Category Archives: Books

Blogging the Hugos: The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale

“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”
Rajnar Vajra
Category: Best Novelette

Although it starts with a bar brawl, this is mostly a “smart people solve a scientific mystery” story. A trio of cadets in an interplanetary explorer corps get into trouble (the aforementioned fight), and are sent off to help clean up a research expedition that is being ended after failing to communicate with the local intelligent life forms. Instead of closing down the site, the team figures out what’s going on and manages to make contact themselves.

Team leader Emily Asari narrates with a natural, friendly voice that gives the reader a sense of her character. Her teammates are drawn in more broad strokes: there’s Priam the arrogant genius, and Micah the quiet guy with hidden depths. (For most of the story Emily assumes Micah is not very bright, which seems strange given that he somehow got into this elite program.) Emily has a habit of apologizing to the reader for expository digressions, but this only highlights their awkwardness, and I think many of them could have just been omitted. (The “Golden Age Tale” part of the title makes me think there’s extra worldbuilding with the intent of setting other stories here, although I couldn’t find any others.)

The central puzzle about the nature of the aliens under study is set up in a way that the reader can try to figure it out before the characters do. I usually like this kind of story, but here we are also asked to believe that a team of researchers worked for thirty years and didn’t figure it out. This is way outside the bounds of plausibility. It’s equally hard to believe that a non-specialist, even a particularly smart one, could solve a scientific problem in just a few days if the experts couldn’t solve it in decades. This is an instance of the unfortunate myth that science advances due to Men of Genius having Brilliant Insights.

This is not the only suspension-of-disbelief problem the story has. The trio is going to be kicked out of the explorer corps if they don’t solve the problem, basically just as a punishment for Priam’s cockiness. This is so extreme that it just seems like an artificial contrivance to raise the stakes. Surely these explorers are expensive to train (and their biotech enhancements are specifically mentioned as being higher quality than what the military gets); I doubt the organization can afford to expel people at a whim.

I’m focusing on what I didn’t like, but this wasn’t a bad read, and I like what it’s aiming for. I just felt like it fell a little short of the mark. With some fixes—make Emily’s team the first to visit the planet, cut some of the irrelevant technology details, improve some of the descriptive passages—I think it could be a solid entry. But as it is I don’t think it’s quite award-worthy.

Blogging the Hugos: The Journeyman: In the Stone House

“The Journeyman: In the Stone House”
Michael F. Flynn
Category: Best Novelette

Here we have the story of a couple of tribesmen, Teodorq and Sammi (the author should probably have said that first name out loud before using it), who come from a fairly low-tech society and come across a more advanced (medieval level) people; there are hints of a far more high-tech civilization in the more distant past. This makes it sound superficially similar to “Flow”, but there are some major differences that made this one much more enjoyable.

For one thing, there’s actual characterization here: cocky Teodorq and deadpan Sammi make a great pairing, and the banter between the two made me laugh out loud more than once. They speak in an invented dialect that feels a lot more natural than the one in “Flow”, and although Sammi doesn’t have a strong command of the language (being from a different tribe) and speaks in fragments, his intelligence still comes through.

The story is also well-structured: the protagonists are captured early on, so not only is there action at the beginning to get the reader’s attention, but there’s subsequent tension through the rest of the story as our heroes try to talk their way out of their predicament. By the time they’ve managed that, there’s another tribesman with a personal vendetta against Teodorq to worry about.

This all culminates in a duel between the two, which was actually the weakest part of the novelette. The author clearly knows a thing or two about longsword fighting, and the scene turns into a bit of a lecture on the subject as a dizzying array of stances and maneuvers are named and described. I appreciated the realism but it was a little dull in comparison to the witty dialogue in the preceding sections.

But apart from the overly technical sword fight, this was the first of the short fiction entries that was actually a pleasure to read. This was a Puppy nominee, and while it’s clear at this point that actual quality was not a factor in their selections, that doesn’t mean good stories can’t get in (even if just by chance). That’s the whole reason to vote on the merits rather than automatically No-Awarding all the slate entries, so I’m glad to finally find a good story—it means all this reading hasn’t totally been in vain.

Blogging the Hugos: The Day the World Turned Upside Down

“The Day the World Turned Upside Down”
Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator
Category: Best Novelette

The premise here is that the world has literally turned upside down: the Earth’s gravity has reversed and everyone falls into the ceiling or just out into space. It’s handled in a magical-realism way where there’s no explanation or even coherent scientific story. (Definitely don’t try to think about the physics of this.) It’s a neat idea for a story that leads to some cool imagery and moments of both horror and beauty. You can see why it was nominated.

Unfortunately, the author takes this premise and wields it as an incredibly unsubtle metaphor for the protagonist’s breakup with his girlfriend. We start to get hit with this two pages in when he says, “It was the second time in two days that the world had come to an end,” and from then on we’re wallowing in his self-pity and anger.

It’s not even a bad metaphor! I’ve felt loss after a breakup that was like a yawning void that threatened to swallow me. To be out on a literal limb over the endless depths of the upside-down sky is a reasonable approximation. If the story had been more subtle about it, I think this could have worked really well. But here it’s over-the-top. Our hero describes his ex as the love of his life, but never mentions specific qualities he liked about her. His feelings are very possessive; he is consumed with jealousy even imagining other men with her. He suffers from major abandonment issues and somehow blames her for this.

To paraphrase Rupert Giles, the subtext in this story became the text. The main character is so fixated on the breakup that it takes center stage over the extinction-level catastrophe that is nominally the subject of the story. All the interesting ideas get drowned out by the guy’s moaning.

This was the one piece of short fiction not to come from one of the slates. Unfortunately, all this proves is that it’s not just the Puppies who nominate sub-par stories with misogynist overtones. I expect it from the Puppies, but I’d hoped for better from the rest of the Hugo voters.

Blogging the Hugos: Championship B’tok

“Championship B’tok”
Edward M. Lerner
Category: Best Novelette

As I read this story I began to wonder how the author was going to wrap up all the plot threads in novelette length. Sabotage, disappearances, two separate alien conspiracies—could they all connect at the end? And then, just when things were about to happen, it just stopped. Realization dawned as I looked up the author’s other work—there’s a novel out this year incorporating this material. It’s basically a Kindle sample chapter for the full-length version.

And what we get here is mostly exposition, delivered by long conversations between characters in which nothing else happens, or by fake future-Wikipedia entries. (Sourced from “Internetopedia”, which, come on.) This latter device is almost as bad as As You Know, Bob. It doesn’t have to be this way! Look at the first few chapters of Ancillary Justice for how to start a space opera without resorting to giant infodumps.

All the world-building and setup for a plot that never arrives doesn’t leave much room for characterization. When it does occur, the traits displayed by the characters sometimes directly contradict what we’re told about: one person described as a “flaming extrovert” speaks only a handful of monosyllabic words at a time; an alien spy who’s been in deep cover for centuries takes no cautionary measures once he appears in the story, and is almost immediately in danger of capture as a result.

The writing is competent, and I think I would have enjoyed the full novel better than, say, The Dark Between the Stars. But this is literally the minimum possible praise, and what we got here wasn’t even a full story, just a fragment of one. If it was really intriguing or brimming over with fresh ideas, I could see nominating it for a Hugo anyway. But it looks like a standard space opera, and since I’m not interested enough to seek out the rest of the story, it fails even as a teaser. Mainly I’m just annoyed by the cliffhanger ending. I guess I can always go read what happens on the Internetopedia.

Blogging the Hugos: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium

“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”
Gary Rinehart
Category: Best Novelette

I have just learned, from the fact that spell-check has not underlined the word in red, that alluvium is a real thing. It’s also the name of the planet where this story takes place. There is a human colony on Alluvium, which was conquered and subjugated by some lizard-like aliens. One of the humans is dying of cancer, and decides to be buried rather than cremated, going against the local human custom as well as the alien taboos. The main character is thus inspired to revive the human insurgency and try to drive the lizards off the planet by playing off their fears of being buried.

And… that’s pretty much it. After the grim march through the novellas, it was certainly nice to read a story that wasn’t misogynist or ham-handed Christian allegory. But I found this one unremarkable. It was competently written, but not particularly mind-expanding or emotionally affecting. There was nothing I hated about it, but I doubt I’ll remember it by the time I get to Worldcon, and I can’t imagine that it was the best novelette of 2014.

Blogging the Hugos: The Plural of Helen of Troy

“The Plural of Helen of Troy”
John C. Wright
Category: Best Novella

city_beyond_timeTime travel stories are a minefield of paradoxes and plot holes, and there are a couple of approaches successful ones use to keep the reader’s disbelief suspended. There’s the Primer style where some rules are established and strictly followed, and then there’s the Back to the Future style where there aren’t really any rules, but the artist, like a skilled magician hiding slights of hand, uses effective storytelling to keep the audience from looking too closely at the logical flaws. And if Robert Zemeckis is the flashy, crowd-pleasing Vegas stage magician, John C. Wright is the guy playing three-card monte on an overturned cardboard box while keeping one eye out for the police. The plot of this story is presented so confusingly that you get the feeling he’s trying to pull a fast one on you.

The story comes from a collection called City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, which sounds more like a parody of a fantasy novel title than something written with a straight face. (But John C. Wright is nothing if not serious.) In the titular city, Time Lords Wardens collect historical figures apparently for their own amusement, and seem especially fascinated by white American men. (Also, Queequeg from Moby Dick is here for some reason, despite being entirely fictional.) Stories where a bunch of historical figures hang out together is another for the list of Tropes that Annoy Me. As my girlfriend said when I described the story, “come up with your own characters!” And in this case, it doesn’t even add much: John F. Kennedy is a major player, but there’s nothing particularly Kennedyesque about him apart from his name and his accent.

The story itself is this deeply silly and convoluted scheme in which JFK is attempting to kill his future self. Marilyn Monroe is involved, mostly so that the main character can ogle her in a vulnerable state. (She’s also one of the Helens of Troy of the title, and not just in a metaphorical sense, for reasons that are too stupid to go into.) There’s a third act twist, but since it’s known to the narrator from the start the story is told in reverse for maximum reader confusion (while protesting all along that it makes more sense this way).

And yet, this was my favorite of the three John C. Wright novellas. Maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome setting in, but this one didn’t sermonize, and had a fun action scene as the centerpiece. (Wright is, however, in the habit of derailing his momentum by stopping in the middle of the action for some exposition.) One could read this as Christian allegory (and given the author, probably should) but that doesn’t seem to be the point of the story. Granted, the point of the story seems to be to drool over Marilyn Monroe instead, which isn’t actually an improvement.

Winning “Best John C. Wright Novella,” however, doesn’t quite get you into Hugo territory. It’s just that one of them had to be best, and it was this one. It was still a relief to be done, and not to have to spend any more time with this guy until I get to the Short Stories category. His entry there has a huge advantage for best Wright work on the ballot: there’s less of it to read.

Blogging the Hugos: Pale Realms of Shade

“Pale Realms of Shade”
John C. Wright
Category: Best Novella

book_of_feastsIn addition to the Puppies commitment to diversity, which is why they nominated John C. Wright five times, they are definitely opposed to “message fic.” That’s why it’s strange that they’ve backed “Pale Realms of Shade”, which is pretty much a novella-length Chick Tract.

The story follows the afterlife of a Harry Dresden-esque psychic private detective, who was shot dead and is now a ghost haunting his widow and his partner. Eventually he is confronted by the devil, who offers him revenge in exchange for his soul, but he turns to Jesus instead and is saved. (There are also some potshots at Muslims along the way.)

Before he can be saved our hero must confess (unlike Jack Chick, Wright is Catholic) and his big sin turns out to be… “stealing” his partner’s girlfriend when he was believed to have died in World War II. The idea that the woman in question might have had some agency of her own here is not considered; she is treated like property throughout.

Other fun tidbits from this one: the narrator figures out that his partner has found Jesus and become a better person because: he now tips his hat to elderly women (“ugly old broads”) as well as young, attractive ones! I can’t remember if “Blessed are those who tip their hats to ugly old broads” was the first or the second item in the Beatitudes. In another passage, our poltergeist feels an otherworldly heat (spoiler alert: it’s the power of God) and comments, “It felt like male rather than female heat.” What is it with these Puppy writers and their need to assign gender to everything from military vehicles to thermodynamic concepts? It must get exhausting imagining genitalia on all this stuff.

Like One Bright Star to Guide Them, this was a tedious, humorless parable. I said some unkind things about Skin Game, but reading this I missed the real Harry Dresden, pop culture references and all, who at least knew how to have fun. “Pale Realms of Shade” on the other hand is exactly as grim and colorless as its title suggests.

Blogging the Hugos: One Bright Star to Guide Them

One Bright Star to Guide Them
John C. Wright
Category: Best Novella

one_bright_starThis is a story about what happens to the children from The Chronicles of Narnia after they’ve grown up. Not literally: John C. Wright has created his own Narnia pastiche rather than lift from C. S. Lewis directly, but the reference is clear. I don’t have any objection to this in principle—I really enjoyed it when Lev Grossman did the same thing for the Magicians trilogy. (This novella is an unfortunate reminder that The Magician’s Land would have been a more worthy entry on the Best Novel ballot than some of what was actually nominated.)

Anyway, in Wright’s version the Narnia kids have gone on to live normal lives in the real world and have reached middle age. The main character, Tommy, is working in finance and has just received a promotion when the local Aslan equivalent shows up with a new call to adventure. After some hesitation he accepts and sets about tracking down his childhood companions. He finds that they have variously become (a) a mustache-twirling villain (an early hint he’s evil is that he likes modern art); (b) an apparently normal and well-adjusted woman who is branded a coward by Fake Aslan for not wanting to drop everything in her life to go on adventures at age 46; and (c) dead. At the end Tommy faces off against the Big Bad alone, but is able to defeat him by sacrificing a black cat to perform a rite of death magic. (I am not making this up, although admittedly the book frames it slightly differently.)

In my previous review I didn’t really emphasize the way “Flow” promoted curiosity as a positive trait, because who’s against curiosity? John C. Wright is, apparently, because the message of this book is don’t ask questions! Believe what you’re told no matter how illogical or fantastical! Fake Aslan delivers a revealing line while ordering Tommy to do something that makes no sense, without explanation: “It is not the stalwart soldiers of the Sons of Light who question orders, Little Tommy, but willful children.” In a different chapter, a letter from the deceased member of the original foursome exhorts Tommy to “NEVER DOUBT THAT WHAT YOU DO IS RIGHT.” (I think that one might be John C. Wright’s personal motto.) Hard to see how anything could go wrong with those attitudes!

Wright keeps the Christian allegorical elements of Lewis’ original intact, and thus it seems that the message is not to question the Bible stories one was told as a child, before developing critical faculties. Most people follow the religion they were born into, which suggests that they aren’t picking them based on evidence, but Wright doesn’t want you to think about the coincidence that you happened to learn the true religion as a child. Just follow orders!

Stepping away from the subtext and back to the text, Wright is actually a fairly competent writer but he needs a better editor than Vox Day. The dialogue in this book is hilariously overwrought—it’s possible he’s trying for a high fantasy cadence, but he goes way too far into who talks like that? territory. Particularly since these characters are supposed to have been living in the modern world for forty years—Tommy talks like Prince Valiant even when he’s still in banker mode. On top of that Wright is too fond of his ersatz Narnia, and spends long paragraphs having his characters recount their past adventures to each other when they were, in fact, all there to experience it and don’t need a recap. This really made me miss The Magicians, where the characters talk like normal people and the fictional history is only tantalizingly hinted at.

In another difference from The Magicians—and also from Narnia!—this wasn’t even fun to read. Maybe that’s part of the point, that the (religious) fantasies of one’s childhood are both real and deadly serious in adulthood. But it doesn’t make for an enjoyable story. John C. Wright has written three out of the five novella nominees. (Remember, the Puppies are all about more diversity on the Hugo ballot!) This is not off to a good start.

Blogging the Hugos: Flow

“Flow”
Arlan Andrews, Sr.
Category: Best Novella

In this story a curious man named Rist from a tundra-dwelling tribe ventures out of his homeland for the first time to learn about the the more advanced civilization to the south. It’s a “wide-eyed country boy visits the big city” kind of plot. After gawking at the locals and their customs for a few days, he manages to anger the local authorities and has to get out of town. He goes on to further adventures at the end, so maybe the idea is to expand it to novel-length at some point.

Like the previous novella I read, characterization is a real weakness here. The protagonist is reasonably well-developed, but the other major characters are indistinguishable exposition vehicles. The author has no use in particular for female characters, the sole example of which is a prostitute whose only role in the story is to service Rist. She receives neither a name nor a single line of dialogue.

The world-building is somewhat more detailed (indeed, this is why there’s so much exposition to be delivered). There are religions, wars and trade routes, ancient technologies from a fallen civilization. Rist’s people have a naturalistic way of speaking to set them apart from their southern neighbors: everything is “hands” (groups of five) and “fingers” (fifths) and “man-lengths”; since the north is has a permanent cloud cover, there are “dims” instead of “days” and “dimwards” instead of east. In case we don’t get it, the second half has Rist constantly translating as he tries to learn the southern way of speaking. There’s an alternate word for woman (“wen”) which is a little uncomfortable in light of how the story seems to view them; there’s no similar substitution for “man”.

Unfortunately the world-building came at the expense of not just the characters but the plot—I kept waiting for something to actually happen, and it took until about the two-thirds mark for some kind of dramatic tension to appear. Had the author been describing a truly unique and compelling world, I might have been more forgiving, but I didn’t find very much that was new or groundbreaking. And without good characters or a compelling narrative to animate it, the setting ultimately seemed pretty lifeless.

Blogging the Hugos: Big Boys Don’t Cry

Big Boys Don’t Cry
Tom Kratman
Category: Best Novella

big_boysWith all of the Best Novel nominees behind us, it’s time to enter the short fiction categories. These come almost entirely from the Sad/Rabid Puppies slates, and after The Dark Between the Stars my expectations for slate nominees were so low they were located somewhere in the Earth’s mantle. I was therefore relieved to find that Big Boys Don’t Cry contains competent prose and an interesting narrative structure, with interwoven forward/backward in time threads in a manner similar to Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons.

Like Use of Weapons, this is a story about how a society turns a sentient being into a weapon for its own use. In this case, the central character is an AI named Magnolia installed in a futuristic tank, who first is shown to be a skilled and valorous soldier, then gradually revealed to have been complicit or participatory in various war crimes. At the end comes the reveal of the methods used to mold Magnolia into a personality that would delight in killing and follow orders unquestioningly (spoiler alert: they’re not pretty).

Unfortunately, while Use of Weapons is a masterpiece, this book was just kind of a slog. The story is told through a string of battle scenes with little-to-no context of the wars they’re a part of, and almost no characterization outside of Magnolia. The author is much more interested in describing guns, gun sizes, gun arrangements, guns firing, explosives, and stuff blowing up than he is in developing any of the other characters, and since we don’t know anything about the participants, the battle scenes quickly lose their excitement. As I started each new chapter I began to yearn more and more for something another than another battle on another generic planet against another faceless enemy modeled after some animal or another. I was repeatedly disappointed.

When we do get a break from the gunfire, the author’s ugly politics sometimes bubble to the surface. One of the worst war criminals in the story is a cartoon liberal feminist; she is described by the book as a modern woman and you can practically hear the scorn dripping off those two words. In another chapter, an angry mob storms a legislature during wartime and lynches some of its insufficiently militaristic members. I had the uncomfortable feeling here that I was reading one of the author’s political fantasies. Even though the book doesn’t condone all the acts of killing that are depicted, it definitely gives off a bloodthirsty vibe.

There was one odd note that stuck with me in an apparently unimportant passage:

The last remaining vehicle, however, named THN but, because of certain peculiarities in its crystalline brain, (to wit, being unable to decide whether it was male or female, hence never given a nickname, and never fully integrated into the unit), was not in the kill zone. Ratha doctrine called for it to extricate itself from the ambush. This it proceeded to do, diverting its propulsion to return from whence it had come, firing like a maniac to its front, and incidentally, leaving Magnolia quite alone, with her back literally to the wall.

So many questions about that parenthetical! Such as why a tank needs to decide whether it is male or female, and why it’s “peculiar” if it can’t figure out what kind of imaginary genitalia it has. Why anyone would think that giving a name to a genderless AI was some kind of impossible task beyond the reach of human imagination. Whether Tom Kratman thinks that deciding one’s own gender is something humans can do (I have a guess about this one).

THN, the tank who rejected society’s absurdly rigid concept of gender, is my favorite character in the novel. The other tanks are given nicknames based on the three-letter code (Magnolia’s is MLN) and THN reminds me of T-Rex’s favorite gender-neutral pronoun, “thon”. I’d like to think that THN decided to call itself Thon after finding the word in an old database. Perhaps Thon even used the pronoun “thon” to refer to thonself. Unfortunately, Thon only appears in the passage above, so this is all we’ll know of thon. I’ll just have to imagine thon going on to start a wave of societal change, ushering in a new gender-blind society in the style of Ancillary Justice. That would certainly be a more interesting story than what we got here.