Putting the Ideation Scale to Work – Rating the 2017 Nebula Finalists

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If you’re read the last blog post, you’ll see I’ve proposed the Ideation Scale to rate ideas presented by SFF stories. If we’re to believe that SF is the “literature of ideas” and that the best/most important stories are those that present provocative and/or innovative ideas, then we need some way to rate this. So here’s the scale:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

One caveat—this scale may have little to do with the literary quality or entertainment value of the work.

So, first let’s look at the Nebula finalists. According to the SFWA members who voted, these are the best/most important stories published in SFF for the year 2017.
I’m not going to go back and specifically rate every story, but I’d like to recommend that readers do their own rating for discussion purposes. I’ve likely provided enough information in the reviews for anyone who hasn’t read the actual Nebula finalists books/stories. However, I do want to have a look at the winners, and also a few of what I thought were stand-out pieces.

Best Novel
In the novel category, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin won the Nebula, and I thought Spoonbenders and Autonomous were stand out pieces. There were some good points illustrated in The Fifth Season, the first installment of Jemisin’s Broken Earth, that being the enslavement and torture of talented individuals in order to maintain living conditions for everyone else—the most good for the most people, right? However, this is already well established for the last installment, so I didn’t see anything really in the way of new ideas here. The novel was mostly about the confrontation between Essun and her daughter. I’ll give it 3 stars on the Ideation Scale as a rehash of The Fifth Season.

I really liked Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory, but this was mainly because of the entertainment value. This is about the human condition and a projection of how psychic gifts might screw up a person’s life. The most serious point was a subplot on how the government pursues Maureen and her children for their espionage value. This means it doesn’t score very high in ideation, either. Regardless of its all-over attractiveness, it would rate about 3 stars.

That leaves Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, the satire. Here we’ve got ideas out the kazoo. Newitz attacks the drug industry, anarchists, fascists, hackers, intellectual property thieves, student loan indentures, military SF, trans SF characters and a few other choice targets. This is equal opportunity satire that points out the failings of ideologies, from capitalism, to anarchism to fascism. I’m going to go four and a half stars on it for the ideation rating. Good job, Newitz.

Best Novella
The Nebula winner here was All Systems Red by Martha Wells and I thought the stand out piece was “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker. All Systems Red was highly entertaining, a first person account from not-quite-human construct about running away from its master. This isn’t terribly original, regardless of the entertainment value of this particular rendition. It gets 3 stars. “And Then There Were (N-One)” is about the same women from alternate universes meeting at a Pinsker convention. Not only was this a very creative idea, but it was also pretty mind-boggling. What do you say to endless iterations of yourself? It’s also a literary allusion. It’s not world shaking, but I’ll give it three and a half stars.

Best Novelette
The Nebula winner in this category was “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson. This story was pretty messy, as it went for effect over logic. I didn’t see any ideas in it at all, so I’m going to give it 1 star. The standout work was probably “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker, which was about whether or not we need history and how we can be frozen by tradition into refusing innovation. Regardless of any complaints about the presentation, this is an interesting theme. It gets 4 stars. “Weaponized Math” by Jonathan P. Brazee gets an honorable mention because of a brief ethics speedbump. If this had been pursued, it would have formed the basis of an interesting discussion. Three and a half stars.

Best Short Story
The winner here was “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” by Rebecca Roanhorse. This one has to go in the political message category: 2 stars. I thought the standout work was “Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls about a man thawed out from cold storage after the Singularity when everybody is only a digital copy of themselves. This is mild, humorous satire that comments on social media, cos players, over-obsessive fans, smug perfect people, gamers and various other airheaded devotees of popular culture. Four stars for the satire.

Next, rating the Hugo finalists for ideation.

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Rating the Literature of Ideas

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One reason given as to why fiction written by women is suddenly so much more popular in the awards is that tastes in fiction have radically changed over the last few years. In the bad old days when men dominated the market, hard SF was the in thing. This term “hard science fiction” was apparently originated in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller, book reviewer for Astounding/Analog, who was looking for a way to describe stories with a strong science base. This caught on, and Miller’s legacy term is still broadly used. A while back, I wrote some posts on how to rate SF on the “hardness scale” to determine how well based it is on real science.

However, since the 1950s, the popularity of hard science stories seems to have dropped off considerably, and it’s getting harder and harder to find this kind of story. I’ve written some posts on the decline, and I notice these were joined by various others suggesting the obsolescence of hard SF. Here’s Jasyn Jones, for example, at Castalia House blog who calls it a “delusion.” Tor.com also published a discussion by various authors. I recall there was one publisher (Somebody help me—Superversive? Amazing?) which announced they would no longer even use the term.

So, if we’re not going to rate SF stories on the science content any longer, then what remains to help us pick out which are really the important stories? For one thing, the notion is still hanging out there that science fiction should be the literature of ideas. So, maybe we need to come up with a scale for this? Maybe the Ideation Scale? That would work for fantasy, too, or actually any kind of speculative fiction.

Using the new Ideation Scale, we could rate stories from 5-1 based on what kind of ideas they present:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

Next, having a look at the 2018 award finalists on the Ideation Scale.

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Review of Down among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and a second book in the authors Wayward Children series, a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. Beneath the Sugar Sky was also published this year. This runs 190 pages and was published by Tor.com.

Jack and Jill are twin girls born to indifferent parents that only want children for their prestige value. The two of them are forced into obedience and limited roles, Jack a princess and Jill an athlete, but they sometimes yearn to be something else. One day they open their grandmother’s old trunk in the attic and find steps inside that run down through darkness into another world. Taking the stairs, they emerge onto a moor with a red moon and find there’s a castle, its vampire master and a village protected by a palisade. The other power in this place is Dr. Bleak, a mad scientist who lives in a windmill out on the moor. The girls are given a choice of which to serve and how to live. How will they choose? Is there any way they can get home?

Good points: This book falls into the young adult category because of the age of the protagonists, who grow from 12 to 17 during their time in the alternate world. It’s presented as a fairy tale about Jack and Jill, with chapter headings that refer back to the nursery rhyme. McGuire uses a narrator to tell the story, who addresses the reader directly and makes comments on how the tale relates to real life choices as it unfolds. There’s an artful contrast between the vampire master, obsessed with death, and Dr. Bleak, obsessed with life. This is inclusive, touching on the different roles women can choose, including STEM. Jack’s lover Alexis allows the author to comment on the question of weight and body image. The rest of the world is adequately sketched in for the scope of the story. Although it starts out with a magical feel, this descends into a faintly horrific vibe as the story moves forward.

Not so good points: This moves very slowly and nothing much happens. It’s another one of those expansions that could have been written as a short story with about as much impact—although in that case it would have likely reached a much more limited audience than the novella. It’s clear this is written as instructional material for 12-year old girls. However, I thought the choices were too black and white–the development doesn’t account for the insidiousness of evil. Although I notice other reviewers have called this magical, I didn’t think it was uplifting or empowering. I was left with something of a depressed feel. You have to enjoy McGuire’s writing style to get the most out of it.

Four stars.

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Review of “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy, based on the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and apparently falls between the novels The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. The novelette was published in 2017 in Uncanny Magazine.
This review contains spoilers.

The House of Hawthorne is running its annual test for the Houseless where successful candidates will be taken in and escape the dangers of the streets. Thuan and Kim Cuc are dragons from the underwater Seine kingdom and charged with infiltrating the House. They join the candidates and are placed on a team with a Maghrebi girl named Leila. The test supervisor Sere gives them a hodgepodge of materials and instructions to produce something, so they decide to cook pastry. Part way through the recipe, the house’s wards fail and it’s invaded by the Children of Thorns. The candidates are evacuated, but Kim Cuc goes missing. Can Thuan rescue her, save himself and Leila and cement a position with the house?

This read like the tip of a really big iceberg, which would be the series where these characters live. I was impressed with the creativity and apparent structure of the universe, where the kingdoms of dragons and fallen angels juxtapose in the ruined city of Paris. The imagery and otherworldly feel of the house are very well done.

On the not so good side, this doesn’t really provide enough information for me to understand the world and how these characters fit into it. Despite the rich promise of the universe, this turned out to be more action than character driven. There was little background on the angels or the master of the house. Also, the characters didn’t quite seem to match what they’re supposed to be. Sere acts more like a company employee than a magical being, and Thuan and Kim Cuc didn’t come off very dragonish, either. Instead, they seem comfortable as humans, joking around in a competitive way without much depth. If Thuan is 300 years old, then he must be developmentally delayed—he comes off as very young and inexperienced. The description of the test said the team performance would be weighed as a whole, so I thought everyone on the team would be accepted; then I was surprised when Kim Cuc wasn’t.

This is a good introduction to the book series, where readers get a taste of what the novels are like. I expect some will be go on to try out the books.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine.

Allpa dying grandmother gives him a magic sword that contains three warrior spirits: Sun, Moon and Dust. When Allpa draws the sword the three of them appear and try to carry out their mission of turning him into a heroic warrior. Allpa is a potato farmer and there is no current threat to the kingdom, so Allpa isn’t really interested in this, but he goes along just to make them happy. How can he deal with the three of them and tend to his crop at the same time?

This isn’t quite Vernon’s standard fare, but it does contain something of the same philosophy, which is the value of everyday people and everyday ways of making a living. In this case, she has turned the usual heroic fantasy story on its head, where the lowly farmer rejects the opportunity to become a heroic warrior, bored with the difficult training and worrying about his potato crop. There’s also something of an investigation of the opportunity cost involved, as Moon comments on what he’s given up to become a warrior and the two of them form a bond.

On the not so good side, there are some reality check issues here. First, I’m wondering why Allpa isn’t taking care of his own grandmother. It’s a very recent innovation that the elderly are farmed out to caregivers, and the traditional family puts anybody to work who can help with the chores. In a farming community, it takes a lot of labor to bring in the crop, so I’m expecting Allpa’s grandmother would have dropped dead in the potato field instead of dying in bed. How was she wealthy enough to pay a caregiver anyway? Next, Allpa rushes home from her funeral to water his wilted plants at mid-day. This is not advisable—at mid-day water evaporates instead of sinking in. Also, potatoes are a tuber crop, so they won’t normally wilt unless they’re diseased. If his crops need irrigation, then Allpa ought to do better than carry water in a bucket. In other words, he doesn’t know squat about farming.

What the story had to say was interesting, but the reality check issues detracted from the substance of the story. It came off a bit thin.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Knopf.

Teddy Telemachus is a con artist. Always has been. Always will be. He’s getting kind of old now, so it’s time he took care of some things. He approaches the wife of a local crime boss in the grocery story, and as usual, his charm pays off. With her on his side, he’s got leverage to deal. Besides this, Teddy is a widower and the head of a family of dysfunctional psychics. He, himself, is a card reader. His daughter Irene can’t keep a husband or a job because she can tell when people are lying. His telekinetic son Frankie is in debt to the mob. His youngest Buddy is a clairvoyant that is terrified of somehow changing the future. His grandson finds that masturbation causes astral projection. And then, there are the twins. Can this family ever find happiness and success, or is the future going to end for all of them on September 4?

Looking at this from Buddy’s point-of-view, it’s a steaming, tangled pile of past, present and future. For most of the novel, he’s working hard, trying to make preparations for Zap day, when the future ends in his consciousness. Luckily we have information from other points-of-view, too, which help us make sense of what’s going on. Because of Buddy’s aptitude and Teddy’s con artist leanings, this is tightly plotted in many ways. Because of the wild card character of the family gifts, we also get a lot of human failings. Besides this, government agents are lurking about, hoping to replace Teddy’s dead wife Maureen as their greatest weapon. Plus, the mob.

This is a smooth, delightful read with absorbing characters and slightly over-the-top humor. It has a tendency to carry the reader along to the satisfyingly tied up ending, so it’s hard to be aware of not so good points. I did wonder a couple of times about Teddy’s ploys, especially in his and Frankie’s contacts with the mob. Zap day turned out to be sort of manic, and Buddy’s trans girl/boyfriend looked a bit artificial, like an editor’s insert to make the book more attractive as award material.

Regardless of these little issues, I’m going five stars on this one. Highly recommended.

Review of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. As best I can figure, it’s steampunk, and it’s published by Saga. The sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club), was published in 2018.

After years of declining health, Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her alone and without any means of support. Among her papers, Mary finds payment of a monthly charity allowance that supports “Hyde.” Knowing there is still a reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of her father’s associate Edward Hyde, Mary contacts detective Sherlock Holmes, who is working on a murder case. Mary follows up and finds she has a sister raised by the charity, Diana Hyde. As Holmes and Watson continue their investigation, it seems that Edward Hyde could be a prime suspect. Assisting with their case, Mary and Diana discover other women created by unscrupulous scientists in a secret society, including Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini. Can the women band together to help solve the mystery of who’s murdering girls in the streets of London?

This is a very fun and readable mashup of vintage mad scientist tales, including both historical and fictional characters from the 19th century, along with the wonderful addition of Holmes and Watson to handle the murder investigation. It also has the feel and flow of these old novels, without being too weighty. The text includes asides where the characters discuss the writing of the manuscript, which is supposedly handled by Catherine Moreau. There are also messages about sexism during this period, especially having to do with women’s fashion.

Not so good points: The story avoids the obvious questions like the ethics of scientific experiments on live subjects, and on humans especially. The messages about women’s fashion were interesting, and reinforced a couple of times, but Goss didn’t manage to tie this to current issues. Women reading it will think “oh, it’s great that we don’t have to wear all those old corsets and long skirts anymore,” but miss the pressures for children to wear sexy clothes and for adult women to look like film stars when the fashion industry is built on the backs of third world labor.

Four and a half stars. Not deep, but very creative and fun to read.

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