Review of The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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This is a Hugo finalist in the Best Novel category, published by Orbit.

The story is about a land called the Stillness which is seismically active. The stills are ordinary people; orogenes are talents able to control the seismic activity; guardians can shut down the orogenes power, and stone eaters have the power to move through earth and stone like it’s air. The land is governed by an ineffectual leadership and consists of cities and communities that are struggling for survival. The Fifth Season is death, caused by cataclysmic seismic events. Orogenes are hated and feared, and the guardians try to capture the children and enslave them to work for an institution called the Fulcrum. Besides this, there are mysterious obelisks that float above the Earth’s surface, either alien artifacts or the product of ancient civilizations. There are four different time streams in the plot that converge. A woman sits by a dead child; a man breaks the land; an orogene child is taken and tortured by a guardian; two orogenes are commissioned to clear a harbor of coral, and as the effort dramatically fails, they escape and take refuge with pirates. As the broken land begins to die, a stream of refugees heads south, away from the epicenter of the event.

This is the first work I’ve read from Jemisin, and I was impressed with her imagination. The setup is brilliant, the imagery, the setting, the talents and the air of mystery about the forgotten artifacts are first rate. I’m not surprised that she’s nominated for a lot of awards. However, she doesn’t win that much. There are issues here, so I’ll pick at this a little more than I normally do.

The first issue is readability. There’s not much that really happens in the story, but it moves at a glacial pace, ending up at about 450 pages. I was 25 pages in before I had an idea of what might be going on, and 100 pages in before I connected in any way with the characters. It’s written in a sort of folksy, storytelling style. This softens the horrors going on, but that, the shift between time streams and a shift between second and third person for the narration tends to make it over-complex and inserts too much of the author. Second issue: this is described as The Broken Earth, Book 1, so I expect it will continue. That’s good, because it doesn’t really wrap anything up. It just stops. The last (and worst) issue is that I don’t really like any of these characters. They hate each other and live miserable lives. Nobody gets to be a hero—they just struggle and die, or else they survive.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

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The Hugo packet is delayed, apparently for the committee to decide about the legality of providing copies of some of the finalists. Until it’s distributed, I’ll have to make do with what I can find in the library. That means I’ll be skipping around. This work is a finalist in the Best Novella category, published by Tachyon.

Scur is a conscripted soldier in an interstellar war. As the war ends, she is captured by a group of renegades and tortured. She wakes later from sleep storage in a prison ship that has gotten lost in time somehow. It has arrived at its destination, but the passengers find their interstellar civilization has fallen after a visit from unfathomable aliens. This means the crew, war criminals and miscellaneous passengers on the ship are the last of humanity to hold a store of history and technology. However, the ship’s memory is failing. Can they overcome their differences and find a way to lift humanity out of the new dark age?

Reynolds tells a pretty good tale here, with an emotionally satisfying conclusion. It’s about pulling together and overcoming differences, even old grudges, to solve problems and deal with a crisis. However, the plot seems a little simplistic. The work is also low on imagery, description and characterization. I only know what two of the men look like, and ended up with no idea what Scur looks like at all. There’s very little description of the ship, and I can’t figure out how the gravity system is working while it’s parked in orbit. Is it spinning? Hm. Three stars.

Review of “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu

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This story is a Hugo finalist in the Best Novelette category. It was published in Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015.

Lao Dao lives in a Beijing that folds up every twenty-four hours and emerges on the other side of a plane. It’s divided into spaces called First, Second and Third, with the population of First at 5M, and Second and Third shared by 75M people. Lao Dao lives in Third Space and is a waste worker. He needs to pay for his daughter to attend kindergarten, so he takes on extra work smuggling messages between spaces. He hides in a trash chute while others retire to their cocoon beds to sleep through the Change, and finds many differences in the Spaces, especially in First where the people are very wealthy. Lao Dao runs into trouble with his first delivery, becoming embroiled in a love affair gone wrong.

Like Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, this is another ad for China’s science education program. Not only is the folding city a brilliant image, but Hao Jingfang has supplied social commentary. She runs through an economic analysis of automated industry versus human workers which has led to creation of the Spaces. There’s also a sentimental element, as Lao Dao is doing all this for his baby daughter. Like The Three Body Problem, the translation is a bit stiff—I’m getting the idea that Chinese prose doesn’t translate well into English. Still, some of the imagery comes through, enough to show the quality of Hao’s work. Four stars.

Review of Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 by Marc Aramini

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This is another Hugo finalist for Best Related Work. It’s published by Castalia House.

In the introduction Aramini states his initial purpose was to explore many of Wolfe’s lesser known works. However, the project got completely out of control, as he soon realized he couldn’t ignore the author’s popular work. The book is organized so that he analyzes Wolfe’s short stories and novels in individual essays, making it an excellent reference. Aramini’s analysis is pretty scholarly, looking at the underlying ideas, philosophy and cultural norms that the fiction presents.

Although this kind of depth may not suit the average reader, I predict it could be popular in MFA programs. Four and a half stars.

Review of “The First Draft of My Appendix N Book” by Jeffro Johnson

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This is a book-length Hugo finalist published on the author’s website here.

Johnson discusses classic SF writers’ work and how these have influenced games and gaming. He includes interviews, and a chapter on “Adventure Romance in 1934, 1946, 1978, 1988, and 2014.” He challenges assertions that this literature has failed to stand up and should be replaced on the reading shelf by more modern works. His thesis is in support of reading Golden Age adventure SF, not only as the basis for current work, but also because of its intrinsic quality. In support of this, he provides sales rankings for pioneers like Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein and Clarke, compared to highly popular current authors.

This is well written, well organized, well supported with examples and includes an exhaustive survey of Golden Age SF as it relates to gaming. The topic may be of limited interest to people outside the gaming community, but it’s a worthwhile read for the SF history. Four stars.

A Look at the Locus Award Finalists

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55327_girl-writing_mdFor anyone curious about how well Vox Day’s recommendations worked out in the Locus Award finalists, here’s the list of his successes in the fiction categories.

Looking at this, it does seem like the Rabid Puppies may have had some effect. The Best YA Book category, where women writers were totally shut out and Best First Novel, where Day scored 4/5 suggest influence. Of course, it’s likely that Day magnified his effect by choosing already popular works. However, his contingent wasn’t strong enough to get any unlisted works into the finalists. He proposed the same derisive list of Hugo short stories with no joy.

Best SF Novel

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson (Morrow)
A Borrowed Man, Gene Wolfe (Tor)

Best Fantasy Novel
Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

Best YA Book
Half a War, Joe Abercrombie (Del Rey; Harper Voyager UK)
Half the World, Joe Abercrombie (Del Rey)
The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett (Harper; Doubleday UK)

Best First Novel
Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (Ace; Macmillan UK)
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (Saga)
Signal to Noise, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris)
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury)

Best Collection
Dancing Through the Fire, Tanith Lee (Fantastic Books)
Three Moments of an Explosion, China Miéville (Macmillan UK; Del Rey 2016)
The Best of Gregory Benford, Gregory Benford (Subterranean)

Best Anthology
Hanzai Japan: Fantastical, Futuristic Stories of Crime From and About Japan, Nick Mamatas & Masumi Washington, eds. (Haikasoru)
Old Venus, George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois, eds. (Bantam)

Best Novella
Penric’s Demon, Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum)
Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon Publications)

Best Novelette
Folding Beijing, Hao Jingfang (Uncanny Magazine)

Best Short Story
None

More thoughts on the 2015 Nebula winners

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FeatherPenClipArtNow that the gender discussion is over, let’s have a look at the winning stories. For my taste, this year’s crop of winners was an improvement over the recent trends. Nothing really eye-rollingly sentimental won this year.

“Our Lady of the Open Road” runs a little that way, but actually it’s more of a nostalgia piece about people who are lagging behind social and technological change and really don’t want to cope with it. That’s reasonable social commentary, but I read a lot of other stories this year that I liked better. I’m not really surprised by Uprooted. I personally think it has structural flaws, but it’s hard-hitting, includes (sort-of) romance, and got a lot of early buzz as being outstanding. Hard science fiction lost out again this year. Of the four winners, Binti is the only science fiction piece, and it’s about cultural appropriation—a trending issue in the recent culture wars. “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is also a hard-hitting, unsentimental piece (at least until the end), running to dark fantasy/horror rather than the heart-strings direction the other short story contenders took.

I was disappointed that “The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer didn’t even make the list of finalists. It’s not hard SF, but this was the thought-piece of the year, projecting a reproduction issue into the future and then investigating how it would play out. I’m glad to see it’s on the list of finalists for the Sturgeon Award.

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