Saturday, June 27, 2015

Quick review of Ancillary Sword, plus my best novel vote

I kicked off my reading of the 2015 Hugo nominees with the biggest but also potentially the most pleasurable job - the novels. See here for some thoughts on an overall approach to reviewing the Hugo's in light of this year's controversy.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie is the final book on the shortlist for the Best Novel Hugo and was not on a voting slate. Having read it at the tail end of last year, and still having a lot of ground to cover reading the Hugo nominees, I don't propose to review it in full here. 

What I will say is that I enjoyed it a great deal, although it lacked the shock of the sorta new that it's prequel Ancillary Justice had, as well as its driving heartbreak-n-revenge narrative.

Where Ancillary Sword does build on its sequel is in its detailed, Austen-like presentation of ritual and convention in its gender-blind far future. Take that away, and what you've got is a superior take on the traditional new starship captain wins round crew narrative.

Old wine, new bottles: some thoughts on the short-list

For me, none of the novels on the shortlist present the kind of leap forward that would supercede all other considerations. Best I can tell, there's no equivalent of Neuromancer here. 

With the exception of The Three Body Problem, all of the nominees are ploughing well-worn furrows - revisionist or not - in the usual sub-genres of space opera, high fantasy and urban fantasy. And Body's novelty lies more in its new arrangement of well-worn SF parts to ask some big questions, rather than in the parts themselves. 

Furthermore, while I don't always look for literary or sociological experimentation in my genre reading, I do like it when I see it. Yet only Ancillary Sword and Body really make small gestures in this direction, the one repeating the pronoun-blending and many-bodies-one-mind tricks of its predecessor, the other including some neat virtual reality sequences with a deeper purpose.

None of this is to conclude that these books aren't up to scratch. I merely point out that several of the things I hope for in my genre reading are to some extent absent and that this is therefore a good shortlist rather than a great one. 

But what about story, Tim? What about character? 

Although there is a great deal of craft on display - even from my least favourite entry - none of the contenders present such a startling feat of storytelling that they pull strongly ahead of the pack. Indeed, that's where The Three Body Problem to some extent squanders its earlier advantage.

A brief geek-out about voting systems

The Hugo voting system is similar to the one used for the mayoral elections in London and elsewhere. You have to express a first preference for a winner - but you can also express a second, third, fourth and fifth preference if you so choose.

Where it gets interesting is that you can also rank a sixth option - No Award - if you feel that some or none of the shortlist deserves a Hugo. Some people have argued that the best response to the gaming of the nominations process by the voting slates is to put No Award above everything on those slates.

Personally, I'm using No Award as a system of quality control, slate or no slate. If I rank something below it or don't cast a vote for it at all, it doesn't necessarily mean that I think it's a bad piece of work. I just don't consider it good enough for a Hugo. And as I said at the start of these reviews, I want to read everything I can before reaching a decision.

My vote for Best Novel

Since my vote is going to be a finely balanced judgement between front-runners rather than an emphatic yes, I'm glad of the opportunity to rank the nominees. So here we go...

1. The Goblin Emperor
2. The Three Body Problem
3. Ancillary Sword
4. Skin Game

Abstention, but nevertheless a tip of the hat - The Dark Between The Stars

Allocating first and second place was very close, but ultimately I felt that The Goblin Emperor was the more complete package - very well written, with a great deal of psychological and social depth, and bringing unexpected new life to the high fantasy rites of passage novel. 

Much, I might add, to my own surprise.


Eagle eyes will note I have ended up ranking the two entries from the voting slates behind the rest. This is purely because I not only enjoyed the top three more, I felt they were better books. However, I do think Skin Game is a perfectly respectable nominee and isn't miles behind the medal positions as I conceive it. 

I am still imagining an alternate timeline where a signal-boosting campaign to 'get Harry Dresden a Hugo' would have raised some interesting points about the value of more traditional genre fiction, without the need for the slates or the resulting mess.

But I also find myself asking that, given that to my mind The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Sword are examples of pretty traditional genre fiction, what exactly the line being drawn by the slate proponents is?.

But, I still have many more categories to go. So onwards it is - there'll be plenty of time for more reflection on these questions and others as we proceed.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hard science, hot mess: Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem

I kicked off my reading of the 2015 Hugo nominees with the biggest but also potentially the most pleasurable job - the novels. See here for some thoughts on an overall approach to reviewing the Hugo's in light of this year's controversy.

The Three Body Problem was a late arrival to the Hugo ballot this year, being added after withdrawals due to voting slate politics. 

The work of one of China's most prominent science-fiction writers, Liu Cixin, it is actually nearly ten years old. In 2014, it finally penetrated the cultural myopia of the Anglosphere in translation, and is therefore eligible for a Hugo.

And I'm jolly glad of this, since The Three Body Problem is one of the two stand-out novels on the shortlist, along with the very different The Goblin Emperor. Amid space opera and fantasy (urban and classic flavours) it sticks out like a tall poppy because it is full to the brim of ideas. 

And it's almost impossible to review without spoilers - you have been warned.

Liu mixes astrophysics, the politics of science, the history of the Cultural Revolution, virtual reality and Pynchonesque conspiracy theories to create, well, the hottest mess this side of Philip K Dick. 

The story follows two scientists - one in the present, the other a generation in the past. Wang Miao is reluctantly investigating the suicide of many of his colleagues, at the behest of the military. While in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie is a political prisoner working on a secret space research base who makes a startling discovery.

Both narratives converge on the discovery of alien life on its way to Earth on a mission of conquest - and how humanity reacts. Do we deserve subjugation or even annihilation? Could that be even preferable to what we already do to ourselves? 

And can science save us after all, whether we merit it or not?

Despite its pessimism about homo sapiens, The Three Body Problem is passionate about science as a way of life and mode of thought in a way that you seldom find in science-fiction these days. The shadow of Frankenstein is almost completely and refreshingly absent from its pages. And while an advocate for the other side of the argument might have been wished for rather than the straw man we get, a novel is not obliged to be even handed.

I also found the science - centred around the problem in the title - surprisingly easy to follow. Either my tolerance for physics has increased as I have gotten older, or Liu has done an excellent job of concealing much of the info-dump in a VR game popular with his characters. 

And I know which possibility I find more convincing. :)

What stops The Three Body Problem short of greatness is that it asks too much of the reader's credulity. The present-day story-line in particular is driven by unlikely decisions - starting with asking a scientist to play top secret investigator and then continuing in that vein. Coincidence also plays far too great a role for the novel to be wholly persuasive once the reader has some distance from it.

And yet, having much to say, Liu still overcomes this occasional lack of coherence to create a fascinating piece of work. Late to the party and a trifle untidy The Three Body Problem might be, but it definitely deserves to be centre of attention.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

An unapologetic fantasy blockbuster: Jim Butcher's Skin Game

I kicked off my reading of the 2015 Hugo nominees with the biggest but also potentially the most pleasurable job - the novels. See here for some thoughts on an overall approach to reviewing the Hugo's in light of this year's controversy.

Jim Butcher's Skin Game is the unapologetic urban fantasy blockbuster on the best novel shortlist. And it has precious little to apologise for.

Now, I dimly remember reading and enjoying one of the early novels in the Harry Dresden series, of which Skin Game is the fifteenth.

That's fifteenth, people. Yipes.

Fortunately the first-person narration makes it fairly easy to catch up with regular readers.It also helped that I'd played a game set in the Dresden universe earlier this year.

The basic set-up hasn't changed a great deal in the intervening years, because it was a darn good elevator pitch to begin with: Harry's a modern-day wizard in Chicago, he investigates supernatural crime. 

What has happened since the early days is that he and his friends have leveled up - but so too have his foes. Harry finds himself bound to the magical world, vassal to a fairy queen and increasingly concerned for his humanity. Skin Game explores these themes around the central plot device of a magical bank job in which Harry - much against his better judgement - is forced to take part.

Butcher may be a long way into the series, but he's not slacking off. The blockbuster comparison is an apt one, with some of the action sequences being appropriately jaw dropping. Dresden is a compelling wiseacre of a narrator in line with pulp/noir traditions. And the bank job structure makes for an appropriately taut story-line.

I liked Skin Game. I positively devoured it. I would read more Dresden Files novels. 

And yet it had no after-effects, no life beyond itself.

It was highly enjoyable while it lasted, but left no lasting impression on me, intellectually or emotionally. And that's one of the key differences - for me at least - between good and very good to great fiction. 

This isn't an argument for literary or highbrow writing as such. Many of the most moving or most astounding works in fantasy and science-fiction have been written at speed and for the demands of the market. Terry Pratchett worked wonders within a single series  before the boom years. John Constantine - to name a character in Harry Dresden's ballpark - was created and blossomed in a similar environment. 

My point is simply that while this is a good book, there are other novels on the shortlist that have entertained me while leaving those echoes behind. So it will be one of those that gets my vote. 

One more thing, Columbo style: Skin Game may have got on the shortlist for Best Novel through its inclusion on the voting slates, but I've every confidence it could have gotten there on its own merits.

And as an exemplar of good, successful commercial fantasy fiction backed by a strong and fan base, I wonder whether a better (read: more effective, less confrontational) alternative would have been to run a signal boosting 'Hugo for Harry' campaign. At the very least, fandom would be having a more reasonable exchange than the bunfight currently prevailing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A big hug from the golden age of high fantasy: Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor

I kicked off my reading of the 2015 Hugo shortlist with the biggest but also potentially the most pleasurable job - the novels. See here for some thoughts on an overall approach to reviewing the Hugo's in light of this year's controversy.

Wow. I thought they'd stopped making them like this.

Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor is a big, warm hug from the golden age of high fantasy, retooled for a contemporary audience, but still recognisably the kind of book that 16-year old me would have loved.

Twenty years or so later, with broader tastes than in my Tolkien-fueled youth, I still found myself enjoying it a great deal. It's the one novel on the Hugo shortlist I'm recommending widely and without qualification - which points to one of its key strengths: accessibility.

It's also worth noting that it is one of the minority of nominees there without being on a voting slate - so it's safe to say a lot of people liked it enough to independently put it forward for consideration.

The emperor of the title is Maia, the youngest son of an elvish dynasty and sole fruit of a political marriage with a goblin princess from a neighbouring country. In internal exile to the sticks for most of his childhood, he unexpectedly ascends to the imperial throne following an apparent accident that wipes out his father and half his family. 

Maia soon finds himself forced to grow up quickly amid the intrigues and elaborate traditions of the court, with resentful relatives and powerful nobles only waiting for him to turn his back before plotting his overthrow. 

So The Goblin Emperor is a Bildungsroman, high fantasy style, and goodness knows we've had a lot of those. But there's no Eddings-style chosen one wish-fulfilment trip for our protagonist here. The book is at pains to stress just how little freedom to act Maia actually has as a young monarch without training or allies, trapped by palace rituals he doesn't fully understand. 

Addison is acute - without a shred of didacticism - on other causes of marginalisation, like gender, class and sexuality. Given the title of her book, it's also no surprise to find she has fantastic racism in her sights, with Maia's rule called into question due to his dual heritage and darker skin. 

But his greatest challenge is one any young adult can empathise with: how can he adapt to and survive in this complex, adult world without losing his essential self? 

It's significant here that Maia resolves his dilemmas largely through strength of character than by brute force. And it's also a tribute to Addison's writing that both his internal life and responses in a crisis are presented with empathy and conviction.

A few words also in praise of The Goblin Emperor's world-building, which does a great job of ducking the usual cliches. There may be elves and goblins, sure, but these are baroque creatures, caught between aristocratic tradition on the one hand and industrialisation on the other. 

And while the lavishly described elven court could have easily gone full Versailles or else become a orientalist concoction, Addison blends her own ideas and historical influences together to present something both fish and fowl. And it's all the better for it.

Much to my own surprise, this book has made this jaded reader feel there's life for traditional high fantasy yet. That, beyond the absurdities of grimdark and the return of the Weird, there's a place for gently revisionist work to do something new with old tropes.

I haven't yet decided where my vote will go, but this is definitely one to beat.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Kevin J Anderson's The Dark Between The Stars: control, not mastery

I kicked off my reading of the 2015 Hugo shortlist with the biggest but also potentially the most pleasurable job - the novels. See here for some thoughts on an overall approach in light of this year's controversy.

Curiously, I've previously read more by Kevin J Anderson than any other nominated author this year. Granted, this amounts to one of his Star Wars novels and one of his Dune prequels with Brian Herbert, but nevertheless...

I also hadn't realised - according to Wikipedia - that KJA has written more than 50 best-sellers. It's easy to be sniffy about writers who tend to work in already established universes, but you don't keep getting those gigs unless you are good at what you do.

So, before I talk you through The Dark Between The Stars, it's hats off to an author doing very well for himself at the commercial end of the market.

Dark is more of what Anderson does - space opera on an epic scale - only in a sandbox of his own devising to play in. And what an elaborate, detailed, techno-baroque sandbox it is too, taking in psychic empires, gas giant mining, insectoid robot, gestalt forests, plague collectors and colours from out of spaaaaaaaaaace.

This world-bling - to borrow a phrase from China Mieville - is one of two main admirable qualities the novel has, the other being the plotting. Anderson juggles a huge cast and multiple plot-lines without breaking a sweat, like the hugely experienced pro he is. 

But I'm essentially praising Dark as a feat of literary engineering rather than as a novel. These are virtues of control rather than mastery. The array of characters I found unengaging and rather one-dimensional, the action curiously flat. And the sheer size of the book and number of stories spreads Anderson too thinly, so that no single thread truly breathes in its own right. 

And there's at least three or four decent pulp SF tales - any of which would be worth reading in their own right - stuck inside this cetacean novel. More's the pity.

So to suggest, as its nomination implies, that Dark is one of the best five books in fantasy and SF over the past year, is rather silly. On its own terms - pure entertainment rather than any notion of literary merit - it's okay, but it still doesn't bear comparison with the other nominees.

And when even the token brain-blending novel of ideas on the shortlist - Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem - is considerably more fun to read, it's hard to see what's it claim on anyone's Hugo vote might be.

KJA is an effective, successful writer - his record speaks for itself. His contributions to the genre deserve recognition in some form. 

Just not this way, or indeed with this book.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Reviewing the Hugos: peeling back the polemic to ask the big questions

Although I love science-fiction and fantasy and review it here on the blog, I'm at least one degree of separation from actual SFF fandomThat's one of the main reasons why I've held back from writing about the controversy surrounding the shortlist for the 2015 Hugo Awards - the premier global award for the genre, spanning everything from novels and short stories to fan writing and art.

Well, that, and the fact that last year's op ed piece on the Hugos worked so well. :)

But as I've registered for the first time to vote in the Hugo's - and reading the shortlist by e-book over the next month and a half is likely to result in reviews of some of it here - I wanted to explain why I've stepped over that invisible line. 

If you're new to the story, I'm going to point you to this article in io9 as a primer instead of offering my own reportage.

Read that - then read on.

On one level, the controversy is simply the discovery that the Hugo nomination process is easily manipulated - all within the rules - as it was this year by two small factions putting up voting slates and dominating the shortlist as a result.

Viewed another way, it's the latest instalment in a long-running and usually creative argument between the classic/commercial and literary/experimental tendencies in science-fiction and fantasy. The slates' stated purpose is to champion critically neglected authors towards the classic end of the spectrum, and that's certainly how the shortlist has skewed.

But the affair is also an unhappy congruence of political disagreements and personal animosities in fandom. It's exacerbated by the internet's propensity to amplify conflict and a narrative borrowed from American culture wars. And its coloured by the fact that the spokesperson for one of the slates has views which are problematic, to say the least (see this Grauniad article by Helen Lewis for context). 

In short, it's an unholy mess. 

So, why review?

Reviewing the Hugo nominees here is a way of peeling back the polemic to look at the core issue as I see it. 

What - at its best - is science fiction and fantasy? And is this science fiction and fantasy at its best?

In reviewing the shortlist, we can't help but talk about what we value. We celebrate the work we think worthy of an award and we explain why. We try to account for why others don't move us quite so much. We measure it all against the best from the past, and we look to the future of the genre. 

And the question of merit - subjective as it might be - is fundamental here to the controversy. Either we have neglected authors and works to acclaim. Or the literary debate dwindles, and we have something else. Perhaps equally important to understand and address for those involved, but not the same thing.

And yes, in doing so we also engage with (understand, explore, critique) the politics behind the shortlist. That's called reading with context. Or just plain reading the text, I suspect, in the case of the fan writing.

It would be disingenuous of me to present myself as coming to these reviews completely unformed. My politics are progressive - although I don't necessarily look for that in my reading material. I'm sniffy about voting slates as a tactic. And I want my science-fiction to blow my mind like Stand On Zanzibar, and I want my fantasy to give me the same sense of vertigo as the end of A Hundred Years of Solitude.

But I am not writing off a skewed shortlist in advance, or considering voting No Award in any category without reading everything first.

To review effectively, I've got to at least allow the possibility that work on the slates might be seriously good. They might have gotten onto the ballot through the equivalent of the Hand of God, perhaps, but they could also be the equivalent of the Goal of the Century.

So let's put our classics on and have a little dance, shall we?