divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
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.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
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.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
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.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
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.

divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
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.

divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
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.


Apr. 30th, 2014 08:58 am
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
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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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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I just finished The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Definitely earned its Hugo.

I wasn't enticed by this book when I first heard about it; it looked like steampunkish eco-calamity and there is too much room there to be trite and predictable. I was wrong. Not steampunkish at all, except for the rare dirigible. And it is not at all "oh noes, mankind has ruined the Earth!" I can't think of another book that is as effective at integrating character, plot, setting (Thailand), and time (post eco-collapse). This plot could only occur with this set of characters under these circumstances in this place at this time. (When I read Brasyl, it felt like the plot was an afterthought. Yiddish Policemen's Union could be moved from Alaska to Zimbabwe with an hour of rewriting.)

Bacigalupi writes as if he is an expert on genetic engineering, biodiversity, international business, east Asian culture (Thai, Japanese, Chinese...), east Asian geopolitics, and on and on. On top of this, the point of view bounces between about 6 characters who are completely developed as main characters. I have to call it a stunning achievement.

Bacigalupi is one of the few authors whose book I have bought after mainly hearing about the author through podcasts. Despite endless hours listening to Escape Pod and Starship Sofa, I still mainly end up buying books from authors recommended by friends or because I found their books in the library.

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I just came back from a reading by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer at Mysterious Galaxy. Ann read from The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, from a section describing a Japanese spirit that is sufficiently disgusting that no one would want to eat it, so it is declared non-kosher. This seems to me to be a very practical interpretation.

Jeff read an abridged story from The Third Bear, describing a bioengineering company in a dystopia. The narrator is working on designing a giant fish to aid in the instruction of children, which must have the face of the manager running the project. Annual performance reviews consist of the manager asking, "Do you love me?" Which answer will procure for you the largest year-end bonus?

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I went a few nights ago to a reading by Samuel R. Delaney at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. He is an instructor at Clarion, which I could practically hit with a well-aimed spitball from where I am sitting. I didn't recognize any of the other instructors there, though.

The new book is entitled Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. Delaney says he has been waiting to write this book since he was a teenager. He recalled reading an interview of Vladimir Nabokov in which he claimed that Lolita was not a shocking book; a book that would truly shock the American public would have a biracial couple with children who all avoided drugs and crime and lived happily ever after. This book is inspired by that interview.

The book starts in 2007 and covers the next 75 years. When asked if it was science fiction, Delaney answered, "Who cares?" When pressed to explain his comment, "You do the math," he pointed out that a novel taking place in the future is almost by definition science fiction, but that science and technology play no role. There's a plot summary on Wikipedia which I probably can't improve on.

The section Delaney read aloud takes place in 2007, and involves a kitchen-table discussion between a caring, obtuse mother and her teenage son who treats her delicately and ignores whatever she says. The characters were so sweet and loving and so utterly wrong about so many things. The son ignores the mother trying to convince him that education should be a priority, and the mother ignores the son trying to explain the effect being gay has on his life. I thought it was amazing writing and very different from the early Delaney that I have read.

Delaney mentioned that the book is delayed because he originally wrote it as a few episodes out of chronological order, but decided that it was incomprehensible that way and has spent years converting the structure to something more linear and traditional.

divisionsandprecisions: (Default)
I have a few reviews that I have been meaning to do for almost six months. The first is Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer. I noticed VanderMeer when he was participating in the Sofanauts podcasts last summer. I was impressed by his insight and intelligence and when I saw he had a new book out, I went looking for it at Mysterious Galaxy. At this point, I read it many months ago, but if I don't write something up now I never will.

Finch is a mix between detective/noir and science fiction. I am not sure if these are more popular in the last few years or I have noticed more of them. Finch the character is a detective with a secret past, a nasty non-human boss, and a new disturbing case. The novel shares a setting with VanderMeer's previous Ambergris novels, but it is not a sequel. The plot and characters are undeniably well crafted and the whole novel is interesting.

In this book, VanderMeer chose to keep many elements of the back story and his created world vague or completely unexplained. Presumably this was to focus the attention of the reader on the character rather than his environment. I did not find this to be well executed, and it stopped me from feeling immersed in the secondary world of the novel. I read the first Ambergris book City of Saints and Madmen and found it full of intricately imagined history and detail. Finch would read completely differently to me now. I would not recommend reading Finch first.

(edited months later to correct errors and discuss City of Saints)

divisionsandprecisions: (gorey)

I have a backlog of a few books that I want to write about...

After reading the first five volumes of Charlie Stross's Merchant Prince series this winter, it was hard to not get the final one, The Trade of Queens, right when it came out this spring. I don't find much that interests me in the tropes of fantasy novels, but I thought that this series was brilliant. The interweaving of plots is masterful.

The basic idea of the series is that there exist multiple parallel Earths, which are at somewhat different developmental stages because of the chaotic vagaries of history. One genetically-related group of people is able to traverse between them, an advantage they proceed to exploit for their own wealth. Miriam, a journalist born in our world, finds out she is part of this family and is thereafter a stick stirring a hornet's nest. Charlie cheerfully admits that he considers this economic and political science fiction rather than fantasy.

I saw a complaint on perhaps the Amazon page that the book suffered due to too many subplots, but I disagree completely. They are all important to the themes of the series, but also Charlie seems able to generate an endless stream of interesting, easily-differentiated characters.

It is clear that the series was planned from the beginning to build to a big finish. This is not an extended set of sequels that peter out as the writer gets bored; the Merchant Princes is more like a single novel in six volumes (don't try to start in the middle!). Charlie has written about this recently on his blog. He originally planned it as a few giant doorstops but was forced to slice it up into smaller books for marketing reasons. Other than a few pacing problems in one earlier book, he mostly pulled it off.

I don't feel that he did as much with character as he could have in acouple of thousand pages. The characters are individuals with unique personalities and attitudes, but at the deepest layer they are not developed. The quirks, the flaws, the growth, the humanity, are lacking. The main character of the series, Miriam, is last seen 30 pages from the end. This to me shows that the book is at heart not about the characters.

Charlie has described the series as "SF in fantasy drag" (excellent, long essay about writing the Merchant Prince series). It is a perfect example of the classic hard-sf formula of "Take the current world, change one feature, and describe what happens," although the changed feature is generally a new technology. Rather than musing about whether it is "really" science fiction or fantasy, my view is that it suggests a new perspective on what fiction genres mean. Stephen Jay Gould wrote about intelligence in terms of correlations. If you give a million people a test with a million questions on it, there will be correlations in their getting certain answers. The ones who are good at addition can also do subtraction. We gives names to certain clumps of correlations and define somewhat arbitrary splits between them. I suspect it is sensible to think about literary genres the same way. Certain features tend to occur together, and it is useful to give these names. It does not follow that the boundaries between them are particularly interesting or important. Merchant Princes takes features from both, but that is nothing new. China Mieville (I think) pointed out that some science fiction writers, like Alastair Reynolds, explore a mind-exploding WTF-ness that is considered more a quality of fantasy. So Al Reynolds's nanotech, genetic manipulation, lasers, spaceships, and computers are in some thematic way as much descendant from Tolkien as from Isaac Asimov. It's hardly a surprise really that excellent authors are not handicapped by narrow-minded traditions. (Although I am still not so sure about Peter Watts's vampires-in-spaceships in Blindsight.)

divisionsandprecisions: (lizard)
I found Nick Harkaway's 2008 novel The Gone Away World on the "new books" shelf at the library.  Newer than what, I don't know. My attention was grabbed by the cover (see the US cover here, at the bottom of the page); anyone who has the audacity to use lime green text on a neon pink background must be supremely confident in their work.  (Of course, the author usually has no say in the cover art, but whatever.)

For the first while, it's funny, it's odd, it's interesting, it's diverting.  Then, after about two hundred pages, something happens that forces you to reinterpret, rethink every single thing that has happened up until then.  It's enough to make you have to put the book down for a while just to process it.  Sometimes in a mystery story, nothing makes sense until a certain clue is revealed, and then suddenly it all falls into place.  This is the opposite; everything made sense when you read it, but now you find it doesn't make any sense at all.  This is a fantastic trick for someone to pull off in a first novel. 

Absolutely nothing in this book is what it first appears to be. 

Harkaway's web site comments thusly: "Very few serious books have ninjas. This is one of them."
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I treated myself to a hardback recently and grabbed China Mieville's
The City & The City when it came out.

It was not what I expected. If you have heard anything about it, you
know it is a murder mystery that involves a pair of cities with an
amazingly peculiar connection. It occurs on a piece of fictional
terrain shoehorned into eastern Europe somewhere, but there is no
reason that the setting couldn't exist, it just doesn't. I wouldn't
put this in a fantasy or speculative fiction genre any more than
Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union.

The background and remarkable parameters are established in the first
30 pages or so. This being China Mieville, I was waiting for the
waves of bizarreness to build and crash, but they never did. The
novel unfolded as a conventional mystery in an interesting setting.
It is wonderfully written; I would swear Mieville was writing about
places he had lived for years, if not for the fact that they don't

Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun
are like fireworks—they constantly astound the reader with
explosions of brilliant creativity. The City & The City is
honed and polished. Themes that thread Mieville's work, like the internal
divisions in society, are explored more powerfully in the The City
& The City
because the fireworks are turned down to a rumble.

I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

divisionsandprecisions: (gorey)

A few weeks ago I hit a used-book sale at the library.  The price for books was $3 per bag, so as long as the bag isn't full, the incremental cost of an additional book is zero.  This leads to a tendency to overindulge.  As I was wandering around the boxes, I saw a copy of the book above, The House with a Clock in its Walls, which I vaguely remembered having read about 30 years ago.  When I saw that it had illustrations by Edward Gorey, I had to keep it.

It was weird and full of wizards and ghosts and chocolate chip cookies.    What really struck me was that this seems to me to have been a perfectly normal book for children ten years old or so to read.  I think the books we would consider mainstream for such children are often full of magic spells and talking animals and so on.  But at at a certain age, somewhere around 13, most children stop reading these books.  Fantasy books become a niche, a genre, which most "normal" children don't read. 

I mentioned this to some elementary school teachers, who were stunned that they had never thought about something which appeared so obvious when it was pointed out.

So, why does this happen?  I think it has to do with what the lives of children are like.  For the most part they have little power and little control.  They have limited ability to take part in important actions.  Fantasy and magic allow the children to play a significant role.  A ten year old is just as able to resurrect a dead spirit as an adult.  Talking animals also help bridge the gap; they can have child-like attitudes and traits, but they are inherently fantastical and constrained only by the whims of the author, so they can play a adult-like roles. 

So why do so many children stop reading fantasy at a certain age?


Apr. 26th, 2009 10:14 am
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I came across a site that allows one to locate local non-chain bookstores and found that there is a science fiction bookstore I never knew about only a few miles from my house. I was amazed at the number of books I found that I know have not shown up in the local library or on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

I restricted myself to four books on my first trip and bought paperbacks from John Scalzi, Brenda Cooper, Charlie Stross, and Alastair Reynolds. I noticed afterward that all four others have blogs that I have looked at (Scalzi, Stross, Cooper, Reynolds). Perhaps blogging-as-advertisement is working on me better than I thought it was.

Of course blogs by authors give us a different glimpse of their personalities than is provided by their more formally published work. But I am not sure I want that. I don't want to know the authors as people. This is because it makes me feel guilty.

I feel bad that I buy their books in paperback (or, heaven forfend, used), thus depriving their families of the means of survival. Can I read about the charming antics of an author's lovely children, who are supported by revenue from the author's writing, and then skip buying the hardback of the latest book?  I also find that I am more inclined to buy a particular author's books because I learned from his blog that he has the same birthday I do. 

Even worse, after reading an author's blog I feel bad if I don't like something I read by them. I read on one author's LJ page (not regularly updated) about her fear of rejection and the struggle she had writing her latest series while taking care of an infant and so on. And then when I read the books (from the library, doing nothing to support said author and infant) I found I didn't like them at all. I am trying to convince myself that it is because I am not into that style of fantasy novel blah blah blah, but secretly I suspect that they may not be very good. And now I feel bad thinking that. So much that I won't write the author's name here.

And all this feels very strange.

divisionsandprecisions: (Default)
Reading Alastair Reynolds's Century Rain. The nanotech-enhanced post-humans are called "Slashers." At one point we get an explanation for the name:

'It's alright,' Niagara said. 'I won't be the least offended if you call me a Slasher. You probably regard the term as an insult'

'Isn't it?' Auger asked, surprised.

'Only if you want it to be.' Niagara made a careful gesture, lime some religious benediction: a diagonal slice across his chest and a stab at the heart. 'A slash and a dot,' he said. 'I doubt it means anything to you, but this was once the mark of progressive thinkers linked together by one of the first computer networks.'

I'm sorry, but the future technological branch of the human race is going to descend from the Fr1st P0st!!!-ers living in their parents' basements and posting Linux fanboi drool on Slashdot?

Other than that, it is quite good so far...

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