Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hugos 2015 Reads - Best Graphic Story

I am, and have long been*, a MASSIVE comics fan. My tastes generally run to superhero comics, though I've dipped my toe into the more "serious" waters -- Maus, Persepolis, Blankets***, Logicomix****, and the AWESOME Cartoon History of the Universe. But this year's noms are a pretty nice mix -- One Marvel, 3 Image (Hooray for creator-owned!) and one webcomic. DC was too busy planning its semi-annual reboot to generate nominees*****.

Best Graphic Story -- As a long-time reader of superhero, especially Marvel, comics, I'm definitely biased toward the capes. But this year's noms only have one (which I have already read, and loved). Here are my thoughts, in reverse alphabetical order:

Zombie Nation -- As the only one NOT included in the packet, I'm going to judge this one based on the most recent month of comics (it's a webcomic). And I have to say... meh. It's occasionally funny, but it's just not in the league of the other noms. 1 out of 5


Sex Criminals -- You had me at "sex"! And "criminals"! Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky's highly acclaimed comic lives up to its reputation. Funny, touching and it left me wanting more; what more could you want from a comic? Any other year, and this would most likely be my pick. but it's up against the force of nature that is Kamala Khan. Sorry, criminal fornicators, maybe next year! 4 out of 5


Saga -- I started reading Saga from the beginning, but I quickly grew tired of the seemingly endless churn through ideas with little follow-through. Not bad by any means, but this is my baseline for an award (for this year). 2.5 out of 5
 

Rat Queens -- I was pretty psyched to find out this was in the noms/packet, as I've heard a lot of raves about it. Fun, funny, sword and sorcery action. Boozing, fighting, this is balls/ovaries-to-the-wall action. An excellent read and a worthy winner, but unfortunately they brought a sword to a catapult fight. 4 out of 5
 
Ms. Marvel -- Kamala Khan is all kinds of awesome. She's firmly in the classic Marvel teen hero mold, following Peter Parker, Ultimate Peter Parker******, Kitty Pryde, The Runaways, Miles Morales, etc. She's smart, trapped between wanting to be a good daughter and fit in, and secretly dreaming of being a superhero. And, because it's a Marvel comic, she becomes one. She's a muslim teen in New Jersey, but none of those traits defines her (though the Jersey bit comes the closest) -- she's fully rounded, as is her best friend/wannabe suitor Bruno. Highly recommended. 4.5 out of 5 (had they included the Wolverine story, it might've been 5 out of 5).

So, my final vote:
Ms. Marvel
Sex Criminals
Rat Queens
Saga
NO AWARD
Zombie Nation
 


* Seriously, as long as I can remember. One of my first book(ish)-buying memories was to get comics at the pharmacy in scenic** Fairview, TN.
** "Scenic" here is a synonym for "redneck and boring"
*** Soooooooooo overrated. Ugh.
**** Soooooooooo underrated. Ah!
***** I kid because I love. And because DC has been selling the sizzle, not the steak, since DiDio took over.
****** Confession: Ultimate Spider-Man is probably my favorite long-run of any comic, ever. Bendis and Bagley were AMAZING.

Greece to Ireland: You Paid, We Shouldn't

The Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, wrote an editorial for the Irish Times on Sunday, where he said:
Irish readers need no reminder of the indignity that befalls a people forced to forfeit their sovereignty in the midst of an economic depression. They may, however, be justified to look at the never-ending Greek crisis and allow themselves a feeling of mild superiority, on the basis that the Irish suffered quietly, swallowed the bitter pill of austerity and are now getting out of the woods.

The Greeks, in contrast, protested loudly for years, resisted the troika fiercely, elected my radical left-wing party last January and remain in the doldrums of recession.

While such a feeling is understandable, permit me, dear reader, to argue that it is unhelpful in at least three ways. First, it does not promote understanding of the current Greek drama. Second, it fails to inform properly the debate on how the euro zone, and the EU more generally, should evolve. Third, it sows unnecessary discord between peoples that have in common more than they appreciate.

This is just so money. He doesn't deny that Greece has fucked around for 5+ years and refused to implement reforms that they promised they would make*. Instead he says, "hey, we could've made these reforms when we got the money, like Ireland did. But we didn't, because that would've been hard, like it was for Ireland. So if we make the reforms now, that's really a threat to democracy. It wasn't a problem for democracy when Ireland did it, because, you know, you're not Greece. But now? Europe's democracy is at stake."

I actually agree with the reforms he suggests, as do most European leaders. So did the various Greek governments over the last 5 years (incl a least one stint with the current idiots in charge) , when they were proposed and Greece ignored them or passed them (with a late 2015 implementation date). After the February 2015 bailout talks, Greece gave a summary, and 17 of the first 23 reforms were due by... June 2015 (or Q2 2015, same thing). Are these done? Fuck, no. And the rest? Almost uniformly, these were scheduled to start in... June 2015 -- when the next tranche of bailout funds were due. Greece has been stringing Europe along for years, constantly promising, then passing reforms, but never actually implementing the majority. If they get this bailout, those June 2015 dates? Expect them in August, December or whenever the next tranche comes.

Maybe Greece gets the money and maybe they don't. What's certain, based on their recent behavior, is that they won't make the necessary reforms and they will be back begging for more money.

* Instead they passed the reforms with an implementation date after future bailout payment were due.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The REAL Hugo Controversy

The Sad and/or Rabid Puppies may try to convince you that there's a bias at work in the Hugo Awards*, and they may be right. However, they've overlooked the REAL shameful secret of the Hugo Awards. That secret? No novel written in a language other than English has ever won. Do you really believe that the best sci-fi/fantasy novel of the year was originally written in English... for SIXTY consecutive years? This stretches credulity.

Solaris, The Night Watch, 1Q84, The Shadow of the Wind, ... there are others. But Hugo voters don't seem inclined to read (or, if they do, to nominate) works in translation. I'd love to get on my high horse, but I don't read many works in translation, either, so I'd be a hypocrite to fault them for this. My solution? Create an award for work in translation. It doesn't have to be given every year, but it would help raise awareness AND it would genuinely broaden the scope of the awards to an overlooked** group of books/authors. So, Hugo committee, get on it!

* The bias is NOT that voting is done by the members of Worldcon -- that's the definition of the population, not a bias.
** By the Hugo community in particular, and also English-language genre fans.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Hugo 2015 Reads - The Goblin Emperor


I first picked up The Goblin Emperor in December, but I didn't have a chance to get into it while home for Christmas. This, it turns out, was a good thing, as I was completely enthralled once I started in earnest, and I would have given either it or my family visit short shrift :)

The book is (spoiler alert!) about a goblin emperor. Maia has been raised in a remote location by an abusive, disgraced former courtier of his father. Maia's mother, a goblin (the emperor was a lighter-skinned elf), was sent away from court almost immediately after her wedding night. She raised Maia without any contact from his father, and the only time they met was at his mother's funeral when he was 10. Not great preparation for 8 years later, when Maia is woken by the news that an airship accident killed his father and three older brothers -- he's emperor.

The book details Maia's journey to becoming emperor and adjusting to his new role. He faces internal and external challenges, racism, provincialism (he had spent no time at court) and isolation because of his status. His general good nature, intelligence and a handful of loyal servants are all he can count on.

The Good:
  • Maia! He's the rare, truly good person in fantasy (really, in fiction/non-fiction). He fights to be fair to all, even his enemies.
  • The prose. Addison writes with a light touch -- it doesn't read as a fairy tale, nor is it grim. There's a light sense of humor and wonderfully descriptive passages throughout.
  • The very low level of magic (it's used only a handful of times, almost as an aside) is part of the world, not the focus. This is a world at the start of an industrial revolution, with all that entails. 
  • While it does leave open room for a sequel (which she says will not happen), it stands alone. This is a rare accomplishment in fantasy.

The Bad:
  • There's not going to be a sequel
  • It's a very light read, so it's not quite as thought-provoking as some of the others on the list, nor is the prose as intricate as, say, Station Eleven
  • The book is told entirely from Maia's perspective, so the other characters don't get as much development. It's there, but the structure restricts us from getting too much of those around Maia.
4.5 out of 5
So, it was an excellent read, and it currently is tied with Ancillary Sword for the lead in my vote. I'm not sure if ties are allowed, but if not, I'll rank it first, since Ms. Leckie won last year.

Where I rank it in my Read of the Hugos:
The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman (Not a nominee, but amazing)
(Tie) The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison 
(Tie) Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Not a nominee, but very good)
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
No Award (this is an option in the rather complicated, but logical, voting process)

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Hugos 2015 Reads - Ancillary Sword


I read, and enjoyed, last year's winner, Ancillary Justice,* and so I was excited to see the sequel also garnered a nom. And this time, it wouldn't take me the majority of the book to realize that feminine pronouns were used for everyone (I wasn't reading carefully and just assumed that everyone was female before that. D'oh!).

Breq, the main character of the books, is a former ancillary of the Radch empire. Ancillaries are human bodies of POWs who have a ship AI's consciousness uploaded (via a process that is horrible for both) into their body, thereby killing the "person" over a few days. Breq is the only surviving ancillary out of thousands of a now-destroyed AI, and she continues to adapt to only having one body rather than thousands plus access to thoughts of the crew of her ship. She is now captain of a ship, and is regaining a larger sense of her crew via implants and her interaction with this AI.

This 3000+ year old empire spans a large chunk of space and is opposed by at least 3 non-human sentient species, including the ludicrously more advanced Presger (who may, or may not, be working to undermine the Radch). The Radch is ruled by Anaander Mianaai, a former(?) human whose consciousness is uploaded into bodies across the universe (but that are not instantaneously linked). And that consciousness is split into at least two warring factions. The empire is controlled via massive, AI-controlled ships, previously crewed largely by ancillaries, but now with humans. The crew all have implants that allow the ship's AI (and its captain) to observe their vitals and hear and see what the crew members do**.

But that's just worldbuilding - the actual plot follows Breq as she goes to try to make amends to the sibling of a friend she had to kill. This does not go well. She then gets caught up in the local politics of the system while also trying to figure out if either of the Mianaai factions or the Presger are influencing events there. I've managed to make a fairly fast-paced, character-driven novel sound dry and bland, but it's not. There are explosions, political intrigue, a super-creepy "human" grown by aliens, and more. I really enjoyed it and will be reading the final book in the trilogy as soon as it's out.

The Good:
  • Breq is just awesome -- she has a rigid code of honor and doesn't have any fucks left to give if that bothers people. She uses her new position of power to right wrongs, regardless of whether that would please Mianaai... or the people involved.
  • More Presger weirdness! They were hinted at in the first book, and they come into play a bit more here. A massively powerful, mysterious culture that can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants is clearly terrifying to all involved. And the humans have no idea what the Presger consider good or bad, so all they can do is avoid them and hope they haven't pissed them off. I've worked for bosses that were Presger, sans technology.
  • Leckie does a great job of letting us inside the captain-AI interface and how this reflects on their differences and similarities. And by comparing her with another captain, we see how she differs from a standard human. The concept of identity carries over from the first book.

The Bad:
  • Not much, really. I was pretty bummed that it was over so soon.

I enjoyed it even more than its predecessor; and I unreservedly loved it. The lack of gendering can be frustrating at first, but that's part of the immersion into the culture (and a bit of a shock when a conquered culture that retains gendering in their language pop up).

I give it 4.5 out of 5. Highly recommended!

Where I rank it in my Read of the Hugos:
The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman (Not a nominee, but amazing)
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Not a nominee, but very good)
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
No Award (this is an option in the rather complicated, but logical, voting process)

* Commas were on sale this week.
** The NSA data gatherer reading this just had an orgasm at the thought of so much surveillance ability. 

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Hugo 2015 Reads - Station Eleven

 
I'd read the rave reviews, saw the Clarke award and the National Book Award Finalist, and finally sat down to read Mandel's novel of the aftermath of a rather nasty epidemic (as opposed to, I guess, all the nice epidemics?). And, so, even though it wasn't nominated for a Hugo, I'm including it in my list.

The story follows several characters whose paths intertwine throughout the book, all linked by the self-published titular comic. Large portions of the book concern a Canadian actor's life and loves before the epidemic, with the remainder mostly focusing on a traveling theater/music group that plies the areas around Toronto. There they face the usual post-apocalyptic threats: religious extremism, the elements, hunger, despair, etc.

The Good:
  • Mandel's prose is beautiful and her descriptions of the comic made me want to see it
  • The pacing and mood in the post-epidemic world is excellent. There's a strong sense of dread as the group slowly falls apart.
  • Several story threads are hinted at early on, and gradually develop. And several are left dangling, which added to the mood of being part of a world,.

The Bad:
  • The increasingly implausible series of coincidences that link the characters eventually reaches absurd levels. Almost every survivor has multiple links to the aforementioned actor.
  • The religious leader and his minions are underdeveloped. And, of course, part of the series of coincidences.
  • The book often feels like a series of of barely-connected short stories, similar to Khaled Hosseini's And The Mountains Echoed. One character, in particular, feels shoehorned in.

I enjoyed it and recommend it
Where I rank it in my Read of the Hugos:
The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman (Not a nominee, but amazing)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Not a nominee, but very good)
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
No Award (this is an option in the rather complicated, but logical, voting process)

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Hugo 2015 Reads - The Three Body Problem

This is the first in my series of reviews of the 2015 Hugo Awards Best Novels Nominees. For background on this, read my post about it

 
Reading "The Three-Body Problem" was... an interesting experience.I read the translation, so I honestly have no idea if the stylistics concerns I had are the author's or the translator's. But as an English reader, it's irrelevant :)

When I thought about the good and the bad of the novel, the bad outweighed the good in my list -- but I was still driven to finish (and only partially due to hoping for a character to get her VERY well-earned comeuppance). Most of my negatives bothered me because I enjoyed it -- it could've been a classic, but there were some pretty glaring flaws. Still, a good read, and I'll definitely read the 2nd installment!

The Good:
- Great pace, some intriguing science in the last 1/4 of the book
- The effects and impacts of the Cultural Revolution on scientists, especially physicists, was fascinating. I'd read before, but forgotten, that relativity was considered counter-revolutionary. Which was doubly impressive, as it predated any major communist revolution by 10 years!

The Bad:
- It read like a fairy tale. Not the content, but the style -- lots of passive voice, just an odd read. Of course, this may be normal in Chinese sci-fi (actually, based on my almost-twenty-year-old knowledge of Chinese, I think this was a translator choice), but it was very off-putting
- Very few characters were well-developed, most were more archetypes -- concerned scientist, hardboiled cop (I loved Da Shi!), etc. Some work, some don't.
- The level of science performed during the Cultural Revolution is suspect -- the development of a microwave weapon in the 60s that could take down satellites?
- At one point Mao (or a direct subordinate) rejects a SETI-ish message as "too political". There's just no way this would have happened during the CR. "Too political" didn't exist as a concept. Any subordinate that did that would be immediately served up for reeducation, or worse.


Where I rank it in my Read of the Hugos:
The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman (Not a nominee, but amazing)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Not a nominee, but very good)
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
No Award (this is an option in the rather complicated, but logical, voting process)

My Hugo Awards 2015 Read

After 3 decades of reading sci-fi and fantasy, I've finally gotten around to signing up to be a Hugo Award voter. In case you don't know, the Hugos are one of the 2 big awards for sci-fi fantasy. The Nebula Awards are closer to the Oscars, in that they're voted on by pros, but the Hugos are nominated by, and voted on, by fans.

The last few years have been controversial, as a group of conservative readers feel that "their" award has been stolen by "Social Justice Warriors". Google Sad/Rabid Puppies (or read this) and you'll learn far too much. To fight this, they campaigned to their social media followers to nominate a "slate" that they put together (the two groups have similar, but not identical slates). These did very well, especially in the short fiction categories. In general, these are military or action sci-fi that they feel is "their" sci-fi/fantasy. This being the Internet, though, they and their followers and their opponents immediately started acting like complete asshats to anyone that opposed them. People are the worst



I'm going to read all (or part, in case the samples sent to voters aren't complete) of the novels and at least try some of the novellas and short stories (I rarely read short fiction, so no promises).
Here are the nominated novels, in the order I'm reading them (also close to my order of anticipation):
The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu, Ken Liu translator (Tor Books) 
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) (Tor Books)
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson (Tor Books)
Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (Roc Books)

Monday, May 25, 2015

Seveneves - A Glowing Review

This link takes you to the Kindle page for the book.
 
I'm a HUGE Neal Stephenson fan -- I've read almost all his novels (excluding the seemingly-disowned "The Big U"), "Snow Crash" and "Anathem" are favorites of mine and I've enjoyed the rest to greater ("The Diamond Age") or lesser (the disappointing conclusion of the Baroque Cycle, "The System of the World") degrees. So, you should know going in to this that I have a pretty strong bias toward his writing: STEM badasses that solve crises with insight, (often reluctant or inadvertant) bravery and decisive action. Basically, imagine Bruce Lee, but if he used math instead of kung fu*.

As a sci-fi guy, any book that starts with "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason" is starting with a massive head start for me (rather shockingly, the reason of the moon's destruction is a complete non-issue). Especially since I get to learn a lot more about orbital mechanics, robotics, whips, and a wee bit about genetics** during a great read. And a great read it is -- the first 2/3rds are a nonstop race to save humanity from the impending multi-millenial Hard Rain of the shards of the moon. This is shown mostly from the perspective of various 'nauts on the ISS, with only glimpses of the action down on Earth -- glimpses that are not always what they first seem.

The final third? A look at where that race led, and its unexpected consequences 5000 years later. This is a fairly strong phase transition from near-future hard sf to more speculative far-future sf. Skipping ahead 5000 years generally means you leave all your previous characters behind***; Stephenson cleverly has them remain in the legacies that they left to their descendants: legacies of the cultural, video and genetic varieties.

As usual with Stephenson, when I finished I wanted to spend more time with the world and characters he'd created. For me, this is a key part of the enjoyment of a great book -- wanting to see what they would do next, thinking of consequences had they made different choices. The book flew by, in spite of its length, leaving me thrilled at the ending (and the journey to get there) and disappointed that there wasn't more.
* Or wushu, if you're being pedantic. Which I usually am.
** I'm waiting to hear from my biologist buddies if I learned or mislearned.
*** Unless you're Frank Herbert