Review of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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I think this novella is meant to be science fiction. According to the authors, Gladstone wrote Red and El-Mohtar wrote Blue. It was published by Saga in 2019, and runs 209 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Red and Blue are transhuman operatives in a time war, augmented with technology and able to change shape at will. Red works for the Agency, a post-singularity technotopia, and Blue works for the Garden, a consciousness embedded in all organic matter. The two scheme against each other and eventually begin to admire the other’s work. They start to leave messages for one another and eventually fall in love. However, there’s a risk in this, and eventually they become suspect. Can they engineer a scheme where they can be together?

On the positive side, this has evocative scenes and makes good use of poetic metaphor. There’s a symbolism in the opposition: technology versus nature. The time war seems to make use of butterfly-effect actions and weapons that echo down through the time threads and may or may not change the course of history, depending on whether the other side can analyze the effects and counter quickly enough. This was a pretty quick read, as the lack of significant events allowed for skimming. The solution to the problem is fairly clever.

On the not so positive side, this has very little in the way of either plot or world building. It’s an art piece: a series of nebulous, fantastical scenes unmoored in either time or space, interspersed with poetic letters that do little to clarify the situation. This means the characterizations are also poor. The whole thing is so vague that we can’t get a grip on either the two main protagonists or the flow of side characters that have no names and only a transient presence. Plus, I don’t see any reason for these operatives to fall in love. There’s very little content here, and the book comes off as mostly nonsense.

Two stars

Congrats to the 2019 World Fantasy Award Finalists!

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The World Fantasy Convention where the award is presented takes place October 31 – November 3, 2019 in Los Angeles, CA. Two finalists in each category are chosen by previous convention attendees and the other three are added by judges. The panel of judges for 2019 is international, including: Nancy Holder, Kathleen Jennings, Stephen Graham Jones, Garry Douglas and Tod McCoy. This year there’s a noticeable overlap between the fiction categories here and the Nebula and Hugo finalists I’ve already reviewed. I’ll start up some reviews of the rest in the fiction categories right away. I don’t know if I’ll get to the anthologies and collections.

NOVEL
In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey (John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)
Witchmark by C. L. Polk (Tor.com)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press)

NOVELLA
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)
The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Aug. 2018)
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com)

SHORT FICTION
“The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation” by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine, July 2019)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
“Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed, October 2018)
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny Magazine, March-April 2018)

ANTHOLOGY
Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler (Ate Bit Bear)
The Book of Magic, edited by Gardner Dozois (Bantam Books US/HarperVoyager UK)
Best New Horror #28, edited by Stephen Jones (Drugstore Indian Press UK)
Robots vs. Fairies, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (Saga Press)
Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction, edited by Irene Gallo (Tor.com)

COLLECTION
The Tangled Lands, by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (Saga Press/Head of Zeus UK)
Still So Strange, by Amanda Downum (ChiZine Publications)
An Agent of Utopia: New & Selected Stories, by Andy Duncan (Small Beer Press)
How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Phantom Limbs, by Margo Lanagan (PS Publishing)

ARTIST
Rovina Cai
Galen Dara
Jeffrey Alan Love
Shaun Tan
Charles Vess

SPECIAL AWARD – PROFESSIONAL
C. C. Finlay, for F&SF editing
Irene Gallo, for Art Direction at Tor Books and Tor.com
Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)
Catherine McIlwaine for Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition (The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford)
Julian Yap, Molly Barton, Jeff Li, and James Stuart for Serial Box

SPECIAL AWARD – NON-PROFESSIONAL
Mike Allen, for Mythic Delirium
Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Literary Adventure Fantasy
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny Magazine
E. Catherine Tobler, for Shimmer Magazine
Terri Windling, for Myth & Moor

Who controls SFF?

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One interesting study result I reported in my last blog is that conservatives are more likely to read popular or “low-brow” type fiction while liberals are more likely to read “sophisticated” or literary type fiction. This suggests an interesting way to identify the ideological worldview of fans for various purposes.

First, I think this explains why the Sad/Rabid Puppies have complained about the major SFF awards not serving the whole community. A quick sort of the top 20 Science Fiction Best Sellers at Amazon this week shows about 66% conservative, versus maybe 33% liberal if you consider the classics literary (i.e. A Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Man in the High Castle). If you knock out books with recent media tie-ins, then the percentage of apparent liberals drops to 10%. Both these results support my previous suggestion that liberals are a distinct minority in the community. Because the major SFF awards tend to be literary in nature, this means they’re likely run by and voted on by a small minority, which suggests the most visible and most highly promoted works via these awards are also aimed at a small minority of fans.

This will vary by the award, of course. Since I’ve been doing reviews of the winners and finalists for some of these, I think I’ve ended up with something of a feel for how literary they are. Following the method above, this will give me an idea of who’s voting. Based on the artistic quality of the finalist group, the World Fantasy Award runs most literary. The SFWA, as I’ve mentioned in past blogs, seems to have made a serious effort to make the Nebula Award more representative in the last couple of years. That means the nominees are a mix of styles and subgenres, some literary and some popular. The Hugo award actually seems to run fairly conservative (as pointed out by the Daily Dot), and often as not, the nominees seem to fall into a fairly non-literary category. There are a few works on the list with depth and subtext, but not that many. Currently, the Hugo Award seems to be most most vulnerable to political influence of these three. (See individual reviews for more information on the ratings of individual finalists.)

So what does this say about publishers? I think this suggests that major publishers are actually struggling to reconcile their pursuit of awards with a pursuit of sales. It’s true that awards can help promote a work, but they’re also a double-edged sword. If a book is too literary, then most of the audience won’t read it. Amazon is the great leveling force—six out of the top 20 of the SF Best Sellers I recently reviewed look to be self-published. These fall squarely into the conservative popular taste, including military SF and SF romance. Five others were published by presses I didn’t recognize. This leaves only nine of the 20 top sellers released by major publishers. And yes, I know the Amazon Best Sellers list is affected by the vagaries of new releases, other media releases, various promotions, etc. I’d like to look at the SF & Fantasy Best Sellers list, too, but right now it appears to be swamped by Harry Potter.

These results also suggest that the Dragon Award, based on a broad popular vote, might actually be more accurate at reflecting a) tastes of conservative readers, b) tastes of the majority of readers and c) projected sales of various genres of SFF books.

So who’s in control? The liberal/literary crowd is clearly most visible in the awards systems. But, having gone through the research, I’m thinking conservatives, moderates and “other” are still really in control of the popular SFF taste. That’s the population that’s still driving most of sales.

Review of The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

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This novel was the 2017 winner of the World Fantasy Award. It was published by Redhook/Orbit UK, and runs 468 pages.

Most people totally forget Hope Arden within a minute. This means she can’t hold a job or maintain any serious relationships, and she supports herself by being a world-class thief. Hope is affronted by a woman’s death in Dubai, and partially out of spite, steals the Chrysalis diamonds from the Princess Shamma bint Bandar at a party hosted by the Prometheus Corporation. Prometheus markets an app that recommends actions, purchases and treatments to achieve Perfection. Because of the power and reach of the corporation, Hope finds herself on the run. Allied with a darkweb terrorist called Byron, can she bring down Prometheus?

This is a very complex novel. It’s basically a thriller plot, where Hope and her various allies struggle against the powerful minions of the corporation. It’s also an indictment of our worship of celebrity and perfection, here summed up in the app that guides people in how to become rich and beautiful to the ultimate degree, while also making them slaves to the corporation—meanwhile the ordinary Hope remains invisible. Regardless of the thriller plot, Hope continually digresses into stream of consciousness inspection of her past and the failings of society around her. This includes several prominent cultures because of the multinational quality of the tale. Her eventual solution to the battle with Perfection isn’t simple, either, as Hope’s vulnerability and her emotional responses to the people she meets constantly affect her decisions.

Good points: It’s complex; it’s a thriller; it’s got a lot to say as a mirror for our society. There are some artful cliffhangers, beautiful images, great feelings of place and very complex and well-developed characters. The reader forms emotional bonds with these people.

Not so good points: It’s slow-moving because of all the digressions—I had a hard time getting started because of the pace. The thriller plot could have been a short story or a novella without all the asides, so it’s not the book for people who like fast, hard-hitting action.

I’m going to go five stars on this one. I was impressed.

More on Awards Pressures

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Following up on award pressures, here’s an article in the Guardian that claims British literary fiction is actually being undermined by a handful of powerful book prizes. You’d think that high-profile prizes would be good for the industry, as they recognize excellence and point readers to where the best fiction is. Winning the prize generally gives a big boost to sales for the book. However, this article suggests that the costs associated with entering a lot of books into the larger competitions tend to limit the submissions to publishers with deep pockets. That means small, independent publishers that might actually be publishing the most cutting-edge work are sidelined and the larger publishers set the standard for what the public reads.

According to literary agent Jonny Geller in this same article, “Literary fiction is under threat…due to a combination of factors – reluctance by major houses to take risks; a bottleneck in the distribution chain [and] diverse voices being ignored by a predominantly white, middle-class industry.” Geller goes on to note the pressures on the prize juries. “Every major literary prize is under the same pressures – the balance between picking books that break new ground, challenge readers and those books that will be popular.”

There are other issues, as well. Past literary judge Tom Leclair notes in another article that the different tastes, criteria and loyalties of judges mean that disagreements can lead to horse-trading type compromise. He also relates experiences where fellow judges tried to give awards to their friends or to other authors represented by their own literary agent.

These people are talking about large, national awards, of course, which are normally juried. However, one can draw parallels with the SFF industry awards. We’ve seen the recent move by the Puppies to promote Hugo slates. This is very visible promotion, but how much does less visible promotion affect who wins? And what effect does author/publisher reputation have?

Brandon Kempner at Chaos Horizon notes the tendency of award winners to be re-nominated. In a similar vein, Natalie Luhrs recently completed her annual “slice and dice” of the influential Locus Reading List and commented on repeat appearances. Her review notes that white men continue to dominate the list, while the same small group of women and people of color appear year after year. Is this a tribute to their reputations, or just a form of tokenism?

Review of This Census-Taker by China Miéville

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I’ve been shoveling out from under a pile of work, and still assembling thoughts on the Nebula selections. Meanwhile, here’s a review of one of the Hugo Finalist (next on my agenda). This novella was recommended by Vox Day, and got an extra shove into the finalist position from the Rabid Puppies. It was published by Del Rey/Picador.

A man looks back on his childhood. The boy lives with his mother and father in a hillside home far above the town. The family is isolated, and the boy plays by himself. His mother tends a garden, and his father makes keys with magical properties for various clients. The boy begins to realize that his father kills things, and eventually thinks he has killed his mother. He flees to the town and is taken in by orphans. The town authorities investigate his story, but find no proof. There is a letter, apparently written by his mother, that says she is leaving. Trapped, the boy turns to a passing census taker for help.

This is not terribly gripping, but it is eerie and atmospheric, very artistic in effect. The story is pretty much all suggestion. There are events—the village people and the orphan children are definitely real—but we get this filtered through the narrator’s memories of childhood. In some cases the man is uncertain what really happened, which makes the reader start to wonder if he is a reliable narrator. In a few cases there are weird images that persist for a while, that may or may not be explained. I gather this is called “The New Weird.” I also gather that Miéville is known for his odd ideas, just dropped in passing. Watch for the census taker’s gun in this case. I’m not sure whether to take it as a symbol in the story or not. A comment on statistical methods, maybe?

Best read if you enjoy the author’s style. It gets a little extra for being artistic. Four stars.

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