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Hugo Nominees 2015: Novel

Two nominees got punted on Did Not Finish grounds, but the other three - Addison's The Goblin Emperor, Leckie's Ancillary Sword, and Liu's The Three-Body Problem - have had me dithering.

3BP is good but flawed. If I can tell the physics is silly and inaccurate, the physics is really silly. AS is very much a middle novel; it's a competent middle novel, but my evaluation of its quality will be greatly influenced by Ancillary Mercy, out this October. And TGE is operating in such a different register from the other two novels, to the point where I ask whether you could strip out the genre aspects and have the exact same story.

In a good year, the Hugos are an embarrassment of riches, a diverse slate of competing innovative well-written ideas. I'm pleased these three novels give me a taste of that. I say with all my heart there is merit in stories where writers are figuring out their craft, or roughing out new things, or getting the bills paid in a competent but not brilliant fashion. But there's a difference between a story that demonstrates promise or developing talent and a story that merits Hugo recognition. That's why there's a lot of No Award going around this year.

My novel rankings right now are:
1 The Three-Body Problem
2 The Goblin Emperor
3 Ancillary Sword
4 No Award

But yesterday I had AS up top, and I still have a day to change my mind.

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie: already read, and reread it too. In case you were wondering whether I liked it, ah, yes, I did.

The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J. Anderson: There are so many problems, and I'm only 100 pages in. You know what? I'm 100 pages in, there have been 13 PoV characters in 16 chapters, it's exactly like reading Exile's Song only I'm not 14. The terrible prose, the illusion of depth that would likely be shattered by reading the rest of the series, the failures at basic mechanics of storytelling, the gratuitous Indiana Jones bad archaeology... I can stop now! There's been enough exposure that I know how I plan to rank this when I cast my ballot!

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison / Sarah Monette: already read it. And I reread it while considering rankings. It's sweet and cute and at the end of it I asked, "does this have to be genre?" The story of TGE works equally well as a Ruritanian epic: substitute trains for airships and the goblins for a European power, and you've got something not entirely unlike, say, Philip Pullman's The Tin Princess.

My litmus test for "does it have to be genre" is, does the core story change when you yank the genre elements out? TGE's core story is Maia's development as a person, when he is uncomfortable with the power and responsibility handed to him. This is brilliantly captured on the cover art of the hardcover, which shows Maia (presumably Maia) wearing a massive Court-shaped crown, flanked by arched construction that could be aqueducts, or a bridge. The art centers the city-crown, and shoves Maia deep into the bottom third of the design, away from any point the viewer's eye first lands on. It's a great cover that nails the feel of the book really well. But... none of these elements are particularly speculative; the biggest clues this is genre are the title, the airship off to one corner, and Maia's non-human-shaped ears. But take away the airship, and tweak the goblin-elf thing into a different racial or ethnic conflict, and... it's pretty much the same story.

Its engagement with the tropes and tools of the genre seems to be heavily mediated through recent social justice meta-discussion. Ironically, it's grappling with one of my favorite things, the human condition, but I am asking "how are the spec fic elements of this novel necessary to telling this story?" Its genre-ness might be there, but in a very different way than something with sorcery or nanobots or spaceships or psychic powers. (Imperial powers and responsibilities in SF/F: Elric of Melniboné, Paul Atreides, all those fat fantasy epics of the '90s and '00s I have been skipping over... and there there is Maia.) I would be willing to be argued around on this one, especially if the conversation could be heavily salted with examples. I feel the New Wave may be once again relevant to a discussion.

Skin Game, Jim Butcher: The prose is slick, though the protagonist is ridiculous. The story opens with Harry Dresden hanging out on an island with certain eldritch properties, mostly playing parkour and waiting to... die from a magical brain tumor... or... something. Clearly I am coming into the middle of this series!

I only read the sample chapters of Skin Game, which were enough to convince me of Butcher's qualities as a writer without generating sufficient interest for me to check the full novel from the library. Beach reading; competent but not award winning.

(Parkour in the eldritch catacombs. Oh, Harry.)

The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu; Ken Liu translator: Now this is unquestionably science fiction. A Chinsese nanotech researcher is sucked into a mystery that is killing theoretical physicists. There are aliens, there is abuse of high-energy physics, there is characterization motivated by plot. For example, the protagonist, Wang Miao, has a wife and son who presumably are an important part of his life, but who he never mentions in the back half of the novel. He is entirely adsorbed in the plot (and its infodumps). Ye Wenjie's perspective on the worth of humanity is forever lowered by the Cultural Revolution, and her actions waver between belief that humanity is worth reforming, by alien intervention, and that it's only fit for destruction, by alien intervention. It's somewhere between compelling (character wrestles with What Is The Right Thing To Do, finding different answers at different points in her life), and baffling (character realizes stuff's out of her control, doesn't, you know, enlist allies to fix that). In the best traditions of the Golden Age, the science is a smokescreen for the philosophical questions: blah blah blah high energy physics, blah di blah nanotech - and let's not talk about the weird dynamics of the MMORPG - but really what matters is that Aliens Are Coming, How Do We React.

This is so very rooted in genre conventions. The aliens are hostile; the most critical science is cutting edge physics; a classic physics problem is a key aspect of the backstory. I'm fascinated that the author's note included with the English translation tells us that Chinese science fiction usually writes aliens as benevolent, since that's not my experience of the American approach to life in the skies.

I'm also surprised 3BP didn't show up on the Puppy slates, being the sort of gosh-wow SF they claim to support, but then I found Cixin Liu's Big Idea on Scalzi's blog, and for those of you who have been blissfully ignorant, the people behind the puppy slates are not rational on the topic of John Scalzi and anyone associated with him. Also, dare I suggest that a group that has consistently behaved as through straight white men of a certain socioecomic classes are the only group that counts might have, ah, not welcomed the contributions of a non-white non-American? Maybe I'm mistaken, but it seems like such an oversight not to include 3BP, when writers like KJA, Marko Kloos, and Larry Correira made it on the puppy slate in the novel category.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/653942.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 30th, 2015 06:49 pm (UTC)

I'm in the middle of 3BP and really engaged with it even when seeing the obvious, obvious flaws (admittedly, I feel like part of my interest is that I have so little familiarity with contemporary Chinese writing that a lot of what interests me woukd probably apply to any novelist grappling with the legacy of the cultural revolution).

The Goblin Emperor I'm afraid I could not get into AT ALL.

Jul. 30th, 2015 07:30 pm (UTC)
One reason I may rearrange my rankings again is because I'm not sure how much of my reaction to 3BP is that flavor of something new. I don't have the context to judge the way China's cultural revolution is used in 3BP, whether that's novel for Chinese SF or common in that (sub?)genre.

What caused the bounce off TGE? I can totally see not getting into it (see "is this really genre"), I'm curious to hear what didn't work about it. Especially since I bounced off Monette / Addison's previous work so hard. (...wow. I'm still bitter about Felix.)
Jul. 30th, 2015 07:47 pm (UTC)

And yes, that's exactly what I'm wondering w/ 3BP.

Jul. 30th, 2015 07:46 pm (UTC)

I'm still trying to figure out why TGE didn't grab me (or isn't grabbing me, I am still going to try to finish it). I honestly didn't even think of the genre issue until someone pointed it out and honestly that's not something that would hinder my enjoyment -- i'm a genre omnivore; i'm just learning what 'Ruritanian' means & it sounds cool....

I think it's a combination of the protagonist not grabbing me (I feel guilty because he's nice! I'd like to have tea with him! I wish him no harm! I just do not care at all if he becomes a successful emperor. Maybe I need my protagonists to be more implicated in causing their own problems before I invest. Male protagonists, anyway) On top of that there is just a lot of world building that feels like reading through appendices, so I'm maybe 20% in and wondering when rhe story will start

Jul. 31st, 2015 05:19 am (UTC)
Oh, thanks! That makes a lot of sense. Yes, TGE doesn't have story so much as things happening to Maia, and Maia integrating, or something like that? Anyway, if you're waiting for a sudden emergence of narrative tension, it's very slow to manifest. Just go with it.

Maybe I need my protagonists to be more implicated in causing their own problems before I invest. Male protagonists, anyway

Ha. That tempts me to shamelessly evangelize Fringe a bit. A major piece of the mytharc is the gradual illumination of the depth of the hole one of the protagonists dug before enthusiastically jumping into it. It works really well.
Jul. 31st, 2015 03:39 pm (UTC)

I'm sure I *will* finish it, it's just not much of a page turner for me. I recognize it's well done just not my speed...

And thanks for the tip on 'Fringe.' That's a show I've meant to try and never got around to. (i noped out of the first episode b/c of goriness but I heard hood things after that).

Aug. 1st, 2015 02:14 am (UTC)
Yes, there's certainly plenty of Good But Not My Good in the world.

Oh, Fringe. It is very gory, but it also hits so many of my buttons I watched it anyway. Awesome female protagonist. Coherent multi-episode plot arcs. Mad scientists. Love-hate family relationships. Found family. You can't shelve Fringe and FMA together, the universe might implode from the collective father-son issues. Fringe starts out heavily influenced by the X-Files, but has a more coherent mytharc and goes a different direction. There's a mytharc heavy ep guide that's pretty good, but I'd throw in a bit more S1... 1x07 "In Which We Meet Mr. Jones" is relevant because it's villain setup; if you like Olivia and Charlie's dynamic you should watch "Unleashed", because it's a Charlie episode. And for S2, I'd watch 2x01 through 2x04 straight through, and throw in 2x08 August for Observer backstory, and 2x10 Gray Matters because oh, Walter. (This should be inflected with exasperation and affection all at once.) And everything after "Jacksonville" through the end of S2, which if you aren't hooked by then, Fringe may be another example of something enjoyed more by other people.

The fourth and fifth seasons, while ambitious, do not execute as well as some of the earlier arcs. Buyer beware, if you get that far.

Edited at 2015-08-01 02:15 am (UTC)
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