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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Game of Thrones Season One

Twelve thoughts on HBO's first season of Game of Thrones, about ten years after reading the first book.

(1) This is a major accomplishment on multiple levels, succeeding far more than most television I've seen. I haven't seen better television from the past academic year outside of Mad Men, and unless I'm very much mistaken the show will deserve Emmy nominations on a wide number of counts, especially best Dramatic Series. I highly doubt it will get nominated, though, since there's a lot of precedent for dismissing out of hand unambiguous fantasy from serious consideration.

(2) It also rather dwarfs Lost a number of recent serials shows, with the claims of novelistic television. The pace was very brisk, plot movement changed things irreparably, the larger scenario made sense and transition happened. Above all, the show showed characters paying for their mistakes, with Catelyn's impetuous seizure of Tyrion and Ned's rigid commitment to his honour leading to full-scale civil war and thousands of deaths, including Ned's own. There's an effective momentum in the way things are handled that's very powerful, a willingness to go to very dark places.

(3) The show is relentlessly realistic, in the end. Not just because the fantasy elements are at present relatively minor, but because it deals with political conflict in a way that is very credible on how poorly a genuinely idealistic ruler would fare in a setting like medieval Europe. There's also good things that come from the scale of the setting, showing a degree of interaction among the secondary cast. There's the way Jon is deeply impacted by all the events that transpire yet forgotten by everyone else, the different ways everyone reacts to Tyrion and his abduction, the way that Lannister power is experienced by people across Westeros. The show is very good at following through on its life and death premise fairly, and feels more honest in this matter than any show I can think of outside of Breaking Bad and the Wire.

(4) Above all, the show works in building an alternate setting to our own history in a complex and well-integrated manner. By the end of the season King's Landing, Winterfell and the Wall all feel like real places, and they feel like places with different core atmospheres and social geographies. The Dothraki exploits are a lot more isolated, but one of her close followers is show to be a spy for Varys, and the debate on assassinating Daernys or not does play into the clash between Robert and Ned. In the end it feels like a cohesive region, and moreover one with a deep history. Things like the war against mad king Aerys seem real and close to the present, for all that they haven't been directly seen at all, and Westeros feels like a complex, credible and engaging place, one on the verge of being torn apart by another political clash, in which regular people are disconnected from power yet will be the ones to suffer the most. If the show lacked the compelling storyline it had and just built up the setting, I'd still consider it a major success. First-rate worldbuilding is something that exists in a lot of fantasy and science fiction book series, but is much rarer in television--I'm not sure there's been anything as evocative and richly detailed before. There is a substantial additional pleasure in seeing this fleshed out to life. Ironic, given how much of this epic fantasy series involves monologues, storytelling exposition and quiet dialog, but there is a keen pleasure in itself from hearing characters talk about their shared past.

(5) In the seventh episode Renly gets two important speeches. The second is to Ned, outlining the failings with his refusal to be pragmatic, and flatly denying that Stanis will make a better king just because of birthright. Ned does eventually learn to compromise his honour a bit through kneeling to Joffrey, but by that point with Renly he wasn't ready. Littlefinger and Cersei also made excellent points on the politics of the situation, but both are more obviously corrupt and self-serving, Renly came across as a relatively decent if ambitious man who was a lot more clear-sighted about what needed to be done to prevent vile people from dominating. His first speech was an even more effective deconstruction, challenging Roberts' notion that there was a better past time, emphasizing that the legacy of abuse of power, bloody internal divisions and moral compromises went back a long time. Both very effective statements, forcefully stated. Renly as a character didn't get that much to do this season (and in casting was a little too physically similar to the far more central Littlefinger) but his character had enough believability to support these speeches, which in itself makes him a strong personality in my book.

(6) The Lannisters stand as a pretty effective addition to the ranks of television's crime families. Effectively when you strip through the crown, title and degree of relative wealth they are basically another mafia, focused on defending and expanding their position. I'm not very fond of incest as a plot device, here or more generally, as it seems too easy a way to signal depravity. Except for that, though, things are pretty much note-perfect, from Twyin's business-like longterm pragmatism to Joffrey's utterly monstrous egotism. Even Tyrion, although heroic compared to his family, has a very vested selfishness and privilege built into his identity. Characters like Jaime and Cersei, meanwhile, prove to have a lot more layers and a more compelling history than they first seem to. What's most interesting about the family is the way they work in relation to the wider society and within their own dynamic.

(7) Another sign of how effective this show is at building up its mythology is the way it gives a sense of character's shadows long before they appear on stage. Partly there's the presence of John Aeryn and the mad king, but even more forcefully the significance of Tywin Lannister. When Ned issues the order for his arrest we already have a very good sense of who this man is, the power he holds, the things he represents and the reasons why going after him is virtuous, but also utterly stupid. And then he shows up in the flesh and builds the sense of underlying menace perfectly. There's a similar position with Lord Stanis, yet to feature on-screen, but already a major character with his own well-defined set of interests.

(8) Not everything about the show works, though. There's all the naked women, for one thing, with so much open flesh shown around characters delivering exposition that it becomes practically a parody of itself, as well as by far the shallowest element in the show's appeal to viewers. The worst scene in this vein was the episode seven Littlefinger and two prostitutes scene, as you mentioned before. It went on and on, and was utterly dumb on about every level: why is one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom taking time to micromanage two of his prostitutes? Why is he risking everything by indicating in so heavy-handed a fashion that he's going to turn on Ned? Why does the show feel this necessary to setup his later betrayal, when the foundation for it had been laid pretty clearly already?
The scene in the finale with Roz and the Maestor was almost as bad, given neither character had, unlike Littlefinger, ever been important. It makes up for it a little in how utterly and openly bored Roz is at his diatribe.

(9) There's also the Daernys plotline. I have to say, this still doesn't work for me, seeming by far the weakest part of the show, an entire subarc that's not at the same level of writing, characterization, realism or basic interest. I don't see the ending as compensating for the problems I had with this earlier on, while there's stronger moments in her arc there aren't very many of them. Vaerys' death and the emergence of the dragons doesn't in itself make up for twenty scenes of relatively arbitrary violence, or become invested in Drogo and Daerny's relationship. I always knew his death was coming, but unlike Ned's I was actively looking for to it, as he had minimal appealing traits, and wasn't an interesting variant of human evil in the way that Joffrey or Lannisters more generally were. I also don't see any particular acting strength in this, save for the presentation of a couple scenes Emilia Clarke seems to play most scenes as overly blank and one note, not adding to the relatively basic dialog the series provides. She's the character that suffers the most from the loss of internal narration, I'd say, to expand on her adaptation, intelligence and more appealing qualities.

(10) There's another way of thinking about in, in comparison with Jon Snow. Jon was also one of my favorite characters from the novel, who I found far less impressive in the series. There's also a similar pattern of him following a more cliched story arc, and existing in a way that's largely isolated from the rest of the storyline and peripheral to the setting, which also contains the most direct supernatural legacy. Yet for all that Jon's storyline does work a lot better for me this season than Daerny's, for a couple reasons.
[a] it is closer integrated to the main fate of Westeros, Jon regularly hears of and is effected by events to the South. In contrast while Westeros activates spies and assassination, nothing that happens in Westeros beyond that is reported to Daernys, and it doesn't seem she'd care if it did. The disconnect is more considerable.
[b] Taken on its own terms as something of a show within a show, the Wall is a lot more interesting than the Dothraki land. It's better in atmosphere, creepiness and a sense of history, as well as being integrated into the history of Westeros' undesirables. The Dothraki are defined as being without real culture, and just exist as a crude barbarian caricature.
[c] The Wall features better people, the only community that is able to have some longer term perspective and to genuinely try putting duty above family. In contrast Daernys has minimal real connection for people, and her growing into more self-confidence and personal power is synonymous with her mobilizing the Dothraki to murderous aggression. Daernys seems considerably more morally blind in the series compared with the book, and with far less justification, to the extent that she is shocked Robert tries to have her killed when she was actively planning to invade Westeros with an army. She encouraged Drogo to move on the attack, with him explicitly rallying his forces with a call for rape and enslavement, accordingly her effort to halt some of the atrocities seems fairly half-hearted and inauthentic ethics. Basically everything that the witch said to Daernys was true, which works as a deconstruction of her heroism, but makes it very difficult to be invested in her. Arguably she's worse than the Lannisters across the season, since for all their abuses they mostly want to defend their current position of power. Darenys has the option of living out her life in comfort away from larger politics, but is focused on claiming the thrown, through an invasion of slavers and thugs that will kill tens of thousands of people at a minimum.

(11) I think there's a general joylessness over the universe, which has good and bad elements. It definitely plays into the realism of the setting, and the real bite given to the political intrigue. Life is nasty, brutal and short for people that are nobility, and even the most ethical of the upper-class individuals give no more than a brief moment of regret to the death of commoners as they needlessly occur, such as with Ned's minimal reaction to the butcher's son being killed. There's a socio-economics at work with that which plays very well with the whole aesthetic and plot. At the same time, though, it's a bit of a cheat. Grim as things were, it's not like there wasn't any fun in medieval Europe, but in Westeros no one except Tyrion and his crew seem to feel that way. That's part of the many reasons why he's easily the most appealing character, but it's an approach that could be taken a bit more widely. Does no one else in this world ever relax, engage in non-sadistic humor, play drinking games? There are ways of broadening the horizons of presenting other characters, and they're not taken, which shrinks the horizon of the show more than it needs to. This becomes a problem as the whole tendency of the series is to have things get progressively worse, more and more brutal even when it seems the characters can't fall any further. However at present there's not that much in the way of of good times to fall from.

(12) Another issues that's a bit weaker than it could be is on the Stark family themselves. On the whole what's been done with them is very strong as individual characters, although there seems to be some problems with storycrafting of both Bren and Jon which will hopefully improve as they're given more to do. (Special note of praise to Sansa, who went through some the period of wide-eyed naivete to a very effective portrayal of a crushed, disillusioned hostage). What's missing is a real sense of the family as a unit, how all the children related to each other, their dynamics to the extent the Lannisters operated. There are also broader political questions involved with them, as to the extent that Stark's unyielding honour translated into a over policies of justice and gain for the population at large. We don't have as firm a confirmation on many of the abuses common to the villain houses, and that makes the moral ambiguity of the piece a bit less effective than it might otherwise be. Still, that's a problem that's largely behind the series at this point, given how thoroughly the family is shattered.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

2011 Hugo Award Shortlist: Initial Reactions

Nominees have just been announced. This will be my second consecutive year as a Hugo voter. My initial response to each category:

Best Novel:

Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
Feed, Mira Grant (Orbit)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
The Dervish House, Ian McDonald (Pyr; Gollancz)
Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis (Spectra)

This is a terrible shortlist. I appear to be in the minority on my dislike for Blackout/All Clear, and am in the distinct minority for my objections to Feed. I retain objections, though, and don't see these works as at all representative of the best of the year, in ambition, writing, basic quality control or in using tools of the genre. Willis' work is profoundly boring and stylistically framed. Feed banks heavily on the thoroughness of its imaginative concept while failing to think through its setting effectively and indulging in the worst kind of political strawmen and idiot plotting. One can read the novel in a more effective sense in, as the recent Strange Horizons review has it[1], as a sharp media satire, and that takes a little of the bitter taste from my mouth. Not all of it, though, as I'm not at all convinced that was the book Grant wrote. Cryoburn isn't as bad as either, but is in some ways even more disappointing: a strong writer returning to a familiar setting and doing about the minimum effort to string together a conventional plot. At least Feed and Blackout/All Clear were clearly significant investments in their author's time, for all that I felt it was misapplied they were labors of enthusiasm. Cryoburn suggests quite strongly that Bujold was bored and making little effort, re-running familiar scenarios into predictable plot that doesn't challenge or grow the characters. The politics are simplistic, the only powerful moments come in a coda unconnected to the main story, and the whole thing looks very tossed together. It's very dispiriting that readers will be so eager to embrace a familiar author and setting that they'd give nominee status to such a weak return.

The Dervish House is magnificent and hopefully it can win, but nothing else on the shortlist comes close to meriting its place. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is pretty good and does approach some themes in an interesting manner, but it fails to follow through on the implications enough. And while there's no Sawyer here, the result remains a shortlist that's 60% mediocre. Much weaker than last year's novel list, and almost as bad as 2009's. Although there at least is something to be said that the list isn't as familiar, with a number of new authors and returning ones at least not nominated recently. I'll also note that it's an 80% female shortlist, for what I'm guessing may be the highest ratio. It's a pity that on the level of content the voters seem to have generally embraced a conentional style over substance, with a focus on familiar World War Two moralizing, a regurgitation of the Vorkosigan setting and yet another exploration of the zombie phenomenon. In part I'm reacting to the disconnect from my own top preferences and votes, but beyond that I do feel there are a number of objective problems with this as a set of best science fiction and fantasy of the year. At least there is Dervish House, and to a lesser extent the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.


Best Novella:

"The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang" (Subterranean)
‘‘The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon'', Elizabeth Hand (Stories)
‘‘The Sultan of the Clouds'', Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov's 9/10)
‘‘Troika'', Alastair Reynolds (Godlike Machines)
‘‘The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window'', Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Summer 2010)

Three of these items I've read, two I voted for. Not at all surprised to see Chiang get in, am surprised and pleased that Reynolds made it. I've read the Swirsky and didn't vote for it, but I'm not too disgruntled it made it on, it's a decent enough story is not exceptional. Haven't read the other two, or their authors before, will look forward to this in the Hugo packet. Will have to see how they turn out, at present this looks like a stronger shortlist than last year's. 40% female shortlist.

Best Novelette:
‘‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow'', Aliette de Bodard (Asimov's 7/10)
‘‘Plus or Minus'', James Patrick Kelly (Asimov's 12/10)
‘‘Eight Miles'', Sean McMullen (Analog 9/10)
‘‘The Emperor of Mars'', Allen M. Steele (Asimov's 6/10)
‘‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made'', Eric James Stone (Analog 9/10

Haven't read any of these. Aliette de Boddard I was impressed with in her recent novel and I've heard good things about McMullen, beyond that it's a mystery. Look forward to diving into this, it seems the novelette category is usually pretty good and I don't see any glaring indications of clunkers. 20% female shortlist.

Best Short Story:
‘‘Ponies'', Kij Johnson ( 11/17/10)
‘‘For Want of a Nail'', Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov's 12/10)
‘‘Amaryllis'', Carrie Vaughn (Lightspeed 6/10)
‘‘The Things'', Peter Watts (Clarkesworld 1/10)

No Resnick on this or the other short fiction! Somewhat disturbing indication of the low attention given to short fiction, though, as there were only enough votes with 5% to clear four nominees. I've read the Watts and viewed it as fairly weak, undermined by his usual failings and not offering as much substance as his short fiction usually delivers. I'm familiar with Johnson and Kowal, both have done good stuff and I've seen Johnson do great work. Not familiar with Vaughn. 75% female shortlist.

Best Related Work:

*Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve, William H. Patterson, Jr. (Tor)
*The Business of Science Fiction: Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publishing, Mike Resnick & Barry N. Malzberg (McFarland)
*Writing Excuses, Season 4, Brandon Sanderson, Jordan Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells
*Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It, Lynne M. Thomas & Tara O'Shea, eds. (Mad Norwegian)
*Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001, Gary K. Wolfe (Beccon)

One of these works I voted for, the Wolfe reviews, which are really quite nice. Beyond that I've heard of the Chicks Dig Time Lords anthology, sounds a little shallow and fannish but has work by Valente and has an intriguing topic so I'm looking forward to it. I'm fairly indifferent to the Writing Excuses one at this time, but I'll leave room to be impressed by the voters' packet samples. The Business of Science Fiction looks actively irritating to me--a twist of fate that he's finally off the short fiction nominees but I'll have to read him regardless. I suppose I should reserve judgement, but given his business plan over at leas the last few years of getting sales and awards from terrible fiction, I'm not optimistic. And I'm almost certain I'm not going to like the Heinlein-focused work, I'm not at all interested in hearing more about him, and am pretty anti-Heinlein as a whole.

Best Graphic Story:

*The Unwritten, Vol. 2: Inside Man, Mike Carey; art by Peter Gross (Vertigo)
*Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, Phil & Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio (Airship Entertainment)
*Grandville Mon Amour, Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse)
*Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, Howard Tayler (Hypernode)
*Fables: Witches, Bill Willingham; art by Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)

Not interested in this category at all. I do notice that it's largely the same comic lines as it was last year.

Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
How to Train Your Dragon
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Toy Story 3

The most predictable category. I've seen Inception and Toy Story 3, and indeed voted for both, they're worthy nominees although I'm more interested in Toy Story 3 despite its weak genre content. Haven't seen the other three but they seem to be well regarded, I hadn't pegged Harry Potter getting in for some reason, but I'll take a look at these. There weren't a huge amount of options available for this category.

Best Dramatic Presentation Short
Doctor Who: ‘‘A Christmas Carol''
Doctor Who: ‘‘The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang''
Doctor Who: ‘‘Vincent and the Doctor''
Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury
The Lost Thing

Not all Doctor Who as I'd expected, never heard of the other two. The majority that is Doctor Who is far from ideal. "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang" is quite deserving, but I've never thought "Vincent and the Doctor" was worth the claim, and "A Christimas Carol" is incredibly low-stakes fluff with major plot holes. There were much better episodes to pick for the past season.


Lou Anders
Ginjer Buchanan
Moshe Feder
Liz Gorinsky
Nick Mamatas
Beth Meacham
Juliet Ulman


John Joseph Adams
Stanley Schmidt
Jonathan Strahan
Gordon Van Gelder
Sheila Williams


Daniel Dos Santos
Bob Eggleton
Stephan Martiniere
John Picacio
Shaun Tan


Weird Tales


Banana Wings
The Drink Tank
File 770

Don't care about any of these.

Best Fan Writer

James Bacon
Claire Brialey
Christopher J Garcia
James Nicoll
Steven H Silver

These are none of the people I voted for, and I'm not even sure I've heard about these.

Best Fan Artist:
Brad W. Foster
Randall Munroe
Maurine Starkey
Steve Stiles
Taral Wayne

The only name I recognize is Randall Munroe. Mixed feelings here, xkcd is a great strip, but not one that really deserves to have artwork as such lauded.

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer:
Saladin Ahmed
Lauren Beukes
Larry Correia
Lev Grossman
Dan Wells

Full backing for the Beukes, relative ignorance for the rest. Interesting that all of this shortlist are in their second year of eligibility.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The 2011 Clarke Award shortlist

Running through the shortlist in ascending order of preference:

6. Declare by Tim Powers. This one doesn't seem to have a large amount of defenders, and seems to have earned the general 'does not belong' standard that usually puts one nominee as significantly lower in ambition and quality than the others (Retribution Falls for last year). I don't hate the book, and my initial review was a lot more favorable than a lot of others. Still, the book doesn't work that great as speculative fiction, as spy fiction or as a take on history. It's the last element that, ironically, looks most vulnerable for the book's resurrection. It would probably have been possible to make a case for the book's weaving of mythological strands, conspiracies and the Cold War in 2001, but there's been too much great stuff written that melded speculative fiction with history since then. The Baroque Cycle, Baxter's Time's Tapestry series, Galileo's Dream which I've now mostly come around to liking, and especially Roberts' brilliant recent take on fanciful Soviet Union intrigue. Given that, Powers' work looks almost embarrassingly over-literal or, as I argued in my immediate reaction, very shallow.

5. Generosity by Richard Powers.
It's certainly more ambitious than the other Powers, and gives some interesting arguments and presentations on near-future science. I wondered for a bit in reading reviews, and even while reading it, if this wasn't actually a good book that I wasn't effectively positioned to appreciate. I'm still ambivalent, but I maintain that the work doesn't gel in some significant ways, the characters and story are awkward rather than truly effecting. I can recognize that a lot of people see great value in the work, and unlike Declare I don't view it as a real disappointment that it's on the list. Yet I don't get any value from the novel itself that I couldn't have obtained from some of the well done favorable reviews. Call it a testimony to overall analysis, but there still seem to be some non-trivial structural issues.

4. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes.
Very intriguing setting and overall tone, but there's a question of not quite enough plot to carry the work through, as well as this halting and drawing attention to some less justifiable aspects of the work. My views on the work have shifted several times, always thinking it's good but not quite consistently great. At present I'm in a lower level of regard currently, finding it easier to remember the awkwardness of the novel and a lack of meaning behind some elements. There's still a great setting though, all the more interesting for pushing a rich history, intricate urban fantasy and South African context. The book seems more substantial when read in relation to other works than in isolation.

3. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness.
The last and least satisfying volume in the Chaos Walking trilogy, and it brings the whole universe to conclusion that's less than I had hoped. Still, that's a minor grudge compared to the number of things this work does right: non-romantic male female relations, ambitious space environment, effective exploration of gender, aliens and personal identity. Pretty stunning ambition, all in all, compared with the genre as a whole, and in a way that makes YA exceedingly relevant in consideration of quality literature. My criticism would be that Ness in some ways tries to answer too much, and ends up filing off some of the more interesting ambiguities and questions of the series. It's not a cataclysmic drop in quality and it doesn't prevent the trilogy as a whole from being a major work, but it does seem to close off a lot even as it opens some other questions. In the end I find it a bit difficult to judge compared with other shortlisted items, it's still very entertaining and ambitious, but feels somewhat more restricted in its rounding-out-the-story format, and in how that story settles into a somewhat conventional framework. What is offered is interesting and challenging enough, in the setting as much as in the story, that in another year I'd have no hesitation in embracing this as the Clarke nominee, or finding some other way to laud the series as a whole. Not this year, though.

2. Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan
Very impressive work, and one that I feel somewhat similar to Spirit and Yellow Blue Tibia of last year. It's an excellent, genre-breaking and reconstruction work, a great novel that's close to the top for the year. Yet it doesn't quite make my own top five books, and is distinctly secondary to the best on this shortlist. Moving beyond comparison it's worth championing in its own light. It's a pretty narrow book, focusing on a couple of characters experience as they slowly develop understanding of the SFnal premise. There's perhaps more plot movement here than any other book on the shortlist, and Sullivan succeeds in establishing a great deal of happening in some brilliant writing.

1. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.
A work that I probably was too harsh on after my initial reading, but that's grown on me after a bit of time. Partly from drawing out the great strengths of the piece, particularly the way it re-centers expectations, but also because a different context allows me to compare it to things other than River of Gods and Brasyl. Taken as a shortlist I've not doubt that it's the strongest book by a considerable margin, four of the items are pretty great, but McDonald's is really the outstanding piece. Above anything else it's the best structured work here, as well as the best structured of McDonald's novels and arguably one of the most precisely designed narratives in recent science fiction. From first line to last the book connects prose, characterization, setting and plot in a very powerfully structured work. Even better is that McDonald has a lot of substance to say through this, and he offers it effectively in the direct arguments and the subtle, especially in relation to the market. It shows a future and more prominent Turkey, and one hovering at the brink of even more substantial changes but the leading thing is what the book shows as already happened: a richly woven past that includes unfamiliar non-Western cultural patterns, invented future circumstances and the record laid by anticipations of the future. It's more technically effective and beautiful than almost anything that gets written, ultimately.

The shortlist as a whole:

It's a strong list, certainly, almost certainly better than any other genre award is going to present (and quite likely the non-genre lists, although I lack enough familiarity to assess with real credibility). I experienced it as being a bit less than last year, as the two new items I read didn't really satisfy as against last year's discovery of Far North, a quite magnificent work. I was also in a position of reading Beukes and Ness' latest shortly after earlier ventures that I found more effective, giving the list a second-rate feeling that seems undeserved. So there's a lot of circumstantial factors at work here, although I also think there's some objective ground for criticism, in particular concerning the absence of Surface Detail, Red Plenty and the Windup Girl from this list, as it seems very hard to argue against any of these in terms of quality or core creativity. For all that I only guessed 50% it seems in some way to be an unsurprising list, or at least one that follows a fairly conventional pattern: the long-acclaimed discussion-provoking standpoint science fiction of the year (The Dervish House), the effective narrative deconstruction (Lightborn), the literary work previously given an enthusiastic Strange Horizons review (Generosity), the dubious claim to be science fiction but popular work (Zoo City) the surprising and widely praised choice (Monsters and Men) the surprising and widely condemned work (Declare). Largely non-British in character this time, one previous Clarke-winner, another that has been nominated, four other authors shortlisted for the first time. Most of the authors have a well built reputation, although Beukes has only been practicing for a few years. Two women, four men. Six different publishers.

Themes on the shortlist:
The titles do run together in some interesting ways, put it another way it's one of the shortlists that's stronger than the sum of its parts although not as a whole achieving the level of the strongest of them. It's a very presentist list, even for the Clarke, with three works basically a clock's turn from the current day (Generosity, Lightborn and Zoo City) one set during the Cold War (Declare) and one within the next generation (The Dervish House). Monsters of Men is the only distanced SF, for time or space, being set on another planet centuries in the future. It's also unusual in being one of the few YA books nominated, and a work that's not standalone. There have been books linked to a series that have been nominated, and even one (Baroque Cycle and Bold as Love) but not recently, and to my knowledge this book is unique for being the third volume of the trilogy and the first one to be nominated. Looking at this list in comparison with 2010's it seems more standalone titles, less meta-fictional. If last year's science fiction depended to a large degree on familiarity with preceding texts, for detective noir (City & the City), the Count of Monte Cristo (Spirit), science fiction as a whole (Yellow Blue Tibia), the adventure template and Firefly (Retribution Falls), Galileo's texts (Galileo's Dream) and The Road (Far North) it was a set of texts rather uniquely framed as commentary on what the condition of writing was at. This year seems more focused on where people are in terms of larger community, the main focus seems less on literary patterns and texts as such, and more on questions of wider community. The Dervish House makes this centrally, with different lives from the city used to flesh out an invented future and unfamiliar past, for a story with much plot around literary codes in a near-occult investigation it's ultimately concerned with the ways of understanding and remaking community. Lightborn focuses on very similar things in the context of a traumatic transition that proves less apocalyptic than the setup or standard conventions would seem to demand. The same point could be made with Monsters and Men, although there's some tension with specifically YA questions of personal accomplishment the story is much more about how opposed communities can co-exist, and how the politics of information impact on this. There's arguably some similar concerns at work with Zoo City, although with less overall coherence which points to some of the problems in embracing this novel. As well Generosity brings in a concern with social process relating to happiness as well as the individual level, and Declare is about the (magical, conspiratorial) processes offered as gloss over large-scale political stability in Britain and the Soviet Union.

To an extent most science fiction is about imagined communities, but the items on this year's shortlist seem particularly interested in exploring strains and rebuilding of this in close relation to the present day. It's notable that in this process it's less dystopian than most other shortlists that come to mind. All the invented societies have problems and profound tensions, but none of them are doomed, and all rally elements of hope and even optimism.

Conspicuous absence from this shortlist: Mieville. He's been almost consistently nominated, and usually won, since Perdido Street Station, and Kraken was less fantasy-linked than two of the current nominees. I'm pleased to see this development, though, while Kraken was quite good it seemed a step down from his recent material, and Mieville has gotten quite enough Clarke exposure. I'd be inclined to not see him on the Clarke unless he again comes up with something awesomely challenging and distinct from anything he'd previously written. Perhaps I'm putting impossibly high standards on him, but for a triple Clarke-winner it makes sense to use a pretty high bar.

The Dervish House will win, as it well deserves to. It's a book that subsequent years will be seen as even more significant than it is now, a moving beyond customary assumptions that yields insight in context of McDonald's larger career and science fiction as a whole. The awarding will be one of the choices that people looking back will use to show it's effectiveness, as one of the relatively uncontroversial, popular and critically beloved works that stands the test of time--much like 2006's award Air. Lightborn should also age pretty well, in the context of female science fiction, inter-generational stories, deconstructions of zombie fiction, Sullivan's larger career and post-cyberpunk. Zoo City and Monsters of Men will be decently regarded five years from now, and the nomination will help draw deserving attention to both authors. Declare is unlikely to look any more appealing in another ten years time, and the clunkiness of its Cold War focus and the anachronism of the nomination will probably make this seem a bit of a puzzler looking back, a rough equivalent to Martin Martin or Streaking, although it is much better written than either. Generosity is the wild card in terms of long-term trends, as it's not generally classified as SF for most of its readers, and will either age well or badly. Confessing that I don't really get the appeal of it now, it might be seen as a neglected classic that the Clarke jury shrewdly recognized--I'm not sure.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Science Fiction and Fantasy from 2010

Here's the novels that I read from the past year, in descending level of quality by my own estimation.

First Tier: Excellent, future classics. Will stand the test of time as great accomplishments.

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
The Habitation of the Blessed by Cathrynne Valente
Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Second Tier: Great. Not perfect, but all of these are beyond usual quality by a significant margin, showing good prose, plotting and an effective central concept.

The House of Discarded Dream by Ekaterina Sedia
Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter
Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
Zendegi by Greg Egan
The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz
Harmony by Project Itoh
The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds
Kraken by China Mieville
2017 by Olga Slavnikova
Noise by Darin Bradley
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitcehll
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Sleepless by Charlie Huston
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan
Horns by Joe Hill
Antiphon by Ken Scholes
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Deceiver by C. J. Cherryh
Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
The Fixed Stars by Brian Conn
The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett
The Ninth Wave by Russell Celyn Jones
Above the Snowline by Steph Swainston
Up Jim River by Michael Flynn
The Dream of Max & Ronnie by Niall Griffiths
The Third Bear by Jeff Vandermeer
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
White Ravens by Owen Sheers
He Walked Among Us by Norman Spinrad
Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregellis
The Restoration Game by Ken Macleod
Light Boxes by Shane Jones

Third tier: Good. More to praise than to condemn about these, although enough limitations that they're unlikely to stand the test of time in the same way as the above, and in some cases severe problems become apparent.

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
Meeks by Julia Holmes
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Evolutionary Void by Peter Hamilton
The Meat Tree by Gwyneth Lewis
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
The Poison Eaters by Holly Black
Zero History by William Gibson
Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire
Chill by Elizabeth Bear
Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett
Black Hills by Dan Simmons
The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
C by Tom McCarthy
The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross
Yarn by John Armstrong
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire
The Waters Rising by Sheri Tepper
A Special Place by Peter Straub
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

Fourth Tier: Bad. Would not recommend any of these, and would not have read these if I'd known the net experience. A range of problems and qualities, from the merely disappointing to the infuriatingly terrible, but these are either a misuse of the author's talent or evidence that the author doesn't possess any.

The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan
The Radleys by Matt Haig
Changes by Jim Butcher
Feed by Seanan McGuire
Blackout by Connie Willis
All Clear by Connie Willis
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Starbound by Joe Haldeman

So, overall the first lesson from this is that it was a high quality array, and in ratio I think better of this collection than I did the 2009 works.

Second, some fun with numbers. 45 of the 82 novels were science fiction, 34 were fantasy and 3 I'd describe as unclassifiable. I noticed in going through this a much higher ratio of the books I considered great were science fiction than fantasy, although it more evenly balanced at the top and bottom of quality. I didn't have as much an impression this year compared with the 2009 reading that many of the most engaging breakout successes were fantasy, while there were a lot of works I enjoyed a lot in fantasy, the SF I read seemed overall better. 37 of the 82 were by authors I had read previous to this project, 45 were new to me. Another aspect that vindicates this project, since I doubt I'd have read more than 10 of the new ones without this focus, and overall they were pretty rewarding.
54 by male authors, 28 by female. Relatively slanted ratio there, not sure how much is caused by published trends or my own pattern of selection within that.

In more subjective terms this appeared to be the year a lot of bigname authors returned with new works, but a lot of them were disappointing. Not entirely--Baxter and Egan were at their usual form, Banks and McDonald were superb, Cherryh was quite good--but there were a number ofre under-performing works from familiar names. Bujold's Cryoburn is perhaps the strongest example of that, because she returned after a long absence to a very rich setting and set of characters, and made what was just minimally competent. Macleod's Restoration Game was a lot better made, but still far under what he's shown himself capable of, and Gibson's Zero History proved a basically unnecessary rephrasing of his earlier triumphs, plus a plot that's forgettable even for him. Add in my very low opinion of Willis' historical retro-epic and Haldeman's indefensibly awful Starbound, and as a whole it doesn't look like the year for trusting long-established major writers. Instead a lot of the greatest surprises and most enjoyable experiences came from relative newcomers, many of them writing for the first time, or writing adult genre for the first time. This seems to indicate that keeping up with the potential for the field involves embracing the newer voices and different techniques. In some areas concepts of the future are just beginning to be uncovered.

For themes this was a good year for apocalyptic fiction, in both overall numbers and relative quality. There were weaker stories in this theme that I read, certainly, most revolving around embracing cliches of the zombie subfield. Yet there were also great books written about the process of collapse (Noise, Cold Earth, Sleepless, 2017) and the weird alternative system that could arise (The Fixed Stars, Who Fears Death, Lightborn, Shipbreaker). It seems to point to a connection with larger cultural circumstances, as the right regrouped and seized major areas of government, new disasters flourished and the future of civilization and consensus derived from this seemed tenuous. Yet many of the authors didn't just use this as a sense of gloom, but took the form of disaster to imagine how the mentality of collapse and aftermath would feel like. In imagining what comes after there's some major hopeful aspects that seem to reclaim the notion of science fiction as a basis for championing human dignity in crucial ways.

Going along with that, in the bigger picture it's surprising how much optimism there across the narratives of this year. There are the range of apocalyptic stories and dystopias, naturally, but also a lot more explicitly utopian content than one would expect--expected in Banks' return to the Culture universe, but also featuring in Harmony's societal reimagining, to an extent in the alternate society of Habitation of the Blessed, and also optimism towards the future that appear in Dervish House, Zendegi, Terminal World and The Golden Age. It's a different atmosphere than last year, impacted so heavily by the appearance of City & the City and Windup Girl, and in seems in certain ways more welcome to hopeful themes.

Of course these generalizations apply more to science fiction that I read than fantasy, about the latter I find it hard to make larger conclusions. Almost every work seems clearly driven by the author's unique stylistic tendencies and larger goals, it seems that on the whole these aren't bodies of work that are in strong dialog with each other. To a large extent this could be my own methodological bias, but I feel that it's possible to compare the contrasting near futures of, say, New Model Army, The Dervish House and Zendegi for the similarities and differences in what they say the future will be like, and how the narratives set out doing this. It's harder to compare, say, Shades of Milk and Honey, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Black Hills, as they're addressing very different areas with separate concerns and sets of internal dialog. Looking through this there are a lot of fantasies that I thought succeeded or failed on the strength of their characterization, the degree to which they rendered main characters caught in unique circumstances as effective human complexities. The House of Discarded Dreams, for instance, which in its specific details brought the work to a much higher level of quality than I would have expected from a plot description. Or take Our Tragic Universe, rather ambiguously genre, and which succeeds entirely in terms of the small everyday aspects that it's able to render. Perhaps the shift I traced from 2009 to 2010 above wasn't so much alterations in the genre as changes in my own reading. It does appear that a lot of the books from 2010, and particularly the ones that I most valued were quieter than I usually expect of science fiction and fantasy. Even many of the apocalypses were intimate instead of noisy (Cold Earth in particular) and The Dream of Perpetual Motion was exceptional in its small-scale focus rather than any wider sociological construct. Perhaps that's why I didn't find Mieville's Kraken anywhere near as good as his earlier books. In its overall rush and thriller plot it seemed somewhat less thoughtful than previous efforts, making him at least in my view out of step with the very best that SFF is producing.

It'll be interesting to see how well this slate of books ages in even five year's time, but at present I'm well pleased with where the field is now and where it seems to be going.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

All Clear

by Connie Willis

I really didn't like this volume, and felt that it shared most of the failings of Blackout rather than raising the quality of the overall work. Beyond specific problems this extended novel feels self-indulgent, committing too much to the author's interest rather than providing an unique, interesting science fiction scenario. At an even more basic level it fails to entertain, not doing enough with especially the characterization and plot. The sense of this being a work not very oriented towards the reader's enjoyment comes with the whole setup for the novel. Blackout had so little indication going in that it was half the story, with no attempt to leave off at a satisfying people that it seems to have annoyed quite a few readers. Clear Air doesn't do much better, picking up the story without any real summary, character overview, preface or indication of the story to date. There isn't even a specific title given to the Blackout/All Clear duology. Someone could pick this off the shelves and, if they didn't read the Acknowledgments, believe that this was somewhat of a stand alone volume. As was it's such a continuation that apparently Willis expected readers to purchase volume 1 after it came out, and either reread it or absorb it for the first time directly before purchasing volume 2. That's asking a fairly large leap of faith.

With the story itself, it's a frustrating one. At some point my criticisms here are going to fall into the book not having the story I would have wanted, but as is I don't think the story provided is very good. Extremely little happens, and that through a glacial pace. There is nowhere near enough plot in the books to justify 1,100 pages and the process of having this play out quickly becomes tedious. Long conversations where people slowly uncover the obvious and coincidental near-misses act to make huge sections of the book fee unnecessary. Even on its own terms, without a lot of contrivance things should have come to a head hundreds of pages earlier. One particular soar spot were the chapters that showed 2060, with one character trying to assess data and preparing for his own trip. It's unnecessary, overlong and ruins the shock value when someone in '41 thinks she sees him, since we know too much to fuel the drama here. Not even Stephenson at his most bloated went so long with so little narrative basis, and Willis' unfortunate approach in this book also builds up the redundancy in the book to an intolerable degree. It feels by the end that there were dozens of separate conversations between the characters about the issue of the retrieval team, waiting for the retrieval team, wondering why the retrieval team hadn't yet managed to retrieve them, and so forth.

Of course the bulk of these books and the rather thin plot are all in service of Willis' main interest, an exploration of the daily lives and crucial heroism of the small people during the Blitz. Certainly the dedication page and the final thematic point hammered that in, and it is in itself a touching notion, to use contemporary science fiction as a tribute for a specific historical time period. That's an approach that makes the time travel in itself of minimal significance, and focuses attention on the juxtaposition between the past and the future, grounding things in a heavily researched environment.

The problem was that I didn't believe any of it. Partly it was the errors Willis made in representing this period in the past. More significantly was the unbelievable way the future historians would written, with the whole plot depending on relentless, over the top stupidity. The main characters and their larger situation shattered my suspension of disbelief continually, acting in a manner just too unbelievable for historians, time travelers and specifically time-traveling historians that had been prepped for this era and knew there was a history of things going wrong. Behind the rather dubious notion of sending historians to active war zones, we also have Mr. Dunworthy knowing full well that slippage was occurring, that people might not end up where they were expecting. Yet he rearranged things in an attempt to minimize the really dangerous points, sending people that got into areas they weren't sufficiently familiar with. This was setup in the first book, but we also see his perspective here, and it really drives home the fact that there's no adequately explored reason for why he went through with the trip under the circumstances.

Beyond that, the main characters are both interchangeable and stupid, sounding far too alike in their thought patterns and not having enough sense to be believed. These are historians with only vague knowledge of aspects of World War Two beyond the specific dates they expected to go, with no backup plan besides waiting for the retrieval team when the slippage occurs. Beyond that they aren't conversant with variants of sources and the archival process that we have even now. At one point there's several pages of drama sucked from the idea that Polly doesn't know the year of the Reign of Terror, and is left in anxiety and uncertainty as to whether it was more than three years after the French Revolution. [page 122] The way the plot develops and specifically its slow pace forces awkwardness to the characters, and ultimately serves to make the whole situation pointless, undermining credibility in all the interactions with the past. The story is woefully dependent on the situation of time travel and the characters that experience it, making the basic incredibility of these elements problematic.

Beyond that I just don't think Willis is a very good writer, on the level of prose, expressing emotion and expressing thoughts the whole text comes across as labored, awkward and rather redundant. I suppose this will have to remain a point on which we agree to disagree, but for a book where so little was happening it made the reading rather a draining experience. I do think there is a pretty clear case that sentiment runs in the way of effective drama in this book, where the cutsey, personalized details run against the attempt at real grimness. Willis' instincts run more to strength in comedy than tragedy, leaving the attempted representation of grimness as rather halting. So, for instance, the attempt by the characters to imagine the horror of interference and a German occupation of Britain [page 400] is little more than a list of names for friends that would be executed, there's a failure in imagination of how this horror would actually feel. Similarly the reluctance to really kill or damage main characters makes the story too comfy, too sage to really suit. What hampers this is a strong lack of subtlety, in the way that Agatha Christie's stories are blatantly name dropped, then she appears in a cameo, then a major character's presence is setup through a Christie-style murder mystery. There's no nuance in how this is applied, and the lack of trust in teh reader to figure out a more involved mystery weakens the book. It's all too contrived and reductive to have the necessary dramatic presence. At best its a fairly specific formula which overstays its presence in the text.

In the last hundred pages we're finally provided an explanation for some of what's going on. This is, at least, something, which gave the project a bit of energy and sense of meaning that was rather lacking in Blackout. I didn't experience it as enough, however, either on its own terms or in view of how long and slow the buildup to this point was. The notion of the continuum as being living and willed if not conscous in some fashion isn't in itself a hugely creative insight, and offers the type of general pantheism applied to SF tropes that have been done elsewhere and done better. Likewise, the notion that the historians' presence might actually be making changes that are needed for the larger system is a pretty obvious inversion, and doesn't show the characters in a good light when the reader is able to guess this hundreds of pages earlier. I also have a problem with this mechanism as it's presented, as it plays to the overly sentimental nature of Willis' writing again. Her eventual resolution depends on the assumption that the whole network of timetraveling depended on the defeat of Nazi Germany, that while it couldn't prevent the rise of the Third Reich it did manipulate individual historians' positioning in the Blitz to allow crucial small details to add up. For this resolution to be credible we have to accept that the continuum shares twenty first century liberal humanist values, that the defeat of Nazi Germany is a common necessity. That's not something the book has demonstrated enough, there hasn't been the detailed examination of the nature of this historical evil that would make sense of the existential struggle. An apparently gnostic situation turning to a deus ex machina should have more force than this, but for all the focus on detail it depends on general representations of 'Churchill Good, Hitler Bad' without manifesting them in a compelling fashion.

In the end I'd say the Blackout/All Clear text is ambitious in all the wrong ways. It goes on very long in focus of a single idea, but it does so in service of rather trite conclusions that aren't expressed in a well written, interesting or well characterized manner.

Similar to and Better Than: Harbringer by Jack Skillingstead

Similar to and Worse Than: Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt, a book I also didn't like.