Review of Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

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This novel is a Hugo finalist published by Tor Books. It’s promoted as science fiction but doesn’t include much technology. It reads instead like sociology.

In the 25th century, narrator Mycroft Canner is a Servicer/convict/slave because of crimes he committed in his youth. He can do high quality analyses, so his Servicer position gives him access to the circles of power. He documents a history for the reader, giving us glimpses of how the wealthy and powerful live. The theft of an important document sets an investigation into motion that threatens to reveal more than anyone wants.

This is an ambitious work, very complex and intricate. As you might expect with works of this scope, it succeeds amazingly in some ways, and falls short in others. Mycroft’s narration provides us a low-key review of human history, some fictional and some not, including the philosophical and sociological underpinnings of society. We’re treated to a jaw-dropping projection of how the world might be organized in the 25th century. Nations have been replaced with hives and noble houses with the ibash’ as the transit time across the Atlantic drops to about an hour. Recognition of divisive topics is discouraged, including the existence of gender and religion. People are a mish-mash of nationality and commonly genetically engineered. Set-sets are human-AI hybrids. About 2/3 of the way through, the novel develops suddenly into a political intrigue as it moves into revelation of what kind of crimes we’re dealing with.

On the con side this is another 400 page book that starts off at a glacial pace. The first 250 pages consist of brief scenes separated by pages-long blocks of exposition, and the author withholds information, meaning that the reader has to be pretty dedicated to slog through this part. Palmer then resorts to the 16th century and the Marquis de Sade to sharpen things up. The result is pretty messy, with inconsistencies in both the content and presentation. For example, Mycroft makes up excuses to describe gender and use gender pronouns, and unless there’s genetic engineering we’ve not seen yet, there are supernatural powers afoot. The world-building addresses the general organization and the houses of the powerful, but it ends up resorting to the past for specifics, i.e. ancient Rome and Paris. There’s a big emphasis on transit, but no clear indication of how this economy functions or how the government works or the common people live. The novel just stops; there’s no resolution.

The big pro for this book is the effort Palmer has put into the projections and world-building. It’s something missing from almost all the SF on the market these days, as writers tend to be overwhelmed by the rate of social and technological change and just roll belly-up. Regardless of the inconsistencies, the author has put together a reasonable sketch of how unrecognizable our world might be in 400 years. I guess that means it takes a social scientist to chart the change.

I can’t say much about the plot or action line as this has hardly started to develop by the end of the novel. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Four and a half stars.

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Review of “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn

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This short story is a Hugo finalist published by Tor.com in March 2016.

Enith and Gaant have been at war. Although they have reached a peace agreement, there are war casualties on both sides. Calla is a military nurse from Enith and receives a message from the Gaant Major Lan that she met during the war. “I would like to see you, and bring the game if you can,” he says. The Gaant are telepathic and the Enith are not, but Calla bravely sets off with her chess set. She and Lan have a complex past, as each has been the other’s prisoner. She finds him in a hospital and the two set up a game, begin to play. Soon others of the doctors and nurses are offering suggestions.

Pros: This is a fairly straightforward story that reviews the experiences the two had together during the war and emphasizes their losses and their kindness to one another. Finding something in common (the game) clearly brings them closer, and their relationship affects the surrounding individuals, as well. I gather this is about overcoming differences and appreciating the kindness of others.

Cons: The story suffers from limited world building and scope, and I ended up with little idea of the greater politics (what caused the war?), the cultures or what the world looks like. Without the telepathy, this wouldn’t be speculative fiction. The characters are not clearly drawn, and I came away without much of an idea about how anyone or anything looks. It relies on emotion to carry it, but (jaded me) didn’t feel a whole lot. It’s a noble message, but not outstanding in execution.

Three stars.

Review of “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” by Jason Sanford

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This novelette is a science fiction Nebula finalist published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List. Spoilers below.

Frere-Jones Roeder is an anchor who has to stay in one place because her blood grains dictate it. Day-fellows may pass through her land, but may not stay. This morning Roeder is greeted by a grain fairy wearing her dead partner Haoquin’s face, which annoys her—the grains killed him because of his political views. She sees a caravan off, but the family returns later in the day with an emergency—the couple’s daughter Alexnya is seizing. It turns out she has been infected with anchor grains. Roeder tries to dose her with medicine to kill the infection but it persists, and eventually she realizes that the grains mean for the girl to replace her. The fairies report this to the other anchors, and Roeder has to fight off an attack. She makes an agreement with Alexnya to erase the memories of all anchors except those of Haoquin. As his memories flood into her, she dies, giving up her position to Alexnya.

This has enough futuristic elements that I’m sure it’s SF, but it’s hard to sort into any kind of sense. What are the grains? Nanotech? Alien infection? How do they control the civilized world? How do they make fairies to serve as spies and enforcers? How do they morph the anchors into what sounds like reptiles? Beats me. As a result, I couldn’t suspend disbelief on this one. It just doesn’t jell into a reasonable universe. Besides this world-building issue, the sentimentality seems forced and the prose is pretty clunky.

Two and a half stars.

Comments on the Nebula Reading List top five short stories

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It takes 10 nominations to make a story a Nebula finalist, so these five stories I’ve just reviewed look to be the ones with the best likelihood to make it.

Since I’m reading down the list, there are a few trends sticking out. As far as I know, only SFWA members can make recommendations. Because the listing has been recommended by professionals in the genre, I’d expect to get good quality on the list. These stories I’ve just reviewed have recommendations in the double digits, but I’m just not finding a lot of what I’d call substance in the content. I’m thinking all those people are clicking the “recommend” button because they want to affirm the message. If I’m looking for quality stories to nominate, does that mean I can put any confidence in the number of recommendations the stories have gotten at all? Hm. Maybe not. Does this mean the trend to sentimental stories has shifted and this year message fiction is the in thing? Hm. Maybe so. Hopefully there’s more substance further down the list.

Next, I’m seeing a lot of repetition in the names. Caroline Yoachim, for example, has 5 stories on the list; A. Merc Rustad has three; José Pablo Iriarte has three, etc. I’m not sure what to make of this, except that these people must be very consistently high quality writers.

Third, I don’t see any real, serious hard SF in the top five. I commented on this trend a couple of years back after the awards cycle, the fact that hard SF is in trouble, being replaced (this year) with somewhat humorous message fiction dressed up in a thin veneer of SF or fantasy. I have to agree that the stories are entertaining and fun and that the messages are progressive, but there are no fully developed short stories in this group of five with, for example, strong character development, great world building, vivid imagery, thoughtful themes and universal questions about the human condition. What’s happened? Is this the influence of “Cat Pictures Please,” last year’s Hugo winner? Or has pressure from the Puppies encouraged the SFWA to promote progressive political messages at the expense of well-developed, serious science fiction and fantasy stories?

One last observation is that just a few magazines seem to be dominating the list. For example, Lightspeed has 20 entries in the current list, Daily Science Fiction has 12, Clarkesworld has 10, F&SF has 10 and Strange Horizons has 10. Glancing at the titles, I don’t think hard SF is the reigning paradigm. This isn’t a new trend, either. Analog did make a better showing this year than it sometimes does, with 5 entries. Where should I look for stronger substance? Is Asimov’s still the indicator there?

Review of “Abere and the Poisoner” by Jonathan Edelstein

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FeatherPenClipArtThis story is a random read, not in contention for any awards just now. It was published this month in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

The story opens in a swamp, where two people are waiting. The Narrator names the other Poet, and goes on to tell a story of an assassin named Folau who took a commission and came seeking poison from the swamp witch Abere. In the story, Folau finds the witch and couples with her, then realizes he’s in a battle for both body and soul. He defeats the witch by becoming invisible, but she offers him a deal. Now the Poet must make a similar decision.

This is an interesting read, with the world very lush and richly imagined. It’s written in second person and includes only one side of the conversation, which is creative and intimate without affecting the readability. The story line includes elements of making deals with the devil and the drawbacks of keeping lovers against their will. It’s not a heavyweight in the ideas department, but I enjoyed it.

Four stars.

What does the idea have to do with story length?

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Are some ideas worth a full-length novel and some not? Are some best for a flash fiction piece and some for a fully developed short story? What does it take to flesh out an idea and make it worthy of an 800 page novel?

It’s clear that “What if the moon blew up?” is a popular question right now. I’ve seen it in several places in the last couple of years. One was last year’s short story “Goodnight Stars” by Annie Bellet, who withdrew it from the 2015 list of Hugo finalists. This is also the question that generated this year’s hard SF blowout Seveneves. It also appears this will become an issue in N.K Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series that The Fifth Season kicked off. It’s a popular idea because it’s a weighty, catastrophic event that opens up a lot of scenarios. You can expand it to different lengths without much trouble, from short-short to an 800 page novel.

Regardless of whether you’ve come up with a weighty, catastrophic idea, though, you have to have the skill to keep the narrative of your story running and interesting enough that the reader will 1) keep reading and 2) enjoy the book enough to buy your next one. Clearly, this gets harder as the story gets longer. The author has to be able to manage the complexity of different characters and their subplots, besides the issues of world-building and technical accuracy, plus keeping a finger on the pacing and how the story develops. Readability is important for customer satisfaction, so the end result needs to be understandable and entertaining. It would also help if people like at least some of your characters.

Is there a most comfortable length for a book? Patricia Briggs, I notice, cuts her best-seller urban fantasy books off at about 350 pages. This is quite a bit shorter than what I’ve been reading for the awards, and it feels like a comfortable length. Normally Briggs had plenty of space to use on the characters and their relationships. It allows for plot development, along with whatever subplots she might have going on. However, it doesn’t require a huge idea and doesn’t drag the story out to the point where she’s having a hard time sustaining it; for example, having to add filler material, or where she’s losing control of the interactions, pacing and theme. I can read a book like that in a couple of evenings. It feels good.

What’s the longest novel ever published?

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Of course, I’ve been aware for a long time that it takes different skills to write short stories than it does to write novels. If you work in stories of different length, you also find that writing a piece of flash fiction takes different skills than writing a fully developed short story. The issue with SFF short stories is how to do your world-building quickly, how to round out your characters in just a few words, how to present a plot and a theme and wind it up within the word limit of the magazine or anthology. If you move on to novelettes and novellas, then the requirements are loosened a bit. You have longer to develop your plot and theme and for readers to get to know the characters. You get to add subplots and subthemes.

When you move up to novel length, then you have even more opportunity for this, but you have to be more aware of pacing. There tends to be a slump in the middle of a novel-length work, for example, where you’ve introduced the characters and everything bogs down before action starts rising to the climax. Looking at the novels I’ve reviewed for the Nebulas/Hugos, I’m noticing there are different requirements for writing a short novel versus a long one. The issues of idea, plotting and pacing are definitely showing up here.

So what is the longest novel on record? According to Wikipedia, it’s not Moby-Dick (as many a weary high school lit student must think). It turns out to be Les Hommes de bonne volonté (Men of Goodwill) by Jules Romains, published in Paris by Calmann Lévy in 27 volumes, 1932-46. It comes in at a whopping 2,070,000 words. That’s about 8,280 pages.

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