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By ucblockhead (Wed May 14, 2008 at 11:00:39 AM EST) (all tags)
I read 'em all.


Over the last few years I've made an effort to read all the Hugo nominated novels in the spring. This time, I may actually vote. I finished the last of them, and these are my thoughts.

In general, I found it a pretty weak year. In theory, I've made this practice to force myself out of ruts and to encounter new stuff. This worked great last year with things like Eifelheim. This year, not so much. I'd read all five authors before. Four of them I've enjoyed before.

First up is Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. This is the only one I read before the nominations were announced and on a purely quality standpoint, it is the best of them. That said, I don't know how I'd vote if I do vote because I have pretty major problems with calling this "best science fiction". Chabon's championing of genre fiction is admirable and this is certainly a work of genre fiction; however, I don't think the genres he is working in are SF. This is really a detective story with an alternate history setting.

I've always had objections to calling Alternate History a subgenre of SF. It doesn't really feel to me like it is. It seems to me that it is more closely related to historical fiction and only gets lumped with SF because SF writers often write it. In this case, my objection is much stronger in that this book is only using alternate history as setting. Chabon is clearly uninterested in the chain of events leading to the Alaskan Jewish state and he spends very little text on explaining how the modern world has turned out differently. (Just namedrops of "The Second Russian Republic" or idle mentions of the nuking of Berlin.) The alternate history portions of this novel could fit in a few paragraphs as text. As such, I think this is a crime novel and thus shouldn't be up for the award. This makes it hard because, as I said, I think it is the best book of the bunch.

At the other end of the spectrum is Robert J. Sawyer's Rollback. I detested this book. I only read it because I am considering voting and won't vote against something I have not read. The last book I read by this author was The Terminal Experiment, which I also hated, for much the same reasons.

I find the prose painfully klunky. The characters, including the protagonist are cardboard, yet are often coerced into doing things out of character to advance the plot which itself is painfully contrived. There are deep philosophical issues, yet they are only delved into in a "add one chapter to discuss issue X" level. The setting is only SF in a couple of minor ways. With all the late-twentieth century name-dropping that goes on you'd thing it was set in 2000 not 2048. What is futuristic is written in the silly forties era futurist style in which characters over explain what should be commonplace to them.

The only thing it has going for it is an interesting theme, but it has been done better before. Holy Fire examines the same subject, but shows rather than tells.

So yeah. This makes it hard because there is no way I can vote it number 4 even if I think Chabon's book shouldn't even be on the list. I can't rate garbage higher than quality.

I have much the same feeling about Scalzi's The Last Colony and Stross' Halting State. Both cases I think are decent but not earth shattering novels by authors who I think have done better work. "The Last Colony" suffers in that it really is just there to tell us what happens next after a much better book. Scalzi also suffers from plots that seem contrived and from characters that are a bit flat (though neither to the extent of Sawyer) but what saves his work is the tongue-in-cheek character of it. There's a friendly humor to it all. In many ways, Scalzi doesn't write SF. He writes space fantasy. Nothing wrong with that.

"Halting State" suffers from many of the problems of Stross' lesser stuff. He does a great job with female characters as long as they are not in a book with a dorky male character looking for love. Unfortunately, this is not one of those books, so we have to suffer through a painful love story. Nothing wrong with that from people good at writing that. The most interesting bit, the inside-the-MMO-dotcom stuff, is unfortunately overshadowed by the substandard love story and the action elements that got a bit tedious. Still, there was some amusing bits. It was an enjoyable pastime.

I had a hard time getting into Brasyl at first because of the dense local color but once I managed to get into the characters it sped up. The other interesting bit is that the book goes one for quite a while, probably over half the book, before you really see what the damn thing is about. (Other than Brazil, that is.) The book has three plot lines, one in modern times, one set a generation into the future and one in the 18th century. For half the book, these seem to have little to do with each other.

Once you get to the actual theme, it is pretty interesting and definitely big picture SF, but I won't spoiler it here. Overall, I enjoyed it, though I had some issues with the ending. Honestly, I didn't completely understand what was going on. It seemed a bit...rushed.

Anyway, my vote will likely be:

  1. Brasyl
  2. Halting State
  3. The Last Colony
  4. The Yiddish Policemen's Union
  5. Rollback

I may move "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" to first place though...it really is the best book.

< Flowers in May | pop! my shoe exploded. >
Hugo novels diary | 14 comments (14 topical, 0 hidden)
If you vote... by Vulch (4.00 / 1) #1 Wed May 14, 2008 at 12:00:01 PM EST

"Blink" for the best drama (short form) please.

I'll keep that in mind by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #2 Wed May 14, 2008 at 12:26:13 PM EST
I haven't gotten through any of the short stuff yet.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
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I've only read two by TheophileEscargot (4.00 / 1) #3 Wed May 14, 2008 at 12:49:01 PM EST
I liked "The Yiddish Policeman's Union", though I didn't think it was flawless.

There was some interesting discussion of genre in Orson Scott Card's "How to Write SF and Fantasy". He said out that mainstream writers get easily panicked by SF, because it tends to introduce unknown terms and new words and things that are only going to be explained later. SF fans keep reading, trusting that they'll be able to keep up. Mainstream fans tend to slam the book shut and say "I can't understand this gobbledegook".

I'm not sure that's really true anymore, with mainstream writers writing more SF these days. I wonder if they're spoonfeeding their readers a bit more: ought to look out for it next time I read one. "The Book of Dave" definitely didn't make many concessions like that. But it could be that gives those books a non-SF feel as well.

Didn't like "Halting State".

Haven't been able to read Ian McDonald in years. He seemed like a really promising writer at some point with an elaborate, flowery China Mieville-ish style: "Desolation Road" really blew me away at the time. He doesn't seem to have gone anywhere since though; just the same stuff at much greater length. "Brasyl" sounds a bit too much like "What I Did on My Holidays" SF, where the alien civilization is a cheesy version of your latest trip abroad.
--
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

Comments by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #6 Wed May 14, 2008 at 01:24:01 PM EST
"Brasyl" was in many ways too full of color. Sometimes it seemed as if half the page was Portuguese.

I'm not sure that the "mainstream" effect you mention is what was going on with "The Yiddish Policeman's Union". I'm currently reading Chabon's current book of essays about genre fiction and from what I can tell so far, science fiction is not one of his favorites. It's not that he disses it so much as that he goes on at length about many other genres. So I suspect it is more a matter of him simply being more interested in the detective novel than the alternate history novel.

Overall, though, this is a pretty disappointing year if you take these five as "the best".
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

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hugo winners by garlic (2.00 / 0) #4 Wed May 14, 2008 at 12:50:42 PM EST
I just read the paladin of souls by bujold, along with the 2 recentish connie willis winners and rainbow's end. The bujold was pretty terrible, with plot only advancing by the gods who are outside the story directly intervening in it. It was also fantasy / romance, heavy on the romance. Connie Willis two time travel stories were very enjoyable, if a little too heavy handed on the foreshadowing. Pratchet esque. Rainbow's End was fine while reading it, but for whatever reason very forgetable -- I always have to look it up when I'm talking about it.


Bujold by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #5 Wed May 14, 2008 at 01:15:43 PM EST
I tried her fantasy once. I only made it to page 100. I really liked her military SF, though, especially the early ones before she got romance heavy.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
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Robert J. Sawyer and mystery SF by johnny (2.00 / 0) #7 Wed May 14, 2008 at 02:59:09 PM EST
Sawyer's a nice guy. I was on a panel with him at the Arisia con in January in Boston (Cambridge). He was smart and funny and quite a showman. He's in love with himself but not to the extent that he disdains other people. He appears to like other people.

Coincidentally enough, the panel was on mystery-SF genre blending.  Sawyer was the star on the panel that everybody came to hear, and I was a nobody there to fill out the panel. But I got plenty of opportunity to speak & it was fun.

Then I went to a reading of his new novel, and wasn't impressed by the book at all. However, I was very impressed by his reading of it, which was quite theatrical.

A little while later I ran into him in the hallway, and he invited me to join him for lunch, which I did. I found him a very pleasant fellow. The third person in our party was Fiona Kelleghan.

Over lunch I complimented him on how well he read his work & found out that his first career & formal training were in radio.

I've never read anything by him, although I do own a copy of Frameshift. Frankly, when I found out that I was to be on a panel with him I went looking for a book by him in order to get it autographed as a pretext to give him copies of my books. Which I did, at lunch. (I didn't imagine I would be lunching with him.)  Anyway, "Frameshift" is evidently premised on the notion of shifted reading frames in DNA.

Obsessive readers of my nanoscopically famous novel Acts of the Apostles may recall that the character the super-hot Bartlett Aubrey does something or other with shifted reading frames in her Gulf War Syndrome research. That character is based on my Dear Wife Betty, who in fact was a co-author of the second article, ever, on that topic. It was in  Nature or Science, I forget which, & she presented it to Watson & Crick at Cold Spring Harbor in 1978.

Well, now we're far away from Robert J. Sawyer and mystery-SF genre blending, but I do like to brag about my Dear Wife from time to time, so shoot me.
Buy my books, dammit!

Sawyer by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #9 Wed May 14, 2008 at 04:27:42 PM EST
I have no doubt that he's a nice guy. If he didn't seem to be a big SF star, I probably wouldn't be so publicly harsh on his books. If you want a free ego-boost, I thought your book was much better than his!
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
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Always happy for compliments and by johnny (2.00 / 0) #12 Wed May 14, 2008 at 05:27:44 PM EST
Thanks.

Sawyer, on the panel and at his reading, did no small amount of reminding people that he makes his income by selling books.  He talked quite frankly about the economics of being a full-time SF writer. He's quite organized about it.

I don't know if he could write better if he put more time and effort into it, but I do get the sense that he's trying to optimize for income, not literary quality.

Meanwhile I've been working on The Pains, a novella, for four years.  I wish I had more of Sawyer's mercenary ability to just crank the stuff out.
Buy my books, dammit!

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Lunch with Fiona. by ammoniacal (4.00 / 1) #11 Wed May 14, 2008 at 05:09:09 PM EST
Damn. I am one jealous bastard.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

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Well, she's hot and smart by johnny (4.00 / 1) #13 Wed May 14, 2008 at 05:33:16 PM EST
and extraordinarily friendly and easy to talk to.  I liked her a lot.

Only last week I found the notebook in which she had written her email address for me.  I think I'll send her a note!
Buy my books, dammit!

[ Parent ]
responses by aphrael (2.00 / 0) #8 Wed May 14, 2008 at 03:26:45 PM EST
I couldn't get past the start of Yiddish Policeman's Union; it was written in the second person, and I'm congenitally incapable of dealing with such writing. Maybe it got better later.

I loved Holy Fire, and I hate Robert Sawyer.

I've never been able to get into Ian McDonald, althoughI've heard onlyl good things about this book.

I have to vote this year, but I may ignore the novel category.

If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

Second person... by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #10 Wed May 14, 2008 at 04:29:07 PM EST
Don't you mean "Halting State"? That was in the second person. I don't remember "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" using such games.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
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Alternate History by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #14 Fri May 16, 2008 at 02:49:11 AM EST
The best SF treatment of that was, I think, in Piper's Paratime series.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

Hugo novels diary | 14 comments (14 topical, 0 hidden)