divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
With all the brouhaha over Anne Leckie's use of pronouns, it seems to have escaped general notice that all of her characters are black.

I like the third book very much. Compared to the first two books, it leans more toward tying up the plot and reaching an end point for the trilogy, rather than exploration of new themes or innovative world building (so I would grade it 99/100 instead of 100/100). Mercy manages to combine some of the space-opera excitement from Justice with the psychological depth of Sword, which is quite a feat.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Ancillary Sword—I enjoyed this immensely. Intelligent commentary (that I agree with) says that the book is even better than its impressive antecedent in terms of psychological observation, but falls down in plot development. There is not the same energy driving the story onward. Personally, I liked the other aspects of Ms. Leckie's writing so much that I didn't care.

The Goblin Emperor—I read little fantasy, but thought this was marvelous. I felt viscerally happy every time I had an opportunity to sit down with it a read a little more. The characters felt more emotionally real than anything I have read in a long time. Two things keep it from being perfect. First, the characters are exquisitely delineated and cover a rich spectrum, but are monochromatic; real humans have internal inconsistencies and contradictions. Second, the central theme is unconvincingly simplistic. Word to the wise: Look at the appendices first!

Three-Body Problem—Probably the first SF work translated from Chinese to get major play in the English speaking world. To me, the core attraction is the ties to the Cultural Revolution and the ongoing role that plays in the psychology of Chinese intellectuals. As SF, it is pretty good but not excellent. It ends in a lengthy info dump, explaining the mysteries developed in the first 80% of the book, which is much less satisfying than working them into the narrative.

divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
I mentioned last summer that I hoped to someday read Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal, and I finally grabbed an ebook of it.

The book imports a limited kind of magic into the time and setting of a Jane Austen novel. The magic includes variations on "glamour," changing the appearance of people and objects to the extent of creating significant works of art.

I read it almost back-to-back with Austen's Northanger Abbey, and I think MRK did an excellent job of writing in the style of the the early 1800's (not that I am really qualified to judge). I also think that writing at novel length gave MRK the space to develop her themes and characters more fully than she has done in many of the short stories of hers that I have read.

The novel had a feel of YA (a little bit of over explaining and over simplifying) and none of the sparkling acid sarcasm in Northanger Abbey. For that reason, I would personally be more interested in reading more Jane Austen instead of continuing with this series, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to the right audience.

divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
"In the old days," the Old One mumbled, "we would have come with fire and storm. We would have marched down strange streets with weapons on our hips and defiance in our eyes. Or if they came first we would have met them strength and defiance. But not you...machine half-breeds...laboratory supermen...adjusted...reconstructed...worthless..."

"The Die-Hard" by Alfred Bester, 1958. Now in the public domain and available here.

This doesn't remind me of anyone involved in the Hugos controversy at all. Nope.

divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Well, mostly useless. But an equivocal subject line saying "reviews are mostly useless" screams out excruciatingly boring! To make things worse, I will also add a disclaimer that the Hugo reviews I put here were primarily to allow me to record my observations and clarify my thinking as an aid to voting, with serving as a useful review to anyone else a secondary consideration.

I am reading a few reviews on the web of stories I didn't like, to see if I can figure out why so many people adore something I found dull and forgettable. Let me take some examples from a blog which itself won a Hugo, describing such a story: "the charm...is hard to resist" "consider the many themes that run like tendrils between the lines of the narrative" "layered and nuanced" "a masterpiece of character" heartbreaking subtle....

The reviewer used a lot of words with strong, positive connotations, but did nothing to justify them. The review boils down to "I really really like it, so you should read it." But maybe with even a few more really's.

I am willing to believe there are layers and nuance, if someone would tell me what they are. Because I don't see them. I see a one-dimensional story with some pedestrian fluff. I feel like the reviews are saying to me "What? You don't see layers and nuance? Listen to me repeat myself in a LOUDER VOICE NUANCE NUANCE NUANCE. Did I mention I really really really like it? Let me get a thesaurus so I can express my feelings in a more convincing fashion."

So the next time I write a review, the goal I will keep in mind is to be sufficiently concrete and incisive to change the mind of someone who has read the work already and disagrees with me.

divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
The Hugo winners were announced a few days ago. For the members of my loyal audience who haven't heard, Ann Leckie won best novel for Ancillary Justice and Sofia Samatar won best new writer, both of which are very good choices. None of my preferred selections won in any other category. In my opinion, some truly deserving nominees got left behind, like "Wakulla Springs", which came in third in the novella category. I thought Wonderbook and Coode Street Podcast deserved awards as well.

The conservative ideological slate, known for some reason as "sad puppies", came in last in all the fiction categories in which they had a nomination. Only one of the authors was ranked below "No Award", the odious Theodore Beale who writes under a pen name which is a bastardization of the Latin for voice of God. This is consistent with the widely held opinion that the other puppies are serious authors, but Beale is barely literate.

Is there anything of interest to be gleaned from the numerical results? I think it is easy to see that there evidence that some voters made choices based on issues other than quality. Two stories, "Wakulla Springs" and "The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" did not do well in the voting, though I consider them to be of very high quality. They were widely criticized for not being properly in the genres of science fiction or fantasy, and I think they lost many votes because of that. Wheel of Time received the second most votes for the Hugo, but came in fourth in the final tally, suggesting many people voted it down because they thought it was gaming the system some how and not appropriate (it is also possible that WoT is the kind of thing you either love or hate).

The ideological conservative slate received from 6-11% of the first round votes in the fiction categories, so it would be hard to detect intentional downvoting by voters because these nominees didn't have much support to begin with. They think there is bias against conservatives among the Hugo voters, but it is just as possible that the stories they worked to get nominated weren't very good. The fact that Theodore Beale received half the support that Larry Correia did is an indication that most of the voters supporting Correia did so because they thought it worthy, rather than just voting a straight ticket. On the other hand, there are some odd patterns that suggest ideological voting. In the category for novels, Seanan McGuire was last in the first round, but managed to beat WoT and Larry Correia in the end, suggesting the possibility of "anyone else but..." voting. This pattern is not repeated in the other fiction categories. In the category for book editors, the nominee championed by the sad puppies is widely respected and received 25% in the first round, but ended up a weak fourth place, which is disturbingly suggestive of issue voting. (I can't see how to judge a book editor, so I didn't vote in the category and I wonder if many of the votes were really informed.)

Did I get anything out of this experience? I read more speculative fiction in the past 4 months than in the previous 4 years. Most of it I didn't like. I either have highly refined taste or I am picky and arbitrary. I might not have ever read Sofia Samatar or Aliette de Bodard, which would have been a great loss, and I would never have noticed "Wakulla Springs", an even greater loss. I would have read Ancillary Justice eventually, since it has won almost every possible award, and I read everything by Charlie Stross already. Carefully following the Hugo nominees does not seem to be an efficient method for finding good works--it feels more like a slush pile. The awards have a good track record for best novel, but the rest of the winners seem to be widely scattered in quality (meaning the things that I personally find most important). I suspect that rather than paying for a voting membership, I would be happier with a subscription to Clarkesworld and listening to some podcasts about SF. (The ones that are primarily fiction, like Starship Sofa or Escape Pod seem to have a limited stable of contributors.)

Writing up mini reviews after each work was a very good way to force myself to think about them more carefully and to help remember them when it came time for voting.

PS: For some reason I have continued to read Wheel of Time, and it is pretty bad. But like eating a bag of potato chips, I cannot make myself stop despite not enjoying it. The plotting is brilliant, but the writing itself is tedious repetition, characters that have devolved into caricatures, and some embarrassingly obvious copying from other works. There was evidence of engaging and interesting creativity around page 70 and some more at page 2400, but not much in between. But if you only care about plot and only enjoy conflict in literature if it involves swords, WoT is perfect.

divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
I poked around the web looking for reviews to read/listen to, after I had mostly made my decisions. I lot of stuff that I didn't like was widely acclaimed, but nothing that convinced me that my judgment needed revisiting. One reason is that sometimes a component of a story touches something you are very familiar with, in which case the story has to be very good in how it treats that material or it will totally fail for you. For example, people who know London or British history seem to loathe Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear, because there are too many factual mistakes. As I know nothing about London, I am blind to those issues, and I think it is a marvelous novel. On this year's ballot, Mary Kowal's story involves a geriatric spaceman; as I have had a number of elderly relatives in my life in the past few years, this story is going to fall flat with me if it doesn't treat the issue in a way that speaks to my personal experience.

There were a number of "issues" related to the ballot this year. The giant one was the political slate--a few politically-minded authors proposed a slate of nominees and encouraged all their followers to vote for exactly that set of nominees, mainly because it would annoy people who didn't like them, rather than because the material was good. I have never read the tweets or blogs, but apparently some of these authors have some vile, reactionary opinions about the roles of women and people of color in society, so one opinion is that all the political slate nominees should be voted below "no award" because civilization requires that we condemn such behavior. Another opinion, which John Scalzi is a well-know proponent of, is that the better thing is to de-politicize the Hugos and judge everything on its merits. After carefully assessing the nominees that are part of the political slate, my opinion is that they are all crap, so either way I put them all below No Award. If these reactionaries want to be truly subversive, they should start by writing some decent stories.

Another issue was that the Wheel of Time series met the letter of the requirements but not the spirit. I didn't think it was good enough to vote for, so I didn't have to decide. These books seem to be widely considered unreadable after the first few.

I didn't know, but Mary Kowal's story was on the ballot last year, and was removed from the ballot after voting took place because it was released only in audio, and she found out sitting in the audience at the Hugo ceremony. While it is terrible that this happened, it didn't affect my voting.

Some people didn't like "Wakulla Springs" because it wasn't really speculative fiction. To which I say PFFFFFTTT, because it is a wonderful story. If you like it, you want to listen to the episode of the Coode Street Podcast where the authors are interviewed just before the story was published. They worked on it for a decade, and when it was done they thought it was unsellable because it didn't fit into genre fiction. But Patrick Nielsen Hayden snapped it up almost instantly.

In my mind, I categorized things into one star, two star, or three star works. I voted for three stars, then no award, then two stars, and left the one stars off completely. If a one star work wins, I can't see that I care which one. I don't think the two stars deserve awards, but I would rather they win then the one stars. I was clear enough in the posts about what I liked, that it would serve no purpose to go over the ballot items again.

divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Three out of the five nominated authors didn't impress me, but I want to note the other two.

Wesley Chu and The Lives of Tao. Incorporeal alien parasites waging a thousand-year war through human super spies. Woohoo! The writing is so lively, the characters so likeable, the plotting so tight that I couldn't put it down. Makes me think of a bowl of M&Ms, not really good chocolate and not good for me but I will keep eating until the bowl is empty. Too many problems to be a great book, but too much fun to ignore.

Sofia Samatar and A Stranger in Olondria. This novel is like nothing I have ever read. The writing is dense with imagery, more than any poem I have ever read: "Outside the village, in a valley drenched with rain, where the brown donkeys weep with exhaustion, where the flowers melt away and are lost in the heat, my father had his spacious pepper farm." Everything is imbued with a rich mythology: "My mother said the elephant god was jealous and resented our father's splendid house and fertile lands, but I knew that it was whispered in the village that my father had sold his unborn children to the god." One thing that gives the images power is that they are unexpected and unpredictable: About the father's older wife "I only saw her look happy once: when it became clear that Jom my meek, smiling elder brother would never be a man, but would spend his life among the orange trees, imitating the finches." There are a million mundane ways of ending that sentence, but bringing in orange trees and finches makes the writing exciting and beautiful and makes the setting feel immediate and real. And the constant inclusion of spices and flowers in the imagery brings in another sense that is usually only addressed sparingly. Despite feeling almost mythological, the characters feel very real as they search for joy in lives of tragedy.

I know I said didn't think much of Sofia Samatar's story "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" but this novel is brilliant. A lesser author would have made a disastrous glop in an attempt to achieve writing of such vividness and mythic strength. You can read the first few pages at the amazon page for the book and see if it connects with you.

divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
The remaining categories I found much harder to judge, either because they required a judgment on a larger body of work, such as book editor, because I had absolutely no knowledge of the nominees, like movies and TV, or in the case of graphic story because I don't think I understand the medium enough to know what is good.

I tried to dip into the material as much as possible, I was surprised to find out that there are many good podcasts about the field of SFF. I really like The Writer and the Critic podcast and The Coode Street Podcast. The discussions are remarkably thoughtful and well informed. I picked the episodes from the last few years that discussed books and stories that I had actually read, but I don't think I read enough to be interested in every show.

There is a podcast about the mechanics of writing which seemed very good called Writing Excuses, by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, and others. As a reader, not a writer, I find it interesting to hear about how writers perform their craft because it lets me understand why some stories work or don't work.

divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Last fiction for the Hugos. Unless I go back and read the other 14,000 pages of Wheel of Time. Until the packet for the Retro Hugo comes out (if ever). Actually, there is a ton of fiction included for the two best editor categories, and I don't know yet if I will feel I know enough to express an opinion for best editor.

I didn't feel that I started to understand "Selkie Stories are for Losers" until I had read/heard it two and half times. Strange Horizons published both the text and the audio.

The main character is an obnoxious teenager into alcohol and weed with no plans, and her mother walked out on the family when she was young. The character is obsessed with hatred for the folklore of selkies (magical sea creatures forced to stay in human form when separated from their skins; fisherman finds the skin, and selkie stays with him as a wife trying to find the skin he has locked up somewhere, until she finds it and escapes back to the sea abandoning her family).

I think the main character is meant to be exploring the idea that selkie stories were written by the families left behind when the mother has run off with no explanation. The title is meant to be read two ways: only "losers" (in the sardonic teenager-ese sense) are interested in these stories, but also that the stories are for those who have experienced the loss of a mother and are trying to emotionally grapple with it.

The author tried to keep a consistent voice for the narrator between descriptions of her life and descriptions of the folklore of selkies, but the transition always felt jarring to me, which took away a lot of the impact.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
An interesting story taking place in poor villages in modern Thailand, about local folklore and rituals, especially a festival where everyone writes wished on slips of paper and sends them off. Not much of a plot as such, and it would have benefited in parts from a more vivid visual description, but lots of humor and interesting, so I recommend it.

It is harder to write much about a short story, especially without spoilers.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Ice water mysteriously falls out of nowhere onto anyone who tells a lie. But not if one is intentionally misleading or vague, so it doesn't make you more moral, just careful. Not sure how this relates to the main character coming out to his family, because he was still able to hide is orientation for years despite the difficulty in telling lies.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Now the actual short story category. These are a couple to 15 pages on the ebook reader, which are pretty close to the size of book pages.

Swirsky writes a lament from a woman on her fiancee's death bed--if her love had been a dinosaur instead of paleontologist, he would not have let those drunken thugs beat him to death. Seems weirdly anti-intellectual and sexist (why does the woman want to be a flower and be defended by a scary dinosaur of a man?) which I wouldn't expect from Rachel Swirsky. The writing style is meant to be poetic, but it doesn't make up for the whole thing feeling wrong to me.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
This story by Ted Chiang, possibly the greatest modern SF short story writer, explores the clash between the fluidity of self-definition and the need of society to have permanent and consistent truths. He draws parallels between a fictional invention of an indexed video lifelog and the introduction of writing to a tribal culture based on oral traditions. He looks at the effects of the invention from a hundred different angles, with an impressive thoroughness. If there is any flaw in the story, it is that the protagonist's exploration parallels the experience of the reader, so everything is in the end too explicit.

Ted Chiang provides a perfect example of how to develop the relationship between the reader and characters, making the characters feel real enough that the ending can carry a strong emotional impact. The story will leave many readers re-evaluating their own views of who they are.

The story is available here for free on the publisher's web site.

Ted Chiang is a technical writer, not a full-time fiction writer. His total literary output over the last 25 years (according to Wikipedia) is thirteen stories (no novels). Of his 5 stories since 2007, three won Hugos and of course this story is a nominee. From a part-time author, this is mind boggling.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
This space opera starts with two story lines, the first about children snatched from their world by a moralistic culture that believes it is saving them from a terrible fate (even if they are losing their families and their cultures), and the the second about an attempted rescue of a disabled spaceship still inhabited by a mind the rescuers consider a family member. It is hard not to give any spoilers, but the ending left my mouth open. Coming across a story like this once in a while makes it worth enduring many lesser works.

The story is available free from the author's website.

The real world analogies are numerous, but as science fiction the author can define the situation with enough complexity that there is no clear answer, but nevertheless keep it sufficiently simple to be starkly defined.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Retired spaceman offered one last task that she won't return from. The essence is the same as Heinlein's "Green Hills of Earth" from 1947 (and untold thousands of stories before and after), though in this case the protagonist is a pilot and leaves behind a dying husband. Hitting heavily on the pathos of the decay of the sick elderly, crossing the line into rank attempted emotional manipulation. The entire story is predictable from the first page or so; it needs something unexpected, either to partially change the nature of the conflict or to bring it into sharper focus or to generalize it.

And what in the world kind of title is that? "Lady Astronaut" ??????
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Soulless magical elf spends a decade copying manuscripts in a Christian monastery to understand God. The story could have addressed some interesting questions, but doesn't. It doesn't move past arguments based on wordplay or "Why does God let bad things happen to good people?" Some questions that could have been brought in are silly (Does a creature need a soul when it is already immortal?) and some have obvious parallels in human history (exploring the attitudes of people toward those of other faiths). No story here, as no one reveals anything deep, no one learns anything or changes.

The oddness of putting explicitly Christian monks in a fantasy world with no thematic justification and no explanation in the context of the story may be a result of the publisher being an explicitly Christian publisher. The story seems to be a trivial copy of Michael Flynn's Eifelheim (about an alien in a monastery), a Hugo-nominated novel published by Tor (large publishers do not appear to have an antipathy toward explicitly Christian themes when the work is well written).
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Moving from novellas to "novelette"...

Militaristic space opera, fighting via remotely controlled androids. Hardly new, but reasonably well done. Rather than pure gung-ho belligerence, Brad Torgersen allows questions to be raised: Is the US's fictional militarization of space causing a new arms race rather than making the citizens safer? Are soldiers fighting for selfish reasons? Not so easy to define your characters well enough in 20 pages to let them have discussions like this without it feeling forced.
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Part of the Laundry series, Charlie's crazy mixing of spy thriller and Lovecraftian horror with a sprinkling of snarky Dilbert-like office politicking. These stories contain some of Charlie's best plot reversals where nothing is what you think it is.

The best laughs this time come from Charlie's invented deathbed letters of HP Lovecraft, which he describes as covering "the entire spectrum from purple to ultraviolet." The snarky humor comes from the sendup of these familiar genres, but the stories work very well on their own as simple action stories and hold up after multiple readings.

I can't find any value to these beyond being a fun bit of meta-literature, but with perfect execution, that's enough.

I admit I am a giant fan of Charlie Stross, and have copies of almost all his books. I read this when it first popped up on Tor.com many months ago (you can still get it for free here).
divisionsandprecisions: (dry)
Fairy tale set in the mining country in the west. Seems cartoonish to me on every level--character, plot, setting. Which should be appropriate for a mashup of fairy tale and western tall tale, but the humor and wonder that go with these styles has been drained out. All that's left is heavy-handed message of how women are oppressed, and there is no escape; the wicked witch will follow you until you die.

I am perhaps too sensitive to the difference between being told and being shown. If the author works up to their message using small steps, each of which feels real (not necessarily in a literal sense) then I am convinced. Sometimes, however, the story is more like an "appeal to authority," where the author invents something and says Look how the world is. It can be harder to see this happening if you already agree strongly with the author.

I noticed one detail that I would expect 99 out of a hundred readers to miss. Springtime in the 19th century Montana wilderness was represented by tulips and blackberries, which happen to be a Mediterranean plant and an Asian plant. And blackberries are mostly noticeable when they fruit at the end of the summer. Not particularly important, but an example of how the details in the narrative try to add a sense of realism, but come across as paper cutouts glued onto the surface.
Page generated Oct. 16th, 2017 11:38 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios