Sunday, August 29, 2010

What if I got to pick the 2010 Hugo winner

The six books nominated for the 2010 Hugo each have something to recommend them. In the order that I read them:

1) China Mieville’s fantasy The City and the City is a solid story exploring issues like customs and politics carried to a kind of logical extreme. The story’s vehicle is a mystery, featuring your standard police officer who finds himself forced to go rogue in the pursuit of justice.

2) Cheri Priest’s steam punk story Boneshaker is a fairly conventional genre story hitting all of the expected notes. It has a mad scientist. It has a mother trying to rescue her strong willed son from certain death by poison gas or zombies or worse. What’s not to love?

3) Robert Charles Wilson’s prophetic Julian Comstock is stylistically unconventional for sf and paints a somewhat dreary though realistic picture of a possible future. It’s a coming of age story featuring a young man who is learning to tell the difference between what he was taught and what really is.

4) Robert J. Sawyer’s techno-fable WWW.WAKE is perhaps the most conventional of the stories in this list. It deals with ideas familiar to fans of sf, and has characters that are easy to relate to.

5) Catherynne M. Valente's fantasy Palimpsest is perhaps the most unconventional story in this list. Written in what would be described as a post modern style it concerns several people who very much want to live in their dream world, and are willing to go to extraordinary lengths for that. It might be an allegory of addiction, but maybe not?

6) Paolo Bacigalupi’s futuristic The Windup Girl paints another dystopian picture of what’s to come, a cautionary tale of where genetic manipulation and corporate power may lead. It’s a bit sloppy on the editing, but the story more than makes up for that.

Of these stories, two don’t come close to fitting the original concept of sf story. That Mieville’s story and Valente’s story were even nominated has to tell us something of where sf and sf fandom is going. Perhaps the fact that WorldCon 2010 is taking place in Melbourne is contributing to this, but you only have to look at past nominees to realize that the landscape is in fact changing, not just in Australia.

I enjoyed all six stories. But I had complaints about them, too.

I thought Sawyer’s story was too pat. The story is about a familiar notion in SF. But the bits that Sawyer should have gotten right aren’t even close to plausible, and he offers nothing new to explore. Stylistically the book is a bit weak, teetering on the edge of YA (which would be OK) without actually quite making the jump, and yet managing to talk down to the reader, which is a huge no-no in YA.

Priest’s zombie nightmare was a case of writing by the numbers. The trick when you’re following formula, intentionally or otherwise, is that you can’t make it quite so obvious. If the story were intended to be campy, it’d be a different matter, but Priest is fully serious. In the end that rescues the story, but the formula is still out there, like the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Bacigalupi’s story could have used better editing, especially at the end. There are bits throughout the story where sense of space and sense of time get thrown to the winds, where places that are far apart appear to be next door to each other, where something that takes a week seems to be taking place at the same time as something else that takes a few hours. Toward the end, however, the editing is very bad. A new character gets introduced, for no apparent reason, and sort of half-heartedly dragged a long for a few pages before it’s completely forgotten and ignored.

Valente’s writing style requires a firm grasp of vocabulary, seeing that she makes words and their semantic overlay stand in for paragraphs of description. But there are several places where she slips up, and a word gets misused, and the effect is jarring.

The two stories about which I had no complaints at all are Mieville’s mystery and Wilson’s future romance.

Wilson’s story, with its 19th century stylings, and its frightening social and political landscape, is of the two the actual sf story, seeing that it takes place in a plausible future against a historical landscape that makes sense given what is going on right now.

Mieville’s story is not sf in any conventional sense. It might be described as a fantasy, or maybe an allegory, given how it looks at what a person might force themselves to believe, and how that might shape their perception of reality. It is stylistically strong but unremarkable, and entirely competent throughout.

I find myself kind of vacillating between these two stories. I have to admit that I’m partial to Mieville’s stories in any event. It is not easy for me to filter out that prejudice. In the end I’m weighing the fun I had reading these two stories. That’s where Mieville comes out on top. Perhaps it’s that I also enjoy mysteries, or perhaps it is that the theocracy in which Wilson’s story takes place frightens me more than I want to admit.

I think while all six stories are solid stories, and while both Wilson’s story and Mieville’s story deserve top billing, in the end Mieville wins my vote as the 2010 Hugo novel.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Clockwork Utopia

When Huxley wrote Brave New World he was only guessing at some of the things we have in store for us. He was the grandson of Thomas Huxley, Darwin's "Bulldog," and his own literary career featured pointed social criticism. None of it was more pointed than when he wrote BNW, which argued that we were gaining the tools to make ourselves truly miserable. Aside from global warming, we now read about farmers whose corn crops are ruined because gene-mod pollen from miles away crossed into their field. Super weeds are creating a headache that only promises to get worse. Drug resistant bacteria threaten medical practice.

There are always the cheerleaders, of course. For every opponent of globalization, for every critic of gene-mod foods and other modern miracles, there are the cheerleaders. We couldn't feed ourselves without gene-mod foods, they argue. Modern medicine is extending life expectancies to the century mark. Economies work best when every economy is allowed to find the things it does best and concentrates on them. These voices argue against regulation, against oversight, for innovation.

So when Paolo Bacigalupi writes about a future that makes Huxley's story seem like a nice place to visit, it's not altogether implausible. In The Windup Girl we find ourselves in Bangkok, in Thailand. The oceans have risen, as expected, and the only thing keeping Bangkok from drowning is a seawall and a number of gigantic pumps. Nations pay a carbon tax for the fuels they burn, and Thai manufacturing now relies on the muscles of gargantuan genemod derivations of elephants and horses. The city's proud skyscrapers stand mostly empty, with no cheap electricity to run elevators or pump water to their tops. A genocide of ethnic Chinese in Malaya has sent streams of refugees into Bangkok where they squat in the slums, hoping that the horrors from Malaya don't follow them there.

We meet a number of disconnected people. An agent for an American corporation which is apparently guilty of crimes against humanity that dwarf the Holocaust. A police officer whose moral fiber is unusual for this incarnation of Bangkok. And the book's namesake, a Japanese genemod woman, discarded from a rich man's entourage to suffer torture and rape in a prostitution parlor. (No, this book is not recommended for young readers or sensitive dispositions.)

Bacigalupi proceeds to tell quite the spellbinding story. Mysteries arise, outrages are committed, a civil war ignites. Through it all the windup girl suffers, serving as a kind of mirror, an avatar for the suffering Earth. It is mostly an excellent book.

I did notice that towards the end the story editing got sloppy. There were continuity problems, and it wasn't always clear what was happening when. Why stuff like that makes it past the editing, I don't know. An otherwise excellent story like this certainly deserves closer attention to detail.

Anyway, another great entry for the 2010 Hugos.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Po Mo Dreams

Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest was the fifth novel I read of the six nominated for the 2010 Hugos. I love that word, palimpsest. It refers to a document that has been erased and re-used for a different document. It's the sort of thing people used to do a lot when material to write on was expensive. Now we use various technological tricks to recover the erased material. The thing is, it's also a word I sometimes forget, and I'll be wondering, what was that word?

Crazy, I know.

Anyway, Valente's story is well named. It concerns four people who meet in a place that is revealed to be a kind of dream city called Palimpsest which you can only enter by having sex with someone bearing a birthmark consisting of a map of some portion of the city. With that you gain your own birthmark, and access to the portion of the city depicted in your partner's map.

The four people of this story don't know each other, at first, but in turns out they are connected in an important sense. As their story develops, Valente takes you from Palimpsest to the real world and back, and sometimes it takes a while before you recognize where you're at as the one world blends into the other.

Valente utilizes magical realism and a style of stream of consciousness writing, tossing out lists of words like an impressionistic painter tosses out daubs of paint to depict scenes and characters and events without ever actually doing the sort of painstaking detail work you expect from an author. At times you might catch yourself stumbling over a word that doesn't seem to mean what you think it means, but it all serves to create a dreamy sense of floating reality.

The frequent descriptions of sex won't be to everyone's taste. This is not the sort of book you'll recommend to your neighbor's sixteen year old daughter. But it is the sort of book you will recommend to fans of fantasy who are tired of elves and dwarves and magical swords. It is a satisfying read.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Magical Visions

I've just finished my fourth book of the six novels nominated for the 2010 Hugo. www.Wake was a fun story, featuring young Caitlin, a blind American girl living in Canada who has the incredible opportunity to acquire the ability to see with the help of an invention by a Japanese scientist. The experiment at first seems to go awry, but other things are afoot, as the reader is privy to information that is at first hidden from Caitlin.

The story is stylistically YA, with some material that would kick it off your high school library shelves. At times the exposition becomes awkward, a bit like your grandpa explaining twitter to you when he thinks it's a kind of telegraph. None of these are deal breakers, but it had a serious flaw that bothered me. Let me explain.

I'm currently reading a short paper about a new (or maybe not so very new) theory of gravity. It's got a lot of concepts that I'm very foggy on, like entropy and gradients and screens (a kind of surface) and the whole thing is in a PDF that I'm reading on my Nook ebook reader which does a horrible job rendering the paper. I think I kind of understand what the authors are getting at, and it sounds like a good idea, but I'm in no position to judge if the idea is valid (if it matches empirical data) or if it is useful (if it makes new testable predictions or solves current quandaries, like the quantum gravity problem, dark matter, or dark energy).

I'm a computer programmer. My last serious exposure to physics and math was thirty years ago, when I earned my degree. I remember all the significant bits, but I've managed to forget a lot of details that at the time I had been very proud to have mastered. It's a bit embarrassing, to tell the truth, but in this as in most other things, if you don't use it, you'll lose it.

But as a computer programmer, and one who has worked in data transmission protocols for about 20 years, there are some things I do understand. I think I understand them quite well, in fact. So when I come across a book that describes real stuff like the World Wide Web in magical terms, it bothers me. I supposed it might bother me to read a story that allows faster than light travel without some appropriate mumbo jumbo, but Sawyer doesn't use any fun mumbo jumbo.

It's glaring enough that it made "suspension of disbelief" seem like a marathon.

I think for people who are not computer programmers, the book will be very enjoyable. People who are computer programmers, but who don't give data transmission technology a lot of thought should also like the story. But if you understand the stuff that goes on in the wires of the internet, you may find Sawyer's story setting your teeth on edge.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Postsecular Gothic

My third Hugo 2010 nominated novel is yet another that fails to live up to the expectations for science fiction, even though it is the first set in the actual future. No talking squid. No space ships. Not even a whisper of laser cannon. I wonder if this speaks to the mood of the times?

Robert Charles Wilson conjures up a pretty sad future for us. As is inevitable, our supply of relatively cheap oil runs out. The consequences are far reaching, and in the late 21st century of Wilson's story it means the collapse of civilization as we know it. When the dust clears a theocracy with a hereditary presidency survives the present United States, bent on conquering the world. The story's hero, Julian Comstock, the nephew of the currently ruling president, is in the uncomfortable position having to flee for his life into the teeth of a war.

It's a rip-roaring adventure, told from the point of view of Julian's best boyhood friend, Adam Hazzard. Adam is a bit reminiscent of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, although I think Huckleberry Finn was not nearly so naive as Adam, even if Adam has had a better education. Since Wilson tells the story in a style borrowed from 19th century authors like Twain and Melville, the resemblance is more than just a matter of the roles they play.

I enjoyed the story very much. Wilson's stylistic efforts are consistent and not at all as tiring as I feared at first. The story moves at a brisk pace, but not so brisk that the characters of Julian and Adam are neglected. If Wilson was tempted to make the story's ending too upbeat, he resisted and produced a very satisfying conclusion, given the serious nature of his thesis. What might that thesis be?

You'll have to read it and find out for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, August 06, 2010

A Racing Hunger

Steam punk with air ships and goggles and corsets. Plus zombies! Do I need to say more?

Cherie Priest's story takes place in a different past from the one we're used to. It is set in Seattle, but it's slightly different from the one we remember. While the Civil War is still raging, distantly, longer than ours, Seattle has been overtaken by disaster. A technological experiment has run out of control, and, probably as a result of that, a strange gas is poisoning everyone who remains in the city.

To contain the gas, the city is now surrounded by a high wall. The wall also contains certain secrets, as well as zombies, people who were poisoned by the gas, but who then reanimated.

The two main characters of the story, a son looking for the truth about his father, and a mother looking for her son, are engagingly described. As the plot unfolds, the reader's loyalties are likely to waver from one to the other. It is not difficult to lose yourself in this story, even if the setting is a claustrophobic warren of air tight passages, with ravening zombies on your heels.

I'll bet you'll catch yourself holding your breath.

A fun little story, definitely worthy of its Hugo nomination.

None so blind

China Miéville's urban fantasy novel The City and the City is an unlikely entrant for the Hugos.

That's not because the story is bad. It is an excellent story, gripping to the last page. It's the sort of book you'll lose sleep over if you happen to get caught up in it at the wrong time. Miéville's style is, as expected, extremely competent, drawing you into the book's world, bringing you face to face with the characters. No, there's every reason for people to like the book.

It's just that it doesn't have any wizards, no magic, no dragons. There's not so much as a mystical potion to be found anywhere between the covers of the book. It is a mystery with enough thrill for a bestselling potboiler. It is a story that takes place in an eminently mundane albeit fictional East European city, in a recognizable present.

It's the people living in this city are what makes it a strange place - which is the rule for most places where people live. But it's the magic of Miéville's prose that turns this from well written general fiction into the kind of fantasy that will get nominated for the Hugo.

I don't want to give too much away here: part of the story's charm is to allow the prose to work its way with your imagination, until you suddenly realize what kind of a place things are happening in. Once you have that revelation, other questions pose themselves, until, by the end of the story, you finally glimpse the whole picture. That the story itself is a nice little murder mystery complete with red herrings and plenty of dead bodies, which is an altogether fitting vehicle for Miéville's fantasy, is just another bonus.