The 2016 Hugo Awards: An Overview

Introduction___The_Hugo_AwardsThe Hugos are on again, and I’ve managed to read the novels. The range this year is varied, with series science, high action fantasy, and completely original takes on old themes on the nomination list.

First of all, I have to say that I have avoided getting into the problems that the various puppy groups have bought to the Hugos. It’s not a question of do I think they are right or wrong – personally, the points that they bring up about the direction of the genre prove we have a  living genre that is always evolving.  Instead, I have taken each book on its merits and have been impressed this year with the overall quality of the writing. If this was an award based entirely on writing ability, the decisions for those voting would be difficult given the high level of writing. What I did find was five varied novels, although this year the nominations seemed to lean towards fantasy, with three of the five in that setting. It was the settings that impressed , be it the steampunk of the Cinder Spires, the barren rocks of the Fifth season, or Russian folklore of Uprooted, all three are good fantasy novels, and were reading time well spent. Leaving Ancillery Mercy and Seveneves.

 Ancillery Mercy, the closing of a trilogy, continued to an ending that was nice and clean. Seveneves was a wonderful, well-written book, let down by a final act that could have been removed without ruining the novel.

So which is the best? I looked back at the previous winners, and those that I have read. It seemed to me that the Hugo award should go to a novel that was original in content, with well written characters, and taking place in a possible world that made sense within itself and presented the reader with some wonder.

This narrows possibilites down. Uprooted, The Fifth Season and Seveneves seemed to fulfill these criteria the best.

Which makes the final cut difficult. Which one will win? Often, it appears winning the Nebula is pretty good indication of Hugo results, in which case, Uprooted would the be pick.

However, after reading it, my mind keeps coming back to the images that Seveneves  put in there. The cramped living quarters so close to the vastness of the universe, as well as the science it explained along the way. This was a novel that extrapolated the current situation, and made it credible. In terms of a science fiction novel, this one fulfills all the needs that we have when we read one.

Which is why my personal feeling is that Seveneves should be the one to win the Hugos this year.

Review: The Cinder Spires – The Aeronaut’s Windlass

jim-butcher-aeronauts-windlass-cover-530x800Jim Butcher does fantasy and does it very well. In The Aeronaut’s Cutlass, Butcher shows how well. In the fantasy world he sets up, the population live in a number of spires which are accessed through airships.

Once this is set up, the action starts, as an attack is launched between two spires, and the pace barely slows from there.  In a fantasy novel, the setting is the major thing. The steampunk setting is very well realised with the information dumps and techncal details kept to a bare minimum. The canvas for the story is  easy to picture thanks to Butcher’s descriptions. What I found interesting was that I saw all this in an Anime setting, which is not something I usually do.

Caught up in all the action are spire guards, half crazed magicians, intelligent cats, and a disgraced air ship captain. The characters that we meet are all so very confident of themselves and of those around them, which results in not much personality depth. However, given the fun that this book is to read, it can be quickly forgiven. This is the first book of a series and sets the tone and the world very well. With the high adventure and enjoyable characters, this novel would not be out of place sitting next to your David Eddings.

Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

sevenevesThe name of Neal Stephenson is one that has come across my desk and various internet feeds over the last couple of decades, and was always on my to do list. With his newest novel, Seveneves, I get to tick that box.

Stephenson starts the novel with the moon being destroyed. After that, things get worse. With characters based on Neil Degrasse Tyson,Elon Musk and Hilary Clinton, you know that things are going to be interesting. This is certainly true during the first two thirds of the book. As the human race deals with the consequences of the explosion, characters appear that are well developed, as is the habitat they now live in. There are sections here where Stephenson’s descriptions are so good, you start to feel the claustrophobia, smell the unclean people, and see gaunt figures moving around. That’s not to say that is entirely engrossing. To start with, there are information dumps on orbital mechanics; if you were looking for a primer on the subject, this would be a good place to start.

It is the ending where this novel is really let down. If a reader was to close the book and walk away before the final act, they would end with an ambigious ending that would have made this story a near perfect science fiction novel. Instead, we get this last act which feels almost tacked on. While it is interesting, it felt unnecessary.

If you are looking for a piece of hard science fiction, this would have to be one of the best examples around at the moment. It extraplolates current science and throws in some well developed characters, but is disappointed by its final act.

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

us-uprooted-e1433948641794When a novel starts with a dragon taking a girl, you may begin to suspect that you are about to slip into a few hundred pages of cliches .

In Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, you can feel at times that this is the case. Novik draws on Eastern European mythology for the framework of this story, and this was helped by the narration on the audio book by Julia Emelin’s accent. Given how many tropes are floating through the book – village girl plucked from mundane life, powerful wizards,  an ancient evil that must be defeated – it is very easy to see where this book is going to go.

Don’t let this dissuade you though. By not having to spend as much time on the story, Novik is able to spend more time creating a unique world , which becomes very vivid. Given the story, there are milestones that are expected to be reached, and the reader is guided to each as the main character grows from the simple village girl to where she’s gotten to by the end of the novel. Along the way, characters are introduced and developed with the care that is required for you to really feel for them. This is where Novik is at her best. Despite feeling that this story is familiar, I found myself caring for these people, and any interruption to the audio presentation was seen as annoying .

Overall, for those who enjoy a rip snorting fantasy that’s light on the politics but has a  coherent mythology, then this one’s for you. And it’s contained in a rarity for the genre – a single book.

Review: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary_Mercy_CoverWhen you get to the last installment of a trilogy, you expect big things. This is the installment that ties up loose ends, and completes a character’s journey.

In Ancillary Mercy, Anne Leckie manages to do both of these. The action here picks up a few weeks after 2014’s Ancillary Sword, with much of the first few chapters dealing with the immediate aftermath of that novel. It then moves into a holding pattern, with various other tasks at hand, as the novel waits for the Empire at war with themselves to arrive.

That’s not to say that this makes the novel uninteresting. As a world building exercise, this novel certainly expands the universe that the Ancillary Trilogy lives in, and Leckie should be congratulated for creating such a vivid, true enviroment for the characters to inhabit. During all this, the confusion of Breq with gender continues, and despite the idea of journey the character never seems to be any hurry to try remedy this situation. Since the story is told from Breq’s view, everyone being referenced in the female can make it feel like this is a world only of women.

The climax  is something that seemed like it was going to be massive. Without going into spoilers, it isn’t. Overall Leckie has certainly shown herself to be a talent to look for in the future, and one that I will certainly read when her name comes across my desk. As for this novel ? Well, I would say it is a satisfactory ending to the trilogy, with enough room for this universe to be revisited.

Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

aurora-ksrKim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel tells the story of a multi-generational voyage to Tau Ceti, and what happens when the craft gets there. Robinson’s novel is a well researched piece of fiction and he manages to do this whilst avoiding esoteric information dumps.

We follow the life of Freya, in the beginning a teenage girl on the craft, as she experiences attempts to colonise, then maturing into a woman as the events reach their climax. The story is bookended by an omniscent voice, but  the main part of the novel is narrated by the ship’s Artificial Intelligence. This is where it can sometimes get a little odd, as there is the occasional discourse on the varying aspects of language, story telling, and logic. These ponderings by the AI have the potential to bring the story to a standstill, but Robinson manages to keep them short and easily understood.

As the story progresses, we not only follow Freya growing up, but the narrator also grows with the course of the novel. I listened to the audio version, which was narrated by Ali Ahn. She does a good job of pacing the spoken word – it is young males that are her only challenge, with the three that Freya interacts with all sounding the same to me.

The final part of the novel was not an ending that felt satisfactory. If it had ended in the previous section, it would have finished on a bit of a downer, and yet an optimistic note with all journeys completed .

Overall, if you enjoy good character driven science fiction that will make you think, I would recommend it.

Dune Turns 50: Is It Still Relevant?

illustdnEarlier this year, Frank Herbert’s  “Dune” celebrated fifty years since it was first published in novel form – it had previously been serialised in Analog magazine from 1963. My first exposure to the Dune universe came through the David Lynch movie, and I got my first copy of the first book shortly after that. As a teenager, I found myself reading the book as a novelisation that wasn’t written by Alan Dean Foster. Over the next decade or so, the novel was on my high rotation – I read it at least every other year – and I started to discover the other themes and ideas.

As a man now in his forties talking about a book I’ve read since my teens, the question becomes: is it still relevant? Some would say the basic premise – a bunch of fanatical killers sitting on the edge of the desert waiting to destroy civilisation – would be fairly relevant, given recent events. However, there is more to this book than that. There is enviromental change,  politics, leadership, hero worship, the dangers of messiah, addiction,  and resource management. I read the novel this year, and discovered that many of the ideas in book are something that have become part of my philosophy in life. When you look around and see the blind worship of those we see as heroes, and how that power can be harnessed and abused, Dune remains very relevant. Many have commented on the ecological side of the novel, which is certainly a main theme – but given the feudal universe in the novel, there is a lot of deception; something the characters note to themselves as they talk about feints within feints and plans within plans.

And what of the novel? It can come across as a little simple.  The noble good Atreides , the evil Harkonnens headed by a pedophile, the servile Fremen Stilgar . These characters can sometimes come across as a little wooden in places, placing plaititudes here and there. Once the novel gets going, they do tend to flesh out a little better , espically Paul and his struggle with who and what he is becoming. Where the novelt excels is in description – although describing a desert doesn’t seem all that hard in theory –  Herbert created an ecosystem that was logical and true to itself. There are prey and predators, all evolved to survive in the desert and to hunt every trace of moisture they can.

Away from the planet, there is a formed society of kings, dukes, merchants, spacing guilds, sisterhoods, the whole shebang. The shaping of this larger universe is helped by the use of quotes of fictitious books at the start of each section which not only sum up the theme of the next bit, but expand our understanding of the larger universe. The impression created is that this story takes place in a book bigger than it actually is.

This is a book that has maintained its appeal over the years because there is so much in it. You can read it as I first did – a rollicking Space Opera – and then read it again and see the subtle things going on in the book. If you haven’t read “Dune” in the last twelve months, do yourself a favour. Read it.

The Hugo Awards: Let’s Talk Puppygate

044602139-ibm-electronic-data-processingSince 1953 the one award science fiction writers have valued is the Hugos. Previous winners include Issac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Arthur C Clarke, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Over the last few years, there has been tension as a voting bloc has tried to move the awards towards how they think science fiction should be.

The Sad Puppies first appeared in 2013, as an attempt to get a particualr novel to win. It failed. Since then, the Sad Puppies have put forward their ideas for nominations. Recently, the founders of the Sad Puppies have tried to distance themselves from the splinter group, known as the Rabid Puppies. Whilst both groups do seem to be wanting the same idea – a popular competition, not one based on the writer’s political, gender, racial or sexual leaning – the Rabid Puppies do seem to lean a little more to the right.

(If you want to do a deep dive into the whole issue, this Wired article is an excellent place to start – Ed.)

Seems rather confusing doesn’t it ? It also misses the point.

Science fiction is a wonderful genre. Within it, there can be thought provoking ideas, philosophies, and inspiring characters. It tells stories that can be intellectually stimulating but also be good old fashioned pulp fun. Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy showed that the two can live together. For people to say that the genre should lean one way or another is to avoid one of the major selling points of science fiction:  it is a genre that can be everything.

This debate shows that the genre is still a living, vibrant entity that is being supported by people with a real passion for it, and how they see it evolving. So long as the debate stays in the background, then this is good. When it comes to the fore, then we end up with no award being given in many categories as happened this year. This denies those of worthwhile merit not being recognised.

What’s your take on the matter?

 

The Hugo Awards: 2015 Winner Prediction

Cursor_and_The_Hugo_Awards___The_Official_Site_of_The_Hugo_AwardsSince 1953, the Hugos have been an award that those in the Science Fiction and Fantasy fields have prized. Over the years, many novels have won that have gone on to become classics. That’s not to say that the awards are just about novels. Magazines, movies, television shows, podcasts, even fan activity are all recognised amongst the awards. Locally, Andromeda Spaceways In Flight Magazine was nominated this year in the Best Semiprozine category.

This year’s nominations for novels have shown the range of the field, with Space Opera, Hard Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Urban Fantasy all getting nominations. To read all of the nominated novels has been something I have been wanting to do for a few years, and this year, I managed to achieve that goal.

The quality of the overall writing I have found to be of high quality, and anyone wanting to write in the field could do worse than to read the five nominated novels to see where the genre is right now.

With almost six thousand ballots recieved, it will be interesting to see which of the novels is being seen as the best . For myself, a novel in the science fiction and fantasy genre has to be entertaining, imaginative , original, thought provoking, and painted with a small brush on a grand canvas. While most of the novels certainly ticked all these boxes, some did more than others. Skin Game was entertaining,  Ancillary Sword was imaginative , Three Body Problem was thought provoking, and  The Goblin Emperor was certainly a grand canvas.

Kevin Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars ticked all the boxes for me. A grand space opera, played over a galaxy-wide stage with characters that felt real and a pacing that kept the pages moving. All that remains now is to see if a majority of voters feel the same.

Results will be announced on the 22nd of August in Spokane, Washington.

Review: Skin Game

skingame_lgWhen a novel is the fifteeth in a series, there is one thing you can bank on: the author is comfortable with the setting. In Jim Butcher’s Skin Game, he is sitting in the ezy chair, kicking back with a beer and watching the game on television.

The world of the book will be familiar to any readers of urban fantasy. Creatures of myths roam the modern city street, in this case Chicago. In the middle of it all is a human who is tormented in some way, usually by circumstance. They are chosen, or are a human/ mythical half breed. For Harry Dresden, the torment comes from being the “The Winter Knight”, which is a power to be controlled. Further torment comes from being manipulated by the various creatures around him. Demons, Angels, and Fairies from various cultures all combine to make for an interesting world, and Dresden is certainly one of the more interesting characters in the field. His world-weary cynicism adds a hardness that is often lacking in this genre.

Harry is co-opted by Queen Mab to help with a break in to Hades, so you know this is not going to end well for all those involved. Along the way, Harry becomes a likeable character, with his full geek showing. Anyone willing to make a reference to 1979’s “The Black Hole” is definetly an out of the closet geek. Being so far into the series, it would be possible to create a book that anyone new to the series would not be able to follow. However, Butcher is able to put in background information as needed, without slowing the pacing. This is my first Dresden file and I was able to keep tabs of what was going on.

I felt the final reveal was a bit out of left field. This is more to do with the betrayal to the reader. If you are going to go with the first person narrative throughout a book but not reveal everything that you do, then that’s what happens. While Harry may go through the story playing characters and twisting the truth, at the end of the experience the person holding the book is the one that he has to trust with everything.

That said, I did find Skin Game an enjoyable, easy read. Jim Butcher is certainly one author I will read if he crosses my path again.

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