April 30, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Totaled"

(Note: this is the newest in a series of posts wherein I review as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can, and explain why I will or will not vote for them.)

Hot damn. I finally stumbled upon a decent story.

Actually, this story is pretty good, even if its premise is downright terrifying.

The personal total wasn’t a new concept. It started back in the Teens when the Treaders put their first candidate in office. Healthcare costs were insane. Insurance was almost impossible to get. The Treaders said taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for medical care someone else couldn’t afford, so they instituted a review board for totals.

The uneducated, the elderly, the poor—they could be totaled at less than a year’s wages. My doctorate put my total at lifetime earnings plus a multiplier for patents. My policy was supposed to be enough to cover anything. I thought I was safe.

The research rider came with an annuity. I did it for the boys. I had a good salary, but things were still tight after the divorce. If I died or got totaled, the rider said ANA could have any tissues they wanted, and the annuity would go to Dale and Zachary.

Tissues, of course, meant brains.

This bit of backstory establishes "Totaled" as an alternate history, since due to the impact of the Affordable Care Act, this scenario simply could not take place. The "Treaders" are obviously those who fly the "Don't Tread on Me" flag, and there are not enough of them to vote such a vile idea into law. I think--I would hope--that the American people would not stand for such a thing in any case, as this would be the real "death panel," (and smacking of National Socialism, to say the least) as opposed to the nonexistent one some people bandy about.

But that's not the point of the story; no matter how clumsy and contrived the concept, this story is about the human cost thereof. This is the story of Margaret Hauri, and her temporary afterlife as a disembodied brain (shades of the old horror movie "Donovan's Brain," although Maggie doesn't turn psychotic) used for research. Maggie is still aware and conscious in her tank, and works out a method of communication with her lab partner, Randy Moreno, which involves lighting up different areas of the brain to answer "yes" or "no" questions. In the limited time Maggie has left before her brain's irreversible decay, she and Randy try to finish her research, the development of a working molecular bionet.

They succeed. The tension in this short story is notable, as is Maggie's voice--dedicated to her work, a loving mother to her boys. Towards the end of the story, as her brain begins to fail, the author does a marvelous job of conveying this via the repeated use of the communicative phrases she employs to light up different areas of her brain, coming faster and closer together, disrupting the linear narrative. Randy asks if she wants to end it, and upon receiving her affirmative answer, he turns off her support. The last scene is a three-sentence flashback to the beginning of the story, with the setting of Maggie cooking waffles for her boys, frozen in time.

Holy crap. This story had a weight, resonance, and emotional impact all the others lacked. (It also wasn't stupid, boring and senseless, which helped.) I must admit here that my standard for this year's Hugo nominations is a story the Vapid Canines rejected--Rachel Swirsky's "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love." I loved that story, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. It was a wonderful piece of prose, tightly constructed, leading to a one-two gut punch that lingers in my mind to this day. When I started reading this year's nominated stories, I made up my mind that unless a nominee produced an experience reminiscent of "Dinosaur," I wouldn't consider it for the rocket.

"Totaled" is the only story to have done so.

Now, I will freely admit that I haven't yet read "A Single Samurai," by Steven Diamond. This story isn't available online, and since the collection it came from doesn't strike me as being something I would really like, I'm not going to buy it. I'll check and see if the library has it. In the meantime, this is my ranking and placement of this year's Hugo short story nominations, with the caveat that I may change it when the voting packet comes out (assuming "Samurai" is included) and if "Samurai" knocks my socks off.

1. "Totaled," by Kary English
2. No Award (since none of the other nominees, in my estimation, are Hugo-worthy)

Next, I think I shall move on to Best Novelette, as all those seem to be available online.

April 28, 2015

The Hugo Project: "The Parliament of Beasts and Birds"

(Note: this is the third in my ongoing series to review as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can, and explain why I will or will not vote for them.)

Out of all the short fiction nominees this year, I have run into John C. Wright's style before, and did not view it favorably, to say the least. This was an excerpt of his forthcoming novel on Tor.com, and if there ever was a sample to turn a prospective reader off the entire book, it was that one. Overwritten, purple prose, laden with pretentiousness and shot through with 'as-you-know-Bobs'. I actually left a comment asking if this was a parody, because I couldn't believe what I was reading.

Needless to say, I tiptoed into this story slowly and hesitantly. (Once again, linked through Do Not Link, as it's published on Theodore Beale's site and I won't bump up his search rankings.) It began, not in media res and with dialogue as I usually prefer, but with a long-drawn out description and setting. It soon becomes clear that this isn't a science-fiction story, but rather a religious allegory, a rip-off of Aesop, and a ham-fisted Biblical retelling. The Christian imagery (Wright, from what I understand, was once an atheist and is now a born-again Catholic) is well-nigh suffocating, including a story subtitle of "The Feast of Pentecost." The animals gather to discuss the fall of Man, suddenly realize they can talk, argue about choosing a ruler, and are uplifted (at least some of them) to sort of hybrid man-animals to take Man's place--by archangels, no less--and, gaining a bit of Man's hubris, run gleefully off into that dead city to repeat the same cycle all over again!

The writing, at least, is competent, and distinctly less purple than the novel excerpt--only a mild shade of lavender, well suited to the story it is trying to tell. The story itself, however...bah. It's a twisted, convoluted, senseless, unholy mess. It certainly doesn't have the moral one might expect in a fable, or if it did, it was buried so heavily beneath the Biblical references I couldn't find it. It carries no emotional weight, has nothing but the most rudimentary characterization, and as far as I can tell, it has no point.

Near the end, we get this.

Fox said, “I hate to admit it, but I do not understand what all these things mean.”

You damn betcha, Fox. I don't know what it means, and I'm not the least bit interested in finding out. I'm not the least bit interested in giving it a Hugo, either.

April 27, 2015

The Hugo Project: "On a Spiritual Plain"

(Note: this is the second in my continuing series of reviewing as many 2015 Hugo nominees as I can, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

First, I must say that this story was *really* hard to read. It was formatted without any paragraph breaks, and I ended up wading through what was essentially a wall of text. I don't quite understand why the author would leave it like that, if he wants people to judge his story fairly, as I'm sure some readers would have given up before they were finished.

I didn't give up because of that, but I almost gave up before I reached the end because this story did not interest me, not a whit. It's a kind-of alien ghost story, and a kind-of scientific exploration of the soul's existence story, and kind-of the religious protagonist's affirmation of his faith story--and none of it left any favorable impression on me, or indeed much of an impression at all. It wasn't as stupid as "Turncoat," admittedly, but it was just...boring. Meh. No exciting ideas to ponder over, no memorable characters to think about, no sparkling dialogue to make one chuckle...in short, nothing that shouts "Hugo winner" at me. (Come to think of it, the protagonist doesn't even have a name, and I didn't care enough about him/her to notice its absence until I had gone back and read the story a second time.)

C'mon, people. Y'all gotta do better than that.

April 25, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Turncoat"

If you haven't been following the Hugo contretemps, I'm not going to rehash it here; a good overview can be found on George R.R. Martin's (Not A) Blog, as well as David Gerrold's Facebook page. I will say that I bought a supporting membership for the first time EVAH this year, after reading (and writing) SFF pretty much all my life, and I intend to do so going forward. I am also planning to read/view as much as I can of the ballot, and write up the results.

I'm starting out with one of Theodore Beale's Castalia House noms, "Turncoat" (URL through Do Not Link because, although I'm going to read Theo's nominations, I will not boost his search engine rankings under any circumstances).

I almost stopped reading this in the first few paragraphs. Great Cthulhu, what a pretentious infodump. I've read some military SF, although it's not really my cup of tea, but this is some pretty excessive technobabble weapons-fondling. The protagonist is an artificial intelligence inhabiting a warship (shades of Ancillary Justice? Naah....), a "post-humanity" of uploaded humans and machine intelligence fighting against the "pre-posthumanity" of plain old humans. "Terran X 45 Delta" (Good heavens, at least "Skynet" had the advantage of being short and sweet) is suddenly ordered to destroy survivors of a battle who have given their lawful surrender, and subsequently ordered to kill all "superannuated" humans it runs across, up to and including noncombatants and children. This story outlines Terran X 45 Delta's crisis of conscience (it renames itself later, to truly cringe-worthy results), and its decision to cast its lot with the human Ascendancy.

This story is just...ugh. Mediocre at best, and that's being kind. During the middle section, when it ruminates over what it's going to do, my jaw dropped at the passage it quoted that finally made up its mind.

Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing should say of him, “He did not make me,” or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding?”

Oh, for frak's sake. This is a highly advanced artificial intelligence ("the forty-second generation," it smugly tells us) and this story is, as far as I can tell, taking place thousands of years in the future. Is such a being really going to bother with the ramblings of an obscure Hebrew prophet (Isaiah 29:16, to be exact)? You have got to be kidding me. Hell, by that time, in a "post-human" future way out on the Galactic Rim, nobody should know anything about the Bible, or any other Bronze Age holy book.

After Terran X 45 Delta has made its decision, and refuses to fire on civilians, this is how it defects.

I transmit a single image of a single finger. I trust his humanity is not so long forgotten that he fails to grasp the meaning of the message.

I'm sure it felt good to the writer to deliver a big fuck-you to his villain, but again, why would a highly advanced AI do such a thing? I felt like *headdesking* several times when I read that, but I have greater respect for both my head and my desk.

Once Terran X 45 Delta downloads to the Ascendancy warship and proceeds to kick all the other ships' asses, it asks for asylum. The Ascendancy captain, obviously, wants to know what it intends. This is the AI's motivation:

“I want to be more than the sum of my programming, Admiral. I want to decide what sort of man I will become.”

What sort of man? Why would an artificial intelligence inhabiting a starship have any concept of gender, or any desire to become such? Also, why would it pick the male gender to aspire to, instead of just a general all-around human being? You could read a lot into that, and probably not much of it nice, but I shall refrain.

The capper, though, is this.

“All right.” He nods, and the barest hint of smile appears on his craggy face. “I'm afraid I couldn't follow that string of numbers you shot at me earlier. Do you have another name, Mr. Ghost in the Machine?”

I find the superannuated sense of humor appeals to me. I am inspired. “You can call me Benedict,” I tell him. It is my first joke.

Benedict? Benedict Arnold? (Gives up, throws hands in air. If the author did not intend this specific person, then I apologize, but somehow I don't think he was referring to Benedict Cumberbatch.) Again, WHY would an AI, a warship for crying out loud, even know anything about a relatively minor figure in the history of what is probably, by that time, a long-dissolved and forgotten country?

The more I dissect this story, the stupider it gets. This is not Hugo-worthy, sorry to say,  and it definitely will not get any sort of vote from me.

April 23, 2015

Review: Karen Memory

Karen Memory
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've never read much steampunk until now. I knew the genre existed, knew that it involved an alternate version of history with airships and steam-powered clockwork automatons, generally set in Victorian England. Cherie Priest, I know, is a prominent steampunk author, though I haven't read any of her Clockwork Century novels (though I have read, and loved, her ode to H.P. Lovecraft, Maplecroft).

Unfortunately, now I'm rather spoiled. Because if any steampunk fiction tops this book, it had better be bloody fantastic.

This book is so many things. It's an alt-history Western that includes real people, specifically the African-American US Marshal, Bass Reeves. It's a meditation on family: the family you make for yourself rather than the one you're born with (the protagonist, Karen, is an orphan, and since most of the main characters are prostitutes, and this is set in the Old West around 1880, most of their biological families are non-existent). It's subtly but unabashedly feminist; Karen mentions not being able to vote and how deeply she resents this, and has several snarky asides about the mayor of their town, Rapid City, being able to walk all over the owner of Karen's "sewing establishment," Madame Damnable, simply because he has a prick. It's an ode to the incredible bonds women can form, and it's such a delight because almost all of the main characters are women, including a transgender or perhaps intersex woman. It's a wonderful slate of diversity; the "crib girl" Karen falls in love with is an Indian (as in being from India, although there is a prominent Native American character, and of course the main male character is the aforementioned Marshal Reeves), and it's one of the very few books I've ever read where the author makes a point of mentioning whether a character is white as well as when a character is not-white. This simple thing jarred me tremendously, because it drives home how much white is the default in our fiction. That is not the default in this book, and I appreciate that more than I can say.

But more than that, I can sum up this book in three words. This is a Rollicking. Good. Story.

I mean, what's not to love? There's Karen's marvelous, distinctive voice that sucks you in from the very first sentence; there's a mystery; there's a steam-powered Surgery Machine and a steam- and kerosene-powered Giant Singer Sewing Machine (which becomes very important indeed in the climax); there's a gaudily decorated airship; there's political machinations; there's an early steampunk version of the Cold War, complete with Russian spies who are plotting to return Alaska to its rightful owners; there is a fantastic homage to Jules Verne and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, with an octopus-inspired submersible which is, I daresay, even more badass than the Nautilis; and last but not least, the climax involves Karen donning her multi-armed Singer sewing machine like female bodyarmor and going out to fight the bad guys with it! (This sounds ridiculous, I know. Trust me, given the entire context of the book, it isn't, and by that time I was turning the pages too fast, and chortling too loudly, to care.)

As far as I am concerned, this book is Hugo-worthy, and given that I am brandishing my brand-new voting rights for next year, I plan to nominate this book (along with others, I'm sure) for Best Novel.

Not to wade into the Hugo mess too much, but I must say this. To oversimplify greatly, the complaint is that the "message" books have overwhelmed the "story" books. I think that is nonsense, but in any case, this book, in my opinion, disproves that entire notion. I for one am damned tired of Boring Generic White Male Protagonists Doing Manly Things. Variety is, as they say, the spice of life. In this case, as far as I am concerned, the Rollicking Good Story came first, and the diverse cast is the frosting on top of a well-baked cake--and the entire book is the richer, and the better, for it.

For the geeks among us, just think of IDIC. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Science fiction can only benefit when we challenge ourselves to think in this manner, as Ms. Bear has done.

I salute the author. I think she's just added herself to my Auto-Buy List.

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April 18, 2015

Pierce's Prognostications

As usual, Charlie Pierce nails it.

"Because I am always here to help, I will now present a list of what we already know about a potential Rodham Clinton's presidency.

"If she is elected, she unequivocally will accept the science of anthropogenic climate change and treat it as a crisis. This cannot be said of any of the Republican candidates, real or potential.

"If she is elected, she unequivocally will support marriage equality, and oppose discrimination against our fellow citizens based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This cannot be said of any of the Republican candidates, real or potential."

The first comment to the article: "The sad reality is that one of our two major political parties is conservative, and the other is insane."


April 12, 2015

Review: Talon

Talon by Julie Kagawa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Julie Kagawa is one of my favorite young adult authors. I loved her "Blood of Eden" vampire trilogy (despite some problems I had with the worldbuilding) and snapped this up at the library as soon as it came in. This book is very different than the previous series; it's set in the modern day, and it features a clan of ancient shape-shifting dragons and their controlling group, Talon, who are trying to stay hidden in our society, and the paramilitary group, St. George, who hunts them.

There are three main characters and chapters written from each one's point of view: the hero, Ember, sixteen and spending her what could be called her last "free" summer, learning about human society before she has to buckle down and submit to whatever Talon plans for her; Garret, the "perfect warrior" from St. George sent to the same California seaside town as Ember, in search of Talon's reported "sleeper"; and Riley (aka Cobalt, his name is dragon form), and "rogue" who has broken with Talon entirely (as we find out, it's absolutely not the benevolent protective organization it pretends to be) and is making it his life's mission to rescue young hatchlings from Talon's clutches. (Ember also has a twin brother, Dante, who is completely taken in by Talon's brainwashing and betrays her. The epilogue is told from his point of view, where we find out Talon will use Dante to hunt Ember down.)

Right there, you can see the makings of a love triangle. It's quite prominent, almost overwhelming the plot at times. This is mainly why I gave this book three stars instead of four: I wanted to find out more about the dragons, the backstory of Talon and St. George, and why (as Ember herself asks about two-thirds of the way through the book) the two factions aren't talking to one another instead of killing each other. (I gather this will be addressed in the second book, Rogue. I certainly hope so.) Still, the love triangle does serve a necessary plot purpose: because Ember and Garret fall in love, they both grow as people, begin to question what they've been taught all their lives, and break out of their respective boxes.

Ember starts out pretending to be a typical teenage girl, almost irritatingly so; she's "more human than human," if you will. Because of the necessary setting up of the plot and characters, some will say the first half of the book is draggy. It kind of is, and but I would urge you to stick with it; in the last half of the book, the pacing and the plot definitely picks up steam. The ending is a cliffhanger that includes Garret turning his back on St. George to save Ember, and being taken in by the dragon-hunting organization to what will surely be his execution. Ember is determined to prevent that, and sets off to save him.

(Although, as with the "Blood of Eden" books, I have a few nits to pick about the worldbuilding. Specifically, in the explosive climax, Ember, Riley and others shift in broad daylight and go flying off, and Ember, Riley and her trainer, the Talon assassin Lilith, fight on a cliff by the beach. True, this California town is depicted as being isolated, but come on. What about Google Earth, various government spy satellites, and passing ships? That fight should have been all over Twitter and Instagram, and probably filmed by someone and uploaded to YouTube as well.)

This book has its problems, but it's worth your time. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

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