May 31, 2015

Review: "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry," by Jon Ronson

(Note: Don't worry, I am still slogging through the Hugo nominees. After that last abomination, however, I needed a bit of a break.)

This is one weird little book. It feels short, even though it's 272 pages. I think that's because the author uses white spaces like I use the words "and" and "the"; there's usually at least one, if not more, per page. This tends to disrupt the flow of the narrative a bit, but since he is examining the so-called "madness industry," I suppose it fits right in.

This is a little literary mystery that is never really solved, and which leads our admittedly anxious, jittery author into a side tangent involving psychopaths and other forms of mental illness. (He does admit the terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" are interchangeable, but I believe the latter term is the one currently favored.) Several people are mailed a book entitled Being or Nothingness with parts of the pages cut out, with no indication of who mailed it or why. The author's attempt to figure this out leads him in several different directions, and finally to a study of various forms of "crackpots."

There's some scary forms of mental illness in these chapters, including a bit on the Church of Scientology that should make you run screaming in the opposite direction; a history of psychiatric diagnostics that involves such things as "nude psychotherapy sessions" in a pool, complete with a photo; the man, Bob Hare, who came up with the actual 20-point "psychopath checklist" (yes, such a thing does exist); the CEO of a corporation who closed plants and fired employees and "redefined a great many psychopathic traits as Leadership Positives"; an asshole named David Shayler who denies that the London 7/7 terrorist attacks really happened (I've run into his whackjob cousins in this country, who deny that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre took place), and who provides the best paragraph in the book:

"She won't look at the evidence," interrupted David. "I'm getting the same sort of vibe off you here, Jon. A viewpoint arrived at without evidence is prejudice. To say Muslims carried out 7/7--those three guys from Leeds and one from Aylesbury--to say they did it is RACIST, Jon. It's racist. It's racist. You're being a RACIST to Muslims if you think they carried out that attack on the evidence there."

There was a short silence.

"Oh, fuck off," I said.

Heh. The author's fragmented, jittery writing style tended to grate on me after a while, but at that moment I felt like standing and applauding.

The most interesting chapter is Chapter 10, which talks about both the overmedicating of children (for supposed ADHD and bipolar disorder), and the tremendous expansion of the listed mental illnesses in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Some of them sound more than a bit specious, and even the person who helped write that book admits he may have made a mistake on some of his criteria. This is sobering, and scary to think about.

The book ends with the author receiving his own copy of Being or Nothingness, with the same pages chopped out as all the other copies. He emails the person he believes is doing this (although I'm not sure he really knows for certain) and there the book ends. We've come full circle, and we're just as vague and mixed-up as when we started.

That's the whole point, I suppose.

May 30, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Wisdom From My Internet"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

Apparently, in deciding to review the Related Works category next, I've entered the self-flagellating phase of this endeavor. Another unpleasant encounter with John C. Wright awaits me; I'm saving his entry till last. I picked "Wisdom From My Internet" to review first, mainly to see if all the rumblings I've heard about it are true, and it is indeed the worst thing to disgrace the ballot in decades.

May I be perfectly frank for a moment?

Great Cthulhu, kill me now.

What the hell is this shit?

I really don't want to hurt Michael Z. Williamson's feelings, but I'm afraid it's going to be unavoidable. I'm assuming he possesses an average or even greater-than-average intelligence, since he is after all a writer. Therefore, I cannot fathom what he was thinking, loosing this fulminating excreta on an unsuspecting world. This does not even have the inexperienced well-meaning of a trunk novel. (Especially since it's not a novel at all, and has nothing to do with either science or fiction, or even coherence.) It should, bluntly, be taken out back and shot, then stomped into the ground and burned, the ashes thereafter buried and the earth atop them salted, so until the expansion of the Sun and the death of the Earth however many billions of years in the future, it shall never be seen or thought of again.

I'm not even going to quote from it, because I would end up posting all 113 pages and violating fair use, and my fisking thereof  would be War and Peace-like in its length. (I will say the "Sex" section is particularly stupid.) The best way I can sum it up is this.

I've been on Twitter for not quite five years. In that time, I've amassed 12,600 tweets. I do tend to be a wordy wench, using &'s and u's and other abbreviations to shoehorn my tweets under the limit, so let's assume an average of 125 words per tweet. This comes out to...well, let's say a Brandon Sanderson-sized doorstop. If I attempted to publish this meandering, narcissistic nonsense (although I really hope every publishing house would laugh in my face), then I would have the equivalent of Wisdom From My Internet.

Would it be worthy of a Hugo, or even of being on the ballot?

OH HELL NO.

Neither is this.



May 27, 2015

The Hugo Project: "A Single Samurai"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)


I've forgotten where I picked this up--I've been using it for my desktop wallpaper for quite a while now. It's actually a fair illustration of the last nominated short story, "A Single Samurai," which I've read now that I've downloaded the Hugo packet. This story is about a kaiju, a monster so huge it's literally the size of a mountain, so immense its grows trees and has wildlife and its own ecosystems. Only this monster awakens and goes rampaging through the countryside, and the nameless protagonist, the "Single Samurai" of the title, climbs up its sides in a doomed attempt to kill it.

This story started out in a fairly competent fashion, but when I got to its abrupt ending, I thought, "Is this all? Kee-ripes. This got nominated for a Hugo?" This is partly because the freaking first-person narrator dies in the end. I could have gone with this, maybe, if the story had been written in the first person, present tense, or if the plot twist was executed with the skill and (to be frank) balls of the narrator Georgia Mason's dying in Mira Grant's excellent Feed, where her last mention in that book is a blog post written literally as the zombie virus is taking her over. (For the record, that also made me cry, dammit.) Unfortunately, Steven Diamond is no Mira Grant; his anonymous Samurai ("Who am I? Samurai." What the hell is that? An advertisement for The Magical Monster-Slayer: Kaiju Katanas?) just stabs the creature's brain with his ensouled katana, and while still holding it, rips his own guts out with his equally magical wakizashi, and with his own dying, takes the kaiju with him. Bang bang the hero is dead, with no mention of the fact that this story opens with a nice rumination on his father, and a flashback of his father later on. It's written with the implication of the narrator looking back on his life. Which makes his sudden death impossibly jarring.

(Of course, Mr. Who Am I also falls into a cave that contains the monster's brain [both cave and brain are a sickly green]. Come on, people. I may know next to nothing about kaiju, but hell, even Godzilla had a skull.)

"Today, a single samurai killed a mountain." Bah. This story is mildly interesting in spots, but it's certainly not Hugo-worthy. My ranking of the Short Story nominees will remain unchanged.


May 26, 2015

The Hugo Project: "The Day the World Turned Upside Down"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

This is the final entry in the Best Novelette category, and the only one not on the Impacted Canines' ballots. It gained its spot because a John C. Wright story was disqualified, and this story, in 6th place, was placed on the final ballot. (There's one good thing to come out of that--at least I didn't have to suffer through another John C. Wright abomination.) For all my complaining about the Canid nominees, this does prove one thing: people other than Pupsters can nominate nonsense.

To be blunt, this is crap. Beautifully written crap, to be sure; but still crap.

The first three paragraphs explain the story's premise.

That day, the world turned upside down.

We didn’t know why it happened. Some of us wondered whether it was our fault. Whether we had been praying to the wrong gods, or whether we had said the wrong things. But it wasn’t like that—the world simply turned upside down.

Scientists lucky enough to survive the event said that it wasn’t so much that gravity had disappeared, but that it had flipped over, as if our planet had suddenly lost all of its mass and was surrounded by some colossal object. Religious people, unlucky enough to survive the miracle, said that life was give and take, and that God was now, after so many years of giving, finally taking. But there was no colossal object, and being taken by God is a dubious given.

This is, of course, completely implausible,  but no more so than some other common science-fiction tropes, such as faster-than-light travel. It's what the author does with his impossible trope that ruins the story.

Tired of her burden, Mother Earth shook off anything that wasn’t tied firmly down to her surface. In one upwards thrust, it all fell into the atmosphere. Planes, satellites, and space stations disappeared into the vacuum, and even Father Moon was pushed away from us. We saw him dwindle and dwindle, until he landed in his own sad orbit around the sun. He never even said goodbye.

And me?

I was lying on the couch, not doing anything really. I wasn’t reading a book or watching TV. If the world had come to an end, I wouldn’t even have noticed.

I was staring at my phone, waiting for you to call.

There, of course, is the problem in a nutshell. Toby, one of the most whiny-ass protagonists I have ever come across, uses this terrible situation, which would have resulted in the deaths of billions of people and the destruction of civilization, to bitch and moan about his ex-girlfriend, Sophie, who broke up with him the day before. He embarks upon an Incredible Upside-Down Journey, bearing Sophie's goldfish Bubbles (IN A BOTTLE OF SEVEN-UP FOR FRAK'S SAKE) and a girl he half-heartedly rescues along the way, Dawnie.

I gather the reader is supposed to sympathize with this character; he's the Broken-Hearted Protagonist, after all. But he soon establishes himself as the typical Nice Guy--in other words, not nice at all.

For the first half hour I resolved to show myself a valuable and sound person and not throw in the towel. I forced my tears back into my eyes and started doing the dishes. But as your lips on the glasses dissolved in the suds, I was constantly being haunted by visions of other men caressing the skin I wanted to caress, kissing the mouth I wanted to kiss, and fucking the girl I had made love to for such long nights.

(snip)

The end of the world creates two sorts of people: heroes and cowards. When the dangling woman had finally gathered enough courage to glance over her shoulder and saw me clambering from the open window, one end of the lashing rope tied around the couch in the living room and the other end around my waist, she must have thought I belonged to the former. Unaware of something cold that had seized me that same moment, she mumbled, “Thank God.” And not much later, as I reached and I stretched, as I tensed and I leaned, engrossed in efforts to try and get a hold of the goldfish in his bottle on the bottom of the gutter, the woman plummeted down, thinking of a long and fertile life, and neither you nor I would ever know her name.

At the end of the world, it’s every man for himself.

You had taught me that, Sophie.

When Toby finally gets to Sophie's house, instead of helping her with her injuries, and trying to figure out a way to survive in this horrifying new world, he starts to fight with her about the end of their relationship all over again, and expects her to fall at his feet now that he's made it all the way across the Upside-Down to be with her.

I pushed gently away from you so I could look you in the eye. “You called me.”

“Yes.”

“Sophie.”

You let go of me and hoisted yourself up, because you couldn’t handle the situation.

But I clasped your hand and said, “I’ve missed you, Sophie.”

“Stop it.” A tear trickled down your cheek. “I’m so worried about Mom and Dad. I haven’t heard from them. I haven’t seen anyone since it happened, not a single soul. Do you know if help is coming?”

I felt myself growing faint inside. “I came, didn’t I?”

You looked at me for a long time. “I’m sorry about how it all turned out.”

“Yeah. Me too,” I said. “I liked it better when everything was still right-side up. Made it a lot easier to see each other.”

“Toby.”

“Well, sorry—” My voice shook, looking for purchase. “—I just don’t know how to deal with it. Everything has changed now, right? Can’t we . . .”

“Toby.”

“But couldn’t we—”

“Don’t, Toby.”

I couldn’t hold back my tears. “But I’ll do everything differently.”

“You weren’t the one who had to do things differently.”

“I can’t handle this alone.”

“Sure you can.”

“But I love you.”

(snip)

“I love you!” I tried to scream, but my love rose in bubbles to the surface and burst apart. Weakened, I wheeled my arms, pounding on the plastic. And behind the label you looked away; you didn’t see that I was drowning. I sank down in a slow spiral, hitting the bottom of the 7-Up bottle with a muffled thump.

My lungs filled up with tears as I whispered, “Please . . .”

And you said, “I need time.”

(snip)

But I had already gone through the kitchen and didn’t hear you. Hanging from the banister, I lowered myself to the upstairs floor. After everything I had been through, after the countless times I had risked my life to take Bubbles to you, trying in vain to still my love for you with my love for you, and scrambling up from the pounding surf of a dying Earth . . . you need time? How much more time do you think the world will give you, Sophie?

Great Cthulhu, what an ass. And in the middle of a freaking holocaust, to boot. Did he ever think that a few things might be more important than his hurt fee-fees?

After this point in the story, we see Sophie no more; for all we know, Toby has left her to die. He returns to two old ladies in a hanging caravan, where he earlier left the girl, Dawnie, and descends via the hanging rope ladder they have left behind, into the sky, which is actually the new ground of this new Earth. He doesn't know what he'll find, but he's still complaining.

I think I want you to know that you hurt me so incredibly badly, Sophie. Now I’m going down the ladder. Searching for solid ground beneath my feet. It’s not easy. I’m terrified of what I will find down there. But I close my eyes and keep descending. Sometimes the ropes shake and I imagine it’s you following me, somewhere up there in the fog. But maybe it’s just the wind. And I realize I don’t care either way. I am somebody, too.

Blargh.

Again, this is beautifully written. The writer is more than just competent; he's a lovely stylist, far beyond anyone from, say, Castalia House. I would like to try some of his other stories (once I get the taste of this one out of my mouth). That doesn't keep this particular story from being utterly stupid, and unworthy of a Hugo, in my opinion.

So: I have finished this category, and this is how I will vote.

1) "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium"
2) No Award

Since I don't want any of the other stories to come within shouting distance of winning.

Now that I've downloaded the Hugo voting packet, I'm trying to figure out what category to tackle next. Stay tuned, folks.


May 23, 2015

The Hugo Project: "The Three-Body Problem"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many nominees on the 2015 Hugo ballot as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

This is a strange book. It falls into a genre I generally avoid like the plague. It is the hardest of hard science fiction, chock full of physics references, and its entire plot hinges on (if I'm reading this correctly) a real-life physics conundrum called the "Three Body Problem." I usually don't read books like this because I don't understand them; the science hurtles right over my head, and most of the time I find them to be full of infodumps and cardboard characters.

Complicating this particular book is the fact that its author, Cixin Liu, is something of a hero in China and this book is a translation. The translation seems to be very good; there are a few Translator's Notes, which are informative and occasionally amusing, but for the most part the translator does his job and stays out of the book's way. The book is naturally steeped in Chinese culture and history (the Cultural Revolution), and while that is not a bad thing in and of itself, it betrays the book's first problem. It is glacially paced, and for over half the book nothing much seems to happen. I hesitate to condemn this because it simply might be the Chinese style of writing. Also, since this is a hard SF novel, the science needs to be set up and explained for the book to work at all. If your tolerance for this kind of thing is low, just be aware of it.

The characters are...another problem. To put it bluntly, one of the two main characters, Ye Wenjie, comes across as a sociopath. She is damaged by the Cultural Revolution, and seeing her father beaten to death by the Red Guard right before her eyes; but she murders two people in her turn (one of which is her husband) and does not seem to have a smidgen of regret. (Of course, she is also the architect of humans' first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, and since she basically tells said civilization to come here and wipe us out, as humanity is not worth saving, she doesn't seem to have any regrets about that either.) None of the other characters are very distinctive, and it was hard to tell them apart, for me at least. The aliens, the Trisolarians, are even more guilty of this; during the two chapters written from their point of view, the author has a conversation between various Trisolarian higher-ups that goes on for pages, with little or no effort to differentiate who is speaking. As the entire race seems to consist of emotionless authoritarian SOBs who declare they cannot coexist with humans and intend to destroy them, I suppose that's appropriate.

This is an incredibly complex book, and sometimes I felt like I would need some sort of physics degree to understand it. I suppose it would reward additional readings, if one cared to do that. I do not. The best way to put it is that I appreciate the author and respect what he's trying to do, but I do not like his book very much.

On the other hand, I appreciate Ann Leckie and respect the world she has created in Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword; but more than that, I like both books. Love them, in fact.

That's the difference.

The only reason this book is on the Hugo ballot is because of the shenanigans of the Impacted Canines; one of the original slate authors, Marko Kloos, withdrew his nomination, making room for this book. One could argue it should have been on the ballot from the get-go, but at least it didn't get there because of the egomania of Theodore Beale. (I've been trying to ignore that and evaluate each nominee, whether Canine-pooped or not, on its own merits. So far, with only two exceptions, there aren't any.) I've heard rumblings that it has a good chance of winning, and it would be worthy, I guess. But for me, it doesn't hold a candle to Ancillary Sword, and I intend to vote accordingly.

May 22, 2015

The Hugo Project: "The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts where I review as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees in the time I have left before the July 31 deadline, and explain why I will or will not vote for them.)

This story is a little more like the Analog I remember. It's an old-fashioned first-contact story (the subtitle, "A Golden Age Tale," is something of a dead giveaway) with a fairly interesting alien species and a clever method of solving the problem, based on "an old Persian fable" the protagonist heard as a child. That protagonist, Emily Asari, is actually the most compelling thing about the story; instead of being the cliched hardnosed kickass heroine, this is an ordinary, not overly brave person who observes, and thinks, and eventually figures things out.

Having said that, there's really nothing all that memorable about this story. It certainly didn't knock my socks off the way "Earth to Alluvium" did. The writing is competent (although the author does tend to info-dump a bit) and the characterization adequate. However, I think Hugos should be awarded to something a bit more memorable than "adequate." Until I finish the category, "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium" remains the frontrunner.

May 19, 2015

The Hugo Project: "The Journeyman: In the Stone House"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I have time for before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

I'm beginning to think it might be a good thing I haven't read Analog in recent years. Judging from its stories on the Hugo ballot, the quality has fallen way off. Now, you would expect this kind of thing from Castalia House (since everything I've read from that publisher is just awful), but I was still under the impression that Analog is supposed to be something a standard-bearer, the magazine of aliens and hard science and honest-to-goodness sensawunda.

Well, judging from this story, Analog is full of wonder, all right. The wonder of outright ridiculousness.

(Although, to be fair, this could be the fault of the people nominating for the Impacted Canines, since so far, with some rare exceptions, their judgment has proved to be spectacularly bad. Still, I always thought Analog had better editors than this.)

This story opens with a quote from Louis L'amour: "The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail." That right there sets the tone for the entire story: an uneasy melding of Western and science fiction tropes, full of cliches and idiotic names and grating dialect and horrendous dialogue, culminating in a sword-fight that's just...dreck. Long-drawn-out, incredibly unsuspenseful, and absolutely pointless.

I mean, fifteen minutes of a Firefly episode is better than this.

Let's test-drive a few character names: Sammi o' th' Eagles (Sherman Alexie would snarl and spit at this, especially since this character sounded uncomfortably like a dumbed-down Tonto), Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand, our so-called hero; Figa Anya Goregovona Herpstonesdoor (also known as "the princess," "Princess Anya," or, to Teodorq, simply "babe"), and Wisdom Sharee Mikahali Fulenenberk.

Dear Lord. Tolkien is thrashing in his grave.

Now: an excerpt of the story's wonderful dialogue.

“Well, Bowman and his crew are fixing to move out west. He’s been building carts and wagons and stealing all the horses he can lay hold of. If’n you don’t push him, he’ll be gone before the Sperm shoots out.”

The Wisdom paused, startled, his marking feather half-raised. “The . . . Sperm?”

“Stupid plainsman means Consort. Enters Sun when in heat. Later Sun give birth.”

The old man’s eyes brightened. “Ah, you mean the Red Sun!” He scratched the paper briskly with his feather.

“You spilled that readily enough,” said the princess. “I mean about Bowman’s plans, not your sperm.”

“Hey, babe, it’s bad cess to the Timberlake folk west of the stony river that Bowman’s gonna muscle in on ’em, but it ain’t no skin off my nose.”

“And what is meant by ‘babe’?”

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

I think we hit the trifecta there: sexism, terrible jokes, and all-around cringe-worthiness. I suppose there's an outside chance this could be some sort of Joss Whedon satire, but any way you look at it, it's just bad.

Sorry, folks. There's no way in hell I'm going to the Stone House, and as far as I'm concerned, the Rocket will blast right by it.

May 18, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Championship B'Tok"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

This is the second story from Analog I've read (or rather, in this case, tried to read) and I'm surprised by the lack of quality. I started bouncing off this five pages in; the mild interest generated by the character in the first teeny-tiny "chapter" soon dissipated when he and his little cliffhanger completely disappeared, and were never mentioned again. That felt like a cheat, to say the least, and I skimmed through the rest of the story. I remember reading somewhere (can't find the link now) that this is a novel excerpt, and the ending justifies that notion; it's choppy and abrupt and resolves nothing, and certainly didn't encourage me to read the entire book. Not that I would read this anyway. I didn't relate to it at all, and have no interest in pursuing the characters further.

Not good enough to remember, not bad enough to fisk. This is not a recipe for a Hugo award.

May 16, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing the 2015 Hugo nominees, or as many of them as I have time for before the voting deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

I'm now beginning the Best Novelette category, and this story surprised me. It's a professional-grade story, even better than Kary English's "Totaled," and certainly worthy of a rocket. Of course, the irony is that the editor of the magazine (Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show) in which it appeared, Edmund R. Schubert, has withdrawn from the awards and officially requested that voters not consider him for Best Short Form Editor.

Which, of course, creates a conundrum, because this is a helluva story. It's a meditation on colonization, and death, and the human response to subjugation by an alien species, the fascinating Peshari. (They have six legs and four genders, and a horror of being buried, derived from a traumatizing incident in the species' past. The protagonist, Phil Keller, who is dying of cancer, reads this information in the reports on the Peshari landing on Alluvium [the human colony], and comes up with a way to defeat them, using the "pseudo-lizards' " own psychology against them. It's rather ingenious.) This story is not long, but it packs a lot of information, dropped in quite naturally without infodumps. It also has a nice flow, and quiet and thoughtful characterization.

I'll have to read the rest of the stories in the category to see how this one stacks up, but it seems like I'll have a decision to make. Do I go ahead and vote for this story, even though its editor has withdrawn, due to the slate-gaming antics of the Vituperative Impacted Puppies? (If you don't know what that means, don't worry about it--you're probably better off.) I know many people are voting against all slate entries on general principle. I'm voting against nearly all of the slate entries I've read so far, just because they're of almost uniformly rotten quality.

But there are exceptions to everything, and this is a big one.

Well. We shall see. But do read this. It's really good.

May 13, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Flow"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series discussing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominations as I can, and why I will or will not vote for them.)

As soon as I started reading this, I thought: "Hot damn! A competently written story!" I had almost forgotten such a thing existed.

Unfortunately, that's about all I can say for it. I'm a bit surprised Analog published this; it doesn't seem like their kind of thing, although I will admit it's been a few years since I've been a regular reader. I'm sure it will appeal to some people, but to me it was so relentlessly dull and mediocre I couldn't get into it. The characters didn't interest me at all (and the nearly complete lack of women didn't help). Nothing much seemed to happen, and in the very last paragraph, when Rist lowered himself to the Bottom Lands, I decided I didn't care if his biter-web broke and he plummeted all the way to the bottom. (Mercifully, the story ended there.)

(This is the last of the Novella nominees available for free. I did look up a Kindle sample of Tom Kratman's "Big Boys Don't Cry" on Amazon and read it all the way through, but within the first couple of pages it became clear that this was just more Castalia House-published, Theodore Beale-edited, badly written weapons porn. Just no, people.)

(It also cemented my conviction that my vote for Best Short Form/Long Form editor, whatever it may be, will not go to Theodore Beale/Vox Day under any circumstances. If an editor is supposed to be judged by his/her output...well, as far as I'm concerned, Mr. Beale's output should be flushed down the toilet. It consists of stuff that a decent editor would have never let see the light of day, and neither it nor he is worthy of a Hugo.)

Now. How will I vote in this category?

It's quite simple. That handsome gentleman, that lovely lady, the Honorable Noah Ward, takes this one in a runaway.

I don't feel the least bit guilty about this, either. In my view, nothing in this category is Hugo-worthy, and most of it is downright stupid. So just remember this for next year, kids: If you want votes, nominate better stories!

Now: On to the novelettes (for real this time).

May 10, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Pale Realms of Shade"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts about the 2015 Hugo nominees, explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

Holy shit. I swear, John C. Wright is going to be the death of me.

I think this is the worst of his three nominated novellas, and that's a damned low bar to clear. I forced myself to slog through it, mainly because I couldn't believe how bad it was. It couldn't make up its mind what it wanted to be; is it a noir detective story, or a ghost story, or a faery story, or a dead-man-seeking-absolution story, or was it, at the very end, a religious allegory of this same dead man being hustled off to the gathering of the first Christians at Pentecost (Wright is obsessed with Pentecost, for some reason) to have his sins forgiven?

It's all of these. It's also a freaking mess, and makes no sense whatsoever. I know this is fantasy, but every story should have its own internal rules and stick to them. Wright discards his rules left and right, or doesn't bother to set them up in the first place.

It's also just badly written, with juvenile mistakes. To wit:

I looked around again, this time with my eyes closed. I could feel the beat of life inside him, like heat from an unseen campfire. I finally understood what drove vampires crazy: Being able to feel being alive, but not being able to truly be alive. Drinking the living blood and feeling it inside you, just for a moment. Almost like the real thing. Undead onanism.

And with those final two words, the reader's suspension of belief crashes and burns. Undead onanism? There aren't enough heads and desks in the entire goddamned world for that. It's the most ridiculous metaphor I've ever heard. The definition of onanism, according to Merriam-Webster: 1. Masturbation; 2. Coitus interruptus; and 3. Self-gratification. What in the hell do any of those have do with vampires and drinking blood?

Onward we go, more's the pity.

It might have been a cluttered museum closed for repair, or maybe an abandoned antique shop. Here were masks on the wall of long-nosed creatures with spiked chins, or bat-eared creatures with curving fangs, or albino foxes smiling sweetly; next to the masks were braided whips on hooks with bits of bone and metal woven into the lash; next were staples in the walls from which dangled chains with manacles and gyves. 

A wall niche held a blue-faced idol of a many-armed goddess. One leg was raised in a dance-step, each of her hands was holding a bloody weapon or severed head, while a necklace of skulls was draped across the outrageous metal balloons of her breasts. She was stepping on a kowtowing dwarf. 

On one shelf were knives with serrated brass-knuckles built into the guards; other shelves held Coptic jars, or bottles filled with pickled meats or eyes or organs; in the back corner loomed an iron maiden, gently smiling, complete with channels in the base for the blood to run into a water bowl for the cat.

And this royal purple puffery, which is lacking only the slime and tentacles of Nyarlathotep, runs on and on and on for the next freaking page! Dude! Has anybody ever told you that LESS IS MORE?

The characters also have, shall we say, unique methods of speech.

"Your will is of no matter," he smiled, keeping his lips together. 

Doesn't this flout Dialogue Writing 101? How, pray tell, can someone smile words, especially through pressed lips?

Also, Heaven forbid that John C. Wright ever write an actual sex scene. This is bad enough.

"He will be as you are now. Is that so bad? And do you know, ah, do you know why he is here? He forgot his hat. In the room, in the dark, when he clutched her beautiful and sweating hot body in his arms, when they rutted like swine in heat, grunting, and he poured his sperm into her in a vast, hot, stiff explosion, a joy lost now to you forever. He took no pills. He remembers. And with your death, he is free to enjoy her and use her and spew his seed into her as he might spit into a spittoon on the floor, until the amusement of plundering you of yours is weariness to him. Is this not cause enough to kill? It is justice. The scale is unbalanced. Strike! Strike the flint against the steel! And you shall be whole!"

You know, Mr. Wright, there's this little contest called the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. That's where this crapola belongs. Not on the Hugo ballot.

Here came images from the mythic memory of mankind. But in one and one place only, they were different. The images of a mythical and timeless events were linked by rays of light like a tree to specific events that happened at specific places in the mortal world. It was like a road or a path or a tunnel reaching from the deep parts of eternity, far too far for me to reach, up to the mortal time. It was a pathway or pillar spanning the whole deep of the sea from the surface to the bottomlessness depths.

That isn't even a comprehensible paragraph, never mind its use of words that have never existed in any dictionary.

The story ends with a poem by William Cullen Bryant, "Thanatopsis," from which the title is taken.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan that moves, 
To the pale realms of shade, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death, 
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night, 
Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave, 
Like one that wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams. 

Now there's a piece of writing. And every single line of it is better than this bovine excrement.

The Hugo Project: "Ancillary Sword"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing the 2015 Hugo nominees, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

Ancillary Sword is the sequel to Ancillary Justice, which last year swept just about every award in the science fiction community, including the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel. I gave it a five-star review, and I felt all those accolades were totally deserved. Now we have the sequel, and the obvious question is: Is it as good as the first?

The short answer: Yes, in a completely different way.

I'm sure the author realized she would never have the big splashy entrance of Ancillary Justice again. That was a true lightning-in-a-bottle situation, and it's to her credit that she takes an entirely different tack with this book. Sword is tight and focused, looking inward to the characters rather than outward. The pace is slower and more deliberate, giving you time to work through the ramifications of everything established in Justice. This is not to say it's boring, not at all; if anything, this story would reward subsequent reads even more than Justice, I think.

There are two main threads here: 1) exploring the character of Breq Mianaai, the last surviving segment of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, now permanently downloaded into an ancillary body; and 2) exploring the fascinating, horrifying, quirky, ruthless Radchaai society. In this book, you can see Breq changing, beginning to open up; the flat tone of Justice, while perfect for that book, makes way here for a character who is struggling to come to terms with her situation and build a new life. This is summed up very well in the book's final paragraph, which is a wonderful capper to everything that has come before:

It wasn't the same. It wasn't what I wanted, not really, wasn't what I knew I would always reach for. But it would have to be enough.

Breq is still a nonhuman character, still thinks and acts differently than everyone else in the book (except the other ancillaries). But you can see, in this book, the beginnings of a new person, a fascinating meld of human and A.I. I am eagerly looking forward to the next book to see what this new person makes of herself.

Radchaai society, unfortunately, is not something to look forward to. It's fascinating, all right, but it's the fascination of a train wreck. On the one hand, you have a ruthless star empire, led by the three-thousand-year-old (and recently fractured into two, or perhaps more, opposing personalities) Anaander Mianaai, which "annexes"--read: "conquers"--every star system it comes across, and controls its citizens' lives right down to assigning them the work they will do and where they will live, and inserting implants that will allow the monitoring of every move they make. (The only check on Anaander Mianaai's expansion is the alien Presgar, which are so technologically advanced and so badass they force a treaty on the Radch sight unseen.) On the other hand, this same society is obsessed with gloves, and tea, and centuries-old tea sets (which actually play a fairly prominent part in the plot). This society is as fractured and fragmented as its leader, which is only to be expected, I suppose. Nevertheless, it's extremely interesting to watch its subtleties and nuances, and how Breq maneuvers her way through them.

We're being set up for something here, to be sure. I hope it involves the Presgar, as that's the only way I can presently see for Anaander Mianaai to be taken down. I suspect the third book is going to be as slam-bang and action-oriented as Justice. Nevertheless, we as readers deserved a bit of reflection and quiet time, and Ancillary Sword delivers that, in spades.

(An aside re: the Hugos. I would have read and reviewed this book anyway, as I loved its predecessor. It's quite interesting, however, that this book was nominated for Best Novel despite its absence on the Vapid Canines' slate. This, to me, speaks both to the strength of Ann Leckie's fans and its superiority as a written work. Certainly, everything else I've read of the Canines thus far is...not good, to say the least. This book is certainly deserving of a Hugo, and the others simply are not.)

May 5, 2015

The Hugo Project: "The Plural of Helen of Troy"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of me reading as many nominees on the 2015 Hugo ballot as I can, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

I think I'm discovering the secret of John C. Wright. His competence as a writer, such as it is, is limited to very short fiction. To put it bluntly, the longer he rambles on, the worse he gets. As this story aptly proves.

Honestly, I tried to read all of this pretentious, long-winded, convoluted mess. I really did. The first two-thirds of the story held the fascination of a train wreck, with its nonsensical plot and horrid dialogue, and I cackled out loud at several points just from the sheer ridiculousness of the tale. After that, however, what minimal interest I had quickly dissipated, and I kept flicking the pages of my e-reader, just trying to find the end of the damned thing. Reading all those extra words would have rotted my brain, I think.

If this is a "good" time travel story, than the Flying Spaghetti Monster please protect me from all time travel stories from this day forward. As well as I can understand the plot (which isn't well at all, considering the plot is bloody stupid), the hero is a cliched Roaring Twenties detective who calls women "dame" and lives in Metachronopolis, the City Beyond Time, where the Towers of Time hold all the alternate universes and fictional characters never die. He is hired by Jack Kennedy (!) to protect Helen of Troy, who is really Marilyn Monroe (!!!), from a future version of himself. (The so-called "plot" is a lot more complicated than that, unfortunately, and none of it makes any sense.)

*HEADDESK*HEADDESK*HEADDESK*

Need I elaborate how mind-numbingly unintelligent this is? I shouldn't have to, should I? Instead, let me cut and paste a few samples of the stellar quality of the writing.

I'd had a pretty good life, I guess. I had no complaints.

Strike that. My life stank like an incontinent skunk pie sandwich with no mustard, if one of the slices was the crusty heel no one likes to eat, and I had loads of complaints. 

*GROAN* Pass me the brain bleach, please.

My gun leaped into my hand from the holster, projected an aiming beam, then launched a missile made of white-hot plasma instead of old-fashioned metal. The gun emitted a magnetic force field shaped like a tube to guide the missile to the target, then designed and built an invisible set of braces and baffles out of nucleonic energy-tension to suppress the explosion within a five-foot radius. Then the gun focused a time distortion hole on the spot to sweep the wreckage of the door panels and part of the wall sideways out of the continuum, into the non-being between timestreams, as the missile plasma ruptured and made a miniature version of a sun. 

*BOGGLES* What the hell does that even mean? That's some Grade-A technobabble right there, mixed in with properly crusty weapons porn.

I hope you can follow this Celtic knot of cause and effect here. If I hadn't grabbed the machine that can dodge any grab, the machine would not have stood still and let itself get harpooned with the harpoon, because then my grab would  have missed. And it permitted me to grab it, it could not do otherwise, because with my arms around it, it could hit me, and if it had dodged, it could not.

And if wishes were horses, I'd be riding the Kentucky Derby winner, and Mr. Wright wouldn't be writing such crappy stories.

"Down, boy," I muttered. And my gun magnetically walked down my chest into my holster, folded itself up, and slid inside for a nap.

That gun is by far the best and most sensible character here.

I'll never get this hour of my life back, but at least I can warn others. This shite does not deserve to be on the Hugo ballot.



May 3, 2015

The Hugo Project: "One Bright Star to Guide Them"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts to review as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can, and explain why I will or will not be voting for them.)

As I explained previously, I've run into John C. Wright's prose before, and didn't much care for it. "One Bright Star to Guide Them" is the first of his three (!) nominations for Best Novelette. The "Hugo Finalists" link on SF Signal leads to a DRM-free download from Castalia House, containing all of Wright's nominated stories.

All I can say about this particular story is that it's a damn good thing the download is free, or I would be demanding my money back...and I might do that anyway.

Holy shit, this is bad.

How bad, you ask? So bad I couldn't finish it. I did manage to slog through "Parliament," but I'll be damned if I'm going to waste my time on this pretentious, derivative rip-off of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, replete with Endless Exclamation Points and Nigh-Endless, Meaningless Capitalized Nouns and Verbs That Are Supposed To Mean Something. I finally gave up upon reaching this paragraph of deathless prose, six pages in:

Tommy spoke with quiet urgency: "Tybalt told me the Winter King's men have entered this world. They have Atlendor's tarn-cape, and mortal eyes cannot see them. Tybalt brought me to the Wellspring of Wisdom in a cavern below the roots of an ash tree, where a hundred knights in armor of gold were sleeping on stone biers. He made me bathe my eyes in the spring; it burned and stung, and for a day, I thought I was blind. But when my blindness passed, I could see the fairy-creatures." 

HE MADE ME BATHE MY EYES IN THE SPRING?

Come on, Mr. Wright. How, exactly, did your plucky hero manage this feat? Did he pry his eyeballs out of their sockets, wash them in the spring, and stick them back in? Talk about jolting me out of the story (although, truthfully, by that point I was looking for an excuse to smash the e-book with a cyberhammer). After reading that paragraph, I decided, screw this. This story is not worth it.

For those who cry, waaah, I need to be fair and finish the story: Sorry, kids. With this much stuff on the ballot, I am reading as far as my interest is held and no further. It's the writer's job to make his/her story a good read; it's not my job to force myself to plow through something I absolutely do not like. (Mr. Wright should actually be grateful that, with this story at least, I didn't stop reading when I finished his byline.)

Nope nope nope. As George R.R. Martin famously said, "Some stories and writers aren't fit to polish a Hugo, much less win one." This definitely falls into that category.