Review of Mightier than the Sword by K.J. Parker

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This is a historical fantasy novella, published June 30, 2017, by Subterranean Press and running 136 pages. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains spoilers.

The Emperor has been indisposed for some time, sort of on his death bed, and the Empress rules. The Empire has been plagued by barbarian raids of late, so she summons her nephew and puts him in charge of stopping the raids. Nephew is an Imperial legate, and a possible heir to the throne. The raids seem to have targeted monasteries fairly often, so he takes an expedition out into the hinterlands to investigate the monasteries for possible clues about who the barbarians are and what they want. The monasteries are repositories of history and learning, and are in charge of maintaining libraries and copying books. The Abbots turn out to be mostly old friends/relatives of the ruling family who have been banished from the capital, and everyone seems to have their own agenda. As Nephew unearths corruption and closes in on who might be behind the raids, word comes that the Emperor is dead and that he should stay where he is until the succession question is settled. What should he do?

This is an entertaining read, written in first person and presented as a translation of an ancient text. Nephew (unnamed, but possibly Emperor Ultor III) has a certain wit and a cynical viewpoint that lightens the narrative. As the Emperor’s nephew, he is completely comfortable in wielding wealth and power. He’s not the brightest, the handsomest, or the bravest, but he is likable and is well informed by study about military strategy. As the story develops, it becomes clear that Nephew is also a total realist and completely ruthless. He trusts (almost) no one, and does what he has to do to survive.

It’s hard to come up with any negatives in this. The only niggle I have is that Nephew seems to have a lot of trust in his staff, and no apparent suspicion of his sweetheart’s motives about suddenly agreeing to get married. Presumably he’s sure of these people because of his own personal charisma—plus, I guess you have to trust somebody. It’s a short book, but the length is about right. Once we’ve seen all the candidates for trouble, it moves right into the succession issue and finishes up without dragging its feet.

This goes back three years, but it very much addresses a couple of the recent popular themes in literary SFF. The first is the issue of erasing history. Nephew is totally on the side of preserving books, and in leaning on history for the path forward. “In the end,” he says, “books are all that matter…[they are] the past speaking to the future.” The second popular theme covered here is the assumption of wealth and power. Not only does this story provide a grand tour of the Empire’s corruption, but it also outlines the career path for the successful emperor candidate. Trained at ruthlessness from an early age, Nephew doesn’t waver. If they’re a challenge, they’re dead.

Recommended. Five stars.

Review of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

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This novel is science fiction/historical fantasy, published by Orbit in April of 2019, and runs 325 pages. It’s apparently successful enough to have triggered a sequel, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, upcoming in August 2020. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains major spoilers.

Orhan is a colonel in the corp of engineers, normally employed in building bridges and repairing aqueducts. He’s a former slave and a minority in the country, often at odds with authority, but adept at corruption—the sort of lying and cheating that is necessary to deal with the government supply lines. After a surprise attack in the city of Classis, he gets crosswise with authority figures, so takes his crew into the hinterlands to work on a bridge. When they return to the base at Colophon, Orhan finds the city under siege, the fleet blocked, the army decimated, the emperor non-functional, and himself the ranking officer in the city. Oops. Can he take control, put together a resistance from the panicked residents and design some quick engines for defense? And once he knows who’s behind the attack on the city, can he deal with the issues there?

On the positive side, this is wry and sharply entertaining. It’s written in first person and Orhan has a totally cynical view of government, petty tyrants and red tape. He’s also good at working all the angles; plus a solid engineer when it comes to building bridges and siege tech. He has a daughter that provides an emotional touch. The theme is also a standout. The subtext here is about racism and slavery, but the author has turned this backward from what we see in US society. Orhan is a milkface, brought by slavers into a country of dark-skinned bluebloods. He suffers discrimination and has a slight chip on his shoulder about the whole thing that affects his interactions. Regardless, he chooses to carry on with his responsibilities, trying hard to save his adopted city from a siege brought by what turns out to be another former slave out for revenge. This is subtle, but feels downright subversive to me in today’s political climate. Enough so that I looked up Orbit. It’s owned by Hachette Livre, a French company.

On the less positive side, there are a few minor issues. First, this has a slight mid-novel slump. It is highly entertaining during the set up, but once the defense organization within the city is up and running, there’s little for the residents to do except fight amongst themselves. This is messy and fails to produce any real furtherance of the story. The identity of Orhan’s daughter is revealed fairly late in the novel, which requires reinterpretation of events. And last, the dissonance in the slavery theme comes from Orhan’s parleys with his opponent, the former slave, but the light treatment here undermines the drama built up through the whole book to this point—this is the place where Orhan has to do some serious soul-searching about his race and position in society and for the author to make us wonder whether he’s going to support the society he lives in or tear it down. Still, the understatement is probably necessary because this is such a hot-button topic. In the era of cancel culture, somehow this novel has gone totally under the radar.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

More on Wealth and Power

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Most people who gain wealth and power have followed some kind of career path that gives them the skills to be successful in holding onto it. However, there’s an alternate path to wealth and power that involves behaviors we generally consider morally corrupt. It’s a scenario where the end always justifies the means, and favors are more important than qualifications and skill.

Looking again at the currently popular theme of killing people and taking over their wealth and power, it can be tricky to transfer these without documents, so what the authors are having the protagonists do is resort to fraud to carry it off. There’s a long tradition in fiction of romantic thieves who make their living through trickery and clever heists, but somehow this feels different. It’s as if the authors are advising readers to cut corners to get what they want. This signals a shift in moral standards.

Examples: In The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, the protagonist January kills her benefactor William Cornelius Locke and forges documents to take over his estate so she can live in comfort and have what she wants. In Network Effect by Martha Wells, ART’s crew is forging documents to dispute ownership of worlds and displace the corporate owners. Both these instances are presented as matter-of-fact and justified because of systemic bias, therefore the right thing to do. So, is moral corruption now the approved method to achieve our various causes?

Of course, corruption has always been there in human interactions. Moral corruption is the whole basis of organized crime, which uses violence, assault, murder, extortion, and fraud to build wealth and power. These tactics also have a bad tendency to creep into politics, where the stakes for wealth and power are similarly high. The US has laws against corruption, but various investigations and charges signal that it is fairly common and ongoing in politics. Somehow it is just there, strongly associated with people who achieve positions where they see the opportunities to capture or launder money and make deals to benefit their own personal interests.

So, is this one of the opportunities that women (or minorities) have been missing in their quest for wealth and power? Is that why authors are now pointing it out as a morally justified activity? It’s true that women have a complex association with corruption. Historically they have often attached to corrupt and powerful men to share in their spoils. Research shows that (at least in democracies) more women in business and politics tends to be associated with lower levels of corruption. Plus, women see the opportunities differently. For example, women tend to evaluate the risk of corrupt behaviors more carefully than men, and may take a bribe and not follow through on the deal. This makes them less trustworthy for anyone who is offering corruption, and turns out to mean that men are approached with more and better deals. However, when there are no penalties, everybody seems equally corrupt.

On the one hand, we’ve got a human tendency to corruption, and on the other an unspoken assumption that our society has rules against corruption, and that this is the moral high ground. The question is which we’re going to choose, and where we’re going to draw the line. Another consideration is how we justify morally corrupt behaviors to ourselves and whether this is actually exculpatory. Is it okay for someone to (allegedly) lie about sexual assault for monetary or political gain as Tara Reade and Christine Blasey Ford have been accused of doing? Is it okay for somebody to manufacture a racial hate crime like Jussie Smollett or racial profiling like Rev. Jerrod Moultrie? Is it okay for Sherita Dixon-Cole to lie that Officer Daniel Hubbard sexually assaulted her during a traffic stop because of the need for police reform? These charges are consonant with political causes, so does that justify lying to manufacture incidents? Is this now the best way to get the power for the changes we want? Or not?

Charlie Jane Anders checked in with her opinion earlier this year. In City in the Middle of the Night, all the grand causes fail because corruption degrades the new order the same as the old. Would choosing a different path to wealth and power make a difference in the results?

Review of The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

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The Queen of Nothing is the third novel in the Folk of the Air series, preceded by The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King to complete a three-novel set. The Queen of Nothing was published by Little Brown in November of 2019, and runs 320 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Jude had been banished by the High King to the mortal world for her murder of Prince Balekin. She is living with her sister Vivi, Vivi’s girlfriend Heather and her brother Oak in Heather’s apartment, and makes money to help with the rent by hiring out as an errand-girl for a local faery. She accepts a job and ends up fighting a duel with Grima Mog, Redcap general of the Court of Teeth, who then reveals a plot to dethrone the King of Elfhame. Soon after, Jude’s twin sister Taryn arrives. She reveals she has killed her husband Locke, and she wants Jude to stand in for her at the inquest so she can use her resistance to glamour in order to lie. Jude agrees, and disguised as Taryn, she re-enters Elfhame. The inquest seems to go well until Nicasea insists Taryn be searched for a charm, and King Carden offers to examine Taryn himself. Once they are alone, he reveals he knows who she is. Madoc attacks the palace, attempting to rescue Taryn, and captures Jude. She wakes in Madoc’s war camp, where she continues to pretend she is Taryn and learns about the plot to remove the High King. When Madoc’s forces arrive at the palace to capture the crown, Carden destroys it and then turns into a monstrous serpent that defiles anything it touches. Is there anything Jude can do to save the kingdom and claim her rights as Queen of Elfhame?

My first impulse that this is an allegory for high school turns out to be correct. Jude and Taryn are Average Kids trying to enter a clique of the Right People. Nicisea is the Mean Girl, Locke is the Gamer, and Carden is the abused child who grows up to be a monster that Jude tries to salvage. Jude continues to fight her way through everything, while her twin Taryn tries to blend. At the end, everybody ends up getting pizza together at the local shop. On top of this, author Black spins the surface story of Faerie and the scheming around succession to the throne. In general this works well, and the story manages to be entertaining on both levels. It continues the theme of fighting for power versus submission to the system, and Jude continues to fail in her struggle to deal with a powerful position. Black’s trademark style is fairly lyrical and this is strongly plotted, if a little abrupt sometimes and short on transitions.

On the less positive side, the surface story seems to be wearing a little thin toward the finale as the allegory starts pulling the strings. Jude constantly overestimates her abilities, takes on more than she can handle and then despairs—after a while, she ought to know better. Maybe the constant murders are an allegory for “cutting people dead,” but the high attrition rate continues to be worrisome. Also, it would be nice if Jude and Carden would just talk. A little bit of communication would go a long way in resolving the issues between them. Instead, Jude remains defensive and suspicious, refusing to recognize that it’s about anything but Jude. As far as I can tell, she never grows much as a person, always grandstanding solo rather than taking the reins of power and working within the structure that should be in place to defend the king and the kingdom. I’m wondering why so much space is used up by descriptions of women’s gowns, and also why everyone uses just swords and knives. Maybe there’s some magic in Faerie that prevents the use of firearms, but in the mortal world, why does Jude still show up for a fight with just a knife? There are other ways, dear.

This is a good story, regardless of the niggles. Highly recommended for young adult.

Four stars.

Review of The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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I reviewed The Wicked King, second in this Folk of the Air series, which won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Novel in 2019, but thought it would probably help if I’d read the first book in the series, too. The Queen of Nothing completes the three-novel set. This novel was published by Little Brown in 2018, and runs 385 pages. Apparently it was optioned for a film in 2017. This review contains spoilers.

Jude’s mother was a mortal married to Madoc, a general of the High King of Faerie. She had one daughter Vivienne with him, and then ran away with a human artisan to the human world, where they had two more daughters. Madoc followed them, killed Jude’s mortal parents and spirited the girls away to raise with his new wife and son Oak. At seventeen, Jude wants desperately to fit in, but she is tortured by the young fay of her social circle, especially the cruel Prince Cardan, youngest son of the High King. Although her twin sister Taryn yields to the abuse and finds a place, Jude remains defiant, determined to win some kind of power to make her tormentors sorry. She schemes and intrigues, allying with Prince Dain, who is expected to succeed the High King, but then the coronation goes wrong, leaving the kingdom on the verge of civil war. Can she come up with a plan to save her family and make peace in the kingdom?

This is a pretty awesome intrigue, strongly suggesting the author had a tough time in high school. The story starts off with a bullying episode and gets successively more gripping as it goes along. Nothing and no one is what they seem, and all the characters are gray, rather than black and white. The Faerie are all cruel and hungry, but they love each other, too, and they fear loss. The characters take on dimension slowly as the tale progresses, as Jude fights her way through the love, hate and ambition, trying at first to achieve something for herself, and then once things go wrong, to save the people she loves. The Faerie kingdom and its rules are well-laid out, and now and then Jude slips back into the mortal world with her fay sister Vivi to shop at Target.

It’s hard to find anything really wrong with this. Considering the setting, I did start to suspect the characters were two-sided early on, so it wasn’t really a surprise when they showed a different face. One questionable issue here is what Jude is turning into—maybe becoming just as cruel, evil and calculating as the fay? She’s been cursed, so we’ll have to see how it turns out.

Five stars.

I’m going on to review the Queen of Nothing. If you’d like to read my review of The Wicked King, here’s a link to it.

Review of Unfair Advantage by Edward Thomas

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This is a science fiction/humor novel published 29 January 2020 and runs 551 pages. It’s also billed as The Troubles of George McIntyre Book 1, suggesting this will be a series. There’s a teaser at the end of this novel for the next release, titled Angels, Inc. This review contains spoilers.

George is going camping with his buddies. He says ‘bye to his girlfriend Ginny and takes off. Meanwhile Detective Cook has found his fourth decomposing body, running with goo that corrodes the coroner’s table. The cause of this is an invisible alien probe in orbit around the Earth. It is struck by a piece of space junk, and the canister’s operating system fixes the holes, but the joggle has mixed some of its infectious vials. When the next batch strikes George and his buddies, the buddies become decomposing zombies, but George accidentally gets the “defense” vial. He collapses and wakes as a multitalented troll. Meanwhile NASA has suddenly noticed the orbiting probe, mainly because of the sudden disappearance of the space junk. The government alerts. Ginny isn’t really happy with the troll thing, and soon George finds he’s being tailed by Men in Black, but it’s not long before he’s planning what to do about the upcoming invasion. He projects that the aliens are AIs in a failing Dyson Sphere around their sun, looking for more resources. He sets up a company called Angels, Inc., and uses junk to manufacture robot warrior women as weapons. He picks up math/physics genius Jimmy, currently living with his mom and stocking shelves at the local supermarket. Now everything is set. Can they defeat the orbiting probe?

This is very readable with engaging characters. It’s an alien invasion, of course, but the author’s approach is entertaining and clearly in no way serious. It progresses from the opening to George’s solution to the upcoming invasion, an army of robust robot warrior women who quickly discover nookie. It turns into something of a PG romp, clearly meant to be engaging to a certain audience, but there are also a couple of serious themes buried in there. First is the power of uniting with other persons or nations to accomplish important goals, and second is the need for social support plus opportunity to unlock the unused potential many kids (and/or older persons) carry inside them. In addition, there are some excellent action sequences here when the AI warriors take on both the aliens and the government forces.

On the less positive side, I was really charmed with the opening, but not being the target audience, I was less interested in the ensuing fun and more interested in the early still mostly human George, the particulars of the invasion and the warrior AIs created to deal with it. I was especially intrigued with Brunhilde the Giant Tank. I can see a possibility for darker adventures starring Brunhilde, for example, that take a more introspective and angst-ridden bent. After all, it must be a little awkward to be what she is. Her little group of current friends is accepting of that, but most people won’t be. Also, I thought the defeat of the probe was just a little too easy. There could have been a lengthy cat and mouse game there.

Best enjoyed by teen aged young adults of the male persuasion.

Three and a half stars.

Economic Analysis of the Corporate Rim versus Preservation in the Murderbot Diaries

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This won’t be anything scholarly, but I’ll try to hit the high points. I don’t mean to pick on Martha Wells, in particular. I love the Murderbot Diaries, and generally the economic system has been vague enough to get by. However, after a few installments, it’s now specific enough to get a grip on.

First, the Corporate Rim is a fairly standard instance of unregulated capitalism. It’s unclear where the government is that should be regulating it, or even if there is such a government—maybe there’s only a network of local administrations and a civil court system. If so, this is a case of imperialist might-makes-right, and it’s no wonder everybody has to hire muscle to carry out simple planetary surveys. The corporations indenture workers on labor contracts where they do get paid, but also have to pay the companies for board and health care, meaning they won’t have much at the end of the contract. In addition, the corporates buy and sell planets, kill off inconvenient competitors, ignore laws about interdicted areas, enslave human-machine hybrids, and are irresponsible with terraforming operations and seeding of colonists. Apparently there’s also a lot of damage from production like mining operations that the companies expect to abandon. This sounds very workable, but it’s also clear that it’s not the most optimal system.

Preservation is an independent freehold planet. The colonists were originally seeded on another planet where the terraforming was ineffective, so they were starving. They were rescued by a colony ship that stored them in the hold and brought them to Preservation. The colonists then rebuilt the ship into a wormhole port station. It’s unclear who operated the ship or how they got title to the planet, but the story suggests this was a rescue operation rather than a business deal–maybe someone looking for colonists to populate their private planet. According to Murderbot, the planet works on a barter system but the station works on hard currency cards in order to interface with systems that travelers come in from. Farms on the planet are operated by family groups, and everyone seems to be prosperous, though we have no information on how this works. (Does the government own the farms? Where are the farm workers? Do they use bots for the dirty work? Does everyone take a turn in the fields?) The government doesn’t seem to lack for funds. Commerce is low key and many things seem to be provided free of charge, including traveler lodging on the station. It appears that public servants volunteer their time, and are required to continue their normal occupations at the same time. This is why Mensah is the planetary leader and also working as lead on a planetary survey. Presumably she also has duties on the family farm, though we never see her working there, only on the survey and the station.

Okay, so I have some questions about how this system works. The main one is how family-operated farms and a barter system can generate enough wealth to build and maintain a wormhole station and operate a fleet of ships that is available for surveys and rescue missions. This sounds Bronze Age pastoral. The barter system means they will trade chickens for medical care, and it will take a lot of chickens and cows to buy a spaceship. Pin Lee is a lawyer and Ratthi is a biologist. Do they get paid with tomatoes and squash? Do they work on farms in addition to this? Does Preservation have manufacturing capabilities? How does that work on a barter system? They’ve bought an option on another planet and are considering further investment. What are they planning to do with it? Where did they get the funds? Plus Mensah has plenty of cash on hand to pay off the Company for bonds and to buy one of their SecUnits. Presumably this is government funds she’s using. Therefore Preservation must grow, mine or manufacture something of considerable trade value with the Corporation Rim in order to have this kind of budget. It can’t be generated from a farm and barter economy without a currency to store value. That just won’t work.

Review of Network Effect by Martha Wells

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This is the hugely hyped sequel to the Murderbot Diaries series of novellas, a full-length novel at 346 pages. It was released by Tor/Macmillan on 5 May 2020 and immediately went to #3 on the NYT Bestseller list. It looks like another novella, Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries Book 6), is scheduled for release 27 April 2021. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot has contracted with Dr. Arada to provide security for her planetary marine survey. Just as they’re finishing up, they’re attacked by raiders, but MB holds them off and the research module takes off safely and docks with the orbiting baseship. They return to Preservation space, but as soon as they exit the wormhole, they’re attacked by another ship that tries to dock with the module. The baseship jettisons the module and escapes, and Arada, Overse, Ratthi and Thiago launch in the safepod, but MB and Dr. Mensah’s daughter Amena are caught by the attacking ship. Once within scanning distance, MB realizes the ship is ART (a.k.a. Perihelion), a university research vessel which helped it change its configuration and deal with things at Ganaka Pit in Artificial Condition. Clearly something bad has happened. ART is missing in action and the ship is being run by highly divergent humans who have installed their own operating system. MB wipes them out and destroys the new system, then reinstalls ART from a hidden file. The safepod has attached to the outside of the ship and gone through the wormhole with them, so the survey crew comes on board. Also onboard are two Barish-Estranza corporates, Ras and Eletra, who have crude implants that seem to allow external control. The ship has emerged into a system Eletra recognizes. Barish-Estranza has recently bought the planet and means to indenture the colonists, but the place is contaminated by alien remnants so two Barish-Estranza ships and ART, on a mission to liberate the colonists, were contaminated and taken over by an expanding hive mind. ART needed help, so it made up a plan to kidnap MB in Preservation space. Ras suddenly goes crazy and then dies, but they contact the Barish-Stranza main ship and transfer Eletra. Then they all look at the issue of how to find and rescue ART’s crew. Can it be done?

This has a lot of great points. It’s strongly plotted. The main characters are already established and it moves right along, revealing somewhat more about the characters, the corporate culture of the Rim and the adversarial free-hold planets. The counter play between ART and MB is entertaining. There are a couple of personal glimpses that are memorable and strongly dramatic. The final solution for defeating the hive mind is also creative. From all early reviews, this will be well received by fans.

On the not so positive side, this is probably the result of contracting to write a novel within a certain time limit and then getting too much advice on how to write it. I notice one early reviewer complained about pacing issues, but there are also problems with uneven characterization and questionable plot directions. Plus, this has ventured into subversive politics that some people won’t like (see Anders recent take on that). One cause of the problems is that there is a novella’s worth of material that’s missing from between Exit Strategy and this novel. Wells has folded some of it into interludes within the novel, but some of it is still just missing. The next problem is that this is stuffed too full of action when it should have been spread out over more novels/novellas. We start at the end of Arada’s survey, and MB is already upset and angry, something that’s unusual for it, which continues throughout. Thiago is either an idiot grand-stander, or else he and Arada have had a conflict about leadership through the whole survey mission. This is not clarified, and Thiago remains erratic and undefined. From this early emergency state, we continue right on into more emergencies, which ups the action/tension ante, but prevents the excellent story development and interpersonal conflicts that were characteristic of the novellas. There’s also very little additional character development for Arada and Overse, and hardly any at all for ART’s crew, clearly its major priority.

The wonderful, subtle, emerging quality about MB and ART is gone for this novel, and both characters act more human than not, just another one of the crew, haha. In the end, MB ends up failing dismally to rescue anybody, and has to be rescued itself. And then the politics: ART turns out to be only disguised as a research vessel. Its crew is traveling to planets controlled by corporate interests and trying to liberate the colonists by falsifying documents and then fighting in court about it. Regardless of abuses, falsifying documents is illegal, unethical, lowlife and pretty certain to provoke retaliation. This is not discussed. Plus, given the corporate responses we’ve seen, any organization that did this would need heavy security, heavy backing and really deep pockets. Also, if they’re not doing astronomical research, then why do they need an expensive AI like ART to run the ship? MB’s friends immediately support this activity, also questionable, as they should have learned their lesson from recent brushes with GrayCris and its ally Palisade. I’m also still wondering about the economic base of the freehold planets like Preservation. Where are they getting all this money to burn? Mensah shows up in a ship to rescue everybody, but what gives her the authority if she’s supposedly resigned as planetary leader? Is she somehow wealthy enough to pay for her own ship? And last, the corporates are fighting over this planet, even though it’s clearly contaminated by alien remnants. Isn’t it interdicted because of that? What gives?

I’m especially concerned about the issue here of promoting illegal and unethical actions to young readers as something their beloved characters support. Or even older readers, for that matter. It’s easy to slip into moral relativism and assume anything is okay as long as it’s done with good intentions. That’s really not so.

Two and a half stars.

Wrap-up of the 2020 Hugo Reviews

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That finishes the reviews in the main fiction categories for the Hugo Awards this year, so here’s the wrap-up for anyone looking for patterns in the nominations. There was an approximate 60% overlap with the 2019 Nebula finalists, so I didn’t have to read that many stories to fill in the gaps. In addition to the Nebula correspondence, about 85% of the finalists appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List, issued in February of 2020.

There was fair diversity among the nominees, both in ethnicity and gender of the authors and in the variety of settings and themes. There were 24 works nominated, but two were co-written, resulting in 28 authors. In the case of The Deep, Rivers Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are credited for the previously Hugo-nominated song that inspired the novella. This Is How You Lose the Time War was co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. As usual, apologies if I’ve missed anybody. I’m sure I’ve way undercounted disabilities, for example, as most authors don’t post their health status.

Best Novel: 6 women, 0 men, 5 LGBTQ, 6 white, 0 ethnic minorities
Best Novella: 3 women, 6 men, 1 non-binary, 2 LGBTQ, 4 white, 1 Jewish, 3 black, 1 Arab American, 1 Asian
Best Novelette: 5 women, 1 man, 3 LGBTQ, 3 white, 1 Jewish, 1 black, 2 Asian, 1 disabled
Best Short Story: 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 4 LGBTQ, 2 white, 1 black, 3 Asian

Here are the percentages: 18/28 (64%) women, 8/29 (29%) men, 2/28 (7%) non-binary, 14/28 (50%) LGBTQ, 15/28 (54%) white, 2/28 (7%) Jewish, 5/28 (18%) black, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 6/28 (21%) Asian, and 1/28 (4%) disabled. The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. The results above follow the current trend toward white, LGBTQ women authors in the Hugo nominations, and the only way white men made it in at all was through co-written works. No Hispanics or Native Americans received nominations this year. White authors at 54% were below the US demographic of 61%. Black authors at 18% were somewhat above the US demographic of 13%. LGBTQ authors at 50% were well above the US demographic of 4.5%. Asian authors at 21% were above the US demographic of 5.6%, and Jewish at 7% and Arab-American authors at 4% were above the US demographics of and 2.6% and 1% respectively.

Looking at the lead characters in the works: 18/24 (75%) had female leads and 2/24 (8%) had equal male and female leads. Only 1/24 (4%) had a clearly male lead. The others were gender-indeterminate, cats, etc. 7/24 (29%) had non-white lead characters, and 7/24 (29%) had clearly lesbian characters. There was a noticeable shortage of male LGBTQ authors and/or characters in the nominations, which is is a recurring pattern from past years. This suggests there may be active discrimination against this particular group.

Looking at the genres: 11/24 (46%) had science fictional settings, and 13/24 (54%) had settings that look like mainly fantasy. The definitions have to be pretty loose, because a number of the works seem to mix science fictional and fantasy tropes. None of the works would qualify as hard SF, except maybe Chambers’ work about the dangers of space exploration. All the other SF stories had mysterious far future or alternate reality settings.

As far as publishers go, there were no finalists from print-only magazines this year. Tor dominated the list with 8/24 (33%} entries, and Uncanny Magazine came in next with 3/24 (12.5%). This suggests that the style and philosophy of Tor’s editors is popular with WorldCon members. Heavy promotion may also be a factor, as again, I could have almost predicted some of these results from the levels of advertising.

Themes were varied, but in style there was a clear trend toward surreal effects. The Hugo’s tendency for political commentary showed up in a number of cases, especially the short stories. Killing people to take their power appeared as a theme in three works, and revenge for past abuse appeared in four works. Interestingly, a couple of the novels this year frankly addressed socialist revolution. Hurley’s Light Brigade strives against authoritarian control and toward a panacea of living free in communism, but Anders’ novel has a more realistic and cynical view of how well this works. At least two pieces looked directly at the issue of power. Outside the fiction category, Ng’s acceptance speech from last year also made the list of finalists, an interesting choice, as it was denounced by some in the audience as both sexist and racist. All the finalist works had a strong emotional component.

Other observations: A few of these works came across as ordinary, but in general, the quality level ran fairly high, including both concepts and execution. The reading list seems to have been limited, as McGuire, Solomon, Harrow and Chiang were all nominated in more than one category. Also, some of the authors are perennials: Chambers, McGuire, Clark, Pinsker, Gailey and Harrow were also nominated last year. This repetition seems to be a developing standard for the Hugos. It’s a trend that can increase the minority count, but it also clearly reduces diversity. Surely there are plenty of qualified authors out there who could provide more diverse voices.

Review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor/Titan on 12 February 2019 and runs 348 pages. This review contains spoilers.

January is a tidally locked planet, in a synchronous rotational orbit around its sun. That means it’s divided into dark and light, a permanently frozen darkness on one side and deadly, scalding sunshine on the other. Human colonists have built two main settlements in the twilight zone in between. Xiosphant is authoritarian and highly regimented, a system that curtails individual freedoms but provides for all. Argelo is a free-wheeling party city, ruled by competing aristocratic families, and if you’re not well-connected, you starve. Sophie is a working-class student with a scholarship to the prestigious Gymnasium in the city of Xiosphant, sleepmates with her upper-class friend Bianca. Mouth is possibly the last survivor of the nomad group Citizens, who normally works as a smuggler between the two cities, and sleepmates with co-worker Alyssa. Bianca is a student subversive, working toward the overthrow of the authoritarian government of Xiosphant. When she casually steals food chits, Sophie steps in to take the fall for her and is exiled from the city. She is rescued by the Gelet, mysterious native creatures that are often hunted for meat. She sneaks back into the city and hides out, finding a job in a coffee house. Bianca, thinking her dead, moves further into subversive activities, and her group starts planning a revolution. Conditions outside the cities are worsening, and after a tough run, Mouth and Alyssa are in Xiosphant. Hearing about a Citizens artifact stored in the palace, Mouth joins the revolution to get in, but escapes as the rebellion goes bad. Her group flees and takes Bianca and Sophie with them to Argelo. Bianca establishes herself quickly in Argelo, aligning with the head of a powerful family. Still intent on overthrowing the government of Xiosphant, she plans an invasion. Meanwhile, Sophie’s contacts with the Gelet show that Mouth’s adored Citizens accidently undermined the Gelet’s climate controls that make the Twilight Zone livable, and that both cities are likely doomed as a result. If Bianca can take over the Xiosphanti government, will anything change?

So, this needs a trigger warning for anyone who suffers from depression. It’s a pretty dark work, and it was a hard slog for me to get through it. The sun never shines, and the climate is going from bad to worse. Poor Sophie starts off naive and does her best. She tries to love Bianca, and to mediate between humans and Gelet, all without much success. The theme is clearly stated: the failure of grand ideas. The students start off thinking they will change things for the better, but all their efforts are wasted. Bianca leaves a trail of death and destruction behind her, and when she takes over the government, she becomes just what they’ve hated all these years. There’s also an interesting symbolism set up with the dark and light, and the population living in the gray area in between. The City in the Middle of the Night is the Gelet city, mostly underground, where Sophie is transformed to something half Gelet and half human.

On the less positive side, this has readability issues because of the depressive atmosphere. Plus, it’s a little messy. The theme is supported very clearly through both action and pronouncements, but there are also a lot of other things going on that are less clear. One issue is Mouth’s devotion to the Citizens, who all died and left her, and how this turns to ash when she finds out more about them. Another is the presence of the Gelet, who have to represent another way of doing things, but this remains unclear. Another issue is the folk living outside the cities, the smugglers and salvage operators, and the horrific creatures that kill them off in the wastelands. And last, Sophie is transforming to an alien. Maybe this is actually about midlife crisis?

Anders is a little older than I thought, actually Gen X instead of Millennial, and if we’re going to pick out important works as part of the awards process, then this is it, a warning to all those idealistic young kids who think they can change the world and not become corrupted themselves. There’s also a message here about the results of party city versus working hard.

Five stars.

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