Review of The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

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This book is science fiction, released by Tor Books on 16 October 2018. It’s Book #2 of the Interdependency Series and runs 320 pages. The Collapsing Empire, Book #1 of the series, was a finalist for a Hugo Award in 2018. This review contains spoilers.

This book picks up immediately where The Collapsing Empire leaves off. Flow physicist Marce Claremont is offering his father’s research for review, which predicts the collapse of the Flow streams in the very near future. This will mean that transportation and commerce along these pathways will soon also fail. The only habitable planet in the Empire is End, and the various space habitats will soon be isolated. There is already a civil war going on for control of End. Emperox Grayland II is having prophetic visions about the collapse, which is convincing to the public, but not the Church hierarchy or the nobility. Grayland is planning to put Nadashe Nohamapetan on trial for treason for attempted assassination of the emperox, and has assigned Kiva Lagos as caretaker of her estate. Meanwhile, the Wu family is plotting with the Countess Nohamapetan to take over the throne. Claremont’s data attracts a challenge from Flow physicist Hatide Roynold. The two of them put their work together and predict the Flow will reestablish after a period of instability, which has already reopened a path to the lost Dalasysla habitat. The Emporox sends an expedition there to check for survivors, and Claremont is surprised to find evidence the Flow was manipulated in the past to isolate the Empire. Meanwhile more streams are failing. Can Grayland II keep control of the Empire? How can she plan for the future?

Like The Collapsing Empire, this is a quick, entertaining read. Scalzi’s strong point is in the plotting and the politics, where he plays the different factions against one another in a cat and mouse game for power and influence. The dialog tends to the snappy and cynical, and the nobility comes off as self-absorbed and somewhat hedonistic. The power players are mostly women and Emperox Grayland II shows considerable growth in this installment, moving from an inexperienced girl to a woman controlling the reins of power.

On the not so great side, this is all brash, surface-level entertainment, which means there’s no depth in the characters. The snappy dialog really is great in producing interesting players, but then Scalzi treats them as expendable—don’t get attached to any of them. Kiva Lagos seems almost a caricature, and her sexual exploits seem slyly contrived as a hook for some readers. Also on the negative side, Scalzi hasn’t done much in the way of projection into the future. We meet a couple of advanced AIs, but most of the population is still using “computers” and “tablets” the same way we do now. Surely a space-going population like this would have better technology.

A fun read, but not much depth. Three and a half stars.

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Castalia House out at Amazon

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Well, whoever was behind this missed a few audio books, but yeah, I checked and Castalia House was pretty much absent at Amazon for most of today. Looking at Castalia House’s website, it appears they politely inquired and found data on their account was completely wiped by someone at Amazon with access. Apparently the stated reason for removal was a question of rights ownership related to the Castalia-published book The Corroding Empire, a subject they thought was already settled when the book was published. If the missing data includes info on royalties due the writers, this could expose Amazon to some pretty serious repercussions. What is someone decided to wipe all the Tor books, for example? Or Baen? Oops.

Castalia’s books were back up by evening, except for The Corroding Empire, so it must have been a fairly easy fix. I don’t know that I could call this kind of action bullying, as Vox Day generally gives as good as he gets. I’m assuming it might be corporate wars? A drunken escapade on the part of some Amazon employee? A personal effort at censorship? Or maybe part of the marketing campaign for John Scalzi’s newly released installment in the Collapsing Empire series? Hm. There are all kinds of possibilities.

Anyhow, Castalia’s response has been to promote The Corroding Empire, still for sale at their Castalia Direct bookstore. Maybe I should put it on my list for review.

Wrap up of the 2018 Ideation Ratings

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In his 2016 article for the Daily Beast, professor, writer and literary critic Tom Leclair says he thinks literary awards should be for works that are “the most ambitious and important nominee—a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history.”

As a political battle has developed over the SFF awards in recent years, somehow this approach to the nominations seems to have gotten lost for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Some of the recent finalists and/or winners have been called out as political propaganda, having little or no substance beyond emotional appeal, poorly written, etc. Things have settled down a little this year, as the traditionalist have made their point and pretty much left liberals in control of these two awards. The finalists for the Nebulas, given by industry professionals, seems to have been a serious striving for diversity of genre as well as author in the nomination process–an effort to be fair. Still, the list of winners ends up with crowd appeal, but not much to contribute to the “literature of ideas.” Totaling up the scores, I’ve given the winners an average Ideation score of 2.05. The Nebula finalists included Autonomous, “a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history,” but it didn’t win.

The differences between the Nebula and the Hugo finalist list mostly subtracted ideas and quality works rather than adding to them. I suppose this is something we can expect, as the Hugo finalists are elected by a close group of WorldCon members and their tastes are, for this reason, very limited. However, they did come up with the five star idea man, Kim Stanley Robinson. I may revisit this when the list of winners is available. Robinson won the Nebula the last time he put out a novel, but he didn’t even appear in the list of finalists this time. We’ll see how much the climate has changed since 2013.

I’m thinking Robinson may not win for the same reason Newitz didn’t win—his book is hard to read. It’s long, it’s got small print, and it’s full of economics. Nobody wants to deal with that anymore. I’m expecting WorldCon members are going to go for Scalzi or Jemisin instead.

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.

Wrap up of the 2018 Hugo Reviews

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Now that I’ve reviewed all the works, it’s time to take a look at the Hugo finalists, and how they fell out this year. Most notable is the absence of Vox Day’s Rabid Puppy inputs, which in the past couple or three award cycles has provided the male diversity. That means ordinary cis men were totally shut out of three of the four Hugo fiction categories for 2018, with Best Short Story, Best Novelette and Best Novella featuring only women, trans and non-binary authors. The Best Novel category also featured two finalists who are possibly political appointees meant as a slap-in-the-face to Vox Day, these being his nemeses N.K. Jemisin and John Scalzi. That leaves the white-male-masterful-crusader Kim Stanley Robinson as the really big wild card in the whole thing.

The next notable feature was the high rate of correspondence between the finalists for the Hugo and the Nebula Award. For the Best Short Story category the only difference was that two men nominated for the Nebula were replaced by women or trans writers. In the Best Novelette category, the same thing happened, but one additional woman was nominated. The most significant difference was in the Best Novel category, where only two of the finalists were the same. This strongly suggests how the same limited system produces both sets of nominees.

Next, the Hugo Awards drew from the same restricted number of publishers as the Nebula. In the novel category, this included: 4 from Orbit, 1 from Tor and 1 from Solaris. In the novella category: 5 from Tor.com and 1 from Uncanny. The novelette and short story categories showed slightly more diversity, drawing from Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Apex. Looking at these results, it’s clear why Rocket Stack Rank only reviews particular magazines. This is pretty much the list of shorter-than-novel publishers with inputs into the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Print magazines are doing so poorly, RSR can probably leave Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF off pretty soon without missing anything important.

Looking at what’s normally counted for diversity, the Hugo has done reasonably well. Best Novel includes 3 women, 2 men, 1 trans, 1 Asian and 1 African American writer. Best Novella includes 5 women, 0 men, 1 non-binary, 1 Asian and 1 African American writer. Best Novelette category includes 4 women, 0 men, 2 trans and 3 Asian writers. Best Short Story includes 6 women, 0 men, 3 Asian and 1 Native American writer. Those who recall my comments from last year will know I’m glad to see a Native American writer appear in the finalists, but we’re still short of Hispanics. These figures work out to be 75% women, 12.5% trans, 8% men and 4% non-binary. Looking at the counted racial categories, it works out to be 55% whites, 33% Asian, 8% African American and 4% Native American. Clearly the preferred finalists are young white and Asian women, while men, African Americans and Hispanics are all hugely underrepresented based on their population demographics. The one finalist works out okay for Native Americans, who are about 2% of the US population.

A couple of things stood out in the themes. First, the list included several repeat appearances from previous years, and also followed the Nebula tendency to nominate the same author in multiple categories. These included Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker and Yoon Ha Lee. The list of Hugo finalists avoided the tendency the Nebula finalists showed for editors, publishers and other industry insiders, but included at least a couple of short works written by popular novelists within the universe of their novels. I took this as unduly promotional. Like the Nebulas, there seemed to be a strong preference for stories with non-binary or trans characters.

This list leans heavily to fantasy and soft science fiction, with a serious lack of ideas and/or hard science fiction. I don’t think Nagata’s work qualifies, regardless that it’s set on Mars. The real stand-out, different work here, again, was Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, which actually attempted to deal with hard science, real politics and real threats to humanity’s future. This is the kind of important work I’d prefer to see appear on the awards ballots.

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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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Congrats to the 2018 Hugo Finalists!

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Here’s what I got for the diversity count: Short stories – 6 women, 0 men, 3 Asian, 1 mixed race African/Native American. Novelettes – 5 women, 1 trans, 3 Asian. Novellas – 5 women, 1 trans, 1 Asian, 1 African American, 1 bipolar. Novels – 4 women, 2 men, 1 Asian, 1 African American.

Three short stories, 2 novelettes and 1 novella (6 of 24) are from Uncanny; 1 short story, 1 novelette, 5 novellas and 1 novel (8 of 24) are from Tor and Orbit published 4 of the 6 novels. The pro print magazines scored poorly, as Asimov’s squeaked in with one entry, but F&SF and Analog were totally shut out this year.

As usual, there’s quite a bit of overlap between these finalists and those of the Nebula Award, including 4 of 6 short stories, 3 of 6 novelettes, 4 of 6 novellas and 2 of 6 novels. Like the Nebulas, there is also repetition of names, as Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker and Yoon Ha Lee appear in more than one category. There’s also overlap with last years’ Hugo finalist list: N.K. Jemisin, Yoon Ha Lee, Seanan McGuire, Fran Wilde and Ursula Vernon were all finalists in 2017. Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorifor were finalists in 2016.

Best Novel

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi (Tor)
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
Provenance, by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty (Orbit)
The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)

Best Novella

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
And Then There Were (N-One), by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, Mar-Apr 2017)
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novelette

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water“, by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, Jul-Aug 2017)
“Extracurricular Activities“, by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)
“The Secret Life of Bots“, by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, Sep 2017)
“A Series of Steaks“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, Jan 2017)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time“, by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)
“Wind Will Rove“, by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, Sep-Oct 2017)

Best Short Story

“Carnival Nine“, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand“, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)
“Fandom for Robots“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)
“The Martian Obelisk“, by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)
“Sun, Moon, Dust“, by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™“, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, Aug 2017)

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