Books Read- 203 Books to Read-282 Percent Complete- 41.86%

Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Monday, December 31, 2012

I can't stick with SF all the time, and I just finished 'Those Guys have all the Fun' by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, the behind the scenes story of ESPN.  Someone got me the complete '30 for 30' documentary series and the book came with it.  I picked it up and read the first page and just couldn't put it down.  It was pretty good, especially the first half.  Just the general description of how business was done in the early '70's is worth a glance.  So much booze, so much booze.  The book was written entirely as excerpts from interviews, so the story is told entirely through the words of the people who lived it.  I guess this is becoming a more common style of writing but I'd never seen it before.  It makes for some interesting reading, especially when you have one guy say, "I hated that guy, he's an ass" immediately followed by the other person saying, "We always got along, I really liked him."  I won't write a review of the book or anything, but I did enjoy it. 

Sometimes when I have a lot of new books to choose from like I do now, thanks Christmas, I let my wife choose my next book for me.  Her criteria for choosing can be a little suspect, she chose 'The Wanderer' for me because it was written by a guy named 'Fritz' and more than once she has chosen a book just because she got tired of seeing it on my shelf.  I let her choose my next book so it looks like 'Anansi Boys' by Neil Gaiman.  I'm not as large of a Gaiman fan as some people are, and I really don't understand where the crazy devotion comes from.  Of course I haven't read the Sandman series, so maybe if I'd read that I'd feel differently.  I didn't really like 'American Gods' but I thought 'The Graveyard Book' was outstanding.  So hopefully Anansi is alright.

I put up a review for 1959 Hugo Nominee 'Have Spacesuit- Will Travel.'  A sort of rousing young adult adventure.  I read it a long time ago.  There's going to be quite a few reviews like this as I knock more novels off the list of Hugo and Nebula Nominees.  Books I read a long time ago but don't intend to read again just to write a review on.  So for these books I'll just sort of give my impression of them, and I'll try to indicate that my knowledge of the book isn't that up to date.  I already did this with 'Starship Troopers' and I'll have to do this with almost all of Heinlen's work as I read most of it when I was a teenager.

I still intend to write a full review of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy.  It just turns out that writing that review isn't as easy as I thought it would be.

1959 Hugo Award Nominee- 'Have Spacesuit- Will Travel' By Robert A. Heinlein

Have Space suit.jpg
I read this book a long time ago when I was a little kid, and I don't intend to reread it just to write a more up to date review.  It's not really the kind of book that requires a great deal of introspection, not to say it isn't good, so I don't feel bad about saying I'm going to give my impression of the novel looking back fifteen years at it.
This is one of the books that comes into my head when I think “Classic” SF,  aimed at a young audience, not overly concerned with getting the science straight, what science it does get right is thrown off by being sixty years out of date, fun to read.  No editor today would publish this type of book, but I’m really glad that it’s out there.
I read this book when I was a teenager, and that’s really the sort of audience it’s aimed at.  Heinlein had definite stylistic periods in his writing which are actually very clearly delineated.  He got his start publishing YA stories for magazines with very dated titles, I can’t think of any now but I assure you they were something like ‘Boys Life’ or ‘Science Weekly (This novel was actually published in 'The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction).’  When Heinlein published ‘Starship Troopers’ all that changed.  His editors felt like it wasn’t a book appropriate for kids and asked him to change it.  When he didn’t he moved on to the next phase.  Later he moved on publish ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ and ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,’ I’d call this his high point.  Toward the end of his career Heinlein moved on to publish ‘Time Enough for Love’ and ‘Friday.’  These are good enough books, different from Heinlein’s high point, though they probably suffer most by comparison to his previous work.  This final stage contains a lot of rambling, almost plot-less novels that just sort of meander around and get into a lot of slightly creepy sexual situations.
The period when Spacesuit was published comes from that earliest period.  It’s a YA novel about a kid that buys a spacesuit on the cheap at auction and wears it around for no reason.  The day before the kid has to sell it a spaceship just happens to wander by and take the kid on a wild adventure through space.  Heinlein fills the novel with a bunch of wild ideas, I remember there was a green monkey who communicated by dancing and doing flips, and the subject Heinlein had him communicate about was how civilized he was so that was kind of interesting.
Heinlen takes a lot of the tropes of SF and packages them in a way that actually could appeal to kids without dumbing it down.  He wrote a lot of YA fiction and he was actually pretty good at it.  Kids reading this book will be exposed to some of the basic elements of what makes SF such a great genre without getting into the weighty writing or depressing situations that can turn new readers off the genre.
In modern literature there are clearly defined roles for what SF is and is not, I don’t necessarily agree with it but you can almost see the Hugo nominees from a mile away.  There isn’t any way that a book like this could get published now any more than a book like 'A Princess of Mars' could.  1950s SF was full of books aimed at young kids about space and aliens in an almost wholesome fashion.  While the children involved with these sort of stories might be involved in danger it was more of the Saturday morning cartoon variety than the 'Hunger Games' sort.  A lot of reviews for this novel actually criticize it for being too heavy on math for young kids, which I think is ridiculous.  Kids love math.
For me this book gets classified with a lot of other pulp SF from the '50s and earlier.  It's a good example of what the genre was about and where it was heading.  It shows some of genre's roots in the sort of space adventure, alien punching, that you expect when you think classic SF.  Also the novel had a strong female protagonist that didn't take a back seat to a man or become a damsel in distress, always a plus in my book and especially admirable considering when the book was written.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I've posted two new reviews today, one for 'Leviathan Wakes' by James S.A. Corey and one for 'Stations of the Tide' by Michael Swanwick.  These two books couldn't be any more different from each other and I wrote two very different types of reviews.  It was kind of fun to review them both in the same day.  These reviews are not spoiler free, so unless you've read them, or never intend to read them, understand what you're getting into if you scroll down.

Stations was tough to read, and the author does nothing to help the reader out.  Nevertheless I really enjoyed it.  This was exactly the sort of book that I started this project for.  I never would have known about it if I hadn't made a goal to read all the Nebula winners and nominees.  I've never heard this book mentioned before, and I don't know if I ever would have stumbled across it naturally.  It's really held up well, unlike some of the other books from the '90s, and I look forward to reading 'Jack Faust,' Swanwick's other nominee from 1998.

The other reason I'm glad I finished this book is that my wife ended up getting me a wide selection of books for the holidays so far.  I'm looking forward to tearing into them.

I own an Amazon Kindle, like most people, but lately I've been reluctant to use it.  It's great for traveling, I love the ability to bring tons of books with me without paying overweight charges on my bag.  But, there's no reason that a book published in the seventies or eighties should still cost me eight or nine dollars, and there's really no reason that a new e-book should cost as much or more than a hard-copy (I bought the hardcover of 'A Dance with Dragons' at Walmart cheaper than it was electronic on Amazon).  Not to mention that a lot of older SF just isn't available in electronic form. 

That's why I can't recommend enough.  It's an online used bookstore.  All the books there are three dollars, and all the shipping is free.  It's the best place I've found to get a lot of older or out of print SF.  They don't really have overnight shipping, and some of the books show their use, but the deal can't be beat.  I think it's a collection of used book stores or something, a lot of the things I order from there arrive at different times and come from different places.  If you're looking for something old or out of print and don't mind reading a used book, this is the place to order from.  If I want a new book, I try to get it electronic on the Kindle, if I want an old book I try to get a used copy from Thriftbooks. 

I wish I could say this was a paid advertisement for the website or something, but they didn't give me any money.  I'm just a guy that's ordered a ton of stuff from Thriftbooks and thinks it's one of the best deals on the web.  Look, they've got a signed copy of 'Stations of the Tide' for only four bucks.  You can't beat that deal.  Now I feel like a shill, but really I kind of want to order that signed book even though I've already got a copy.  Where else could you order fifteen books for less than fifty dollars?

Anyway, I haven't decided what I'm going to read next, but I feel like I've been putting off writing a review of the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.  I've recommended the series to a few people, but I don't think any of them actually finished it.  This seems like a common theme with the series.  I'm going to try to write a review of it next, but we'll see how it goes.

2012 Hugo Award Nominee- 'Leviathan Wakes' by James S.A. Corey

This book has zombies in outer space, and that should be all I have to say about it.  That should tell you what you need to know about what you're getting in to when you open up this book, something fun, fast, and not too serious.  So many of the books nominated for the Hugo lately have been 'The Dervish House' or 'Anathem' or 'Iron Council,'all good books, but their serious nature and dense writing style can make a book like Leviathan seem like a breath of fresh air.  Great SF doesn't have to transcend the genre to be great, sometimes an author can just play around with the conventions that are already there.

Science Fiction was built upon space opera, series like 'Dune' or 'Foundation' are pillars of the genre, and laid the sort of galaxy spanning, universe altering template for many novels to come.  What Corey (who is actually a pseudonym but I'll talk about that) is doing is placing his space opera in the solar system only, which is actually quite fresh for the genre.  It has become commonplace to begin one's novel with man already spread throughout the galaxy; use some creative license, throw in some faster than light travel and BANG, you're off and running.  Corey places his characters in a world where space travel to the outer planets is possible, but time consuming, and travel outside the solar system is almost unheard of.  He confines the novel to an area small enough that he can explore it fully, but large enough that it still has scope. This is a refreshing take on what usually happens in SF, and a completely different area than most authors explore.  C.J. Cherryh in her novel 'Downbelow Station' completely skips over this hypothetical point in space exploration, covering it in the prologue.

By placing his characters in this setting, no faster than light travel, space exploration inside the solar system only, no contact with extraterrestrials, Corey is able to put his characters under a completely different strain than the normal Galactic Space Opera can.  For one the human beings in this story are faced with the very real possibility of extermination by the alien(s) they encounter, and two, he is able to show the reader the true vastness of space.  For a novel as fast paced as this one his characters spend a fairly large amount of time wandering in space or traveling to certain areas.

The characters in this novel are tried and true cliches, not only of the SF genre but pulled from all over literature.  There is the hard boiled detective, the lovestruck but hardassed pilot, the noble captain, the dangerous mechanic.  Really the entire crew of the Rocinante could be assembled out of the left over characters from genre fiction, but somehow Corey makes it work.  Other reviewers have complained about this, but it never bothered me that much.  A lot can be forgiven if a novel is fun to read.

I like that Corey confines himself to the two POV characters of Holden and Miller.  They provide a good contrast to each other, both in characterization and structure.  Holden provides the more classic SF structure, and embodies the sort of noble hero that we are all familiar with.  Miller is a more modern anti-hero, and his story up to the point where he meets Holden is more of a detective story than anything SF.  The two different characters provide a good back and forth while keeping the story interesting.  It also helps to confine the novel, while we are witnessing this wide ranging story, we experience it through the eyes of only two men, allowing Corey to slowly build this world into something the reader can understand.   

For a genre award that started with space opera SF, the Hugo really hasn't handed out many awards for this type of fiction in the last decade.  The last Hugo nomination for a true space opera novel that didn't go to a writer named either Scalzi or Bujold was probably 1997's Hugo Award winner 'Blue Mars' by Kim Robinson.  But the Mars trilogy this is not.  While both books cover near future space exploration and ostensibly show how that could lead into the sort of galactic exploration more common to classic SF, Leviathan concerns itself more with telling a compelling story than getting it's facts straight.  Not to say Corey doesn't begin his novel with good science, but that the point of the novel is more to tell a good tale.

While the Mars Trilogy went in depth on terraforming and showing step by excruciating step how man might progress from simple space flight to exploring the galaxy at large, Leviathan shows us how an invasion by an alien life-form might provide the push that a stagnant humanity would need to propel themselves outward into the galaxy.  It's tough to say how this series of books might end, but that's the direction I see it going.  Why else would he name the series 'The Expanse?'

I don't usually like to talk about an author when I review a novel, I think the work should stand on it's own and not be influenced by who the author is, or what they do.  However, I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the author in this instance.  James S. A. Corey is actually the pseudonym for two men, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.  It's impressive how well the novel flows considering there were two authors, I've read a few collaborations before, but nothing as polished and slick as this novel.  Both of these men have worked either with or for George R.R. Martin and it shows.  Both in following what he does well, (building a complete world and inhabiting it with real characters) and avoiding what he does poorly, getting books out on time (the sequel was finished and published one year later and the third book in the series will be hitting shelves in June 2013). 

This novel was nominated for a Hugo Award but missed out on the Nebula.  I'm fine with that, I loved it, it was one of my favorite novels of 2011, but an argument could be made that there were some books that were more deserving of a Nebula nomination.  But too often these days the Hugo voters forget that books can be entertaining and fun to read, and end up snubbing books like Leviathan that are just fantastic, and really the reason a lot of people got into the genre in the first place.  I loved this book so much I went ahead and got the sequel, 'Caliban's War,' and if that novel doesn't get a nomination as well I'm going to review it anyway and put it on my page for snubbed books.

Monday, December 17, 2012

1992 Nebula Award Winner and Hugo Award Nominee- 'Stations of the Tide' by Michael Swanwick

Sometimes a writer can get a little too carried away with the symbolism they pack into a novel, reaching a point where the  reader can almost  cherrypick whatever meaning they want from it.  'Stations of the Tide' is open to any interpretation a critic might want to bring to it, and very few of them will be incorrect.  This might be the most original Nebula Winner I've read in a long time, and it might also be the worst pastiche of other novels and SF cliches I've ever read, and it might be both at the same time.

The novel follows the basic structure of 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad, leading some people to claim it a SF retelling of the classic story.  I didn't catch that in my first reading, and I think Swanwick was aiming for something else.  Also the planet of 'Miranda' and the 'Prospero' system are obvious allusions to 'The Tempest'  There's also a small group of people who claim that the reference of the word 'Stations' in the title and the fourteen chapters of the book make it a Christ metaphor.  I don't know if one of these are correct, and I really can't see all three of them being true at the same time.  Maybe that's what the author was going for, piling symbolism on top of symbolism on top of symbolism, but if the reader has to work that hard to squeeze some meaning out of a novel I'm just going to move on and keep looking.

As far as references to other works of SF I did see the 'pain box' out of 'Dune,' the dying planet out of 'Dying of the Light' and countless other references to SF works, if I had a stronger background in fantasy novels I might have caught a few more nods to that genre as well.  Swanwick seems to have taken Clarke's old quote that, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" to heart and written a novel to prove himself right.  This novel straddles a fine line between fantasy and SF that you don't see very often, one of the components that makes this work so original.  It's a credit to the novel that the magic of Miranda and the Agents of the Crystal Palace can exist in the same novel, but Swanwick makes it work.

Many SF novels make predictions about the future, and very few of them are accurate.  One of the reasons for this is that those SF novels are written first to make a point about the present in which they were written, not about the actual future approaching.  The second is that the actual future we are entering is far far stranger than anything we can imagine and if we were to read a true account of what it will be like if human beings ever take to the stars we will probably have so little in common with those people that the story has no impact.  I can imagine a future that truly is like Swanwick's idea, if only because it is that odd, and that difficult to relate to.

Swanwick writes in a style that forces the reader to do some work, far more than the average SF book.   We have an unreliable, unsympathetic, openly lying narrator.  Swanwick changes scenery and viewpoints with little explanation, creating a disorientating effect on the reader.   The Beauracrat spends almost the last half of the novel in a drug induced stupor, further comlicating matters.  The author forces the reader to question exactly what reality is inside this world, and gives us very little solid material to grab on to.

The eighth chapter of the novel is perhaps the best example of this, and one I had to fully reread just to grasp what was going on.  The bureaucrat splits himself into five agents, each sent to accomplish a different task inside the Puzzle Palace (which may or may not be a real place).  As each of these agents accomplish their task they are reabsorbed by the Bureaucrat, or another agent, at which point the narrative retells what the absorbed agent accomplished.   After the third agent was absorbed during the narrative of the second and the story went to it's third tier I basically gave up on the chapter and started over.  This bit of literary showmanship can get on one's nerve, but if it bothered you too much you wouldn't have made it this far into Stations in the first place.  At least this bit of agent re-absorption is somewhat linear and not open to interpretation like the end of the novel.

Because the ending of the book provides us with the opportunity to take several different interpretations, and if you want to see a few of the different ones refer back to that link above.  We have to ask ourselves the question of whether or not to trust the character of the bureaucrat now that he has proved himself a liar.  He began the novel saying that just the sort of transformation he takes before jumping into the ocean was impossible, so he was lying either then or now.  Also the fact that he ends the novel in just the sort of situation in which we first see Gregorian should raise a few eyebrows.  We have to ask ourselves whether the Bureaucrat has now become Gregorian, or is being controlled by Gregorian (my first interpretation which I am beginning to dismiss now).  Was Gregorian a fraud the entire time, manipulating reality as he did only through parlor tricks and bribery?  Was the Bureaucrat the real wizard all the while, only unwilling or unable to use his powers?

Like I said at the start, this novel is so packed full of symbolism that there's just no correct interpretation, or if there is it's just not worth the time to find out what it is.  Every reader is going to walk away with something different.  I like to think that the character of Gregorian engineered the entire thing, knowing only a Bureaucrat had the power to accomplish what he wanted, namely setting the machines free to repopulate Miranda and taking the dive off the cliff and arising transformed.  Gregorian engineered his own death knowing the Bureaucrat would take his place, he is already on his way with the three tattoos on his wrist and the love of a witch.  But, there's no definitive proof for how the novel turns out, and if someone tried to convince me that the Bureaucrat was a crazy person who jumped to his death, or was an agent the entire time, I probably wouldn't have very much ammunition with which to argue.

Stations was published in a time when SF was striving for greater recognition among literary critics, and often reads like it was aimed directly at college professors.  This can earn a novel a commendation like "great" or "important" but it will very rarely turn a book into something that is fun to read.  'Stations of the Tide' can be interesting from a critical standpoint, but he never attains that second level where the book can be fully enjoyed for it's own sake.  Compare it, for example, to the work of Gene Wolfe, another literary SF author.  Wolfe seems to strike that balance where both critical readers and the common reader who picks the book off the shelf might both be able to enjoy the work.

Swanwick missed that sweet spot, but I still enjoyed this book immensely.  This book is exactly the sort of reason I set out to read all the books on both the Hugo and Nebula lists.  This isn't the sort of book that one runs into at random, it's seldom talked about or mentioned.  I know that personally, I never would have encountered it if I hadn't actively been looking for it.  It's just the sort of classic I hope to find every time I order a book I've never heard of.

Stations won the Nebula for '92 and picked up a Hugo nomination in the same year.  It was Bujold's 'Barrayer' that took home the Hugo that year however.  And whatever it may sound like I agree with both these selections.  Stations is definitaly the sort of book that other authors within the genre should put up for an award, the critical success, and 'Barrayer' is the sort that should win any popularity contest.

In the end, if I hadn't set myself the goal  of reading and reviewing every one of these books, I never would have written a word about stations.  This book is complex and difficult to talk about and it would be much easier if I could just put a check mark next to it's name, think about it alone, and move along.

Friday, December 14, 2012

I've finished up a new review for 'Mockingbird' by Walter Tevis.  This novel is another good example of why I set out to read all the nominees and not just the award winners.  Published in 1980 'Mockingbird' lost out to 'Timescape' by Gregory Benford.  While I haven't read 'Timescape' yet Benford was a long time editor and writer of science fiction that was going to be nominated no matter what.  I give the SFWA props just for nominating a book like Bird. 

Tevis didn't write primarily science fiction, and really didn't write that many books.  He did write 'The Hustler,' 'The Color of Money' and 'The Man who Fell to Earth.'  All of which got turned into movies, so that's something.  I'm happy to see any author get nominated for the first time, it shows that the awards are willing to branch out a little and not continue to embrace the same authors over and over.  I do wish that 'The Man who Fell to Earth' had received a Hugo nomination in 1960 but you can't get everything you want.

This review is a pretty short one for a book as deep as 'Mockingbird,' and I'm just worried that I didn't convey well enough just how much I loved this book.  I thought it was great, and like I said, it's exactly the sort of thing I was looking forward to when I set out on this project.  While it's fun to be pointed in the direction of N. K. Jemisin, or stumble across 'Dark Universe' or Poul Anderson, what I really want to find is more books like 'Mockingbird.'

If anyone else has read these books feel free to comment on them, or better yet just put your own review on here and I can make links to different reviews.  I'd be especially curious to see reviews for the books I didn't really like, if anyone really enjoyed 'The Eskimo Invasion' or 'The Wanderer' I need to know about it.

1981 Nebula Award Nominee 'Mockingbird' by Walter Tevis

Mockingbird'Mockinbird' is one of the truly lost gems of science fiction, you never hear people talking about it.  The novel won no awards, it's only claim to fame being the nomination for the Nebula Award.  While Tevis might have achieved a little bit of celebrity for some of his other work, he's been largely forgotten by now, and barring other writers' praise for it almost no one talks about 'Mockingbird.'  This novel is tragic and haunting and subdued and so depressing that when I read it I was sure that the author had killed himself not long after writing it.  I loved it.  Tevis puts forth the sort of dystopian novel that should have stood alongside '1984' and 'Brave New World' and it's almost tragic that it's been so forgotten.
I think Tevis is probably best known for his Hustler books, 'The Hustler' and 'The Color of Money.'  Both of these have been turned into decent movies starring Paul Newman (and one with Tom Cruise).  He also wrote 'The Man who Fell to Earth' a novel which tragically wasn't nominated for a Hugo Award (the Nebula wasn't around when it was published).  Fell to Earth might be best known now for being that movie where David Bowie was the star but it's also a great novel, and many people have said one of the best representations of alcoholism in all of literature.
Tevis' style changed through all his work.  While Fell to Earth was written in a more classic sci-fi style his other works like 'The Queen's Gambit' are very traditional literary concepts, driven by character and story, absolutely nothing like what we see in 'Mockingbird.'  Tevis sets out a world that is slowly destroying itself, and blends the concept with his writing style very well.  The novel reads like a more depressed Philip K. Dick many passages will remind the reader of Dick's work and any fans of Dick's work should definitely check this out.
Tevis' apacolypse occurs not through technology as so many science fiction writers like to set out, but apathy.  Technology has reached a point where human beings can live comfortably without worry and most simply spend their days in a drug fueled haze before committing suicide.  Literacy rates have dropped to almost zero, and intelligence is at an all time low.  There are fully conscious robots that care for people in this novel, and for the first half almost all intelligence will come from their direction.
People have compared this to "An unofficial sequel to 'Farennheit 451,'" and while there are similarities between the two novels I don't think it's an apt comparison.  451 has a very specific message and focus, that literature has importance, while 'Mockingbird' has much more to say about the apathetic nature of humanity in general while contemplating both death and suicide.  The world is not in danger in 451, it is just becoming something that we find unsavory, in Bird the entire human race is being extinguished because no one can be bothered to stop it.
Tevis uses the science fiction in this novel to help tell the story without using any sci-fi tropes for their own sake, something I'm always happy to see.  Many writers have said that in a good novel the story drives the characters, but in a great novel the characters drive the story.  I've felt the same about science fiction for some time, in a good sci-fi novel the science fiction drives the story while in a great novel the characters drive the science fiction.  Tevis tells a sci-fi story in which the science fiction is essential, the theme he's trying to convey and the characters he creates simply could not exist without the sci-fi elements he employs. 
And Tevis does create compelling characters here.  That Spofforth could possibly be a sympathetic character while at the same time killing all of humanity is a credit to that.  Tevis takes what is essentially a three character play and turns it into a study on humanity and redemption.  Spofforth is a robot designed after human beings, but tasked with all the responsibilities of a robot.  Making him basically subservient to human beings, he sets out to serve humanity as best he can.  After hundreds of years he decides that he can accomplish that best by destroying them.  The two human beings in the story, Paul and Mary Lou, start off ineffectual and irritating, but in the end provide the redemption of the novel setting humanity back on a different track.
What this says about Tevis' view of the universe is intense.  By depriving what is basically a person of the ability to die he brings death to all those around him.  Not through any diabolical means but with birth control.  Anyone could stop Spofforth's plan, but no one can be roused enough to even notice it, much less bring it to a stop.  That Spofforth's goal is not the death of humanity but his own death is perhaps what makes him so compelling, his description of a world in which he is completely alone and without the ability to die forces the reader to come as close to agreeing with him as possible.
It's strange to say that a novel that ends in suicide can be uplifting, but I loved this book.  Tevis shows people at their worst, apathetic, bored, drugged, but also at their best.  The novel places Spofforth at center stage, and by making him the character we identify with most underlines our own loneliness and solitude.  Tevis claims early on in the novel that we are all alone in life, and through the rise and fall of the book's tale does nothing to counteract that claim.  Somehow I still find the novel uplifting, perhaps I agree with his statement about loneliness, but also with his idea that people will generally overcome and that life continues on.  And perhaps that we can take small comfort in knowing we will not live forever, and that's okay.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I've been doing a little maintenance on the site as you can see.  It means I had to re-post all of my reviews so far on the blog instead of as stand-alone pages.  At least I'm doing it now when I only have a few reviews instead of a little down the road when I might have quite a few more.  I also organized the reviews by decade.  They're still over on the right, you'll just have to click on the decade you want to see to get to the reviews now.  I figured while I'm doing maintenance I might as well get that over with.  I have some four hundred books I intend to review and I can't have all of them just sitting unorganized on the side of the site.  Hopefully this will make things better. I left 'Farthing' by itself over there as it's the last review I wrote, once I finish another review I'll put 'Farthing' in the proper place.

All that aside I feel a little like I've been slacking in writing reviews.  It's going to take me a long time to write reviews for the books I've already finished, I just didn't realize how long it would take to write a hundred reviews.  Turns out it's a really long time.  I'll post another one soon, and maybe set a goal to write a new one every week.

Right now I'm reading 'Stations of the Tide' by Michael Swanwick.  So far it seems like exactly what I was looking for when I set out to read all the books nominated for the Hugo or Nebula Award.  I don't know if you can really say a book is a hidden gem if it won the Nebula award but I'd never heard of it.  So far it blends fantasy and hard sci-fi in a manner I've never seen before.  I'm only about a hundred pages in so it can really go either way but I'm liking what I see so far.  I'll try and post a review as soon as I finish.

On a side note my wife has been giving me a book a day leading up to Christmas, all of which she took off my list of unread nominees.  So far she's given me 'Lord Valentine's Castle' by Robert Silverberg and 'The Orphan' by Robert Stallman.  I'd never heard of Stallman before so it'll be interesting to read that, and it's always nice to have another Silverberg.   I showed my wife the wikipedia page for Silverberg and she just about threw up, I swear that guy wrote all the time.  His bibliography goes from science fiction to regular fiction to non-fiction to pornography over the span of a year and a half.  The guy must not have taken a break to go to the bathroom.  He's got some great work out there, and some not so great, but more hits than misses.  About what you would expect from a guy who was writing so much, but you have to respect the body of work.

2012 Hugo Award Nominee- 'A Dance with Dragons' by George R.R. Martin

A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5)There are some problems that come with writing the sort of sweeping fantasy series that Martin is setting up.  One is that when you write a story that takes place across several novels you end up publishing before the story is over.  Think of the Song of Ice and Fire as one long story being published piece by piece.  By doing this Martin and all other authors of long series deprive themselves of the ability to edit as they go along.  They can't go back and rewrite a passage from the first book if they don't like how the series is going.

We tend to believe that Martin set out with the story complete in his mind, but obviously that's not true or it wouldn't take so long between novels.  The truth is more likely he had a rough outline of what would happen, but filling in the details of that outline had ramifications for the rest of the series, ramifications that couldn't be edited out or smoothed over later on. This series began as a trilogy then moved to four novels, then five and so on, now, Martin will be lucky if he can finish it in seven or eight.

The other problem with these long series is in reviewing them.  Reviewing any book in this series but the first is going to be a review of the series as a whole, which isn't even done yet.  How well Dance works as a novel can't be told until the series is finished and we are able to see it's place in the whole and how all the pieces fit together. There have been quite a few reviews of this novel to date, and some even praised Dance as a great stand-alone novel.  But that doesn't work at all.  'A Dance with Dragons' is not a starting point for a story, it's the mid-point to an ongoing series.  You can't judge the book on it's own merits, you need to view it as the part of a larger whole that it is.  That this isn't a solo novel becomes very obvious in the last few chapters, when Martin almost completely gives up on a narrative structure and begins throwing in random POV chapters for characters that only appear once, resolving some of the cliffhangers from the previous book.

It's apparent now that the outline Martin had for the first three novels was rock solid. Those clip right along and tell an exciting, well written story.  A lot of that is missing in this novel, which seems to meander for long passages with nothing happening.  Though while Dance doesn't have the solid structure or the swift pace of the original three books obviously Martin had some sort of plan for it.  A lot of what we see here in Dragons was set up in the previous books.  The amount of prophecy fulfilled in this novel alone should be proof that Martin has a plan (though more of the prophecy than I care to admit went right over my head).

The fifth (and fourth) book of this series was, by necessity, going to be a letdown.  After the heady events of the third book and the sweeping changes that came about because of them the characters were scattered.  The first book was concise, taking the characters from point A to point B efficiently, introducing us to this world and letting us know what Martin was about.  The second book built even more on that complexity, and the third book brought it all to new heights and gave us something of a conclusion.  By the start of the fourth book there were now hundreds of characters across multiple continents, few of them having any interactions with the other.  The series had reached a level of complexity that few had before.  Martin has admitted that 'A Feast for Crows' and Dragons were never intended to be part of the overall series, but that the intended time-jump just wasn't feasible.  He needed to write the two books so he could place all the characters in position for the conclusion.  The problem with Dragons is that in a thousand plus pages Martin is only able to advance each individual storyline a minuscule fraction of what he accomplished across the first three books. The reader is almost forced to ask whether that solid outline still exists and will come back to close out the series, or if Martin will do what so many other fantasy authors have done and tread water for an indefinite amount of time, generating money while he tries to figure out how to end it.

The questions then are, is Dragons the height of complexity for the series?  Where does the series go from here?  Has Dragons done it's job of placing all the characters where Martin needs them for the big close, or has the narrative completely gotten away from him?  Has Martin made so many changes to the story in the books he's published that he can no longer write what he wants?  Does he still have control over where this story is going or has he lost the thread?  Many people have complained about Dance, saying nothing happens or that Martin is beginning to repeat himself.  I know because I've been one of them.  This novel is either the setup for the endgame of the book, or it's not.

The real merit of 'Dance with Dragons' can only be understood when the series is finished.  Martin, like all epic fantasy authors, has seen fit to give us pieces of his story as he writes them.  We cannot judge the value of that story until it is complete.  We can speculate over what might happen.  We can judge each portion of the overall story as it is published, and in doing so for the first three novels will be rewarded.  'A Feast for Crows' and 'A Dance with Dragons' are similar in that when the overall story is complete they might mark the point at which George R.R. Martin lost control of his story and it got away from him, or it might be the point at which the story reaches maximum complexity before rushing to the thrilling and planned for close.  This could be simply a natural down-point for the characters and the setup for the conclusion that Martin had planned all along.  Really I wish to reserve judgement on the novel until the tale is finished, because once it's done we will be able to see Dance's place within the greater structure.  When reviewing the book now critics often talk about the series as a whole rather than the single book itself.  When the series is done they will do the same thing, only then they'll actually understand whether it's good or not.

On a more pragmatic note I think one of the reasons that this book wasn't as polished as the others in the series (most reviews cite the repetition and the need for more editing) is due to timing.  This book hit shelves seven days before the season one finale of the TV show.  You can imagine if you want that the publishers delayed putting the book out until the time was right and anticipation was high.  But, for a book that was closing in on a decade in the making, I find it much more likely that the book was rushed to meet that date.  That Martin was still working on fine tuning this massive tome when he realized it needed to be published.  I know if I were his publisher I would have told Martin to either get the book out to meet the season finale or give it up and move on.  A lot of the common complaints about the novel can be chalked up to a perfectionist constantly reworking his baby, then suddenly being rushed to completion because of financial reasons (namely, getting massively rich by releasing the book on the right day). 

So, yeah, this book has got problems.  Nothing happens, Martin spins his wheels all over the place.  He repeats himself.  People had set their sights on a real sequel, not the other half of the downer that was 'A Feast for Crows.'  But I think all I wrote above still stands, we can't judge this book until we're able to see its place within the whole.  The merits of Dance really stand with the merits of the entire series.  And while I don't see this as a book I'll ever go back and reread for fun, I'm not really willing to write it off until I see what comes next.  And I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

2011 Nebula and Hugo Award Nominee- 'The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' by N.K. Jemisin

I once startled a friend by making the statement that you don't encounter a lot of  fantasy fiction written in non-western countries.  He looked at me like I was the biggest racist on the planet and asked me to support my claim.  I countered by telling him that it was just as arrogant to assume that books based loosely on the legend of King Arthur would hold as large a literary tradition in a country that cared nothing for those legends. (We were in India at the time looking at the book section so the conversation held a little more impact).

And that's my problem with fantasy novels, the legend of King Arthur.  The legend just sits there, squatting in front of whatever it is you might write.  You can't ignore the fact that it's there, you either have to write along with it, or intentionally go against it and write something to be contrary.  Do you put wizards into you fantasy novel?  If so then he's based on Merlin or he's playing against the type of Merlin.  Do you put knights into your fantasy novel?  If so then how do they fare against the round table?  Many people today will bring up Tolkein when they cite this problem, but Tolkein based quite a bit of his writing on the legend of King Arthur, so we'll start our complaint there.  I don't need to list all the books that tip the hat to either King Arthur or Tolkein, they dominate the fantasy section at your local bookstore.  It's still a very popular form of fiction, there's still quite a few books written every year that are in that direct vein, but there's not  of enough originality in the fantasy genre. 

All genres have their roots.  You can't write a mystery novel without thinking about Raymond Chandler, you can't write a space military novel without thinking 'Starship Troopers.'  Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes that's bad.  The originals in any genre just sit there and it's up to the writers of the future to build upon the foundation they laid, or to strike out in new directions.  For fantasy in particular it's caused grief all across the genre, as far back as 1978 Michael Moorcock was saying fantasy needed to get away from what Tolkein wrote and spring in a new direction (see his essay 'Epic Pooh').  There will always be people who want to read a riff on the classics, but there needs to be more room made for those who wish to take the genre in a new direction. 

That's why it's so nice to read a book like Kingdoms.  It reminded me that this Arthur problem is only an issue with Fantasy novels written in western culture, that if you want to find a novel that is in no way based upon anything Tolkein came up with you need look no further than the next country over. As it turn out Jemisin is from Ohio, so maybe it's not as much a cultural thing as a writer thing.  So much of the genre fiction being written today is influenced by western culture, think about the genres you read, whether western, romance, or science fiction. Readers today need to strike out in a new direction every once in awhile, read something that has never been presented to them before. There are more than enough fantasy novels featuring knights, wizards, magic jewels, and enchanted swords. I want gods that turn themselves into black holes like Jemisin has here.

While Jemisin is certainly not the first writer to take a new look at fantasy, she blends enough of the mythology of other cultures into the standard sword and sorcery genre to give the reader in western culture a new look.  It seems like Jemisin completely ignored the tradition of fantasy and looked instead to the mythology of eastern culture to provide the basis for this novel.  She takes the sort of strong, modern woman character that we are familiar with and places her into a world populated with ideas fairly foreign to us, and pulls it off pretty well.

Though it takes more to make a good novel than an original idea, Jemisin delivers on all accounts.  The female lead is a strong character, well developed.  The magic in the novel is delivered in an original fashion, and taken serious.  The plot develops quickly, and the world is interesting and well developed. This was Jemisin's first novel (though she'd already won awards for her shorter fiction) and it shows.  There are a few clunky portions, and several sections where a lighter touch might have served her better.  But Jemisin is here to stay as a writer, and in Kingdoms she delivers a more than competent novel in a new and original fashion.  This novel was the first in a trilogy and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

1993 Hugo (TIE) and 1993 Nebula Award Winner 'Doomsday Book' by Connie Willis

'The Doomsday Book' by Connie Willis tied for the 1993 Hugo Award with Vernor Vinge's 'A Fire Upon the Deep' and won the 1993 Nebula Award outright.  This novel is the first full length novel in Willis' Oxford series, there is a short story, "Firewatch," that comes before the novel but really each one is a stand alone work that doesn't need too much back story. I would recommend that anyone interested in the series start any place but 'Blackout/All Clear,' and only because the impact of that novel is increased by having some knowledge of how the universe works. 

This series of books deals with time travel, and a very specific sort of time travel.  Willis takes the tack that her characters can travel back in time, but they cannot alter anything that has already happened.  In Wills' universe the past is fixed, any time travelers that were planning on going backward have already been there, and thus there can be no changes to the timeline.  In many ways the rules of Willis' time travel reminds me of Asimov's 'Three Rules of Robotics' in that they occupy such importance in the novel that the author runs the risk of writing the story about the mechanics (like Asimov started to do) and not about the characters (like Willis always does).  Anyway, the rules of the universe are complex, and in order to make sure that nothing is altered in the past the time travel device almost takes on a personality in the story, malfunctioning at highly coincidental times so as not to allow a paradox to take place.  Further novels in the series deal more with the mechanics of Willis' time travel device, but never to the detriment of the story.  Previously I've described this form of time travel as the least original, relying somewhat on the concept of 'fate.'  If a person goes back in time but their action is all set in stone because it's already happened there's normally not much chance for an interesting story, but it's a credit to Willis' writing that she makes it both believable and interesting.

Willis has a different way of writing that at times can seem at odds with the subject matter involved.  Doomsday has a tone that is reminiscent of the 'comedy of error' plays, almost like an Oscar Wilde type of thing that's actually pretty funny.  The entire first half of the novel is heavy in this tone, and many readers have complained about it.  Willis uses it to her advantage though, and if you have read any of her other writing you know she affects it only for this series, and in the end it serves well as the light tone ends up complementing the dark subject matter.

Willis has definitely done her homework when it comes to any of the Oxford series, unfortunately, I have not.  I cannot speak about how accurate any of her statements might be.  I have no idea what life might have been like in Medieval England, so when she refutes what seem to be some established facts about the time period I tend to just take her word for it.  What I can say with certainty is that Willis brings that period to life, you really get a feel for what it would be like to inhabit Willis' idea of Medieval Europe.  It may not be what life was really like at the time, we won't know until Willis' time machine is a reality, but it feels real.   The characters are real people, and her slow paced writing style really lets the story flesh the characters and setting out to their fullest potential.
Willis bides her time with the story, almost to the point of irritation, before she rushes for the close.  Even reading the back cover of the book will tell the reader that the time travel portion of the story contains a young woman trapped in the Medieval Ages, trying to survive the Black Death.  This aspect of the story doesn't even begin until almost halfway through the novel.  Up until that point the novel really meanders, allowing Willis to build the characters and settings that will inhabit the next few novels in the series, and affect the reader so greatly in the second half of this novel.
Because this novel will affect you.  If the first half of the novel can be described as a wandering comedy of errors, the second half can only be called a heartbreaking tragedy.  Willis is merciless with her characters, and the realism she works so hard to establish in the first half pays off in the second.  It's no easy task to create realism in a novel about the black death, and I'm tempted to say that it may have been more difficult for Willis to write these passages than it was for us to read them.  It's not difficult to see where a novel involving the greatest plague of all time is headed, and it's not good.
You only ever get to read a novel for the first time once, and even in a review where I assume you've already finished the novel I'm reluctant to talk about the end out of fear I might ruin the end for someone.  I will say however that I have never been so emotionally crushed by an ending that, thematically, was absolutely necessary for the novel to work.  Willis took no shortcut in getting to the conclusion, every bit of it was earned through character development and story structure, so while the end of this novel may be both harrowing and deeply moving, none of the emotional content of the story comes from the sort of twist ending or shock that you almost expect these days.

Many readers have stated that they never made it through the first half, or cited it as the reason they didn't like the novel.  That denies Willis' skill as a writer.  She uses the first half of the novel to set the stage for the second half.  Too many authors use death or danger to their characters to add weight to a story, without taking the time to make the reader invest in those characters.  Willis is willing to spend half her novel making us care about these characters, and if the reader can make it through that portion (I hate to put it like that) then the payoff is huge.
It's no wonder that this book has won so many awards, it is a deeply moving classic work of science fiction that has been able to attract readers that do not normally follow the genre.  Willis is a constant nominee for many awards, and every novel in the Oxford series has won the Hugo award, and all but one have won the Nebula award.  She is one of the few authors to have multiple novels receive both awards, and there is no question of why.  'The Doomsday Book' has a lot to recommend it, and I can't praise it highly enough.

1973 Nebula and 1974 Hugo Award Nominee- 'The Man who Folded Himself' by David Gerrold

TheManWhoFoldedHimself(1stEd).jpgI'm not ashamed to say I picked this book up when I went on a shopping spree for sci-fi nominees that began with "The Man."  'The Man who Folded Himself,' 'The Man who Melted,' 'The Whole Man,'  that sort of thing.  I didn't really know what I was getting into and was completely blown away by how good it was.  There are a lot of bad novels out there about time travel, and a lot more that sort of dodge out of the way of how complex things should get if you're having a character jump back and forth through time, and 'The Man who Folded Himself is neither of those things.  Gerrold jumps right in from the get go, and and the novel really devolves in to a sort of entropic level of complexity before sort of coming back right before the end.

Gerrold really embraces the idea that a paradox is possible, allowing for multiple and alternate universes.  His novel is jam packed with different versions of the same character throughout his life.  The novel wastes no time explaining how time travel works, the protagonist is given a belt that will take him through time on page one, and by page two himself from one day in the future has showed up ready to guide him through his first tour of time travel.  Easily skipping the question of what sort of time travel book this will be Gerrold has his character intentionally make changes from what his predecessor did, letting the reader know that paradoxes are possible in this universe, and that multiple realities will allow alternate versions of our character to interact with each other.

Our character moves on to inhabit a house full of basically himself throughout different times in his life, all interacting in different ways.  The novel tracks the character's interactions from the time he turns eighteen (all iterations of the character agree not to interfere with their life before he becomes an adult, allowing for the denouement at the end) all the way until his death.  The character progresses through all the stages of life, and in a nod to the new wave of science fiction even has a homosexual relationship with himself, sexual experimentation is kind of a hallmark of writing coming out of this time period, but I really love this one as it's still able to shock people today.  The real heart of the novel occurs when the main character is able to track down an alternate reality version of himself that is a woman and have a relationship with her, through his pride the relationship fails.  In perhaps the most touching and frightening moment of the novel he tries to track her down later, but every place he looks she has already been frightened away by an older and more lecherous version of himself.  Good stuff.

In classic sci-fi time travel fashion the novel ends in a recursive loop, but optimism arises as we are reading a log of our character's adventures which he has been filling out the entire time, he hands this off to his younger self in the hopes that he will use it to make better choices.  Having established that alterations of the time-line are possible the reader is left wondering what our character would have done different had he known how it would end.  It's not really putting the end in the hands of the reader, but it's enough to spark the imagination and really null out a lot of the more cynical and pessimistic aspects of the novel.

This is a complex, though short, novel that doesn't shy away from time travel, and like I said in my post I think it was robbed of an award.  Folded was nominated for both the 1973 Nebula and 1974 Hugo award (through the vagaries of nomination periods for the two awards) and both times lost out to 'Rendezvous with Rama,' which is a perfectly good novel, but compared to other books that have won both awards I find a little lacking.  Sometimes the people who hand out awards are tempted to give them over and over to the same authors, which is one of the most important reasons a person should focus equally on the nominees as well as the winners.  This novel pushed boundaries, and showed how complex a novel about time travel could be, most modern time travel novels owe this novel something of a debt, and it's a shame that it's been largely forgotten.

Edit:  It turns out that this novel is based in some parts on a Robert A. Heinlein short story called '-All You Zombies-' that I hadn't read when I wrote this review.  It's little emberrasing for me to put this up here but I read that short story (it's only 19 pages) and wrote a quick review comparing the two of them.  Here's my post on '-All You Zombies-.'

1972 Nebula Award Nominee 1973 Hugo Award Nominee- 'When HARLIE was One' by David Gerrold

Product Details'When HARLIE was One' was nominated for both a Hugo Award in 1973 and a Nebula Award in 1972, both nominations it lost to Asimov's 'The Gods Themselves.'  HARLIE suffers, like a lot of near future fiction, from being close to what the future looks like but off enough to almost make the reader giggle.  There are some jarring points early in the novel with people smoking indoors that really broke the fourth wall for me, but that's to be expected in a novel written in the seventies.  And Gerrold apparently got a few things right with his legalized marijuana (hello Colorado and Washington). I don't think this novel lives up to 'The Man who Folded Himself,' Gerrold would write that the next year, but HARLIE provides some interesting points about artificial intelligence.

This novel was definately influenced by both Heinlein's 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' and Clarke's '2001:A Space Odyssey.  It even mentions the second one a few times in the book, always a good sign that an author is willing to acknowledge his influences.  Remember that computers were just becoming a real thing in 1972, but it wouldn't be until 1977 that even the Apple II was released.  All the computers that come to life in these three novels have some similarities that are a little offputting today, they're all as big as a house, they all communicate basically through text, and all have cathode ray tubes or something equally ridiculous involved with them.  Gerrold does his best in HARLIE to make the technology real to life, and that might be what dates the book the worst.

All that aside, a little dating is to be expected in any novel written around this time, Gerrold uses his tale of artificial intelligence to tackle some problems that the other two do not.  Some people might be put off by the sexual aspect of the novel, or its treatment of God, but for me they were the things that breathed life into the story.  From our vantage here in 2012 it's exhausting to read another book about an AI taking over our lives, it's nice to see that even in the seventies people were looking for a new approach to the sub-genre.  Gerrold finds that new approach through HARLIE and Auberson's discussions on love.

I'm a sucker for a love story like this one, two older people both afraid of love, and also the general fear of the novel that HARLIE would be turned off in the end.  I knew going in that HARLIE would survive the novel, it would be too much like Heinlein's novel to have the computer shut off in the end.  Also I should have figured that Auberson would end up with Annie, but it's a credit to Gerrold's writing that he kept me guessing right up until the end.  I've read a few complaints about the sex scenes written in this novel, but my response is you should have known what you were getting in to when you opened the book, this is the same writer who wanted to put an AIDs story into Star Trek, as well as inter-species sex.  Not to mention the sex in 'The Man who Folded Himself.'  Graphic sex is almost a staple of sci-fi in the seventies, and it's definitely part of the New Wave of science fiction coming out at this time, and a brief glance at Nebula nominees from the 70s will show books much more interested in sex than this one.  What interests me most about this book is its exploration of love.

I found the scenes with Auberson and HARLIE discussing the definition of love very touching and subtly written.  Gerrold gives us a little foreshadowing that the machine might be a little more advanced than the man here, a little heads up for the ending so it won't come as quite the shock.  I also enjoy how there's never any talk about whether or not the computer has/can have any emotion, it is immediatelly assumed from the beginning, ruling out one more sci-fi cliche. And, the discussion between the two is actually a good one, bringing up valid points about love, affection, and lust that are still valid today.  Just imagine how shocking it would still be today if someone said that sex had to come before love.  I love how Gerrold just sort of buried that in there.

The G.O.D. machine is an interesting concept and also provides for Gerrold's little twist at the end, but other than as a plot device I really didn't find it that interesting.  I should be ecstatic over the idea of a computer that could solve any problem, and if I were in the seventies I surely would, but all the talk of printouts in cubic feet and miles of wire just sort of ruined it for me.  Sometimes a writer can get a little too into the mechanics of an idea and leave the fun of it behind, and like I said I was falling all over myself for the 'love' aspect of this novel that I really just wanted to find out how it ended to make sure they would end up together.

In the end though this novel is probably most famous for being the first use of the term 'virus' to denote a computer infection, without Gerrold we might still be calling it a 'Self Reproducing Automata.'  Though in this novel and Crichton's 'The Terminal Man' the virus is transferred through a telephone line it is remarkably similar to what we know of today as a virus on the web.  I really like this novel (someday I'm going to review a novel I don't like, I promise) and it's a good place to get in to the writing of David Gerrold for those who maybe don't like Star Trek too much, or aren't prepared for 'The Man who Folded Himself.'

1967 Nebula Award Nominee- 'The Eskimo Invasion' by Hayden Howard

The Eskimo InvasionThis is another book that hasn't done such a good job of standing the test of time.  I have no idea how this book looked the year it was published, but now it has been largely forgotten by history due to the racism, sexism and badly misunderstood science that fills the book.  There is no way a novel like this could get published today, though that's not to say it is completely without merit.  One of the reason awards lists like the Hugo and Nebula are important is that they give us a window into the time period in which the books are written.  And the fact that this book was nominated at all proves that it's worth a read if only to see what people were reading back in the day.

This review area is not a spoiler free space, as I normally write under the assumption that those reading have already completed the novel.  I want a space for people who have finished a book to be able to seek others' opinion.  So normally I won't go real big into plot summaries, I've never really liked reading reviews that are book reports.  But, no one has read this book, and my review will not inspire people to read this book, so I'll break the plot down as neatly as I can. A man has sex with an Inuit woman only to  find that she gives birth only a few weeks later.  That child matures in only a few months, and pretty soon starts giving birth to more children that mature in only a few months.  After a little while the entire world fills up with "Eskimos," insanity ensues.  There's a space alien that made this happen and wants them all to die at the same time so their "death energy" can fuel him on to bigger and better things.  No book ever written stands up well to the five sentence summary, but that's about the best I've got for this book.  Though like I said this book is not without merit.

Try to Imagine the story that goes with
This novel is a great example of the roots of science fiction.  If you go back to the early days of science fiction you'll find that sex and violence were a huge part of  the genre.  The pulp novels of the 40s and 50s are the roots of the genre, and anyone who's ever read any of those books from before there were Hugo's or Nebula's knows that they often aimed right for the lowest common denominator.  Just look at Burrough's 'A Princess of Mars,' published in 1917 the entire book dances around the idea of sex between the two main characters.  And that's one of the more tame novels from the time, just looking at the covers to some of the cheaper pulp magazines is enough to make you giggle today.  'The Eskimo Invasion' presents a natural evolution between what science fiction was in it's infancy and what it was becoming.  The author brings in enough of the sex and violence of the pulp era but attempts (not always successfully) to tell a meaningful and compelling story. 

There are some interesting ideas present in this novel.  Often a novel can succeed with only a good idea to propel it along.  There are many examples of poorly written novels that have a story strong enough that it just doesn't matter, I talked about this with 'Dark Universe' but 'Tau Zero' is probably an even better example.  I don't know if 'The Eskimo Invasion' qualifies for this type of exemption, but I can see how some people could enjoy the novel.  The concept is out there, and just when you think you have the novel figured out the author takes it one step further and things get even weirder.  Not a bad thing for a novel.

In the end this is still a very interesting novel, and a good indicator of the pulp fiction of the times.  I don't know if I would recommend it to the casual reader of science fiction, but more for those who want to know how the genre got started and those who want to read something weird. I will say that it probably has the coolest cover of all time, and if I were a fifteen year old that would be a blown-up poster on my wall.  Also interesting is that this book is so forgotten by history that there really aren't that many reviews about it on the internet.  As such it seems like it's gained a kind of hipster cred, where the few reviews there are only talk about how good it is and how everyone should read it just because it's obscure and forgotten.  Really I think I've got the only negative review on the internet and that seems weird for this book (though I talked to one of the people who'd read it and he actually seemed to have enjoyed it, so maybe it's me).

1965 Hugo Award Winner- 'The Wanderer' by Fritz Leiber

The WandererLet me preface this review by saying the Wanderer is not a book that has held up well over time, and the most common question asked in a lot of the reviews you can read online is: "How did this book win a Hugo?"  Never a good sign.  The book has a lot of problems, the action jumps around too much, the characters are poorly developed, the writing in spots borders on unreadable, and the treatment of women in the story is emberassing.  It's very curious that a book like this can come out of an author as famous a Leiber, one of the premier authors of the 50s and 60s, and one of the founding authors of the Sword and Sorcery genre.

Leiber is probably most famous for his 'Fafhrd and the Grey Mouse' series, I have not read it, and have no idea how to pronounce it.  Leiber was one of the most prolific writers of the early sci-fi era, winning awards in Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy.  He has over two dozen collections of short stories, and several novels as well.  Sci-fi wasn't a very profitable venture in the early days, and those authors who made a living at it usually did so through quantity not quality.  It was not uncommon to see authors publish two or three novels a year along with a couple dozen short stories, writing at this pace there will always be a few duds that leak through (see Silverberg, Robert).   That provides a little context for why this novel is so difficult, but not really an excuse.

'The Wanderer' is probably most famous today for kicking off the sub-genre of disaster fiction.  The novel describes the arrival of a new planet into our solar system and the havoc it wreaks as it devours the moon.  Leiber bounces back and forth between the 'soft' science fiction of describing the effect it has on people, and the 'hard' sci-fi of describing the science involved with what is happening.  The novel might better have been served by focusing on one or the other.  Though the disaster novel has kind of faded away today to be replaced by the disaster movie (see: '2012') for awhile there disaster novels were a mainstay of both sci-fi and mainstream fiction.  John Brunner took some inspiration from this novel in his work, as did John Barnes in his novel 'Mother of Storms.'

This novel seems to be another example of the idea for a novel winning the Hugo despite the writing.  There is no denying that the idea for this novel is a grand one, the idea of a universe filled to the brim with life is more than interesting, and the conceit of a rogue planet on the run from the authorities is more than enough to inspire any writer.  But, there is also no denying that this might be the most poorly written novel to ever win a Hugo.  While there are some well described scenes in the book, the destruction of the moon and Don's escape through the middle of it for one, there are countless other examples of poorly developed characters and meandering plotlines.  Other authors have used multiple perspectives to give the reader a general sense of a large community, but Leiber does a poor job here, jumping back and forth from settings so often that the reader is often left confused about what is happening or what character is doing what.

Women are poorly served in most early science fiction, regulated to damsels in distress most often or sex symbols as a back-up.  Leiber does even worse here, where a woman's only choice seems to be between manipulative fool and crazy lesbian with a desire for death-sex (you heard me).  While the novel is probably the first (and last) instance of a man having sex with a humanoid cat, it does nothing to serve the novel, and feels more like Leiber exercising a fantasy that creeps most people out.  Sexism is prevalent, like I said, in most early science fiction and to be expected, but examples like this drag an already troubled book even further down.  Sex becomes more common in sci-fi as we move into the early seventies, but it was already here to stay by 1965.  While no one would expect equality of the sexes in 1965 you should remember that this book was published after Heinlein's 'Stranger in a Strange Land' and Dick's 'The Man in the High Castle,'  two novels that took at least a slightly more mature and balanced look at the sexes.

It's tough to say something about 'The Wanderer' that hasn't already been written, it's a novel that has large defenders and just as large detractors.  Marc Goldstein in his review of the book seemed to believe that Leiber intentionally avoided characterization in an attempt to support the story's underlying pessimism and the small impact humanity can have on the final outcome.  This seems a little like saying that Leiber intentionally wrote a bad story, which is hard to believe or understand.  More often there are reviews like Sam Jordison's who ask how this book could be nominated for any award. The answer to that is tough to say, but often, like the Nobel Prize or any major award, those giving out the award are actually looking at the entire body of work for an author, or their importance throughout the genre rather than looking at the specific work the author was nominated for.  That seems like more of what we're dealing with here.  Leiber wrote a poorly executed disaster novel that had a very promising premise and a few thought provoking ideas, if it had been another author writing it maybe it would have recieved just a nomination, since it was Leiber it won the award.

(Here are links to the two reviews I mentioned if you want to see them:
Jordison's 'Bad' review: Here
Goldstein's 'Good' review: There
These are good examples of some other takes on the material).

1963 Hugo Award Winner- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle.jpgThe AV Club over at the Onion once wrote an introduction to the writing of Dick, but for some reason they said to come in to this novel towards the end.  I completely disagree.  For those not familiar with Dick's writing 'The Man in the High Castle' is easily his most accessible book.  It's the only novel of his I've read that follows a standard plot structure, there's nothing really crazy going on here, and without knowing anything about Dick one would just assume it was one of the more odd books written in the 60s.  There are some of his more bizarre elements present here, but they are not nearly as pervasive as 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' or 'Doctor Bloodmoney,' two other works that I'll soon be reviewing.

Dick is one of those authors that defy convention and placement within the genre.  Especially in his later work it is nearly impossible to place the date or time in which Dick was writing.  'Dr. Bloodmoney' shows it's date in some of Dick's phrasing but High Castle could have been written today and it wouldn't read any different.  Anyone who hasn't read any of Dick's novels needs to run out and start, and if it were me I'd use High Castle as my jumping off point, though be prepared for some difficulty, just not the same you would expect if you tried to read 'Ubik' without any idea what you were getting into.

Dick has gained a certain amount of celebrity in recent years as more and more modern authors claim him as an influence in their writings, and that is really a credit to how well his writing holds up over time.  But also to just how weird and out there his writing is.  Dick's personality has become in recent years one of the reasons people get in on his writing, the guy was absolutely nuts.  He saw visions and believed that prophets spoke to him.  There is an interesting story that after Stanislas Lem rebuked the SFWA and turned down an honorary membership he said the only American sci-fi writer he respected was Philip K. Dick, which in turn caused Dick to freak out, accuse Lem of being a front for Communism and write a letter to the FBI.  The guy was crazy. 

All that aside I tend not to consider the intent of the author when reviewing a novel.  Once the work of art has left the hands of the artist it is the viewer who discovers its meaning.  The intent of the author can be considered, but I don't believe it is important for the reader to know it.  So, I will leave behind the crazy stories about Dick and his wild life to Wikipedia, and focus here on 'The Man in the High Castle.'

I like to consider myself a pretty savvy reader, and I pick up on most clues, but every now and then I miss something staring me in the face and I wonder just how dense I really am.  I would never have realized that Goldman's frame story in 'Princess Bride' wasn't true unless a friend had told me, and when she did I'm sure she could see the "Oh, Ohhhh," in my face. The same is true of High Castle.  The entire book Dick is talking about the I Ching, it's running peoples lives, they are using it to write books, the I Ching is just as much a character in the novel as any person.  It was pretty late in the game when I realized that Dick himself was using the I Ching to dictate the decisions he made in the novel.  Here was a story that included a fictional man using the I Ching to write a fictional novel being written by a real life man using the I Ching to write a real novel.  I read this book when I was seventeen and it wrinkled my brain all to hell.

The novel contains a story within the story called 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy' in which the author uses the Chines oracle to dictate every choice made about the story.  The inner story, while set in an alternate universe where the Axis won the second world war, is about a world where the Allies won that same war, but not in the same manner as our world.   It's complicated, but Dick uses these frames to question the very nature of reality and what is real.  To read a novel written by someone who actually believed that there is no such thing as reality is pretty heavy.  I don't feel I've done the best job of describing what's actually going on with this here but it's pretty difficult to write a synopsis of a Dick novel that isn't as long as the novel itself, you'd be better off just reading it.

Often you'll hear a Hugo or Nebula nominee lauded as being full of ideas that would have comprised three or four novels with another writer, this is doubly true of any novel written by Dick.  A throwaway comment by almost any character would be more than enough to make up a novel today, and many authors are still borrowing Dick's styles and ideas, many aspects of the New Wave, and New Weird sub-genres of science fiction owe a direct debt to Philip K. Dick and his craziness.  Add on to this that High Castle was one of the first alternative history novels, and really set the groundwork for a lot of the following 'what if the axis had won?' novels and there's no question why it won the Hugo award, or why Dick himself is still a large influence on the genre today.

1962 Hugo Award Nominee- Dark Universe by Daniel F. Galouye

Dark UniverseIn a critique of writing Samuel Delany once talked about science fiction saying that there was no real seperation of 'story' and 'writing.'  In our minds we often say something like "the writer had a good idea, a good story, but the writing of it wasn't that great."  Delany doesn't buy that, he says that the concept of a story and the written story are derived from the same place and inextricably linked together.  Now, Delany is obviously much smarter than I am, and knows quite a bit more about writing than I do, but I would like to ask him about 'Dark Universe' by Galouye for just that reason.  This novel has such a great concept, such a beautiful setup, that it almost overshadows the fact that the writer can't quite deliver on the promise of it.

Universe was written in the early sixties, mired in a time when a lot of sci-fi was concerned with both the Cold War and fears of nuclear annihilation.  These twin fears have certainly laid a lot of the groundwork for science fiction through the ages, how many books have you read where the author took a new technology, pushed it to it's apocalyptic extreme and then wrote a book about it?  The sixties nominees are full of books like this, and it really could be considered a genuine fear for the people in those times (perhaps ours too).  While the sixties didn't invent the dystopian genre ('1984' anyone) the fear of nuclear annihilation made these sort of books a lot more common, and much more relevant than they might have been otherwise. Really any dystopian  science fiction you read has some roots in the books written in the early sixties, when authors tried to point us in the right direction by telling us what might happen if we went in the wrong one.

But Galouye uses that old template of nuclear war to set us up for the real concept behind the novel, which is the idea of a people raised in a world where they have never seen, and forgotten the concept, of light.  He describes a world in which everyone has fled underground to escape the radiation plaguing the surface, and of one poor community whose power generation has failed, leaving them in complete darkness.  The survivors described in the novel are the descendants of people who lived on the surface, having no recollection of what light is, or any modern scientific understanding.

The writing of Universe is fairly pedestrian, mired in several stereotypes of the time.  Galouye seems like he felt compelled to turn portions of his novel into an adventure tale, when the subject matter screams out for an almost revolutionary style of writing, some way of describing action that can't be seen through words.  A much more subdued and descriptive style of writing might have served the subject better.  Though one example that stands out to me still was how the writer had his characters replace the phrase "I see what you mean," with "I hear..." little touches like that go a long way towards crafting a world.  There are also some touching points in which the main character attempts to search for light in a world of darkness.  The story of a character in a dystopian future trying to understand some forgotten relic from our present day is almost a cliche now, but lines like "And if I find Darkness, then I may have some kind of idea as to the nature of Light" really get me where I live.  It's too bad that there is far too little of this in the novel, and far too much running, and jumping, and falling into rivers.  It's not often that I ask for less action from a novel.

I think the main problem with 'Dark Universe' is that Galouye set his sights too high.  This is a book that is nigh unwritable.  The concept of describing a world without light just doesn't lend itself to the written word very well.  And while there are many blind authors out there writing today, even they haven't written anything like this.  Galouye's writing is just not up to the task, and that's no fault of his own because no one's writing is up to the task.  Especially not in the sixties, when a sci-fi writer was expected to churn out stories at a now unprecedented rate if he wanted to stay published, check out Galouye's wikipedia page if you don't believe me (, just look at the number of short stories the guy wrote in his life.  This novel should have taken years of research to develop and write, time which Galouye wasn't given.

Science Fiction is a genre in which writer's will build upon the past.  Taking ideas from previous novels and expanding or changing them is to be expected.  You can't write a novel about interstellar travel without making a few choices, and you have to at least acknowledge how previous writers have made those same choices before you or you'll just cover new ground.  How groundbreaking a work is can be measured almost by how often other writers will reference that work.  'Dark Universe' has no imitators, no one copied anything from this book.  And I don't see this as a knock against it.  Like I said, Galouye set his sights too high, and the writing wasn't there to back up the concept.  But people need to ask themselves what the point is of giving out an award for science fiction.  Do we want to award only those books that are the best written?  Or are we willing to give a nod to those novels that try something different?  That push the boundaries a little? 

'Dark Universe' isn't the best book ever written but it aims high, and we've got to give it props for that.  Maybe someday someone will write a book dealing with this same concept but do it better, though I doubt it.  We as readers need to acknowledge that there is always going to be some difference between concept and writing, and weigh it out between the two as to what deserves our praise, and which is the more important in a given novel.  Though this isn't the best novel Galouye aims high, tries for something that hasn't been done before or since, and at the very least we need to give him credit for that.  If an author can't try something new and fail miserably in science fiction, then where can he?

 People could criticize me for judging this book not on what it is, but on what I wish it was, and I would take them back to that original statement by Delany.  Can there be a seperation between story concept and writing?  I believe there can be, and that the idea behind 'Dark Universe' is huge, and original, and one of a kind, and much too unwieldy to write a full size novel about.  This book might be a full blown fiasco, but it is more than deserving of a Hugo nomination.