin’ insulting that someone would say they couldn’t tell the difference between an absurd parody and a real religious claim. This sometimes resulted in hilarious own-goals, when it was discovered the original claimant was in fact a religious person expressing a sincere belief that the objecting theist had claimed was so ridiculous that only a liar trying to Own The Opposition would pretend to be confused whether it was a joke or not.

(Related fun study – some conservatives thought The Colbert Report was a pro-conservative show. From a study: “conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.”)

Which is to say that the meta punchline is Emergency Skin is being Poe’d. At least a couple people in our book club assumed Jemisin was writing this as a serious piece of anti-something propaganda. I’m not entirely sure what the “something” in this case is, but I think some combination of Billionaires, Capitalists, Whites, and Men. And, sure, those are all popular targets of the illiberal woke-ists out there. But I don’t think an objective reading of the story can support this.

III.

The story, as a satire, is pretty obviously about idiots the rest of humanity didn’t want to have around. They are shown to be a dysfunctional society brought to the brink of extinction due to their own mental, moral, and cultural failures. They’re just barely keeping old tech functioning, having to scavenge repair parts from Old Earth regularly. They are a fascist slave-owning society with dogma and philosophy completely inimicable to scientific advancement or functional capitalist systems. There is no way they got off Earth on their own. They were basically kicked off, and teach their descendants blatent lies. They do their best to hide these lies from the scavenger scout, but the truth is so blindingly apparent, and the society is so inept at even something as basic as lying, that the figleaf of falsehoods is blasted away immediately upon arrival.

The story, as serious criticism, is…. let’s say “problematic.” It’s the story of a minority group of humans. This minority group has distinct physical features (skin color, facial structure, hair) that make it obviously different from the rest of humanity. This minority group is also mentally, morally, and culturally retarded. Yet despite being vastly inferior to the rest of humanity, they have somehow insideously taken control of major power structures on Earth. In addition, they’ve tricked, defrauded, or outright stolen vast amounts of wealth from those who created it and should rightfully own it, and horde it for themselves. When the rest of humanity was in its most desperate situation, they stabbed humanity in the back and abandoned us, taking all their stolen wealth with them.

Basically, they’re 1930s Jews in Nazi propaganda.

What’s more, it turns out that once they were left to themselves, their true nature of theiving untermensch is revealed, and their new world collapses. Meanwhile, now that Earth is freed of their insidious leeching, Earth flourishes, and ushers in a New Golden Age where everyone has plenty and there is no more strife. By extension, the reader is left to wonder that if only… IF ONLY this vile minority of sub-humans could somehow be removed from the planet everything would be sunshine and roses.

So, yeah. I know this is combining Poe’s Law with Godwin’s Law, but reading this as a serious work of modern cultural criticism, one would be forced to say that Jemisin basically recreated the worst kind of exterminationist Nazi propaganda. And, to be quite honest, I don’t think that’s remotely plausible. It’s as silly as saying Colbert is a secret Republican, or Obama is a secret Muslim, or Scott Alexander is a secret Nazi.

And come on! This is a story that includes lines like “Beautiful? That’s… You’re only saying that beacuse they have skin.” Or “They want everything for everyone and look at where it’s gotten them! Half of them aren’t even men.” These are jokes, and pretty good ones!

Also, would an author that seriously embraced that sort of ideology be one of only two (of the twelve short work authors) who didn’t make the story available freely to all? And be the only author who made the story available ONLY at Amazon, so people are forced to give their money to the boogeyman of the leftists? I had to install a Kindle app to read this, I don’t think anti-capitalism is a driving value here. :)

Jul 102020
 

Hugo AwardBy long tradition, we read the Hugo nominated shorts in our book club. Spoilers for all stories below. I’d encourage people to read all of them, they’re short, but if you’d like to know which ones I think are the best so you can read just those before getting spoilers, they are: “For He Can Creep”; “As the Last I May Know”; “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”; Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin (not available online)

Best Novelette

“The Archronology of Love”, by Caroline M. Yoachim

A story about loss and longing. I didn’t find it particularly interesting, but this may be because I have a cold, dead heart. ;) Several people in our book club really loved it, and found it bittersweet and poingnant. I honestly can’t even remember much of it after less than two weeks since I read it. It wasn’t bad, just nothing here for me.

“Away With the Wolves”, by Sarah Gailey 

A pretty good werewolf story. It deals with disability and chronic pain in a way that I really wanted to connect with, as someone who is now a sufferer of daily chronic pain and kinda-sorta-techincally-mildly-disabled-I-guess. But for some reason it just didn’t click. It feels unfair to say that, because I can’t point to anything in specific. It just… didn’t connect for me. This was a feeling shared by everyone in my book club, so I don’t think it’s just me, and we all really wanted it to work. I don’t know what the secret sauce is, and it feels shitty to say that something is missing it. :( But, well, there we go. It ended with a nice message of acceptance and community togetherness which was pleasant enough. Just no fireworks.

“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, by Sarah Pinsker

There’s nothing to this story. It’s a bit of cozy mystery fluff with an SF twist at the end. I want to make it perfectly clear that there’s nothing wrong with that. God knows I love a lot of fun, fluffy stuff that’s just pure enjoyment without heft to it. But I was surprised to find this on the Hugo short list. On a craft level, it’s great. Pinsker is an acomplished writer of astounding skill, and kept me reading the whole time. It’s entirely enjoyable too. But I get the feeling she was just having fun here, and I imagine she was as surprised as I was to find it as a nominee. Awards tend to favor works that will be viewed as “influential” on the broader art form by future generations, and it seems unlikely to me that a light bit of mystery fun fits that.

Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin

This is a fantastic satire of terrible message fiction. I laughed several times, which is unusual when reading, for me. It’s not as full-on absurdist comedy as the other Hugo-nominated parody of my time, “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons”, but to make up for that it has an actual plot, with a full storyline and character arc that is more-or-less fulfilling. Being able to pull that off in a parody piece is really impressive. They tend not to lend themselves to that.

There was quite a bit of disagreement between me and the rest of my book club on this story, several people didn’t realize it was a comedy. Tomorrow I’ll be writing up a significantly longer treatment on this, because c’mon, that’s just crazy, one can’t let that go unexamined!

“For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll

Oh my god, this is the most perfect feel-good story and I love everyting about it. It’s about a cat that fights Satan in an insane asylum! And it’s even better than you’re already thinking! I checks just about every single box for things I like in feel-good ficiton. Adorable protagonists with snoots and whiskers and swishing tails, that don’t take crap from demons. The titular character has Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres levels of self-assurance and lack of patience for fools, and doesn’t try to pretend he isn’t awesome. His priorities are all screwed up, but perfect for a cat, and it’s a joy to watch him saunter right into disaster. And the story centers on a madman! AND THE DEVIL! They literally fight freakin’ Satan. Also there is a work of art so intense it can shatter the world. The prose is straight-up gorgeous; it’s lyrical throughout, with some flamboyant flourishes. The plot is engaging and very satisfying, and I literally want to read a dozen spin-off stories based on these charecters, but only if Carroll is the one to write them. If she doesn’t win this year’s Hugo then all love of art has fled from the world, because this is Art.

A thing of note – both “Blur in the Corner of your Eye” and “Away with the Wolves” are also feel-good stories. But “Wolves” lacks the joyful energy, and the intensly lovable characters. Neither “Wolves” nor “Blur”  innovate, and don’t have have beautiful, lyrical prose or experimental style. I believe this is what seperates a Hugo-contender from a “pretty good story.” “For He Can Creep” is impressive and memorable in addition to being a fantastic read.

“Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang

A return to old-school Chiang, where he examines what the world would look like if a belief people claim to hold was actually true. In this case, young earth creationism. I didn’t find it as engaging and pround as some of his other examinations, though. Maybe because this was never a belief I’d held? Perhaps the Chiang stories people most enjoy are the ones that tackle subjects most dear to their own upbringings/beliefs. However it is expertly executed, as all his stories are, and obviously there are enough people with a background of young earth creationism that it had the numbers to make it as a nominee. Mad props to Mr Chiang, as always.

 

Best Short Story

“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, by Shiv Ramdas 

A great revenge story set in colonial-era India. An atrocity is visited upon our heroine, and when she recovers enough to exact revenge, it is graphic and brutal. Some of our book club didn’t particularly enjoy that. I loved it, because I like bloody revenge stories. There is a part of me that wants to see such horrors avenged, to see their perpetrators die screaming, and everyone around them who was complicit can die screaming too. Giving such feelings a safe outlet is what fiction is for. If you like the bloody-revenge part of Tarantino movies, you’ll probably like this. I sure did.

“As the Last I May Know”, by S.L. Huang

Oh damn! Someone took the Roger Fisher proposal that the nuclear launch codes be kept inside an aide so the president would have to cut them out (thus killing a man with his own hands) before starting armageddon, and made a story out of it, and it’s soooo good. It’s set in a different world, so national sympathies don’t get in the way of telling the story. Instead we simply live with the child(!) chosen to be the bearer of the code, as her nation falls closer and closer to nuclear war and the president who’s come to love her has to decide if he can kill her to save his entire nation. Not only is it a great take on a great thought experiment, it’s really brought home by the defection of the girl’s adoptive father/mentor at the end. Despite being a pacifist priest, in the end he breaks, and tries to provide the nuclear codes to the president WITHOUT requiring the sacrafice of the child, because he can’t live with the death of the daughter, but he can’t live with the destruction and slaughter of his country either. It’s brutal.

And the fact that it ends without us knowing if the girl is going to live or die is perfect. The reader is left trying to figure out which ending would I prefer? and thus has to answer for themselves which situation is worse? Is this worth the cost in my own opinion? Is this justice?

While most of my bookclub thought this was an anti-nuclear-weapons story, I pointed out that it seems very much like a Tragedy of Good Intentions. The purpose of the policy is to prevent nuclear armageddon unless it is absolutely vital. But the country that invades our protagonist’s country doesn’t have nukes themselves. They ravage the interior, thousands are killed in the fighting on both sides, and tens of thousands of civilians are killed in bombings, many times more displaced and starved, and cities ruined. Because the invading country figured our president wouldn’t kill this child to launch nukes. The intention behind the policy was good and pure, but there wouldn’t have been an invasion at all if the nukes didn’t require a child sacrafice. Because the invaders would have worried that if they invaded, nukes would have been launched in retaliation and the aggressor nation devestated. Without a war there would have been thousands of soldiers lives saved on both sides, and possibly hundreds of thousands of civilians. As a cautionary tale, the message is obvious — don’t give anyone a reason to think you won’t use the nukes, and you end up preventing wars and saving many lives.

Except, of course, without some deterant on their use, it’s much easier to get world wide armageddon. And shouldn’t someone willing to kill millions of people have to kill at least one person first? If you can’t kill one person, how can you kill so many, so indiscrimently?

And in the end, the nukes might get launched anyway. Damn, man. Really, a very good story.

“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, by Rivers Solomon

Another revenge story. This one is more elaborate, and grows to encompass an entire society. As in “everyone in this society supported this atrocity by their acceptance of slavery, burn it all down.” Again, I like revenge stories, so I liked this. It focuses less on the revenge itself, and far more on how getting your revenge isn’t enough, because afterwards the world is still broken and you are still empty. The protagonist grows over the course of the story, learning to find acceptance and belonging with her friends/surrogate family. In the end revenge stops being the goal, and instead becomes the means towards the true goal, which is family and togetherness. It’s actually a really positive message among all the slaughter. :)

“A Catalog of Storms”, by Fran Wilde

I gotta admit, I didn’t particularly get this story. It’s written in a surreal, dreamlike way, never fully explaining what’s happening, but giving you enough to figure out the broad strokes. Yet, despite figuring out more or less what’s happening, I never really felt a connection. It all felt too unmoored in anything. I dunno… it’s been a while and it still bugs me. I think I’m missing something, and if I reread it a few times perhaps whatever I’m missing will click and I’ll have a revelatory moment. I was hoping someone in my book club would have insights on this, but they all felt basically the same way, which makes me suspect maybe it’s not us, it’s the story. Googling has found only people that say basically the same thing — a cool mood piece, but there’s not much that happens to anyone. I guess all I can say is it wasn’t to my taste. Good imagery, though.

“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow

A very strong piece about being an outsider in your own society. A woman of peace is tolerated in a warrior culture because her wife is the best warrior in the land, but everyone else shuns her, even her own children. The one child that takes after her is pressed into the military anyway, and as more and more of everything she loves is taken from her and forced into the war machine, she rebels. Unlike the other stories this year, this rebellion isn’t a bloody revenge. She flees, and prevails upon the love of her wife to protect her. The two both do what is right in their own way, despite their methods being antithetical at a first glance. It’s a love story of the type you don’t see often – one about the love of a dedicated relationship after many years together, rather than the passion of new love in youth. I really liked this.

Also of note, since I’m on a world-building kick — absolutely stellar worldbuilding. It was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and good worldbuilding is basically The BCS Thing, and it’s nice to see they are still holding strong to that. :)

“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, by Nibedita Sen

This was a bit of a nothing-burger for me. An infant is taken by the British from an island of cannibal women and raised in a boarding school. She makes a friend who develops a crush on her. The friend then cuts off pieces of herself and secretly feeds them to their mutual friends over dinner. Everyone is very disturbed by this. That could make a good story, but what I just told you is basically the entirety of what you get. It’s told in ten snippets from news or scholarly articles about the event, so you get the story in pieces and have to put it together yourself. I really like this sort of structure play, my Favorite Book Ever does the same thing. Except Vellum has an amazing story with God and angels and alternate universes and fantastic character development. When I put together the pieces of “Ten Excerpts” there wasn’t anything there. Just… hey, here’s a thing that happened, kinda gross right? Cool structure play on it’s own isn’t enough, you still need a good story at the heart of it. For a fantastic example of structure play, I generally refer people to this owner’s manual which is secretly about superstimulus, the crushing power of beauty, and loneliness.

OTOH, one member of our book club REALLY loved it. The story does give you a lot of pieces, and if they really strike your fancy you can certainly arrange them into a larger structure.

Highly Recommended: “For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll; “As the Last I May Know”, by S.L. Huang

Recommended: “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow; Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin

Jun 092020
 

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

Synopsis: A messiah origin story. On a dying colony planet, humanity unknowingly persecutes the one person who could save them by reconciling humanity with the native alien population.

Book Review: This is a story of extremes. The planet is tidally locked, so humanity has settled in the thin terminator line between broiling day and deathly night, but it is not a happy medium… it’s just the place where the two extremes meet. This is a repeated theme. The two cities are split between an ultra-repressive puritanical hell, and a lawless warzone ruled by warring crime families of hedonists. The two main relationships are a caring platonic couple of unconditional acceptance, and a horribly abusive relationship of exploitation. The humans are exploitative and violent, the aliens are so pacifistic they let themselves be killed rather than fight back.

Overall the theme is strong and well done, but I’m not really sure what it was in service of. It seemed to be more of an aesthetic choice than something used for a purpose. I may just be missing it. But much of the book didn’t quite click for me. I loved Anders’ debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky. It was a delightful, surreal combination of absurdism and sincerity that really captured the chaos of being young. The City in the Middle of the Night decided to turn away from surrealism and instead tried to be a realistic “hard SF” world. Anders wasn’t able to bring her gift for surreal expressions of emotional truth into the world, and it suffers for it.

In tandem with that, there are a multitude of examples of things happening because they are convenient for the plot but that don’t really make much sense upon examination. The protagonist’s mother sacrifices herself to stop a fire from destroying a major food source while her coworkers just bicker. But like… how? We are literally told only what I just said. Did she just throw herself on the fire to smother it? If she was doing literally anything else, why would no one one attempt to assist or try to summon help? It seems like a minor detail, but I am thrown out of stories when humans act like ludicrous caricatures so that a primary characters can demonstrate virtue. It’s Atlas Shrugged-ism without the courage to go balls-out Atlas Shrugged with it.

I don’t know how fair of a complaint this is, because I have been on a tear recently about lazy writing being used to create “great scenes” without any narrative cohesion, and when one is primed to be sensitive to such a thing, even small transgressions can jump out and really irritate. I can’t say for sure that two months ago I would have been as bothered by this kind of thing. An author can’t go into detail about every little thing in the world, there’s just a lot that has to go unsaid. But I’d like to at least believe the author considered it and has a picture in her own head on how such a sacrifice would have actually played out, and I cannot believe that given what we read.

There’s a bunch of similar examples. A villain tells a mook where a character is being held (in detail!) while the hero happens to be in earshot for no reason at all (aside from making life easy for the hero). The humans arriving on the new planet open the airlock and then immediately fall gasping to the ground under the strange atmosphere and increased gravity, because a cool scene is more important than people being smart enough to check the air first, and also feel gravity before the door opens?? Two otherwise intelligent characters tromp through the streets yelling after curfew in the military lockdown city for no freakin reason except because the story needs them to get caught by the police now. When the main character reveals to her friend she can speak to the aliens, her incredibly intelligent and socially liberal friend laughs her off — which is already ridiculous — and the main character responds by never bringing up this ability to anyone else ever again. OK, I get that she’s shy and she has trauma but, really?

The thing is, I still like the story overall. I like Anders’s style, and I like messiah stories. This is a good messiah origin story, and it ends with such a beautiful breakthrough scene that it’ll stay with me for a long time. But all the irritation of people acting ridiculous along the way detracted from that, and I almost didn’t get there because of it. If I didn’t already love messiah stories I don’t think I’d be very into this novel.

Also, half the novel follows a parallel POV character who is really bad ass at first, but who ultimately doesn’t do anything, and I’m not sure why she’s here or why we follow her. The main story is about the messiah coming to accept her burden, the other POV is just… kinda there.

This one is kinda on the line for me, but I guess if I can’t heartily recommend a book, it’s not actually fair to recommend it. So, mildly Not Recommended.

Book Club Review:  As a Hugo nominee, this may be worth picking up due to the meta conversation about this year’s Hugos and the state of the SF publishing landscape. If you’re not into that there are other things that can spark conversation, but it’s hard to say how much it varies from most other works. Several people in our book club didn’t finish it, and almost everyone agreed that the middle was a slog to get through (I was the one exception, I thought it was fine). I dunno, overall, also mildly Not Recommended.

May 062020
 

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Synopsis: Necromancers trying to hold together a dying interstellar empire seek to unlock the dark knowledge of the first necromancers on a barren Earth.

Book Review: You know how The Crow is the most goth movie ever filmed? Well the first 1/3rd of Gideon the Ninth is the most goth novel ever written. This alone is among the highest praise I can give it, and you should go read it right now. Highly Recommended.

Not enough? Well, imagine if the initial Warhammer 40K setting was written by twenty-year olds today, rather than 20-year-olds in 1970s, using all of today’s style, slang, and literary advances rather than that of 70s. Obviously you should go read it right now. Highly Recommended.

Still not enough? Oy vey.

This story begins on a literal tomb planet, which is in perpetual night, ruled by an order of dour catholics. The human population is down to maybe a few hundred people, animated skelitons work the fields and do most of the labor, techonology is dying, and everyone wears black. The protagonist (Gideon) is a snarky, bitter kid in her early 20s that kicks insane amounts of ass with a sword, but doesn’t have the patience or focus for subtley or intriuge. Fortunately she has a waif of a sister (Harrowhark) that does the heavy lifting on the social-manipulation front, including animating the corpses of her parents so no one will know their planet is without a legitimate ruler and come subjugate them. The sisters hate each other, of course.

The entire solar system is likewise denuded of population. The emperor is gone. The saints are gone. Humanity has been left to fend for itself, and hasn’t been able to keep up most tech. Interplanetary travel is extremely rare. In the midst of this, Gideon and Harrowhark are called to Earth to partake in a trial. If they can unlock the secrets of the first necromancers, they can ascend to sainthood themselves, and save their planet.

I didn’t love the book *quite* as much once they get to Earth. There is sunlight on Earth, which reduces the goth factor. And no dour catholics. But on the plus side, there’s basically no human life left on Earth at all, aside from a single Hogwarts-like facility that’s been basically abandoned, and the seven other pairs of saint-aspirants that come from the seven other planets trying to uncover the same secrets. For a while this becomes a sort of Hogwarts/Hunger Games kinda situation, with the teams competing against each other in a flexing but non-deadly rivalry to be the first to win. It was my least favorite part, but I rush to point out that I STILL REALLY ENJOYED IT!

And then shit just goes straight to hell, and damn does it get cool again.

This is incredibly fun. Our hero talks exactly like all our friends do, using slang we know and saying what we would say in her place, so we can relate to her on a deep level. She is also badly hurting, and uses this sarcastic humor as a defense mechanism. She doesn’t take shit from people, and generally does her best in the situation she finds herself in. She is, in a word, us.

This is gothic. The world is beautiful and dark and richly mysterious. And it’s such a welcome change from the same old gritty fantasy setting, or the same old space opera.

If you’re like me, you will love this. Highly Recommended.

(Also of note – I assumed I’d resent the 7 other houses, because that’s 14 more characters, and I can’t freakkin remember 16 different characters PLUS the headmaster!! But Muir does such a fantastic job of differentiating them that I had (almost) no difficulty at all! I briefly was muddling on the 6th house vs the 8th house, but that cleared itself up pretty quickly. I was legit shocked how different and easy to remember all the parties were. Very impressive.)

Audio Book Review: A rare special section! I have to comment on the audio book version, because Moira Quirk does the best narration in the history of audio book narrations. First, her accent is lovely and her voice is beautiful. Second, the way she reads the story, it’s like she’s living it. Third, her voices for the 18 different characters are superb, and easily discernable. I reduced the speed on this all the down to 105% just so I could listen to it longer. Everyone in my book club that listened to it rather than reading it rated it one point higher (on average). It’s just that good of a narration. I recommend that you go the audio book route with this one if you do that sometimes. Also Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: The fact that this was such a fresh change of pace made for some good discussion on its own. However I was worried that it would suffer from “everyone loves it,” which, while it makes for great reading, sometimes means the discussions aren’t as good as the book is. I don’t think that’s much of an issue here, because there is a lot about the universe that we are never told, which leads to a lot of great speculation. But I need not have worried, because there was a curmudgeon within our group who had no love for Gideon. So we had a delightful back-and-forth with him, trying to understand how any one person could be so wrong, while he was frustrated by how easily we were willing to let the author get away with necromancers in spaaaaaace without a deeper explanation as to what the hell was going on. It was a hell of a lot of fun. I reitterate: Highly Recommended.

Bonus FAQ: Is it gay? There is a contingent out there on the internet that seems to be making a big deal about this. And yeah, the protagonist is gay. It’s not a big deal, it’s just another thing about her, like her sex or her hair color. It’s not a gay-issues novel. I like my gay novels, and I’d heard this was one, so I was surprised that it wasn’t. I’m just putting this out there because occasionally I’d be like “When are we getting to the gay stuff? I’m halfway through this.” “Huh, I’m 90% through this, and still haven’t gotten there. I was lied to.” I don’t mind that it wasn’t in there, I just wish people hadn’t gotten me excited for it. OK, the protag is gay, but… so? Like, come on, it’s 2020 here. Gideon’s a Ginger too, but no one is calling this a Ginger book. Weirdos.

Apr 232020
 

Hugo AwardThe Hugo Nominees are out. As always, I link all the short works that are available free online on my blog, for easy reference for my book club. If you have a book club, taking one meeting to read all these and discuss them is a great use of a meeting!

Best Novelette

 

 

Best Short Story

 

Jul 252019
 

Hugo AwardI hate to say this, because I fear I’m going to isolate people I like. But we have to have a talk about the Hugos.

 

I. Trail of Lightning should never have been a finalist.

It’s not just that it’s a basic wire-rack monster hunter pulp-fiction novel. In my personal opinion, yes, that should be enough to disqualify any work. The Hugo is one of the premier awards in SF fiction. It should go to novels that are innovative, pushing the genre forward. Or that have something important to say about being human, or something urgent to say about the state of the world. It needs to have a higher purpose than just basic entertainment. Trail of Lightning is exactly the sort of pulp adventure that my father mocked me for reading when I was younger, because he didn’t know authors like Heinlein and Le Guin and Jemisin existed. The Hugo awards exist exactly for the purpose of highlighting works that mean more than just a thrilling read.

BUT I know not everyone shares that view. Some people do think that awards should go to things that are just very good at being very entertaining. (I contend those books already get the award of “Best Seller” status, but hey, I guess that’s not enough?). I know this in part because every year something is in the finalist list that makes me roll my eyes and feel like an elitist jerk for a few days.

Unfortunately, even if one contends that pulp adventure is worthy of at least being considered for an award, Trail of Lightning is not a great specimen of that species.

 

II. This is not Roanhorse’s fault, or issue!

I would first like to stress that I am not saying that Rebecca Roanhorse is a bad writer. We know from last year’s short story “Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience(TM)” that she can write extremely well, and that she can tackle some very heavy social issues with incredible aplomb. That story was flat-out amazing, and deserved every award and bit of praise it got.

A digression – Simply looking at the timeline of when Authentic Indian Experience was published vs when Trail of Lightning was published, and knowing that the publishing industry never gets a book out the door in under six months (which is already breakneck speed), it is extremely probable that Trail of Lightning was written much earlier in Roanhorse’s career. I suspect as Authentic was gaining buzz, Trail’s publisher approached Roanhorse to ask if she had anything already written that she’d never sold, and she dusted off Trail. I could be wrong, but that seems more charitable than assuming it was a rush job.

The point is, Trail of Lightning is an example of an “early novel.” Many authors are lucky enough to have these – novels that helped them hone their skills, while providing a small paycheck and the validation/encouragement of getting into print, before the authors are very good. Some authors never get these early novels, and a few I’ve talked to say “I’m so grateful in retrospect… they weren’t good novels, and I’m so happy that only my best stuff is out there representing me.” But for every one of those, I’m willing to bet there’s twenty authors who got discouraged and gave up before getting to the X-th novel that was actually Very Good to the point that publishers couldn’t ignore it.

Again, this is NOT a bad thing. To take one example of a man who is rightly called a genius by all readers of genre, and is a British National Treasure – Terry Pratchett. His later writing is absolutely legendary, and you can’t read it and not be completely blow away. But his first several novels? They just aren’t that good. Even the best writers of a generation started out with wobbly fare.

There are authors currently writing in the monster hunter genre that have been at it for many years, with a dozen or more titles under their belts. While I don’t think the works are award-worthy (see above), they are, at least, among the best examples of the species. After so many repetitions of the formula, it’d be hard for those authors NOT to have improved. Some of these authors even openly state that their earlier books aren’t the best, and direct new readers to start a bit later in the series. It’s hard to compare their later works with Trail of Lightning and not see the difference.

 

III. This is not the publisher’s fault either

Trail of Lightning’s publisher, Saga Press, was doing exactly what a publisher should. They saw a rising talent, knew people would want to read more of her work, and snapped up anything they could get their hands on. They then published it in an effort to turn a profit. This is good for the fans, and good for the author. Bravo for Saga, I hope it works out!

 

IV. The Hugo Voters are to blame

Both the author and the publisher are simply doing the best they can in their careers/situations. It’s not their job to be the gatekeepers of quality, their job is simply to keep getting better and making the written works available (respectively). It is literally the job of the nominating Hugo readers, the gatekeepers of the Hugo award, to filter the best that our community has to offer. And yet a large number of these people came together and collectively nominated a less-than-stellar “early novel” of the mindless-pulp variety for one of the most prestigious awards the SF community can give out. How did this happen? Either a lot of people nominated Trail of Lightning without reading it, based on the strength of Authentic Indian Experience… or they did read it, and nominated it anyway.

The really dumb part is that Trail of Lightning isn’t even a social-issue book. It’s a straight-up plain monster hunter novel. The only way one could draw it into the culture-war narrative is by focussing on the author and looking back at her other works and noticing that last year’s Authentic Indian Experience was explicitly about cultural issues. “These two works are by the same author” is not enough to make a pulp novel have a social theme or message.

 

V. This hurts minorities

Look, the really despicable thing about the Puppies movement of a few years ago is that they decided to vandalize the Hugos because they said that authors were getting awards NOT because the works were of high-quality, but because they were minorities and were getting “affirmative action-ed” in. Jemisin specifically called this out in her world-rocking acceptance speech when she said her detractors claim “that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s “identity politics”.” Her speech still gives me shivers, but one of the things that gave it such joyous strength is that it was so blatantly obvious that she had written one of the best things to have been published in years. She deserved every single ounce of praise that comes with that trophy, because she produced a work that shines with the light of the sun, and puts the claims of the Puppies to hideous shame. There is no need for affirmative action, you assholes, the work speaks for itself, just read it and see!

Nominating a work that is clearly not worthy of this honor doesn’t help anything. Instead it diminishes the achievements of authors like Jemisin or Chiang, because it throws previous nominations into some doubt. Most people don’t know of the excitement of a breakout work of genius like Authentic Indian Experience, and how that exuberance will lead people to snap-vote for the next thing an author puts out without even reading it. They won’t ever get to hear about that, they’ll just see a book that clearly shouldn’t be a nominee, yet is, and will draw their own conclusions… and given the current culture wars, not all those conclusions will be good. And those conclusions will tarnish other winners, those whose only failing was being non-white in the crap-ass world we have right now.

 

VI. The irony is not lost on the historically-aware

Perhaps the most ironic thing about all this is that this is exactly the sort of novel the Puppies wanted to see in the Hugos. Pulp adventure novels about tough-ass monster hunters. Books whose commercial concerns outweigh artistic ones. Someone I spoke with also claims that their baseless idiotic vandalism created a backlash that has put cultural concerns before quality concerns in the Hugos — in effect bringing the Puppies’ distorted claims closer to reality. I’m not so sure, I think it’s much more due to the rise of Trump than anything the Puppies did. Regardless, they probably got a chuckle or two out of it. >.<

 

VII. Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

Look, what’s done is done. But going forward, more focus on content and less on works viewed primarily (whether rightly or not) as anti-“the other tribe” would be good. Keep the Hugos out of the culture wars, please.

Apr 162019
 

For the use of my book club, plus whoever else would like a linked list. These are the short stories and novelettes that are up for a Hugo, and also available free online. This year, that’s all but one.

This is the first awards season since I predicted No Print Magazine Will Publish a Hugo-Winning Story Again. Since no print magazine even got a nomination this year, I’m not wrong yet. :) We’ll see what future years bring, though. Of note is that one of the nominees isn’t available free online! While I didn’t specify that as a criteria in my post, it surprises me nonetheless. The whole reason I predicted print magazines are out is because they cannot be shared like online stories can, and thus can’t capture enough attention-share. While Bolander’s story is online at Tor.com — the current clearing house for online commercial SF — I would’ve thought that the paywall would prevent achieving the number of readers needed to make the nominations. It’s a shame I won’t get to read it. :(

 

BEST NOVELETTE

BEST SHORT STORY