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Racism and poverty in early 20th century Florida, the wildness of a jungle-like forest, movie monsters and myths. Lots of dialect and idiom ("That boy's mean as a sack a'snakes."), executed perfectly to my ear. Beautifully written story about people's most powerful feelings. Looks like the whole thing is up for free on Tor. It's about character and mood more than plot, so read it when that it is what you are looking for.
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Sounds like a joke: An interstellar army intelligence officer, a giant alien praying mantis, and an agnostic chaplain's assistant walk into an escape pod...

In the end, a divine miracle causes the alien queen to go against her race's centuries-long policy of destroying all other races they come in contact with. This is wrapped in a layer of plausible deniability by the author, but is clearly the point of the story. Unfortunately, across millennia of human conquest, no genocidal invasion has been stopped because of the spiritual richness of the doomed civilization intrigues the invaders. "Let's make friends and stop this war" works for children's stories where "war" is a stand-in for fighting on the playground.

The story is well written, and there are enough different layers to motivations to make it interesting, but in the end, the actions are implausible and the setup too contrived. (I am being harsh, but I am looking for the best, no judging on a scale of 1 to 10. It was good enough that I read it carefully all the way through.)

Kudos to brad for making the army officer an Egyptian female instead of white heterosexual male, but he loses any credit for the unseemly emphasis on the fact that she is an Egyptian Christian, not a Muslim.
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Moving on to novellas...

Apparently this is a backstory for a tabletop gaming universe. Our hero, a criminal thug and lumberjack with a pure heart loses his wife, goes mad, slaughters thousands. Supposedly a profound psychological portrait. I managed to read the first third. Made it to the scene where the half-human-half-animal creatures try to eat the hero's mother.
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Here is my summary of the first 50 pages: In the early 20th century, the members of a secret society grab their guns, jump in their dirigible, and head out to do battle with the two greatest threats to Earth. One, an evil alien and his zombie army here to steal all Earth's magic, and, two, Democrats. Favorite quote: "The world was carnage. The desert was wet with slaughter."

To Larry Correia's credit, he does have level a mastery of the craft of writing, and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink adventure can be a lot of fun to read and obviously entertains many readers. But it is not an example of the literary excellence I would like to vote for to receive a Hugo.
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An unusual nominee, in that the entire series was nominated on its completion. This rule was presumably designed to permit nomination of books first published as serials in magazines. The whole thing is about eleven thousand pages, and it is included in the voter packet in its entirety. I decided to try to read at least the first novel before voting.

It seems to be built out of the most overused fantasy tropes—idealized Medieval world, orphan of mysterious origin discovers magical powers and starts on a quest to help the wizards in their fight against the dark lord and his army of trolls blah blah blah. Jordan has an interesting grasp of details at time (almost fractal, details of details), like when the heroes need the town gates opened for them at midnight, we hear the clanking sound that the ratcheting locking mechanism makes in the quiet darkness. He also makes an effort to ensure that the dozens of characters have individual personalities and qualities, which adds a lot of depth.

But it's dull. There is nothing to excite a sense of wonder. There is no evidence of the sort of creative imagination that makes your head spin. Nothing to create the kind of mood that sucks you in until the outside world disappears (except near the beginning). Combined with the unvarying tone (Jordon shows no trace of humor or playfulness), reading this book has turned into a slog. I am curious what it will turn into over the thousands of pages remaining that has made some people like it so much.

I figure if I keep this on my Nook, I can be sure of never being stuck with nothing to read for at least a decade.
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Orbit only provided an excerpt, so that is all that I read. The beginning of the plot was a horrid cliche--beneficial genetically engineered parasites have been developed, but now people are mysteriously turning into zombies! Thank goodness the scientists tell us that the parasites are "genetically stable" and are "unable to reproduce outside the laboratory." The characters, mostly scientists and doctors, talk and act like 15 year olds. The writing is limp and colorless. Events leave me constantly saying "Huh, that doesn't seem right..." For example the unexplained absence of smart phones, ipods, and tablets in 2027—the tech and the lifestyle feel like about 2003, odd for a book written in probably 2012.

I think that the target audience for this book was not yet born when the book Jurassic Park came out, so the bit of foreshadowing I quoted would not make them laugh out loud. I can't see anything in the excerpt that would make the book worthy of a Hugo nomination. Lots of good books aren't, but that is the standard I am applying here.

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Neptune's Brood by Charlie Stross is an example of Stross's specialty, economic science fiction. Although in this case, the economic thought experiment is clearly at the center, not like the Merchant Princes where it initially lies obscured by a veneer of fantasy. The novel, subtitled "A Space Opera," is a conscious homage to Heinlein, most specifically the novel Friday, just as the first novel in the series, Saturn's Children, was.

Neptune's Brood has, like Friday, a quick-thinking and resourceful female adventurer as hero of the opera, named Krina. The story is recounted by the main character in the past tense, with a faint Heinleinian edge of condescending hyper-competence that seems to say that no danger was ever more than mildly concerning and no hardship was more than in inconvenience. I found that this extra distance dampens the effect of the story. In Friday, this makes some thematic sense, because the deeper focus of the story was on the attempts by Friday, an augmented human, to find a welcoming niche in human society. This emotional level doesn't exist in Neptune's Brood. On the other hand, not adding in an analog to this part of Friday allowed Stross to excise the vile sexism rampant in Heinlein's work (only some of which can be excused as writing for the audience of the day).

The series of reversals and denouments that drives the plot, especially toward the end, is more complex, surprising, and interesting than anything from Heinlein's era.

In much of Stross's work, the universe in which the action occurs acts almost like another character, whether in the form of an omnipotent AI, nameless horrors sleeping in the deeps, or a traversable multiverse. Not in this case. The most interesting world building, a water-covered planet, doesns't appear until halfway through, and it is not as well developed as I would like. In an interesting antiparallel, Friday through the book continuously loses allies, increasing the narrative tension, until she faces her last challenge alone, while Krina starts alone and accumulates helpers, which I think gives less impact to the story.

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My first novel read from the list of nominees was Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie.

It was an interesting debut novel. Often first novels show an unconstrained exuberance, the author's idea generator out of control. This was the opposite, perfectly restrained, concise, nothing wasted.

The novel is built out of space opera tropes---space ships, AIs, war between alien empires, planetary invasions. But the major themes are not typical for the subgenre---privilege, sexual and social discrimination. SF has been grappling with these themes for at least 4 decades, but here they worked into the story with a deftness rarely seen. A typical attempt from 70s SF leaves the reader trying to sort out a mess of unreadable invented pronouns, but Ann Leckie simply tells us that the dominant culture makes no distinction between male and female, and every character in the book is referred to as "she". It feels very natural, but the cumulative effect is large. Similarly, the novel is not a polemic about the evils of social privilege, it includes the reality of it in the cultural backdrop.

The character development is unusually deep for the space opera subgenre. The story is more character driven than plot driven. The pacing is also atypical. Instead of a roller coaster, it is like a train leaving the station that accelerates slowly but continuously. I am concerned that its Hugo chances will be particularly harmed by Orbit's decision to include only an excerpt in the voter packet (the voter packet has not been released yet, so I purchased this myself).

The world building is spartan, but had rich detail where it comes into play in the story. Where the world-building in some works peters out into vague generalities, here it seems mostly omitted as irrelevant. It is imaginative and realistic when included. Ann Leckie knows how to deploy just the right amount of detail to establish an interesting setting. So we get a wonderful description of the native building style, multi-story buildings with no permanent walls, just screens for internal walls and emergency shutters for the outside, but when the characters need to take a fishing boat, it is just a boat.

This novel deserves the awards it has received, and I would not be surprised if it won the Hugo. Now, I need to start the Charlie Stross novel.
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The only novels included in the voter packet will be 5,000 pages or whatever of Wheel of Time and possibly the political nomination. The rest are all published by the same publisher, who decided not to allow them in, only excerpts.

From a marketing point of view, excerpts makes more sense—I expect I will go buy at least my top choice or two.


Apr. 30th, 2014 08:58 am
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Waiting waiting waiting for my Hugo voter packet.

I decided for various reasons that this was a good year to get a supporting membership and try out the voter packet. Lots of people still seem unaware that $43 gets you electronic versions of most of the works plus the right to vote. Loncon website doesn't make it easy to figure out.

Thinking about writing out my thoughts as I read works, to make it easier to decide how to vote, and LJ is still a good platform for that. I will have to look around to see if there are any active communities here for such discussions.

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Looking forward to the day when old, out-of-print books are all available as ebooks. I have been trying to get CJ Cherryh's Alliance/Union series, but this appears unpossible for reasonable prices. I bought a couple from her directly as ebooks, which was great--I wish all authors would reclaim their rights and do this.

Of course, some authors just give away their early stuff, like Charlie Stross and Peter Watts. I support that too, but I don't mind paying either.

Mostly, this post is too show LJ that I am alive, and they shouldn't deactivate my account.
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I completely stopped writing about it, but I have been reading a lot more in the last year. The most unforgettable was Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear.

I wasn't sure what to expect, because I really like Connie Willis, but this two-part book seemed to receive either lukewarm support or a complete panning from many people, especially in the context of the Hugo nominations. Now that I have read it, I can say that this is perhaps Willis's best work and as deserving of a Hugo as anything in years.

She continues to play with her time-travel ideas in the same world, but this time she finds a story that is worth telling. The story is of life in England during the early days of World War 2. The role of the time travelers is to provide the reader two things. First a viewpoint from which to observe the residents of the 1940s. Second, a route to understanding the emotions of the residents. The plot is set up so that the time-travelers are experiencing their own catastrophe that engulfs them in feelings of fear, loss, despair, wild hope, and determination, mirroring the emotional state of the WW2 civilians around them. This is the best example I know of how SFF can tell a story more effectively than a straightforward approach.

An example of this is an early scene in a London air raid shelter. It is hard to understand how the 1940s residents there feel without following their entire story as war in Europe is building. But we are following a time traveler who is lost and frightened and finds a strange comfort in this deep basement below London, much like what the residents are feeling.

The first volume contains the best material about England and WW2. The second volume spends more of its time resolving the plot.
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Just got back from seeing John Scalzi at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. Mostly he read from a new sooper seekrit book and made us all swear to a non-disclosure agreement. A very science-fictiony farce, but from what he read it is clear that something is very wrong but not clear exactly what. He said that selling and marketing science fiction humor is very hard, because the shadow of Douglas Adams is so large—anything else is judged on its similarities to or differences from Hitchhiker rather than on its own merits.

I didn't get a signed Fuzzy Nation because I was too lazy to stand in line.

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Home alone over the weekend with naught but streaming Netflix to entertain myself with, and I decided to catch up on things that I missed the first time around.

I watched the first show from the original Battlestar Galactica that I used to watch when I was in elementary school (in, like, the 70's. Urgh). Utterly execrable. No point in wasting more time there. I watched the first episode of Babylon 5 and was unimpressed. Too formulaic.

Picked Firefly pretty much at random, and WOW! The effects, the characters, the plots, all are so much better and more complex than anything else that I have seen. I am not going to finish watching them all before my poor wife returns, so she is likely to be forced to watch the rest of them.

Obviously they stole shamelessly; I imagine that Joss Whedon remembered the grimy, dented Millennium Falcon sitting in the dirt at Mos Eisley spaceport and realized that this was the window into story-telling the he wanted to develop. I also think that Joss Whedon understands what he is doing a lot more than George Lucas ever did.

Some people may find the science fiction western to be an odd mix, but I think it is hilarious. The original derogatory use of the term "space opera" referred to a style of science fiction story that was nothing but a western with "horse" changed to "space ship" and "Wyoming" changed to "Mars." I like it that they don't try to hide how elements of one genre evolved into the other. (Matthew Sanborn Smith points out that for those in California and beyond, Westerns become Easterns instead. Go listen to some of his stories. After all, he got published in Nature, which I don't expect to ever accomplish.)

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...and a uranium nucleus decide they really love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together...

Can't stop following Japanese reactor news. I have enough of a grasp of the background physics to tell what news is significant and what is hysteria and know enough about radiation to understand what environmental release is significant and to be frustrated at the specific details that are important and are missing.

For example, knowing the measured dose rate at the front gate of the plant doesn't tell you much unless you know how far it is from the reactor, which most stories omit, because the writers and editors don't know it is important. Gamma radiation decreases at least as fast as the distance squared, so based on the numbers I have seen of measurements at the gate, you really want the population at least 10 times as far from the reactor as the plant gate. (Trying to find the numbers for the dose rate again, I found a Japanese newspaper(? or something) that does know that the distance is important, and mentions that it is 1.5 km. Does this mean Japanese reporters understand radiation a lot better than American reporters?)

The really weird thing is that there are supposed to be endless redundant safety systems designed to work in the event of a power blackout at the plant, and it looks like they ALL failed. We need to know how this could have happened.

Added: News from the International Atomic Energy Agency is accurate and technical , but not timely. I like the continuous text updates from the BBC news feed(with the video off). Figuring out what is going on requires me to have 3 clocks on my computer screen, PDT, GMT, and Japanese time.

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We went last night to hear "Nixon in China" at the Met's movie theater rebroadcast.

The mechanics were pretty good. The sound was great. It was filmed with zooms and cuts more like a movie, which didn't seem consistent with the way a production on a large stage would be acted, blocked, and choreographed. I would have preferred something more approximating the effect of seeing a performance on a stage, although a single fixed camera view showing the whole stage wouldn't have worked. There were some very short backstage interviews with the cast and director thrown in around the intermissions (and previews of upcoming operas!). For someone with no experience with opera, it is much nicer to experiment at under $20 per ticket in a theater then at over $100 per ticket at the Met.

Unfortunately, I found "Nixon in China" completely impenetrable to me at every level. To my ear, the music from John Adams completely lacked any emotional dynamics. I heard little but staccato eighth notes and staccato sixteenth notes (with some sections in staccato triplets) for four hours, giving every instant of the opera an overlay of screaming frantic tension. The music completely eschewed any melodic lines. Arguably, the problem is my unfamiliarity with this style of music.

The characterizations were superficial (Mao as a senile faux philosopher, Pat Nixon as a housewife shoved onto the world stage) or non-existent. There was no plot; it simply followed the track of some of the media events from the visit. The politics and history surrounding the event, both US and Chinese, are virtually ignored. There's a great article at the Times from Max Frankel who was with Nixon in China commenting on the opera. The libretto (shown as subtitles on the screen) was artless; the imagery was trite and each line was an independent blob, as if they had been reordered randomly and no one noticed.

The original NYTimes review is also up on the web. "Despite interesting poetic ambitions, the text remains at heart the material for a good-natured skit, not the political or social satire one might expect." "Although described by Adams fans as post-Minimal, the score is given to stating a scrap of the most ordinary musical material and ruminating on it in a static style, much as a novice pianist will work on a single chord until neighbors begin to pound the wall. Mr. Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald's did for the hamburger" And so on.

I am looking forward to seeing a more traditional opera in such a venue, though.

Google Art

Feb. 1st, 2011 03:06 pm
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Maybe everyone knows by now, but there is now the equivalent of Google maps inside some art museums. E.g. here is The Met. There are also close ups of a small number of individual pieces, for example this Van Gogh.

I thought it would be logical to extend google maps to the inside of zoos, but it was pointed out to me that most of the animals are asleep or hiding most of the time, so the zoo would seem weirdly devoid of inhabitants.

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For some reason we been watching Masterpiece Classic this month and enjoying it (mostly watching over the web — broadcast teevee still exists why?). The script is awful, the acting is passable, but the costumes and settings are fascinating.

This may have something to do with reading Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which unsurprisingly talks a lot about historical changes in how people live in their houses, especially in England. I find this to be one of his most interesting books; it is little more than a bunch of digressions, like many of his books, but the digressions are all about things that are interesting to me.

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Coming to you from the Chase Bank Auditorium in downtown Chicago...

We spent last Thursday night with our good friends Peter Sagal and Carl Kasell, watching the taping of "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me." The taping runs about 90 minutes, including retaping Peter Sagal's flubs. Also, they have to cut out the dirty jokes. Well, the worst of them.

The weirdest part is that during the taping it seems like it is primarily the Peter Sagal show. The interview of the Not My Job guest goes on and on and on. It feels like you hardly hear from the panelists at all. In the end, so much of Peter Sagal in cut out that the role of the guests is much larger in broadcast version of the show.

And finally, they really do flip a coin when two panelists are tied before Lightning Fill In the Blank. Carl hands Peter a quarter and one of the panelists calls it, but this is cut out.


Nov. 1st, 2010 11:37 am
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Heading off to a conference next week in Chicago (and still doing massive data analysis to prepare my poster). Other than the Art Institute, what are the must-sees? I'll have about 4 free days around the conference. We are staying right downtown.

Any excellent vegetarian restaurants?

I am still doing too much work to have time to search for good tourist info.

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