Jan 252020
 

Ra, by Sam Hughes

Synopsis: When magic is discovered in the 70s, it quickly becomes a branch of applied engineering. After losing her mother under magical (and mysterious) circumstances, a young student takes up Magic R&D to try to undo that loss.

Book Review: There’s so much to like here, it’s hard to decide were to begin. Right off the bat, this is the most true-to-life depiction I’ve seen of what would happen if magic did exist in our world. Much like the discovery of electricity, arguably the last time we found magic, we immediately set out to understand this new thing and learn everything we could about it, then use it to make life easier and better. But also much more complicated, and sometimes more dangerous. Especially in the period of time where we don’t yet fully understand this new force — which is the period that this book is set in. The most exciting time. :)

I’m also impressed by how deep the plotting and world goes, and how skillfully it’s slowly revealed to us. Every time we mostly grasp something, a new layer is revealed that adds to the mystery and intrigue. The rabbit holes are branching and deep, and often self-supportive.

But the scope of this whole thing is what really gets me. When I started the novel, I was in an interesting near-future story about magic and research. By the time I got to the end the story had morphed several times and greatly expanded, seamlessly enough that I didn’t notice at the time. But when I finished the book, and I looked back on where I finished, vs where I started, I would have never guessed I’d get there from here, and damn was that a hell of a ride.

This novel is supremely ambitious, and it’s a joy to read something that bites off so much, and chews it so well.

Along the way, I was confronted by a new revelation about what I value in reality/life, and I had to think hard about what makes human lives valuable. I still haven’t come to answers for the moral questions that the book raised in me. These two things are among the highest praise I can give a book.

It’s not perfect. There are times where it drags a bit (one too many digressing vignettes), and other times where it’s too damned hard to follow (I’m still confused about a couple minor points). Most regretably, about 2/3rds of the way through there is a revelation which caused me to almost stop reading the book entirely. I put it down and considered just not bothering to continue. I’m glad I did, because it turned out I was incorrect in my reading of that revelation, which I discovered two chapters later. But that’s a flaw that could have been avoided with slightly clearer writing.

Nonetheless, this is an outstanding work, and worth reading every word. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a challenging read, and not for everyone. A few people dropped out early in frustration, and attendance was a bit light due to that. And not everyone that stuck it out enjoyed it quite as much as I did, a couple of them thought that the density and focus on the engineering angle brought down the story overall. However we did have a fair few things to discuss and either marvel over or complain about. And it was certainly interesting to mull over the human-value related question as a group. I think you’ll have to take your group into consideration before deciding on this one, it certainly makes the reader put in work. I think it’s worth it, so – Recommended.

Personal opinion/note – The author released a Revised Ending several years after the original publication of Ra. This Revised Ending is so much better than the original that I recommend not even bothering reading the original ending. Maybe if your curious, afterwards, just to compare. But the Revised Ending is leaps and bounds better.

The book can also be read or downloaded freely from the author’s home webpage.

Jan 082020
 

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Synopsis: A poorly-run government agency with a time machine attempts to alter history, and hijinks ensue.

Book Review: This will be a short review, because there isn’t terribly much to say. This is a well written, fun romp through time. It’s almost like a very intellectual Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. We have a team of scrappy underdogs that are very easy to relate to and to fall in love with. I absolutely ADORE the “witch” from 19th century Prussia, every single scene with her is the best thing ever. <3 The government is both powerful and incompetent in the ways you come to expect as you get older. The villains are so deliciously easy to hate. The scenes set in the past feel incredibly realistic (which one would expect with both Stephenson and Galland at the helm). There is an extended scene with a raiding party of naked Vikings pillaging a Wal-Mart which is hilarious and makes perfect internal sense.

The book is also written with the fun gimmick of being a collection of archival evidence that is being presented to the reader, so every single bit of it is either an excerpt from a journal, or a letter that was intercepted, or an email that was leaked, or a PowerPoint presentation, or something. It’s a cool constraint, and it’s fun to see how the authors pull off telling a great story in an entirely epistolary format.

That being said, there isn’t much of substance here. It’s a fun trip, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it doesn’t really have much to say about humanity or the world or whatever. I like my fiction (even the comedic romps) to have a deeper motive as well. So not something to rush out for, but good if you’re in the mood for something well written and fun. Mildly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Overall people enjoyed the book, although nearly everyone else thought that it really dragged in the middle. I don’t see it, but if everyone else thought so, it’s something to consider. We had a fun time talking about the characters we loved and the scenes we enjoyed. But there wasn’t any deeper discussion either. Fun for a get-together, but again, not quite what I look for in a book club meeting. Also, it’s a typical Stephenson-length novel, so about twice the length of most novels, which is a lot to ask for a book club, and can bring down attendance. Mildly Not Recommended.

Nov 112019
 

Aftershocks, by Marko Kloos

Synopsis: Years after an interplanetary war has ended, insurgents from the losing side are starting to show up.

Book Review: I’ve written before about my dislike of the Series Trend. ie: everything is a series now, rather than a single book, because that’s the only way most writers can make a living. But Aftershocks is really taking this problem to a new level.

Aftershocks is a prologue to the real story. That’s it. It is the equivalent of taking the opening crawl from Star Wars and inflating it to a novel rather than a few paragraphs that set up the movie. You can see the beginnings of a story coming, and it looks like it’ll be a good one. The world building is good, the writing is intelligent, the characters are interesting. But the main action of the story literally doesn’t even start, it’s all just set-up.

One might say that this is fine, because Marko Kloos is a proven author with a solid track record. His prior series is well received, and even people who don’t like Military SF say that his series is a stand-out exception. I can believe it, because like I said, the writing really is good. One could very well just trust the author and settle in for a ride. Isn’t this what I do anyway when I read web serials?

The prose is particularly good at quickly and efficiently building visuals. Where other authors take pages describing something, and you still aren’t quite sure what’s happening, Kloos manages to play a fully realized scene in your mind on every page. Everyone is accounted for and the environment feels rich, and he does this all with just a few lines. It’s an extraordinary power!

The characters, likewise, are relatable, and each one feels like a different person with a unique personality. I, personally, also really appreciated the recognition of human sexuality. Much like real-life people, these characters have libidos. They recognize when someone is attractive, and the effect it has on themselves. I’ve been seeing this less and less in SF/F, as novels either become directly about sex/sexual relationships, or completely ignore it. It was neat to actually see a character feel sexual attraction to a stranger, but just not act on it, like almost everyone IRL does almost every day.

Still, I can’t get past the fact that nothing happens. When I reached the halfway point of the book and realized that I hadn’t even get to the part where the author makes a promise to the reader, and probably wouldn’t until the last chapter because Everything Is A Series, I felt disappointment lapping at my knees. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It really is good prose. It reads fast, and the novel is short, which helps with turnout. There’s even a few things of interest to talk about, regarding the (rather intentional) parallels between Aftershocks’s world and post-WWI Germany. If anyone in your book club has experience with military bureaucracy and/or military culture, they’ll bring a fair bit to the discussion. So you can get talking for a while. But the most common refrain was “It felt sorta… empty.” I guess I’d wait until at least three books are out and then read them all in one go, so there’s something to sink one’s teeth into, story-wise. Until then, Not Recommended.

Also… I had a ridiculously hard time getting hold of an ebook version of this. I wasn’t allowed to simply give Amazon (or any other online retailer) my money in exchange for the book! I had to put in a lot of work to get it, and if I wasn’t reading it for my book club I would have given up early in the struggle. WTF, Capitalism? What is going on here?

Oct 162019
 

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts

Synopsis: A group of engineers living in a total-surveillance spaceship decide they must overthrow its near-omniscient sovereign AI, and have to figure out how to do so while also only being awake a few days every several thousand years.

Book Review: I continue to love everything Peter Watts writes. He is a super-stimulus to my taste in fiction.

The premise of the book is already interesting. A covert revolution with ridiculous constraints on action, against a tyrant that can decide to never wake you up every time you go to sleep if he finds out what you’re planning. Watts then rockets us directly into Kafka territory, as the crew almost immediately loses all contact with the rest of humanity due to sleeping away eons between their shifts to create wormhole gates. Why do they continue to make gates for a humanity that may not exist anymore? Why are eldritch monstrosities erupting from these gates and trying to destroy their ship? Why does anything matter? It doesn’t, just keep making gates, that’s your sole purpose, so latch onto it.

After reading a number of works by an author, you come to see common themes between them. Watts’s books are always incredibly lonely. The characters within them are singular and alone. The rest of humanity either doesn’t exist, or may as well not exist anymore. Their peers are all distant, strange creatures, whom one can’t form bonds with. Everything is cold, and quiet, and isolation is all-pervasive. (yes, I love this)

Also, Watts loves non-sapient intelligences. Things that behave as if conscious, but which are not. They are generally incredibly creepy. One of the major themes in Freeze-Frame is the protagonist slowly coming to accept that the AI she speaks with isn’t a person. It’s a series of flow-charts and equations meant to mimic human interaction. And this hurts, because due to the previously-discussed isolation, the AI was the only friend she had. Not only is she losing her friend, she’s realizing she never had one to begin with.

Probably.

The mark of a good book is, of course, the drawing together of mood and theme into a compelling plot that moves the reader through the story, and Freeze-Frame has that too. The changes that occur over deep time, and the insane level of engineering that was bent to the task of making a thing that would remain stable over so long (and the interesting ways it fails) tie into the covert revolution plot as well. There’s just so much to love here for fans of dark SF.

The two main complaints I have is that the protagonist is the only developed character, everyone else is a bit one-dimensional. I’m not sure that’s a valid complaint though, because the fact that no one else feels fully real is to be expected when you are so isolated and have no connections to anyone. The other complaint is that this is too short. Not just in a “Hey, I want more!” way (although there’s that too!), but in a “This is basically a novella being sold as a novel,” way. It only barely squeaks into the lower bound of a novel in length. However this does force Watts to keep his prose tight, there aren’t nearly as many ponderous descriptions of objects and actions, and much more getting-to-the-point, which I appreciated. And to be honest, if it was a novella it wouldn’t have been read by our book club, since we only do novels.

Regardless, definitely Recommended!

Book Club Review: A good book for book clubs as well. The fact that it is so short meant no one had trouble finishing it, and we had very high attendance. Not everyone is the Watts fanboy that I am, but most everyone found it interesting. There were quite a few things to talk about, and a bit of speculation about the nature of the reveal near the novel’s end. For that matter, there was speculation about what happened to humanity, and how realistic certain aspects of the story were/weren’t. This is a dense book, and like all of Watts’s books, it expects a lot from the reader. There’ll be just as much discussion about this as there are in most books triple its length. Recommended.

Sep 272019
 

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett

Synopsis: When a young witch is given wizard powers, she and her grandmother must find a way to get the all-male wizard university to acknowledge and accept her.

Book Review: This is one of Pratchett’s early works, and it’s interesting watching someone you know will become a grandmaster slowly coming into his powers.

The story is entertaining, but it was thematically confusing for me. The girl-witch doesn’t really do a whole lot, and her grandmother, while being absolutely awesome and someone I’d love to know, its rather inconsistent. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book until I went to the bookclub and someone dropped a revelation on me – the protagonist of this book isn’t really the girl, she’s just the inciting incident. The protagonist is the grandmother!

After that it all made sense. The grandmother starts out very cynical and jaded. She practices “headology,” which is mostly psychology and the use of ritual and expectation to help guide people’s lives and actions. She is obviously very aware of how powerful ritual and expectations are, but she’s also extremely cynical about it, mostly viewing other people as befuddled fools who need to be lead through life because they’re too dumb for their own good.

She grows, though. The grandmother’s character arc is of someone who comes to see that ritual can be overemphasized and sometimes needs to be jettisoned when human interests are at stake… and that some humans are actually kinda alright.

Now, I say Pratchett hasn’t quite come into his own yet in this book, because that’s not the clear focus of the story, and it’s a bit inconsistent. Also, he doesn’t engage my emotions at the anger level when showing the witches’ fight for equal rights. The wizards seem more befuddled and incompetent than actually unlikable. There was only one moment when I felt any animus towards them, and it passed quickly. It made the whole “sexism” thing seem like not a big deal, just a misunderstanding, and kinda gave a lie to the title. It’s certainly nothing like the rousing political statements and declarations of his later works, which have you on your feet cheering for human rights and swearing to strike down any tyranny and corruption you see.

Likewise, neither his humor nor his socio-political statements really flowed with the story. It seemed like story, humor, and political stuff always had to stop for each other and interject, rather weaving seamlessly into a majestic single melody like his later books.

But still, his prose is eminently readable! When you read Pratchett it always feels like he’s a mischievous uncle sitting in the room and telling you this story himself, weaving this epic yarn with a twinkle in his eye. He’s snappy and funny and doesn’t belabor anything.

And honestly, it feels a bit churlish to say this work doesn’t measure up to his later works, after he’s had thousands of hours more experience. Is it really fair to compare someone to their refined, future self?

So, all in all, a fun read. Pratchett in general is a Strong Recommended. I would recommend his later works first. But if you’ve already gone through those, this one is pretty good too.

Book Club Review: You can’t go wrong with Pratchett for a book club, y’all already know this. Plenty to talk about, even moreso if people are well-read in his universe. Obviously recommended, with the same caveat of “later works first” as above.

Sep 182019
 

Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Synopsis: The last remnants of humanity flee from a destroyed earth to colonize a previously-terraformed planet. Unfortunately the human AI set to guide and protect the sapient spider species living there ain’t having none of it.

Book Review: This is a Big Idea book. It has a sweeping scope, and lots to say about the human condition. The desperation of the refugee humans, as their colony ship degrades over the centuries and things get worse and worse, is palpable. The value-drift of both the humans and the AI is fascinating to watch. Their culture mutates, their personal drives become maladaptive, and behind this all is the beating drum of survival counting down to extinction.

And that’s just for the human half of the story! The chapters alternate between the plight of humanity, and the ascension of the intelligent spiders on the terraformed world. With a social system based on half their species being born expendable, and vastly different morphology to a human, their cultural evolution is mesmerizing to watch. The fact that their religion is actually real, with a literal god orbiting their planet and guiding them, brings an interesting twist to events. Their shortish lifespans mean we go through quite a few generations of them in the novel, but Tchaikovsky uses a neat SF trick to give the reader continuity with the characters.

This was a pleasure to read. It reminds one of the sci-fi of old in that it explores grand ideas over an epic setting, while still being full of tension and conflict so it remains exciting. With the major difference that it was written just a few years ago, so it has modern sensibilities and feels comfortable to read now. Like, you won’t run into any cringy sexism or racism, and it incorporates the story-telling advances writers have made over the decades. Not to worry though, it doesn’t have any wokeness in it, it’s just… good.

There are a few short-comings, IMHO. The first is a common among epic-scope novels – characters aren’t fleshed out as much as they are in character-driven novels. They’re still pretty good, but the focus is more on the events than on character growth or getting deep into the protagonist’s psyche.

The second is that the ending feels too pat. It almost feels Deus Ex Machina-ish, in its sudden turn-around via a non-signaled power. I was left with a feeling of loss of agency among several of their characters, are their problems were solved for them rather than via conflict/resolution.

And my final gripe is that the prose isn’t nearly poetic enough for my taste. I like Grand, Big-Idea books to have florid, lyrical prose, that reaches in and grabs me by my artistic balls. Things like Palmer or Duncan or Valente write. I want the words to sing for me. However that’s a matter of personal style, and it’s hard to hold that against a book.

On the whole, these complaints are overshadowed by the fantastic exploration of humanity, and the creativity of the story. One can tell just by reading this novel that it took serious work. Recommended.

Book Club Review: A darn good book for a book club. It’s long, but we had a great turn out anyway. With as much as the book has to say about humanity, our flaws, and the things that make us great, there was something for everyone to comment on or bring to the discussion. I don’t think it makes its statements with as much force or eloquence of some other works, but it makes many of them, and it never does so poorly. Y’all won’t be wanting for discussion topics. Recommended!

Aug 272019
 

Lock-In, by John Scalzi

Synopsis: A near-future police procedural, with the SF twist that about 10% of the population have full-body paralysis and so interact with the world via robot bodies, or surrogate humans, that they operate remotely via neural interface.

Book Review: John Scalzi is a top-rate writer. His characters feel real, his action is immediate, his prose is tight. He keeps your interest and delivers good product. And if you’ve ever met him in person, or follow his blog, you are aware that he is whip smart. I’d easily put him in the top decile of any room he enters, short of maybe an actual convention of geniuses. Which is why it’s disappointing when he doesn’t use his abilities to full effect to craft art, and instead produces successful commercial product.

The thing about Lock-In is that, despite being well-written, it leaves you empty. There’s some interesting events that happen to interesting people, but there is no character growth, no thematic arc, no emotional exploration, no deeply personal substance to the tale. Everyone at the end of the story is pretty much the same as they started.

The police procedural analogy fits on multiple levels, because I don’t think one can really call this story a novel. In substance, this book is a pilot episode of a TV series, except in written form. We’re introduced to characters and a thing happens to them to move us through the 1 hour time block, but there isn’t a story arc here. The arc will be revealed over the course of the season. Which is fine for an episode TV series, and which I’m sure some readers will love seeing translated into a book-series form. Personally, I’ve never been really thrilled with book series in the first place, I prefer stand-alone novels. Taking it even further, to the point that there isn’t even a satisfying story arc in one book and truly making them “episodes” like a TV show, is just too much for me. I’m sure others will love this sort of thing, but for me – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: One nice thing about books made for commercial success – they go very fast. It’s easy to read, the pages fly by, and there aren’t too many pages to begin with. The ease of the read made for a huge turn-out, probably a record for us! And there were a fair few things to talk about, Scalzi has created an interesting universe and real characters. It was even better if you got the audio book version, as that came with a bonus novella at the end which was basically all World War Z style world-building. It was by far my favorite part of the book, after I finished that I was all “Wow, I would *love* to read a novel set in this world!”

I kinda get the feeling that his codas and novellas are where Scalzi stretches his artistic muscles and really lets loose with his talent. The part of Red Shirts that I fell so hard in love with was the codas as well. So yeah, this made for a decent meeting. On a week that your group needs a break from heavy stuff, I think this is a pretty solid decompression choice. Given that caveat, Recommended.

Aug 012019
 

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Synopsis: A meteor impact destroys most the east coast of the US in 1952, but no one notices because the real threat is global warming. Except no one notices that either, because the real threat is sexism and racism.

Book Review: The first section of Calculating Stars is fantastic. The meteor strike itself and the immediate aftermath isn’t just visceral and exciting… it’s a Matian-esque uber-science tour-de-force! The genius protag and her husband, in remote mountains at the time of the strike, are able to quickly deduce from physical clues what has happened. Based on knowledge of wave propagation through different substances they calculate roughly how large an impact it must have been, and how far away it was, and therefore how many minutes they have to flee before the blastwave hits them. It’s an absolute blast to see protagonists using science effectively to solve high-stakes problems under time pressure. Of course, surviving the initial blast is just the start. :)

Then the novel skips ahead X months, and all that stops. From this point on, it becomes a social justice drama. The first thing that suffers for this is the realism of the setting. Destroying the industrial and commercial base of the United States would have devastating consequences, a massive recession would be just the beginning. But Kowal clearly wanted to write a story set in our 1950s era, and so we get the cultural and societal reality of OUR 1950s, not a post-devastation one. I realize this is important for a story that wants to be about the racism and sexism of the 50s, but maybe don’t start by blasting away the eastern seaboard soon after WWII then?

There’s also very little actual feeling of racism or sexism in the novel. Like, some people are jerks to our female protag, and we hear about people of color being excluded from high-status jobs, but it’s rarely upsetting. To contrast, I was unable to watch past the first episode of Mad Men. The casual misogyny, the abject dismissal of anything a woman could possibly think, was so effective and enraging that I could not go back to the show. I felt my blood pressure spiking and my guts sickening and even one more episode of that was more than I could stomach. I could name dozens of similar works that enrage me by showing people mistreated, and fill me with righteous zeal to see justice served. Stars doesn’t do that.

Even as a climate-change warning it is ineffective. Bacigalupi writes good climate-change fiction. You want to make people feel, show them the people who are getting hurt. Maybe give us a scene from the PoV of the black families that are being passed over and ignored so white people can be evacuated. The closest we get is a mention of a food riot where no one even gets so much as a bad cut.

Everything that happens after that first time-skip is bloodless and boring. The protagonist is a well-off white woman married to a high-ranking government official. Her problems aren’t really problems. Her gaffes may offend her friends of color. Her interactions with stuffy old men are sometimes unpleasant. None of this matters much. What are the stakes? If she fails, what bad things happen as a result? She feels embarrassed and goes back to her comfortable life? Oh noes. It doesn’t matter though, because she never fails or even meets much opposition. Everything just kinda works out fine.

I think Kowal realized things were too easy and there wasn’t any conflict, so she gives her protag crippling stage fright. But, first, that’s not a very interesting problem. And second, it doesn’t actually change anything. There’s a few paragraphs describing nausea and sweats, and then the protag pulls over her presentation perfectly with great social grace and no one even notices.

Even the sex scenes are dull and awkward. I never thought a sex scene could be boring, but here we are.

Anyway, there’s a bunch of fretting about sexism and racism, some nausea and stage fright, and then things work out ok. This process then repeats itself three or four times, and then the book stops. There was no theme, no character development, no real challenge or stakes. It’s basically just a slice-of-life story of a super-woke white couple in the 50s.

As a novel, The Calculating Stars is a failure.

However I come not to bury The Calculating Stars, but to praise it.

For I have read this sort of work before, and I recognize that anyone who reads this like a novel is reading it wrong. This is not a novel. This is a web-serial. I’ve read a few of these before, and I know people who LOVE them. I know someone who said they don’t really get into a story until it reaches a million words. They basically want to be with a character as they go through their life. Calculating Stars is almost a coffeeshop AU in structure, although without all the relationships. Kowal has basically taken the web serial style of story and is trying to see if it can be monetized by releasing it as books rather than posted weekly online. If it works it’ll be really profitable, and it’s cool that it’s being tried.

I’m not really interested in reading this myself. I like the novel structure, it’s why I read novels, so I was disappointed that I got a woke 50s web serial instead. If you’re into that, you’ll like this. But if you’re like me, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Whether this works for your book club depends on how sensitive your group is to culture war stuff. We had some discomfort talking about this book, because everyone had lingering guilt that they were being sexist or racist for finding this to be weak sauce. We did get to talking about how it could have been done better, and how we shouldn’t judge people for liking things we don’t like, and so forth. And it’s not like anyone really disliked the book. It was just kinda there. Honestly it’s possible this could spark some interesting conversation… but I wouldn’t really count on it, because it’s just not very forceful in anything it says. Maybe that’s a good thing, it kept us all pretty sedate and polite. But you’re probably better off discussing something with more oomph. Mildly Not Recommended.

Jul 252019
 

Hugo AwardI hate to say this, because I fear I’m going to isolate people I like. But we have to have a talk about the Hugos.

 

I. Trail of Lightning should never have been a finalist.

It’s not just that it’s a basic wire-rack monster hunter pulp-fiction novel. In my personal opinion, yes, that should be enough to disqualify any work. The Hugo is one of the premier awards in SF fiction. It should go to novels that are innovative, pushing the genre forward. Or that have something important to say about being human, or something urgent to say about the state of the world. It needs to have a higher purpose than just basic entertainment. Trail of Lightning is exactly the sort of pulp adventure that my father mocked me for reading when I was younger, because he didn’t know authors like Heinlein and Le Guin and Jemisin existed. The Hugo awards exist exactly for the purpose of highlighting works that mean more than just a thrilling read.

BUT I know not everyone shares that view. Some people do think that awards should go to things that are just very good at being very entertaining. (I contend those books already get the award of “Best Seller” status, but hey, I guess that’s not enough?). I know this in part because every year something is in the finalist list that makes me roll my eyes and feel like an elitist jerk for a few days.

Unfortunately, even if one contends that pulp adventure is worthy of at least being considered for an award, Trail of Lightning is not a great specimen of that species.

 

II. This is not Roanhorse’s fault, or issue!

I would first like to stress that I am not saying that Rebecca Roanhorse is a bad writer. We know from last year’s short story “Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience(TM)” that she can write extremely well, and that she can tackle some very heavy social issues with incredible aplomb. That story was flat-out amazing, and deserved every award and bit of praise it got.

A digression – Simply looking at the timeline of when Authentic Indian Experience was published vs when Trail of Lightning was published, and knowing that the publishing industry never gets a book out the door in under six months (which is already breakneck speed), it is extremely probable that Trail of Lightning was written much earlier in Roanhorse’s career. I suspect as Authentic was gaining buzz, Trail’s publisher approached Roanhorse to ask if she had anything already written that she’d never sold, and she dusted off Trail. I could be wrong, but that seems more charitable than assuming it was a rush job.

The point is, Trail of Lightning is an example of an “early novel.” Many authors are lucky enough to have these – novels that helped them hone their skills, while providing a small paycheck and the validation/encouragement of getting into print, before the authors are very good. Some authors never get these early novels, and a few I’ve talked to say “I’m so grateful in retrospect… they weren’t good novels, and I’m so happy that only my best stuff is out there representing me.” But for every one of those, I’m willing to bet there’s twenty authors who got discouraged and gave up before getting to the X-th novel that was actually Very Good to the point that publishers couldn’t ignore it.

Again, this is NOT a bad thing. To take one example of a man who is rightly called a genius by all readers of genre, and is a British National Treasure – Terry Pratchett. His later writing is absolutely legendary, and you can’t read it and not be completely blow away. But his first several novels? They just aren’t that good. Even the best writers of a generation started out with wobbly fare.

There are authors currently writing in the monster hunter genre that have been at it for many years, with a dozen or more titles under their belts. While I don’t think the works are award-worthy (see above), they are, at least, among the best examples of the species. After so many repetitions of the formula, it’d be hard for those authors NOT to have improved. Some of these authors even openly state that their earlier books aren’t the best, and direct new readers to start a bit later in the series. It’s hard to compare their later works with Trail of Lightning and not see the difference.

 

III. This is not the publisher’s fault either

Trail of Lightning’s publisher, Saga Press, was doing exactly what a publisher should. They saw a rising talent, knew people would want to read more of her work, and snapped up anything they could get their hands on. They then published it in an effort to turn a profit. This is good for the fans, and good for the author. Bravo for Saga, I hope it works out!

 

IV. The Hugo Voters are to blame

Both the author and the publisher are simply doing the best they can in their careers/situations. It’s not their job to be the gatekeepers of quality, their job is simply to keep getting better and making the written works available (respectively). It is literally the job of the nominating Hugo readers, the gatekeepers of the Hugo award, to filter the best that our community has to offer. And yet a large number of these people came together and collectively nominated a less-than-stellar “early novel” of the mindless-pulp variety for one of the most prestigious awards the SF community can give out. How did this happen? Either a lot of people nominated Trail of Lightning without reading it, based on the strength of Authentic Indian Experience… or they did read it, and nominated it anyway.

The really dumb part is that Trail of Lightning isn’t even a social-issue book. It’s a straight-up plain monster hunter novel. The only way one could draw it into the culture-war narrative is by focussing on the author and looking back at her other works and noticing that last year’s Authentic Indian Experience was explicitly about cultural issues. “These two works are by the same author” is not enough to make a pulp novel have a social theme or message.

 

V. This hurts minorities

Look, the really despicable thing about the Puppies movement of a few years ago is that they decided to vandalize the Hugos because they said that authors were getting awards NOT because the works were of high-quality, but because they were minorities and were getting “affirmative action-ed” in. Jemisin specifically called this out in her world-rocking acceptance speech when she said her detractors claim “that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s “identity politics”.” Her speech still gives me shivers, but one of the things that gave it such joyous strength is that it was so blatantly obvious that she had written one of the best things to have been published in years. She deserved every single ounce of praise that comes with that trophy, because she produced a work that shines with the light of the sun, and puts the claims of the Puppies to hideous shame. There is no need for affirmative action, you assholes, the work speaks for itself, just read it and see!

Nominating a work that is clearly not worthy of this honor doesn’t help anything. Instead it diminishes the achievements of authors like Jemisin or Chiang, because it throws previous nominations into some doubt. Most people don’t know of the excitement of a breakout work of genius like Authentic Indian Experience, and how that exuberance will lead people to snap-vote for the next thing an author puts out without even reading it. They won’t ever get to hear about that, they’ll just see a book that clearly shouldn’t be a nominee, yet is, and will draw their own conclusions… and given the current culture wars, not all those conclusions will be good. And those conclusions will tarnish other winners, those whose only failing was being non-white in the crap-ass world we have right now.

 

VI. The irony is not lost on the historically-aware

Perhaps the most ironic thing about all this is that this is exactly the sort of novel the Puppies wanted to see in the Hugos. Pulp adventure novels about tough-ass monster hunters. Books whose commercial concerns outweigh artistic ones. Someone I spoke with also claims that their baseless idiotic vandalism created a backlash that has put cultural concerns before quality concerns in the Hugos — in effect bringing the Puppies’ distorted claims closer to reality. I’m not so sure, I think it’s much more due to the rise of Trump than anything the Puppies did. Regardless, they probably got a chuckle or two out of it. >.<

 

VII. Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

Look, what’s done is done. But going forward, more focus on content and less on works viewed primarily (whether rightly or not) as anti-“the other tribe” would be good. Keep the Hugos out of the culture wars, please.

Jul 192019
 

Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Synopsis: A monster-hunter hunts down some monsters while grappling with PTSD and trying to get over an ex, which causes her to miss that true love is right under her nose.

Book Review: This is a basic Urban Fantasy paranormal romance book. If you’re into that sort of thing, it could make for some decent trashy beach reading.

I am not into that sort of thing. I like my characters to not act like complete idiots for plot convenience. If the super-attractive magical boy’s eyes glow silver and suddenly people who were very hostile to him start doing whatever he asks, consider that he has persuasion magic. All of us realized it immediately, why is the protag an idiot?

I like my characters to have a reason for doing something, besides “the literal trickster god of this world wants us to do this thing but won’t tell us why.” That’s usually a reason to NOT do a thing.

I prefer to have the plot revealed to me through actions taken in the story, rather than by having the villain reveal it in a “Before I kill you, Mr Bond” monologue completely out of the blue just before his inevitable defeat. (And what an anti-climactic defeat it was!)

This book is the epitome of pulp fiction. It’s a bunch of tropes and events strung together in a story-like manner that can keep one pleasantly distracted with monster-punching if one just wants to turn one’s brain off for a few hours. There are a million books like it, usually found on spinning wire-racks in gas stations and truck stops.

I don’t hate this book, per se. I’ve been known to enjoy some trashy pulp myself, and I would never say people shouldn’t do things that bring them pleasure. But there’s a time and a place for this sort of thing. That time and place is NOT on the Hugo Finalists list. ಠ_ಠ

I have more to say about that topic, but that’s a post about the Hugos rather than book-review stuff, so that’ll be a post for another day. Perhaps after the weekend.

Not recommended.

Book Club Review: Book Club opinion was universal – this is pulp. Most of our readers were able to enjoy it as pulp. Every now and then everyone likes to just let go. So there was plenty of time taken to gripe about the classic stupidities of the genre, which was mostly done in a humorous manner, and some admiration of a few of the fun points. It was pointed out that this is one of the few times (for one reader, the first time he could recall) that a kick-ass woman was written realistically as a real female hard-bitten ass-kicker (rather than the stereotypical “strong female hero” that’s never very believable), and I’ll give it that. Everyone also agreed that this is a book they’ve already started forgetting, and they’ll likely never think of it again. Those who have opinions about the Hugos were also dismayed that this was nominated, and those who don’t were surprised that it was.

There’s nothing special here, so unless your book club also follows the Hugos and wants to have a discussion about that specifically – Not Recommended.