Jun 262015
 

Leckie_AncillarySword_TPAncillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Synopsis: A populist-leaning general sides with the underclasses against the ruling elites in a far-future analog of Imperial Rome.

Book Review: Leckie had set expectations high with her debut, Ancillary Justice, which was stunning. In this sequel she delivers in some areas, but falls short of her former glory in a few others.

(note, this is a sequel, so this review has a spoiler or two for the original book)

Her writing is still extremely strong. Everything flows wonderfully, and the protagonist’s ability to see out the eyes of her crew makes for a cool excuse to use a lot of quasi-Omnicient-Narrator tricks while remaining in the first person. It also allows for multiple actions happening simultaneously which we cut back and forth between, which makes for energetic reading. Leckie’s characters feel real, and the emotion in the narrative is strong – you cheer at the protagonists wins, hate who she hates, are worried when she’s worried, etc. This is something that improved a great deal from the first book, where it was harder to identify with the protagonist. And the plot of the novel is also fairly strong and keeps moving at a good pace, you want to keep reading. In fact, this is the first book I’ve read in quite a long time that kept me up waaay past when I should have gone to sleep, because I couldn’t put it down.

Leckie also portrays a very strict, hierarchal society fantastically, with all the protocols and formalities those require. And she does a fantastic job of striking that “underdog” nerve. Yes, I know it’s a teenage power fantasy, to suddenly be the supreme military commander in an area and be able to force the elitist assholes who are literally and figuratively exploiting and raping the underclasses to shape the fuck up and start acting like decent humans or by god you’ll have them stripped of their positions, flogged, and if necessary executed. Yet that power fantasy feels soooo good, and it’s damned compelling. Who hasn’t wanted to be the person to expose the most corrupt powerbrokers and punish them for their crimes? It is a sweet taste, and I reveled in it.

The book’s biggest problem is that it is a Middle Book and suffers from the typical Middle Book problems. The author is mainly setting up things for the final book of the trilogy, bridging the initial instigating action of the first book and climatic action of the third book with a bunch of “moving us from point A to point B” action that isn’t nearly as compelling. The first book is all about One Esk’s quest for the revenge of the murder of the one person she loved, revenge she must take on the Emperor(!), with a climactic showdown in the imperial palace. She swears at the end of that book to keep secretly working to destroy the Emperor, even as she’s outwardly siding with half of her. You’d think that would continue to be the defining struggle, but it rarely gets mentioned. It looks very much like One Esk is doing the Emperor’s will by bringing order to this system, and she doesn’t seem to be making secret plans or cooking up plots to destroy the Emperor at all. The stakes also seem low – we’re placed in a system out at the edges of the Empire that makes a luxury good that no one cares about right now, so it’s entirely untouched by the civil war shaking the important parts of the empire. It feels like the Emperor just wanted One Esk out of the way in a quiet place she couldn’t make trouble, and One Esk complied. There’s some hints that they’re near something important, but of course all that will turn up in the last book, not in this one.

Furthermore, the climax is not very climactic. It’s a brief flurry of violence without any lead-up tension and it’s over in a few pages. I was surprised when the book ended, it seemed very sudden, without anything important having been resolved. There hadn’t been much character growth in anyone, and the ultimate plot of Galactic Civil War was barely advanced. I was very disappointed. Honestly, I wish authors would simply stop writing Middle Books. All trilogies should only be two books long, and jump straight from the first book to the third book with maybe a single chapter taking the place of the second book. They’re almost always a let-down.

I’m not sure how to rate this book. I greatly enjoyed it while it lasted, but I didn’t feel very fulfilled after it was done. Like most middle books, my final opinion will probably depend on how I feel about the concluding book, where the actual resolution to the story rests. /sigh Based on my inability to stop reading it, and the strength of the writing, I’ll go with a provisional Lightly Recommended.

Book Club Review: I’m happy to say that the single-gender thing was not nearly as big a deal this time! Everyone had grown pretty used to it from having read the first book, so it no longer served as a stumbling block. There was still a bit of talk about it, but it didn’t dominate the discussion, thank goodness. I was so over it already.

Unfortunately Ancillary Sword was more simplistic than Ancillary Justice. Ancillary Justice was nuanced, and made cases both for and against its themes of consequentialism and determinism, giving the reader a lot of room for interpretation and argumentation. Ancillary Sword, OTOH, comes down pretty hard on the “populism is good, elitism is bad” side of class struggle. It’s a safe bet that most modern readers will be strongly on that side as well, and it’s emotionally compelling, but it’s not terribly thought-provoking.

There are, however, still quite a number of things to discuss, and we had a good conversation at the book club. Recommended.

Puppy Note: This should be right up the Puppies’ alley–a military space opera with good plotting. The primary message even mirrors their Hugo narrative! A minority of corrupt elites have taken control of the political institutions, and an outsider has to rise up for the common man to set things right. (or as The Phantom would say: “a thorough hill kicking and some ant stomping seems in order.These people gots to learn some manners.”) And yeah, it’s an intoxicating narrative! It’s why I always lean a bit to the Puppies’ side when I read Larry’s blog; he is very good at telling that story. :) So normally I would assume they’d love this. But due to the gender thing I think they’ll assume that the author is on the “wrong” side of the political spectrum, call it “message fiction,” and dislike/hate it.

They’re right that it’s message fiction (as all good fiction is, because if you aren’t saying something about the human condition why are you even writing?), but they’re wrong about the message. Ancillary Sword’s message is their message. It’s populism, and anti-elitism, and standing up for what’s right. They’ll think the message is something about hating men, I guess? Because the Radch society only has one non-gendered pronoun that applies to all people? OK, whatever.

I would be thrilled to be wrong though.

Jun 222015
 

I dashed off a little short story, inspired by the Sad Puppies Hugo Fiasco. I had fun writing it, I hope someone finds it enjoyable to read. :)


Amazing Man flew over the Los Angeles sprawl at a good clip. He’d thought of it as his “patrolling pace” just a few short weeks ago. A high enough speed to cover a lot of ground, but not so fast that he couldn’t track all the small-scale human movements below. It was still too fast for a cape though. The wind would whip it so loudly he couldn’t hear himself think, and his thoughts were pretty important. It was even fast enough to rip the breath from anyone who needed to breathe, so it was a good thing he didn’t. His chest rose and fell out of habit, an affectation he’d adopted to put the people around him at ease.

In a sense this was still patrolling, but now he was looking for slabs of lead shielding rather than crimes in progress. That was the byproduct of another previous effort to put humans at ease, by affording them a sense of privacy. He could, in actuality, see through lead without a problem. He’d been so stupid back then, hopping back and forth like the oblivious nerd trying to impress the popular girl, thinking he had a chance. Even last month he’d let those orphans smear their greasy hands all over his costume, smiling the while. They had no idea how hard it was to get stains out of it! He couldn’t just take it to the dry cleaner. And no Amazing Fabric Cleaning Vision either. All the positions he’d twisted himself into, trying to make the humans happy! For years! And for what? Well, at least one good thing had come from his naiveté–now lead shielding acted like a neon sign flashing “Insurgents Here!”

Los Angeles was in better shape than most other major cities. The fighting here had been brief. The populace had already seen how futile resistance was, and the National Guard had defected to his side before he’d even arrived. He’d probably be able to lift his personal overwatch from LA in a matter of weeks. He hated when people referred to it as martial law. That was downright ungrateful. He kept tabs on the insurgent sympathizers who said it. It was his duty, as the liberator and overlord of America, to ensure that his subjects could enjoy lives free from civil strife. Amazing very much believed in the personal responsibility ethic of “you break it, you bought it.” Even if he’d fixed it rather than broken it.

As he flew over a suburb he spotted a lead slab, installed to shield a basement. He zoomed in with his Amazing Vision and saw a group of young men sitting in a circle, tapping away on their phones furiously. His Amazing Hearing was well-known, no one would speak a word against him aloud anymore, but that was no impediment to the youth. It was almost as if the past five years had been a training regimen to prepare the populace in audio-free communication. Come to think of it, that wasn’t so implausible. It was too bad Steve Jobs couldn’t be brought in for interrogation anymore. Unless… he had faked his own death?? The possibility was intriguing. Amazing would love to end this whole resistance fiasco just by punching the right guy hard enough. Counterinsurgency was frustratingly difficult.

Amazing focused on the tiny phone screens to confirm his targets. Rallying cries of “Death to tyrants!” and “We are Americans, we kill kings!” Really hurtful stuff. He was a far more benevolent ruler than those self-interested liars that had kept getting elected. He altered his course to home in on the insurgents. They didn’t look like he’d expected insurgents to look, with turbans and beards. They looked just like any other group of teens gathered for a social event. Heads bowed over phones, fingers flying, not a word being said. If it wasn’t for the lead shielding above them he wouldn’t have given them a second glance.

He dropped into the basement feet-first, punching through the house above like an unpopular rocker leaping onto an unwilling crowd. He’d intended to appear in their midst with the clarity of a bolt of lightning, or a much more popular rockstar, but shoddy construction ruined his entrance. Debris crashed around him. The billowing dust obscured all vision. Screams of panic, and at least one of grievous injury, filled the room. Amazing frowned. This was almost as bad as the time he’d crashed Dr. Vile’s nephew’s bar mitzvah, thinking it was an Evil League gathering. Those poor grandmas never knew what hit them. Amazing pursed his lips and blew, clearing the air with his Amazing Breath. Slowly the cries died into shocked silence, aside from the screeching kid in skinny jeans clutching a shattered leg. A bow-tied hipster in the corner quietly pissed himself.

Amazing scanned the room with his Amazing Psychoanalytic Vision to find the insurgent most suited to his needs. The one who would be most terrified by what was about to happen, and who would tell everyone he could of the horror of this afternoon. Amazing didn’t have the time to root out every single insurgent cell. He needed to give the impression that he was aware of all subversive action and always just a moment away from crushing it. He figured the best way to do that would be to strike at random times and places across the nation and make sure everyone knew what had happened.

After a couple seconds he focused on the dreadlocked hippie type pressed against the back wall. The hippie enjoyed attention, and didn’t believe in staying quiet. Amazing hoped he had a lot of followers on whatever Insta-share thing he used.

With that Amazing burst into action. A single step and he was across the room, up to the elbow in someone’s chest, his fist protruding from their back. A huge sidestep and he was against an exterior wall, one hand pressed against the concrete foundations, a mess of brain pulp and shattered skull under his palm. A spin and a dash–he literally ran through one of the insurgents, the body exploding in a red mist, before grabbing the bow-tied kid’s jaw in one hand and twisting his head off his body. A final step and he was next to the injured kid. He stomped his chest flat in a single motion. From start to finish, less than one second. He knew the hippie couldn’t have followed it. One second everything was fine, the next Amazing Man was dripping gore and the hippie’s friends were so much falling meat.

“I’m tired of your terrorist shit,” Amazing intoned. “It ends now. Consider this your warning.” The kid stared at him, frozen, not even daring to breathe. Amazing held the pose, unsure of how to exit the scene. Back in his self-effacing heroing days people would thank him at this point, which was his cue to be gracious, salute someone, and fly off. This extended pause was awkward, and there was blood trickling under his collar. Could the kid at least acknowledge he’d heard him?

A strained croak escaped from the hippie’s mouth, which would do. Amazing rocketed out of the basement. He accelerated sharply, hoped the wind of his flight would strip him clean, like a super-powerful air hose. Instead it just dried the viscera onto him, leaving his skin sticky and his creases crusty. In annoyance he flared his Amazing Aura, incinerating everything within an inch of his body, aside from his asbestos underwear. Come to think of it, his costume was also a holdover from his days of cringing appeasement and self-abasement. He had the body of a Greek god. From now on that underwear would be the entirety of his costume.

As soon as he dyed it purple, anyway. He couldn’t have an asbestos-grey costume, even a really small one. He wasn’t gauche.


Amazing Man sat in the throne room of his Amazing-Lair-cum-Presidential-Palace, contemplating how to ferret out his secret arch-nemesis Steve Jobs, when he was interrupted by an approaching clamor. One of his newly-minted Lieutenants of Liberty, resplendent in black-and-purple ballistic armor, marched through the opposite doorway. He came before Amazing’s throne and kneeled, head bowed, helmet under his arm. Amazing was uncomfortable with such displays of deference, but he’d once read it was an important ritual among military organizations. His Amazing Psychoanalytic Vision confirmed that his Liberty Legion found it deeply comforting, so he’d mandated the act. He wondered if this was a universal human trait, or if his organization simply tended to attract people who needed this sort of structure.

Then he realized that he was again making himself uncomfortable to pander to the vagaries of the current in-crowd. That the in-crowd were his loyal followers didn’t change a damn thing. He was done being a simpering puppy.

“Stand up,” he snapped. “Report.”

The man rose reverently, but refused to make eye-contact with Amazing. Probably bad news then. Either that or he was intimidated by Amazing’s manly physique. Amazing found he really enjoyed the liberty of his much smaller costume. He should have done this years ago.

It was probably the bad news though. His Legion was flat-out incompetent.

“My lord, we’ve captured the reporter. She is waiting just outside.”

Success on their first try? Amazing blinked in surprise. That was a new record! He’d been this close to adopting Dr. Vile’s style of punitive motivational tactics (he imagined his thumb and forefinger very, very close together). He didn’t have to worry about a henchman uprising like Dr. Vile had suffered, and he’d been getting tired of failure. He eyed the lieutenant skeptically, not quite sure how to react to good news from underlings.

“Bring her in,” Amazing ordered. With his luck they’d gotten the wrong reporter anyway.

The lieutenant returned promptly with three Legionnaires, escorting a feisty, tough-as-nails reporter. Miss Paula Perry, from the State Journal Weekly. Amazing expected her to see the wall behind him at some point, but she was struggling the entire way across the room, and when she’d finally been deposited at the foot of his dais she simply glared directly up at him. All things considered, this was preferable. It would make the reveal so much more dramatic!

“Ah, Miss Perry,” Amazing greeted her with a smile. “You’ve been in hiding since my ascension, and I feared you’d fled the country! I should have known you’d still be here, riling up the masses. Reasonable responses never were your strong suit.”

He’d practiced that line in a mirror, so he knew it delivered the perfect mix of power and contempt.

“I knew this would happen!” Paula spit at him. “I tried to warn everyone! I’d been trying to warn them all from the first day!”

“Oh, I know all about your warnings. I followed your column, devoutly. I read and tracked every word of yours. Every. Single. Lie.”

Paula pulled back in surprise, momentarily speechless.

“You did?” she asked. Amazing grinned down at her. Slowly comprehension dawned over her stupid face. “You were V.Populi77? You? You didn’t have anything better to do than troll the comments of some weekly columnist?”

“You weren’t just some columnist for me. For you see…” Amazing reached back, picked up a pair of black thick-framed glasses from his throne, and slipped them over his face.

Paula eyes bugged out and she gasped in recognition.

“Emilio?”

“Yes. Your polite, cringing, and unfailingly nice coworker. I was Amazing Man the whole time!”

“That’s why your stories always praised Amazing Man so much.”

“No!” Amazing snarled the word, then calmed himself as its echoes died away. “No. I was simply trying to counteract your constant hate-pieces. In return you and your coterie of Mean Girls attacked me, tore me down in public, and baited the rest of the journalistic world into hating Amazing Man!”

“But everyone else loved you! Your columns were way more popular than mine! They’re why people read the paper.”

“So you admit my work was better?” Amazing demanded.

“Well… I mean, it was definitely better liked…”

“Then how do you explain THIS!?” Amazing stepped to the side and with a sweep of his arm gestured grandly at the wall behind the throne. “Last year when I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, for an incredible in-depth piece on Amazing Man, I was passed over and the Prize was given to this vile hate-piece instead!”

The wall was solid marble, forty feet wide and rising to a gothic arch seventy feet up. Starting five feet from the top was the full text of a State Journal Weekly article, carved into the marble in giant letters. Amazing had carved those letters himself, with his Amazing Cutting Vision, seething all the while. He’d had to focus carefully, exercising control not to cut deeper on the most infuriating lines.

“Amazing Man Amazingly Narcissistic. -Paula Perry; SJW, Nov 14 2018

As the city throws another parade in Amazing Man’s honor, perhaps we should take a moment to ask if our thanks aren’t misplaced.

In a world of crashing climates, is the best use of a massive super-natural force really the stopping of muggings and personal crime? Millions starve, hundreds of millions are displaced, civil conflict and disease run rampant in half the world. How many could be saved if Amazing Man used his strength to keep a series of massive dynamos spinning? Free, limitless energy would end half our conflicts, and break humanity’s carbon addiction.

Or what if Amazing Man were to allow himself to be studied by scientists, so we could determine the source of his powers?

Consider even the event that has prompted our latest parade, the poisoning of the city’s water supply. While we are all grateful to have been saved by Amazing Man, revelation of his Amazing Water-Purification Vision raises alarming questions. How many lives could he save by providing clean water in developing countries? How many other powers does he have that he isn’t telling us about?

And yet where do we see him? In showy fights with evil geniuses. Or punching common thugs. Flashy actions that are always caught on camera and praised. He is conspicuously absent from the sort of high-impact work that doesn’t come with limelight.

More than anything else, Amazing Man seems to crave affirmation, and anyone who doesn’t provide it for him can go hang. One can only shudder to think what he might do if the news cycle ever changes focus and the affirmation he needs begins to drain away.”

 

It had been carved in the same font the State Journal Weekly used.

It even included the small stock photo of Amazing Man that had run with the column, carved into the wall in bas-relief.

Slowly Paula turned her gaze back to Amazing.

“Are you saying this is my fault?” she asked.

“All of you ivory-tower snobs, trying to tell the rest of us how to live our lives. I was just trying to make the world a better place! But I didn’t fit into your little clique, didn’t toe your party line, so you attacked me at every opportunity. You tried to destroy my career, while you slandered my good deeds, and your incestuous little group rewarded you for it.”

Paula shook her head, looking dazed. Her eyes kept moving from Amazing’s face to the wall behind him and back again.

“It was worse than I thought,” she said, “You’d never be happy as anything less than a messiah figure. Why not just cut to the chase and call yourself Messiah Man instead? Or The Amazing Christ?”

“And you’re still doing it! You have this need to cast me in the worst possible light. The whole system was corrupt, ruled by out-of-touch elites. The masses loved me, and you sought only to tear me down! I had to take back America for the common man, for the overwhelming majority of us underdogs!”

“And that article of mine,” Paula gestured to the wall, “is what convinced you of this?”

“I’d been so naive before that. I read your columns, but I had faith in the process. I believed that I would be judged by the content of my character. Afterwards I realized I never even had a chance. That’s when I decided things had to change.”

“So all of this…” Paula gestured around herself to indicate the Presidential Palace, the Liberty Legions, and presumably the entire Liberated States of America. “All of this was because you felt snubbed by a group of people you don’t even like?”

Amazing ripped the glasses from his face and crushed them in his fist. His responding roar was super-human, shattering all the glass in the Palace and leaving Paula with mild, but permanent, hearing loss.

It’s about ethics in superhero journalism!


Emilio won a Pulitzer that year, as well as a Peabody, an Oscar, a Grammy, a Dobby, and a Tony Award; all purely on merit and not for any other reason at all. Amazing Man won the Nobel Peace Prize. That last one raised a few eyebrows, but it was pointed out that the Peace Prize had previously been awarded to people with a much higher body count than Amazing Man had managed, and wouldn’t it be better to keep it that way? It was hard to argue with that logic.

Miss Perry was released, because Amazing Man was above petty things like personal revenge. She is now happily employed as a Field Hand in the Angola Liberty Farm.

Jun 092015
 

Rocket-future-2This started out as a reply to a comment, and became long enough I decided to make it a post. If you’d like to skip to the chase, the bottom two paragraphs are the important bits, and my point is “It’s time to end the requirement that a Hugo can only be given to a work published for the first time in the previous calendar year.”

On my review of Three Body Problem, Beerwulf wrote:

>As far as the Puppies are concerned there is no “everything else that goes into making a good SF story”, what you consider to be the “everything else”, they (and I) consider to be just optional extras. One of the motivations for the SPs is that SF has become too literary, too concerned with the optional extras and not concerned enough with what’s important, what makes SF, SF.
[…]
I’ve commented before about “Pure SF”: science fiction with everything that isn’t science fiction removed. Even if I agree with everything in your review (which I don’t – I might comment later about that), then this would stand as a great example of “Pure SF”.

I can see that, and it makes a lot of sense. And I agree that what makes SF SF is the important part. I generally dislike EarthFic (Literary Fiction) and consider it a wasteland. All that “everything else” heaped upon itself is just empty fluff without the base. If you’re going to bake a cake, you need actual flour. But I also think that just flour isn’t enough for me. Hardtack will fill you up, but it’s not a joy to eat. I want all those other things too. I guess that’s where the “difference in taste” thing comes in. For some people that extra stuff probably detracts rather than adds.

I will say I enjoyed The Martian. It had enough of the Other Stuff to make me happy, even if it wasn’t quite as well executed as it could be. It was certainly better than Three Body, IMHO.

I’m not sure this really explains the Puppies that well though. They nominated Skin Game, and if we’re talking about the “Pure SF” Stuff, it has none at all. It’s an urban fantasy. They also nominated Parliament of Beasts and Birds, which is religious horror and again has no “Pure SF” in it.

If a contingent of readers did want to bring more “Pure SF” back into the Hugos, nominating the most right-wing or the best-selling SF is not the way to do it. Their best bet would be to alter the Hugos to adapt to the modern world. A LOT of great titles are being passed over due to adherence to archaic rules from the times of print publishing.

Aside from Three Body, what are the two best-regarded recent “Pure SF” books you can think of? For me it’s Wool and The Martian. Both are insanely successful and fairly well written. Neither was eligible for a Hugo because they were first published serially online. (As more and more great works are!) By the time they made it into print (or had a large enough audience that they could potentially be nominated) they had passed the year that they were eligible. This is ridiculous. Most people do their reading online nowadays, and most stuff that’s published online spreads through word-of-mouth. That takes a fair handful of months, no matter how good it is. Putting something online shouldn’t make you ineligible for a Hugo. It’s absolutely ridiculous that neither Hugh Howey or Andy Weir were even eligible for a nomination!

It’s time to end the requirement that a Hugo can only be given to a work published for the first time in the previous calendar year. My own preferred solution would be to extend it to anything published in the three calendar years preceding the convention. This allows for word of mouth to spread. Alternately, it can be changed to making eligible anything released for the first time in a new publication format in the previous year (print as opposed to electronic, or full ebook as opposed to a collection of posts), with previous nominees obviously ineligible. An inability to change this, IMHO, is much more likely to kill the Hugos than any silly Puppy movement.

May 282015
 

51kxQMvzMeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (translation by Ken Liu)

Synopsis: A secret SETI-equivalent Chinese program makes radio contact with an alien species.

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem starts out with a bang, dropping us right into the middle of China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 60s, from the perspective of a persecuted intellectual. The emotional impact is high, the politics are gripping, and the gradual revelation of a mysterious government program reels you in. Unfortunately, Cixin Liu isn’t able to keep the emotion going once we flash ahead to the modern day. He switches gears to focus on the alien-contact conspiracy and the exploration of a scientific problem, and only halfway pulls it off.

One of the great things about SF, that sets it apart from other genres, is the wonder of discovery. The intellectual excitement of running into a puzzle and working through it via experimentation and deduction. Or the exploration of how a culture would have evolved to handle vastly different circumstances. When Liu sticks to these he does a damn good job! Aside from the Cultural Revolution, the most exciting parts of the book are when we’re being shown the alien’s world and brought through their struggle for survival and quest for knowledge. Unfortunately, this is only one aspect of storytelling, and everything else that goes into making a good SF story seems to be ignored.

For a start, the characters are almost undifferentiatable. The only one who sticks out is the hard-boiled cop. Everyone else is a young, single engineer. It’s worth pointing out that the protagonist is actually a married man with at least one child, and yet he’s written exactly like someone with no family at all. If someone else hadn’t reminded me of the brief scene where his wife and child are introduced I would still be under the impression that he was a single young man. And even the hard-boiled cop is basically just a hard-boiled, sarcastic version of the same character template.

There is no discernable emotion after the Cultural Revolution section. An author isn’t just supposed to show us cool gadgets and interesting puzzles, s/he is supposed to make us feel something. Or at least convince us that someone in the novel is feeling something. The Martian was non-stop puzzle-solving challenges, but the entire time there was a joy to it, or excitement, or some sort of relatable emotion. Three-Body Problem is flat in affect throughout.

The dialog can be taken as an example of this problem. It never feels like the sorts of things real people would actually say to each other (with the occasional exception of the cop, Da Shi). Rather, in almost every case it is little more than a way to give us exposition or tell the plot. It feels like people are being forced into verbalizing info dumps rather than actually interacting with each other, and it’s wooden and awkward.

Finally, there is prodigious amounts of telling-rather-than-showing. As a single example, here’s how the after effects of severe radiation dosing is handled:

“However, like everyone else who remained in the cafeteria after the explosion, Shi suffered severe radiation contamination.”

The entire book is like this. Contrast this to the handling in Leviathan Wakes, where the two characters are shown nearly panicking when their radiation counters go red, grimly joking about it afterwards, and later on we see them taking a cocktail of anti-cancer drugs which they’re informed they’ll have to take regularly for the rest of their lives. It took a few extra paragraphs to show that, and make us feel both the panic of the exposure and the consequences of it. It involved us emotionally with the characters. Liu’s line was little more than an acknowledgment that he knows radiation exists, and added nothing.

I will say that this may be intentional. Perhaps the Chinese style of writing is far more sedate than the American style, and to have characters who feel things is considered crass and readers hate it. This could be considered a fantastic book by Chinese critics, for all I know. But at the risk of being culturally insensitive… I consider this poor fiction. This sort of flat, bad writing – wrapped around an intriguing idea with a great puzzle and fun discovery at its center – is what I think gave SF it’s bad rep waaaaaay back in the day. It is entirely possible to write SF that’s based around a mind-blowing idea with a fantastic puzzle, full of all the wonder of discovery and exploration, while also having a story arc, compelling characters, realistic dialog, strong writing, and emotional resonance with the reader. Sure, it’s a lot harder. But if it was easy everyone would be doing it. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: The lack of engagement and emotion really hurt this as a Book Club book. Once the puzzle is solved and the mystery is revealed, what is there for readers to discuss? The characters, the emotion, the themes. What we think the author was trying to say. In a story that doesn’t have any of those things, the discussion was a bit forced, and didn’t last very long. Not Recommended.

Puppy Note: This book was not on the Puppy Slate. When I thought to myself “How did this book make it onto the Hugo Ballot?” my first thought was the same uncharitable thought that the Puppies normally have. I thought “This is cultural inclusiveness being taken too far. The liberal thought-leaders want to show they are racially/culturally diverse, and they know that this book is CRAZY popular in China! For it to be so popular among so many readers, it must be fantastic! So let’s make sure it gets a nomination regardless of its merits.” Thus a type of affirmative action – signaling your awesome cultural acceptance and diversity at the cost of nominating a book that would have been much more deserving of the Hugo on its merits.

Except that the Puppy Leaders have come forward to say that they love this book, and would have put it on their slate if they’d known about it!! And I’m like… WHAT THE HELL is going on?? OK, we all already suspect that the Puppies don’t have great taste in SF lit, but if they think this book deserves a nomination on its merits, than perhaps *I* am being a giant, insensitive dick by assuming that only someone with a hidden liberal agenda would nominate this. Obviously people must actually like it. And if I am lumping in the Sad/Rabid Puppies with their hated “SJW” nemesis for picking crap for political reasons, maybe that’s a big flashing sign that says “There is no such thing as the political-reasons voter, and the Puppies were even more wrong that I thought from the very beginning.” Seriously, if I can’t tell you apart from your political rivals based on book selection, I think you’re grasping at straws.

Second, apparently Puppy-approved books can be nominated without the Puppy’s help. In fact, despite their efforts in this case. If the liberal conspiracy you claim is keeping good works down keeps nominating things you like (much like they nominated Correia and Torgerson in the past…) then it might not actually exist.

Third, why the hell hadn’t the Puppy Leadership heard of this book!? I am not very in-touch with the SF community. I have very rarely heard of more than 1 or 2 books that are nominated each year. Yet even I had heard of The Three-Body Problem. If the Hugo Popes deciding what books should be put on the Puppy Slate are so poor at reading the field that they can’t identify and nominate The Three-Body Problem, and have to admit afterwards “Man, I’m glad that made it in, because we love it!” then perhaps they are doing a shit-ass job of being the Hugo Popes and should relegate that job to the SF-reading hive mind again. FFS.

May 142015
 

skingame_lgSkin Game, by Jim Butcher

Synopsis: An urban-fantasy supernatural bank heist

Book Review: This is a frustrating book, because it has some very cool parts, but some very big failures as well, and you can see the unrealized potential within it. It reads very much like a novelization of the Buffy TV Series if it had been done by someone without Joss Whedon’s talent for self-awareness and meta-analysis.

Skin Game has that snappy, modern, referential humor that we so love. It is often funny, and in parts laugh-out-loud hilarious. The big parasite twist absolutely made my evening. :) The writing is never bad, and in parts it is outstanding! “Her heels clicking with metronomic inevitability” or “with all the sympathy of a bullet in flight” are evocative and high-impact lines. And the characters are generally strong and distinct, making them easy to identify and accept.

Unfortunately the awesomeness-to-word-count ratio is not favorable. The story seems to need to take a break every so often to have a fight scene, like a Fox executive is standing over Jim’s shoulder saying “No one’s been staked in 20 minutes? Throw some vampires at them!” Now, some of these fight scenes are vital, well-built, and fantastic. The one just outside Carpenter’s house was a tour-de-force, with a fantastic build-up, high stakes, the possibility of something bad actually happening, and major plot-altering outcomes as a result. I loved it. But several other fight scenes were dull, and could have been removed entirely without changing the story one bit. Any time a scene can be removed without altering a story at all, it should be.

It wasn’t just the fight scenes though. There’s a lot of really unfortunate dialog that basically consists of the characters telling the reader how s/he should be feeling right now. Most of it while trying to sound profound or moving. That is bad writing. You never tell a reader how he should feel (even if it’s dressed up as friends psycho-analyzing the protagonist to make him feel better). You make a reader feel things by showing them action that evokes those feelings. No matter how many times someone says “They took away everything that was familiar. They hurt you.” that doesn’t make us feel that pain. Repeating it doesn’t make it more impactful. There was not a single emotional point in the book that was left un-belabored.

As a result, a lot of the book was simply boring. Which is one of the worst things a book can be. Any time I have to resort to skimming a book it loses esteem in my eyes, and I had to do that quite a bit. With the exception of the fight outside Carpenter’s house, I never felt reluctant to put it down, or excited to pick it up again.

I suspect that part of the problem is that this is the 15th book in a (planned) 20 book series. Call me cynical, but I have a very hard time believing this story arc had to be spread out over 20 books and couldn’t have been done in (say) five. Very little of consequence happened in this book, and all those extra pages I was forced to skim through were just padding. For comparison, Catherine Valente wrote Deathless, which in the course of a single book takes its protagonist from age 10 to age 60+, covers two world wars, and has an amazing character arc, intense plot, and vast changes in the world. It’s an epic story. A few years ago I read the first Dresden novel (Storm Front). Harry Dresden seems virtually unchanged since that novel. Same with the world he’s in. Valente accomplished more in a single book than Butcher’s done in fifteen. I kinda resent that. My time is being wasted so a series can be padded out. Bleh.

Ultimately, I want something that will stick with me when I read (or watch) a story. Buffy was campy and fun, but it was also good–it still reverberates in my life. Skin Game, once you skip the boring bits, was certainly fun. But there’s nothing there that’ll stick with me. As one friend said: “A workman-like example of entertainment product.” It’s probably good beach reading with a drink. But that’s not what I’m interested in. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: There isn’t much to say here. I won’t say there’s nothing for a book club to talk about. It is interesting to compare what different people find enjoyable – what jokes worked for some but not others, what bored one person vs what excited another, etc. There were a couple people in our group who were legitimately entertained and said the rest of us were being too finicky. But that only gets you so far. There wasn’t anything thought-provoking or innovative to push discussion. While it may be a good book for individual reading for some, as a book club book I would Not Recommend.

Puppy Note: This book really isn’t terrible, it’s just not great. Which means it’s already better than at least one nominee I’ve read every year. Every year since I started participating in the Hugos there’s been at least one book that I thought was simply awful, and in one case I was surprised the book had even made it to print! This book is easily better than any of those. And from what I’ve heard, some of the other books in this series have been quite a bit better. Which, first of all, makes me more convinced there should be a separate Hugo category for Series. But which also makes me ask “Why did Brad pick this book, this year?” It’s obviously not a good example of what Butcher can do when he really tries (or at least I hope that’s the case). Picking this particular mediocre book smacks very much of the exact sort of “basing Hugo decisions based on insider knowledge and politics,” rather than “just judging a work on its merits” that the Puppies campaign was supposedly against. Oh how quickly things turn.

May 042015
 

business-cat-is-seriousI just re-read “Is this art?” Great post, and short, take five minutes to go read it if you can. Most relevant part is:

> If Person A uses the word “art” to mean “something beautiful that required skill to create” and Person B uses the word “art” to mean “something intentionally created to make a statement,” then it seems like their debate over whether the urinal is “art” should be resolved as soon as they clarify what they meant by the word.

> As far as I can tell, the disguised query in this case is usually “does this deserve to be taken seriously?” which can be translated in practice into, “Is this the sort of thing that deserves to be exhibited in a gallery?”

 

If the Larry and Brad can be taken at their word, they seem think that the answer to the question “Does this work represent the best of SF?” should be answered with “If the casual reader picked up a book for entertainment reading, would the Hugo winner be the best SF book of the year for that?”

This does make some sense — most people read fiction purely for entertainment. Their primary criteria for judging a work of fiction is “Was it fun to read? Did I have a good time?” So Larry and Brad have a point when they say that the Hugos do not represent the “large majority” of the reading public. The majority of the reading public is picking up a good yarn. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s the same way I watch TV, or watch movies. For these sorts of things, you want Indiana Jones. You want the heart-of-gold guy having awesome adventures and cracking wise the whole time, who has loyal friends and scary enemies and wins the heart of the girl at the end. This is a fun-as-hell tale!

But some percentage of the SF readership considers SF to be Serious Business. It’s not just for fun, it is Art. I confess I am one of those people. I’m ok with admitting to being slightly snobby in SF reading. FFS, I run a silly Harry Potter Fanfic Podcast, I gotta have *something* I can be snobby about! Everyone needs are least one thing to snob over, whether it’s cooking, or reading, or gun use/knowledge. My thing is genre fic.

If you’re a bit snobby and consider SF to be Art, simply “being fun” is not a good enough criteria for an award. There’s lots of that. My criteria goes further… things that include “Making me feel an emotion really hard” and “Great skill in writing” and “Making me think” and “Being innovative and pushing the boundaries of the genre.” “Being fun” is included, but it’s not primary, and sometimes it takes a hit to make room for all the other things. Indiana Jones is great, but it doesn’t make me think, and in 2015 is certainly is not innovative or pushing the boundaries!

This is why some authors can consistently put out multi-best-selling books but never get a Hugo award. They put out great work that’s popular, and it’s fun to read, but that’s not what the Hugo award is for. I even get the impression that most people who pick up a book for fun-reading know this. They know that awards go to heavier stuff with an art focus, so they don’t look for an award sticker (or avoid it) if they don’t want something like that. Instead they look for the “Best Seller” line on the cover and buy that. It’s only when they want something more involved that they’ll pick up something that won awards. I think that the casual reader is ill-served by the Puppies’ initiative, because while they can still get the fun best-sellers by buying best-sellers, they don’t have a way to find the more artsy stuff when that’s what they’re in the mood for.

Larry and Brad wanted to make the Hugos into a “Best of what’s fun and popular!” award, because to them that’s synonymous with “Best of SF.” Their biggest problem was that generally the people who care enough to participate in the Hugos disagreed with them. We’re in it to argue over the artsy stuff. The people who share their opinion that having fun is the primary point of fiction don’t care enough to get involved. They pay for the best sellers and read them and have a good time. Why should they care if some geeks who take all this too seriously spend hours upon hours arguing over this point or that? Why would they invest that time, and that effort, and pay $40, when they already read their fun book and moved on to the next one?

The only way to marshal the forces is to turn them Rabid. In America that means the Culture War. This has already been refined to a science in the USA so the playbook is common knowledge. Make it a Red vs Blue thing, paint the other side as oppressors who are unfairly manipulating the system to keep out the people they hate, make it about standing up to an entrenched & corrupt power in order to defend the aggrieved common man, etc. Both sides do it. And BOY does it work for getting attention!

Which means that the Hugo’s future depends on how virulent the Rabies becomes. If things are left to shake out on their own, I’m of the opinion the pleasure-reader populace will go back to reading best-sellers and not caring much about the Hugos. It just isn’t worth their time and money on purely literary grounds. The only way to keep this movement going is to continue to fan the flames of Culture Warfare, keep the base riled up about how much the SJWs are assholes and need to be kicked around. That’s possible of course, the news media has been doing it for what… two decades now? It’s our country’s most popular drug. And Vox Day would love that result. I’m not sure if Larry and Brad have their hearts set on it as well. I get the feeling they honestly cared more for the genre than the politics, and just got carried away with the rush of popularity. But at this point they might be too committed and may be happy to go along with making the Hugos another Culture War battlefield. Just goes to show that nothing is sacred in war.

Apr 302015
 

aesops fablesNormally I would hold off on saying anything about the Puppy Short Fiction until I do my full “Short Stories and Novelettes” post after my bookclub discusses them all. But that won’t be for another two months, and I keep seeing a ton of people saying John C Wright’s “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” is terrible. I haven’t read any of the other shorts yet, but I want to speak up and say that perhaps people are reading it wrong.

I assume that, due to Wright being super-Catholic and a darling of Vox Day, people are presuming that this story is meant as some sort of Christian allegory, and are reading it as such. To that I say: Death of the Author! Wright’s intent doesn’t matter, the story should be judged as it’s own work, and I think it is a really damn good work. I, too, had to struggle to get past my Puppy antipathy, but it’s worth it! Because yes, the beginning is really slow and quite boring. But if you push past that, it keeps getting better and better, and ended absolutely fan-fucking-tastic!! I think I’m a much bigger fan of religious horror than I thought I was.

For starters, the writing style is well done. It’s a throw-back to the old Talking Animal fables, which come with a very distinctive voice, and Wright does an excellent job of speaking in that antiquated, fable-style voice. It’s not amazingly difficult to do, but it certainly isn’t easy (as anyone who’s tried to mimic that archaic style without sounding ridiculous can tell you – eg Ren Faire actors), so it deserves to be noted that he did it well. Both the voice and the structure call up those olden tales skillfully.

But more importantly, try not to listen to it as a preacher delivering a sermon, but just as a story. It soon becomes clear this is a horror story.

Echopraxia kinda cemented in my mind the concept that “If a God existed, it would be necessary for Man to kill him.” Parliament pushed those same buttons for me. Cat’s brush with God is of an intrusive, alien, ever-watching eye, like that of a Lovecraftian Elder God. Then the minds of the animals are altered against their will, changing their personhood (the grossest violation of personhood that there is IMHO), and it isn’t even a change made FOR THEIR BENEFIT. They are given an aversion to nudity that imposes costs on their existence and makes them feel bad. It is a purely malevolent act, and smacks of species-sabotage. Plus the body-horror scene of everyone being twisted into upright grotesqueries. Then they are denied any way to improve their own existence, being put entirely at the mercy of alien minds (the uplifted humans) who may not give a damn about them. Finally, their only way to opt out of this is to literally destroy their intelligence and agency, reducing them to rutting beasts. Possibly a fate worse than extinction, I’m not sure.

The only ray of light I see is Fox. If I was writing this into a novel he would be the cunning trickster, lying just below God’s radar, finding a way to undermine and eventually overthrow the Hosts of Heaven.

It’s a bleak and horrifying tale, and if it wasn’t for the bad taste that the Puppies’ tactics have left in everyone’s mouths it might be easier to acknowledge that its really quite good. So I’m encouraging everyone to try to overlook that unfortunate fact and read the story like you’d read anything by Watts or Gaiman. I don’t have any comment on Hugo Voting – since tactics are a big part of what’s happening in that game this year it would be silly to tell people “don’t consider the circumstance when voting.” Take everything into account when voting. But when reading, or discussing the piece as a work, it’ll make life much more enjoyable to focus just on the story, if only for one day.

Apr 292015
 

For the commenters and others who recently objected that art can’t be objectively measured–I agree to a point. Far be it for me to claim that beauty isn’t a subjective experience! But there’s a difference between “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “Storytelling has no standards.” Claiming there are no standards and everything is popularity is post-modern nihilism. I present as evidence the recent restoration of Ecce Homo.

A combination of three documents provided by the Centre de Estudios Borjanos on August 22, 2012 shows the original version of the painting Ecce Homo (L) by 19th-century painter Elias Garcia Martinez, the deteriorated version (C) and the restored version by an elderly woman in Spain. An elderly woman's catastrophic attempt to "restore" a century-old oil painting of Christ in a Spanish church has provoked popular uproar, and amusement. Titled "Ecce Homo" (Behold the Man), the original was no masterpiece, painted in two hours in 1910 by a certain Elias Garcia Martinez directly on a column in the church at Borja, northeastern Spain. The well-intentioned but ham-fisted amateur artist, in her 80s, took it upon herself to fill in the patches and paint over the original work, which depicted Christ crowned with thorns, his sorrowful gaze lifted to heaven.  = RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT " AFP PHOTO/ CENTRO DE ESTUDIOS BORJANOS" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS =-/AFP/GettyImages           NYTCREDIT: -/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images

A combination of three documents provided by the Centre de Estudios Borjanos on August 22, 2012 shows the original version of the painting Ecce Homo (L) by 19th-century painter Elias Garcia Martinez, the deteriorated version (C) and the restored version by an elderly woman in Spain. An elderly woman’s catastrophic attempt to “restore” a century-old oil painting of Christ in a Spanish church has provoked popular uproar, and amusement. Titled “Ecce Homo” (Behold the Man), the original was no masterpiece, painted in two hours in 1910 by a certain Elias Garcia Martinez directly on a column in the church at Borja, northeastern Spain. The well-intentioned but ham-fisted amateur artist, in her 80s, took it upon herself to fill in the patches and paint over the original work, which depicted Christ crowned with thorns, his sorrowful gaze lifted to heaven. = RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – MANDATORY CREDIT ” AFP PHOTO/ CENTRO DE ESTUDIOS BORJANOS” – NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS – DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS =-/AFP/GettyImages NYTCREDIT: -/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Are there standards, or are these equally good?

Apr 282015
 

full-retardSo I was wrong about being done with the Puppies posts, because I just had the surprising pleasure of watching Brad Torgersen, self-avowed conservative, go Full Post-Modern. Pics included to show I’m not making this up.

Gents, thing is, there is *no* objective standard. None. Pretense to the contrary, is just that: pretense.

Again, no objective standard. Just taste. If people with taste similar to yours can vote in sufficient numbers, then your taste prevails. If those with a different taste can vote in sufficient numbers, your taste does not prevail.”

brad cropped1

Storytelling has no standards.
The story either resonates with many, or it resonates with few.”

brad cropped2

(in response to “Any writer should be able to judge a work’s quality based on professional criteria. Even if it’s not to your taste, you should have the ability to tell if it was well written or not. This is a vital skill for us. How do you get through critiques without it? How did you learn your trade without it?“)

“Folks, really, taste is not objective. There is no objective standard at work here. Just the competition of tastes.”

brad cropped2b

(in response to “Taste is subjective. Professional quality is objective. I will certainly agree that there are degrees of quality, but to say that ‘there are no standards’ is nonsense.“)

“Actually, no, “professional quality” is not objective either. … There are no boxes to check. No owner’s manual. There is only resonance. And resonance cannot be qualified nor quantified.”

brad cropped3

(in response to “Why be a writer if you don’t think it’s a craft worth mastering? If you don’t think that a story can be honed and made better? People can argue about art and which story is “better” than another in the artistic sense all they like (and argue in good faith, I think), but the craft of writing is without question something that we can assess, and find wanting.“)

Quality is in the eye of the beholder … in the end, there is nothing objective about it. … Nobody gets away from it. Because there is no objective measurement. Just audience and reader satisfaction.”

brad cropped5

(in response to “So Brad, your writing isn’t any better now than it was when you were writing for years and years and selling nothing?“)

you’d have to ask my readers. I freely admit to having no grasp of my own quality, now vs. when I broke into print in 2010 … Am I “better” than in 1992? Well, sales are sales…”

brado cropped 6

Now, I don’t want to say Brad doesn’t have any point at all, certainly much of art appreciation is subjective. But to see him go full “There are no standards, there is only resonance!” is delightful.

In retrospect, I guess it was kinda inevitable.

I expect that for Sad Puppies 4, Brad will give us an address to which we can send anything we had published in the previous year, and he will then pick five works at random to go on the slate, since everything is equally good and it’s all just subjective taste. We’ll re-name the Hugos “The Rando’s” and enjoy it as the biggest piece of Post Modern Performance Art of this decade. It’ll be like we’re all in the 90s again! :)

Apr 242015
 

hugoAs always, I have done my best to find the Hugo Nominated Short Stories and Novelettes that are available free online and post the links here, for the convenience of my book club.


Short Stories

On A Spiritual Plain”, Lou Antonelli (also in pdf)

The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”, John C. Wright

“A Single Samurai”, Steven Diamond – this doesn’t appear to be available free online

Totaled”, Kary English

Turncoat”, Steve Rzasa

The Short Stories are all Puppy-slate works.


Novelettes

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart

Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner

The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (audio version available at same link) – The only non-Puppy work in this category.

The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn

The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra