Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Recent Reading Roundup 25

If I finish the book I'm reading right now (J.R.R. Tolkien's collection of essays The Monsters and the Critics) before the end of the month, I will have read as many books in April as I read in the three months preceding it.  That's what reading holidays and volcano-induced delays will do for you.  Of course, this is far too many books to give any of them an in-depth look, so here are some quick thoughts about some of them.
  1. Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente - Valente's latest novel, currently on the shortlist for the Hugo award, took a while to win me over.  A portal fantasy in which the fantastic world (the titular city) is reached via sexual contact, with visitors to the city 'infecting' their partners and giving them access to the portion of it that is tattooed on their skin, Palimpsest revolves around four such visitors--a lonely Californian beekeeper, a New York locksmith obsessed with the death of his sister, an Italian antiques dealer infected by his wife, who leaves him soon after to fully pursue her obsession with Palimpsest, and an aimless Japanese woman--who are bound together by their simultaneous arrival in the city, and must find each other in the real world if they want to travel to it permanently.  The first half of the book is understandably concerned with introducing both the characters and the reader to the city and establishing its allure, but Valente's imagery in these chapters is rife with the same writerly tics that were minor irritants in the two Orphan's Tales books and which here, when she's creating her own fantasy world rather than riffing on a familiar mythical setting, become a hindrance to the very immersion she's trying to achieve.  Her imagery relies heavily on words that have exotic associations (lots of spices and herbs, for example), and these seem to have been chosen more for that evocative power than because they make sense in context or create a meaningful image.  I found it hard to believe that Valente herself could picture the places she was describing, much less picture them myself.

    In its second half, however, Palimpsest's focus shifts from the city itself to the characters' reactions to it, and the novel became a great deal more satisfying and involving.  Valente's depiction of the main characters' growing obsession with the city, and their discovery of a Palimpsest subculture, comprising everything from support groups to sex clubs, is very well done, and the ambivalence that permeates her descriptions of the determination with which those who are infected by Palimpsest seek to rack up new locations or achieve the holy grail of emigrating to it recalls M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart and Nova Swing.  Also, near the end of the novel the city itself becomes a great deal more interesting, with the various puzzle pieces laid out in the early chapters coming together into a semi-coherent history of the city (this reminded me of the similar process of piecing together the history of Ambergris that is one of the chief pleasures of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen).  Though I wish that a little more had been made of the hints Valente drops near the end of the novel, that Palimpsest is a great deal less fantastic than visitors to it believe, and that its inhabitants are befuddled and exasperated by the influx of tourists looking for meaning and purpose in what to them is nothing more exotic than their home, I nevertheless found Palimpsest an intriguing and enjoyable read.

  2. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel - I liked Mantel's universally lauded Wolf Hall but had some reservations with it, rooted mainly in my awareness of how she was twisting and manipulating history to suit the spin she wanted to put on it, and thought that A Place of Greater Safety, which discusses a period and individuals I know a great deal less about, might suit me better.  Instead, I'm forced to contemplate the no doubt enormous skill it must take to make a story about the central events of the French Revolution tedious and soporific.  In part, this is clearly a deliberate choice by Mantel, who tries to stress the fact that the famous events of the Revolution--the storming of the Bastille, the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the Terror--were part of a much larger, more complicated, and less exciting sequence of events, most of which took place in committee rooms and parliaments.  But there have been riveting stories told in such settings (HBO's miniseries John Adams, to name but one) and Mantel, instead of dramatizing history, chooses to focus on her protagonists'--Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins--personal lives.  Instead of facing head on the fact that these three men claimed to be the enemies of tyranny and ended up erecting one, that they overthrew their government for the sake of human rights and then enabled and enacted judicial murder on a scale previously unheard of in human history, instead of trying to make recognizable and perhaps even sympathetic human beings out of such contradictions, Mantel tries to elide over these difficulties by concentrating on the characters' romances, bromances, and difficult relationships with their fathers, all of which we've seen before.

    Whereas in Wolf Hall recasting Thomas Cromwell as an ordinary and sympathetic person helped to demystify him and the times he lived in, in A Place of Greater Safety a similar process of demystification renders Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins inert because it forces out precisely those aspects of their character that make them worth reading about.  Like Wolf Hall, which cuts off just before Cromwell's political machinations take an unsavory turn (he was, for example, the architect of Anne Boleyn's false conviction for adultery and treason), A Place of Greater Safety is manipulative, expecting us to sympathize with its protagonists and dread their inevitable undoing, but though the novel's final fifty pages, in which two of the protagonists are sent to the guillotine by the third, are its best and most intense, they also foreground Mantel's manipulation in a way that Wolf Hall avoids.  These men deserve to die, far more than many of the tens of thousands who have gone before them, and for whose deaths they share responsibility, and Mantel hasn't done nearly enough character work to make us regret this clearly-deserved end.

  3. Graceling by Kristin Cashore - the last stop on my not-exactly-whirlwind tour of 2008's most-buzzed YA novels, Graceling proved a sour note to end on.  I haven't loved every single YA novel I've read in the last couple of years, but Cashore's debut is the first that truly made me wonder whether I was too old to be reading in this category.  The novel's premise--it takes place in a fantasy world in which certain individuals, called the graced, are born with innate talents, and Katsa, the teenage heroine, appears to have a grace for killing--has a lot of inherent potential for drama.  Katsa was not only born with a fearsome skill (expressed for the first time when she accidentally kills a visiting cousin at the age of eight) but has been exploited for it from a very young age by her uncle, the king, who uses her as his thug and enforcer while hiding behind the rumors he propagates of her cruelty and bloodlust, even as he exerts control over her every choice and movement.  Its execution, however, is practically benign, downplaying much of the difficulty and horror of Katsa's situation.  The worldbuilding is also much too simplistic, and often casts a shadow on the novel's plot and characters, as allegedly real people are forced to move in cardboard-thin political and social systems.  Katsa, for example, has rebelled against her uncle by establishing a network of noblemen and warriors that spans several kingdoms whose purpose is to promote justice and right wrongs, but in practice it operates like a fantasy-world A-Team.  Later in the novel, Katsa is stunned by the realization that she can take a lover without marrying him, which she then does with hardly any qualms or consequences, when the very fact that such a possibility had never occurred to her before would seem to suggest that she lives in a society in which extramarital sex is forbidden and punished.  There are some nice notes in Graceling--as other reviewers have noted, Katsa is the epitome of the badass female heroine, and her journey over the course of the novel towards independence and self-control makes the perfect counterpoint to her innate skills; her romance with another graceling called Po is a well-sketched portrait of a relationship in which the woman is in almost every way the stronger partner, and there's an engaging sequence near the end of the novel in which Katsa and the young princess she's protecting escape their enemies by traversing an impassible mountain range in the dead of winter--but they don't quite make up for what is, on the whole, a thin and unsatisfying novel.

  4. The Dazzle of the Day & The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss - I've been aware of Molly Gloss since her story "Lambing Season" was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula several years ago, but this was the first time I'd read any of her novels, which range across several genres but have in common an interest with frontier living and with the small, tightly-knit, rural communities that grow on these frontiers.  The Dazzle of the Day is, as far as I can tell, Gloss's only overtly SFnal novel, a family saga that takes place, for the most part, aboard a generation ship whose journey is nearly complete and whose inhabitants have to choose whether to colonize the planet they are now approaching or stay in the safety and comfort of the ship.  The colonists are Quakers, and one of the chief joys of the novel is its exploration of their mores, outlooks, and social structures (though on the latter count I'm not sure how much is Gloss's invention and how much a reflection of real Quaker lifestyle).  The result is a very different kind of space colonization novel, whose characters--thoughtful, reticent, introspective--are constantly questioning the choices that have brought them to this point, constantly on the verge of renouncing the plan to leave footprints on the surface of an alien planet.  This is a low-key, slow novel (a little too slow, and too concerned with the minutiae of Quaker society, in its middle segments), but also beautifully written, and, in its depiction of a space-faring future that is so different from our frenetic, grasping way of life, quietly shocking.

    The Hearts of Horses is a historical novel which takes place in rural Oregon near the end of the first World War.  The heroine, Martha Lessen, is a young woman traveling between farms, earning her living by gentling young horses for farm work.  This is the epitome of a low-key novel, told in episodic segments detailing Martha's growing acquaintance and friendship with her clients and neighbors, veering off into their stories, and spending a lot of time on the business of how to gentle a horse, with most tension and high emotion described obliquely and with a terseness that seems to suit the farmers, ranchers and cowboys who make up the novel's cast.  And it is quite lovely, Gloss's spare language illuminating her characters and situations perfectly, and just as the novel's wholesomeness begins to rankle, revealing a dark undertone as she alludes to or outright describes what the characters are unaware of or ignoring--the fact that the reflexive patriotism that has swept over their community is responsible for sending young men to be slaughtered in a pointless war, the anti-German sentiments that rear their heads as a result of this patriotism, the wasteful wartime farming practices that will, in a decade's time, create the Dust Bowl effect and kick-start the Depression.  Still, The Hearts of Horses is not a social or political novel.  At its core it is exactly what it presents itself as--a quiet, beautifully written, moving account of life in a corner of history notable mainly for being ordinary and unremarkable.

  5. Pavane by Keith Roberts - the great-granddaddy of alternate history, Pavane posits a world in which Elizabeth I is assassinated shortly into her reign, causing the collapse of the English Reformation, cementing the Catholic church's grasp over all of Europe, and stymieing social, political, and technological progress for centuries.  When the novel opens in the 1960s, Europe is still feudal, the ruling monarchies are still largely controlled by the church, and the standard of living for most is barely more than medieval.  The novel is made up of a series of linked stories spanning several decades, which do the double duty of illuminating how Roberts's world works and charting a sea-change in it, as some force--perhaps futuristic, perhaps magical--begins moving mankind back towards democracy, humanism, and technology.  The details in Pavane are nicely done and frequently disconcerting--the haulier whose trucks are dragged behind a coal-powered locomotive, the secrets and rituals of the guild of signalers, whose semaphore towers are the only means of rapid communications (one wonders whether Terry Pratchett got the idea for a similar institution in the Discworld from here).

    It's on the macro level that the novel falls flat.  It's hard to believe in a church that is capable, much less willing, to hold back technological progress and the geopolitical and economic boons that come with it, or in a Europe that would be prevented from pursuing these for centuries.  To a modern reader, it is also particularly glaring that Roberts's future is so complete Euro-centric.  One would expect non-European cultures to move into the power vacuum created by Europe's stagnation and dominate the planet as Europe did in our history, but besides a passing reference to colonies in North America, the world outside of Europe is hardly mentioned, and global history appears to proceed largely as it did in our world even absent the mechanisms that steered it in this direction.  If Pavane were simply a story springing from an unlikely, even impossible premise it might still be a worthy read, but the novel's whole point is that the stagnation of Europe was necessary for humanity's survival, that the church has been colluding with beings from the future to prevent nuclear war by keeping humanity from acquiring technology it isn't yet wise enough to use.  Which just brings the shortcomings of Roberts's premise into focus, not least of which his assumption that only white people can build nuclear bombs.

  6. Far North by Marcel Theroux - if there's any one reason to be glad that I went on this reading vacation (besides, you know, a week off, in a castle in Wales, with lots of good books, good food, and good friends) it's that it gave me the chance to read Far North, which is currently well in the running for the position of my favorite read of 2010.  Theroux's novel, currently on the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist and I hope, tomorrow night, the winner, shows all those other post-apocalyptic literary science fiction novels (well, The Road) how it's done.  It is narrated by Makepeace, the last inhabitant of what was once a utopian, back-to-nature settlement in the wilds of Siberia.  Makepeace's parents came to Siberia hoping to divest themselves of a technological lifestyle that, they felt, was cutting them off from their humanity, but in the leaner times that have followed--the actual nature and scope of the apocalypse is never mentioned, but it involves hordes of refugees descending on the towns desperate for food, shelter, and safety--Makepeace considers this a foolish affectation.  For some time the town's enforcer of law, she now find herself lonely and eager to discover whether humanity has survived and if so, in what form, and begins a years-long odyssey.  It's strange to say this about a novel like this one, which posits not only the end of the civilization we know but the emergence of a brutal, uncivil one populated by religious fundamentalists and slavers, but Far North is not at all depressing.  Mainly this is due to Makepeace, whose voice is brilliantly realized, and who balances her cynicism about human nature and the future of humanity with a strength of will that sees her determined to live through even the worst of her ordeals.  Which isn't to say that Makepeace is superhuman or a saint.  At various points in the novel she is helpless, craven, and complicit in atrocities, but she also maintains her core of self, her willingness to do the right thing if it's at all possible, and her ability to empathize and connect with others.  The result is a novel that is hopeful through its hopelessness, perfectly positioned between Makepeace's twin realizations that the world is not worth living in, and that living in the world is all there is.

  7. Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding - the consensus on Wooding's novel seems to be that it is the least, and least deserving, of this year's Clarke nominees, but nevertheless a rollicking, fun adventure of a type we should see more often (see: Niall, Dan, Nic).  I beg to differ.  I agree with Dan that the genre landscape (hell, the literary landscape in general) could use more swashbuckling adventures with at least some nutritional value, but I don't think Retribution Falls, which has been universally and quite accurately described as Firefly with airships, is that book, or that the comparison with Joss Whedon's TV series does it any favors.  For one thing, it just isn't that rip-roaring.  It takes a lot more skill to write exciting action scenes and zingy one-liners than it does to script them, and Wooding isn't quite up to snuff.  Retribution Falls is often slack, with the result that its snappy comebacks fall into place with depressing predictability, and its action scenes fail to ignite.  The characters are an even more distressing affair.  Especially for a novel whose point is to follow the process by which the crew of the airship Ketty Jay are transformed from a rag-tag band of outlaws and miscreants with nowhere else to go into a coherent group, Retribution Falls pays surprisingly little attention to most of its characters, allowing most of them to fade into the background while concentrating mostly on its ne'er-do-well captain, Darian Frey, who makes a greedy and short-sighted decision to accept a robbery commission that seems too good to be true, and ends up framed for murder.  Two other characters, aristocrat and dark wizard on the run Grayther Crake and the Ketty Jay's newest crewmember, Jezibeth Kyte, also have points of view, but the novel is anchored by Frey and his growth into the role of captain, which is unfortunate as Frey, who has been described as a more dickish version of Mal Reynolds, is actually something much worse--he is a whiner, and rather stupid to boot, and his growth over the course of the novel just barely brings him to the baseline of functional adulthood.  That Retribution Falls hinges on him thus makes it quite an unpleasant read, at no point as much as when Frey encounters two of his former lovers, both of whom are depicted as pathetic grotesques, made horrible by his betrayal of them and condemned for that fact.  These depictions (and those of the Ketty Jay's two female crewmembers, who aren't, for the most part, humiliated as Frey's former lovers are, but are underdeveloped) make Retribution Falls something much more unsavory than underperforming swashbuckler with an annoying main character, and taken together these faults make for a book that I simply can't love as so many others have.

  8. The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness - Ness's follow-up to the intense, explosive The Knife of Never Letting Go picks up precisely where the first volume left off, with young teens Todd and Viola discovering that the sanctuary they've been seeking from the pursuing army of Mayor Prentiss, who killed all the women in Todd's town and is trying to take over the planet they live on (to which end he wants Viola, the representative of a colony ship on its way to the planet, by his side) has already fallen to him.  They are separated, and, with great reluctance, end up following very different paths as they struggle to survive under enemy occupation--Todd, taken in by the mayor, becomes a collaborator; Viola, who falls in with the town's disenfranchised women, including a charismatic disgraced politician and former warrior, becomes a terrorist--and to reconnect with each other.  The high-pitched intensity that made The Knife of Never Letting Go such an irresistible read is in full effect here, and because issues of gender are less prominent in this novel, the problems I had with the previous volume's handling of gender roles become less of an issue.  Instead, the focus of the novel is on how anyone, male or female, can live honorably while surrounded by evil, and on the compromises that such a life forces on one's conscience.  The Ask and the Answer is plagued by some of the same problems that hobbled The Knife of Never Letting Go--it is manipulative as all get out; the frenzy with which Todd and Viola cling to each other, search for each other when they're separated, and yearn for each other's presence and approval quickly becomes overbearing and repetitive; and there is a tendency to woobify Todd, to expect the reader to feel sorry for him because he feels guilty for having done terrible things, that I found off-putting.  Nevertheless, this is a hell of a read and a hell of a follow-up to The Knife of Never Letting Go, and I'm quite curious to see how, and how neatly, Ness will wrap up the story in the series's concluding volume, Monsters of Men.

  9. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters - my love-hate relationship with Sarah Waters's bibliography continues apace.  After greatly enjoying her most recent novel, The Little Stranger, I decided to give her fourth book, The Night Watch, previously ignored because of my bad experiences with her first and second books, a try, with less than stellar results.  The Night Watch moves backwards in time, beginning in 1947 and skipping back to 1944 and then 1941 as it follows several characters, mostly gay men and women, in wartime and post-war London.  In 1947, former ambulance driver Kay is depressed and out of sorts, lacking the purpose that rescue work once gave her life; office worker Helen's relationship with up-and-coming writer Julia is one the rocks; Helen's coworker Viv is stuck in a relationship with a married man; Viv's brother Duncan, recently released from prison for an unspecified crime, is working a dead-end job in a charity factory and spending most of his time with his elderly landlord.  As the novel moves backwards in time we find out how the characters got in these situations, but the point of the exercise escapes me.  There's something almost malicious in the way Waters forces her characters through the motions of trying to make a better life for themselves after she's already shown us that what lies at the end of all their paths is a quagmire.  It might almost have been more bearable if the 1947 section showed the characters dead or arriving at an irrevocably tragic ending.  The fact that they're all stuck, held in place mostly by their psychological hangups, makes the process of learning how they got to that point, all the while knowing that there will be no extra chapter in which we learn whether they got out of it, almost too awful to bear.  Unless it's this maliciousness that Waters wants to convey, I'm not sure what she was trying to do with the novel, which is otherwise very well observed, describing war-time London and the upheavals the war creates in social roles, especially for marginalized groups like women and gay people, with evocative clarity.  Like most of Waters's novels, The Night Watch is a slick piece of writing, but I didn't find it a very enjoyable read.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Home!

At long last I am back in the holy land, after a seven-leg, thirteen hour trip comprising four different kinds of trains (one of which, the London Underground, very nearly scuttled all my plans when the tightest change of the lot became a great deal tighter due to a mechanical failure on the Circle line), two countries, and one rather pleasant flight from Paris.

Kudos are due to Niall Harrison and Nic Clarke, for opening both their home and their library to me while I was stranded, and to my airline El Al, for handling my (and, from what I've heard, many other passengers') case with impressive grace and efficiency, and making it their priority to get stranded passengers home, or as close as possible to it.  Less praiseworthy are my phone company Orange, who threatened to disconnect my phone due to irregular usage, and did so just as I was traversing France, cutting me off from the people in England and Israel waiting to hear about my progress.  While it's understandable that the huge spike in my phone usage this week should have raised a red flag, the fact that neither I nor my family in Israel were able to get through to the number where said decision could be reversed is not, and the fact that my mother was asked to pay the current balance of my account, more than a week before it's due, in order to reconnect the phone is risible.  Also failing to deal with the crisis were RailEurope, from whom I tried to purchase train tickets several times only to find the task impossible online (no sale of tickets less than seven days in advance), on the phone (constantly busy, no call handling system to put people on hold) or in person (lines around the block of the one location in the UK where tickets for trains on the continent could be purchased, no attempt to manage or inform the crowd).

My plans for the weekend are to rest, catch up on some small part of my huge TV backlog, and try to assess just how much this little adventure has cost me and whether there's any chance of recouping some of my expenses from my insurance company.  Next week I will hopefully blog about some of the books I read on this holiday, and then maybe resume something like a normal blogging schedule.  In the meantime, I leave you with these gorgeous pictures from Iceland, and the obvious response to same.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Asking the Wrong Questions, the Blog in Exile

The plan for today was to land in Tel Aviv at an ungodly hour of the morning, get home, sleep for a bit, and then write a post about my journey in the evening.  Unfortunately, everyone's favorite volcano Eyjafjallajoekull had other plans, and I have joined the ranks of tens of thousands of other stranded travelers all over Europe.  Attempts at securing an alternate route have thus far proved futile--I have a booking for a flight leaving Madrid on Tuesday night, but at present I haven't been able to make train or bus reservations for the London-Madrid leg, and the likelihood that I'll manage to do so grows slimmer by the hour.  Happily, my situation is quite comfortable.  Not only do I have a place to stay, thanks to the kindness of Niall and Nic, but it is stacked to rafters with books, so that if it weren't for the uncertainty of my situation I would quite happily settle in for another reading week.  Plus, if you're going to be stranded in a foreign country, there's something rather grand about being stranded by a volcano rather than a strike or a storm.  I'm already planning how to drop it into conversation--"I had to crash in my friends' spare room... because a volcano erupted!", "I missed my meeting on Monday... because a volcano erupted!", and so on.  And it is, of course, very humbling to realize how completely for granted we take the ability to hop across continents, how vast those distances are in reality, and how helpless we are when some aspect of our technology-driven society is taken away.

Still, though the trip isn't quite over, I thought I'd write a bit about my adventures thus far.  Niall has written a long and detailed report on Eastercon 2010 which describes my reactions quite accurately as well (minus, of course, any previous experience with this convention).  I enjoyed meeting people--those I'd met before, those who have been my online friends and acquaintances for quite some time but whom I'd never seen in real life, and those who were completely unknown to me--very much, and had some lively and enjoyable conversations at the various and rather crowded pubs and seating areas in the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, where the convention was held, but the program itself didn't grab my interest (so much so that I haven't got much in the way of panel notes).  I was on two panels myself, one, arranged at the last minute, about issues of cultural appropriation as they relate specifically to the UK and its history of empire, in which I was the outsider's voice.  I thought the panel went quite well, not least because the audience seemed very clued in and ready to take the discussion past the basics that have proved such a hurdle in previous iterations of this conversation (indeed, the audience may have been more clued in than the panelists in some respects--as in the case of the black woman who spoke about her experiences encountering racism in genre books as a child).

My second panel, about reviewing, raised several interesting points but ended up a rather rambling affair, moving from the changing face of media distribution and consumption to the dreaded print vs. online reviewing discussion to the question of whether reviews should contain spoilers without finding much of a common thread.  Other interesting panels included a discussion of female superheroes, which veered amusingly between the panelists listing their favorite characters and expressing despair at the state of the field when it comes to giving them interesting stories, the Not the Clarke Award panel, whose panelists rather failed to stick to the established format of tossing one book after another from the shortlist--all were agreed that Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls should be the first to go, but after that point every panelist had their own favorites and least favorites, and the ultimate conclusion was that each of the remaining five nominees was flawed but still a worthwhile book--and a panel about Dollhouse, which despite the creepy behavior of one of its panelists (as noted by Niall and expanded upon in the comments to that post by the panelist himself) managed to be thoughtful and intelligent in its discussion of the many issues raised by and surrounding this strange and frustrating show.

After that I continued to Oxford for a few days with friends, which also included some book shopping to supplement the not-unimpressive haul I brought back from the Eastercon dealer's room, and then on to Wales for reading week, a tradition of several years' standing with Niall's group of friends.  There were 18 of us at Wynnstay Hall, and we had a wonderful time cooking, eating, playing board games, having a murder mystery night (at which we all had too much fun getting in character to actually bother with the mystery, especially once it turned out that one of the guests was The Doctor, played with pitch-perfect acerbity by Graham Sleight), and reading many, many, many books.  Notable reads of the week include The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss, a low-key but evocative story about a female horse-trainer near the end of the first World War, Clarke nominee Far North by Marcel Theroux, a post-apocalyptic story with a beautifully drawn main character which has unseated The City & The City as my pick for the award, and the title novella in Kelly Link's YA collection Pretty Monsters, which can best be described as Kelly Link's take on Twilight, and is just as clever and thought-provoking as that description suggests.

Between reading week and constant travel, books have dominated my cultural consumption for the last couple of weeks while an enormous backlog of television episode accumulates back home (I did, however, watch Sherlock Holmes on the flight to London, and though I admit that the conditions might not have been ideal found myself far more engaged by the look of the film and by its soundtrack than by the characters or plot).  An exception, however, had to be made for Doctor Who.  For the first time in my time as a fan of the new series, I found myself watching it among other fans--in Niall's hotel room at Eastercon, on the big screen at Wynnstay Hall, with friends here in Oxford last night.  This has certainly affected my experience of the show--I doubt there will be as many delighted shrieks of laughter at the Daleks' "WOULD YOU LIKE A CUP OF TEA?" in Israel--to the extent that it's a little hard to disentangle my reaction to the show from its rather ecstatic reception here.  On the whole, I like what I'm seeing, without feeling that the new Doctor, new companion, or new showrunner have quite found their footing yet.  What pleases me most is that the three episodes I've seen have all been much plottier than most of Russell T. Davies's stuff, and have stopped to consider how traveling through time affects the characters' lives rather than simply using it as a means of bringing the characters into the story (the manner of The Doctor and Amy's first meeting; Amy, finding herself thousands of years in the future, wondering what she did about a wedding that is still a day away in her personal timeline), but I'm not quite convinced that Eleven is his own Doctor yet, and am even less convinced that Moffat knows what to do with Amy now that he's, apparently, rejected Davies's approach of making the companion the most important person in the Doctor's life.

And that, for the time, is my report.  I suspect it'll be well into the week, at least, before I'm back home, and I may end up doing some proper blogging before then if the spirit so moves me.  But in the meanwhile, this is your correspondent in Oxford, signing off.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The 2010 Hugo Awards: The Hugo Nominees

Coming to you straight from Eastercon 2010, piping hot Hugo nominations--unless you've already got them from one of the people who were tweeting or liveblogging or webcasting the event, which I considered doing before deciding that that would just not be the AtWQ thing, and that I'd much rather add my thoughts about the nominees to the lists.

It has been confirmed that there will be a Hugo voter packet again this year, but I promised myself to cut back on my emotional involvement with this award, and decided I'd only purchase a supporting membership of Aussiecon if there were nominees I truly wanted to see win.  As you'll see in a moment, this has not been the case.  As usual, I will review the short fiction nominees (assuming the ones I haven't read are made generally available).

For those keeping track, there are eight female nominees out of 23 nominated works in the four fiction categories.

Best Novel:
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • The City & The City by China Miéville
  • Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
  • Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
  • Wake by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
I certainly can't complain about this shortlist given that three of nominees were on my ballot (though I must say I'm surprised that Palimpsest got on).  The City & The City, incidentally, won the BSFA award earlier this evening, and at Eastercon's famous Not the Clarke Award panel it was the panelists' choice for both the book they thought should win the award and the one they one they thought would win it, and of course it is also on the Nebula ballot.  It is thus positioned to make a clean sweep of 2010's genre awards--of the other Hugo nominees, it seems to me that only Boneshaker represents a serious threat.
Best Novella:
  • "Act One" (PDF) by Nancy Kress (Asimov's, March 2009)
  • The God Engines by John Scalzi
  • "Palimpsest" by Charles Stross (Wireless)
  • Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow
  • "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" by Ian McDonald (Cyberabad Days)
  • The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker
"Vishnu at the Cat Circus" was on my ballot, but with the exception of Morrow the other nominees are all writers whose previous work has left me cold, so I can't say that I'm thrilled by this ballot.  It's interesting to note that only one of these nominees came from a magazine, and that three were published as individual volumes.  I noticed a paucity of novellas in my reading of short fiction venues, and it seems that other nominators ended up going further afield for their choices.
Best Novelette:
I'm very pleased for "The Island" and "It Takes Two" (though not quite as pleased as I would have been if Helen Keeble's story had gotten on the ballot), and though I've loved neither the Swirsky or Foster stories as well as others, both are interesting and well written.  So even though the Stross story isn't much to write home about, if the Paul Cornell is decent this will turn out to be quite a strong category.
Best Short Story:
  • "The Bride of Frankenstein" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's, December 2009)
  • "Bridesicle" (PDF) by Will McIntosh (Asimov's, January 2009)
  • "The Moment" by Lawrence M. Schoen (Footprints)
  • "Non-Zero Probabilities" by N.K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld)
  • "Spar" by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld)
I didn't even know Mike Resnick had an eligible story out there--I was sure this was the year the Hugo nominations would finally be clear of his name.  Oh well.  "Bridesicle" and "Non-Zero Probabilities" are good stories, and I'm planning to reexamine "Spar," whose ecstatic reception had left me rather baffled.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:
  • Doctor Who, "The Next Doctor"
  • Doctor Who, "Planet of the Dead"
  • Doctor Who, "The Waters of Mars"
  • Dollhouse, "Epitaph One"
  • FlashForward, "No More Good Days"
Sweet lord.  Given what a poor showing genre TV gave in 2009 this was never going to be a strong ballot, but I hadn't expected it to be quite this bad.  It's really hard to decide what's most depressing about this shorlist: that "Epitaph One" is up there despite being a mediocre hour of television worthwhile mainly for its (by now spoiled) promise, the three Doctor Who specials, only the first of whom was even marginally enjoyable, or the fact that the field was so barren this year that something as bland and unremarkable as the FlashForward pilot gets a nod.  Upon further reflection, what's most depressing about the short form ballot is that the awards administrator took care to stress that the last Doctor Who special, "The End of Time"/"Journey's End," will be eligible for this category next year.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
  • Avatar
  • District 9
  • Moon
  • Star Trek
  • Up
I can't decide whether it's a cruel irony or divine retribution that the only worthwhile bit of writing Russell T. Davies did in 2009, Torchwood's Children of Earth, got locked out of a Hugo nomination by one of the most predictable slate of nominees in quite some time.  I'm please to see Moon and Up, but suspect that both will lose to either Star Trek or District 9.

Best Related Work:
  • Canary Fever: Reviews by John Clute
  • Hope-in-the-Mist by Michael Swanwick
  • The Intergalactic Playground by Farah Mendlesohn
  • On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn
  • The Secret Feminist Cabal by Helen Merrick
  • This is Me, Jack Vance by Jack Vance
This is quite a remarkable slate of nominees.  I haven't read any, though several intrigue me, but what's fascinating about it is that after several years of leaning in this direction the category has shifted entirely into non-fiction writing, with no art books in sight.  There's also a dominance of critical work (and I suspect that Michael Swanwick's Mirrlees biography also shades into critical writing).  Which is exactly what I'd like this category to be--a place for non-fiction about the field, and an opportunity to recognize excellent critical writing about the genre.

Best Graphic Story:
  • Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
  • Captain Britain and MI3 Volume 3: Vampire State
  • Fables Volume 12: The Dark Ages
  • Girl Genius Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm
  • Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse
Best Professional Artist:
  • Daniel Dos Santos
  • Bob Eggleton
  • Stephen Martinière
  • John Picacio
  • Shaun Tan
Best Semiprozine:
  • Ansible
  • Clarkesworld
  • Interzone
  • Locus
  • Weird Tales
Best Fanzine:
  • Argentus
  • Banana Wings
  • CHALLENGER
  • Drink Tank
  • File 770
  • StarshipSofa
Best Fan Writer:
  • Clare Brialey
  • Christopher J. Garcia
  • James Nicoll
  • Lloyd Penney
  • Frederick Pohl
Best Fan Artist:
  • Brad W. Foster
  • Dave Howell
  • Sue Mason
  • Steve Stiles
  • Taral Wayne
Best Editor, Long Form:
  • Lou Anders
  • Ginjer Buchanan
  • Liz Gorinsky
  • Patrick Nielsen Hayden
  • Juliet Ulman
Best Editor, Short Form:
  • Ellen Datlow
  • Stanley Schmidt
  • Jonathan Strahan
  • Gordon Van Gelder
  • Sheila Williams
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer:
  • Saladin Ahmed
  • Gail Carriger
  • Felix Gilman
  • Seanan McGuire
  • Lezli Robyn

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Away, Away

This blog has been quiet enough recently that such an absence might go unnoticed, but for the next two weeks I'm going to be on holiday in the UK.  This weekend I'll be attending Odyssey, the 2010 Eastercon at the Radisson hotel in Heathrow airport, and following that I'll be visiting friends and hopefully charging up on blogging fodder.  I'm participating in a panel, on Sunday the 4th:
Writing Meaningful Reviews of TV Shows and Books.  12PM-1PM.  Room 41.  Too often reviews of TV programmes (or books) are a knee-jerk reaction condemning (or praising) a production while considering just one or two facets. What should a detailed review consider? How can we analyse more deeply? John Clute (mod), Chris Hill, Abigail Nussbaum and Alison Page.
Other than that, I'm trying something new by taking my laptop with me, but will endeavor to spend more time offline than on, so though I may pop up on occasion, normal service won't resume until the middle of the month.  I leave you, in the meantime, with the following links:
  • The shortlist for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award was announced yesterday.  Niall has a roundup of reviews, and of reactions.  I agree with the general consensus, that what's controversial about this year's shortlist is how uncontroversial it is, and confess a preference for the slightly out there choices of previous years.  That said, the solidity of the list can't be argued with, and the three nominees I haven't read (the Robinson, Theroux, and Wooding) all look appealing.  This weekend will also see the announcement of the 2010 Hugo nominees at Eastercon.

  • It started with the Tournament of Books a few years ago, and by now March on the internet is wall to wall zany tournaments.  This year's ToB has proved something of a disappointment, due to two rather pointless judgments in its third round, one from a judge who spent more time discussing the contestants' physical appearance than he did their contents, and the other from someone who did not actually appear to care about books in general nor to have read his contestants in particular.  Together, they crossed the line from the irreverence and idiosyncrasy that makes the ToB fun to a seeming randomness that renders it pointless.  Happily, Jezebel has been running a cake vs. pie tournament, which though featuring some baffling decisions (red velvet cake--a cake whose distinction derives from food coloring--has made it to the quarter finals) offers, in the passionate and devoted comments of its participants, some of the best comedy to be found online this month.

  • At the group blog Big Other, A.D. Jameson has been writing a multi-part retrospective of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, now up to its fourth installment (1, 2, 3, 4).  I'm not a big fan of comics in general, and when I read it a few years ago I admired The Dark Knight Returns, and realized how important it was to superhero comics and the development of the Batman character, without becoming particularly attached to it, but Jameson's series is nevertheless fascinating.  He discusses the state of comics, both from a storytelling and technical perspective, at the time Miller envisioned the series, and analyzes the physical arrangement of the comic's pages to reveal the ways that Miller took full advantage of his medium's abilities.  It's a fascinating, in-depth reading.