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Hugos Review 2015: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

When I decided to register as a supporting Hugos member this year, I resolved that I would read all the nominated novels and try to make my best unbiased judgment – but from the start, I suspected that The Goblin Emperor would get my vote. So as I’ve reread it these past few days, I’ve been musing on the qualities that make me deem a book worthy of the Hugo. There’s been a lot of discussion of this in the fan community in the last few months. People have debated the relative merits of a rip-roaring good tale versus well-crafted prose; the value of using a story as a platform to increase the representation of diverse groups in fiction – or to explore real-world social problems; and whether the best stories are those rooted in the characters, worldbuilding, big ideas or plot. And the more I read across the genre, the more I’m coming to peace with the fact that there are no right answers to these questions. SF/F is a big tent with space in it for everybody; the important thing is that we’re here because there are stories in the genre that we love. And if we’re adding our own stories, I suspect that regardless of our other motivations for writing, on some level, we want people out there to love them, too.

So in approaching my Hugos ballet this year, I used a strategy that I hope will serve me well as I approach nominations in the future: read as widely as I can, and then pick out the stories I love best for recognition. This time around, for the 2014 Best Novel category, that’s The Goblin Emperor.

I’ve talked about this book here before, the tale of the biracial prince whose birth was the result of his elven emperor father’s ill-advised and brief political marriage to a goblin princess. Our hero has spent most of his life in exile with only an embittered cousin for company, and the story starts when he’s awakened with the news that there’s been an airship accident, his father and three elder brothers are dead, and he’s now the emperor of the elflands. It’s a book that seems, at a glance, to have all the tackiest qualities that non-fantasy-readers associate with our genre. The setting is quasi-medieval, a nation on the cusp of its industrial revolution. The population’s comprised of elves (with white hair and skin and gray eyes), goblins (with black hair and skin and red eyes), and those of mixed heritage (with skin that comes in varying shades of gray). The characters have long, polysyllabic names that are easy to confuse on a first reading (examples: Beshelar and Berenar; Csevet and Csethiro; Telimezh and Tethimel).

Maybe most of all, the language is vexingly complex, with two forms of address for first and second person (the author uses ‘we’/’I’ and ‘you’/‘thou’ to distinguish them) and different titles for men, married women, and unmarried women, with three different prefixes depending on the bearer’s social standing (a man of average, noble or high noble stature, for instance, would be correctly titled as Mer, Osmer, or Dach’osmer, respectively). In the course of a few pages, the same character might be referred to by personal name, family name (which is actually a stem to which different suffixes are attached depending on the individual’s gender and marital status), and title-plus-family name without blinking an eye. Oh, and did I mention the emperors take imperial names that are even longer?

In spite of all this, when I picked the book up last year, I couldn’t put it down. And I think that’s almost entirely to do with Addison’s crafting of her main character, Maia Drazhar (AKA His Imperial Serenity, Edrehasivar VII. I did warn you about the names). Although Maia’s story is presented to us in third person, it may as well be a first-person account. We see everything through his eyes, which lets Addison craft a classic “stranger comes to town” introduction to her world, and then gloriously subvert the trope by reminding us that this particular stranger doesn’t have the luxury of time to learn his way around. He has a government to run.

I’ve read a number of negative reviews of this book, and those that don’t identify the wordplay as the reason they bounced off the story tend to focus on its slow pace. It’s true that there are whole paragraphs devoted to things like “the emperor is dressed by his stewards; this is what they dress him in; isn’t it odd that an emperor isn’t allowed to dress himself.” There are no swordfights, and very little magic. The “conflict,” such as it is, ostensibly focuses on Maia’s attempts to figure out what happened to his father’s airship, and then unravel various political conspiracies within the court while dodging the efforts of those who want to remove him from power – but as far as I’m concerned, the real story here is about Maia’s journey from becoming the emperor to beginning to be the emperor.

Yes, this book has dense language, and complicated names. But it also has beautiful conversations between Maia and his bodyguards about whether they can also be his friends, about whether an emperor can have friends. It has an eighteen-year-old kid realizing that he will never again in his life have a moment’s solitude. It has him attempting to do the right thing by attending the funeral for the airship crew who died with his father, only to realize that his presence turns that funeral into a spectacle that’s all about him. Maia spends the book trying to figure out how to be Edrehasivar VII while still holding on to some semblance of himself, and that’s the journey that intrigued me.

The other part of my realization that what makes a “good” book is subjective is that one person’s un-put-downable book will leave someone else cold. I know that there are many people who won’t be drawn into this one, and there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve picked up a number of books on the basis of glowing recommendations and set them down unfinished. But for me, what makes a book grab hold and not let go is the opportunity to delve deeply into a character and a setting; to explore questions about identity and one’s place in the world; and to walk away feeling like I’ve stood in someone else’s shoes for a while. For all these reasons, The Goblin Emperor will get my vote for the Best Novel Hugo this year.

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Hugos Review 2015: The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin (Cixin Liu)

If you’re at all tied in to the genre fiction world, you’ll likely have heard of The Three-Body Problem. It was already on my reading list for some time before it was added to the list of Hugo nominees; it’s been getting all kinds of buzz, including being a pick for the io9 book club a few months ago. Annalee Newitz’s review starts with the line “If you love computers, this novel  should be on your must-read list.” This framing made me suspect that I might not be the book’s intended audience, and after having finished it I can confirm that supposition; if not for its Hugo nomination, I might have put it down unfinished. But at the end, I’m glad I read it, and I won’t be at all upset if it takes home the Hugo this year.

A quick summary for those who’ve missed the buzz: The Three-Body Problem is a novel by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. Liu has won China’s Galaxy Award (China’s highest prize for science fiction) nine times; his first book was published in 1999; and The Three-Body Problem is, as near as I can tell, the first of his works to be translated into English. The translator, Ken Liu (no relation), is a well-respected sci-fi writer in his own right, whose short story “The Paper Menagerie” swept the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards in 2011. Three-Body Problem is the first in a trilogy, and the other two books are out in China but have not yet been translated.

At its heart, The Three-Body Problem is an idea book. It raises fascinating questions about the salvation (or salvageability) of humanity, the importance of technological progress, and human tribalism, while also exploring complex ideas from math and science, particularly physics (the English language title refers to a term from classical mechanics). It’s most definitely hard science fiction, which isn’t my usual bread and butter. Big chunks of the book are spent explaining complex physics concepts (both real and fictionalized). The characters are also flatter and more peripheral than what I tend to prefer in my reading. That aspect of the book reminded me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which I set down unfinished because I found it too much like a set of political essays presented by talking heads. Liu Cixin has said in interviews that he was inspired by American science fiction authors from the “golden age” (Arthur C. Clarke is one I’ve seen cited in several places) and this book definitely captures the feel of that era — a classic sci-fi story in most any sense of the word, with the possible exception of its location.

When the book opens, we’re in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution, where a young woman has just seen her father killed for continuing to teach (and proclaim his belief in) Einstein’s theory of relativity. But most of the story takes place in the near future; the main character, Wang Miao, is a researcher developing a new nanotechnology who starts having strange experiences. Scientists he knows are killing themselves because they say the laws of physics are no longer working as expected. When he takes photos with his fancy new camera, there’s a countdown on the negatives when they’re developed. And when he starts trying to explore possible linkages between these phenomena, he finds himself drawn into a MMORPG called Three Body (the book’s Chinese title) that depicts a world with massively unpredictable seasons and weather, whose people are able to dehydrate themselves to survive great heat and cold, but which has also had to reinvent its civilization from scratch thousands of times when the planet’s been destroyed by natural forces of one kind or another. Wang is fascinated by the game, which he eventually realizes is simulating life in a tri-solar system (where the planet is sometimes in stable orbit around one star, subject at other times to the heat and gravitational pull of two or even all three stars at once, and sometimes thrown far from any of them). But he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something deeper going on…

I struggled with the first half of the book, where Wang is going from place to place and person to person trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on. But once Liu started to tip his hand about what was causing the strange phenomena, I was hooked — at least conceptually, if not always in execution.

Warning: spoilers for the book’s central ideas and plot arc beyond this point.

What Wang and the readers discover in the second half of the book is that the online game, Three Body, is part of a grand movement that’s been organized by the supporters of an alien civilization from Alpha Centauri (which, incidentally, is a binary star system with a third star close enough to influence the orbit of any planets, whose denizens have survived through dehydration methods remarkably similar to those used in the game) who have started the process of invading Earth. Their fleet won’t arrive for four hundred years, but to make sure that humans don’t outstrip them technologically in the meantime, they’ve sent ahead a fleet of sentient, self-replicating protons (the explanation of this aspect of the Big Plot is is the high-powered physics stuff I was alluding to earlier) to mess with the laws of physics as they’re currently understood, and basically stop human scientific advancement in its tracks.

Wang also learns that the aliens first became aware of Earth because the young woman we met in the book’s first chapter, Ye Wenjie, later became involved with China’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence; when she received a response to China’s Voyager-type initial contact message, warning that the aliens who’d received China’s signal would destroy human civilization if they could pinpoint which planet the first contact had come from, she sent word back to the effect that “humans aren’t worth saving. Come take our planet and do better.”

In the decades since, the human supporters of the “Trisolaran” aliens have fragmented into two main groups, those who view the aliens and their world through a quasi-religious lens (and are less inclined to actively work in support of the invasion than in attempting to solve the three-body problem and allow the Trisolarans to live in peace) and those who see them as the ones who will come to rid Earth of the corrupt human influence. This is where my sociologist brain really began to appreciate the story; Liu does some fascinating work with exploring the range of human reactions to the knowledge that another “superior” culture is out there, and that it’s coming to destroy the human world. Several characters offer interesting takes on the idea that human civilization feels worthless now that they know that it’ll all be over in 400 years. There’s a great moment at the very end of the book where a common analogy for advanced civilizations — that Trisolarans are to humans as humans are to bugs — is turned around, and a character points out that humans and bugs have been at war for millennia upon millennia and the bugs aren’t beaten yet.

In his “Big Idea” interview on John Scalzi’s website, Liu suggests that much of Chinese science fiction portrays aliens as inherently noble-minded, and he felt it was more realistic to posit that any civilization advanced enough to enter space would view any other civilization it found there as a threat to its existence. I think this is a fascinating idea, and one that I hadn’t seen in science fiction before. And as you might guess from my summary of the central plot threads, it’s not the only element in the story that made me feel that way.

So if you like hard science fiction and aren’t too bothered by lightly-developed characters, this is almost certainly going to be a home run book for you. And even if you don’t fit that profile (and especially if you read primarily Western authors), I’d still recommend you check it out purely for the uniqueness of the core concepts. This one might not be my kind of book, but it’s still a very worthy contender for the award.

Hugos Review 2015: The Dark Between the Stars, by Kevin J. Anderson

This book had some fun moments. I finished it, which is saying something (not always the case for books I read these days). However, I do not think it is award-worthy.

In my last Hugos review, I talked about how Jim Butcher’s Skin Game fell into the category of “a good book, but not for me”; a little too stand-alone, too action-packed, too deeply rooted in the tropes of genres I’m not generally excited about. Anderson’s Dark Between the Stars had a number of elements that should have inclined me toward ranking it higher than Butcher’s book. It’s a huge, sweeping story, the first in a trilogy; it includes interesting worldbuilding and cultural stuff; and it focuses as much on small human moments (where “human” might mean human/human, human/robot, human/alien, or some other sentient-being interaction) as it does on big space battles. And yet, in my opinion, its problems outweighed its strengths.

The basic elements: The Dark Between the Stars seemed to me to be classic space opera, telling a broad, sweeping story through the eyes of what seemed like dozens of narrators (I didn’t actually count). It continues a story from an earlier trilogy, The Saga of Seven Suns, set in a universe where humans have moved out from Earth to colonize a number of planets with the help of alien technology. There’s one major alien race, the Ildirans, who the humans are allied with to the point of interbreeding, and several others (the gas-giant-living hydrogues and extinct, buglike Klikiss) who are or were human enemies; the setting also includes highly advanced robots called “compys,” and at least 2 intelligent elemental-like species, the fiery faeroes and watery wentals. A brief aside: I figured out all of this world-building detail without needing to reference the earlier books, which is a point in Anderson’s favor. Compared to other “related series” that I’ve read, I would say the book stands alone.

The story also seems like classic sci-fi fare to me; there is a new, dark threat in the universe, in this case embodied by literal clouds of darkness that come from nowhere and engulf ships, people, and planets. This threat is particularly terrifying to the Ildirans, because their home planet, in a system with (surprise) seven suns, is never dark; darkness has a weightiness in their culture even stronger than it does in, er, mainstream American culture. Besides this central plot, there are also sidebars touching on everything from the OCD/PTSD of a woman orphaned as a little girl to a disintegrating marriage to the aftereffects of war on the sentient psyche.

I was looking forward to this book, because my tastes generally incline more toward fantasy epics and I was excited about familiarizing myself with how some of the epic tropes look different in a sci-fi setting. But after I finished the first chapter, I had to hand the book to Husband (the sci-fi reader in the house) and ask “so, are all sci-fi epics this clunky and info-dumpy?”

I felt as though Dark Between the Stars had a lot of potential that wasn’t fully realized. The worldbuilding was genuinely interesting, with core concepts elaborated on in novel ways; for instance, because the Ildiran race is linked through low-level telepathy, every individual can always sense the larger collective, and this filters into their culture through details like the fact that almost all Ildirans fear being alone. The diversity representation was also pretty strong; lots of female characters (some likeable, some unlikeable), lots of physical diversity among the human contingent (including many dark-skinned characters and a paraplegic freighter captain), and I even think I may have spotted a same-sex relationship, though it was left somewhat ambiguous. Finally, there were a number of really likeable characters who I wanted to hear more from… and that, regrettably, is where this review will turn away from praise.

Because the book had so many different plot threads and so many different narrators, I felt as though none of the characters reached their full potential. Every time I found myself getting interested in an individual’s narrative arc, I’d be swept away from them to spend half a dozen chapters on other plotlines I wasn’t as invested in. This is always a risk with multiple viewpoints, but Dark Between the Stars seemed to take the problem to an extreme. I finished the book feeling as though I didn’t know any of the characters much better than I had when I first met them. I also found myself not very interested in the A-plot, the looming shadows of darkness. I was much more excited to read about the tensions between the couple fighting over custody of their son, or the young woman whose reaction to her father’s dying from a disease he contracted as an interplanetary explorer was to secret herself away in a sterilized lab where she intended to find cures for all the diseases in the known universe and then hold the cures for her personal use. I certainly don’t object to wide-ranging stories (I read A Song of Ice and Fire, after all), but it seems to me that if your reader’s dragging her feet every time you try to take her back to your central plot backbone, there may be a flaw in your storytelling.

I also felt like the craft on this book needed work. The prose was flat, without much in the way of either wit or poetry (and I say that as someone who regularly skims through flowery prose), and the explanations of the setting and context were thrown out in chunks that didn’t flow with the narrative at all, particularly in the early chapters. In that regard, this book felt like either a first novel (which I know isn’t the case) or one that was rushed through its editing stage.

I know that there’s been a tremendous amount of controversy during this Hugo season about the contrast between “fun books” and “important books,” and I suspect one of the reasons this one made it onto the ballot is because it’s undeniably in the first category. But I would argue that even undeniably “fun” books with no aspirations to literary merit — like Butcher’s Dresden Files, which the author himself describes as “dopey little wizard books,” or Gabaldon’s Outlander books, which she started as “practice” — should still meet a minimum standard for story construction, writing, and craft if they’re going to be seen as exemplars for our field. This book didn’t meet that standard, and for that reason, it will not be getting my Hugo vote.

Hugos Reviews 2015: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

I’ve signed myself up to vote on the Hugos for the first time this year. If you’re someone who follows nerd news, you’ll likely already know that a lot of people are signing up for the first time because of nerd-politics (if you want a good summary of what’s going on, I’d recommend Kameron Hurley’s Atlantic article here; for a very nuanced and lengthy analysis, check out GRRM’s extended series of posts, starting with this one). I’m not going to discuss the controversy in any depth here; you can probably guess my views from the angle I’ve chosen to present in my linked articles and from other things I’ve posted on this site. What I am going to do — stated now in the presence of witnesses — is read and review here all of this year’s nominees for Best Novel (and possibly some other nominated works, stay tuned).

And so: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher. Book 15 in his series The Dresden Files. My one-sentence review would boil down to something like “I enjoyed reading this book; I admire the craft and research that went into writing it; if it were to win the award, I wouldn’t feel like that win was undeserved; but it’s not really my style, and I don’t think I’ll be voting for it.”

Like most people, I’ve heard the buzz around this series for a long time; I have several friends who are members of the Butcher fan club, and who rave about the Dresden books as the most compulsively readable stuff they’ve encountered in a long time. So I read the first one, Storm Front, a few years back, and was mostly unmoved. And though all the reviews I’ve read say that the series picks up speed in about Book 3 or 4, I wasn’t really interested in following Harry Dresden on his further adventures. I don’t typically get drawn into detective stories, or urban fantasy, or books whose proportions favor action scenes over other stuff (the main reason I also haven’t had much success picking up Butcher’s Codex Alera series), and I generally prefer tightly serialized series like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire to more standalone ones like Pratchett’s Discworld. Although Dresden Files clearly has an overarching plot, this book also had a tightly self-contained story arc.

All that said, if you are a fan of any of the things I list in that last sentence above and you haven’t tried out Dresden Files yet, I’d recommend you drop what you’re doing and give it a shot.

For those even less familiar with the series than I am, I’ll note that it follows the ongoing adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard living in contemporary Chicago. In the first book, Butcher’s basically giving us private-eye-with-a-supernatural-twist (kind of like where Angel started), but by Book 15, things have gotten considerably more complicated. Dresden’s amassed a whole collection of complex powers, debts and social connections, and there’s no more simple private eye work.

The management of those complexities was one of the things that impressed me most about this book. While I certainly felt my ignorance of the previous books and the past relationships between characters as I read, I wasn’t crippled by it. Butcher did a good job of giving us enough information about each character that I could remember who they were and what their relationship to Dresden was. Trying to imagine someone having a similar experience if they picked up GRRM’s A Storm of Swords without having read the previous books hurts my brain.

In addition to handling the intricacies of a long series, Butcher did a good job with the self-contained plot of this book, too. Basically, because of the web of obligations Dresden’s woven for himself, he’s pulled into a Grand Heist that forces him to temporarily ally himself with a handful of sometime-adversaries who he’s not at all sure he can trust to watch his back. The action sequences are a little more tightly packed together than I usually seek out in my fiction, particularly as things heat up in the second half of the book, but each one is appropriately suspenseful and very well-described. Butcher’s bio in the back of the book describes him as “[a] martial arts enthusiast whose resume includes a long list of skills rendered obsolete at least two hundred years ago,” and his familiarity with the combat side of things definitely shows.

I also enjoyed what seems to be a fairly comprehensive use of magical sources in Butcher’s worldbuilding. The magical forces in Dresden’s world include, among others, Judeo-Christian archangels, medieval European fairies, demons connected to the 40 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Christ, Tibetan temple guardians, and the Greek gods. While this certainly doesn’t cover every culture’s magical or mystical elements, I liked the fact that these different systems coexist in the same setting; this aspect of the story reminded me a bit of Gaiman’s American Gods.

In terms of plotting, I liked the fact that the stakes were different from what you might expect for a story that reminded me, in places, of a well-crafted D&D dungeon crawl. Dresden isn’t in this for the money; he’s worried about his family and friends. And as he gains more power and more associated obligations, he’s worried about what’s happening to him in exchange. I like angsty characters, so I appreciated the angst that surfaced from time to time in this one. Butcher also pulls off a few very well-played plot twists, one of which had me paging back through the book to look for examples of “that thing that I’ve been doing all along that you probably didn’t notice.”

There wasn’t anything specific about this book that I didn’t like. Other critical reviewers (3 distinct links) have argued that Butcher’s writing is objectifying to women; I didn’t really feel that here (although I will admit that Dresden does seem to have at least the potential of a romantic relationship with almost every unattached woman he shares a scene with). I might have liked a little more time spent on low-key interactions between characters, but that’s a style/preference thing rather than a criticism. Taken for what it is — a pulpy romp through a fantasy Ocean’s 11 — I’d call this a very fun little book. And if you like this kind of stuff more than I do, by all means, go pick up a few of these and read. I’m told you won’t be disappointed.