Blogging the Hugos: Eric S. Raymond

Eric S. Raymond
Category: The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

I had heard of Eric S. Raymond because of his advocacy for open source software, but was unaware that he had written any fiction. In fact, he’s eligible for the Campbell due to a single short story, “Sucker Punch”, which seems like a pretty thin resume. On top of that, it’s published by Castalia House (ugh) and not included in the Hugo packet. But I felt compelled to read it in order to give this category a complete survey, and luckily it’s the leadoff story in Riding the Red Horse, which means: free Kindle sample to the rescue again!

“Sucker Punch” takes place during a 2037 invasion of Taiwan by mainland China. The invaders don’t seem to fear the nearby American carrier group; it turns out this is because they have highly effective anti-aircraft laser weapons. The story makes the reasonable conclusion that the spread of these weapons would dramatically change the nature of warfare… and then just ends without thinking much about what those changes would look like.

A few posts ago I referred to The Deaths of Tao as a “popcorn thriller”, but “Sucker Punch” was more like a single piece of popcorn. My first reaction was, “that was it?” The focus is the weapons technology (of course it is, because it’s a Castalia House story), and the characters, to the extent there are any, are tough-talking navy dudes straight out of central casting. Descriptive passages are mostly limited to jargon-heavy recounting of military maneuvers.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with writing a story focused on a weapons technology, but good science fiction thinks about the implications beyond “hey, that would really change things, huh?” When the technology posited is, literally, laser guns, it’s going to take some especially insightful speculation to stand out. It’s disappointing that Raymond didn’t even try to develop his story in that direction, and given that this single story is the only science fiction he’s written, I don’t see any case for awarding him the Campbell.

Blogging the Hugos: Rolf Nelson

(Note: Hugo voting is now closed, but I plan to continue posting reviews of the nominees that I read before the deadline.)

Rolf Nelson
Category: The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

the_stars_came_backRolf Nelson’s novel, The Stars Came Back, wasn’t included in the Hugo packet. Short on time before the voting deadline, and not really inclined to send Castalia House any money, I opted to download and read the Kindle sample, resolving to buy the full book only if it caught my interest. (It’s clear at this point in my reading that the whole Rabid Puppies slate was a scheme by Castalia House to load the ballot with as many of their publications as possible; it’s equally clear that the quality of what they choose to publish is pretty dismal.)

Spoiler alert: I did not buy the full book. The sample I read was fairly substantial, but nothing resembling an overall story emerged—instead a bunch of disconnected events happened to the protagonist. There was no meaningful character development, and the dialogue was pretty dry. That’s a problem for a book that’s almost nothing but dialogue.

In fact, this was (according to the author’s own introduction) originally intended as a screenplay, and still presented in a kind of screenplay-ish format. Not actual screenplay format, with the actors’ lines offset and capitalized words scattered about, but there are things like camera directions (!) and “CUT TO – EXT. DAY”. This is really the height of laziness. The author states that his screenplay morphed into a novel, but he apparently wasn’t willing to put in the work to actually rewrite it that way. So instead we’ve got a bunch of talking heads and the occasional exhortation to imagine a camera zooming in on something.

One could try to make the case that writing a novel this way is a bold and innovative move that creates a cinematic feel, but I’m not buying it. It takes away the power of the novel to reduce the narration to a camera, without the feeling of sharing the narrator’s head-space. And it takes away from the power of cinema to present dialogue as just words on a page, without actors to bring it to life. This is really the worst of both worlds, and I feel like any competent editor would have sent this back for rewriting. Which tells you something about the editors at Castalia House.

Blogging the Hugos: Kary English

Kary English
Category: The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

We previously encountered Kary English as the author of “Totaled”, the one bright spot in the Best Short Story category. That story is included in the Campbell packet along with two more short works, “Departure Gate 34B” and “Flight of the Kikayon”. The former is a piece of micro-fiction about a ghost trying to move on from the world of the living; the latter is longer (possibly novelette-length) and concerns a woman stranded on a desert island, and how she got there.

It’s interesting to read these as a set, because they come across as variations on a theme. All three of the protagonists are women who are in a liminal space between life and death; they are all partially cut off from the world in some way; they all reflect on their family connections before passing on. They have their differences, too—”Gate 34B” is about acceptance, while “Totaled” is about making the best use of the time remaining—so they’re not just copies of each other. It seems to be more about exploring the feeling of isolation from different directions.

At the level of the prose, English distinguishes herself with an unusual level of sensory detail. This is particularly important in “Totaled”, where sense memory turns out to be a means of communicating with the outside world, but it shows up in the other works too. It’s a good quality in her writing that adds to the sense of realness.

In contrast to the other Puppy nominees, which often seem to be more about guns than people, these are very human stories. There are sci-fi elements, but they do what the genre is supposed to do and illuminate aspects of life from a different angle rather than become the center of the story themselves. It’s a surprise to see this on the slate at all, since it seems like what the Puppies say they don’t want in science fiction. But it’s a welcome surprise—these stories were a cut above the rest of the Puppy chow on offer.

Blogging the Hugos: Jason Cordova

Jason Cordova
Category: The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Two items were included in the packet for Jason Cordova. The first is “Hill 142″, a short story set during World War I in a universe where giant animals are used as military assets: there’s a German unit riding enormous spiders facing off against Americans mounted on oversized lions. I feel like this premise would have worked better if the story had embraced its inherent silliness; instead it’s related with the same grim joylessness that characterizes many of the Puppy nominees. It’s ironic considering these are the people who claim to just want fun stories.

murder_worldThe other item in the packet is a full novel entitled Murder World: Kaiju Dawn and written in collaboration with Eric S. Brown. Since this is for Jason Cordova as best new author, it’s not clear how to judge a collaborative effort, but that would be more of a dilemma if this had been any good. It’s an Aliens-style plot where a team of soldiers go on a mission, monsters ensue, and the squad members get picked off one by one until a few survivors escape. The action takes place on the titular planet, which is infested with various deadly creatures—the word kaiju is used not in the usual Godzilla sense (although some in the book do qualify) but just synonymous with “monster”, which seemed unnecessary. The protagonists crash-land on the planet and have to fight their way through what amount to a bunch of random encounters before they can escape.

I generally like these kinds of stories (in addition to Aliens, see also Pitch BlackCowboy Bebop‘s “Toys in the Attic”), but this one didn’t connect. The characters aren’t interesting or sympathetic enough for the reader to care when they get killed off, and the dialogue between them falls flat. The action scenes were muddled and the monsters, while certainly dangerous, weren’t presented in a particularly terrifying way. There’s a wholly unnecessary frame story in which various people are interviewed by the military after the fact, which breaks up the flow of the main narrative.

And then there was the fact that this book had never been anywhere near a copy editor. There was a typo, grammatical error, or jumbled sentence on nearly every page. I can only assume this was self-published, but there were two authors—weren’t they reading each other’s writing? Surely if anybody had taken a second look at what was written, these things would have been corrected. It makes the whole thing seem slapdash. I give my blog posts more attention than this!

Neither of the two stories in the packet make a strong case for Jason Cordova as a Campbell nominee. They’re both monster stories, but are lacking in the main elements that make a good monster story: a slow build-up of terror, imaginative creatures, characters that the reader cares about. At the same time, they have the seeds of a certain over-the-top gonzo style—Murder World! German hell-spiders!—but don’t embrace the spirit of fun that would really animate that kind of story. Combined with the laziness of the editing, it ends up a pretty poor showing.

Blogging the Hugos: Wesley Chu

Wesley Chu
Category: The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

deaths_of_taoFor the Campbell Award nominees I’ve been reading what was submitted for the Hugo packet; Wesley Chu in particular has published more than one novel in the eligibility period so reading everything by the voting deadline wasn’t quite practical. Chu’s entry in the packet is The Deaths of Tao, the second book in his Tao series, so I was jumping into the middle of the story here.

Helpfully, the book was written with enough incluing that I was able to get up to speed on the setting without too much difficulty. The basic premise is that there is an alien species called Quasings which can live inside human bodies. They exist separately from the minds of their hosts, and can communicate with them as a voice in their host’s head. The Quasings are ageless, and move to a new host when their current one dies, but can die themselves if they’re outside a host for too long. Quasings have been on earth since well before humanity evolved, and have in fact directed humanity’s development from the start. There are two factions within the Quasing: the Genjix, who want to exploit humanity for their own benefit, and the Prophus, who are trying to coexist with humanity on equal terms.

This unfortunately runs afoul of one of my literary pet peeves, previously encountered in “The Plural of Helen of Troy”: overuse of historical figures as characters. In this case, it seems that pretty much every influential human ever in time was host for a Quasing and a pawn in the ongoing Prophus/Genjix war. To me this has the effect of making history seem more boring rather than making this book more interesting; real history is filled with fascinating human stories and it feels like something is lost when all that is crossed out and replaced with “aliens did it”.

The good news is that the historical perspective isn’t that important to the story, and mostly appears as little bits of background information sprinkled through the book. The modern-day state of the alien war is much more important—this is really a spy thriller, moving from one mission, gunfight, or chase scene to the next. Its closest relative on the Hugo ballot in this regard is actually Skin Game, but I liked this better: the action scenes are less predictable, and the underlying conceit is pretty novel as well. The ending surprised me enough (in that it shook up the status quo in a way I didn’t expect) that it got me interested in what happens next, so I may check out the rest of this series at some point.

So he’s got me a little hooked, but it’s still squarely in the category of books I take running with me (in audio form): not too deep, something where I can zone out, come back a minute later, and not have missed anything. It’s a good popcorn thriller, but for the Campbell award I’d like to see that the author is capable of more. The concept is intriguing, though, and if Wesley Chu continues to generate ideas like this he could go a long way.

Blogging the Hugos: Rat Queens Vol. 1

Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery
Written by Kurtis J. Weibe, art by Roc Upchurch
Category: Best Graphic Story

rat_queens_1I had a smile on my face the whole time I was reading this book. It’s right in my sweet spot—an action-comedy in a D&D-style fantasy world. This kind of thing has been attempted many times, but almost never this well. I felt like this was something I’d been waiting for without realizing it.

The titular Rat Queens are an adventuring party—fighter, thief, cleric, and mage—who have mostly cleaned out the local area and now spend much of their time getting into tavern brawls with the other underemployed mercenaries. At the start of the book they get sent on a quest by the town authorities, mainly to keep them busy. Of course, the apparently simple job turns out to have complications that eventually result in a huge battle in the last chapter.

Like in a real D&D game, all this is a means to get the characters into situations where they can swing swords, throw spells, and make wisecracks, all of which are immensely entertaining. There’s a tremendous sense of fun in this book that really comes out in the action scenes. And not just the action scenes—there’s strong writing throughout the book, and deft characterization that differentiates the main foursome both from each other and from the usual fantasy stereotypes.

When it comes to my Hugo ranking, Rat Queens might suffer just because it doesn’t have the emotional heft of Saga or the metaphorical depth of Sex Criminals or Ms. Marvel. But this was one of the most purely enjoyable of the graphic novels, and one of the first ones I’ll be adding to my Comixology pull list.

Blogging the Hugos: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal
Written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt
Category: Best Graphic Story

ms_marvel_1Back in my Guardians of the Galaxy review I mentioned my long-standing disinterest in superhero comics. This is the one superhero book on the Hugo ballot, but it overcomes my biases against it in a couple of ways. First, it’s an origin story, so I don’t have to deal with years of canon. (There have been previous Ms. Marvels but the title is passed on in this book.) Second, it stays small-scale and character driven, avoiding the excesses that most titles in the genre seem to fall prey to.

The one thing I knew about the book going in is that it’s the poster child for the new wave of diversity in comics: the heir to the Ms. Marvel name is a 16-year-old, Pakistani-American named Kamala Khan. What makes this feel like a fresh take on the genre, and not mere tokenism, is that Kamala’s background and religion are integral to her character and to her heroism. The scene in which she receives her new powers has the feeling of a divine vision, and her philosophy in making use of them is clearly informed both by Islam and by her own upbringing in an immigrant family.

The story also leverages the metaphor at the heart of similar stories like Spider-Man or Buffy, in which the heroic conflicts parallel the difficulties of the teenage experience. This is given added depth by Kamala’s outsider status; already trying to balance her traditional home life with the pressure to fit in with her peers in school, she now has to juggle the additional problem of hiding her superpowered nature from the world while still being able to do good.

There’s no big supervillain face-off in this book, although it sets the stage for one. The focus is more on Kamala starting to develop confidence and proficiency with her new powers. This is a good move—Kamala is an incredibly appealing character, and her efforts to navigate her increasingly complex situation are much more interesting than the fight scenes that do appear. The supporting characters could be a little more fleshed out, but in a long-running series they’ll have time for that in future issues.

I think this does suffer a little from the somewhat arbitrary nature of comics collections; it cuts off rather abruptly at the end of the volume, since the story is written for the monthly issues and not for the book. I haven’t read further, but it feels like a story arc meant for at least a full year of 12 issues, meaning we’re just getting the beginning. Most of the other entries in this category clearly are written with one eye toward the collected editions, so that they wrap up at least some aspect of the narrative.

That said, it did its job in making me interested in the further adventures of Ms. Marvel. This was a great read and a worthy addition to the other stellar Graphic Story titles on the ballot. Give me more comics like this, and I might become a fan of superheroes after all.

Blogging the Hugos: Turncoat

Steve Rzasa
Category: Best Short Story

As loyal readers may recall, we started off the short fiction categories with a Castalia House gun-porn story about an AI who eventually turns on its masters. As it happens, that’s how we’re finishing the short fiction as well. “Turncoat” is very much from the same mold as “Big Boys Don’t Cry”, right down to the AI anxiety about losing its human crew—these authors seem to get worried about the idea of being replaced by machines even as they get aroused by the concept of having guns integrated directly into one’s body. This one is a spaceship instead of a tank, but otherwise pretty similar (and similarly unpleasant to read about).

The military elements aren’t even interesting; it’s your standard Space Is An Ocean conception of space combat complete with cruisers and battleships. Once you read a story which has actually thought about how relativity and the huge distances involved would affect a battle fought in space, it’s hard to go back to envisioning it as 19th century naval warfare in three dimensions.

I had read a review of this story which stated that the main character, when defecting at the end of the story (hence the title), gives the finger to his former commander. I was curious just how this AI metaphorically flipped the bird, but no—it literally sends an actual picture of a middle finger to the uploaded mind it used to report to. This, besides being just dumb, is written in a way that suggests that a picture of a single disembodied finger was sent, which isn’t really how giving the finger works. But that’s the quality of writing we’re dealing with here. Personally, I’d like to demonstrate how it’s done to the people who nominated this thoroughly mediocre story. But I’ll settle for figuratively giving them the finger by trashing it on my blog.

Blogging the Hugos: Totaled

Kary English
Category: Best Short Story

This starts out sounding like it’s going to be an anti-Obamacare parable: protagonist Maggie is “totaled” after a car accident in the sense that her insurance has declared her not worth saving, and sold her off for parts. The story doesn’t dwell on death-panel anxiety, though. Maggie’s brain is put in a jar, still conscious due to the high-tech fluid it’s immersed in, and sent to a research lab where she attempts to communicate with the scientist studying her. The story is really about her efforts to escape the prison of her own disembodied mind.

And it’s actually not bad! Definitely the best of the (otherwise dismal) short stories category. This is a legitimately terrifying scenario, much more so than the giant monster of the previous story, and that makes it more interesting. It’s also a more plausible scientists-solving-problems story than the last one we got (“The Triple Sun”). Maggie’s efforts to make contact with the outside world—basically, by intentionally activating specific brain regions in an fMRI scan—have some basis in real science.

I do wish there had been a little more in the way of clever workarounds and jury-rigging (as happens in real science labs) and less convenient technologies that happen to be ready at the right time. And Maggie’s collaborators didn’t seem to be very thoughtful in leaving her without any stimulus overnight—seriously, put on an audiobook or something so she doesn’t get bored. But minor flaws aside, I enjoyed reading this one.

Blogging the Hugos: A Single Samurai

“A Single Samurai”
Steven Diamond
Category: Best Short Story

baen_monstersThis is the story of a samurai attempting to kill a mountain-size kaiju by climbing up it, Shadow of the Colossus style. Here, though, samurai aren’t just the warrior class of feudal Japan, but a secret order of monster hunters with magical swords. Actually there could be some potential in this idea, and I suppose it’s not so different from imagining Western knights as dragon-slayers. This story was too short to do much with it, though: it was basically climb-fight-climb-fall, and, of course, a hara-kiri scene for the grand finale. There doesn’t seem to be any more detail than the two things everyone knows about samurai: they carry two swords, and they commit gory ritual suicide.

The monster isn’t much more impressive. It’s big, it has weird stone-skin cat-things living on it, it has a suspiciously easily-accessible brain… that’s about it. So what was in this story? There weren’t any other human characters of note. There was some extremely obvious foreshadowing. That’s about it. For a story about a giant monster fight, this was pretty dull. I’d rather play Shadow of the Colossus.

As a bonus, here are stories about specific numbers of samurai, ranked:
2. “A Single Samurai”
1. Seven Samurai
(Note The Last Samurai doesn’t count, because the title refers to the last group of samurai. They don’t mean Tom Cruise, that would be ridiculous.)