Putting the Ideation Scale to Work – Rating the 2018 Hugo finalists

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If you’ve followed the last couple of blogs, you’ll know that I’ve developed an Ideation Scale to rate SFF stories as “the literature of ideas.” In this post, I’m going to have a look at the Hugo finalists. Since we have no winners at this date, I’ll just have to pick out the works I think stand out for their ideas. 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

Best Novel
The clear heavyweight here is New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. If I could squish this into the mold, I’d call it hard SF because Robinson has analyzed social, environmental and economic problems and offered real world solutions. It does lack engineers and clanking technology, though, so it’s a tough fit for what’s normally called hard SF. Still, the concepts are first rate, so this is the five star world-shaking-idea winner. None of the other finalists really stand out for ideas. I have to give Scalzi a mention for doing his homework on plausible science for The Collapsing Empire, but the story is a political intrigue without much in the way of different ideas. It scores an average 3.

Best Novella
We’re looking at the same list here as in the Nebula with only a couple of differences. I’ve already awarded “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker a three and a half. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor gets a mention for being about racism and dealing with change. Again, three and a half. Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire gets a mention for framing the conflict between good and evil as a battle between death by vampirism and life via STEM. Nothing earth-shaking but worth three and a half stars.

Best Novelette
More repeats of the Nebula list here. Again, I have to mention “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. It gets 4 stars.

Best Short Story
This is again very similar to the Nebula finalists. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” is a political message, so it gets 2 stars. “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon turns the usual epic fantasy message upside down, where the farmer refuses his chance to become a heroic warrior in order to tend to his crops. Three and a half stars.

Next, a wrap up of the ratings.

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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.

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 New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction, is published by Orbit and runs 613 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The lower end of Manhattan is now intertidal, flooded by two major pulses of sea-level rise. However, people still live and work there, assisted by new waterproofing technologies to keep basements dry, plus sky bridges and boat docks to assist in getting around. The intertidal economy has been stable for some time, but it’s becoming obvious to residents of the Met Tower that the structures not grounded on bedrock will eventually fall—they need a better housing solution. Hurricane Fyodor appears on their horizon, certain to leave destruction in its wake. Can they take advantage of the disaster to establish a new world order?

This is a fairly complex book. First, there is a broad cast of main characters, all of whom live in the Met. This includes coders Mutt and Jeff, market trader Franklin, cloud star Amelia, building manager Vlade, police inspector Gen, Householders Union rep Charlotte and two kids who live under the docks, Stefan and Roberto. Everybody has their own busy life, but their activities start to overlap as they fend off a hostile takeover of their building, find lost treasure for financing and come up with a workable scheme to remake the world. The book includes a lot of history, economics, finance and science, which weaves through the text, but this is actually character driven. The characters offer each other acceptance and support, and conflict and failure are minimal, which means it comes off as fairly warm and fuzzy. The amount of knowledge and research that must have gone into this is highly impressive, as it covers all of the above, plus the various occupations of the characters, all with detail and authority.

I have to assume the scheme they come up with is the author’s recommendation, as well, which might actually be workable with enough grassroots support. It challenges the way we view politics and business, and suggests the central conflict of our time is between democracy and capitalism. Although many of the elements point to liberal, anarchist, communist or libertarian ideology, events tend to send up these interest groups, as well. Cloud star Amelia is a prime example, the bleeding heart that slept through all the ecology classes in school and thinks it’s a great idea to drop polar bears off in the Antarctic with all those unsuspecting penguins. Other elements make better sense. Europe is pretty well ahead of the US in the ecologically based housing, wind and solar changes recommended here, and we should take note. Robinson has a history of this kind of activism and it looks like he’s reviewing actual theories. I’m suspecting he might be a dedicated revolutionary. As a result, this is the kind of serious, important text that should win awards.

On the not so great side, this moves slowly and is highly idealized. In real life, there would be more conflict and failure. For example, I don’t believe that everyone in the Met tower is a wonderful, caring person, or that the Met can continue to take in and keep refugees without fairly serious plant breakdowns. It’s also hard to believe that the adaptations people have made in the novel (solar, wind, local farms) will have been enough to counter the enormous climate change that the author describes. As a result, this is politically and intellectually provocative, but lacks the kind of emotional impact that would really drive the message home.

Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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Review of The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction, published by Tor, and is part of a two novel series. The second book will be The Consuming Fire, to be released in October 2018. This review contains spoilers.

The Flow is a space-time anomaly that allows interstellar travel in a universe where faster-than-light travel remains impossible. This allows the Interdependency Empire to flourish along its length, but restricts the environments suitable for humans. The people of the Interdependency have gotten around this problem by building space and underground habitats, and the rich economy of the trade empire makes this a worthwhile expenditure, but the habitats are very dependent on the Flow for goods and services to make them workable. Emperox Attavio VI dies and leaves the Empire to his illegitimate daughter Cardenia. She is poorly suited for the position, quickly promoted after the death of her half-brother, and suffers an assassination attempt immediately after her coronation as Emperox Grayland II. Meanwhile, the Flow appears to be drying up. On End, the only habitable planet in the Empire, all the way at the end of the Flow, physicist Jamies Claremont has just finished up a study commissioned by Attavio VI that indicates all the Flow trade routes will fail in the next decade. End is currently consumed by a civil war, financed by the Nohamapetan family to bring down the reigning duke. Can Cardenia figure out what’s going on? Can Jamies’ son Marce convince the emperox, the parliament and the church on Hub that his father’s research is accurate? What are they going to do then?

Good points: This is very well-developed, creative, tightly plotted and character driven. It has a pretty solid basis both in economics and in projections of how space colonization and habitats might go. The spaceship in the novel sounds like NASA’s prototype for a starship. Scalzi has done his homework. Besides that, he has an excellent grasp of dominance and intimidation. The major characters here are all strong women. This includes the emperox Cardenia, foul-mouthed trading guild heir Kiva Lagos (plus her mom) and Nadashe, cold-blooded conniver for the Nohamapetans. Marce Claremont’s sister the Lady Vrenna also puts in a notable appearance. This turned out to be mildly gripping. For the first time in a long time, I read until late at night and then picked up again as soon as I got up in the morning. It’s not often that I find things to read like that anymore.

Not so good points: This concept of the Flow is very original, but it also reminds me strongly of Liu Cixin’s shrinking dimensional reality. The strong women characters are just a bit overdone, resembling men almost to the point of caricature. Regardless of their political power and acumen, women do have a different psychology, and Scalzi might want to run his manuscripts past some female beta readers to clear up the differences. The characters also tended to be very decisive in their opinions, which reduced the possibility of internal conflict, growth in relationships and best choice scenarios. Because of this decisive, black and white plotting, I’m thinking I can predict how book 2 is going to go.

Four and a half stars.

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Review of Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction and published by Orbit. It runs 361 pages.

Maria is one of a seven person crew on the generation starship Dormire, 25 years into a voyage to a new home on Artemis. Her clone wakes drowning in cloning fluid and it’s immediately obvious something has gone wrong. There’s no gravity. Once out of the vat, she sees her dead body is sitting there, like she’s hit the resurrection switch. The rest of the crew is struggling out of their own vats. They’ve awakened without any memory of what happened. Can they get control of the ship, unravel the mystery of who killed them all and stop the carnage from happening all over again?

This is a strongly plotted novel, as all the members of the crew are criminals/undesirables that have been given the option of crewing on the ship as opposed to legal penalties. As they give up their personal stories in the aftermath of the massacre, a picture emerges of conflict over cloning and the rights of clones, including riots, religious opposition, power politics and illegal hacking. This is the real meat of the novel, which investigates how human cloning might be regulated and what could go wrong. Eventually the crew puts together the story of how they’ve been used, and how this threatens the future of the ship and the passengers waiting to be revived into new life.

Not so good points: There are some bad-science errors here that an editor or beta reader should have picked up. For example, some of the systems work on “solar power” but there isn’t any of that in deep space. Also, the technology here sounds like it’s contemporary, not projected to the late 2200s. Why would they still be using computer labs and tablets with glass screens instead of something more integral? The technology also seems uneven, with the kitchen being clearly better equipped than the infirmary or the cloning lab. There’s a huge waste of space on the ship for apparently recreational woods and gardens. Last, the prose doesn’t flow well, and the dialog tends to be somewhat stilted.

Regardless of these issues, I’d recommend the novel because of the ideas it presents. Lafferty gets an A for effort here. She’s aimed at thoughtful hard SF.

Four stars.

Review of Weaponized Math by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s military SF and was published in The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3 anthology. This review contains spoilers.

Marine sniper Staff Sergeant Gracie Medicine Crow and her spotter Lance Corporal Christopher “Rabbit” Irving are enjoying a cup of coffee on the roof above the village square. It’s supposed to be a routine security mission because a member of the brass is coming to a meeting with the local commissioners. Sergeant Rafiq and his squad are conducting a sweep below and it looks like it will be a cold mission, so Gracie is entertaining herself by running through the target positions and remembering the range for each one—an example of weaponizing math. A cargo hovertruck approaches the village and she notices some strange reactions from people she’s been watching. Sure enough, they’re under attack from FLNT fighters and things quickly go from bad to worse. Can Gracie save the day?

Good points: The author is ex-military, so this has the feel of a real experience. There’s a lot of detail about the maneuvering and responses to the attack, and we get the interactions of the marine fighters. It has a feel good ending, where Gracie decides to bend the truth a little to benefit the fallen Rabbit. Going from the names, this is a pretty diverse fighting force. Crow is a Native American name, and Brazee sometimes is, too, though I don’t see the author advertising himself that way.

Not so good points: This is all about the experience, which has the feel of a video game. I didn’t end up with much of an idea what the world looks like, what the conflict is about or even a clear picture of the technology available. The characters are flat, and about all I gathered is that Gracie seems to be immune to PTSD. I had a flicker of interest when she decided to lie at the end, but there wasn’t really any investigation of the morality of this.

I expect this story meets the specs for the genre and that fans will enjoy it.

Three stars.

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