Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some observations on the Hugo nominations

The Best Novel list seems considerably weaker than last year’s list. On the 2010 ballot, three of the books (Windup Girl, The City & The City, Boneshaker) easily had the most mentions on best-of-the-year lists, and two other nominations (Julian Comstock, Palimpsest) ranked high as well. But this year only three of the nominees showed up on the composite best-of-the-year ranking at all (The Dervish House, Blackout/All Clear, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), while other books which appeared on many such lists were left off the ballot, including the most recommended book of the year, How To Live Safely in a Sfnal Universe, as well as acclaimed books by very popular writers (China Miéville’s Kraken and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven).

And, as several other people have commented, I find it very unfair that because Connie Willis is incredibly popular with Hugo voters, she rates having two books’ votes combined to win her one spot on the Hugo ballot. The argument that the two books really comprise a single novel is not really satisfactory, since many books have been split over several volumes in the past, but were never combined for award purposes. I believe this is blatant favoritism for the popular Connie Willis.

I have never heard of Feed, by Mira Grant, and even finding a review of it in the popular sf websites was not that easy. While it did get a glowing review at SF Site, which described it as a fast-paced zombie novel, the book did not show up on either their editors’ or readers’ best-of-the-year list. So who actually liked it enough to earn it a Hugo nomination? And is this the direction the Hugo Awards are headed–two zombie novels in two years (Boneshaker last year)? Can romantic vampires, urban detectives, and other worn-out tropes be far behind?

I had fully expected both Charles Stross to received a nomination for Best Novel, considering his recent history. He has earned 13 Hugo nominations since 2001, including 6 for Best Novel (2004 Singularity Sky, 2005 Iron Sunrise, 2006 Accelerando, 2007 Glasshouse, 2008 Halting State, 2009 Saturn’s Children) and 2 victories. He had eligible novels this year in both his Merchant Princes and Laundry Files series, so I expected at least one of them to make the final ballot.

While there are some familiar names on the short fiction lists (Ted Chiang, Alastair Reynolds, Geoffrey A. Landis, James Patrick Kelly, Mary Robinette Kowal and Allen M. Steele have all been on the list previously), there were a lot of lesser-known and even unknown names as well this year: Aliette de Bodard, Sean McMullen, Eric James Stone and Carrie Vaughn.

However, the tradition that being on the ballot one year gives a writer a distinct advantage the next year continues with many writers this year:

• Kij Johnson (‘‘Ponies’’in 2011 and “Spar” in 2010);
• Peter Watts (“The Things” in 2011 and winner “The Island” in 2010);
• Rachel Swirsky (‘The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window’’ in 2011 and “Eros, Philia, Agape” in 2010).

Two writers who have been Hugo’s best friends, along with Connie Willis, are Michael Swanwick and Mike Resnick, the latter who appears on this year’s Best Related Book category, while Swanwick’s 15 minutes of fame have seemingly ended. Other big names in the Best Related Book category include Barry Malzberg (a former nominee there) and Robert A. Heinlein (as the subject of a biography).

As usual, several categories do not seem to have much suspense: Girl Genius owns the Best Graphic Novel category; Doctor Who dominates the Best Dramatic Presentation-Short category, as usual (and what is the cute video Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury doing here? The voters could not find 5 episodes of tv shows better than that?),

Some categories actually have a bit of suspense this year. There are no overwhelming favorites in Best Editor, either Long Form or Short Form with the absence of Ellen Datlow and David Hartwell (at least one of whom likely declined a nomination), nor in Best Fan Writer, so some deserved nominees who have been shut out in the past will finally win the award.

I cringe at the thought of StarshipSofa winning another Best Fanzine Award, since while it might be a valuable service, it is definitely not a fanzine by any definition I can think of. The Best Semi-Prozines are split between online zines (Lightspeed, Clarksworld) and paper zines (Locus–which has won so many times that I would prefer any other nominee over yet another award for it–Weird Tales, Interzone), which I assume gives the advantage to online zines.

In general, while the Hugo nominees do not represent the absolute “best” in any category, that has likely only been true for an occasional category once or twice in the history of the awards, so it does not bear complaining about. But there are enough worthy nominees that the possibility exists of having all deserving winners this year. What odds do you think Las Vegas would give on that happening though?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Modern Prometheus

Many long-time sf readers, such as myself, grew up reading several of the giants of the genre. Readers whose “golden age” was in the 1940s and 1950s grew up on Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, A.E. van Vogt, and others from that era. I was a child of the “New Wave” in the 1960s who grew up on Clifford D. Simak, Roger Zelazny, and three writers who are still active, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany.

Readers who are like me got different types of pleasures from the various writers. But what about younger readers of science fiction; is it possible for them to enjoy current writers who provide similar rewards to the writers of our youth?

In an attempt to perform a service for younger readers, I have compiled a “If you liked A...then you should read B” list for them. But none of the writers B are slavish imitators of writers A. Rather it is my opinion that their fiction taps into the same sense of wonder as their forebears, and hopefully will influence their fans in a similar manner.

Robert A. Heinlein was the quintessential sf writer for fans in the 1940s and 1950s, luring many young readers into the sf field especially through his series of “young adult” novels of the 1950s. While many writers have striven to imitate Heinlein, often failing, there are two contemporary writers who were obviously influenced by Heinlein who seem to offer similar rewards without being mere imitators. Neither is a young writer actually, both having first reach prominence in the 1970s: John Varley and Joe Haldeman.

Isaac Asimov wrote straight-forward plots with lots of dialog, often based around sf mysteries (The Caves of Steel, much of the Foundation series). His most logical heir is Jack McDevitt who loves mysteries and characters investigating ideas rather than slam-bang action.

Arthur C. Clarke’s best fiction explored the vastness of space with thought-provoking ideas and scenarios. Frequently when I read fiction by Stephen Baxter I feel much of the same excitement. Fittingly, the two collaborated on both a standalone novel The Light of Other Days and the Time Odyssey trilogy but, ironically, they are not the works of Baxter which offer the most Clarke-like rewards.

A Roger Zelazny novel frequently revolved around a mystery, filled with color and wondrous scenarios, all told in language which was virtually poetic. The writer whose fiction seems to offer the closest similar experience is China Miéville, especially his Bas Lag novels.

While nobody offers any writing precisely similar to the type of evocative stuff Ray Bradbury wrote in the 1950s, there is one current writer whose short fiction does provide a similar effect, and that is Jeffrey Ford. I do not consider it a coincidence that although Bradbury was ostensibly a science fiction writer, his logical heir is a fantasist, considering that Bradbury primarily used sf tropes to tell fantasy stories.

The writer whose sense that things are not quite as we believe they are most resembles that of early Philip K. Dick is fantasist Tim Powers, whose novels are as much based on “secret histories” as they are based on pure fantasy.

Poul Anderson was perhaps the greatest master of world-building and plotting who might never be equaled in the breadth of his interests, ranging from space opera to sociological sf to historical fantasy to alternative history. The modern writer whose sf is most similar in attitude to that of Anderson is Alastair Reynolds, who is both talented enough and young enough to spread his wings in other directions in the future.

Again, none of these latter writers are imitators of their forebears, but I believe they would likely appeal to fans of the former in many ways. I have not attempted to select the “modern” Silverberg, Delany or Le Guin, since all three are still alive and well, so you can find their types of rewards from the sources themselves.

If you liked...Then Read...This Novel...
Robert A. Heinlein...John Varley...Steel Beach; The Golden Globe ; The Rolling Thunder trilogy
Robert A. Heinlein...Joe Haldeman...Forever War ; Mindbridge; The Worlds trilogy
Isaac Asimov...Jack McDevitt...Alex Benedict series
Arthur C. Clarke...Stephen Baxter...Xeelee series; Destiny’s Children series
Roger Zelazny...China Mieville...Perdito Street Station; The Scar; Iron Council
Philip K. Dick...Tim Powers...Declare; Last Call; Three Days to Never
Poul Anderson...Alastair Reynolds...Revelation Space trilogy; Century Rain; The Prefect
Ray Bradbury... Jeffrey Ford...The Empire of Ice Cream; The Cosmology of the Wider World; The Shadow Year

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Cat in the Hat and Zombies

Can you guess from the title of this essay what trend in contemporary genre fiction I find the most disheartening? It’s the combining of classic novels with tired old fantasy tropes. This seems to me to be symptomatic of hack writers who lack a single trace of creativity trying to make easy money by stealing somebody else’s talent (Jane Austin being a particularly popular target, although Mark Twain and L. Frank Baum have been stolen as well) and combining it with crap to make a bestseller.

There are seemingly as many of these books as there were zombies in Night of the Living Dead, with titles which make me cringe: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters; Little Vampire Women; Mr. Darcy, Vampire; The Undead World of Oz: L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Complete with Zombies and Monsters; Vampire Darcy’s Desire; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim; Android Karenina.

Some slightly-more clever writers decided they did not need to steal a famous novel (since that would require their actually reading it), but instead to steal a famous historical or fictional character, tossing in some tropes and–voila!–a novel is born: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter; Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter; Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers.

I cannot help but wonder what is the market for these pseudo-novels? People who would never be caught dead in a Barnes & Noble, but consider Wal-Mart the height of literary fiction? People who consider 1930s space operas way too literary for their taste?

One would hope that the trend is an aberration whose moment of glory would not last much beyond Andy Warhol’s famous “15 minutes of fame,” but it does not seem to be showing any signs of abating any time soon. The current issue of Locus has its usual listing of recent book sales, and look at what treats await us in the near future:
• Richard Nixon’s battle with Lovecraftian horrors;
• a “remix” of The Sound of Music with vampires;
The Three Musketeers (with vampires);
• a postapocalyptic reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.”

Many avid book-lovers have been fearing the death of books and their replacement by ebooks in the near-future, but if this parasitic trend grows much stronger, we might all be better off if when books do die they drag ebooks along with them. Then all of us who still love real imaginative fiction can spend our time living in the past reading the type of fiction which, although looked down upon for generations, was actually high literature compared to what has been published since hack writers discovered that crap sells as well as pearls and does not require a smidgen of talent to produce.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Century Rain

In the first hundred pages of Alastair Reynolds’ Century Rain, we are given three mysteries. Alternating chapters of the novel are set in late 1950s Paris where a right-wing government is slowly tightening the clamps on the population. The two main characters are Floyd and Custine, would-be swing musicians who moonlight as private detectives, and who are not making much of a living doing either. They are contacted by an old man who is landlord of an apartment building, and had gotten very friendly with a young tenant named Susan White who died by falling from her 5th floor balcony to the ground. The police considered her death a suicide and refused to investigate it. But the landlord, obviously smitten by the girl, is positive she was too fearful of heights to either jump off the balcony or risk falling off it, so he pays the two detectives to learn who murdered her.

The other alternating chapters are set in a future in which Earth is totally uninhabitable, and its former inhabitants live in orbiting cities. Verity is an archaeologist who takes risky visits to the planet to find relics from when the planet was still inhabited. Her speciality is Paris, France. When one of her young assistants dies accidentally during one of her field trips, she is blamed for negligence and given the choice of facing a tribunal or undertaking a dangerous mission which she is not given very much information about. All she learns initially is that the mission is an important tool in preventing a group known as Slashers from terraforming Earth. Apparently the Slashers have two different political groups, one willing to negotiate for the sake of terraforming Earth, while the others intend to invade it.

The third mystery involves the connection between the two scenarios. In the future, Susan White is a scientist who has already undertaken the mission that Verity is assigned, and somehow died doing it. And Verity’s boss has the same name as one of the characters in 1950s Paris. Obviously, they are connected somehow, which is one of the threads which Reynolds dangles before the reader.

Shortly afterwards, the two strands merge into one, and the mysteries become a single intriguing mystery. As usual, Reynolds’ plot combines the mystery with fast-paced action and several human interest stories revolving around Floyd and Verity. There are several types of villains in Century Rain as well, and one group are certainly the creepiest villains I can ever recall encountering in a science fiction book. Horror writers should take note that, as is so often true, less can sometimes be much more effective than overdoing the horror.

In the half-dozen Alastair Reynolds novels I have read, he has shown an ability to traveling across the spectrum of science fiction sub-genres, having done space opera in the Revelation Space series, police procedural in The Prefect, now noir mystery interwoven into a strong sf tale. But the common bonds are strong storytelling, fascinating premises, and good characters worth investing time in. Century Rain is such a story which I recommend highly.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Stars My Destination

Gully Foyle, the protagonist [I hesitate to call him the “hero”] of Alfred Bester’s stunning novel The Stars My Destination is one of the finest, perhaps the finest, character in science fiction. Gully Foyle happens to be a madman.

As the novel opens, he has been stranded on the hulk of a derelict spaceship for six months. Being fairly simple-minded, he has no way of escape, and spends his time trapped in a small locker which he periodically floods with oxygen from the ship’s dwindling supply of oxygen tanks. Then a miracle happens: another spaceship approaches, and he sends out messages and flares asking for assistance. The ship approaches very near, and slows down as if to rescue him, but at the last moment it speeds up and abandons Gully Foyle to his fate.

This abandonment instills such incredible rage in Foyle that he determines to escape and seek revenge against Presteign, the company which owned the other ship. And escape he does, only to be rescued by a bizarre cult living on an asteroid which expects Foyle to become a member and spend the rest of his life breeding. This does not suit him, since his only remaining purpose in life is an overpowering thirst for revenge. So he flees the asteroid, only to discover that while he was comatose the cultists had branded him permanently to resemble the other cult members’ bizarre tattooed-appearance.

Hatred and revenge totally control Foyle’s personality for the entire novel, alienating everybody he encounters, whether friend or enemy, and even his few romantic attachments despise him more than love him. He has two major enemies seeking him throughout the novel, interfering with his own search for the captain of the ship which abandoned him. One enemy is Presteign of Presteign, the hereditary magnate who is head of the company, and who is seeking a mysterious shipment which was lost when Foyle’s ship vanished, thus he wants the location of the abandoned wreck from Foyle. The other is Y’ang-Yoevil of government Intelligence, who is trying to find Foyle as part of the government’s ongoing struggle with the Outer Satellites with whom the Inner Planets are engaged in warfare.

In the second portion of the novel, Foyle assumes the identity of Geoffrey Fourmyles, a rich dilettante who travels with an outrageous circus which has made him enormously popular while enabling him to hide from his enemies right in the public spotlight as he continues his quest for revenge. But two women who simultaneously love and hate Foyle learn his true identity, making it more urgent that he achieves his goal before he is captured by his enemies.

There are so many important aspects of this novel. A key ingredient is jaunting, the ability of people to teleport, some for only a short distance, others for thousands of miles. Another is the war which escalates as the novel progresses. A third is a mysterious item called pyrE, which is apparently the cargo responsible for Presteign’s search for Foyle.

The Stars My Destination is strongly-influenced by the classic The Count of Monte Cristo, but so filled with fascinating characters and ideas as to supersede its source material. In addition to Foyle and his two primary enemies, other important people include:

● Saul Dagerman, a radioactive scientist in the employ of Presteign, but perhaps the only person not cowered by him;
● Robin Wednesbury, a one-way telepathic psychologist who tried to help Foyle upon his initial return from space as a tattooed madman, for which he repaid her with hatred and suffering;
● Jizbella, a fellow prisoner in an unescapable underground prison, who flees with him during their impossible escape, only to be abandoned by Foyle during the last stages of the escape;
● Olivia, Presteign’s blind, ice queen daughter who rejects Foyle instantly when she meets him in his guise as Fourmyles, even though he falls immediately in love with her.

The novel proceeds at a helter-skelter pace, its complex plot growing and changing constantly as Foyle’s activities interweave with those of Presteign, Y’ang-Yoevil and the three important women. Whenever it seems that I understood everything, Bester threw in another twist, whether in his enemies’ search for Foyle, his own search for vengeance, or the nature of his fellow characters.

The novel’s climactic scene is a masterpiece of sense of wonder, a feat of creativity I have not seen equaled in any piece of science fiction in the 50+ years since. Several major authors tried a similar approach during the experimental New Wave era but, in my opinion, neither succeeded at all compared to Bester’s pyrotechnics.

My memory of The Stars My Destination always placed that book on my top ten favorite sf novels ever; re-reading it many decades later, I think I actually underestimated the novel. I definitely agree with so many major f&sf writers who consider it one of the finest novels ever written. It is very highly recommended.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Most acclaimed f&sf of 2010

As per usual, I kept watch of all the best-of-2010 lists of f&sf books, and the following are the books which made the most lists. Last year, China Mieville’s The City & The City topped the list and later tied for the Hugo Award. We'll see how this year's top picks fare in award season.

Title / Author / # of lists

How To Live Safely in a Sfnal Universe / Charles Yu / 12
The Dervish House / Ian McDonald / 11
Blackout / All Clear / Connie Willis / 9
Kraken / China Mieville / 9
Under Heaven / Guy Gavriel Kay/ 7
The Quantum Thief / Hannu Rajaniemi / 6
Surface Detail / Iain M. Banks / 5
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms / N. K. Jemisin / 4
Lightborn / Tricia Sullivan / 4
The Curse Workers: White Cat/ Holly Black / 3
Mockingjay / Suzanne Collins / 3
A Visit From the Goon Squad / Jennifer Egan / 3
Shades of Milk and Honey/ Mary Robinette Kowal / 3
Who Fears Death? / Nnedi Okorafor / 3
New Model Army / Adam Roberts / 3