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:
- Halting State
- The Last Colony
- The Yiddish Policemen's Union
I may move "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" to first place though...it really is the best book.
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