June 16, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: Hugo Award 2011

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

It's time once again for the Hugo Awards, which with the Nebulas is considered one of the two most prestigious honors in science-fiction; and as usual, I ended up reading all five nominees for Best Novel in the three months between their announcement and the picking of a winner, taking place this year on August 20th at the rotating Worldcon in Reno, Nevada. (By the way, next year's Worldcon is being held in Chicago, and CCLaP's planning on having a large presence at that particular convention; but more on that as we get closer to the actual date.) I've already read this year's frontrunner, Ian McDonald's The Dervish House (and in fact also conducted a long interview with McDonald about the writing of that book, for those who still haven't seen it); here below, then, are my looks at the other four nominees, all of them read within the last month.

Feed, by Mira Grant

Feed, by Mira Grant (Orbit/Hachette). Every year, it seems that at least one Hugo nominee earns its status not from its actual quality, but rather from being a favorite among fanboys and fangirls precisely for making fanboys and fangirls the heroes of their action-based wish-fulfillment plots; take for example Mira Grant's Feed, a cliche-filled look at life after a zombie apocalypse chock-full of groan-inducing details (a rash of post-zombie children named "George" in honor of filmmaker Romero, a world where teenage emobloggers are the new Pulitzer-winning super-celebrities), but which posits the engaging idea that within an actual zombie apocalypse, the ones who would best survive would be the actual zombie-movie-loving Comic Book Guys of the world, the ones taking the threat seriously from day one while the rest of the planet still thinks it to be a hoax or media stunt, and thus building society back up so that it looks curiously like the average episode of a Joss Whedon television series. It's one of those books that has almost no chance of actually winning, but is still nice to see nominated, an only middling title but that is passionately loved by the niche fanbase that knows exactly what it's looking for, and is so happy to see it delivered here that they've elevated the book into award status by sheer will alone. It comes recommended in that spirit to those specific readers, but certainly not to a general audience.

Out of 10: 7.3, or 8.8 for fans of zombie-apocalypse stories

Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen Books). And then here's another common type of Hugo longshot often seen at the bottom of each year's nomination list, which is perhaps best described as "My Big Fat Convoluted Space Opera, Part Seven;" so that is, the latest volume in one of those endless Star-Wars-like sagas that hardcore conventioneering fans are such suckers for, full of spaceships and laser guns and evil aliens and with a backstory so complicated by now, casual readers can't even hope to get caught up. In this case, it's the 13-volume "Miles Vorkosigan" series whose origins date all the way back to the 1980s, which according to Wikipedia is vaguely about a future humanity which colonizes a whole series of planets connected by interstellar wormholes, and the feudal aristocracy that develops on one of those worlds when its wormhole collapses for several hundred years, our titular hero being some sort of rogue count on the planet who for decades now has been going on a whole series of galaxy-spanning adventures, competently written but frankly the kind of clunky, mediocre title that only a fanboy could love. I mean, don't get me wrong, this is precisely often enough to actually win -- past titles in this series have won a remarkable four Hugos just on their own, which with her Nebulas and Locuses makes Bujold one of the most award-winning writers in science-fiction right now -- but in my opinion, I just can't imagine this simplistic shoot-em-up having even a chance of beating out an industry-changing title like Dervish. A book only for existing fans of weekend syndicated Canadian sci-fi television shows (I'm looking at you, Stargate lovers), this comes recommended to them but not to a general audience.

Out of 10: 7.5, or 8.5 for fans of weekend sci-fi television shows

Blackout, by Connie Willis

Blackout, by Connie Willis (Spectra/Random House). If anything could be considered a serious competitor to Dervish for this year's Hugo, a lot of people would consider it this, both because of its pedigree (Willis is already a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and this is the only of the five nominees this year to be put out by a traditional mainstream press) and because of its inventive, nerd-friendly premise -- that in the future, time travel is so commonplace, it's become as regular a part of the average Oxford experience as a semester abroad, full of time-tested rules and fussy procedures, all of which start falling apart in this case after a group of student time-travelers all get stuck in World World Two Britain for some mysterious reason. But alas, what should've been a delightful romp along the lines of a "Tuesday Next" novel instead often comes off sounding as if Willis was saying to herself, "Wow, look at this amazing book of World War Two trivia I found at a rummage sale last week; now, how fast can I slap together a half-assed sci-fi conceit as an excuse to reprint word-for-word as much of this trivia as possible?" Because while this has all the makings for a fast-paced yet light-toned actioner in the style of, say, the new Doctor Who, Willis unfortunately on nearly every page uses this story to ploddingly insert some obscure fact or another about this real building that got bombed in the early '40s, or that real shopkeeper who became a minor hero, sometimes handled so awkwardly that on more than one occasion she literally just has characters sitting around reading textbooks out loud to us; and I can think of few disappointments bigger in genre literature than a young-adult sci-fi action adventure where the characters spend their time sitting around literally reading expository material out loud to each other. A big letdown, especially given that this is my first Willis novel, although I'll be sure not to judge her entire career by this title alone.

Out of 10: 7.2

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit/Hachette). And then this is the final Hugo nominee I tackled, which I deliberately saved for last because of it being a fantasy novel; and as regular readers know, I not only am not a fan of fantasy literature in general, but its most well-known tropes tend to make me roll my eyes in full schadenfreude glory (Hail Thee, Fair Land of the Sexy Dark-Eyebrowed Platinum Blondes With Pointy Ears!), so I wanted to make sure in this case to be able to read this extra slowly and with a very open mind. But although I found certain elements of this saga-in-the-making to be quite interesting -- just to mention one near the beginning, the idea of a giant floating castle that hovers above the ground-based city that serves it -- even with the extra attention I unfortunately found this to possess the same main problem as all other fantasy literature I've come across (including the HBO series Game of Thrones that I'm currently in the middle of watching, but more on that in my write-up next month), which is that no matter how inventive their details, to me they all end up sounding vaguely like Lord of the Rings -- there always seems to be these warring royal families, and they always seem to live in these ridiculously ornate castles, which always seem to be leftovers from a previous "heroic age" from thousands of years previous, set in a world that always seems to have at least one sort of race full of creatures who all look and act like goth musicians, and always within a universe where magic is commonplace yet no one has ever thought of inventing the concept of word contractions. ("Erethon, I do not use those words which would be better expressed in the modern tongue as a series of short apostrophized phrases!" "You do not, sire?" "I do not, I can not, and I will not! I WILL NOT, ERETHON!") Granted, this is something you can say about every genre in existence, the main thing that makes them genre stories to begin with, which is why I try not to give fantasy novels too much flak merely for containing the things its fans are looking for; but certainly that makes it difficult for me to objectively review such a novel, and especially here where I'm being asked to compare it to a genre I like a lot more. So instead I will just give a generic middle-of-the-road score, bump it up for genre fans, and humbly ask for the forgiveness of fantasy lovers for the lackluster nature of my write-up.

Out of 10: 7.5, or 9.0 for fans of fantasy literature

The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

And of course, as mentioned, don't forget to read my review last year of Ian McDonald's The Dervish House if you never have, which by the way has also been nominated for this year's Nebula, Locus, BSFA, Clarke and Campbell awards, and which has a small but real chance of winning every freaking one of them, and which I'm convinced is going to serve in the future (along with last year's winner, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl) as a sign of a real sea change going on in science-fiction right now, and the first embrace by the mainstream of so-called "Third-World Cyberpunk" as a major new movement in genre literature. It really is that good, and I encourage you to read both it and the interview I did with McDonald last year about writing it, if you never have before.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:39 PM, June 16, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |