Saturday, August 16, 2014

2014 Hugo Awards: Best Novel and Best New Writer

Tomorrow is the Hugo Awards Ceremony, so I have just about run out of time for putting up thoughts on the novel nominees!  Here’s a quick rundown of my opinions on the nominees for both the Hugo and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.  I’ll have an update congratulating the winners after Loncon3 is over!

Hugo Award

For the Hugo Award, my first choice for the winner would be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. As you’ll see in my next review, I really loved this novel. It may not have brought all that much new to space opera, but it served up a story with all of my favorite ingredients.  I also really liked some of the themes—loyalty, anti-classism, and responsibility people have to act on their convictions.  Of course, I have to mention the default-female language quirk, where everyone in the story referred to as “she”, regardless of their gender.  It highlighted how irrelevant gender was to the story, and I found the complete lack of gender roles and gender-based characterization refreshing.   

I would also be happy to see Charles Stross win the Hugo Award for Neptune’s Brood. I read this one without reading the first book of the series, Saturn’s Children, but I get the impression that the book stands well on its own.  Neptune’s Brood is an intelligent, far-future heist story, but one that was also delightfully humorous.  I was not a fan of the long future-economics infodumps, but I’m not sure how well the heist would have come across without them.

The other three contenders also have their strong and weak points.  I’ve read roughly 80% of the Wheel of Time series, mostly back when I was in high school.  I remember enjoying the adventures, but I also remember thinking that the characterization was a bit weak.  Mira Grant’s Parasite was a neat (if gross!) idea, but I noticed a lot of similarities to the Newsflesh books.  Larry Correia’s Warbound reminded me a bit of X-Men, and it was a lot of fun in a supernatural action-movie way.  

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

I was really excited by this year’s nominees for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award, because I have heard good things about all of them. My first choice for the Best New Writer award would be Max Gladstone, who now has three novels in his Craft series (Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five).  I have currently only read his first novel, but the rest are on my (very long) to-read list.  My review of his debut novel, Three Parts Dead, can be found here.

As for the other entries, I have to give the disclaimer that I have not quite finished A Stranger in Olondria and The Lives of Tao, though I am over halfway through reading both of them. 

Ramez Naam’s Nexus is a fast-paced near-future techno-thriller. I have some philosophical disagreements with the main character, but I really enjoyed the exploration of the consequences of the existence of mind-altering/linking technology. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria has some lovely writing, though the story moves at a very slow pace.  I’m not sure I yet understand the reasoning behind some of the decisions of the main character.  Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao is a funny and exciting secret-society/spy story so far, though I’m not a huge fan of the whole ‘everything important that happened in human history was because of aliens’ idea. Benjanun Sriduangkaew is also nominated for her unusual short fiction, of which a lot is available for free online.  I was most interested by “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” (which can be read here).

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: The Integral Trees by Larry Niven

The Integral Trees by Larry Niven
Published: Ballantine Del Rey, 1984
Series: Book 2 of The State
Awards Won: Locus SF Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula and Hugo Awards

The Book:

When leaving Earth, the crew of the spaceship Discipline was prepared for a routine assignment. Dispatched by the all-powerful State on a mission of interstellar exploration and colonization, Discipline was aided (and secretly spied upon) by Sharls Davis Kendy, an emotionless computer intelligence programmed to monitor the loyalty and obedience of the crew.

But what they weren't prepared for was the smoke ring-an immense gaseous envelope that had formed around a neutron star directly in their path. The Smoke Ring was home to a variety of plant and animal life-forms evolved to thrive in conditions of continual free-fall. When Discipline encountered it, something went wrong. The crew abandoned ship and fled to the unlikely space oasis.

Five hundred years later, the descendants of the Discipline crew living on the Smoke Ring no longer remember their origins. Earth is more myth than memory, and no recollection of the State remains. But Kendy remembers. And just outside the Smoke Ring, Discipline waits patiently to make contact with its wayward children.”

I chose The Integral Trees as the Locus SF award winner for my 2014 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge. 

My Thoughts:

Above all, the setting in The Integral Trees was extremely cool. It’s a colonization story, but instead of settling on a planet, the humans settled in a gas torus around a neutron star, in a binary star system.  It was clear that a lot of thought went into what kind of environment this would create, what kinds of creatures would develop in that environment, and how humans would adapt to survive over time, with their planet-evolved biology. The origin of the system, the mechanics of how it persists, and the forces that would be exerted on lifeforms within the torus (especially the large integral trees) is also explored in a lot of detail.  This is definitely a story where the science is very fun, very thorough and very creative.
While the story begins 500 years after the colonization, their society still has lingering marks of their past as a part of a civilization of higher technology.  For instance, words have persisted through the years, though many have drifted in pronunciation or meaning.  They also still value science, and each community has their own Scientist, who is able to access information from ancient machines.  It’s not so long since I was a grad student myself, so I enjoyed that the scientist’s apprentice was known as the Grad. The adventures of the main group led them through many different communities in the Smoke Ring, and it was neat to see the differences and similarities between them. Some of these communities, though, show a pretty dark view of future-humanity, with respect to slavery and the sexual exploitation of women.

The main party is a group of community misfits, sent out from their home in search of food in a time of lasting famine. The party has some of the usual adventurer types—a scientist, an alpha male (and his small harem), and a promising young man—but it also includes some more unusual people, such as a bitter elderly man, and several people with physical handicaps.  They also meet up with others along the way, including a woman warrior. While the ‘promising young man’ Gavving is probably the main character, the story follows different party members at different points.  They were a pretty interesting group of people to follow, but I think that having so many of them limited the amount to which each could be developed.

In the end, I feel like this is almost a setting-driven story, where the plot and characters are primarily focused around showcasing and exploring different parts of the physical and human environments. The events of the story were very action-oriented and exciting, but it seemed mostly like a series of adventures designed to propel the characters through different parts of their world.  This, in addition to the way Kendy’s situation concluded, led to the ending being a little underwhelming. However, I still enjoyed cheering on the group of explorers as they struggled to stay together and survive through many different hardships.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Integral Trees is a basic party exploration adventure story, but with a really fascinating environment to explore.  Instead of colonizing a planet, humans colonized a kind of space ‘trees’ living in a gas torus within a binary star system.  I was really drawn in by the amount of thought and creativity behind the description of the physical setting and its extrapolation to how native life would develop and humans would adapt.  The characters were a little simple in comparison, but they made for a fun group to follow as they traveled through such an impressive world.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Review: Dinner at Deviant's Palace by Tim Powers

Dinner at Deviant’s Palace by Tim Powers
Published: Ace Books, 1985
Awards Won: Philip K. Dick Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award

The Book:

Gregorio Rivas is retired from the Redemptionist trade - at thirty-one, he's no longer willing to risk his life rescuing new recruits from the savage religion of the Messiah Norton Jaybush, no longer eager to track the caravans of the faithful through the mutated wildernesses of Los Angeles. Once he was the best Redemptionist for hire - once he even tracked a victim right up to the walls of the Messiah's perilous Holy City in Irvine - but that's all over now.

Or it was - until he's approached to perform one last Redemption. And this time the victim who has been brainwashed and carried away by the brutal faith is his long-lost first love, Urania. And so Rivas sets out to save her, beginning a violent pilgrimage that will take him through the landscape-of-the-damned which is 22nd Century California, and into the very heart of the Jaybush cult - and finally to the nightmare city of Venice, and the fabulous, feared castle at the core of it... Deviant's Palace.”

This is the third of Powers’s novels that I’ve read, and I definitely plan to read more of his work.  Thus far, I have had a consistently very positive experience in reading his entertaining and unusual style of fiction.

My Thoughts:

Dinner at Deviant’s Palace throws the reader down in the middle of an exceedingly strange world, without very much information to guide the way.  The world is clearly a post-nuclear wasteland, but many of the stranger aspects of the world—like Venice and its ‘blood’, hemogoblins, and the jaybird cult—were also not necessarily entirely understood by the protagonist.  I enjoyed the slow process of figuring everything out, especially since almost all of the world-building details ended up being essential for the story.  I also appreciated how this approach allowed the increasingly weird details of the world to be uncovered at a gradual pace.  I think introducing too much information too soon would have risked startling readers off with too much strangeness.
As usual, I loved Powers world-building and the physical way he incorporated the more fantastical elements into the story. I even recognized some ideas that I’ve seen show up again in later works. For instance, the idea of particular music or rhythms providing protection from inhuman power (here the jaybird cult) comes up again in protection from djinn in Declare. However, I was struck by the feeling that this seemed like an early work, and that the prose and the story were not quite as polished as in other novels I’ve read.  Since Dinner at Deviant’s Palace was actually published after The Anubis Gates, I am suspecting that it is just not quite as timeless a story.  It might be that the fear of nuclear apocalypse, and of the mental damage that comes from cult indoctrination or heavy drug abuse, is more rooted in the 20th century experience. 

The basic story also seems a little old-fashioned, focused as it is on a hero’s quest to rescue, and rekindle romance with, his long-lost love.  It seems a little bit like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, especially given the way Greg uses his musical talent during his quest.  However, the story is not quite that simple.  I felt like the deeper story involved the importance of discarding illusions and interacting with the world as it is.  This is true for Greg’s idealization of Urania as his tragic muse, his romanticized view of himself, and for other things, such the comfort that can be found in the Jaybird’s damaging Sacrament.  I really enjoyed Greg’s journey and his development as a person. While I thought the epilogue seemed unnecessary, I thought the ending of the novel made for a fitting conclusion of Greg’s story.

My Rating: 4/5

Dinner at Deviant’s Palace is a strange post-nuclear science fiction novel from a skilled storyteller.  The wasteland of California feels well-developed, and increasingly strange details crop up as the plot progresses.  Greg Rivas begins on a quest to redeem his long-lost ex-girlfriend from a dangerous cult, but his journey will force him to face some difficult truths about himself and the world he lives in.  This story feels a little more dated than some of Powers other novels, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.