Sunday, June 22, 2014

If I Picked the Hugos, 2014 Edition

I don't know what the limit is of the number of books that may be nominated for "Best Novel Hugo" in a given year. This year there were nineteen. Let's have a look, in the order that I read them.

The "Wheel of Time" series concerns three youngsters who are caught up in events far beyond their ability to handle, and in adventures spanning a continent and several years manage to save the world from certain destruction. The story is rightly termed epic fantasy, and the characters are all engaging and well realized. The plot itself, a struggle against a nemesis from mankind's dimly remembered past, doesn't really become clear until book two opens, but that's OK, since book one was kind of an appetizer to get people started reading. Jordan writes well, and Sanderson has no flies on him, either.

Charles Stross' Neptune's Brood is a space opera combined with a mystery, diving from the edge of a solar system into the crushing depths of an ocean world. On the way we learn a little about economics, about meta humanity, and about a relationship a mother might have with her daughters that might have moved Nancy Friday to write something considerably more caustic than My Mother Myself. The story kept me engaged from cover to cover, and the ending was satisfying and amazing.

In the very near future of Mira Grant's (Seanan McGuire) Parasite scientists genetically engineer a symbiotic tapeworm that can do everything from dispensing life saving drugs to suppressing dangerous allergies. Sally, a tapeworm host who's been in an accident, discovers that there's a lot more to these tapeworms than anyone realizes when people start turning into zombies.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is a leisurely paced journey of discovery. While I was discovering the world of One Esk, One Esk was discovering about moral responsibility and being human. The book engaged me on several levels and didn't disappoint me with its ending, either.

If you want magical battles with humongous guns then Larry Correia's Warbound is your ticket. Jake Sullivan teams up with the Knights of the Grimnoir to save the world from an invading extradimensional monster. Get your battles here!

So which one would I pick to win?

Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series started with a transparent rip-off of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, The Eye of the World, down to one-to-one mappings of plot and characters. The series picks up after that, but never actually shakes the sense that this is a kid writing a Tolkien fanfic - writing well, mind. Sanderson, working from Jordan's notes, can't really rescue the story from its fate. It's all well written, but I can't get past the fact that this story has already been told.

Larry Correia's "Grimnoir Chronicles" are a lot of fun to read, but I was frankly surprised to find it in the Hugo short list. Larry writes well, don't get me wrong, and if I were to measure this book up against some other action adventure series it would do well. But Larry's story avoids making hard choices. The ending employs the most blatant of deus ex machina, and then reverts everything to a kind of base state, as if none of what happened before mattered. It's what's done on TV all the time, but I personally expect more from serious SF&F.

I'm not really tired of zombies if Grant is going to serve them up with a fresh spin each time. Parasite really has me looking forward to the next one, and I have really no complaints about it. Grant brings her characters to life and doesn't stint on the rest of the story. It's obvious from almost the very beginning where the story is headed, but that's ok because I was looking forward to the journey. The book deserves to win, even if I don't want to pick it as my top pick.

Lecki's Ancillary Justice does start slowly, and the pacing is a bit uneven throughout, but the character One Esk is perhaps the best of her kind I've ever read about. For that reason I was really hard put to choose between her break-out novel and the one I'm picking this year.

Neptune's Brood was kick butt from the very start, as I've come to expect from Stross. His cast of characters is sparse and carefully chosen, and the ones that matter come to life as they make their way. Stross doesn't stint on describing a future that is plausible and amazing. Yes, he might be giving a small political fillip to some people, but I think it's subtle and fully part of the story. He does have to devote more pages to explication than someone writing about more familiar SF tropes would do, but I'm not holding that against him by any means.

If Lecki or Grant win the Hugo I'll be plenty happy. Both have written deserving books, but my pick this year is Stross's Neptune's Brood.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

World War Noir

Larry Correia
Baen, 2013
ISBN 1476736529

There's a certain nostalgia to the stories and films from the 1930s - the time when my mother was born and lived through WW II. I enjoy the films, the stark lighting, the soundscapes, even the caricatures that peopled the story, like Hammett's Thin Man, or Chandler's Marlowe. Just the thing for a cozy evening.

So it's of course no surprise that even fifty years after the last bonafide film noir ran off the reel people are still occasionally imitating the style. Larry Correia's Warbound is an excellent example.

The Grimnoir Chronicles started with Hard Magic, where me meet Jake Sullivan, a former private eye who is doing hard time for murder. Jake has magical powers that let him manipulate gravity, and his warden thinks he's a good guy, which is why J. Edgar himself recruits Jake into a magical secret society, the Grimnoir.

Now it is not all that much later, and Jake has become convinced that an extra-dimensional monster that wants to suck all magic out of Earth is getting ready to attack. Chairman Tokugawa's Iron Guards aren't ready to fight because Tokugawa has been replaced by an impostor. The Grimnoir Knights must kill the impostor to save the world.

This latest of the Grimnoir Chronicles is a little less focused than the others, perhaps because we know more of the characters, and they are all doing important stuff, just not all in the same place. Still, it seems as if at least Francis' part of the story, which isn't central to the novel, should have just been left off stage. There isn't enough of it to be obnoxious, but it is noticable and interrupts the narrative flow.

Faye's part of the story is much more central. Like Luke Skywalker training with Yoda you know she will just arrive at the action in the nick of time, and it's not really possible to just ignore her until she does. My main complaint about Faye is really that I think she violates Sanderson's First Law of Magic. It's not as if Correia has to obey Sanderson's rules - I don't even entirely agree with Sanderson's First Law - it's just that this seems to be a case where that Law really has to be obeyed. Because Correia flouts the Law, Faye becomes little more than a deus ex machina. Correia doesn't lose all control over the plot's central tensions, but they are a lot less than they could have been.

This is the fourth of the 2014 Hugo nominees that I've read. It is not a novel about thinking or answering difficult questions. Might makes right, and the best answers come at the end of a set of magically enhanced knuckles. Testosterone oozes from between its pages. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the story. If you like this sort of thing, give it a try.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Humming Betrayal

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
Orbit, 2013
ISBN 031624662X

I don't particular like war stories. Futuristic war stories are no exception. Typically authors who indulge in military scifi focus on weaponry, and they love to write about how fast a missile flies, or how quickly a defense reacts. There is obviously a market for that sort of thing, but it ain't me. So when I realized that Ann Leckie's book Ancillary Justice was about a soldier I was a bit disappointed.

But I judged too soon.

One Esk is a troop of slaves, human bodies that were killed for any number of reasons and harvested to become ancillaries, slave soldiers ridden by the omniscient AI that runs the warship Justice of Toren. Everyone treats ancillaries as if they were mindless, with no will of their own, but maybe everyone is mistaken. As One Esk is forced to be party to two monstrous acts of betrayal it decides to test its freedom to act, and exact its justice for the betrayals. This will be a bit of a challenge, since the target is the empire's omnipotent tyrant.

So, no, it's not military scifi. While Leckie has to mention weapons and armor in the course of the story, they aren't the featured characters that I worried about. Instead Leckie concentrates her attention on the real character: a slave, newly freed, who must discover that she is as human as anyone she meets, and has the freedom to act, and, more importantly, be responsible for her actions. It's a marvelous examination of moral responsibility and what it means to be human.

The story takes place against the background of an empire on the cusp of rebellion. It's the first book of a loose trilogy, and Leckie allows us to glimpse beyond the frame of her story, giving the feeling of a larger story waiting to be told. I particularly enjoyed her description of the starting setting, a small town, recently conquered, and divided against itself by tradition and prejudice. It's the background against which we get to know One Esk, and realize that there may well be more to these slave soldiers than their masters guess.

Ancillary Justice is the third of the 2014 Hugo nominees that I've read. It is Leckie's breakout novel, and it fully deserves its nomination. I strongly recommend it, and I'm looking forward to reading its sequel, Ancillary Sword