Entries Tagged 'Hugos' ↓

2017 Hugo Nominees: Best Novelette

Let’s see if I can edit myself down a little bit, shall we?  (Previous 2017 Hugo posts: Novella nominees, Ninefox Gambit, A Closed and Common Orbit, Too Like the Lightning, All the Birds in the Sky, The Obelisk Gate, Death’s End.)

1. The Jewel and her Lapidary, Fran Wilde

Hidden in a valley is a small kingdom, protected by the magical gems wielded by its royal family, the Jewels, and the Lapidaries who serve them and help control their magic.  This is the story of the Jewel princess Lin and her lapidary Sima, the last defense against the foreign invaders who have destroyed the Jeweled Court with the help of a betrayer within.  The invaders know they must control the last Jewel in order to solidify their conquest of the kingdom, but Lin and Sima have other ideas.  Their respective fathers, the king and his own lapidary, are both dead, one at the hands of the other, but under the incredible pressure of the deaths of everyone they love but each other, they persist in defending their home to the last.

The girls’ friendship is the heart and soul of this book, as each is devoted to the other through bonds of duty and love.  But while that devotion gives them strength, they are each clever and resourceful as well.  I don’t know if there is to be more of this series, but I hope so; despite a climax with great emotional effect, The Jewel and her Lapidary feels like it ought to be a prologue to a much longer story, and I’d love to read more of it.

2. “The Tomato Thief”, Ursula Vernon

Ursula Vernon is at her best when she is writing unlikely, stubborn protagonists, and Grandma Harken is no exception.  The ornery, practical witch from “Jackalope Wives” simply wants to tend her garden and live in peace, with an occasional fresh tomato sandwich.  When her tomatoes start disappearing overnight as they ripen, she sets out to catch the thief – who turns out to be a bird-woman shapeshifter under some kind of enslavement, who Grandma Harken releases and then tracks as she tries to get to the root of the situation.

“The Tomato Thief” isn’t a terribly long story, but the American Southwestern setting is dense with richly detailed magic and fantastic beings; the bird-shapeshifter seems practically mundane next to the train-god and the folds in reality and the Coyote with his sometimes-canine, sometimes-feline, always-tricky demeanor.  Grandma Harken’s own personality reminds me a lot of Granny Weatherwax from Discworld, with her combination of stubbornness and a prickly sort of kindness.  But where Granny Weatherwax’s canniness verged on genre savviness, in keeping with the metafictional nature of her world, Grandma Harken’s keen sense of how the world works – and particularly, how to respect the desert so it doesn’t kill you – simply feels like a lifetime of hard-won experience distilled into wisdom.  Between that and a gently snarky viewpoint, she’s a great character to spend an hour with; at this point, I’d happily read a story about Grandma Harken waiting in line at the DMV as long as Ursula Vernon was the one writing it.

3. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong

Speaking of magical fiction set in the Southwest… Alyssa Wong tells a story of Ellis, boy who inherited necromantic magic from his late father and desert magic from his absent mother, which has left him sort of betwixt-and-between.  He lives and works at a brothel in the Southwest, though his otherworldly nature and general aura of death tends to prevent customers from lingering too long.  His best friend, Marisol, a girl at the brothel, is more understanding of his nature than most.

The desert is dangerous.  It collapsed a mine outside of town, killing dozens of townsfolk, and drought now threatens the town while dead things roam the desert.  Ellis’s internal conflict between the two halves of his magical heritage is reflected in that broken relationship between desert and town, and when the mining company tries to use his magic to return to the mine, things deteriorate further.

Ellis’s emotional arc is about learning to accept himself, conflict and all.  He is scared to let Marisol know too much about him, but after the things he faces in the desert, he is able to find greater understanding from her as well, and is able to help the town heal.

4. “Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman

Alien vessels have suddenly appeared all over North America.  Human “translators” have emerged from them, claiming to be children previously abducted (or “adopted”) by the aliens.  Avery is a woman working for a legally-gray “shipping company” and has been hired to drive an alien translator and an alien itself from its vessel near Washington, DC to St. Louis.  Avery spends most of the meandering road trip talking with the translator, Lionel, and trying to understand the aliens better.  Lionel is not exactly acclimated to human society either.

Avery and Lionel gradually establish a rapport, as she begins to understand the relationship between the aliens, Lionel, and human society, and as she tries to teach Lionel how to behave like a normal human.  Gilman does an excellent job of portraying a truly “alien” alien – a species that is extremely difficult for humans to understand because their very notions of thought and action differ in some fundamental ways from what we are used to – and the frequency with which Avery and Lionel talk past each other because they’re making different assumptions felt like a much more realistic portrayal of the problems of first contact than most such stories I’ve read.

That said, the ending seemed to come out of nowhere.  Specifically, the way Avery suddenly not only accepted the situation they found themselves in but actively shifted to helping it along seemed disconnected from her behavior for the rest of the story.  Her breakdown in the graveyard was likely supposed to motivate how she handled the ending, but I feel like there were still a few missing steps on that emotional arc.

5. “The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan

A story about a woman working at a hotel which will soon host the astronauts about to embark on a mission to Mars, decades after a previous launch ended in disaster.  Emily’s mother was part of the disaster-recovery crew dealing with the fallout from the failed launch, and her health and memory have been gradually failing ever since.  Emily’s paternity has been a mystery her whole life, with her mother only recently being willing to speak about it as she realizes in her more lucid moments that before long she may not be able to say anything meaningful at all.

This story kind of meandered through Emily’s speculations about who her father was, having gotten some vague hints about it being someone her mother had met during launch preparations.  I frankly didn’t find that aspect of the story terribly interesting, not having known the character long enough for me to be invested in the paternity question, and the eventual revelation of her father’s identity was unsurprising to the point of being trite.  But there wasn’t a lot else to the story; the Mars mission itself was basically just a background detail that only impacted the story to the extent that it made the paternity question a little more immediate and motivated some discussion of Emily’s mother’s illness.

6. No Award

If you need a refresher on the Hugo rules, voters are allowed to include “No Award” (occasionally personified as eleven-time Hugo winner “Noah Ward”) in the rankings on their ballots.  If a work is ranked below No Award by a voter, it means that voter would rather no Hugo be given out at all than one be awarded to that work.  No Award is not only treated as a normal candidate in the instant-runoff process, but if it does not win the category outright, it is also compared in a direct head-to-head tally against the eventual runoff winner; if a majority of voters preferred No Award to the runoff winner, then no Hugo is awarded for that category.

Which brings us to…

7. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, Stix Hiscock

This year’s “Rabid Puppies” entry, a puerile and unimaginative attempt to out-Chuck-Tingle Chuck Tingle.  But “Hiscock” – I don’t know whether it’s a pseudonym for Vox Day or one of his sad little hangers-on, and honestly I don’t care – apparently can’t tell the difference between winking absurdity and simply bad writing.  This, if it isn’t clear by now, is the latter.  It starts off like a Penthouse letter, with our titular alien stripper expressing confusion at how the current situation came to pass.  Then, after either an unmarked viewpoint shift or an out-of-body experience on the part of our extraterrestrial narrator, we get multiple pages of sentence fragments describing, in lurid yet somehow boring detail, the stripper’s appearance and dancing technique.

Whereupon I returned to my Kindle’s home screen and deleted the book from my device.  I’m afraid no review of whatever Hiscock tried to pass off as a sex scene will be forthcoming here.  Reader, I tried.

Best Novel Nominees: Ninefox Gambit

I have to admit, it has been a while since I’ve read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit – longer, I think, than any of the other Hugo-nominated novels.  But I still remember the feeling I had reading it – an awed fascination with the weird, exotic technology and the fictional science underlying it, and rapt interest at the dangerous intrigue driving the plot.  Ninefox Gambit is one of the most imaginative works of science fiction I’ve read in years.

When I attended the University of Michigan as a computer science student, I still had to satisfy the university’s base requirements in some non-compsci topics, including literature.  Luckily, the university offered a course on science fiction, taught by Prof. Eric Rabkin.  He also ran a research group, the Genre Evolution Project, which sought to quantify the ways in which science fiction had developed over the past eighty years.  I owe to that course and that project a certain portion of the vocabulary I use to talk about science fiction, as well as the development of my “critical eye” in reading stories.  One of the most important concepts I learned – or, rather, learned to discuss – was the idea of the novum: a thing that a science fiction story introduced to distinguish it from the real world we knew.  Science fiction, and more broadly speculative fiction, is defined by that concept; the essence of the genre is that there is something important about the world of the story that isn’t true about the world of the reader.

The reason I bring this up is that the novum of Ninefox Gambit is one of the most compelling parts of the story.  In the world of the Hexarchate – ruled by six factions, which as a set have that same Sorting-Hat-like aspect as the Hives of Terra Ignota or the Houses of Dragaera – there are two distinct varieties of technology.  Conventional tech works everywhere in that predictable way our own civilization relies upon.  But exotic technology is dependent on the beliefs and behaviors of the people in the vicinity of the tech, and most strongly on the calendar that they use.  The Hexarchate relies on a calendar whose fundamental number is six, resulting in a six-day week among other things, and that fact plus the particular configuration of its feasts and holidays can be leveraged to enable seemingly supernatural effects from specially-built weapons.  But because of that reliance on the calendar, their technology – and their rule – is vulnerable to “calendrical rot”, as people start observing different holidays and maybe even different lengths of the week; take a weapon built for the Hexarchate calendar into a place where a different calendar rules, and that weapon isn’t going to work in the way you expect anymore, if at all.  So maintaining control over the calendar is vital to maintaining technological superiority, and by extension military and political power.  And as with many other belief systems underlying power structures, defiance of the dominant calendar is defined as “heresy” and considered to be one of the most serious and dangerous crimes possible.  In addition to being a deep and complex metaphor for the interrelationship of cultural and political hegemony, that novum of belief-driven technology also provides some classic “sensawunda” sci-fi writing.

(For the sake of completeness, and to illustrate the dizzying complexity of the fictional science of Ninefox Gambit, I want to highlight that the calendar isn’t the only thing involved in powering exotic tech.  The main character, Cheris, belongs to the Kel faction, whose military strength is underpinned by the “formation instinct” of its soldiers – psychological conditioning that makes it nearly impossible to disobey orders from one’s commanding officers.  Those officers can direct their troops into formations to create exotic effects as well, but the formation required to accomplish a given effect depends mathematically on the prevailing calendar, which means that an officer fighting calendrical heresy has to be constantly doing math on the fly in order to figure out how to most effectively deploy their troops.)

That unique and new science-fictional concept – that novum – was already enough to make me sit up and pay attention.  Dropped into that world, the reader spends some time bewildered and lost before beginning to grasp the rules that guide the story, and that experience of figuring out just what the hell is going on here, anyway? is an absolute joy to a certain type of reader.  (If you enjoyed Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief or M. John Harrison’s Light, you’re probably going to enjoy Ninefox Gambit too.)  But layered on top of that is a complex web of political intrigue among the six factions, in which Kel Cheris is forced to entangle herself in order to salvage her career, and which has been destablized by a rebellion’s calendrical heresy.  And that’s not the only thing she becomes entangled with; she has to work with the ghost/spirit/mind of Shuos Jedao, a legendarily clever but treasonously unstable general.  Even having Jedao anywhere on the same battlefield as you is already a risky proposition; trying to work directly with him is like wielding a three-edged sword made of snakes.

The politics and intrigue of the Hexarchate and the narrative of the story itself is also shot through with the idea that games, and the careful and intentional design of games, can change the world.  As an aspiring game designer and a serious player of games of all kinds, the role that game-playing and game design holds in this world – a tool for not only entertainment but also pedagogy and propaganda – utterly delighted me.  Even when the story isn’t specifically focused on games, the feeling of everyone in the world being pieces on a multi-dimensional chessboard never goes away; Cheris is aware from the beginning that accepting the assignment entails stepping onto that game board.  But both Cheris and Jedao create their own games too, and each wields them with devastating effectiveness.

Between her canniness, her mathematical genius, her love of games, and a dash of idealism that the world can be better than what the Hexarchate has made of it, Cheris is a character I felt instant and abiding sympathy for.  Jedao was more of a cipher, naturally, but as I learned more of his story I came to care about him quite a bit as well.  And the way the author took cerebral, abstract concepts like game design and complex math and turned them into forces of great import within the story made me feel at times like the story was targeted incredibly specifically at me as a reader.

As far as I’m concerned, Ninefox Gambit marks Yoon Ha Lee as one of the breakout stars of science fiction.  It’s been years since I’ve read something that grabbed me by the brain like this did.  I imagine this was what readers in the 60s felt like when they encountered Dune for the first time, or picked up Ringworld in the 70s, or Neuromancer, or The Diamond Age…  I suspect we’ll be seeing the influence of this novel, and its sequels, reverberating throughout the genre for years to come.  In a fantastic year for the genre, and among some very strong competition, I think Ninefox Gambit is the best novel of 2016.

Best Novel Nominees: A Closed and Common Orbit

I love emotionally optimistic science fiction and fantasy.  Stories where the protagonists are not only “good” on a moral scale but also empathetic and kind – and who can demonstrate that kindness can be a strength.  Basically, the opposite of the recent “grimdark” trend (though I have been known to enjoy stories fitting that label as well).  My prototype for this was Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, whose protagonist Maia was a breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed.

Which is all to say that the first book in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, was a joy to read in a similar way.  The ensemble of protagonists, making up the crew of the Wayfarer, has drawn comparisons to Firefly and Star Trek – the crew’s familial relationship, including not only love and cohabitation but also the occasional squabble, is the beating heart of the book.  The diversity of the crew (and the universe!) in species, gender identity, relationship structure, and biology brings a distinctly utopian feeling as well; most Humans1Side note on capitalization: Like Mass Effect, occasionally mentioned as another precursor to the series, the Wayfarer books acknowledge the inconsistency of capitalizing the names of alien species but not our own, as so many other SF stories do.  But it remedies it in the opposite way: while Mass Effect lowercased “turian” and “krogan”, Wayfarers chooses to uppercase “Human” (and so I have done likewise in this post).  It’s a detail I noticed and appreciated in both works. are some shade of brown with dark hair because the diasporic Human society gave up on racial divisions long ago.  The members of the crew generally try to understand and accommodate each others’ biological, cultural, and personal differences, though they don’t always succeed, and under pressure the domestic peace aboard the Wayfarer is often strained.

So, on to A Closed and Common Orbit, which I read immediately following.  The sequel, to my brief and unjustified regret, does not continue with the adventures of the Wayfarer.  Rather, it tightens its focus onto two characters from the first book – Sidra, an AI recently transferred into an illegal “body kit” allowing her to emulate a Human rather than being confined to a server, and Pepper, a mechanic and technician who was a minor character in the first book.  The narrative alternates between their two stories.  Sidra’s story takes place following the events of the previous book, and portrays her attempts to adjust to her body, pass for Human (with a little help from her body kit), and integrate into both galactic culture and Pepper’s home.  Pepper’s own story starts a couple decades earlier, with her childhood as an enslaved clone sorting scrap, interrupted by her discovery that there exists a world beyond the sorting facility’s walls.  Despite my brief disappointment to be leaving the Wayfarer behind, I was soon deeply engaged by the characters’ struggle for acceptance and growth.

As the meaning of family and the crew’s creation of a family-by-choice was the core theme of  The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the heart of A Closed and Common Orbit is the idea of personhood.  What makes someone a person, rather than a tool, or an animal?  What freedoms are inherent to a person, and what happens to the right of personhood – if it is, indeed, a right – when those freedoms are curtailed?  What are the responsibilities of a person to their society, and what does society owe an individual person in return?  Both of the main characters’ struggles in this book are about attaining the right of self-determination and the responsibilities, to oneself and to others, that come with it; those struggles themselves become part of the characters’ identities, and help them each realize and fulfill those responsibilities in the end.

Additionally, both characters have to deal with challenges within their own minds.  Sidra is used to the full scope of her sensory input being constrained to the inside of a ship and its crew, but in the body kit her external senses are narrowed to the typical Human sensorium.  Simultaneously the scope of her stimuli increases dramatically, with exposure to wide-open spaces and crowds far beyond the size of the crew she is dealing with, and on top of all that, the simple reality of having a body requires significant adjustment.  The result is a condition that in a Human would likely be considered a blend of agoraphobia, social anxiety, autism, and body dysmorphia; Sidra’s development of coping methods (and the turmoil that ensues when they don’t quite work well enough) will be familiar to many people who struggle with mental illness, particularly those who have undergone cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Pepper, on the other hand, is a survivor of years of abuse – primarily emotional, occasionally physical.  She escapes her abusers relatively early in the story, but escaping the long-term effects and psychological conditioning of the abuse is a much longer process.  I can’t speak to the accuracy of the author’s depiction of Pepper’s abuse and PTSD as well as I could to Sidra’s anxiety and coping, but from what I understand of the subject, Pepper’s ongoing recovery – spanning multiple decades, and still in progress when the book ends – is just as faithful and empathetic a treatment of the topic.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet might be my favorite book of the last couple years, and so it was difficult for A Closed and Common Orbit to measure up to.  But the emotional heart of the first book is still there – the love and care between the characters; the emotional verisimilitude of people living together, rubbing up against each others’ sore spots, arguing, and then working their issues out; and underneath it all the breadth and depth of a much vaster universe that I can’t wait to see more of.  All that together makes A Closed and Common Orbit one of my favorite books of 2016.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Side note on capitalization: Like Mass Effect, occasionally mentioned as another precursor to the series, the Wayfarer books acknowledge the inconsistency of capitalizing the names of alien species but not our own, as so many other SF stories do.  But it remedies it in the opposite way: while Mass Effect lowercased “turian” and “krogan”, Wayfarers chooses to uppercase “Human” (and so I have done likewise in this post).  It’s a detail I noticed and appreciated in both works.

Best Novel Nominees: Too Like the Lightning

I had been excited for Too Like the Lightning for at least eighteen months before it was published.  Ada Palmer is a historian (specializing in the development of thought, religion, and philosophy in the Renaissance, among other related topics); she is the blogger behind Ex Urbe, in which she makes complex topics (like the influence of Machiavelli on modern humanism, or the various art-historical aspects of Catholic saints, or the many layers of history stacked on top of each other in Florence and Rome) accessible to the lay reader.  I’d been following her blog for a few years when I attended a panel she was on at Loncon 3, during which she mentioned that she was working on a novel that addressed historical ideas of how governments and countries worked, combined with the distributed-culture model that the Internet and social media seem to be developing.  I read it shortly after its publication in early 2016, and it was one of the novels on my nominating ballot, so I am certainly pleased to see it among the finalists.

The setting of Too Like the Lightning is a utopian culture about five centuries in the future, in which nations are no longer the dominant means by which humanity organizes and governs itself.  Rather, humanity is organized into seven “Hives”, each with its own ideals and corresponding form of government, and which are each spread across the planet; most major cities have neighborhoods or districts belonging to several different Hives.  There is a baseline set of laws agreed to by all Hives (and that even Hiveless people must abide by), though some people choose even to forgo the protection of those laws in exchange for not being bound by them in their own behavior.  Beyond that, each Hive may define and enforce its own laws that apply within its own territories.  The seven Hives each have their own character and ideals, and the distinctions between them make it easy for the reader to imagine how they would fit into one Hive versus another; they are rather similar to the Houses of Hogwarts in that way.  (Though the Hives are not the only axis along which people sort themselves; most people denote both their Hive and other affiliations through specific, distinctive articles of clothing or accessories.  National origin is considered to be one of these affliations, on a par with membership in a professional society or hobby group.)

Against this backdrop, we have our story, written by a self-admitted unreliable narrator, Mycroft Canner, the most notorious criminal of the last few decades.  Canner has as a result been sentenced to a lifetime of public servitude, but the same qualities that enabled him to commit a world-spanning series of grisly, torturous murders (the motive of which remains opaque, as we get tiny bits of detail about his crimes over the course of the book) also make him an indispensable servant to several of the most powerful people in the world.  Through his viewpoint, we get a slowly unfolding story of the use and abuse of power, triggered by a theft of information that for some reason threatens the balance of power among the world’s governments.  The investigation of that theft culminates in the slow realization that this society is not quite as utopian as it may have appeared, and that in fact its stability is only maintained through covert and unethical means.  The heads of the seven Hive governments, in theory a set of independent peers, are tangled together in an incestuous web of intrigue and power struggles.  Meanwhile, the appearance of a boy with unusual paranormal powers, thus far kept hidden from the public, threatens that stability in a different way.   Too Like the Lightning closes with the world balanced on a knife’s edge, and the question that remains isn’t whether the utopia that has prevented war among humanity for two centuries will collapse, but rather when and how it will inevitably do so.

As the first part of the Terra Ignota series, planned to span four books, Too Like the Lightning avoids resolving any of its plotlines; it is essentially a tour of the world that puts all the interlocking parts of the narrative in motion, gradually revealing both backstory and the intrigues of the present.  The climax of the book is essentially the reader’s realization of just how fragile the Hive system actually is, clarifying one mystery that had been subtly threaded through the storyline but still presenting us with several others.  The next book in the series, Seven Surrenders, was released earlier this year, and it’s going to be one of the first things I pick up as soon as I’m done with my Hugo reading.

I do have a few minor complaints about the story so far.  The description of how the current society was developed from our present-day post-Westphalian system of nation-states feels a little contrived, as is the notion that our single viewpoint character – a known murderer, at that – is, of the billions of people on the planet, among the closest confidantes of the most powerful people in nearly every Hive.  But those inventions, artificial though they may feel, certainly contribute to the way the story is told, giving the reader a personal, ground-level look at the secrets and intrigues that drive the politics of the world.  Though, as one of the author’s specialties as a historian is the politics of Renaissance-era Italy, the tight web of interpersonal connections tying together all of the Hive leaders feels similar to the politics and intrigue among the various factions of that period.

Too Like the Lightning was one of my favorite books of 2016, but I feel like Terra Ignota hasn’t quite hit its stride yet; for its length and complexity, it feels in retrospect like very little happens in the first book.  Still, with all the pieces in place, I am happily anticipating the fractures and strife yet to come in this doomed utopia, and I suspect I’ll be discussing Seven Surrenders in this same post series next year.

Best Novel Nominees: All the Birds in the Sky

For some novels, mixing tropes from different parts of the spectrum of science fiction and fantasy can seem indecisive or inconsistent.  Not so with Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, which blends numinous urban fantasy with physics-and-rocketry science fiction in a way that allows the strengths of both to complement each other.  One of our two protagonists, Patricia, discovers early on her potential as a witch, foreseen and challenged by the Parliament of Birds to solve a riddle to realize her power; her path through adolescence as she tries to rediscover her power separates her from those around her.  The other, Laurence, is a technical wunderkind, his skill with science and engineering both motivated by and contributing to his isolation from his schoolmates.  Their orbits intersect in school, and like a pair of eccentric planets in an unsolvable three-body problem, their trajectories fling them far apart, only to fall back into each other’s gravity wells again and again, even as they are recruited into opposing factions in a conflict between science and magic that is prophesized as both inevitable and catastrophic.

Their interweaving coming-of-age stories combine with a broader plot involving climate change, which in the near-future (or perhaps alternate-present) of this story is already responsible for some major disasters that are alluded to in geographic shorthand, the way we might reference “Fukushima” or “Katrina”.  The reader doesn’t need to know the details to know that the effects of those disasters are still reverberating.  With the world on the precipice of an apocalyptic-level disaster, Laurence’s technical institute (led by a vaguely Elon-Musk-esque figure convinced that we must get a significant fraction of humanity off-world) and Patricia’s community of practioners (which through a series of cautionary tales about the dangers of arrogance has eschewed any strong structure of leadership) each have their own ideas of how to address the global threat.  These ideas are themselves incompatible, of course, which ultimately pits Laurence and Patricia directly against each other in a conflict neither of them ever wanted.

While the cycle of successes and failures of Patricia and Laurence’s ability to relate to each other form the emotional core of the story, their individual stories are each important as well.  Patricia goes off to a school of magic while Laurence follows the stereotypical Silicon-Valley-genius path to knowledge and success, but despite their differences, their stories still feel like two parts of a unified whole.  The numinous sense of powers beyond our ken, typical to the fantasy tropes of Patricia’s story, are echoed in Laurence’s story as bits of technology that seem only mildly remarkable within the story but appear magical to readers – the two-second time machine, the supercomputer rewriting its own code, the network of smartphone-like gadgets that subtly guide their owners to serendipitous occurrences.  Meanwhile, the science-fictional tropes of Laurence’s story – the sense of a framework of physical laws that must be contended with, and the characters’ search for knowledge and power within that framework – weave through Patricia’s gradually deepening understanding of her magic, and the strict rules imposed on it by both her peers and by the rules by which she can conduct her witchcraft.  The result – and, perhaps, the moral of the story – is the idea that trying to save the world using only one side of that dichotomy between the concrete and the spiritual is an effort doomed to failure, but by seeking the synthesis of, and balance between, two opposing but not necessarily contradictory forces, we can accomplish far more than we could with either one on its own.

My only complaint about the story is the abruptness of its ending.  The novel’s conclusion promises far greater things than we actually see before the story ends, so I really hope there’s a sequel coming – but I went in thinking this was a standalone novel, so the amount of plot left open or unresolved was a little surprising.

Best Novel Nominees: The Obelisk Gate

Next up on my Best Novel rundown is N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, sequel to last year’s Hugo-winning novel The Fifth Season, and middle book of the Broken Earth trilogy.  I didn’t read all the Hugo nominees last year, so this year I read The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate back-to-back, and I’m going to discuss both of them here, though I’ll try not to spoil too much of the plot.

Overall, I think Broken Earth is one of the most inventive works of epic fantasy in years.  Jemisin combines the post-apocalyptic setting, familiar from near-future SF, with a pre-industrial fantasy world prone to seismic instability.  Orogeny, a form of magic that can manipulate the earth, is used to keep earthquakes to a minimum across the continent known semi-ironically as “the Stillness”.  On the other hand, its practitioners, orogenes, are feared, reviled, and placed under the control of a caste of “Guardians” – if they’re not murdered first.

The Stillness is rather apocalypse-prone, having suffered tens of “Fifth Seasons” (or simply “Seasons”) – continent-spanning disasters – in recorded history.  Society has been organized around the idea that disaster may strike at any time, and the fact that certain people and skillsets become more valuable during a Season has resulted in a “use-caste” system combined with a restrictive notion of community membership.  When a Season occurs, communities are expected to implement a form of martial law, and anyone not belonging to a community is probably not going to survive.

The Fifth Season opens with an orogene tearing the planet open, causing a Season that is likely to be worse than any that came before.  From there, we follow three orogenes in what the reader gradually realizes are three different timelines (as the Season that begins in one of the timelines clearly isn’t occuring in the other two).  One orogene is a girl being taken away from her family by a Guardian; one is a member of the Fulcrum, an institute that trains and restrains orogenes; and one is a mother who has managed to keep her orogeny a secret in her small community, until the moment her secret – and that of her children – is discovered.

From there, in reading The Fifth Season we realize how these three people relate to each other, and we see a little of the mysterious floating obelisks that wander the planet.  At the end of the book, we learn of something that has the potential to end the Seasons forever.  Then, in The Obelisk Gate, we learn of a conflict surrounding that possibility, which has gone on for generations.  The conflict has multiple factions, some of which are not human, but the core point of contention is over the earth itself, and the incident that caused the Seasons to start happening.  We learn more about the depth and breadth of orogeny, about the Guardians, and many of the mysteries introduced in the first book are deepened and fleshed out.  The book concludes in a tense readiness for an attempt to fix the Seasons forever.

The Obelisk Gate is a perfect middle-of-a-trilogy book.  It picks up all of the plot hooks left over from the first book, and resolves a couple of them while tying the rest of them together into a more complex network of relationships that is poised to collide and entangle further during the last book.  Orogeny is a mysterious force throughout the first book, but in the second book we understand more of how it works and what its potential is, setting us up to appreciate some truly epic uses of the magic in the conclusion.

If The Fifth Season had not already won an extremely well-deserved Hugo last year, or if the four other books had not all been as excellent as they are, The Obelisk Gate would be at or near the top of my ballot this year.  But in this field, there are other books and series more deserving of a first Hugo than Broken Earth is of a second one.

Best Novel Nominees: Death’s End

Welcome to a new series of posts, in which I talk through this year’s Hugo nominees in a few of the categories.  I’m going to start with the novels, and I’ll go through them in reverse order of my ballot – i.e. saving my top choice for the category until the end.

This has been one of the hardest Hugo votes I have ever had to cast, because any one of these six novels would be well deserving of the award against a slightly weaker field.  One thing that makes it a little easier is the fact that two of the novels come from series where previous works have already won a Hugo.  In my opinion, a sequel to a Hugo-winning work has to be better than any of the other nominees by a large margin for me to prefer awarding that series another Hugo, instead of giving it to a novel from a series that hasn’t won one yet.  Think of it as trying to maximize the amount of recognition shown to great novels; a second Hugo for the same series doesn’t mean as much as a first Hugo for a different one, all else being equal.  Accordingly, we’ll start with one of those sequels: Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, the final volume of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy.  The first book of the series, The Three-Body Problem, won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2015.

I read The Three-Body Problem as part of the Hugo reading that year, and found it entertaining but paced kind of oddly; it is mostly concerned with setting up the historical context of the ensuing conflict, and so little happens and less is resolved in the first book.  I just this month read the rest of the trilogy, The Dark Forest and Death’s End, back-to-back, and I think if I’d read 3BP along with the others I might have enjoyed it a bit more as well – reading it simply as the first third of a story and not as a novel on its own.

The Dark Forest introduced the concept of “dark forest deterrence”, akin to the threat of mutually-assured destruction that sustained the Cold War, as well as various game-theoretical deterrence scenarios.  In Death’s End we see the failure mode of those ideas, and the ensuing breakdown of the detente that ended The Dark Forest, together with some classic SFnal “big ideas” (dimensional physics! light-speed travel! space habitats!), drive the trilogy’s plot to its end.  Death’s End was certainly an ambitious conclusion to the story, and managed to continue heightening the stakes (set at “the conquest of Earth” from the very beginning) in an engaging way, which made even the occasional peaceful interludes in the story tense with the anticipation of what was about to go wrong next.  The events at the very end of the book felt a little inconsistent with the themes of deterrence and mistrust established by the rest of the story, but on reflection it allows the characters to discard the paranoia that they had been forced to live with for so long, and finish the story in an act of cooperation instead.

The Dark Forest references Asimov’s Foundation series at one point, and the Asimovian influence on Liu is clear, both in positive and negative aspects – his work grapples with ideas on the scale of human history and beyond, while also contemplating the role of the individual in shaping the course of history, but his characters themselves feel more like archetypes than fully fleshed-out people.  Still, his characterization is an improvement on Asimov’s, in that he does a somewhat better job of motivating the behaviors that the plot requires of its characters, even if the characters’ backstories occasionally seem designed to purposefully sculpt the characters towards those behaviors.  (Which is true of many character arcs in plot-driven stories, of course, but the scaffolding isn’t always so apparent.)  The use of hibernation technology also allows Liu to maintain the same characters over hundreds of years (and more) of plot; Asimov’s reintroduction of new characters in each “Seldon Crisis” is one of the things preventing decent character development in much of the Foundation trilogy.  Liu also makes use of another classic SFnal narrative approach in Death’s End; he avoids excessive expository dialogue by frequently cutting to excerpts from a later-written history, which also allows him to depict humanity-spanning events succinctly and more or less objectively.

Death’s End takes the bottom slot on my Hugo ballot.  But that is not meant as a condemnation; rather, it speaks to the strength of the rest of the field, and my opinion that awarding Remembrance of Earth’s Past a second Hugo would do a disservice to the four other works on the ballot that have not already been so honored.  If The Three-Body Problem had not won a Hugo already, this would have been a far more difficult choice.