Hugo Awards - Novel - 2017

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Posted on : 5/19/2017 02:50:00 PM | By : Dann

I concluded my reading of the novel category for this year's Hugo awards some time ago.  I recorded my thoughts about each book as it was read in this space.  Like others, my ballot changed a bit over time.  The following are my thoughts on this year's nominees.

I have tried to provide a longer narrative on each book after concluding my reading, but you may still encounter some very brief comments such as "a good read" that really isn't very descriptive.  I hope you can forgive the artifacts of my initial impressions.

All the Birds in the Sky

This book featured two very different characters who nonetheless found a great deal of common ground.  And then they lost it.

The boy was a technology geek back in school.  He was an outcast from school.

The girl was some sort of witch/magician.  She was once able to perform actual magic.  She was also an outcast.

Despite the obvious differences in their characters, they were completely connected on an emotional level.  Until that fateful day when they opened up enough to one another that they scared each other.  Then they closed down and went their separate ways.

Skip forward a couple decades and they are both coming into their complete capabilities respectively.  He is an inventor, developer, and technologist capable of achieving technological acts of magic.  She is a powerful witch capable of changing the world.

Yet they both retain doubts and fears about their capabilities as well as about those that they follow/work for.  The technologists want to save the world via technology that the world doesn't want them to use.  The witches/wizards want to save the world by shutting down the technology.  The two sides are diametrically opposed and do absolutely nothing to talk with each other about their concerns and aspirations.

As adults, our two protagonists get back together and learn to trust one another.  It isn't easy, but they find a way to value one another.  They learn the hard way the value of truly listening one each other's concerns.

I've been watching the world go pear shaped for a few decades.  The continuing trend is for people to fail to listen to one another.  Far too frequently, we presume the worst intentions and meanings from the words spoken by those with whom we disagree.

This book suggests listening.  I believe that message is worth repeating.  While world-building, character/reader engagement, and plot/storytelling were on par with Obelisk Gate, that central theme pushed this book into first place on my ballot.

The Obelisk Gate

As indicated above, the difference in the quality of writing between Obelisk Gate and All the Birds in the Sky was small.  One might say infinitesimal, in my opinion.

There were some problematic elements of the story.  One of the larger ones was the suspension of markets and trading due to the onset of this "fifth season".  People are trapped underground with limited resources.  The very best method for ensuring the most efficient and just use of those resources is to involve some sort of economic free trade system.  Instead, people are detailed to certain tasks by each villages leaders.

The characters were thoroughly engaging.  The unfolding world of the series continued to be interesting.

I think what got me most was the author's approach to several issues where I was thinking that in one circumstance I agreed, but in a different circumstance, I disagreed.  It was a book that kept me thinking without hammering on a rhetorical bell.

Now if we could just get Ms. Jemisin a history book so she could learn more about the shortfalls of socialism.  Or perhaps a Venezuelan newspaper?


A Closed & Common Orbit

A great read.  A little heavy handed on the virtue signaling.  A bit anti-science when it comes to the probability/utility of requiring more than 2 genders for procreation.  Very engaging characters.  Hard to put down.  The end was emotionally satisfying, but it felt like a forced happy ending.

There were a couple of very interesting topics that were addressed within the book.  In particular, one such topic was the possibility of an alien lifeform that shifts genders throughout its life.  I thought it was handled pretty well.

The flip side of that was the use of non-cis gendered pronouns relative to the child's game that occurs early on in the book.  That entire section seemed to smack of a saccharine "I know this, therefore, I'm a good person" vibe.

What worked better for me was the AI that ended up being stuck in a mechanical/android body and not being able to deal with the odd feeling that it didn't quite fit.  There are many different ways of translating that emotion.  The author left that aspect open enough so that readers could bring themselves into the story.

The short summary;  read it all, largely enjoyed it, just not as good as the other two.

No Award

Ninefox Gambit

The first book I finished was Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee.  My short take is this was a serviceable tale.  Enjoyable but not really work that is at the top of the field.  There was no real opportunity to develop an emotional connection with the main character, Cheris.  I was starting to develop an interest in Jedao by the end of the book.

Thematically, the book seems to embrace the idea that a change in perspective can shift power.  That can be an interesting theme.

In this case, the book uses mathematics as the mechanism for changing the religion that is the basis for power.  Mathematics changes the calendar which in turn changes their religion/social structure/government.  Mathematics in the form of physical geometry is also a tool used for combat.  If you line people up in a certain formation, then the formation has more or less useful weapons and/or defenses.

I had one constant thought while reading this book.  "So if their religion is altered by math, then what happens when they find out that someone forgot to carry the two?"

Mathematics doesn't work that way.  Incorrectly calculating your expected fuel efficiency on a road trip will not change the distance you travel before running out of gas.

The entire math/calendar/socio-political structure element had me thinking about the influence of delusions on characters.  If I wanted to read about how delusional characters impact a fictional world, I would have reached for Michael R. Fletcher's work long before I would have reached for this.

A couple of other features came to mind in the days after I moved on.

Military units were disbanded and "processed" after a successful battle.  My impression was that the processing involved some sort of memory alteration/erasure.  The simple act of disbanding a successful unit is counterproductive if the objective is to allow a unit to progress based on past experiences.  It undermines esprit de corps.

The "processing" was to have included their company commander.  The story included generals that had risen in the ranks.  How can a general develop memories/historical experiences upon which to base future actions if they cannot retain those lessons learned as a small unit commander?

The second feature of the book is that there didn't seem to be any better alternatives to the government/social structure that already existed.  That structure seemed to be very controlling and limiting.

This may well be a good book at the start of a great series.  As a stand alone novel, it just isn't at the top of the field.  I gave it 4 Stars on Goodreads.

Death's End

Did not finish.  As the book starts off at the fall of the Byzantine empire and then jumped to a future China, I wasn't really sure where the story was going.  But I found the characters in Byzantium engaging so that I gave it a good chance after the jump to China.

The primary character after the jump to China was interesting.  I was curious as to what the author had in mind.

Unfortunately, the rest of the characters were cardboard cut-outs.  I made it almost a quarter the way through when the one character I cared about died, the other protagonist did as she was told by the cigar smoking (and one presumes mustache twirling) antagonist executed an attack on an alien species that used an approach first broached by Vernor Vinge over 20 years ago.

And that attack failed to leave the solar system due to a mechanical failure.  So the first section of the book was pointless and there wasn't anything new within the story thus far.

Which is where I checked out.

Too Like The Lightning

Did not finish.  Not worth my time.  I put it down....enthusiastically!  It read like an indoctrination session where "big ideas" were presented without having logically thought them through to their conclusion.  There were far too many anti-science elements.

File770 denizen Standback had a review that I cannot quickly locate in which they pointed out that the use of ubiquitous and high-speed air cars allowed people to form living structures the superseded local national governments.  This was viewed as fostering human progress as the idea of national governments was considered counterproductive from the view point of the book.

Ironically, humanity already has experienced a technology that allowed individuals to extricate themselves from problematic localities, live in one remote location, and work in another.  It is called "the automobile".

In the American experience, people leaving problematic cities to live in suburbia were (and still are) called racists.  They are criticized for removing their talent and expertise from urban areas.  As we all know, what those urban governments really wanted was control of the wealth generated by that talent and expertise.

Why shouldn't we have a similarly negative view of this new group who propose to exempt themselves from the vagaries of their local neighbors?

The book wanders into anti-science territory by establishing a larger society where gender signaling is reduced to near nothing.  While this sentiment will not buy me any new friends, the fact is that gender is not a social/cultural construct.  Society/culture develop gender patterns as a result of biology and genetics.  Humanity has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years.  Our responses (sexual and otherwise) have been refined in that temporal crucible.

Now those social/cultural responses can certainly get weird.  Consider the practice of using bands of steel to elongate someone's neck to make them more "beautiful" - and easier to kill if they piss you off.  How the hell did any segment of human society come up with that arrangement?  So I am decidedly not defending any specific current iteration of society/culture.

I am suggesting that we cannot alter human responses that have been developed over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution over the course of a couple of decades.  Or even over the course of a thousand years or so as is suggested in the book.  That is particularly true when that change would run counter to the postive human responses are responsible for the propagation of our species.

At one point early in the book, a woman commits the rare act of appearing and acting to maximize her feminine qualities to get men to behave in a manner closer to her desires.  Men like women enough to alter their behavior.  Who knew!  The evolutionary process has made this a desirable feature in human interaction, thus our cultures generally reflect that desirability.

In a further run of anti-science in the book, the viability of the "hives" of human society are maintained by evaluating and balancing the "popularity" that is unattributed to any meaningful evaluation of the social/cultural/governmental conditions of each political faction or "hive".  Utter nonsense.

People do not immigrate to the United States (or every other western government) because the US (or those other western nations) is (are) "popular".  They come here because we have established societies that encourage individual economic and expressive freedom.  Those freedoms translate into the ability of the individual to provide for their families to the best of their ability while reasonably unhindered by their neighbors.

Again, Venezuelan references seem to be most apropos.

Now that I've ranted on these plot elements, here is the biggest problem with the book.  It kept interrupting interesting story lines and interesting characters with tedious demi-diatribes against most every positive feature of our modern society; to include the utility of national borders.

In an interesting twist is that I found the author's blog and was immediately interested in one of her more collegiately oriented pieces.  Time permitting, I would be most willing to read more of her academic work.

This book?  Not so much.

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Alternatives?  My enthusiasm for Sebastien de Castell's Greatcoats series is well documented.  The third installment of that series dropped in 2016.  The fourth installment of Emma Newman's A Little Knowledge also dropped last year.  Both were, in my subjective opinion, superior to the books that I put below No Award.

J.R.R. Tolkien Got Many Things Correct, And Many Others Wrong

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Posted on : 5/15/2017 09:50:00 PM | By : Dann | In : ,

I originally wrote this back in 2002 on my now defunct Dain Bramage blog that was hosted elsewhere.  I've thought about re-posting it, and a recent discussion over on File770 makes this a good time for re-posting.  Enjoy!

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Just this past Christmas, I received a copy of "The Lord of the Rings", "The Silmarillion", and "The Hobbit". J.R.R. Tolkien's series has always held an attraction for me. His writing borders on being magical.

The difference now is that it has been roughly 20 years since I first read his works. With a bit of experience under my belt, the series takes on new meanings. Here are some things that came to mind while reading his books.

J.R.R. Tolkien got so much right.

First of all, I find it ironic that this book should have become first popular in the 60's. One of the major themes of the book is the ability of power to corrupt. Frodo travels far and wide in his quest to dispose of the One Ring. The Ring will grant whoever wears it the power to essentially rule the world.

Frodo has the wisdom to discern between who would do evil with such power and who (he thinks) would do good. This is good for us as he is immediately assailed by those that would do evil (evildoers??) and if he had just turned the durned thing over, we would have a mighty short read indeed.

Consider all who are offered the ring.

Gandolf -- who is essentially immortal, to begin with as well as being a powerful wizard on the side of "good". He rejects the ring several times and comments as well on the burden of temptation.

Elrond -- who likewise recognizes that keeping and not using the Ring simply guarantees that Sauron would win it back someday. He also recognizes that using the Ring would inevitably cause him to either turn to evil or be consumed by the Ring.

Strider/Aragorn -- who in the end is not only proven to be brave and honest but a wise and powerful ruler as well. Strider rejects the Ring as being too great a responsibility for him to bear.

Galadriel -- who is pretty powerful in her own right and is demonstrated to be a very decent person, judges that she lacks the ability to master such power.

Then there is the case of Boromir and his father. Each feels that possession of the ring is within his ability to control. They have a certain unspoken lust for power. Boromir's father, Steward of Gondor in the stead of the missing line of kings, goes so far as to state his opposition to the returning king. He isn't inclined to relinquish power to some unproven upstart. How might things have worked out if HE had obtained the ring?

We also have the case of Sauron and Sarumon. Two who wanted to possess the Ring for their own purposes. One was just plain evil and the other thought his evil was good for other people. Let the world be ordered by the wizards and only good would come of it, or so Saruman thought. Sure, only the "best and the brightest" should have power and they will only do good.

As if those morality plays were not enough, we have the scenes of the hobbits returning to the Shire and finding that someone has claimed that realm for his own. Using big men to rough up any protestors, Lotho has set up whole lists of rules that aren't too be broken. He has set the men to collecting large portions of the local crops to be "shared". Of course, the sharing just means that men in his service have lots to eat while others go hungry.

Lotho also sets about seizing people's property, tearing it down, and essentially "remodeling" the countryside to meet his own needs. The new mill that spews waste into the river is his little piece of handiwork.

Just like any other government, Lotho takes what he desires, sets up poisonous works where he wants and cares little about who gets hurt.

The prosperity of the Shire that came from their previous freedom was destroyed by regulation and taxation. That prosperity was only recovered after Frodo reduced "the Sherriffs to their proper functions and numbers."

As I said at the start, I find it a bit ironic that J.R.R. Tolkien's work became so popular in the 1960's. After all, the politics on college campuses in that era essentially called for greater government intervention into everyone's lives. They were successful Boromirs and we are left with their mess.

J.R.R. Tolkien got so very much right.

He also got so very much wrong.

There is another bit of irony that goes with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and its popularity in the 1960's. Fans of the book, then as now, point to the simplistic life led by the main characters as being virtuous. They also point out the chapters where a loathsome mill poisons the river as being indicative of economic "progress".

"Simplistic" is an apt word for such thoughts.

"The Lord of the Rings" is filled with metal. Steel swords and armor, iron columns, silver horns and goblets, and of course mithril are present on almost every page.

Metalworking, by its very nature, requires a very hot flame in order to purify, mold, and work the metal. Creating such heat inevitably creates some sort of pollution. Decades ago, Pittsburgh used to be a city of dense smog and smoke from the iron and steel works. Burning coal to refine iron ore cause a lot of pollution. Fortunately, we have better ways of producing steel and iron that are less polluting.

In order to have such a level of metalsmith knowledge in Middle-Earth, there must have been a great many forges. Such operations are by their nature dirty. And because they are labor intensive, they couldn't have been hidden back in the mountains someplace away from the population centers. To the contrary, the forges would have generated population centers.

Another explanation might be a sort of understated racism. The dwarves of Middle-Earth are known for their craftsmanship in metalworking. I guess the mess of metalworking is only acceptable as long as it is kept underground near "those" people. But hey! It is only a book.

Another great anachronism is the sort of idyllic life that everyone leads. Frodo lives the life of a country squire. He does nothing but enjoys life. It is somehow assumed that it is possible to prepare 6 meals a day (hobbit fashion) and then leave enough time for gardening and other interests.

Anyone who has tended a significant garden can tell you that such endeavors consume a great deal of time. When one has no other means of supporting oneself, it consumes all of one's time. There isn't time for 6 meals a day. There is barely enough time for two decent meals and a snack at noon.

Similarly, the elves seem to do nothing. Food appears at the appropriate time and everyone eats their fill. Otherwise, the elves are heard singing in the trees.

These conditions could not exist anywhere in the real world. Only the wealthy and the powerful live such lives of leisure. Everyone else must work to create their leisure.

The only real acknowledgment of reality in the book is when Merry and Pippen end up serving the kings at the feast following the battle outside of Mordor. They stand and serve while others sit and eat.

The creation of wealth requires innovation and technological progress. Only the creation of wealth can end poverty. Attempting to live in a Luddite society only ensures that the poor will continue to remain poor.

On this count, J.R.R. Tolkien got so very much wrong.