Tuesday 30 May 2017

The Berlin Project (2017) Gregory Benford

It was with some surprise that we noted that Gregory Benford’s name has never appeared on the shortlist for the Best Novel Hugo Award. For a novelist who enjoyed significant success from the 1970s to the 1990s, and who was well loved by other SF awards, it’s surprising that Benford never ended up on the shortlist for the biggest prize of all in genre.

There are reasons to believe his latest novel may be his best shot yet at finally adding that Best Novel Hugo to his list of accolades.
Image via Amazon.com

This book is Benford’s first novel as sole author in more than a decade, and it’s a departure for him. But in many ways, the Berlin Project feels like the novel that Benford was born to write.

Written with evident affection

His knowledge of the people he’s writing about shines through, and they feel like fully rounded human beings, in a way that some of the protagonists in his previous novels have not. These are people that Benford knows, and he writes about them with evident affection. While the science is front and centre (not unusual in a Benford novel), the characters do not take a backseat.

The first 350 pages are a taught, meticulously researched alternate history that delves into the nitty-gritty technical details of the race to build an atomic bomb. It’s a believable departure from the real history. One small decision made differently that makes sense, and everything flows from that departure point.

The interpersonal tensions and big personalities of the real-world Manhattan Project make for some fascinating reading as they tackle the issues surrounding the creation of the first atomic bombs. This novel is gripping, right up until the first bomb is dropped.

Tonal shift

The protagonists of the book.
Image via www.uchicago.edu
It is unfortunate, however, that most of the last 100 pages do not live up to the promise of the first 350.

The story takes an odd turn when the main character embarks on a spy mission in occupied France. While the characterizations remain strong, the plot wanders. Later scenes involving the German military command and the post-war peace are well handled, but the book never regains the energy and excitement of the first 350 pages.

Despite the flaws in the later portion of the book, this may well be Benford’s masterpiece. The end notes on the research and the musings of Manhattan Project scientists about the mistakes they made in the uranium enrichment process only add to the appeal of this book.

Whether or not this makes it to the Hugo shortlist, it should definitely be a strong contender for the Sidewise Award.

Saturday 27 May 2017

The Hugo For Best Graphic Story (Part 2) – The ballot in 2017

This is part two of a two-part blog post. The first part, discussing the history of the category, is found here. 

Given the problematic history of this category, the shortlist this year for Best Graphic Story is mostly of a surprisingly consistent professional calibre. Some are only marginally worth being on a Hugo ballot, but none of them are completely risible as nominees.

The only real outlier — Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther — is an understandable nomination given the highly anticipated series had such potential, started off promisingly, and received a fair amount of media attention. One can understand why it received a nomination, despite its deep flaws.

Second servings not as good

Previous winners from high-profile publishers, Ms. Marvel and Saga, are back with new volumes.
Too many crossovers
spoil a great series.
(Image via Marvel.com)

Saga has started to get into a bit of a rut, with the same notes being replayed. The first volume of the series is one of the most worthy winners of the Hugo for Best Graphic Story … but volume six does not offer the same sense of wonder as its predecessor.

Ms. Marvel’s fifth volume definitely offers more narrative progress, but it’s also closely tied into and influenced by a massive multi-comic-book crossover that makes it more impenetrable to new readers.

It’s hard to count either of them out, because this category has often returned to the well for nominees and winners. However, these two books should definitely not win.

Under the radar but delightful

Paper Girls — which is written by Saga creator Bryan K. Vaughn — is a real treat to see on the ballot. It’s a kick-ass, inventive little book that follows a group of young girls who deal with the consequences of an alien invasion. It will be difficult to keep this story going as an ongoing series, but for now it’s just a delight.

Image via
The least well-known of the nominees, Monstress by Majorie Liu and Sana Takeda, is also one of the most worthy. The creative team uses the medium with skill and nuance to create a well-realized and inventive fantasy world. The feminist subtext helps make this a definite contender.

The Vision: Little Worse Than A Man is more of a science fiction comic than anything that Marvel has published in a decade, despite featuring a lead character who is a regular of the mainstream Avengers. The garish ‘50s-style colour palette, and the goofy backstory of the character, are completely subverted as Tom King has crafted something moody and thoughtful that is more informed by Asimov’s robot stories than by 50 years of Marvel continuity.

This is a solid Hugo ballot with three completely reasonable choices.  We are likely to cast our ballots for Monstress and for Paper Girls. For once in this category, “No Award" is unlikely to be on our ballot.

Thursday 25 May 2017

The Hugo For Best Graphic Story (Part 1)

This is part one of a two-part blog post. The second part, discussing this year's nominees, is found here. 

This trophy is fine, but a
rocket ship is just classier.
(Image via willeisner.com)
Best Graphic Story is one of the newest categories for the Hugo Awards, and unfortunately, it’s the one that has always felt like it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the awards.

Because two well-established comic book awards (the Eisners and Harveys) exist —and because they often celebrate the quasi-SciFi of superhero stories — the Hugo for Best Graphic Story doesn’t seem to carry as much weight as the other Hugo awards. 

The award can seem redundant, especially when the Hugos recognize a superhero comic book. 

Some worthwhile works have been honoured in the first decade of the award, but a look over the shortlists from 2009-2016 reveals a lot of fandom’s in-jokes, media tie-ins, and works created by people we know within the Worldcon community. 

In short, the Best Graphic Story category has been treated in part like a fan writer category and in part like a professional category. That hasn’t been fair to either group. 

Missed opportunities

Ironically, the inferior movie
adaptation "Edge of Tomorrow"
did get a Hugo nomination. 
Because of this profusion of questionable nominees, some significant works of fantasy and science fiction went unrecognized in the first several years of the Best Graphic Story Hugo. Walt Simonson’s Ragnarok (2014), All You Need Is Kill by Hoski Sakurazaka (2015) and Beasts Of Burden by Evan Dorkin (2009) all spring to mind. 
One solution to this conundrum would be to split the award into a fan-created category and a professional category. But this might not solve the more fundamental problems caused by the comic book industry’s overreliance on superhero tropes.

We have to recognize that the superhero genre is a weird niche in science fiction, whose traditions and themes do not hew to many of the same ideas that inform the rest of the genre. Superheros can be classified as science fiction, but that does a disservice to both creative traditions — Kal-El and Bruce Wayne have little in common with Paul Atreides, Hari Seldon, Frodo Baggins, or Valentine Michael Smith.

XKCD is awesome. It richly
 deserves the Hugo it received.
(Image via XKCD.com) 

Be conscious of our mandate

As such, when nominating works in the Best Graphic Story category of the Hugos, Worldcon members should consider whether something is a great comic book with fantastical elements, or whether it is a great work of science fiction or fantasy that happens to be a comic book. The former type of work is probably best left to the Eisner and Harvey awards.

If there is to be a Hugo for Best Graphic Story, we as Hugo voters must continue to be deliberately conscious of what our mandate is, what the purpose of the award is, and why this award is relevant.

Saturday 20 May 2017

1973: The Worst Hugo Award

1973 was a very good year. Income inequality was at its historical lowest in America, union density was at its highest, major victories were happening in civil rights.

But in the world of science fiction, it was the year that one of the worst novels ever to win the top Hugo award was honoured for all the wrong reasons.
In 1973, this was considered fashionable.
(Photo via Todd Elhers

Solid Nominees

Let’s take a quick look at the six books on that year’s Hugo novel short list:

When Harlie Was One by Tribbles-creator David Gerrold is an excellent novel about an artificial intelligence and a psychologist whose job is to evaluate it. It’s a book that is rich with insight about what it means to be human, has well-developed characters, and a compelling story arc. It’s definitely Gerrold’s finest work.

Time travel aficionado Poul Anderson explored some of his well-worn themes in There Will Be Time. But he did so in interesting ways, weaving in ecological themes, cultural diversity, and human evolution. The result is a fine novel that holds up well today.

Long before Raymond Kurtzweil or Vernor Vinge made the technological singularity a literary trope in SF, Clifford D. Simak explored the concept through the eyes of a tribe of Native Americans left behind after the rest of the human race disappears. It’s an interestingly weird novel that foreshadows The Peace War, Marooned In Realtime, and other singularitarian works.

The Year Of Silverberg

Robert Silverberg became the only author to have two novels shortlisted for the Hugo in the same year, with both The Book Of Skulls and Dying Inside in contention. Over his career, Silverberg has racked up nine total nominations for best novel without having ever won, but these two should have been his best chances.  

The Book Of Skulls — about four college students vying for immortality at a high cost — is probably the weaker of the two.

Dying Inside is a sublime novel, understated yet rich. The prose is light and effective. The protagonist
Dying Inside is more than just
a genre classic.
(Image via Wikipedia
David Selig is a telepath living in modern-day New York, whose mind-reading powers have left him a wreck of a human being. He has no close friends, no real career, and makes a living helping college students cheat. The novel details how he is losing his “gift,” the one thing that makes him who he is. I still cannot believe that Dying Inside didn’t win the Hugo that year.

Nostalgia Triumphs

So what did take home the prize? The mostly forgotten Isaac Asimov novel The Gods Themselves. It’s a stitch-together of three short stories about an interdimentional energy crisis. Hard to deny that it’s an ambitious work, and it’s hard to deny that some of the science-fictional physics are interesting. But it’s dull. And plodding. And ungainly. It has not aged well, and it is not Asimov at his best.

So why did it win? Probably because Asimov had never won the best novel Hugo at that point. And probably because it was Asimov’s first original science fiction novel in more than a decade (his previous SF novel being a mostly-forgettable movie adaptation of Fantastic Voyage in 1966). And possibly the Silverberg vote was split between two worthy nominees.

Beyond just the misstep of having the worst nominee win, there were several memorable omissions from the shortlist — the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic is now considered a must-read classic. John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up looks better every year. And Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream is a hilarious takedown of right-wing misogynist SF tropes that seems relevant to today’s Sad Puppies imbroglio.

1972/73 was a year with a lot of great science fiction novels. That year's Hugo Award Winner isn’t among those.

Friday 19 May 2017

The Obelisk Gate – Book Club 2017 – First book discussed

The Obelisk Gate is a worthy nominee for the Hugo Award, but most of us didn’t feel that it was as good as Fifth Season.

True to form, N.K. Jemisin’s writing is strong, her characters are well crafted, and the world building is interesting. And yet the book falls somewhere short of what we had hoped for. 

Although it sounds a bit strange, many of us tried to figure out what had actually happened in the book. As it turns out, not all that much. While interesting context is provided for the events of the preceding book and information is offered about the challenges to come, the characters didn’t actually do very much or move the plot along in any significant ways.

Second-Book Syndrome

Perhaps the book suffers from being the second in a trilogy. As such, it can’t have the originality and vigor of a first book and also can’t have as epic a conclusion as a third book.

Jemisin’s strength as a writer and deft social commentary make this a worthwhile read. Questions of race, class and gender are explored thoughtfully and with nuance. The characters speak with their own voices, and grow.

Alabaster’s slow decline as he tries to pass along knowledge to Essun, and Essun’s growing control of her magic could have been nothing more than a Hero’s Journey ™ like that of Obi-Wan and Luke. But Jemisin’s more nuanced character building elevates this relationship to something more touching and poignant.  Again, she raises the readers’ expectations as they progress through the book.

N.K. Jemisin
Photo from SFWA
The book’s final 50 pages are where the second-book syndrome really comes to the forefront, because nothing is resolved other than knowing that there are significant actions to come. Needing to read the next book to have a dénouement is not a satisfying ending. 

Back-To-Back Hugos?

The Hugo Awards have often honoured multiple books in a well-loved series, but usually not in back-to-back years, and usually only when the author has taken the series in new directions. The Obelisk Gate is unlikely to buck this trend.

None of us would be upset if Obelisk Gate won — and some of us are likely to vote for it. At the same time, we're all hoping that one of the other nominees astonishes us. 

Sunday 14 May 2017

Spoiler-Free Empire Games review (Charles Stross)

Any author whose works have garnered a total of seven Hugo nominations for best novel has to be seen as a potential nominee every time one of his books hits the shelves.

Charles Stross' latest novel, Empire Games, which landed in early January deserves every bit of consideration it's going to get this year.

Complicated set-up, worthwhile story

It's a taut, well-handled espionage novel set in a cold-war between two dimension-hopping governments in alternate versions of America. One version of America is much like a near-future version of our own, having only been disrupted by dimension-hopping nuclear terrorists in about 2006, the other is a semi-Victorian steampunk world whose government had ties to the aforementioned terrorists.

Despite the complexity of the setting — and the author's exploration of large themes of surveillance, government overreach and securitization — the actual prose of the book is engaging, fast-paced and light.

This is a very smart, nuanced, thoughtful book that reads like popcorn literature.

Merchant Princes - Part 7

The fact that Empire Games is tied to previous Stross novels does count against it for those of us who prefer standalone works.

Charles Stross
has a blog

But, while Empire Games is set up as the first part of a trilogy, and stands well on its own. It is set in the same continuity as Stross' Merchant Princes series (none of which were Hugo nominees). Reading it with his other novels is a richer experience, but the overall quality of the work does not depend on those books.

Choices have consequences

One of the rewarding things about reading Charles Stross' more serious novels is the level of internal consistency he adheres to. In this book (and the Merchant Princes books overall), choices have consequences, and Stross does not shy away from unpleasant repercussions. There's no deus-et-machina, and once a rule is established in the narrative, it is unbroken.

The central premise — that there are many universes with different histories, and that there are ways to travel between these — is explored unflinchingly. The consequences of this premise are treated with seriousness and insight, and this is Stross' unique talent.

Give Empire Games a Hugo nomination please

Stross is long overdue for a win in the best novel category of the Hugos, but this book probably won't score it for him. Empire Games is Stross' most satisfying novel in about six years (probably since Rule 34), and in most years would probably be a strong contender for the top prize.

2017 is already a remarkable year for new SF novels, and the competition is going to be fierce, but Empire Games is definitely worth at least a Hugo nomination on what will be a crowded ballot.

Thursday 4 May 2017

New York 2140 (Kim Stanley Robinson)

Image via Amazon.com

It's only May 3, and 2017 is already deluged with great SF novels

It's a bit early to start talking about the 2018 Hugo Awards, but we're going to start speculation off already. 

2017 has already been a very good year in SF. Between the new Charles Stross, the highly touted Scalzi space opera, Doctorow's return to form, and a few other high-profile releases, there's already a fairly crowded field of contenders for the top award.

But for at least two members of our book club, Robinson's latest book has to be a clear frontrunner for getting on the Hugo shortlist.

KSR at his best

The short summary of the book is that it's a series of intertwining stories about people surviving in a flooded New York, decades after the oceans rose because of global warming.

Kim Stanley Robinson
photo by Kanaka Rastamon via Flickr
(CC Attribution-NonCommercial licence)

The quick description of the plot doesn't do the book justice. KSR plays with ideas around global capital, investment funds, urbanism, global climate change, ecology and human survival. But he also weaves several narratives about people working together to survive major environmental events, about different classes of people (from the upperclass super-wealthy to homeless orphaned youths), and about different philosophical approaches to global problems.

The book isn't without its flaws: Some point-of-view characters are portrayed with too broad a brush, or with too little understanding of their points of view, and excessive extraneous details about irrelevancies turned off at least one of our book club members. But on the whole, those flaws are eclipsed by a richly textured setting that is almost more important than the characters.

Urban Futurism

The imagined future city of New York 2140 is deeply explored in concept, economy, social relations, technology, and implications. It's one of the most satisfyingly consistent imaginings of a truly plausible future that many of us have read in the past few years.

Sea-level rise is depicted as a world-changing semi-apocalyptic event, and is described convincingly, but also hopefully, because something amazing is built in the aftermath.

The book club's resident KSR superfan lists New York 2140 as possibly the best of the author's works. It's hard for me to disagree with him. Seriously consider this for your Hugo nominations next year.