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

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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Yesterday I put up a new review for Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy.  I reviewed the whole series all in one go.  I'm not a big fan of reviewing each book in a series seperately, I talked about this at length in  my review for 'A Dance with Dragons.'  That book is pretty much un-reviewable without looking at the novels published on either side of it (some of which haven't been written yet).  While the books that comprise the Newsflesh trilogy aren't quite as inter-connected as A Song of Ice and Fire they still rely on one another to tell a story, and what's more I didn't really care too much for the later books in the series and didn't want to write a specific review just for them.

I was a little curious to see if more people felt like me when I finished the series, like 'Feed' deserved a nomination but the next two books in the series didn't live up.  I didn't realize there was such a large controversy over this until I went online and started doing some research.  There's Justin Landon's essay on the Hugos that really singles out Grant's work as an example of how the Award has fallen into the worst sort of popularity contest.  Also there's quite a few essays providing counterpoint to Landon's views.  Curiously the one thing most of these have in common is that at some point they mention how they know Grant personally, both John Scalzi's defense and Charlie Jane Anders over at i09 specifically mention how they know Grant personally, not doing a lot to disprove Landon's point.

Landon presents some good ideas.  Saying there are large blocks of voters who each year ensure that their favorites win an award isn't really stating something new.  If you look at the award as a whole there's no real denying that's the case, 'Doctor Who' is a pretty good show but I don't know if it necessarilly deserved the last eight Hugo awards for Dramatic Presentation or to be nominated three times every year.  Landon goes on to single out several other categories like fanzine (which doesn't include blogs) and editor that are continually won by a small group of people.  In the novel category Landon looks to Grant, Bujold, Kim Robinson, Scalzi, and a few others that are perennially nominated for Best Novel.

Landon has a point, almost everything some of these authors write can be relied upon to get a Hugo nomination, and it can get pretty irritating when those books you love don't get any respect.  It would be nice if more authors excused themself from Hugo consideration like Neil Gaiman did for 'Anansi Boys.'

Landon's main problem is he acts like this is all something new.  He brings up how it's scandalous that Bujold has garnered almost as many Hugo nominations as the great Robert Heinlein.  What he doesn't mention is that Heinlein got a lot more of those name recognition nominations than we like to talk about.  'Friday?'  'Job: A Comedy of Justice?' 'Time Enough for Love?'  Let's be honest here and say that those just aren't that great of books, but at the time almost anything Heinlein wrote would have gotten a nomination.  How are those nominations any different from what happened with Grant?  People were going to nominate Heinlein no matter the quality of his work, which is the same crime alleged against Grant.

Heinlein, Pohl, Asimov, Clarke, these are all great writers who at one time or another beneffited from their reputation and garnered an undeserved nomination or even award.  Can you really tell me that 'The Gods Themselves' deserved a Hugo over 'The Book of Skulls' or 'Dying Inside?'  Or 'The Fountains of Paradise' over 'On Wings of Song?'

The Hugo is a popularity contest plain and simple.  People complain about it every year, but it can be relied upon to constantly nominate the most popular piece of work.  I've got a pretty strong argument that Newsflesh probably wasn't the best work of SF published for the last three years, but I've got no leg to stand on if I try to claim it wasn't popular. 

This is one of the reasons I'm also reading the Nebula Award Nominees as well as the Hugo.  The Hugos are voted on by the fans, the Nebulas by the writers themselves.  Occasionally there will be works nominated for both, but a lot of times they are quite different.  Together I feel they give a much better overview of what was going on in SF for a given year.

Landon concludes his essay with a bunch of recommendations for what should have been nominated over Grant and Bujold for the 2013 Hugo (he really should have picked on Scalzi or Robinson more, blasting the two women makes him look like an ass).  I really don't know what to say about his choices.  Jemisin and Kiernan were nominated for a Nebula so they're still getting plenty of respect.  Also I don't really have anything I would have nominated in Grant's place.  I'm not that up to date on current SF, I'm that guy using the Hugos to decide what to read, not lobbying to get something nominated.

So while I'm not in any position to try and raise something up in place of Mira Grant's work, I'm ideally situated to compare her to past Hugo nominees as far as quality goes.  And while neither 'Deadline' or 'Blackout' are going to shake the foundation of the Hugo Award (neither were nominated for a Nebula) with their quality, they are far from the worst novels ever nominated, and nothing to get as upset over as Landon.  They're right in there with Scalzi's work, entertaining as hell, probably shouldn't give them too much thought.  Just perfect for the Hugos.  And still I'd say they were much better than 'Friday.'

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Newsflesh Trilogy

I'm going to review all of Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy in one review for several reasons.  One, I've never really enjoyed reviewing each separate book in a series.  I wrote about this in my review for 'A Dance with Dragons' but I think when you look at the individual books in any series, especially one as tightly packed as Newsflesh, they can't be as easily separated from the greater story as most reviewers would like you to think.  Two, I didn't really care for the last two books in the series.  'Feed' was a great piece of worldbuilding that had a lot going for it, but the next two books didn't really live up to it.  Other than this great world that Grant built there's a really cliched conspiracy plot and a bunch of irritating characters that I kind of want to punch in the face. 

And those are really my only two reasons for not wanting to review each book separately.  I don't feel much like reviewing 'Deadline' or 'Blackout' very much, so I'm doing this all at once.
Grant does a great job of building a world in which zombies are more than just the shambling impetus that drives a story forward.  The choice to place the novels after a zombie Apocalypse, after humanity has reached a plateau of normal, is an interesting decision that pays off in spades.  There is plenty of media out there that explores how humanity will react during the Apocalypse, movies, books, ridiculously popular TV shows that sometimes live up to the hype.  It's fun to read about what life might be like after all this has occurred and people need to drastically alter the way they live in order to survive.

Some of the reviews for Grant's novel have blasted her for repeating herself.  I'm willing to bet that at least once per page throughout all three novels someone is getting a blood test.  They slap their palms against the testing unit, thrust their arms into the tester, feel the prick of needles testing their blood.  Grant runs out of adjectives pretty early in the series but keeps plugging along.  Even positive reviews will point to this as one of the major writing flaws of the series.

And I totally disagree, the repetition is one of the largest points I see in the series favor.  It reminds me of Paolo Bacigalupi's 'Windup Girl' and how many reviewers complained about his constant reminders that it was hot outside.  Concepts like it being hot outside or quarantine protocol might be easily and quickly conveyed through a visual medium like television, but they're too easily forgotten in book form.  Grant could just as easily have described the protocol for the first time her characters entered a building and just touched upon it now and then throughout the story, just like Bacigalupi could have mentioned once that it was hot and left it at that. 

But admit it, as a reader it's easy to just shove that brief description to that back of your mind and continue on with the rest of the story.  If concepts like either of these are actually important to the story the writer needs to really hammer the point home or readers will gloss right over them.  I couldn't tell you what the temperature was in 'Embassytown,' 'Leviathan Wakes,' or 'Ringworld,' but I know it was hot outside during 'The Windup Girl.'  And I know that the world of Newsflesh has some dramatic differences from the world we live in.

It's small details like that that make Grant's world fun to play around in.  She's definitely done her research concerning virology and methods for dealing with outbreaks.  The virus that causes people to turn into zombies is more of a factor in the story than any of the zombies themselves.  Which is a good thing, if the Apocalypse is really over and we're looking at how people are coping with a new world it would be redundant if the main obstacle for our heroes was monsters lurking behind every corner, their obstacle is trying not to turn into monsters themselves.

The world Grant has created is great, and I enjoy spending time learning more about it, but it's almost like Grant invested all her time in creating the world, but forgot to create compelling characters to inhabit that world, or a plot worthwhile enough to drag the reader along.  'Feed' starts off well enough, Georgia and Sean are interesting at first glance, and accomplish the task of introducing the reader to this brand new world surprisingly well.  The plot is is serviceable, the conspiracy well enough put together that it kept me guessing until the end.  The main selling point to the actual story is that Grant is willing to kill off her main character right at the end.  The death of Georgia hits hard even if you know it's coming.

'Feed' builds a lot of goodwill towards the reader, but the next two novels in the book squander it.  It's an old SF cliche that if a series goes on long enough the later books will end up walking all over what you loved about the series in the first place.  I couldn't understand the thinking behind bringing Georgia back to life, and the justification within the story is even harder to put my finger on.  I've had plenty of time to think over these choices within the book and still the best I can come up with is that Georgia was brought back to life so the CDC could somehow exert control over Sean, even though he was only brought out of obscurity through the CDC's own convoluted plot.  Honestly about midway through the second book I have no idea why things are happening.

Making Sean the protagonist of the second book is a no-brainer, Georgia's dead.  The problem is Sean's an ass.  There is very little about the character at this point to make the the reader sympathize with the character, he's abusive to his friends, he's irrational, and in a world where every character has a heartrending story of loss we're supposed to believe that Sean's suffering is somehow worse than those around him and his grief entitles him to punch his employees in the face.  I can suspend my disbelief for zombies, but that people would continue to work a low paying job where they were physically assaulted is where I draw the line.

There have been plenty of great novels with unsympathetic main characters.  This of itself doesn't make 'Deadline' irritating.  What bothers me is that every other character within the book is completely unable to see that Sean has no redeeming qualities.

Where a lot of people drew the line was in finding that Sean and Georgia were in a sexual relationship.  I don't know if it's the fact that they grew up together referring to each other as brother and sister, the fact that they still, throughout the books, refer to each other as brother and sister, or that their reasoning for keeping their relationship a secret is more convoluted than the conspiracy, but this whole reveal really creeps me out.  The less said about it the better.

All the other issues I had with the novel are forgivable, there have been other books with silly plot twists and laughable reveals.  It's the conspiracy itself that I found so difficult to handle.  The reader is supposed to believe that there is this globe spanning conspiracy responsible for covertly killing thousands of people, but every other character we meet seems to know all about it, and every member of the conspiracy introduced is a total idiot.  The main villain revealed at the end of 'Deadline' is one of the most two-dimensional characters ever created.  Several of the heroes mention how he started with good intentions and went astray, but he might as well be twirling his mustache while he ties Georgia to a set of train tracks.

Grant creates a very original world but uses a plot that should have come out of a Dan Brown book to navigate around it.  I'm not real big on conspiracy theories that involve more than two people in a room keeping a secret, much less ten thousand people keeping millions of murders quiet.  Grand conspiracy theories taken down by a couple scrappy kids in a van should be left to Scooby Doo, or Goonies, they did it best. 

I'm not really one for writing reviews that bang on writers.  I'm not a fan of horror fiction but I thought Grant created an interesting world.  She did plenty of research into virology and injected a degree of realism into a sub-genre not exactly known for it.  Like a lot of SF series Grant goes astray in the later books, she's not the first author to do this, and by far not the worst (I'm looking at you Philip Jose Farmer).  The things Grant does well in the series she does really well, I just wish she could have done a better job of maintaining it throughout the series.