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.