Monthly Archives: August 2015

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.