Monthly Archives: June 2015

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.

Blogging the Hugos: The Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem
Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
Category: Best Novel

three-body-coverAfter suffering through The Dark Between the Stars, it was a delight to move on to this book. As the title suggests, physics plays a big role in this book—in fact, the protagonist is a condensed matter experimentalist. This along with the major subplot taking place inside a video game makes it seem as if it was written specifically for me, although it having originally been written in Chinese would argue against it. Fortunately, Ken Liu has provided a skillful English translation. You can tell it’s coming from another language (per the translator’s note at the end, this is intentional), but it’s always clear and well-written.

There are actually two related storylines that run through the book. One follows a scientist who has been forced to leave academia during China’s Cultural Revolution, and after some twists and turns ends up working at a mysterious radar base. The other is a twenty-minutes-into-the-future setting: the nominal year is around now, but the book was written in 2008, and the author was a bit optimistic about the progress of VR technology (and probably nanomaterials). In this later setting, there’s been a series of unexplained suicides by high-energy physicists, and the main character (a different scientist from the first storyline) is called in by the police due to his personal connections. Then he starts to have strange experiences himself; a countdown appears, first in photographs (but only those he takes himself) and then in his own eyes, and he starts to worry that he’ll be the next scientist to turn up dead.

Thus the first half of the book introduces several mysteries, and I was propelled to keep reading by my curiosity about what was behind them. This is always a risky move for a writer, since if there aren’t suitable answers coming by the end, the reader is going to look on the entire book less favorably. (One could call this Battlestar Galactica Syndrome.) But Cixin Liu sticks the landing here with explanations that are satisfying and scientifically plausible—the latter being important for a hard sci-fi novel. There’s one technology that I did feel was a little fanciful, slipping into “indistinguishable from magic” territory; nevertheless, how the author gets there is still pretty clever. A bigger problem in the second half was that the story lost momentum while these explanations were being delivered: they arrived in what were effectively infodump chapters that seemed like distractions from the action in the main plot, and while I was eager for the mysteries to be explained I suddenly found that this conflicted with my desire just to know what happens to the characters next.

I complained about Interstellar pretending to be a story in which smart people use science to solve problems, only to turn into a power-of-love fable by the end. The Three Body Problem is the real deal. This is science fiction where the science is as important as the fiction. Modern physics is everywhere in this book, with real facts and theories mixed in with some highly plausible invented ones (and, as mentioned, at least one fanciful one). This is perfect for me, but I thought the author made it accessible to non-experts as well. One of my favorite scenes has time and space translation invariance explained by moving a pool table around the room.

The book’s interest in science has a broader scope than just modern physics: there’s a subplot in which the entire history of astrophysics is played out in an MMORPG, from the Bronze Age to the present, which is fascinating—not least because it’s from a Chinese perspective, and thus starts from Eastern philosophers rather than the Greeks. The end of the book is a meditation on how cultures with radically different levels of science and technology interact, and comes to a grim conclusion; although there’s no straightforward allegorical reading, it’s interesting to consider in the context of China’s historical relationship with the West. (The video game in the story is less convincing as a game than as a plot device; I get the feeling the author hasn’t spent much time in real MMORPGs, but has played quite a bit of Sid Meier’s Civilization.)

I really enjoyed this book—it’s imaginative and thought-provoking, as well as just fun to read. It has some flaws in the pacing, but otherwise it’s a very ambitious book that largely succeeds at its aims. I’d recommend it for anyone who likes their science fiction to be heavy on the science, and I’m looking forward to reading the next volume in the series.

Blogging the Hugos: The Mountain and the Viper (Game of Thrones)

Game of Thrones: “The Mountain and the Viper”
Written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss, directed by Alex Graves
Category: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

got_season_4As longtime Arcane Gazebo readers know, I’m a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire. I didn’t even last long in my resolve not to read A Dance With Dragons (which, due to my blogging hiatus, is still declared embarrassingly recently in the post history). But I quit the TV series midway through the second season. I felt like all the subtlety of the books was dropped, and they treated the viewers like idiots who needed to be hand-held through the complex plot. When they did make changes from the story itself, it rarely seemed to be for the better.

Thus it was that I originally planned to watch this episode in isolation for my Hugo review. I’ve read Storm of Swords—I know how the titular fight ends! But my girlfriend, who has been following the show (and will be joining me at Worldcon) convinced me to catch up on the episodes I’d missed. Coming back with lowered expectations, I found the show more enjoyable. Although it’s not the ideal adaptation that exists only in my head, it’s still amazing that a fantasy show of this caliber exists at all, and even more amazing that it’s become such a huge crossover hit. So by the time I got to this episode, I’d mostly made my peace with the flaws of the series. (Mostly—I still have a tendency to shout “Lies!” at the screen when they deviate from the books.)

We are here to review this episode and not the whole series (which has plenty of Hugos under its belt already), so I won’t get too hung up on the big picture. On the other hand, I don’t have much to say about some portions of this episode: as part of a serialized drama, it checks in with all the ongoing storylines, but some of them are less significant than others. There are some scenes at the Wall that continue to build the tension leading up to the battle there; there’s a scene with Arya and the Hound in which their quest to reunite Arya with her family is stymied yet again. There’s a creepy scene between Sansa and Littlefinger after she backs up his account of Lysa’s death. Jorah’s spying for Robert Baratheon is revealed, and Daenerys exiles him in response. I had to remind myself that these things happened in this episode, and not one of the other ones I watched leading up to it; they don’t seem thematically connected to each other or to the main event.

Some of the other minor scenes were more memorable. I thought Theon’s struggle to hold himself together as he played the role of his own past self was well-acted and not overdone. And the relationship between Missandei and Grey Worm is a really interesting addition by the show—it wasn’t in the books at all, and I’m very curious to see how it will develop. (I haven’t watched past this episode yet, to keep my Hugo rating… unsullied.)

It’s Tyrion’s storyline and the trial by combat, though, that’s the focus of the episode, and where it really shines. First there’s the conversation with Jaime in the dungeons before the fight, where Tyrion relates a story from his childhood about his cousin’s mindless killing of beetles. This makes a pretty effective metaphor for the grim outlook of the series, but applies to the immediate situation as well: the justification for a trial by combat is that the gods will favor the side whose claim is just, but in this world the gods seem to be more like Tyrion’s cousin, killing without rhyme or reason. Tyrion certainly has no illusions about justice going into the trial—he’s hoping chance and his champion’s skill will save him once again.

As for the fight itself, that pretty much was the ideal adaptation I had in my head. Tense, well-staged, and true to the books down to the gory ending. I have my complaints about the show as a whole, but this was a solid episode. (The best adaptation, however, is still the board game.)

Blogging the Hugos: The Dark Between the Stars

The Dark Between the Stars
Kevin J. Anderson
Category: Best Novel

Dark_Between_the_Stars_2014_1st_edNow this book, I hated.

Let’s start with the prose. The prose is simplistic, not in an elegant and concise way but in a clunky, pedestrian way. Sometimes it takes on the cadences of a story told to children. The author’s preferred technique is tell-don’t-show, and there is a lot of telling indeed—the book runs to nearly 700 pages. If I start a book and I don’t find the plot interesting, or the characters compelling, I can still continue reading with the hope that these things will improve as the story develops. But if the prose is bad at the beginning, you know you’re stuck with it.

So what about the characters and the story? Sadly, those are as simplistic as the prose. The characters are one-dimensional, and there are a dizzying number of viewpoint characters, meaning that none gets the time needed to be more fleshed out. Character motivations are sometimes stereotypical (the ambitious wife who neglects her family for her career) and sometimes simply baffling (the sociopathic fixer with a total and totally unexplained devotion to his employer). Character interactions are equally arbitrary—put a male and a female character in a room together, and they seem to magically fall in love just because the narration said so.

The story, meanwhile, is extremely derivative of other, better sci-fi and fantasy sagas with all the nuance stripped away.The primary antagonists are creatures of pure darkness who want to eradicate all life, immune to all the protagonists’ weapons, so of course they are saved by a deus ex machina. (Uh, spoiler alert.) Apparently, these beings formed from the void itself are simultaneously made of pure entropy. Am I being pedantic when I say that if the author had bothered to learn what entropy is, he would have discovered that a state of emptiness has no entropy at all? I’m saying it anyway. (Also, everyone knows that the correct weapon against creatures of darkness is Magic Missile. Sorry—even I indulge in reference humor occasionally.)

The author has written a previous seven-book series in this setting (this is the start of a new series), and yet the world still seemed underdeveloped. I don’t have an idea of what the Ildirans, the other major alien race, even look like (aside from that they have some kind of color-changing lobes on their faces?) , nor any clue about the appearance of the human-built robots. (Maybe this is covered in the previous series, but a refresher at the start of a new saga would have been nice.) Despite the number of characters, the society they live in seems tiny—travel times are insignificant, and there only seem to be about thirty important people who are constantly running into each other. Of course, most of them are royalty, although how humanity has regressed to monarchy as it expanded out into the stars is unclear. (Ancillary Justice had a very interesting answer as to how an autocrat could rule a vast interstellar nation. This book, not so much.) On the other hand, we never see any of our heroic royalty do any actual governing, so who knows how these societies actually function.

I once encountered the phrase fractally wrong, meaning “wrong at every conceivable resolution”. This book is fractally bad. The main plot, the subplots, the individual scenes—there was a minor scene that made wonder if the author even knew how restaurants work. This book shouldn’t be within miles of a literary award. It’s too late for me, but you can still save yourselves—stay far, far away from The Dark Between the Stars.

Blogging the Hugos: Skin Game

Skin Game
Jim Butcher
Category: Best Novel

skingame_lgWhen starting this project, I had to decide what to do about nominees that are part of a long-running series—do I catch up first? I ended up approaching that question on a case-by-case basis, depending on my interest and the feasibility. For Skin Game, catching up was definitely out of the question on the latter grounds: it’s the fifteenth installment in the Dresden Files. I worried that I would be lost in a sea of pre-established lore, but happily it turned out to be very friendly to new readers. If I’m a loyal reader of a series like this, the recapping of the major elements of the series in each volume gets old very quickly (I have this problem with Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels) but as a new reader I really do appreciate it.

The book itself is a heist novel in which Harry Dresden is recruited to help steal a supernatural artifact from the Underworld (Hades’ underworld—this is an All Myths Are True setting). The team of thieves is led by one Nicodemus Archleone, apparently a recurring villain whose main power is escaping from Harry to appear in the next book. (I’m only half-joking about that.)

Even before the heist gets into gear the book provides action scenes at regular intervals, during each of which Dresden is grievously injured until by the end he’s basically held together by a combination of supernatural duct tape and actual duct tape. Most of these scenes suffer from a fatal flaw (apart from that Dresden, as the protagonist of a fifteen-book series, isn’t going to be killed off halfway through), where there is an obvious ally nearby who can and does step in to save Harry at the last minute. To its credit, the scene in the vault at the climax doesn’t suffer from this, in that the ally that steps in isn’t obvious at all unless the reader has been paying very close attention. Other than that, I found that the action was predictable enough to sap most of the dramatic tension.

Interspersed between action scenes are Character Moments in which various characters have long conversations with Harry in which they explain exactly what they are thinking and feeling. At one point Harry actually holds a conversation with his own id. This book is not subtle, is what I’m saying.

The book’s biggest sin, though, is in the one-liners. The series draws from hard-boiled detective fiction, which means we expect some clever turns of phrase from our hero at key moments. But Harry Dresden doesn’t have any of those; instead he substitutes… pop-culture references. Incredibly overused ones. As in, he actually quotes the “Game over, man” line from Aliens in this book. If this is his approach to repartee I’m just shocked he hasn’t already used that one in the preceding fourteen books. I’ll readily admit that reference humor is just a personal pet peeve of mine—lots of other people seem to enjoy it. But it strikes me as lazy, and every time a climactic moment was punctuated with a line from Terminator or Star Wars or Monty Python my eyes rolled so hard they almost fell out of my head.

After all this it probably sounds like I hated this book, but I didn’t really. It’s just not in the same league as the previous two books I read. After the literary feast that was The Goblin Emperor, reading Skin Game was like eating at McDonald’s. Sometimes you do just want McDonalds, but it shouldn’t win any culinary awards.

Blogging the Hugos: The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison
Category: Best Novel

goblinemperorI learned from the Wikipedia entry that The Goblin Emperor is an example of a “fantasy of manners“, a subgenre I did not know existed but which appears to be well-established. That is actually a pretty great description of the book, in which Maia, the half-goblin son of the emperor of the Elflands, suddenly finds himself succeeding to the throne after his father and brothers are killed in an airship accident. (I at first imagined some gossamer-winged, magic-powered Final Fantasy style airship, but it’s a hydrogen zeppelin—yes, these are steampunk elves!) Maia is thus thrown into an intricate and treacherous court and has to find his way to becoming an effective ruler.

What makes the reader root for Maia is his empathy, apparently unusual among the elf ruling classes. Maia, as an outsider and minority himself, is from the beginning an ally of the less fortunate, something that shocks and alarms the courtiers and ministers he works with. His memories of and affection for his late goblin mother give him a special concern for the position of women in their society as well. This is definitely something that makes him enemies at court, and if this were Game of Thrones his lifespan would be limited as a result, but this book doesn’t take nearly such a grim view of things. This is a book about building bridges (literally and metaphorically), and when it makes an emotional connection it can get to even my cold robot heart. I actually got misty-eyed reading one scene while on the subway (for those who have read it, it was “Study the stars” that got me, and really won me over to Maia), and there were several other memorably moving scenes.

There’s something for my intellectual side too: the setting is well-realized, and there are interesting linguistic details such as a formal/informal distinction in both first- and second-person pronouns. This can be confusing, and I would definitely recommend reading the first appendix to the book early on, which explains the pronunciation, linguistic quirks, and slew of elvish honorifics. The second appendix, a guide to the many (and multisyllabic) names in the book, is also a great reference. (I missed the existence of both of these at first, and was extremely grateful when I eventually discovered them.)

I did feel that there were perhaps too few surprises in this novel of court intrigue. I clung to a theory that one of Maia’s most loyal aides was secretly evil through most of the book, despite it being completely baseless, because I felt it the villains that had been introduced were too obvious and there had to be a twist coming. (George R. R. Martin had the same complaint—but he would, wouldn’t he?) This is a minor quibble, though. Looking back, I like all of Maia’s allies too much to want any of them to turn on him. And by the end, Maia’s earned their loyalty.

I was sad to finish this book—I wanted to spend more time in its world, with its characters. There are a lot of intriguing details on the borders of the narrative: the goblin nation, the barbarians to the north, the other races and nations outside the Elflands. I’ve read that the author doesn’t plan a direct sequel, but I hope she writes more books in this setting. Perhaps The Goblin Empress, about Maia’s fiancee Csethiro? One can always hope!

Blogging the Hugos: Sex Criminals Vol. 1

Sex Criminals, Volume 1: One Weird Trick
Written by Matt Fraction, art by Chip Zdarsky
Category: Best Graphic Story

sex_criminalsThe premise of Sex Criminals, as it’s usually stated on the back of the book and so forth, is this: the main character Suzie has the power to stop time when she has sex. She meets John and discovers he has the same power, so they team up to use their abilities to rob banks. This is indeed a great premise, although when you try to explain it to people they sometimes give you funny looks. However, it’s not really what the book is about.

This is telegraphed by the fact that, while it opens in medias res during a heist gone wrong, most of the book is occupied with how the two protagonists discovered their powers, how they found each other, and how they got to the point of robbing banks. (Suzie and John aren’t just doing it out of greed—it’s a Robin-Hood-esque scheme to fund the local library.) Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that the central premise is meant to operate as an extended metaphor for the emotional experience of sex, similar to how the supernatural elements of Buffy are meant to represent the teenage experience.

This being the first volume of a graphic novel, it’s an origin story, and this particular origin story naturally starts with puberty. Everyone’s experience is unique, but Suzie’s is especially unique, and particularly isolating—she’s literally alone in the timeless world she finds herself in (she calls it The Quiet), but she also has no one she can really talk about it to. She eventually works out the nature of her power on her own, but even as an adult it continues to be an isolating experience, emblematic of the lack of emotional connection with her sex partners.

But finally she meets John, who has the same power, and now she’s no longer alone in the Quiet. Now that she’s met someone that she has a real connection with, The Quiet isn’t an isolating force: it’s something that brings them together, their own private world. It’s wonderful and exhilarating, but it also leads to them convincing each other they should start robbing banks. And this gets them into a bit of trouble. (It turns out there are Sex Police in addition to Sex Criminals, although I’m not sure how that fits into the metaphor—maybe that’ll become more clear in volume two.)

Actually, I find that the premise works better as metaphor than it does as a plot device. When I think about the details I immediately run into a number of Fridge Logic questions (do John and Suzie always have simultaneous orgasms? How do the Sex Police get into The Quiet if time is stopped for them?) But as a literary device, it adds an extra poignancy to the flashback scenes that comprise most of the book, and makes them stronger material than the heist that serves as the frame story.

This was an enjoyable read—funny, affecting, and true-to-life despite the fantastic premise. It’s also not as pervy as it sounds, so quit looking at me like that. I’m curious to see where it goes in volume two.

Blogging the Hugos: Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword
Ann Leckie
Category: Best Novel

ancillary_swordThis is the follow-up to last year’s Hugo winner Ancillary Justice. In fact, I started Justice on the basis of its Hugo win, and this year’s Hugo nominations came out the very next day, so the value of the Hugo was at the front of my mind when I learned about the controversy this year. I read Sword immediately afterwards, not just because I’d decided to start this project but also because I really enjoyed Justice. Happily, Ancillary Sword is very much a continuation of what I liked.

When I started the series, one of the first things I noticed was the distinctive narrative voice: cool and analytical, and precise about quantities like time and distance beyond what a human could plausibly estimate. These were the early clues that the protagonist Breq isn’t human at all, but an AI inside a human body. Breq isn’t completely inhuman, though—the human-built AIs in this setting are designed to feel certain emotions (loyal and affectionate AIs making better servants), and in addition Breq has learned from the humans around her over her long lifespan.

It’s this mixture of human and inhuman traits that makes Breq such a compelling character. She is able to view human society from the outside, and operate without regard for the social strictures that bind the people around her. Meanwhile, the compassion for humans instilled by her programming has developed into a strong sense of justice, and it’s in the second book that this really comes into play (the first being more of a revenge story). Ancillary Sword shows Breq’s evolution into a social justice warrior, to steal the epithet so often thrown by GamerGaters and Sad Puppies. It’s no easy task—the power dynamics in Radchaai society are complex, there are many entrenched interests that resist any attempts at change, and the downtrodden are distrustful of Breq and the government she represents. But our hero certainly seems up to the challenge.

Any great protagonist needs an equally impressive villain to contend with, and the series delivers with the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. Anaander is in some ways Breq’s mirror opposite: a human who’s become a distributed intelligence, the ultimate entrenched interest, cunning and tricky where Breq is blunt and direct. Anaander may be my favorite character in the series (in a love-to-hate kind of way); every scene she’s in is riveting, and my main complaint about Ancillary Sword is that there isn’t enough of her. This might be because Sword has something of a transitional role between the first and last books of the trilogy, setting up additional players for the conflict to come, but it suffers a bit from Breq’s antagonists not being nearly as intimidating as the Lord of the Radch was in Justice.

The Radchaai culture that forms the setting is another fascinating aspect of the series. More different from our own than many other sci-fi “alien” cultures, it’s a great example of the imaginative potential of the genre. (Meanwhile the true alien species, barely glimpsed so far, seem to be almost incomprehensibly different; I’m looking forward to learning more in the third book.) I’ve used the female pronoun for the characters I’ve discussed so far because it’s what the book does—but the Radchaai language doesn’t have gender-specific pronouns, and to represent this it uses female pronouns for all characters regardless of gender. This goes beyond a quirk of language: the Radchaai don’t recognize gender distinctions at all. Of course Radchaai (being humans) can be classified male or female based on biological characteristics, but their society just considers these classifications irrelevant to most interactions. (The fact that Breq, being an AI, doesn’t have an “intrinsic” gender is a clever way to give readers a handle on the irrelevance of it.)

This is a bold literary move, amounting to a stance that gender is socially constructed—because if there’s something essential about gender, it just shouldn’t work. The reader will be too disoriented, or lose suspension of disbelief, or just be able to infer people’s gender from the story. But it does work. Once I settled into the flow of the story, the pronouns faded into the background and I largely just thought of the different characters as being people without their gender being a prominent characteristic. I say “largely” because I did find my own biases creeping in: if I thought about the image I had of various characters, I sometimes found that I was subconsciously attaching a gender to them based on their actions. What made it clearly a result of my own stereotyping is that I could then imagine reversing those gender assignments, and found that the story still worked.

To bring this back to Radchaai society, it’s interesting how their gender-blindness isn’t because they’ve reached some advanced stage of liberalism like Iain M. Banks’ Culture. In fact, this is a highly inegalitarian society that just isn’t sexist. They claim to be similarly race-blind (at least within their borders: another clever linguistic twist is that the word Radchaai means not just citizen of the Radch but also civilized) but in fact racism is endemic. (This may sound familiar to Americans; see for example the Wall Street Journal‘s recent assertion, just after the Charleston massacre, that institutional racism no longer exists in the US.) On top of that, the Radchaai have an overt and rigid class hierarchy—no one denies or even questions discrimination based on family name. This ends up making the Radch into a sort of prism in which different forms of prejudice from our own society—sexism, racism, classism—get separated into different bands where we can observe them more clearly.

The treatment of gender is probably the most well-known aspect of these books, and certainly one of the few things I knew about them before starting. I’m sure it drives the Sad Puppies up the wall, but I loved it. This is what I want from my science fiction: to challenge my assumptions, to make me think in a completely new way. Ann Leckie succeeds at that, and makes it a fun ride along the way. Ancillary Justice absolutely deserved its Hugo win last year, and its sequel equally deserves its spot in this year’s nominees. Both are highly recommended.

Blogging the Hugos: Interstellar

Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, directed by Christopher Nolan
Category: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

interstellarWhen I was a teenager with a budding interest in physics, I read Black Holes and Time Warps, Kip Thorne’s general-audience book on some of the more exciting aspects of general relativity. I enjoyed it enough to mention it in my application to Caltech (where Thorne held the Feynman Professorship) as something that attracted me to the school. Years later, I was pleased to see that Thorne provided scientific consulting on Interstellar, and indeed it turned out to be one of the most accurate depictions of relativity I’ve seen in a major film. Combined with Christopher Nolan’s talents for impressive effects, the result was some truly stunning visuals of black holes, wormholes, and other real and theoretical astronomical objects.

It’s a shame about the rest of the movie. The actual plot, when it wasn’t just dull or predictable, seemed designed to annoy me (after luring in with the promise of hard science) by invoking not one but two of my least favorite tropes. First off, there’s the motivation for the journey into space—they’re looking for a habitable world, because the Earth is becoming uninhabitable. How did that happen? Climate change and large scale extinctions. Sadly, this is not just a trope in fiction: advocates of interplanetary colonization frequently cite the possibility of a planetary catastrophe as a reason to settle outside Earth. But both in reality and in this movie, we humans are the planetary catastrophe. Setting aside the immorality and irresponsibility of just giving up on Earth like a parasite looking for a new host, what exactly do they think is going to happen on the next planet we go to? Maybe let’s figure out how to live sustainably on one planet before we go out looking for a new home.

And if that wasn’t enough to get my blood pressure up, Interstellar pretends to be an old-school sci-fi story with smart people solving problems, until in the last act (spoiler alert!) it takes a sudden turn into that hoary old cliche where we see that the power of love is stronger than our precious science. Why is it that seemingly every science fiction movie in the last 20 years ends this way? What is even the logic behind the question, “who would win in a fight—love or science?” One is a feeling and one is a system of learning about the world—they’re entirely different kinds of things. It’s like saying “the power of the color green is stronger than mechanical engineering.” And why isn’t science allowed to save the day, outside of Breaking Bad where it’s only in service of evil?

That’s not true, I did see a movie last year where science saved the day—The Imitation Game. Science: it won World War II. Take that, power of love.

Blogging the Hugos: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy
written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, directed by James Gunn
Category: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

GuardiansI only have a casual knowledge of the vast universe of superhero comics, so the first time I heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy was when news of the movie started to come out. From these early reports I learned that Chris Pratt would play the lead, and that there was some kind of talking space raccoon involved, both of which sounded like jokes at the time. (Less so now that Chris Pratt is a huge action star.)

In fact those things are supposed to sound funny, because this is a very funny movie. Granted, when your source material includes a space raccoon you’re probably forced to the comedic end of the spectrum, but it embraces the comedy with gusto, and without giving up the sense of epic adventure that comes with the superhero genre. And this is what’s impressive about Guardians: it tries to be many different things, at times going for action, comedy, or drama, while simultaneously following the conventions of superhero flicks and space operas—and succeeds at all of them. A lot of movies try just one of those things and fail; Guardians does them all and makes it look easy.

I think the worst that can be said for this movie is that the story structure follows the well-trod path of the superhero movies that came before it. There’s a big villain and an evil plot, the heroes win some early victories but then have a major crisis after which they need to get serious and learn to work together, and finally they defeat the villain by unlocking their true potential. On the other hand, I think it shows why this particular formula is so widely used—because when it’s done right, it’s really good. And as the climactic dance-off shows, Guardians is willing to subvert some of the expected story beats a bit.

To circle around to the beginning of this post, the reason I’ve never been that interested in superhero comics is that I’ve always perceived them as a little too silly. And this may come from my having grown up in the grimdark ’90s which wanted to be very serious while at the same time demanding that one accept all kinds of bonkers stories and characters from years past as canon. (This is also why I’m staying away from Zach Snyder’s takes on Superman and Batman. Well, apart from the fact that I swore off Zach Snyder after Sucker Punch.) Guardians takes an approach that I find much more palatable—embrace the silliness, space raccoons and all, and make it your own. Superheroes, after all, are supposed to be fun.