Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ten Worst Novels Read in 2011

Ten Worst Novels Read in 2011

The flip side of the other list, based on structural and aesthetic assessment, on personal assessment. Not much here I’ll spend that much time on, it wasn’t a year that produced a lot of books I hated enough to go into with great detail. Mostly books that because of the author or specific hook thoroughly failed to connect effectively, and I had a good enough reading year that even this list is better than my worst of previous years.

1. Streaking by Brian Stableford (2006)
2. Software by Rudy Rucker (1982)
3. All Clear by Connie Willis (2010)
4. All the Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl (2011)
5. Skylark Three by E. E. Smith (1930)
6. Prelandra by C. S. Lewis (1944)
7. A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin (2011)
8. Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville (2009)
9. Among Others by Joe Walton (2011)
10. The Solarians by Norman Spinrad (1966)

1. Streaking by Brian Stableford
There are a few interesting patterns that become clear when looking at this list as a whole, most notably that it’s 90% speculative fiction, while the best list has only 40%, and that’s if you stretch definitions. Perhaps I should consider shifting my reading tastes, while speculative fiction done excellently can build things that no other genre can, so often what’s produced isn’t, looked at as a whole "mainstream" fiction probably delivered more pleasure and insight than speculative fiction, even beyond judging through the worst. In this case, the bizarrely Clarke-nominated work of hereditary luck is as bad as all the reviewers said, terrible prose, contrived plot, atrociously unsympathetic characters and a deep absence of any point. There was almost a buffering effect going into this book, as I expected it to be as awkward and unpersuasive as it turned out to be, I never felt I was being unduly robbed of my time. Still, that’s no reason to give it a pass. Whether through incompetence or some bizarre stylistic experiment this book falls flat on every level.

2. Software by Rudy Rucker
This one was largely self-inflicted. Last year Hylozoic was the worst novel I read by a considerable margin, a book I encountered out of nowhere that I loathed for its smug, incoherent, pointless twists and for playing everything about its setting and characters as a joke that fell flat. My reaction was strong enough that I sought out one of Rucker’s earlier works to see if he was the Worst Author Ever or if a combination of factors made Hylozoic uniquely bad. It appears to be a little of both. Software was much better and seemed to almost have something of a point, but it sabotages itself by the same incoherent, inept surrealism. These factors were much reduced in Software, but it’s a tone-dead failure in its adventure elements and even more so in the way it tries to examine drug use through a science fiction twist. The structural incompetence of the book would guarantee it a place on this list, what makes it so high up is the ill-focused misanthropism that make encountering Rucker’s worldview actively unpleasant.

3. All Clear by Connie Willis
Last year Blackout by the same author made my worst list, here the continuation of the novel gets a similar, although slightly less severe, assessment. It has basically the same faults as Blackout and most of Connie Willis over the past several decades--failed humor, excess of flaky sentimentality, generic and interchangeable characterization. It’s somewhat better than Blackout in that a unifying plot finally materializes, but it’s still the dullest reading experience I had this year, one that proves to have very little of any substance to say about the past. Most personally annoying is that it’s a story of time-traveling historians that fails in its presentation of historical detail and in having the whole plot rest on the bumbling ineptitude of the historians. That’s just as plausible as the plot-critical contrivances of having Oxford in 2060 rely on cord phones for communication, but the historical ineptitude of the presumed professionals is particularly annoying, from my trade and because Willis appears to think she’s being insightful and humanistic in the process. That this book won a Hugo is inexcusable.

4. All the Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl
The plot comes together not at all, and the book can’t decide whether it wants to say anything of substance about terrorism, or just be a collection of action and noise. The protagonist is deliberately written as being appallingly dense, but the worldbuilding isn’t any smarter, particularly in the conceit that kilo-level casualties from terrorism can become a weekly occurrence without major institutional change. Pohl has had a long career and some great books in his corpus, it’s distressing to see the present Pohl make something so incoherent.

5. Skylark Three by E. E. Smith
Classic pulpy science fiction, which means that the setting hangs together not at all, the plot is an exercise in masculinized triumph without serious drama, and the style of prose is pathologically flawed. Taken in itself it doesn’t commit many sins that weren’t common in this era for this style of sci-fi, but it doesn’t have the energy to disguise these effectively. Particularly damaging is the unrelenting hype towards militarism and misogynist gender roles, common traits for Smith and much science fiction then and now, but here emerging in a particularly concentrated form.

6. Prelandra by C. S. Lewis
All of Lewis’ usual preaching and heavy-handed efforts at evangelism through narrative, without any of the skill he’s elsewhere employed. In attempting to build a close meaningful connection to spiritual truth Lewis hollows out his invented universe, creating an intense anti-worldbuilding that undermines trust for anyone not embracing his type of transcendental meditation. The essence of what’s wrong here emerges in a brief and off-topic speech delivered in the text, to the effect of claiming that biological sex roles are not objectively valid or of religious obligation, but gender roles are. Moments like that make the book intriguing as a historical datapoint, but compromised to the point of uselessness as a story. It’s possible to wed a strong religious standpoint outside my own to an effective narrative--look at Chesterston’s The Man Who Was Thursday and to an extent Lewis’ own Narnia books--but it thoroughly fails to work here.

7. A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin
The fifth installment in a now apparently endless series. This is the point where the increasingly bloated fantasy series has its plot terminate almost entirely, there’s a lot of travel and a minimum of action across these eight hundred pages. A high proportion of the overall length ends up being almost having key characters meet, making decisions that prove to be irrelevant and, most frustratingly, avoiding making crucial decisions to further delay any sense of resolution. As well, going back to this series after a six year gap, it’s increasingly clear how hollow the worldbuilding and sense of moral ambiguity is, how much Martin indulges in cartoonishly evil antagonists, and how problematic his political analysis is.

8. Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville
A cliched, low-energy thriller where tension is continually deflated. The book relies for its punches on feeling invested in the story of a depressed former-IRA turned vigilante against his murderous comrades, but it never comes off satisfactorily. Partly because the psychology is muddled and one-note, partly because the politics are even more uneven. By the end much of the book felt like ill-informed rants against factions within northern Ireland, and the opportunity to make a meaningful statement about the corrosive effects of violence have long since vanished.

9. Among Others by Joe Walton
The book has some whit to it, and largely succeeds at what it’s trying to do. I still view it as problematic because that ambition involves making a far too insular world, a system where science fiction fandom grants superior empathy and intellect to everything else. In particular much of the book breaks down even as a novel, instead going through and commenting on past SF reading in extensive but shallow detail. It’s an exercise in the utmost self-congratulatory arrogance, written to flatter SF fans rather than do anything useful with the themes and texts described. In the process the characterization necessary for this bildungsroman becomes strained to the point of shattering entirely.

10. The Solarians by Norman Spinrad
Spinrad’s a strong author, and he’s written some outstanding works at different points. This effort is him early on, when he’s not seeking to challenge anything, and is so plainly going through the numbers, using a set of worldbuilding and political musing that were cliched even for 1966 SF. Most of the items on this list involve some degree of contrast with the author, them exploring a project that I find flawed and objectionable, something that I could argue against. Here Spinrad was so plainly going through the motions that it’s frustrating, producing stale pulp in what I hope was a very short time, making a story so tedious that it’s frustrating.

Most Underrated Novel: The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua
A Clarke-nominated science fiction novel, but reviewed rather harshly at the time, and doesn’t seem to have gotten much continuing praise or interest. The book is by no means perfect but it has a lot of interesting concepts that mostly cohere, particularly the link between time travel, self-propelled artificial intelligence, virtual reality and contemporary capitalism. I’d say it deserves more praise and a lot more attention than the book seems likely to get.

Most Disappointing Novel: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
It’s a perfectly fine book, that deftly manages an under-depicted historical climate, with effective characterization and a well handled prose. However it’s far short of what Mitchell has managed in some of his earlier explorations of the past, particularly BlackSwanGreen and Cloud Atlas. That raised hopes such that very good ends up being rather underwhelming, the sort of lower-tier best of the year work that will be forgotten in five years. Mitchell is capable of a lot better, and I hope he delivers it again.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ten Best Novels Read in 2011

These posts are for anyone that’s interested, my stab at figuring out the impact of this recent year, as a narrative and a cluster of narratives. My analysis will cover large scale political processes and culture, in analysis of the manner in which I experienced them and why I think they are particularly central. Along the way I’ll take advantage of this form to rant on the worst books I read as a form of retribution for experiencing them. Hopefully these lists and the analysis may be of some interest to you, any commentary you have on them or your own assessment are welcomed.

Ten Best Novels Read in 2011

Best novels read by me, that is. At this point I’m being wantonly narcissistic, this isn’t based on the best books written or published in the previous calender period, instead it’s book from some arbitrary point in the past that I happened to read for the first time in the past year. Partly I’m doing it this way because recent publication dates are themselves very arbitrary and differently distributed, partly because my own reading there has been rather partial-- extensive in speculative fiction, meager elsewhere, and even in science fiction and fantasy I haven’t read half the books of the last year I want to, and don’t yet want to be making claims about the best book published in the year. Using the personal timeline has the advantage of at least moving beyond one genre with any depth. There’s unlikely to be a direct parallel to others’ experiences as a set of literature, and in most cases these are works that are already relatively famous, and don’t require discovery or whatever additional minor attention I can bring to them. Nevertheless I offer this as a personal assessment, on the novels that most impressed and changed me as I encountered them from the past year.

1. Dhalgren by Samuel Delany (1974)
2. Absolute Friends by John Le Carre (2003)
3. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (2010)
4. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet (2005)
5. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)
6. Stoner by John Williams (1965)
7. Embassytown by China Mieville (2011)
8. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest (1981)
9. Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian (1990)
10. Old School by Tobias Wolff (2003)

1. Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
A sprawling, vivid and utterly successful investigation into bodily politics. Which means race, gender and sexuality, in particularly vivid rhetorical form. The book is filled with what would be generally regarded as profanity, here taken not as a shock but to create a specific microcosm of regional sex and violence as a norm. Above all the book is unapologetic, not fearing to dismantle every buffer that keeps subjects taboo for conservative and liberal subjects, instead getting at the core of the daily interactions that make contemporary U.S. society such a racist and rape-driven regime, among other things. Delany offers a level of implicit narrative commentary on the present world that’s startling, and he does it in full commitment to an imaginative piece of science fiction. Linked to all this is a story of corporeal politics, a recognition of the relationships imposed by certain types of violence and the politics that drive this even as it also explores utopian politics. The body emerges not as natural constant but precisely that which is least fixed, the most radically fluid.
A long book, and unpleasant in a lot of its subject details, but it fully earns it’s length and unpleasantness. It’s science fiction for social critique and reality dysfunction in high flying Philip K. Dick style, except even Dick was never quite this good.

2. Absolute Friends by John Le Carre
Le Carre moves beyond the Cold War spy thriller with gusto, fearlessly tackling the intrinsic abuse of the counter-terrorist state in a dramatized but not over the top fashion. The control over plotting and characterization is as good as he’s ever had, showing the careful manipulation of when the characters and reader have access to certain information, as well as portraying the complexity of lives that exist under the bleak absurdity of the twenty first century. It’s a book that at points flirts with meltdown, of theme as well as narrative, but builds masterfully to a strong climax that pushes the impact of just how mass-information can be contrived, and what the human consequences are. Le Carre writes a forceful, angry reaction to Bush Two a lot earlier than most authors had the courage to, and even more impressive is how he does this without sacrificing any narrative coherence or power of prose.

3. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
An in-depth piece of history through way of a novel or, as some have argued, science fiction applied to speculative economics rather than physical divergence. Either way it concerns a large cast struggling to get by in Khruschev’s Russia, with a long-burning attempt to achieve the utopian potential still pulsing in the bowels of the Soviet system. The book is unstinting about the abuses of the Bolshevik experiment, from high government to police repression to the contractions of daily life. Yet the work also captures better than almost anything I’ve seen the appeal of the far-left alternative, and the way that individuals continued on with their own dignity and sense of priorities. It’s the rare truly great narrative of history, well researched and capturing also the feel of history as it plays out, the transition among differnt Soviet policies managing to feel as monumental as any other traumatic counter-revolution. It’s a great novel both because of the genres that it dislocates and because any one of them--the period drama, the historical epic, the political assessment, the historical component--are done surpassingly well.

4. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
It’s mainstream fiction using a speculative fiction premise, in this case the conceit that Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard are transported from the Trinity Explosion to the present day. Often when writers outside the genre tackle a science fiction concept it’s awkward, ending up reinventing the wheel or using a problematic assumption of what does or doesn’t need to be explained. Here the flimsiness of the main time travel conceit damages the story not at all, allowing a forceful and well balanced story of how nuclear capability developed before and after Trinity, and the existential degrading of humans that has accompanied it. The story seems to invite either comedic farce and there are points of comedy, but the energy of the piece is in a frightening, pathos-filled and vivid condemnation of where things are at now, particularly relating to increasing fundamentalism and militarization of politics. It also manages some of the best characterization I’ve seen, in the historical recreations as well as the contemporary anchor, which also show an outstanding instances of well-defined scientists and female characters that are unapologetic about being such.

5. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
2010’s outstanding literary work, a hyperlink story that describes a diverse set of characters portrayed with consistent skill and nuance. It grabs interest from the first lines and never relinquishes this, managing frequent shifts in perspective and style that disorient and reward repeatedly. It works as a supremely entertaining story as well as a meaningful one, showing both the surreal connections of the modern world and the march towards death that faces all the characters across social ranks.

6. Stoner by John Williams
The earliest book on this list, Williams’ brilliant deconstruction of academic indepence. The novels first pages describe evaluates its subject, William Stoner, as failing to make a positive impact or to be remembered much in his life, and the book ruthlessly lives up to that premise. The icy and unlovable protagonist has considerable integrity, and ability to accept without complaint hardship in his life. These same qualities lead to accepting of powerlessness and treating disaster for himself and those closest to him as the sad necessity rather than anything alterable. At the same time Williams builds Stoner up as a credible and interesting figure, making his doomed and overly quiet life more suspenseful than most war stories I’ve read. And in the process the novel evokes the attraction of academia while also condemning its rivalry, male-privilege, sterility and basic lack of empathy. Yet the vivid collective norms are ultimately secondary to the individual focus and Stoner is at base an epigraph delivered on its protagonist from first page to last, a severe judgement but a well defined one. There are weaknesses to the novel, particularly its positioning of Stoner’s wife as a shrewish villain, but the power of Willaims’ prose, story and stark tone builds to an extremely satisfying whole.

7. Embassytown by China Mieville
The only book on this list that was actually published in 2011, and one that comes off an author I’ve found almost constantly excellent. Embassytown isn’t quite as effective as some of his best work, but in contrast to his recent lackluster Kraken and the speculative fiction world more generally it’s sheer gold. Embassytown succeeds partly on strength of concept, weaving together an invented language, tumultuous political intrigue and a progressively more and more strife torn alien city. The book works on many levels, as a creation of an intricate imagined urban space, in bending concepts of the possibility of language structure, and in relating this to a forceful anti-imperialist subtext. It even at points works as a zombie eschatology par excellence. Most of all it succeeds in balancing the different genres and climates, existing within Mieville’s best-plotted story and an ambitious departure from his usual norms. Finally the book plays to the best traditions of science fiction in emphasizing the vast scale of the wider setting, the way that the size of the polities and even more the physical environment put the intense micro-events in a wider context.

8. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
Priest is consistently interested in themes of duality, questionable identity and the impact of written texts. The Affirmation is his most effective exploration of these themes to date, that introduces a deep ambiguity into its presentation of reality early on, and builds tension over this question up through the last page. It’s recognizably speculative fiction but not of any of the usual variants, framing compelling and largely credible worldbuilding that is never larger than its protagonist. That setup could be irritatingly claustrophobic but it develops into an interesting exploration of memory, immortality, amnesia and hedonism.

9. Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian
I read this as part of a Nobel Laureate listing, with this novel as one of the relatively few high-returns of the past year. It’s effective primarily in showing character detail through cultural resistance and vitality, an array of strange quasi-episodic details unified by a common desire for reinvention. It works extremely well even as an alien culture, and I can only imagine how effective it would be experienced by someone more familiar with the context China. Like a lot of my favorites from recent reading it’s a novel of identity, focusing on the ambiguous and exciting reaches of self. Unusually for my reading this was basically a plot driven by travel, with journeying and the situations encountered are enough to compel interest across the story.

10. Old School by Tobias Wolff
Among other things the book has a crushing, spot on assessment of what meeting living literary fame would actually feel like, varying slightly on individual (including a deconstruction of Ayn Rand’s basic viciousness) as well as the principal of a celebrated life in itself (as in a tale of Hemingway’s actual presence deflating a lifetime of an instructor allowing everyone to assume a close personal friendship to the man). More centrally Wolff brilliantly uncovers the meaning of texts in themselves, the thrill of encountering a book, the process of different literary tastes, the easily-compromised mechanisms of authorship and the tangle of scholastic identity. I know nothing of Wolff beyond this story but it feels autobiographical, moreover its power lies in producing a similar resonance in the reader. It’s an extremely quiet tale, but also one of the most effective in its statements and silences.
This is second book on my list for this year that was published in 2003, set in the early 80s and with a deeply interior focus it seems a different world than Le Carre’s confrontational information thriller. In an odd way they do make appropriate thematic parallels, with Wolff’s focus on the creation of fictions and the insecurity of masculine identities a reasonable link to the year of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Dhalgren by Samuel Delany

I've admired most of Delany's books that I've read, but felt distant from them to a degree, that didn't happen here. The presence of language does a lot with this, it seemed. The text engages in some very ambitious use of represented mythology, boundaries of different genres, construction of racial and gender identities. This never came across as remote, though, in large part because speech effectively expressed a sense of lived in space, the way that people (particularly younger people) would plausibly think and talk about both race and sexuality. The sheer length of the book does play a major part in this (and it earns the right to its 800 pages more than about any other long novel I've encountered since Infinite Jest) building up impressions, sexual encounters and patterns of the city's dynamic such that it forces an impression. It still comes across as shocking, although not as much as it must have in '75, and not primarily due to the eroticism--yet it's still fascinating to see Delany be as unconcerned with describing the nature of the catastrophe and rebuilding process, instead centering on a bubble of lived identity in relation to the larger dislocating shift.

The irony is that in giving such a non-systematic view of the new community, so free of usual pattern of establishing big-scale assessments of community, it is a powerful structural challenge. It shifts the focus of science fiction pretty dramatically, onto an awareness of the body, the way that it is used, benefited and exploited through sex, violence, politics, and constructions of racial difference. In a lot of ways this forms a great companion piece to the near-contemporary The Dispossessed. Le Guin's book has a more elaborated pattern of political analysis, opening up of utopian alternates as well as questioning long-term tendencies of such patterns. Dhalgren goes further in looking at character within the limits of change and breakdown, in what I take to be a recognition of how pre-crisis systems were already virtually science fiction, already constructed and contrived across very precise narratives. That is to say the biggest point I take on this first reading is that there is no community or personal narrative, or science fictional narrative, without some kind of grappling with race, gender and sexuality, that our ability to even imagine these things is bounded. It's somewhat convenient to see that (and I'm sure that I am missing a lot in the book) as it's something I've been persuaded of for awhile, a bit through Delany's articles and from other academic texts more widely. It's still staggering to see that emerge as the push of a novel, particularly one of such raw power.

This is exactly the sort of book that needs to exist, and that demands more attention and general reworking of assumptions that it challenges. I have a great deal of respect for genre fiction of the '60s and '70s, particularly the New Wave, and even by this standard it's a stand-out. This is exactly the type of book that justifies the past and continued existence of science fiction. It also gives a rather sobering reflection on more recent take. Recently I've read a lot of science fiction and fantasy from across the last fifteen years, much of it very good. In recent years I'd have no hesitation in referencing Lavinia, The Dervish House, the City and the City, Windup Girl, In Great Waters, as indication that speculative fiction is still very much involved with issues of quality. Yet I don't think any of these are anywhere in the same league as Dhalgren, and I'm not sure that I've encountered anything from the past ten years which is. I wonder what that implies.

On the other side of the recognition, looking back I see that the Hugo voters didn't even nominate this book, although the Nebula's did, as one of the unprecedented before or since eighteen nominees. Only to give the award to The Forever War, also bypassing The Female Man. Forever War was a major work and an important statement on recent reality, but come on.


Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson. 2011.

*This is the book that rounds things out, and gives a fuller explanation for the nature of the Hypotheticals and their long-term implications. Which in itself makes the biggest problem I had going into the book, and to an extent at the end, in that I found it difficult to be very invested in the Hypotheticals, the nature of the Spin and the wider mechanics of the universe. I thought that Spin itself was a decent exploration of those issues, and that the wider questions didn't need further answering. It's been a long time since I read Spin, and Axis didn't further whet my appetite on these matters---quite the contrary.
*Yet in the end Wilson proved a lot of his mettle and made a very good book, well worth reading. Not great, though, and in the final analysis I'd say it falls significantly short of Spin and slightly short of Julian Comstock. Partly it's a problematic evoking of the big-scale issues, partly the near-future Earth sections not being as compelling. A bigger issue is that characterization doesn't seem to be as good as is usual for Wilson, partly as a consequence of the jumps around in setting and point of view I felt far less engaged by the people and their particular personality issues. It took too long for me to care about the main people for the book to really click on that level.
*Still there does remain a lot of value. Wilson is great at presenting a sense of scale, creating a representation of massive spatial and chronological limits that is grander than any other fiction we're likely to see this year (Baxter is going small scale this year, Reed doesn't seem to have anything major coming out). The notion of interconnected worlds, the nature of the Hypotheticals themselves and particularly the last forty pages capture a sense of truly cosmic scale and drama.
*Also great is the outgrowth of some of the blander elements from Axis, particularly the politics of Equatoria. Vox Core is a great construction, and quite complex--on the one hand more genuinely democratic and egalitarian than current societies, but also far from a one-note utopia--they have a single linked conscience that makes it easy to tolerate the slaughter of rivals, and they are in basis a descendant of a fanatic faction that finds it easy to reinforce their own rather biased assumptions. The dynamic of how this plays out, from the slaughter of the Farmers to their own destruction through misplaced veneration of the Hypotheticals, is very strong material, and has a lot of value to say on religious both explicitly and symbolically.
*In the end I still can't say that Spin sequels were really needed, but there's a lot of pleasure and interest to see this series finish out. I'm quite interested to see where Wilson goes after this.

Grade: B+

Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

The first line of dialog in the book is "I can't believe we have to go through this again". I concur. In the end this seems one of the more aggressively pointless works, largely due to its reboot qualiteis. In the introduction to the piece Scalzi tries to present it as all things to all people--it's a new version of the story to bring the main themes up to date, it's an autonomous story that happens to use some of the same characters, it's an homage to the original that can bring more attention and readers to a past classic. The result is to make me quite unsure on why Scalzi actually settled on this project.

My own connection to the original franchise is minimal, I've heard it mentioned a few places and read the last volume a long time ago. I don't feel that it's a betrayal to revive it again, and am not as critical as if it were, say, another butchering of the Foundation Universe. I don't much like the practice of taking over abandoned genre sand-boxes, and it's hard to fight the impression that Scalzi is doing this as a way of provoking more discussion and a sense of newness over his writing while at the same time is explicitly becoming less original.

All that aside, what emerges from the story is quite generic, even if it were rebranded enough to have no relation to the original series I'd still feel safe calling it heavily derivative. There's dynamics of colonization, alien contact, a bit of corporate intrigue, and a protracted high-impact legal battle. The story isn't terrible, but it doesn't do very much with any of these elements, or do more than slightly warm over the stock SF narrative of past decades. Scalzi has in the past brought a lot more humor and energy to proceedings that can push through his employment of cliches, here the plot is slow enough and the dialog labored such that it settles into mediocrity early, and only pushes past that in brief flashes across the book. For all that we were laboriously told about the impact of the proceedings on the planetary ecology, on the characters' finances and ideals, on indeed on the larger colonial economy, it was very hard to feel that there were real stakes at any point. I've read worse books from 2011, and even books less distinguished, but this had a sense of controlled mediocrity that felt particularly frustrating, like Scalzi was consistently hitting safe groundballs to push forward his story, and in the process draining it of real interest.

I gobbled down the Old Man War trilogy, a fun ride with a fair bit of substance below the surface, particularly in worldbuilding. Since then I've felt a deep sense of diminishing returns, Scalzi's contribution to the 2008 Hugo Shortlist meltdown with the breezy, inconsequential tie-in Zoe's Tale, the deeply inert God Engines, and in the 'real world' his own insistence on defending fandom against the whiners and critics--which is to say defending it as a zero-challenge exercise in mediocrity, among other things. I guess given that it shows an avoidance of hypocrisy to carry that into his own writing, in which the very reboot format declares his intention to boldly chart a story of change and revolution in an echo of past forms, staying strongly within a particular box. Which isn't the worst thing in the world, and I'm sure a lot of people will be pleased by Fuzzy Nation, but I'm not pleased by the way things seem to have gone. I think I'll add Scalzi to the category of Dropped Authors (with Stross, Sawyer, Martin, Bear and Haldeman) authors that I had followed pretty regularly, but are not delivering at a level to reward that attention, whom I'll avoid in the future unless I encounter a review or other reason to suggest things have significantly changed.

Grade: C-

Similar to and better than: God Engines by John Scalzi

Similar to and worse than: Newton's Wake by Ken Macleod

Saturday, August 20, 2011

2011 Hugo Award Winners: Immediate Reactions

*Campbell Award for Lev Grossman*
Significant disappointment, both for Beukes not getting the recognition, and for it going to what seems a more tedious and generally unengaging fantasy author. I'll count this as the second year since I've been actively following that an exceptionally talented author has been nominated but not awarded it. Although looked at more broadly in the last decade a number of winners have been very far from best rising stars--Kowal, Scalzi, Burstein, Doctorow, and it seems the award has always has a pattern of missing some of the most significant genre-changing writers.

*Best Fan Artist for Brad Foster*
My third vote, out of five. I don't have terribly much memory or direct reaction, I recall him as being not terrible, but significantly less impressive than Starkey and Wayne. A relative shrug category, not sure we even need this.

*Best Fan Writer for Clare Brialey*
This is quite good, the only writer I voted for above No Award. In my view she had much better level of analysis than anyone else, literally any other pick would have been extremely dispiriting. A cheerful thought, at least. I still feel a bit disconnected from this, as none of the writers I've found most entertaining and informative made the cut--for a shamelessly fan-centric view it's not my extended fandom, and I feel less overall relation than with most of the more conventional categories.

*Best Fanzine for The Drink Tank*
Good. Again, this was the only nominee that I voted above No Award, the only installment that justified the existence of the category. This is proving somewhat encouraging as a run, albeit among the categories I least care about and am unlikely to even remember in a week's time.

*Best Semiprozine for Clarkesworld*
My third pick, above no award. I think it's a good zine, but didn't think based on the sample they had the strongest year, and am more than a little skeptical about the need for this category.

*Best Graphic Story for Girl Genius*
As I predicted. Very weak writing, carried unfortunately over the Unwritten in particular. The third consecutive time Girl Genius has won, in the three cases this award has been awarded. It shouldn't be hard to see a problem with this picture, particularly given the convoluted, overly jokey steampunk nature of the work in question. It continues with a huge fanbase, though, for some reason. Probably the steapunk thing. It seems at the awards ceremony the comic creators removed themselves from the running for next year. Decent as an act and a gesture, but also shows how ridiculously tight the circle of consideration is for this category.

*Best Editor Short Form for Sheilia Williams*
No reaction to this at all, I had no preference for votes in this category.

*Best Editor Long Form for Lou Anders*
Also no reaction.

*Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form for the Pandorica Opens/Big Bang"
Fairly pleased. That matched my top vote for the category, as well as my prediction for winner. Hardly a big surprise, the Doctor Who bloc has been really strong of late, there weren't many quality alternates last year, and few of them nominated. Glad that fandom can now hopefully get past the 'f--- me Ray Bradbury' fanvideo, and possibly regrow a little maturity. As well, hopefully next year one or more episode from Game of Thrones can challenge the Doctor Who monolith. G. R. R. Martin was presenting the award this year, foreshadowing?

*Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form for Inception*
Severely disappointing, but as I predicted. A lot of very strong nominees on this ballot, but also Inception--probably Nolan's weakest movie, and his film that's most focused on seeming cleverer than it is. Toy Story, and to a lesser extent Scott Pilgrim and How to Train Your Dragon, were robbed. For the most forceful rejection of Inception in a review I've seen, there's:
I voted to nominate but not to win, and the more I think about this the more unhappy I am with this film as cinema, as science fiction and especially as an inquiry into the nature of identity.

*Best Professional Artist for Shaun Tan*
Again, my third vote out of five. Above No Award, I don't have a great deal of personal or general reaction to this win.

*Best Related Work for Chicks Dig Timelords*
My second vote. Above No Award for me, but I consider it a lot below Bearings, so mixed reactions. Well, Valente's piece in it and a few others are good. On the other hand this does contribute to the dominance of Doctor Who and a type of more populist level of analysis that I'm not very thrilled at. This year's slot of Related Work nominees is a large step down from last year. Still, Chicks Dig Timelords isn't a bad book and at least the Heinlein biography didn't win, so on the whole I can be happy with this one.

*Best Short Story for 'For Want of a Nail by Mary Robinette Kowal'"
My second vote, one of only two above No Award. Didn't go for The Things, my (reluctant) pick as well as prediction for the award. Interesting to see things be kept a little unpredictable and the story wasn't terrible--but I can't pretend it was even close to being one of the best science fiction short stories of the year. Disappointing ballet, decent award-winner from that setup.

*Best Novelette for "The Emperor of Mars" by Allen Sttele
Infuriating, although what I feared in the lead-up to the vote. There was only one worse pick on the ballet and three substantially better, and instead the mass voters went for an unabashed recreation and celebration of all that's conservative in science fiction writing. This is a story that does not withstand even a minimal amount of thought on it, examined beneath the self-congratulatory aspect it falls apart. This is the first pick of the evening's ceremony to really get me angry. "The Jagaur House" should have won this in a landslide.

*Best Novella for "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" by Ted Chiang
Thoroughly predictable, but also completely deserved, and a relief to see an actual top-rate writer get the award recognition. This is his fourth piece of short fiction to win a Hugo. This is the type of fiction that should be encouraged--specific, forceful, ambitious while being low key, writing future forms of life in the spaces within which most SF narratives leap.

*Best Novel for Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis*
Well, the second worst novel on the ballot and the fourth worst book that I read from 2010 has won the Hugo, along with the Nebula. As I expected going into this voting, and clearly people do see real value in the text. I'm not one of them, and have to regard this as a terribly disappointing pick, for a work that I find less well designed than Anasi Boys, probably making the worst Hugo win since Hominids took the medal. As with The Emperor of Mars, I see this as a general tendency towards embracing sentimental, regressive, contrived science fiction over the other kind. A shame that a novel as intricate, ambitious and well written as The Dervish House lost to an exercise in tedious poorly designed historical recreation. Willis taking it over McDonald at this point is something I'd expected for quite awhile now, but it doesn't make me any happier at this point. A bit dispiriting that a process as corrupt as the Nebulas here echoes the decision of the largest gathering of Hugo voters in its history. More a shame that Willis can make such an over-sprawling account and be lauded by having made the best science fiction novel of the world. Even more unfortunate that the SF community finds it's measure of greatness in character through Willis' cutsey well-wishers, its guideline for worldbuilding a haphazard recollection of historians and its model towards the future in a return to the London Blitz.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Betrayer by C. J. Cherryh

2011 novel.

*Quite good, all in all, although it's only going to appeal to people already decently invested in the Foreigner series, who are also invested in the formula at play here--a political thriller rooted in conspiracy, intrigue, assassination and threats of anarchy in which the protagonist never discharges his gun, and works to enhance the alliance and power of who seemed the biggest threat two books ago. For my money the book does quite a lot that's effective and interesting. It has to be admitted that the advancement of the story and the wider setting is incremental--and I still wish Cherryh would followup on the plot points of Explorer and that book's greater pace--but the atevi are emerging as one of the most extensive, intricately designed alien species.
*The book isn't without problems. The leading one by far is the character of Barbara, consistently written as irritating, a danger to herself and those around her, a whiny plot-complication with continuing unrequited interest in Bren. Bizarrely, given the complexity elsewhere on display, Cherryh seems content to make Barbara a thoroughly one-note complication, who all the other character know no good can come of. She's portrayed as slightly more sympathetic and capable here than in the past, but it's still a pretty unengaging portrayal. At this point I also wasn't terribly interested whenever the perspective shifted from Bren, as it seemed to involve slowing down the action.
*The series as a whole also deserves commentary, now finishing it's twelfth volume and fourth trilogy. I found Foreigner itself somewhat awkward and unengaging, particularly around Bren, but it built up to be top-rate science fiction rapidly, each subsequent book shattering the past status quo, propelling structural change, disrupting expectations and forcing a wider network and state of perceptions. The second trilogy, Precurosr, Defender, Explorer, got very good, in multi-species negotiation-focused space opera with a fascinating focus on the way language and culture operate. The third trilogy was probably the least satisfactory, revolving around intrigue and atevi civil war. They were intimate, complexly crafted political scenarios, but the larger setup seemed like a divergence, an overly small-scale portrait that delayed the more interesting possibilities setup by Explorer. As well, the deeper drama of the series appeared based on a too stark division; in reading I never believed that Cherryh would break up the Western Association permanently or undermine the progression of atevi development, and the unwillingness to pull the trigger against any significant characters despite the continual flood of assassinations undermined investment in the drama. The fourth trilogy seems to have a lot of the same issues, but I found it more satisfying. Perhaps my expectations have changed at this point, but it also seems that the representation becomes more intricate. Conspirator, Deceiver and now Betrayar focus not on the familiar atevi political terrain but fragmented forces to the east, areas never brought into real acceptance of humanity, and with much deeper structural problems, ones that can't be solved in terms of thwarting individual powerlust. The recent books also encourage a greater degree of ambiguity towards longstanding atevi allies, an awareness of how fine-crafted their manipulation has been, of how dangerous they really may be.
*For all this effort, the world constructed seems oddly separate from our own climate, to a degree unusual for contemporary science fiction. Most works don't comment directly on current circumstances--and those that do are not terribly effective--but I've seen in most of the 2011 genre I've read and expect to find more of an underlying zeitgeist. In a lot of ways even more far-fetched work will show awareness of, if it does not directly comment on, the post-2008 economic situation, political fragmentation, impact of technological disorientation and ongoing geopolitical tensions. The Foreigner series is working off its internal timeline, setup in 1994, and continuing on without real adjustment to ways our world has changed since that point, it's the only long-running series I've followed that seems so disconnected from our own times. Which has value, certainly, escaping the short-sighted extrapolation or didactic settling of lessons that I've often found frustrating. And yet, this aspect gives me a bit of pause. Perhaps the pendulum has gone a bit too far in this
instance. While the series is certain attuned to the impact of structural poverty and grasping politivcal hierarchies, and has more of substance to say about the ways reactionary forces can fight on than most science fiction I've read, there are assumptions that seem a bit dubious. The notion of increased trade and global integration promoting a progressive moderanization of society, in particular. Of course the technology isn't our own and neither is the underlying psychology, but there are aspects of the series that feel a bit dated, or even tending towards an escapist alternative to the direction our planet seems to be taking. The Foreigner series certainly has a lot of grim elements, but I wonder in the end if it will fade towards a somewhat unfounded utopia of cooperation and effective political balance arranged by Bren, if it will tend to have less of substance to way than it's 3,000+ pages (and counting) could otherwise support.
*It's a pity that the larger series aren't going to get any award attentions, at this point despite a bit of introductory recap the whole venue is blatantly alienating for anyone not already a fan. Even if this book were perfection and the Hugo fanbase were a lot more conscientious than they are, you aren't going to have enough people drawn in. Perhaps if Cherryh were British there would be a chance that the series would get a nod at some point, but there doesn't seem a venue for that degree of off-brand nomination among major American-focused genre awards.
Overall assessment: A-. Unlikely to be a Hugo nominee for me, not just on the grounds of it having no chance at all, it's in the end not *that* good. If it were put up as some kind of Best Installment in a 4 Book+ Series I suspect I'd nominate it. In the past few years only the Psalms of Isaac and Culture series seem likely to give real competition.

After writing this I encountered the recent Strange Horizons review, which is worth a look. It's significantly harsher than I am, but it pretty well-formed and interesting.