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.

Returning, Eventually

So I disappeared for a while there.  Life was pretty busy already, and the torrent of garbage from the Trump regime was wearing me down, but when my infant son got diagnosed with a congenital heart defect at the beginning of the year, something had to give.

His surgery was on Tuesday.  It went perfectly.  He’s already recovering faster than the doctors expected.  Hopefully things will calm down a bit and I can get back to writing about books and politics and charity again soon.  In addition to returning to the Dragaera series, I’ve been reading the Hugo nominees, and my choice for Best Novel is going to be a difficult one…

Sleeping after the surgery...

Sleeping after the surgery…

The thoracotomy incision, easily visible as he insisted on pulling himself up to standing less than a day after the surgery.

The thoracotomy incision, easily visible as he insisted on pulling himself up to standing less than a day after the surgery.

Weekly Charity Match #015: Medical Expense Fundraisers

With the Republicans’ horrendous health care plan finally exposed to the light of day – including a CBO estimation of 24 million people losing their insurance, putting the nation’s uninsured rate significantly higher than it even was before the ACA – I would like to highlight the extent to which even the existing system remains insufficient.  So this is going to be a bit of an unusual week, as I don’t have one particular fundraiser in mind…

Last Week: American Immigration Council

I didn’t get any matching receipts last week, but then, I didn’t do a great job of reminding people either.  I’m making a default donation of $25.

This Week: Individual Fundraisers for Medical Expenses

Even with the Affordable Care Act driving down the percentage of uninsured people to historic lows, there are still many people who remain uninsured or underinsured for a variety of reasons.  In many cases, it’s due to some individual states’ choices to refuse to expand Medicaid as allowed under the ACA; this Kaiser Family Foundation report looks at some of the details, including the fact that 91% of the 2.5 million people that remain uninsured specifically as a result of their states’ failure to expand Medicaid live in the South.

As a result of this gap in health care coverage, many people still have to rely on the generosity of family, friends, and strangers to avoid being bankrupted and/or made homeless by the costs of their medical care.  This week, I’m going to be matching donations to individual fundraisers on GoFundMe, IndieGoGo, and elsewhere as needed.

I’ll match up to $500 in donations this week – forward your donation receipts to matching@pyrlogos.com as normal, and I’ll include every fundraiser in this post so others can contribute as well.  (If you don’t want your first name and last initial included alongside the fundraiser, just let me know in the forwarded email.)  If the donations to be matched exceed $500, I’ll make sure to donate some amount to every fundraiser, so don’t worry if you’re not one of the first few to forward your receipt.

Finally, for this week in particular, I will match donations made prior to this post.  Normally, part of the point of a matching program is to encourage others to donate when they might not have otherwise – but this week you’re encouraging me to donate instead.

Call to Action

This is especially important if your senators or representative is Republican: call your congresspeople and let them know how much of a disaster their plan to make 24 million people lose their health insurance would be.  Some Republicans are already starting to question the political wisdom of following through with the ACA repeal, and we have to keep the pressure on.

Weekly Charity Match #014: American Immigration Council

So, Muslim Ban 2: Electric Boogaloo happened.  Which means we get to start this fight all over again.  Let’s get to it.

Last Week: Lambda Legal

Thanks to Jeff P. and Rachel H., last week we raised $225 for Lambda Legal!  Thank you!

This Week: American Immigration Council

The American Immigration Council is another organization that has been involved in litigation against Trump’s first, disastrous executive order on immigration.  They’re also involved in public advocacy against Trump’s proposed border wall and the abuses of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Donate to the American Immigration Council and forward your donation receipt to matching@pyrlogos.com, and we’ll match the first $100 in donations.  Plus, all donors will be entered in the monthly art giveaway!

Call to Action

Keep up the pressure on your congresspeople to repudiate the Trump administration.  Whether it’s calling for investigations into the Russia connections, opposing the new attempt at a Muslim ban, or fighting for healthcare accessibility, your senators and representatives are our best defense against Trump’s agenda – if we can get them to act.

Weekly Charity Match #013: Lambda Legal

It’s still hard for me to keep up with everything, but one thing I will say after last night’s speech and the media’s bizarre takes on it: Please do not believe that Trump’s ability to give one speech in which he sounded vaguely coherent for most of it means he’s somehow turned a corner on his presidency.  His policy positions are still immature and nonsensical in the best case, and still literally evil in the worst.

Last week: The Trevor Project

Thanks to Elizabeth B., Andrea F., James S., Elisheba J., Wing M., and Maria E., last week we raised a total of $230 for The Trevor Project!  Thank you, everyone.

Also, congratulations to Elizabeth B, winner of February’s art giveaway!  I’ll be in touch shortly to discuss details.  (And my apologies to Christine H., as I haven’t finished her art for January yet.  I hope to have that out to you soon…)

This week: Lambda Legal

Continuing in the same vein of standing up for LGBTQ rights, this week’s charity is Lambda Legal:

Founded in 1973, Lambda Legal is the oldest and largest national legal organization whose mission is to achieve full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.

As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, we do not charge our clients for legal representation or advocacy, and we receive no government funding. We depend on contributions from supporters around the country.

Donate to Lambda Legal and forward your donation receipt to matching@pyrlogos.com, or donate through the Facebook post, and we’ll match the first $100 in donations.  Plus, each donor will be entered into March’s art giveaway!

Call to Action

It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned the “We’re His Problem Now” spreadsheet.  Now they’ve built it out into a new website, thesixtyfive.org – standing for the 65 million Americans who voted against Trump.  This week, they’re asking Americans to call their representatives and senators to investigate Russian interference in the presidential election.  They also have an Issues List with several scripts for different issues that you might want to call your congresspeople about.  We know from multiple sources that public pressure on members of Congress is working – keep it up!

2017 Reading List

Everything I read in 2017, with 2017-published works separated out and bolded if I’m considering nominating them for Hugos.  (I’ve also included 2017 works that I read for Hugo consideration in 2018; those are marked with an asterisk.)  See 2016 and 2015 lists.  (And for what it’s worth, there are plenty of works that I enjoyed quite a bit but am unlikely to nominate; don’t take the lack of bolding as an indication that I didn’t like it!)


2017 Novels (at least 40,000 words):

  • The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi
  • The Brightest Fell, Seanan McGuire
  • Rebel Seoul, Axie Oh
  • Stoneskin, K.B. Spangler
  • Siege Line, Myke Cole
  • Clockwork Boys, T. Kingfisher
  • Into the Drowning Deep, Mira Grant
  • Jade City, Fonda Lee*
  • The Glass Town Game, Catherynne Valente*
  • Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty*
  • Barbary Station, R.E. Stearns*
  • Terminal Alliance, Jim Hines*
  • Magic for Nothing, Seanan McGuire
  • The “Wonderful” Wizard of Futhermucking Oz, Matt Youngmark
  • Deadlands: Boneyard, Seanan McGuire
  • At the Table of Wolves, Kay Kenyon

2017 Novellas (17,500 to 40,000 words):

  • Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  • Idle Ingredients, Matt Wallace
  • Buffalo Soldier, Maurice Broaddus
  • Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, Seanan McGuire
  • Gluttony Bay, Matt Wallace
  • All Systems Red, Martha Wells*
  • The Dispatcher, John Scalzi*
  • Greedy Pigs, Matt Wallace
  • Rolling in the Deep, Mira Grant

2017 Novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words):

2017 Short Stories (less than 7,500 words):


Non-2017 works read in 2017:

Weekly Charity Match #012: The Trevor Project

Thanks to work, in the past week I haven’t been paying as much attention to the news as I had been for the last few weeks.  It’s relaxing in the short term – but so is playing video games while your house burns down around you.  One bit of news that has broken through, however, is a certain inflammatory, racist, doxxing transphobe losing his speaking gigs and book deal because of his support for pedophilia.  I’m appalled that it took as long as it did for the media establishment to decide that they shouldn’t be giving Milo a platform, but better late than never, I suppose?

Edit: I had originally written this before the news broke about Trump and Sessions revoking the Obama-era guidance on allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms they feel comfortable using.  This attack on trans people’s right to even exist in public is of a piece with Milo’s transphobia, but far more dangerous.

Last Week: Amnesty International

Thanks to Maria E., last week we donated a total of $35 to Amnesty International.

This Week: The Trevor Project

LGBTQ people across America are under attack right now, whether from transphobic hatred masquerading as “free speech” or from the Vice President’s agenda of redirecting AIDS funding to abusive “conversion therapy” programs.  The Trevor Project is a crisis support organization for LGBTQ teenagers and young adults.  They run a suicide hotline over phone, instant message, or text message, available 24/7.

Donate to the Trevor Project and we’ll match the first $100 in donations – forward your donation receipt to matching@pyrlogos.com to have your donation counted, and also be entered into our monthly art giveaway for donors.

Call to Action

It’s hard to keep pressing forward week after week.  Take some time for self-care if you need it.  Find others around you in need of care as well.  Help your community survive, and keep resisting.

If you’re up for calling your representatives, consider putting pressure on them to support the investigation into Trump’s Russian connections.  While impeachment and conviction of Trump won’t solve all of our problems – Pence is in some ways worse – it will at least deescalate some of the biggest problems currently being caused by the presidency.

Edit: Today, I have also seen an excellent suggestion for action on Twitter (though I don’t recall the source at the moment): call your local school board, superintendent, or even individual schools and voice your support for allowing trans students to use the bathrooms they choose to use.  This hatred is, in large part, being pushed on us by the government, the Republican establishment, and a small number of transphobic activists, but the fact that we outnumber the transphobes only matters if we make our voices heard.