Archive for category Great Hugo Read

On Sentences, Kim Stanley Robinson

2312 Coverto form a sentence is to collapse many superposed wave functions to a single thought universe. Multiplying the lost universes word by word, we can say that each sentence extinguishes 10n universes, where n is the number of words in the sentence. Each thought condenses trillions of potential thoughts. Thus we get verbal overshadowing, where the language we use structures the reality we inhabit. Maybe this is a blessing. Maybe this is why we need to keep making sentences.

–Kim Stanley Robinson, 2313


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Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

(This is expanded from a review posted on Goodreads.)

Captain VorpatrilI’m going to start this review by admitting this is the first Vorkosigan Saga book I’ve read. Normally I wouldn’t go diving into the deep end of a series like this, but my desire to read this year’s Hugo nominees ran headlong into my inexperience with this series, and I had to make a choice. Therefore, I can only review this book as a newcomer to the series. Thus, I’m approaching it with a very specific question in mind: does this book work on its own?

The answer is yes.


First for the plotline. For the most part, I liked the integrated elements of espionage, space opera, and (dare I say it) romantic comedy. Though the romantic comedy elements were about as predictable as most romcoms put out by Hollywood, they weren’t the central focus of the story, so I could forgive the broad clichés for the sake of enjoying their inclusion at all. However, as all the different themes came together, I wasn’t sure which was the driving notion of the book, and which were just along for the ride.

Now, to my main point. Does it stand alone? The story is clearly very well contained, which is aided by (as I understand it) a new protagonist stepping forward as the star of the book. There wasn’t any pickup from a previous book’s cliffhanger. There wasn’t anything left unresolved. It felt like watching a monster-of-the-week episode of the X-Files or Buffy or Angel without being aware of the broader mythology of the series. There were bits that I’m sure went over my head, but if they did they flew so high I didn’t even see the contrails.

However. And this is a big however. At times I was left feeling that I’d stepped into the middle of a conversation between several old friends. They were trying to keep me up to date, explaining their inside jokes, telling me how they met, letting me know where they were coming from. But from the point of view of a reader, I didn’t know which bits of back story were references to older books in the series, and which were new bits of back story being introduced for the first time. Which was…oddly uncomfortable. It was hard not to feel like an interloper.

I do plan on hitting this series up from the beginning, part of my larger quest to read all the past Hugo winners, and the world and writing style leave me looking forward. But as for stepping straight into this book? It’s possible, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Perhaps I’ll revisit this review when I wrap around to this book again in the series, when I understand things better. But for now, three stars is the best I can do.

In terms of looking at this compared to the other Hugo nominees I’ve currently read, I’d have to list this third. With any ongoing series, there’s a question of whether to judge a book on its own or as a member of its broader series. I have no choice but to do the former. It’s not a book I disliked by any stretch, it’s just not a book I enjoyed as well as either Redshirts or Crescent Moon.

Still two more nominees to go, 2312 and Blackout. Which, from the reputation of the former and the prequels to the latter, I expect might end up my top two picks.

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Throne of the Crescent Moon

I’ve been putting this review off. But now we’re at the end of the month, we’re about to roll over to the next books in the Great Hugo Read, so my putting off time has run out. Which I find off-putting. See, I’m still delaying by adding little puns to this introduction.

Let’s start by saying I liked Throne of the Crescent Moon. I can fully understand it’s popularity, I can even understand why it’s up for the Hugo. However, I had two obstacles when reading the book, one which had to do with the book and one which had to do with me.

First, the book. In many ways this felt like the first part of a planned series. Books one of planned series always leave me a little cold at the end, because even as the story is self-contained, there’s a certain unsatisfying lack of actual conclusion, threads are left hanging. The main villain of the work is defeated, but much like Darth Maul, it’s clear he’s not actually the villain of the story. He’s just the villain of the first third, meant to bring all the characters together, give them someone or something to fight, and help introduce the actual drama that will cover the rest of the series. Crescent Moon is a complete story. It has a beginning, it has a middle, and it has an end. But that ending serves as only the first act break of the longer story.

I suppose it’s a compliment to the book that I got to the end and wondered what comes next. I do want to come back to the series. From that angle the book is a success. From that angle the bit of cliffhanger at the end is a success. This is probably just me being petulant, but that’s my prerogative as a reader.

The second problem…this I know is entirely me. I don’t read epic, second world fantasy. Oh sure, I read some. Most notably the Discworld series. But when the books aren’t set on the backs of four elephants riding a giant turtle through space, I tend not to pick them up. So I was left with a clear lack of direction to approach this book. Which is a shame, as many of the reviews I’ve read of Crescent Moon talk about how it rejects many of the tropes of the genre. It may. It may not. I don’t know the tropes well enough to say.

I do recognize that the world is unusual. The bits and pieces of fantasy I have read tend to tie back to British and Norse mythology. Largely because they’re riding firmly on the back of Lord of the Rings. Entering a world of jinn and ghuls was a fun change. Entering a world where they’re spelled “jinn” and “ghul” builds the world almost as quickly as just including the elements. What little I know of Islamic and Arabian storytelling comes from Nicholas Clapp’s book Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen, the first place that I learned that the fantastic creatures of the Arabian Nights flow into more of Arabian culture than just the stories of Scheherazade, and even sneak into the Koran.

The other major step away from trope, however, went clear over my head. Many other reviews have praised Ahmed’s use of working class heroes in Crescent Moon. Unfortunately I went through the book unaware of that trope, so unable to appreciate what Ahmed did in that regard. Discworld is full of working class characters, though many of them achieve greater heights. You can’t get further from nobility than J.R.R. Tolkein’s hobbit protagonists. And…that’s where my epic fantasy knowledge ends. That fantasy is populated with nobles, princes, and lords isn’t in my reading vocabulary.

So at the end of the day I enjoyed the book. It was a chance to read outside of my comfort zone, an opportunity I should take more often. Hell, it’s part of why I started the Hugo Read, it meant lining up books in my to-read pile that I might not touch otherwise. I’m excited enough about the series continuing that Ahemd’s occasional tweets about delays in book two frustrate me. That alone should indicate this first book’s quality. It took this non-fantasy reader on a fun ride, and left him wanting more. Even a little frustrated about not having more. For that, I commend it.

Up next in the Great Hugo Read?

Oh man, if I felt out of place stepping into epic fantasy, how out of place am I going to feel stepping into what’s either book 14 or 15 of a massive space epic that’s been going on since the 1980s and I’ve read exactly none of? We’re going to find out with Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, the 15th published book of the Vorkosigan Saga, and currently 14th book of the internal chronology of the series. These are books that I’ll be getting to know a lot better, as four have already won the Hugo, and they’re playing some havoc with ordering the Read. Eventually the Read will cover enough of these books that I no longer have to look up how to spell “Vorkosigan” every damn time.

We’re also going back into Mira Grant’s zombie apocalypse with Deadline, the second book in the Newsflesh trilogy. Here’s your standard where to find ’em information:

Primary: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

  • Print: Available new in hardback, paperback releasing in September.
  • Electronic: Available from Kindle only.
  • Audio: Narrated by Grover Gardner, available from Audible and iTunes.

Secondary: Deadline by Mira Grant (Blackout pre-read)

  • Print: Available new in paperback, and as a trilogy box set.
  • Electronic: Available from Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Sony Reader.
  • Audio: Narrated By Chris Patton and Nell Geisslinger, available from Audible and iTunes.

And as always, feel free to join in the Goodreads Group. It’s being just barely active enough that I’m bothering to keep it going, I’d love to see more people in there if you’re reading along, or if you just have thoughts about the books that are part of the Read.

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It’s the last day of the month and I haven’t yet talked about April’s primary book in the Great Hugo Read. Which is a stunning bit of procrastination on my part as I finished it on the third. That’s in part an indication of how much I enjoyed the book, and in part an indication of Scalzi’s writing style in Redshirts. I specify “in Redshirts” as I’ve encountered two different John Scalzis when reading his works. There’s the John Scalzi who writes military science fiction in the Old Man’s War series, which will feature in November’s secondary read, and the John Scalzi of Agent to the Stars and Redshirts. The former isn’t necessarily a serious John Scalzi, but is by no stretches as relaxed as the latter Scalzi. I mean it in now way as a knock on Scalzi to split up his writing styles. As someone still struggling to find my voice in one style of writing, I’m awed by writers who can effortless slip back and forth between styles. I enjoy serious Scalzi. I enjoy humorous Scalzi.

Ever write a word so many times it starts to lose meaning? I think that means it’s time to stop kissing Scalzi’s ass, there’ll be more time for that in November and probably next April. Let’s get into the book itself.

I loved the movie Cabin in the Woods. And I loved the movie Galaxy Quest. They’re two very different movies, but both exist to break down genre tropes. Cabin in the Woods takes dissects tropes of a very specific sub-genre of horror, those movies where a group of kids are picked off one-by-one. Galaxy Quest plays with the tropes of science fiction television and all the bits that just don’t make sense. Redshirts serves as a similar deconstruction, with characters who are the spiritual descendants of Sam Rockwell’s Guy.

Redshirts is not Galaxy Quest. Not quite. Galaxy Quest is about actors who know they’re actors and know they’re in a fictional show. Redshirts is about crewmen on a spaceship realizing they’re on a fictional show. And a poorly written one at that. The main characters of the show, the captain, the engineer, the science officer, they’re all the background characters in Redshirts. All except the ship’s version of Worf, the character beaten to a pulp every week to prove just how dangerous the situation is. In their place, the heroes of the book are the nameless grunts who walk around with their data pads and can create 90% of a miracle, needing only that brief interaction with one of the show’s stars to put them over the top.

Oh, The Box. The Box might be my new favorite device in a science fiction comedy. It’s a tough call between it and The Guide. The fun in the book is the characters learning the rules of the television show, and twisting them in their favor.

So, alright, the book is a deconstruction of the science fiction television show as told through the eyes of the nameless cannon fodder who go on missions just to get killed off. It’s funny, it’s fast paced, and I really enjoyed the last little revelation at the end of the main body of the novel. However, the full title of the book is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, and I’d really like to talk about those three codas.

This is where most readers I’ve talked to end up loving or hating the book. Depending on your approach to the codas, they either ground the story by showing the broader consequences of the story line, or they are an overt attempt to make a comedic novel more serious as awards fodder. I’ve talked to my fellow readers who feel both ways. The codas, written in the first, second, and third person, show the ramifications on the “real life” people behind the television show, how they react to meeting the characters and learning they’re creating reality, not just fiction.

I suppose a reader’s opinion of these codas is tied to how manipulated they feel by them. They’re intended to tug a little at the heart strings, a serious ending to a comedic novel. Personally, they’re where I went from feeling the novel was brain candy, well-written but with little actual substance, into being an overall stronger piece. The codas are the weight that the rest of the novel may lack, back loaded onto the end. The middle coda was the weakest of the three, in no small part due to Scalzi’s decision to write it in the second person, but it still served its purpose of seeing what happens to characters that the narrative necessarily leaves behind for the novel’s big climax.

I don’t anticipate this will be my favorite of the five nominees. I know that’s an odd thing to say with the other four still on my to-read pile. While it’s a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend, I do wish it had been something a little more. The main novel was fun, but fluffy. The codas were poignant, but divorced. I’m glad I read it, and I’m glad I’ve recently been introduced to Scalzi, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers.

Next month on the Read, it’s Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon with no secondary read.


2013 Nominees

So…we’ve got a problem.

See, one of the reasons I introduced the secondary reads is to catch up on series if a later book won the Hugo Award. I’d always intended that these secondary reads may occasionally involve catching up on series for a nominated book. But…what’s one to do when book 14 or 15 of a series is nominated? That’s what happened when Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance was announced as one of the nominees. It’s the 15th novel released in the massively epic Vorkosigan Saga, and slots in as the 14th novel in the current continuity. These novels start showing up in the read in 2018, but I didn’t expect one to show up in the nominees.

So what to do?

I’m going to slot it in with no prereading. There’s nothing else I really can do. I may then skip it myself, even though that’s somewhat against the spirit of the Great Hugo Read, and catch up in December of 2021 if it wins.

There’s another book on the nominees list that’s part of a series, but a much shorter one. I am going to slot the two previous books in that series as secondary reads. So here goes, one schedule, five months, seven books.


Primary:Redshirts by John Scalzi

  • Print: Recently released in paperback.
  • Electronic: Available DRM-free. Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Sony Reader.
  • Audio: Narrated by Wil Wheaton, available from Audible and iTunes.

Secondary: Feed by Mira Grant (Blackout pre-read)

  • Print: Available new in paperback.
  • Electronic: Available from Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Sony Reader.
  • Audio: Narrated by Paula Christensen and Jesse Bernstein, available from Audible and iTunes.


Primary: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

  • Print: Available new in paperback.
  • Electronic: Available from Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Sony Reader.
  • Audio: Narrated by Paul Gigante, available from Audible and iTunes.


Primary: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

  • Print: Available new in hardback, paperback released in September.
  • Electronic: Available from Kindle only.
  • Audio: Narrated by Grover Gardner, available from Audible and iTunes.

Secondary: Deadline by Mira Grant (Blackout pre-read)

  • Print: Available new in paperback.
  • Electronic: Available from Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Sony Reader.
  • Audio: Narrated By Chris Patton and Nell Geisslinger, available from Audible and iTunes.


Primary: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Print: Paperback releasing on June 25, 2013
  • Electronic: Available from Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Sony Reader.
  • Audio: Narrated by Sarah Zimmerman, available from Audible and iTunes.


Primary: Blackout by Mira Grant

  • Print: Available new in paperback
  • Electronic: Available from Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Sony Reader.
  • Audio: Narrated By Paula Christensen and Michael Goldstrom, available from Audible and iTunes.


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New Secondary Reads

I’ve added a few suggested secondary reads. As always, these are completely option, and are intended to either supplement a Hugo winner or prepare for an upcoming Hugo winner that’s part of a longer series. The new secondary reads fall into two categories:

A Song of Ice and Fire

As I previously mentioned, I’m adding the current five books of this series to the read in the assumption that books six and or seven will be nominated for Hugos, and anyone (like myself) who hasn’t already read them isn’t going to want to try to catch up all at once. Assuming that 2015 is the earliest The Winds of Winter will be eligible, I’ve added the books to the following months:

  • March 2014: A Game of Thrones
  • September 2014: A Clash of Kings
  • January 2015: A Storm of Swords
  • March 2015: A Feast for Crows
  • October or May 2015: A Dance With Dragons

The reason for the “or” there is my desire to keep books out of secondary slots during April-August to keep room for potential prereads for that year’s nominations. So if The Winds of Winter comes out in 2014 and is nominated in 2015 we’ll read A Dance With Dragons in May of that year and The Winds of Winter in July or August. Else, we’ll wait until October.

1966 Complete Read

I’ve been wanting to sit down and read all the nominees for one year, and thanks to a two-part quirk in the Hugos 1966 is the best year to choose. The nominees that year were:

  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • …And Call Me Conrad (aka This Immortal) by Roger Zelanzy
  • The Squares of the City by John Brunner
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Skylark DuQuesne by Edward E. Smith

Quirk part one: two books tied for the first time in in Hugo history with awards going to Dune and This Immortal. Quirk part two: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was serialized over two years making it eligible in 1966, when it lost, and 1967, when it won. So we’re already reading three of the five 1966 nominees as part of the main read. So I’ve added the other two books as secondary reads, paired with Immortal and Harsh Mistress (because I am never going to pair a book with Dune, it’s long enough already). So:

  • November 2014: Skylark DuQuesne
  • December 2014: The Squares of the City

That’s all I’ve got. This weekend we’ll settle on a schedule for the next five months. Then I’ll actually have some non-GHR related posts so that this doesn’t take over the blog entirely.

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Great Hugo Read: Double Star

DoubleStarHere’s the gist of the story. Lawrence Smith, aka Lorenzo Smythe, aka The Great Lorenzo is an actor. At the front of the book he’s approached about a mysterious gig that promises to pay him whatever he might ask. He learns he’s been brought on board to serve as a stand-in for a human politician on Mars named Bonforte, the Opposition Leader in British terms, kidnapped on the eve of being inducted as an honorary Martian.

At a very high level it’s the plot of the political romance Dave, but transposed to Mars.

I’m not going to break down the plot, these posts are largely intended for people who have read the book. Instead, I’d like to take a few paragraphs to discuss my general dissatisfaction with the book. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book better than I liked The Forever Machine, but that’s a low bar to clear. I didn’t like it nearly as much as The Demolished Man, but that’s an extremely high bar to clear. The question is…where in that rather broad spectrum does the book fall?

Let’s start with my lesser issue with the book before moving on to my chief gripe. Lesser issue: the character of Penny. She’s probably the most realized female character of the Hugo books thus far, but…damn, I need a better cliché than how high bars are to clear. Demolished Man had several secondary female characters, but most of them served for just one or two scenes. The Forever Machine features its techno-magically de-aged female character. Double Star’s main female character, only female character, is Penny. She’s opposition leader Bonforte’s girl Friday with very clear romantic feelings for her boss.

This follows a pattern in Heinlein novels of younger female characters in love with men of authority. It’s certainly not a quirk only of Heinlein, or even only of fiction. Power is a fine aphrodisiac. It’s certainly not daughters begging their father to impregnate them, a plot point of Farnham’s Freehold. Is is a pattern I’ve seen in the few Heinlein books I’ve read, and a pattern I’m going to keep an eye on as we read a lot more Heinlein as part of the Hugo Read.

My broader problem with Penny is not this power aphrodisiac issue. It’s that we’re told at several points in the novel that she is a very capable administrator, has advanced degrees, and even a spot in the shadow cabinet maintained by Bonforte. However, her job when on camera is to faint, cry, and be generally comforted by Lorenzo. Who falls rapidly in love with her, and the male in power falling in love with his female underling is no less troubling of a trope.Alright, a book from the 1950s has some less than ideal gender politics and poorly realized female characters. While I don’t entirely want to excuse Double Star as just a product of its time, it’s also harder to hold it to a modern standard.

So let’s leave Penny behind and sit down with my broader issue with the novel: Where’s the drama?

There are two potentials for conflict. Both of them lie with Lorenzo. Which is appropriate, as he’s the first person narrator of the novel. Conflict one: does he take the job and does he continue with it when it becomes clear he’ll be taking on the role of Bonforte longer and longer. Conflict two: will anyone figure him out?

Conflict one is appropriately handled. There’s a thin line walked by a first person narrator when he is exploring his own motivations for acting. Consider it too little and the character feels dragged around on a leash. Consider it too much and the character becomes wishy-washy and spends too much of the novel navel gazing. Double Star perhaps leans a little towards the Lorenzo-on-a-leash possibility, but at each point that the character is asked to re-up his commitment to doubling Bonforte, he does spend some time considering the possibilities. This worked. However, it’s not a conflict source that can carry an entire book.

Did I mention the emperor is a huge fan of Lorenzo’s? No? Because of course he is.

Conflict two. Ah. Here’s the real problem. There is a frequently mentioned dread that someone may figure out that Lorenzo isn’t Bonforte, and that the whole charade will crumble to pieces. This conflict comes to a head exactly twice in the novel. In the first instance he’s sniffed out by the constitutional monarch of the human empire. Lorenzo screws up a shibboleth by not knowing how formal or informal to act with the emperor in private. The upshot of this? The emperor agrees with the need for a stand-in and sends him about his way. The second instance is late in the book when one of the insiders of the scheme is left without a position when the new government is drawn up, and chooses to expose Lorenzo during a meeting. The upshot of this? Learning that the conspiracy had long ago replaced Bonforte’s biometrics on file with Lorenzo’s.


Glad that worked out so easily.

The problem is…I don’t want things to work out so easily within the fiction I read. I don’t want the emperor to figure out what’s going on then be fine with it. I don’t want half a chapter’s worry that the gig is up just to find out everything was fixed off-screen weeks before.

There’s some political intrigue, most of which goes on in spite of Lorenzo, not because of it. And…that’s perhaps the biggest problem with the book. A lot of it goes on in spite of Lorenzo, not because of him. His job is to make various speeches. His job isn’t the high stakes rescue of Bonforte. Or, with only minor exception, crafting political machinations. He is, at least, a character with opinions about what’s going on around him, and even an evolving viewpoint on the politics of the man he is meant to stand in for. I don’t need car chases (there actually is on), gunfights, or giant space battles. I just wish…there had been maybe a little more for him to do to balance out the number of things he had to think about.

That wraps up the first three months of the Great Hugo Read. Three months down, 105 to go. The past winners are going on hiatus for a few months to be replaced by the 2013 nominees, which will be announced this Saturday, March 30th, at 4pm eastern time. Check out the Hugo blog for details about how to watch the nominee announcement live. I’ll get a post up by no later than Sunday night with a recommended order for the nominees. For those only interested in the catch-up read, we’ll get back to that in September when we read Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time with a secondary read, Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop. For those interested in the secondary reads, I’ll have an announcement in about a week with some books being added to that schedule, including a complete read of all five nominees from 1966 in the second half of next year, and where I end up slipping the first five books of the Song of Ice and Fire into the schedule.


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Two Great Hugo Read Administrative Notes

Nominations for the 2013 Hugo Awards have closed, and over on the official Hugo blog a new post announces, “The final ballot for the 2013 Hugo Awards is scheduled to be announced on Saturday, March 30.” This means we’ll know what books we’re reading between April and August with little lead time.

This is actually good news. I expected to learn with no lead time as nominations were announced April 7th last year and April 24th the year before. That’s the danger of setting up an event like the Read with complete reliance on a schedule that I have zero influence over.

Initially I was planning to schedule the physically shortest book for April, expecting to have less reading time that month, with the other books assigned in alphabetical order by author. Since that’s not necessary, I’ll instead look at which books are part of a larger series and may require some pre-reading and which books are stand alone novels or part one of a new series. Books requiring pre-reading will be scheduled for later months, other books will still be sorted in author name order.

And if there are more than five nominees, as has happened in 2010? I’ll pair up the two shortest books into one month with no secondary reads that month.

AGameOfThronesI understand that those who are joining the read are more likely to have read the nominees recently, since they’re less than a year old by definition. I can promise I’ve read none of them, as the only 2012 Science Fiction book I own is Redshirts, and I haven’t yet touched it. Thus the schedule for these months will be more of a suggested schedule for those who have read none of them. If you’ve already read one or two, that’s great, especially in the off-chance of more than five nominees. In those cases, feel free to figure out your own schedule, and we’ll convene near the end of August to talk our opinions of who should win, or how you voted if you’re so eligible.

One more thing as long as I’m talking administration the Read. It’s folly to predict nominations. It’s even more folly to predict nominations of books that haven’t even been published yet. Or scheduled. Or finished. But here goes even more folly. Books three, four, and five of George R. R. Martin’s massively epic Song of Ice and Fire series were all Hugo nominated. I don’t want to be in a position in a few years of The Winds of Winter being nominated and having to fit in the first five books, totaling around 5000 paperback pages into four months of secondary reads. Therefore I’m going to make two assumptions. Assumption one: The Winds of Winter will be nominated whenever it comes out. Assumption two: it won’t be out this year, thus making it eligible no earlier than 2015 and more likely 2016 or even later. Under those assumptions, I’m going to seed the first five books into secondary read slots where I can, trying not to stack them too tightly.

Now my only terror is A Memory of Light being nominated next year and what the hell to do about 13 previous Wheel of Time books.

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State of the Writer: March 2013

Pretend the 2013 goals are here. It’s not been the best of months, I’ll be blunt. Not much writing got done, by which I mean almost no writing got done. We’re still trying to figure out how to schedule our time, and what’s currently winning is our daughter being the cutest baby on the planet! I get home with her, and I don’t want to write I want to bounce her for most of the afternoon. That doesn’t mean I haven’t done some thinking about the Sarah Constant series, moving around some plot lines between the planned books, fleshing out some conversations I want to write, things like that.

Hopefully going into March I find a more consistent time to sit down and write. Might start doing it after baby’s bedtime, though I love having that time to devour books.

On another, and more personal front, I’ve been informed that job I currently have won’t exist in the near future due to a corporate realignment. Don’t feel too sorry for me, I’ve been given a massive five months to figure out what the hell I’m going to do with my career going forward, and I’ve already got a résumé polished and a few good opportunities to send it to. However that does mean that some of my writing time, both for fiction and this blog, will now become job hunting time over the next few weeks and months. What can I say, I guess I’ve hit one of those points in my life where changes come fast and furious, over a one year period my first baby and my first involuntary departure from a job.

So if the blog is a little light going forward, or at times perhaps the tone a little more melancholy, that’s why.

Still, I hope this pushes me to write a little more. It isn’t lost on me that if this happened when I had three novels out rather than three short stories, I’d be in a better position to say “to heck with it, I’m going to try making a go as a writer.” Maybe next time.

State of the Author’s Beer: Still mellowing, but getting more and more drinkable. Next batch isn’t yet planned, got to empty some bottles first.

State of the Author’s Bees: We’ve ordered two packages to replace our failed hives, which should arrive in mid-April, so more news then.

And, of course, we’re going into month three of the Great Hugo Read. There’s no secondary book this month, but the primary book marks both the Audible, Kindle, Nook, and iBooks debuts of the Read for those who prefer audio or electronic editions. The book is Robert Heinlein’s Double Star, the first of five Heinlein books that will come up as part of the Read, first of two this year alone. Here’s your standard where-to-find-it information:

At first blush it sounds like a science-fiction version of the movie Dave:

One minute, down and out actor Lorenzo Smythe was — as usual — in a bar, drinking away his troubles as he watched his career go down the tubes. Then a space pilot bought him a drink, and the next thing Smythe knew, he was shanghaied to Mars.

Suddenly he found himself agreeing to the most difficult role of his career: impersonating an important politician who had been kidnapped. Peace with the Martians was at stake — failure to pull off the act could result in interplanetary war. And Smythe’s own life was on the line — for if he wasn’t assassinated, there was always the possibility that he might be trapped in his new role forever!

I guess I should say a science-fiction version of the movie Dave done as an action thriller rather than a romantic comedy.

So that’s me. How are you?

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Near! Far!

It’s a classic Sesame Street bit from 1975. Grover stands close to the camera and says, “this is near.” He runs away and bellows, “this is fa-a-a-a-ar.” He gets increasingly exasperated as he has to keep explaining in this way running back and forth. If you haven’t seen the bit…how the hell haven’t you seen the bit? Seriously. You’ve at least heard of it, right?

I bring up the bit as a way of contrasting the two books this month in the Great Hugo Read. Your copy of I Am Legend? That is near. Your copy of The Forever Machine? That is far.

I’m talking about the distance that the narrators holds himself from the story in each case. I Am Legend holds the camera very securely on Robert Neville’s shoulder through the entire novel, never leaving, never deviating. It’s the most limited of third person narratives. Only by slipping into first person could it be any more inside of Neville’s head. It’s perhaps telling that the story is of such narrow third person that, between my first listening in 2007 and rereading it this month I could swear I remembered the story in first person.

IAmLegend25028This is the right place for the story to sit. A limited third person is a powerful tool for horror, as it grounds the reader in the perspective of the character. A wider look provides too much clarity, imposing a logical distance. In the case of I Am Legend, a broader or even omnipotent third person would give too many looks at what the true motivations of the vampires are, and just who Ruth is and what she represents far earlier than the book can take. The hammer blow realization of the end of the book would be destroyed by anything but the tightest of third person views. While there are many successes withing I Am Legend, this choice of voice is the underlying current that feeds the story’s urgency and makes the ending what it is.

Thus far this month I’ve avoided talking about They’d Rather Be Right aka The Forever Machine (I’m going to use the latter title because it’s on the copy I read, and I like it better). One might guess it’s because I wasn’t nearly so over-the-moon about the book as I was with The Demolished Man, and one would be exactly right. As I mentioned several times leading into this book, no other novel even enters the discussion when asking which was the weakest Hugo winner. I was worried this knowledge would prejudice my reading of the book, but as I started I wasn’t sure what I was missing. Was I too enamored with any literature in my current reading splurge that I don’t recognize bad quality? It certainly wasn’t a pinnacle of English literature, but it was better than many books that I’ve read from the time period, thanks to my fascination with Ace Doubles.

The hell of The Forever Machine is that its a book of two halves. The first half is rather interesting, creates some decent characters (though the Übermensch lead was a little much) and presents a nice bit of fictional science in the form of a machine that can repair the human body, even to the point of aging it backwards. The practical upshot: immortality. Fantastic! Then it’s time for the second half. Then it’s time for the novel to reveal just why it has the reputation it does. One of the members of the Great Hugo Read group over on Goodreads summed it up nicely in two posts. First, early in the reading:

I am 40 pages out of 190 or so in, and I don’t yet see why it receives so much negative criticism. Perhaps it is still too early for me to make a judgement.

Then, after finishing:

There was something far too amateur about the writing. i didn’t recognize it until I got farther along in the story.

I’m not sure amateur is quite the right word. I’d say “distant.” Much like Grover, the story gets farther and farther away. Unlike Grover, it was me getting increasingly exasperated with this. The scope broadens to the national, then international, reaction to the news that this immortality technology exists. It asks questions of who does and doesn’t deserve immortality, who is and isn’t ready for it, a point the authors focus on, even making it the subject of the climax. We still see the small band of inventors who the book followed at the beginning, but less and less. Their conversations are frequently summarized rather than played out through dialogue. Entire speeches are told about, not shown. Oh god, I, David Thurston of all people, am getting on a story for telling instead of showing. Do you see what this book has done to me‽ It even made me use an interrobang!

Theyd_rather_be_rightThe problem isn’t even taking a wide, even international, view of a story. I’ve read novels that have employed that to great effect. War with the Newts comes to mind. It’s another novel that starts with a main character then rapidly branches out to an international scope with only occasional dips into more personal stories. And does it to good effect. The difference being that Newts creates an international conflict whereas Forever Machine only creates an international philosophical dialogue.

To put it frankly, the entire second half of the book felt like a detailed outline for what should have been the latter two thirds of the book. It’s as though the writers wanted to show off this technology, itself based as much on philosophy and magical thinking as science, then talk about their ideas of who does and doesn’t deserve the chance to live forever. Philosophy in science fiction is fine. This isn’t a screed against philosophy in sci-fi at all, the genre has a long history of providing voice to such ideas and ideals. But that can’t be the end all and be all of a story. There has to be…a story in the story.

So there it is, the flaw in The Forever Machine. I cannot say it’s the weakest novel to win the Hugo, just because I’ve now read only six Hugo winners. I can say it’s the weakest of those six. It backs off from the story, where I Am Legend stays with it. The latter could very well have explored the vampire society being set up, gone through the debates about what to do with Neville. But it didn’t. Because that’s not its story. Its story is of one man alone in a changed world. The Forever Machine never entirely works out what its story is, which is unsatisfying.

Though it is an interesting way to start the Great Hugo Read. I feel like the first two books create brackets. Will I come across books I like more than The Demolished Man? Probably. Will I come across books I dislike more than The Forever Machine? Possibly. But I feel like I’ve now got some range of expectations. Now to see where Double Star falls in that spectrum.

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