Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Award Season (part 2)

I have some philosophical problems with the Hugo Awards, but they still interest me nonetheless. My main problem is that people who attend the World SF Convention are not necessarily “readers” per se. Even some long-time sf fans I know make comments occasionally that they “rarely read sf any more.” Yet all these people are eligible to vote for the Hugo Awards, and while I assume that not all of them do, many times the results are so skewed towards “popular” books and name recognition as to make the awards meaningless.

That being said, I think that the Hugo fiction awards the past two years have shown little of those biases, and actually seemed to reflect the opinions of a fairly-well-read voting populace. Kind of reminds me of the good-old days of Hugo voting in the 60s and 70s before worldcons were inundated with media fans.

I also would like to congratulate Neil Gaiman for his very classy move of withdrawing Anasazi Boys from the Best Novel ballot since he has already won three Hugo Awards. I believe that Hugo Awards should be shared, so it would be nice if other people such as Charles N. Brown and Dave Langford, who have each won 27 Hugo Awards, showed a trace of the same class and allowed other people to share in the categories which they have each been dominating for so many years.

On April 22, I made my predictions for both the Nebula Awards and the Hugo Awards, so it is time to see how many winners I actually predicted (if any!):

Category / Nebula prediction / Nebula winner

Best Novel / Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell / Camouflage
Best Novella / Magic for Beginners / Magic for Beginners
Best Novelette / The Faery Handbag / The Faery Handbag
Best Short Story / Singing My Sister Down / I Live With You

Category / Hugo prediction / Hugo winner

Best Novel / Spin / Spin
Best Novella / Burn / Inside Job
Best Novelette / The King of Where-I-Go / Two Hearts
Best Short Story / Down Memory Lane / Tk'tk'tk

I batted .500 for the Nebula Awards, but only .250 for the Hugo Awards, a composite batting average of .375. That is actually not too bad and hopefully better than random guessing would have been.

I am actually very pleased with some of the above winners. “The Faery Handbag” was a wonderful story, much better, in my opinion, than the more popular “Magic for Beginners” which, while very well written, was kind of fuzzy in what the heck was actually happening. Spin was an outstanding novel, well-deserving of its award. “Inside Job” was my favorite of the nominees for Best Novella (although it was not my favorite novella of 2005; that honor goes to Jeffrey Ford’s “The Cosmology of the Wider World”).

Is it too soon to start politicking for next year's nominees?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Redemption Ark

Middle novels of trilogies are traditionally problematic since they need to set up the exciting climactic third novel, so sometimes they are primarily long connectors. Alastair Reynolds tried to avoid that problem as much as possible by structuring Redemption Ark in a similar manner to how he wrote Revelation Space. Again he began with parallel storylines which he developed simultaneously while gradually merging them into one complete entity.

The main focus of Redemption Ark is a war between two groups of human offsprings: the Conjoiners, who are a form of hive mind humans, and Demarchists, a totalitarian group. Most of the novel is told from the point of view of two Conjoiners: Skade is a member of the “inner sanctum” group of Conjoiners, while Clavain joined the Conjoiners four hundred years ago after first fighting against them. The Conjoiners realize that the Inhibitors (whom they refer to as “wolves”) were responsible for the destruction of the Amarantin civilization and are now initiating similar activities against the human culture in that same region of space.

A second storyline involves Volyova, and Khouri, who also recognize the threat of the Inhibitors and are involved in organizing a mass exodus from Resurgam, the planet which is the focus of their attack.

What brings the two storylines together is a group of 40 weapons which were developed by the Conjoiners hundreds of years ago, but which were so powerful that they were hidden away for safety’s sake. However, a century ago the weapons were stolen by somebody who, it turns out, was Volyova who has the weapons hidden away on Nostalgia for Infinity. The Conjoiners learn this, and are determined to recover the weapons for possible use against the wolves/Inhibitors.

The twin plotlines of Redemption Ark merge into an exciting combination of interstellar chase and space war against the wolves. But Reynolds is not writing military sf, nor is he a knee-jerk action-adventure writer, so that the fighting is not the focus of the novel and all the issues raised are ultimately settled due to human interaction instead.

Overall, there were more weaknesses in Redemption Ark than in Revelation Space. Spade was not a particularly believable character, and her scenes were generally the weakest in the book. There was an entire 50 page portion approximately in the book’s middle where I thought Reynolds had slipped into silly thriller-type writing. On one hand he relates the actions of the “mysterious” Mr. Clock and Mr. Pink who act like sfnal “Men in Black”, alternating with Clavain’s dealings with the equally-mysterious H who seems like a secret master of the galaxy. The novel would have been better served if both these portions had been replace with more realistic passages better in keeping with the rest of the novel.

Another weakness was that Clavain, who is ultimately Reynolds’ main focus character, keeps falling into the hands of different characters in ways that are not always totally believable.

None of these faults are fatal, or even more than somewhat annoying considering the overall quality of the novel. As in Revelation Space, the main storylines are concluded well, although this time there is a lot more open-endedness than at the end of the first book, so that it does lead directly into the concluding volume Absolution Gap. I am anxious to read that book in hopes of a satisfying conclusion to the entire trilogy.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Historical Novel Society

I keep in touch with developments in the science fiction field through Locus–which is must-reading for anybody who considers themself a serious fan–as well as through websites such as Locus Online and SF Signal. But I also enjoy reading historical fiction, and the best way to keep in touch with developments there is by joining the Historical Novel Society.

The HNS runs a website at which publishes a regular newsletter distributed via email, and also features lists of upcoming fiction. But the real benefit of joining the HNS is to receive their two regular magazines.

Solander is a semi-annual zine containing articles and interviews, some fascinating stuff. Historical Novels Review is published quarterly and contains 10 pages similar to Solander followed by 40+ pages devoted to reviews of recent historical fiction. The reviews are generally short, 5 or 6 to a page, and do not go into the type of critical depth found in Locus, but they are still a valuable resource for readers looking for historical fiction to read. The reviews are catagorized primarily by era, the current issue starting with Ancient & Prehistoric, followed by Biblical, 1st Century, 3rd Century, etc. After 13 pages of 20th Century–which I generally find the least interesting reviews overall–the last few sections are Multi-Period, Time-Slip, Alternate History, and Historical Fantasy. Happily, the editors of HNR (who all seem to be part-time volunteers) seat themselves happily in the midst of genre fiction, having no [dis]illusions about being literature rather than primarily story-telling.

One fascinating comment I saw in a recent issue of HNR was a statement by an author to the effect that alternate history was first claimed by science fiction as one of its sub-genres, but is now accepted as a sub-genre of historical fiction. Personally, I think both genres are wrong to try to claim alternate history, that it is actually a distinct genre with overlaps in both areas. But I guess that is basically part of the “definition” problem which haunts both science fiction and historical fiction and is primarily a marketing issue rather than anything really important.

If you enjoy historical fiction, I recommend the HNS website and its two publications.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Revelation Space

I have enjoyed much of Alastair Reynolds’ short fiction in recent years, stories such as “Great Wall of Mars” and “Zima Blue,” so when I was seeking to read more “wondrous” science fiction set in the far future away from mundane Earth, he was the author I immediately thought of. I started reading Revelation Space, the first of his Galactic North series soon after finishing Poul Anderson’s The Earth Book of Stormgate, so I knew Reynolds had a tough act to follow. Suffice it to say that Reynolds not only passed his test with flying colors, but he impressed me even more at novel length than he did at shorter lengths.

At the outset of the book there are three plotlines:

• Sylveste is a scientist studying the ancient Amarantin culture which was wiped out one hundred thousand years ago by a mysterious Event which has not been determined;

Nostalgia for Infinity is a starship whose crew are Ultras, human-cyborg combinations who have spent their entire lives in space, so that they are almost nonhuman beings;

• Khouri is an assassin who is being blackmailed to seek out and kill Sylveste.

Besides being a scientist, Sylveste is an important political figure on Resurgam, and finds himself on the wrong side of a political upheaval twice during the novel. The captain of Nostalgia for Infinity is a strange being who is gradually melding with the starship itself. The only person who can save his life is Sylveste’s dead father, whose consciousness has been saved as an upload which can be downloaded into Sylveste’s mind when necessary, although at great cost to Sylveste himself.

The basic format of the novel is basically two mysteries: what was the Event which destroyed the Amarantin civilization, and why is everybody so interested in Sylveste, including those who wish to murder him?

Revelation Space is a rich, information-deep story, but Reynolds keeps all of it well under control, never letting the technobabble overwhelm the story (which, as you might realize, is one of my main turn-offs in some science fiction). The best way to describe Reynolds’ novel is by a few comparisons. I enjoy reading novels which explore future history, such as the works of Robert Silverberg and Jack McDevitt. I also enjoy writers who create breathing, thriving future cultures, both human and alien, such as Poul Anderson and C.J. Cherryh. Alastair Reynolds does both things in the same novel, and does them well. He exceeds McDevitt whose futures tend to be simple reflections of our contemporary world, while Reynolds’ future is truly an extrapolation based on current trends in technological development. He exceeds Cherryh because Reynolds is a natural storyteller able to weave together fascinating scenarios so well that they merge into one complex whole which both makes perfect sense and carries you along to an exciting conclusion (without being a mindless thriller in any sense)

Revelation Space is packed with sense of wonder. The galaxy Reynolds creates is rich and detailed, both stunning in its creativity and believable in its logical development. As a historical mystery it is fascinating in the way Reynolds slowly peels away layers of its past even as the plotlines themselves slowly merge and unravel.

While Reynolds is not a master of characterization, he does not populate Revelation Space with mere spear carriers. He takes care to develop many of his cast, particularly Sylveste, his biographer-turned-wife Pascale, and crewmembers Volyova, and Khouri. The better I understand the people in a novel, the more involved I become in it, and that did happen in Revelation Space.

Overall Revelation Space was an optimistic novel about the future of science fiction, since it showed that a writer can expand on the current developments of science and technology while still building a rich galaxy, develop both human and alien cultures, and tell a great story in the grand tradition of science fiction. All the secondary storylines are resolved, so that only the overarching scenario awaits the next two volumes in the series. It made me very anxious to buy those two books as soon as possible.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin begins with a typical Wilson plot: a mysterious unexplained event has happened on Earth, and the inhabitants struggle to survive in the face of the changes caused by it. Immediately this reminded me of Darwinia and The Chronoliths, and I wondered if Wilson had gotten himself into a rut.

It was obvious early in the book that Wilson had two simultaneous concerns: the sfnal mystery he had created and the personal lives of his cast of characters. The book could very easily have become a character study under the guise of a science fiction novel, so the book’s success depended partly on his ability to make the personal story and sfnal story support each other rather than be independent entities.

Upon finishing Spin, I can safely say that Wilson did not show any signs of being in a rut, and the book’s two aspects were intertwined so well that the personal stories and the sfnal mystery were each totally dependent on the other.

The premise is that one night a “membrane” appears around the Earth, blocking out the stars totally. Shortly thereafter it is determined that time is passing at a rate ten billion times faster outside the membrane than it passes inside it. This type of apocalyptic event obviously causes major disruptions in life on Earth, but Wilson wisely concentrates on a small group of people involved in studying the membrane and trying to learn both its cause and the identity of the beings who created it.

There are three main protagonists in Spin: twins Jason and Diane Lawton, children of scientist and government insider E.D. Lawton, and their best friend Tyler Dupree, who lives with his mother in a small house on their property since his mother is their parents’ housekeeper. The three youngsters take slightly different paths in life due to the effects of the membrane:

1. Jason, a scientific genius much like his father, becomes the scientific head of Perihelion, a government-affiliated company leading the studies of the membrane;

2. Tyler becomes a physician and eventually Jason’s chief physician at Perihelion, his most important task being to keep Jason functioning after he develops a variant of MS;

3. Diane becomes involved with apocalyptic cultists who view the membrane as a sign of the approaching end of the world; she marries a wide-eyed zealot named Simon who totally dominates her life.

One of Perihelion’s projects in trying to understand the membrane is terraforming Mars and seeding it with human life, knowing that the time differential outside the membrane will cause human life to develop on Mars at a much faster rate than on Earth, so that a few decades later highly-intelligent Martians might be able to interpret the membrane. Thus we are introduced to Wun Ngo Wen, a Martian linguist who travels to Earth with a plan to study the membrane. While on Earth he becomes a confidante of both Jason and Tyler, although the federal government naturally tries to use him for their own purposes.

Spin is told in alternating chapters, the majority following the growth and activities of Jason, Tyler and Diane. Interspersed with this main storyline are chapters about Tyler and Diane thirty years after the membrane appears, and while at first it is unclear what is happening in those chapters, as Wilson’s main storyline approaches that time period it not only becomes clear what is happening in those portions, but we slowly realize that these are the climactic chapters of the book when thirty years’ worth of personal and sfnal development all come together.

Science fiction novels which begin with “big dumb objects” rarely offer any explanation at the end, or even a glimpse at the mysterious alien builders. Think of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. Wilson avoids that frustration for the reader by having his scientists determine the cause of the membrane’s creation, and also using the membrane as a doorway into the future for much of the human race itself.

Spin is a strong, well-developed novel which satisfies on a literary level, on a sfnal level, and on a plotting level. The novel reaches a strong, suitable conclusion that is totally unexpected yet proves ultimately satisfying. Spin deserved its numerous award nominations, and I would be pleased if it actually won several of them.