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Hugo Capsules: Novels and Novellas

Last few hours to nominate for the 2016 Hugos!  I’ve updated my previous posting with a few more items. Now, for the last of my 2015 Hugos reviews.

Best Novel

1. Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

I have not gotten a chance to read the other novels, and it seems unfair to judge them based on hastily skimming excerpts from them, but I am confident that even so, Skin Game would remain on top of my list. It was an excellent installment in a line of excellent installments fourteen and counting (sorry Fool Moon). Butcher’s penchant for invention, wit, characters, and slam bang set pieces was on full display, alongside a twist that makes one want to reread the whole thing with a closer eye. In addition, for me, this was a vote not just for Skin Game, but for all the years that Butcher had been snubbed by the Hugos.

Best Novella

1. “Pale Realms of Shade”, by John C. Wright

Published online prior to its inclusion in The Book of Feasts and Seasons, “Pale Realms of Shade” represents Wright’s first foray (or second, depending on how one interprets the end of “One Bright Star to Guide Them”) into what might be called the metaphysical thriller, which Wright himself describes as a thriller “where reality is out of joint, and the mystery is not who did what, but what is what”. The denouement of a metaphysical thriller is, by original definition, an apocalypse, an ‘uncovering’, and “Pale Realms of Shade” has quite the uncovering. It is, however, not strictly speaking entirely a metaphysical thriller, as it also partakes of being thrillers both mundane and supernatural, wherein our deceased detective protagonist must discover both who killed him, why, and why he is turning into a very angry shade indeed. Wright’s prose are vivid throughout, while the tone runs the gamut from inspiring beauty to revolting horror, and the tale is by turns intriguing, terrifying, heartbreaking, and joyous. With skillful genre-blending, prose, and depth of theme, “Pale Realms of Shade” easily takes its place as top contender for the Hugo.

2. Big Boys Don’t Cry, by Tom Kratman

An explosive, exciting action romp that turns unexpectedly thoughtful and emotional about, of all things, sentient super-tanks that would be considered tremendous instruments of war even by 41st millennium standards. Ratha war machine “Maggie” is critically injured in an ambush, and reminisces on her past campaigns as technicians salvage what they can from her damaged hull and turrets. As she goes deeper into the past, she begins to find memories once hidden away now revealed by the damage to her artificial brain, and they are not happy ones… Kratman’s story is predominantly a speculation on how a living weapon might think, feel, be trained, and operate, but it hits on many notes in the course of the telling, warfighting and the politics of warfighting being recurring themes. Big Boys Don’t Cry is military SF of a high order, and I will definitely be looking into more of Kratman’s writing in the future.

3. “The Plural Helen of Troy”, by John C. Wright

The long-awaited sequel prequel interquel I give up to the excellent “Murder in Metachronopolis”. This one is broken up into fewer, larger chapters than “Murder” was, but is still presented for readings both linear and non-linear. Wright builds on the ideas of the first tale, showing off more of the Paradox Proctor Special Unlimited, and introducing a truly terrifying time-travelers’ boogieman that can time-jump around looking for the perfect moment to strike: the innocuously yet sinisterly named Tin Woodman. Yet, as before later simultaneously I give up, the true danger comes not from external foes, but from the sins and bent desires inside one’s own heart. The denouement takes a very unexpected, genre-blending turn that casts all the tales of Metachronopolis in a new light, delighted me, and strongly recommends the story be read in the order printed the first time through.

4. One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright

This work was first published as a short story, then expanded to novella size and republished. I would like to see it expanded further to full novel size, as I see its flaws (chiefest of which is ‘telling rather than showing’) all stemming from trying to do too much in too little space. Star works from the interesting premise of “what happens to the heroes of children’s fantasy stories who have to live normal grown-up lives on Earth after visiting and saving another world as children?”. Unfortunately, our glimpses into the hero’s childhood (a wonderful mash up of Lewis, Alexander, and Cooper) take the form of inelegant expositions given at the drop of a hat by various characters in the course of their conversations. It makes what should feel wondrous and nostalgic sound glib and insipid to my ear. These passages are tributes to stories I loved as a kid, and still do, but even I found myself rolling my eyes after the third or fourth time a character launched into a block of expo-speak that read like a Wikipedia summary.

The other effect of trying to fit what could be a novel’s worth of story into a novella is that I was unable to connect with any of the characters I ought to really care about; I simply didn’t know them well enough by the time something happened to them to feel anything, and I could tell I was meant to feel a great deal. It was frustrating, as this is, by rights, a story I should love, but up until the last two chapters, its execution left me cold (doubly frustrating, as Wright is a genius author, and Star is a personal favorite of his. Alas, I can see only a glimpse of what he sees in it). The last two chapters, are, however, excellent, very on form for Wright, and end on the perfect kind of eucatastrophic twist for the genre he is writing in. “One Bright Star to Guide Them” is a story I really want to love, and would gladly give another chance in an expanded form.

5. “Flow”, by Arlan Andrews, Sr.

A tale of a young lad from a Northern tribe who tags along with a crew of ice merchants as they ride a floe down a flowing river towards Southern towns to take it to market. The idea of ice brokers and ice merchants was new and interesting to me, and the story is well told, having the feel of a fireside tale our hero will pass on to his children in the future. The prose are well executed, and in all respects, “Flow” is a fine, workmanlike piece, yet it lacked the imaginative energy and verve of the preceding four works. There were no moments of breathtaking wonder, gut-wrenching horror, visceral action, or mind-bending eureka. There were no Big Ideas. The tales men might tell about a fire simply cannot compete with the tales men tell about fire.

Hugo Capsules: Novelettes

Best Novelette

1. “The Journeyman: In the Stone House“, by Michael F. Flynn

There’s nothing quite like a good heroic fantasy, nor do I ever tire of tales set in the shadows of once great civilizations. Perhaps it is an atavistic preference passed down from my Gothic barbarian ancestors (along with a predilection for little fur hats). Whatever the case, the exploits of Teodorq sunna Nagarajan and Sammi o’ th’ Eagles following their encounter with the holographic AI of a downed spacecraft felt like something out of Swords & Sorcery  or in the tradition of “Black Amazon of Mars”. I enjoyed the blending of fantasy and sci-fi, and the odd dialect incorporating contemporary slang spoken by the characters (to whom our expressions would be archaic), which plays into the stories funniest exchange:

“And what is meant by ‘babe’?”

“In the sprock, it is a term of respect for important women.”

 The tale ends on a somewhat inconclusive note, being part of a larger series following Teodorq and Sammi, but it is a satisfying chapter, and I look forward to their further adventures.

2. “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale“, by Rajnar Vajra

It’s rather odd that despite being my least favorite overall of the four good nominees, “The Triple Sun” ended up receiving my number 2 vote (for reasons detailed below). Given my poor scholarship in Golden Age SF, I cannot comment on the accuracy of the tale’s subtitle, but it had a very optimistic, future-is-gonna-be-great, can-do,”work the problem” attitude that I have inferred is the hallmark of Golden Age SF. It was a very fun read, and had the second best SF speculation (to my tastes) after “Earth to Alluvium”.

3. “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium“, by Gary Rinehart

This was an interesting little story about a man fighting a psychological and cultural warfare action against an occupying alien force through his own impending death. Despite my attempts to see one character as a kind of Cato of Utica, a last page twist still left a sour taste in my mouth, and for that reason alone “Earth to Alluvium” was bumped below “The Triple Sun”.

4. “Championship B’tok“, by Edward M. Lerner

“Championship B’tok” read very much like several chapters from a larger work that had been compiled together to be submitted as a novelette; a larger work that I would very much like to read. In many ways, from setting (harder SF) to characters (various humans and aliens pursuing different agendas) to mood (political intrigue), I preferred this story to “The Triple Sun” and “Earth to Alluvium”. I ranked those latter works higher because I was voting for the best novelette, and those works were better as stories containable in a novelette, whereas “B’tok” worked decently well, but has non sequitur first chapter and frustrating cliffhanger ending (unless I am missing some context for this story? I read it as part of the Hugo packet, so if it is part of a continuing serialized story, this was not made clear to me by the Hugo packet edition.).

5. No Award

6. “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, by Thomas Ole Heuvelt

A speculative fiction tale that is uninterested in speculation about its own premise, unless it’s to take a cheap shot at religion. A bland story about a bland, whiny, pathetic man male human human narrator who abandons a woman to her death so it can save a goldfish so it can fail to win back its former paramour.

Hugo Capsules: Short Stories

Best Short Story

1. “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds“, by John C. Wright

A richly written meditation on the fate of Earth’s beasts and birds after the End of Man; think C.S. Lewis by way of Jack Vance. The characterization, mood, and turn of phrase have a timeless quality about them that makes the tale fit seamlessly into the tradition of Great Western Literature. The theological speculation displays a great depth of thought, and concerns an area of much personal interest to me. On top of all these merits, the ending is one of the most moving, not only among the other Hugo contenders, but amongst my copious reading, I have read. It shows the hand of Milton’s Muse.

2. “Totaled“, by Kary English

The intriguing tale of Margaret Hauri, Ph.D, a neuroscientist who, postmortem, finds herself (well, her brain) the subject of her own previous research project. I was particularly impressed when she discovered how to communicate with her former lab partner, despite being a brain in a jar. Her solution displayed the kind of cool thinking under duress that characterizes so many great sci-fi protagonists, and it was for this scene in particular that I ranked “Totaled” the highest of the works after “Parliament”.

3. “On a Spiritual Plain“, by Lou Antonelli

An interesting piece set on a planet with a strong magnetic field, where the souls, or perhaps merely impressions, of the dead are entrapped as electromagnetic phantoms. Upon rereading, this story dropped slightly in my estimation, as I realized the Methodist base chaplain tasked with helping an agnostic human ghost find release does not at any point express concern for the state of the man’s soul; whether he need repent of his sins before moving on. It does not detract from the story that much, but it makes the chaplain feel almost as agnostic as the shade, and represents a missed opportunity to explore the tale’s theme in more depth.

4. “Turncoat“, by Steve Rzasa

I’m afraid this work suffered unfairly from being one of the last stories I read. It is a fine piece about an AI starship contemplating the humanity of its posthuman commanders, it’s human enemies, and itself, while in the middle of some blisteringly fast, exciting, well-written space combat. It is working in a very similar vein as Big Boys Don’t Cry, and I think my opinion of it was lessened by the fact that it was not as deep a tale as the latter, despite being no where near as long. Upon rereading it now, I found I enjoyed it much more as the short story it was written as, and though I do not believe I would change its ranking if voting again (perhaps I might bump it above “On a Spiritual Plain”), ordering short stories 2-4 was very difficult, as all were very different and very good.

Hugo Capsules: Related Works & Graphic Novels

1. Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth, by John C. Wright

Full disclosure: I was a proofreader for this work.

A wonderful compilation of essays from the archives, recent and old, of sci-fi writer John C. Wright’s personal blog. Ranging in tone from humorous to weighty, yet always thoughtful, Wright addresses such topics as the terribleness of The Hobbit films, how to be a writer, philosophy in the works of sci-fi Greats, strong female characters in sci-fi, and the taxonomy of the stages of moral decay, among others, in an incredibly readable, articulate manner. Any one of these essays could have been nominated alone as a related work; taken together, they speak to Wright’s prolificness of writing and depth and broadness of thought.

2. “The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF“, by Ken Burnside

An excellent sci-fi writer’s resource that explores what military actions, tactics, strategy, and logistics in outer space might look like given the current state of scientific knowledge, particularly the Laws of Thermodynamics. It is a quick but fascinating read, and if it weren’t competing against a whole book’s worth of essays, would definitely be worthy of the Hugo (honestly, I feel that perhaps ‘Best Related Work’ ought to be split into ‘long’ and ‘short’ subcategories).

3. “Why Science is Never Settled“, by Tedd Roberts

A timely, topical essay reminding us that the scientific method is just that, a method, and despite what newspapers and politicians like to say, can never be ‘settled’. Roberts takes us on a swift tour through the history of science, pointing out the many now overturned ideas that were thought to be settled once and for all in their day. “The Hot Equations” edged this out for the number two spot, simply because I felt it was more science fiction related than this essay.

I did not get the chance to read all of Wisdom from My Internet, but while what I read was amusing, the work as a whole did not feel science fiction-related enough for me to include it on my ballot.

Best Graphic Story

1. No Award

Seriously. If this is the kind of felgercarb we get when Puppies don’t nominate good works, no wonder the campaign has become a smashing success. I’m not terribly familiar with the wider range of current U.S. graphic novel offerings, but where the hell was Hellboy in Hell?

Hugo Capsules: The Movies

Better late than never. As it is now nomination season for this year’s Hugos, it seemed an appropriate time (if it can be called that) to belatedly finish and post my reviews of last year’s nominees, and offer my thoughts on contenders for this year’s awards.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

1. Interstellar

Phenomenal. A tour-de-force. The science is hard, the effects are fantastic, the visuals imaginative and gorgeous. The filmmakers put so much effort into getting the science right that an actual scientific paper was published as a result of research done for the film. If a science fiction film that leads to actual scientific discovery isn’t worthy of a Hugo, I don’t know what is. But that is not all. This film is a triumphant celebration of the wonder of Creation, courage and fortitude, reason and knowledge, and familial love. It is a condemnation and rebuke of utilitarianism, political correctness, and cowardice. “The glory of God is man fully alive,” and that glory is on full display here. This film was, for me, both the best science fiction film of the year, and the best religious one (and I say that not as a snarky science-worshiper, but as a Roman Catholic).

2. Edge of Tomorrow/Live. Die. Repeat./All You Need is Kill

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

4. Guardians of the Galaxy

Ranking the middle of the pack was quite difficult, as all of these films were well executed, and highly enjoyable. All You Need is Kill (to use the superior original title) edged out the two Marvel films partly by dint of not being a Marvel movie. Much as I love superhero films, I’ve also had seven straight years of them since 2008’s Iron Man. Kill was fresh and different, and had powered armor, and slivers. More important to its higher ranking, it was the most science-fiction qua science-fiction film of the bunch after Interstellar, a science fictional conceit forming the core of its plot, and the climax and resolution hinging on understanding that premise. I also appreciated the understated manner in which the romance was handled.

Winter Soldier was a wonderfully timely cautionary tale about surveillance technology and fascism, and a darn good action flick. Also, it had Captain America and Black Widow in it, and Captain America x Black Widow in it (even if Age of Ultron would later undercut this, but I digress). I was a bit disappointed by the climax however, as big-things-blowing-up-all-over-the-place felt 1) too much like the climax of The Avengers, and 2) clashed with the more intimate scope of the rest of the story. The film’s ringing praise of liberty and hatred of fascism earned it its spot above Guardians of the Galaxy, which was no less enjoyable, but which had less lofty goals, and chiefly concerned itself with being the best unabashed space opera cinema has seen for too long.

5. The LEGO Movie

I would never have thought to see this on the Hugo ballot, but it made me smile to do so. As someone who grew up with the wonderful toys, this movie was great fun for me, with it’s wacky inventiveness, and lack of cynicism. A few elements have come to bug me more after re-watching it several times: Batman’s jerkiness is quite funny the first time around, but becomes one-dimensional and less funny upon repeated viewing; and Wildstyle is ultimately not a very interesting character, and at times she seems to exist just for the screenplay to rebuke her and make Emmet look cool in comparison. Bear in mind though, that this is after many viewings, which the film was good enough to merit.

Hugo Capsules Inbound!

I’ve got a lot of plane travel to look forward to over the next few two weeks: Pensacola this week and Japan the next. I also have my beloved Kindle Keyboard* stuffed to the brim with Hugo Nominees for Best Novel, Short Story, Novella, and Novelette. Despite what you may have heard, us Sad Puppies like to read things before we vote on them, and I have a golden opportunity here to not only read the heck out of the Hugo packet, but review the heck out of it as well. Some stories will inevitably get more attention than others, but I will make sure each story gets at least one sentence on what there was to like and dislike. I’ve already cracked a few of the novellas, and let me say, Kratman is giving Wright a real run for his money with Big Boys Don’t Cry (this big boy may or may not have cried), but I’ll have to reread Pale Realms of Shade to be sure. One Bright Star to Guide Them, sadly, left me underwhelmed, though I wonder that I may not be the right audience for such a tale, and will perhaps appreciate it more when I have grown older and more tired, and am therefore in greater need of a booster shot of hope.

*This XKCD strip sold me on the merits of the Kindle Keyboard. I successfully went my first two-and-a-half months in Japan with my Kindle as my only mobile communications device. I, no kidding, learned how to drive my predecessor’s stick-shift from Wikihow.

Capsules III

These have been fun to do, so I’m going to make them a fairly regular feature.

Image from Allison and Lillia

Image from Allison and Lillia

Something I’m watching: Fate/Stay Night

I’m giving this one another shot after thoroughly enjoying Fate/Zero. It still suffers from the slow pacing in the beginning that made me drop it previously, but I find all of the cast and the overall story far more interesting now that I’ve seen the prequel and know things they do not (MWAHAHAHA). This may turn out to be a double-edged sword though, as any poorly done characterizations of the Heroic Spirits will look all the worse in comparison to Fate/Zero. I’m going to try and stick with Fate/Stay Night through to the end, but from what I’ve read, it’s the weakest part of the series, but necessary for understanding Fate/Zero completely, as well as Unlimited Blade Works, so I’ll see how this goes.

Something I’ve just watched: Allison and Lillia, Generation One

Read the rest of this entry

Capsules, Round 2!

Another handful of capsule reviews as I continue to procrastinate work on longer pieces.

Image from Hallels

Something I’m watching: Legend of Korra, Book 4: Balance

I was a little nervous about the idea of a three year time skip between seasons, but it worked great, and this season is off to a tight, smart start. I’m happy to see Varrick playing a bigger role in the supporting cast again, and while I don’t like how Toph was treated in Book 3, she is awesome so far now that she’s actually appeared on-screen. It’s too early to tell for certain how well Mako’s and Korra’s characterization will fare this time around, but these first few episodes have me confident that the writers will handle them well. Something else I’ve always liked about Legend of Korra as a whole that struck me watching this new season is that the show questions a lot of standard fantasy tropes, such as the romanticization of monarchy, or the idea of one superhuman solving all of the world’s problems. Also, props to Book 4 for having the best villain since Amon. Well, at least, I think Kuvira’s supposed to be the villain, but I’m a little worried that I’m mostly agreeing with her right now. I, for one, welcome our new metalbending overlord.

Something I’ve just watched: Aldnoah.Zero, Season 1 Read the rest of this entry

A Collection of Capsules

It occurred to me that despite the number of draft posts cluttering up my dashboard, I haven’t added any real content to this blog since surviving THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Since then, I have enjoyed a lot of media, some of which deserve longer reviews. While I percolate on those items however, I’ll be posting capsule reviews of those tales for whom my feelings can be summed up more neatly.

Image from RoosterTeeth

Something I’m watching: RWBY, Season 2

Dealing with jetlag a few days after I returned home from Japan, I decided to give RWBY a try. Red-Riding Hood-esque heroine cutting down hordes of monsters with a giant scythe-gun? Could be interesting. The show continues to pleasantly surprise with me with it’s consistent quality of writing, and the animation has improved from Season 1. It’s a ridiculously fun mashup of a Japanese magical girl-type show and a Western magical schoolchums-type story. Season 2 opens with the comic highlight of the series thus far: a drawn out foodfight in which all of the main cast unleash their signature fighting styles upon each other wielding…baguettes, among other comestible armaments.

Something I’ve just watched: Legend of Korra, Book 3: Change Read the rest of this entry

Metachronopolis Triple Feature!

          Obscure midlist author extraordinaire John C. Wright, who has a talent for mashing together sub-genres I love, has written another tale of Metachronopolis, the City Beyond Time. I am a big fan of Wright’s previous two Metachronopolis yarns, and after reading the preview chapter of Wright’s latest story eagerly anticipate it’s publication. But, it seems, it may take a miracle for Suicide in Metachronopolis to to see the light of print, and so I urge you to respond to Wright’s call for prayers, wishes, good vibes, etc. Take a look at the preview chapter as well; it features one of the Helenne of Troy, a Phillip Marlowe-esque time traveler, and the newest entry into my Scariest Time Travel Monsters hall of fame: the Tin Woodman!
tick, tock, tick, to-*slice*

Because fanart for published works is too mainstream

Also, consider getting a copy of Clockwork Phoenix 1 & 3, which feature other tales of Metachronopolis as part of excellent collections of time travel short stories. Capsule reviews after the jump.
UPDATE: Both works, plus Suicide in Metachronopolis (now “The Plural Helen of Troy”) and several other time travel stories by Wright are now available in the anthology City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis.