Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City (Prologue), by John Scalzi

The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City (Prologue) is nominated for a Hugo.  This is pretty darned funny as the story is an April Fool's joke, and none too subtle at that.  And the joke has many layers to it.  I think it got and deserved its nomination as a reward for the subtlety of the humor behind the really obvious slapstick of it.  One can't really describe it, you just have to go read it, and it's not that big a deal, won't take long.  Go do it and have a nice chuckle.  3 stars for fun.

The Homecoming, by Mike Resnick

The Homecoming is Mike Resnick's 34th Hugo nominated publication, which is pretty darned amazing.  He is such a pro at writing it's hard to imagine him turning out anything not at least worthy of consideration for an award.  But while this story is worthy of consideration, it's not a contender, at least in my mind. 

The story is pretty direct and familiar--a son has left his family and become completely different from the person they knew.  Literally, in this case.  The protagonist's son is in an artificial alien body, necessary for studying the aliens he is with.  This makes him not human, in the father's mind.  They struggle to reconcile, but do, in the end.  This doesn't spoil it really.  It's a nice story and well done, but it's pretty much a poster.  If you read it you will like it, so go do that.  I give it three stars for execution. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Copenhagen Interpretation, by Paul Cornell

The Hugo Awards are out for this year.  In the shorter categories there's a lot of overlap in what's available online between the Nebulas and Hugos.  The Copenhagen Interpretation is one of three stories that don't overlap.

If it seems to come in a bit in the middle, that's because it does.  According to Cornell's website, it's the third in the series. Continental Europe has continued to dominate the world scene into the space age, with all the powers struggling to maintain the "balance" that now, if tipped, threatens to annihilate the world.  So we have a mix of DWEM manners and SF tropes like spacetime "folds".  The story is a competent spy thriller in its own right.  It might hold up better as part of a novel with the others.  As is, it's OK but not a threat to win. 3 stars.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Among Others, by Jo Walton

Among Others is one of the Nebula and Hugo award nominees for 2011, and I would not be at all surprised to see it get a World Fantasy Award nomination as well. It's pretty much tailor made to get an award--the protagonist is a serious SF fan from the 70's which coincides nicely with Boomer award voters.  The standout element of the book for me, and probably for those voters too, is the continuous shout-out of familiar authors and titles from that time--Zelazny, Zenna Henderson, Simak, Silverberg--it goes on and on.  Vonnegut.  Etc.  So it's got an automatic appeal to those of us who lived (and maybe still live) for the moments we have to read our beloved genre.

So how is it as a current story?  Here I am not so sure.  The protagonist suffers the very real pains of exclusion, because of her interaction with magic and fairies.  The magic is always deniable--natural events could have brought it about--and the fairies are definitely supernatural beings but that's just what she calls them.  Morganna is a reasonably engaging character but matter of fact to the point of flat affect.  She moves through the world and cares very much about the SF elements, but not a lot else.  The book doesn't really build at all--Mor (that's what she goes by) is so fully preoccupied by her books that she seems to barely notice the fantastical elements in her life.  And this is deliberate.  My library classifies it as a YA title, but none of those 70's books are going to resonate at all unless the reader has really been digging--those books don't have a prominent place in libraries anymore (though libraries certainly have a prominent place in the book). 

So what we have here is very much "inside baseball".  Stronger as a contender for the award than as a novel in its own right.  I still give it 4 stars because reading all those old titles was so much fun--I had actually read the vast majority of them.  If you are a die hard SF fan you will like it for that too.

Fields of Gold, by Rachel Swirsky

I wrote a review of this about 10 days ago, but somehow it did not post.  So I will try again...

Fields of Gold is a Nebula nominated novelette.  It's a good example of a "what happens after you die" story, and I think it's a pretty strong candidate for the award.  Our protagonist has died young, diabetic coma, and is now in the afterlife.  The first event is a big party where everyone important to you, apparently including fictional characters, shows up.  We get a review of Charlie's life and disappointments, as well as its few triumphs, but it is not mean-spirited or sad.  It's a hard story to describe other than to say it is sweet and makes you glad you read it.  We even get an idea of what Heaven might be like.  So it's a nice story, and I'm giving it a strong three stars.  Go check it out.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Broken Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

The Broken Kingdoms is a catch-up read for me, as I intend to read Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods this year.  The latter is book 3 of the Inheritance Trilogy, thus The Broken Kingdoms is Book 2.  So much for that.

The first book in the series, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is quite the sprawling affair, where wildly powerful beings are commonplace.  The story is highly entertaining.  Based on the sample in that book, I expected The Broken Kingdoms to be of smaller scale, kind of an opposite.  It does start that way, but quickly builds to warp fantasy speed.  I wasn't at all disappointed, Jemisin brings this off very well.

Our protagonist, Oree Shoth, is a blind woman from a race whose land was wiped out by the Nightlord (one of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' three Gods) earlier.  She lives in the Shadow of the Tree the reborn third god of the trio caused to grow in the first book.  And she is "plagued by gods", surrounded by the children of the three, including a very strange and taciturn one she calls Shiny.  Shiny is not what he seems, that much is obvious, and thus the ride begins.

Jemisin's over-the-top style is quite fun.  Too much is never enough for her.  Yet through it all she maintains a sense of proportion, and the human emotions are human-scale.  Thus a very unreal story of gods and godlings becomes a very down-to-earth story of love and its price.  You feel like you at least sort of understand all the characters, whatever their scale.  I give this one four stars, and am very much looking forward to reading the last one.  Hopefully I can convince my public library to buy it, but I may just break down and buy it for them.  We'll see.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Embassytown, by China Mieville

Embassytown is nominated for a Nebula for 2011, and I think it's the one to beat.  Here's why:

China Mieville's novels are great examples of "idea" SF.  But not just any ideas, or explorations of technology--Mieville goes after philosophy.  In The City and The City he very purely explored ideas of place, and how one knows where one belongs.  Embassytown has more of the tropes of SF--it's set on an alien planet, with alien beings and technology--but it's every bit as idea driven.  The core idea being one of semiotics.

A perennial problem in philosophy is that of reference, significance and anaphora--how we come to associate things in the world with our language.  A pretty tough idea to convey as problematic, but Mieville will give you an introduction with his Ariekenes, a race where language does not signify and there is no anaphora.  Ariekenes speak Language, with two mouths (which makes for some interesting typography), and the words are wired directly into their nervous systems.  They construct "similes" out of living humans and other things to give substance to comparisons, their thinking tools.  The central trouble comes when they are sent an Ambassador (pair of humans) from Earth that speaks Language in such a way that they become addicted to it.

It takes a lot of work for Mieville to get this across, but it comes clear as the drama unfolds.  He has fun with other words--he introduces the term "floaking", for a certain sort of taking advantage of what one knows and being acceptably productive without working hard.  It's kind of unattractive or it would make its way into the vernacular.

The human characters are harder to appreciate, though they are worthwhile.  The protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, is a starship navigator and accomplished floaker, kind of drifting until the crisis peaks in Embassytown.  She proves acceptably sympathetic to drive the plot.

It took a bit for the book to get going, but it's definitely worth the work.  You will think differently after you read it, just as the Ariekenes do.  Read it for fun, and particularly appreciate it if you enjoy thinking about what words do.  We haven't had this much fun with semiotics since The Name of the Rose. I give it 4 stars.