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Let Me Explain... No, There Is Too Much. Let Me Sum Up.

May. 27th, 2015 | 04:01 pm
posted by: ljgoldstein in theinferior4

I may or may not blog about the novels on the ballot, but it'll take a while for me to read them all and write about them.  So I thought I'd take a breather here and just talk about what I learned from reading all the short fiction on the Hugo ballot.

First of all, these are bad stories.  With few exceptions they range from really, really awful to mediocre.  (I thought "The Triple Sun" was decent, and "Championship B'tok" might have been all right if I knew more about what was going on, but neither of them rise to the level of a Hugo nominee.)  And they're all bad in different ways.  There are cardboard characters, plots without tension, confusing plots, poor writing, commonplace ideas, allegories that don't allegorize, and stories that are just boring as hell.

One of my questions when I started was why the Puppies chose these specific stories.  And after all that reading, I have to say that I still don't know, and the statements of the Puppies themselves don't really help.  Larry Correia wanted to nominate stories that would "make literati heads explode," stories with right-wing themes that would anger SJWs (Super-Judgmental Werewolves?) when they appeared on the ballot.  But we're very used to narratives of straight white men doing straight white manly things, and even seeing those stories nominated for Hugos.  It's all just business as usual.  I don't know about other people's crania, but my head stayed firmly on my shoulders while I was reading -- though it did slip toward the desk a few times, my eyes closing, thinking, Ho hum, another one …

Correia also rejected "boring message fiction" -- but then how to explain John C. Wright's Catholic apologia, or Tom Kratman's push for more and more weaponry?  And his final explanation was that people were mean to him at a convention.  Okay, but why these stories?  Was putting us through all of this his idea of revenge?

Brad Torgersen, famously, wanted books that matched their covers.  He also wanted non-literary, non-elitist fiction, only for John C. Wright to say that he, at least, did write literary work.  (Not by me, he doesn't, but that's a whole other discussion.)

What about nominating good stories?  Surely that should be the most important criterion of all for a Hugo award, but in fact it was very rarely mentioned by the Puppies themselves.  And yet here was an unmatched opportunity to introduce the sf community to well-written fiction by conservative-leaning authors.*  Instead they gave us this parade of shabby, stale stories, a series of embarrassments compared to previous nominees and winners.

Look, guys.  Science fiction is, almost by definition, about all of time and space.  You can write about  practically anything.  A proton that unfolds in other dimensions to cover an entire planet, as in Three Body Problem.  A battalion sharing a single mind, as in Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Justice.  Love.  Lust.  Greed.  Revenge, or deciding against revenge, as in The Goblin Emperor.  Galaxy-spanning civilizations.  Incomprehensible aliens.  Three sexes.  Four sexes.  Sixteen sexes.  Magic.  Obsession.  Strangeness.

I don't know about you, but this year I feel cheated.

* For example, "Salvage and Demolition" by Tim Powers, which would have been eligible in the Novella category in 2014.  Check it out.

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New Review at the B&NR

May. 26th, 2015 | 10:47 am
posted by: pgdf in theinferior4

What's cooking with Paolo Bacigalupi?


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The Hugo Ballot, Part 15: Back to Novellas

May. 25th, 2015 | 04:04 pm
posted by: ljgoldstein in theinferior4

Okay, I'm surprised.  Tom Kratman's "Big Boys Don't Cry" actually reads in places like an anti-war story.  Well, let's not get carried away here -- it's more a story about the harm that fighting wars can do, the ways in which a personality can be twisted and perverted by the aims of those in command.

Maggie is a Ratha, an intelligent fighting vehicle who has been through countless battles, and been made to forget some of her more disturbing actions.  She has been mortally wounded and is being taken apart for scrap -- but the more the workers drill down, the more she starts remembering things that now seem to her to be problematic.

What this means is that, through Maggie's memory, we see a lot of battles, and that means a lot of weaponry.  A lot of weaponry, each with its own exhaustive description: "Then there was the question of tracked versus the recently developed antigravity technology… The five options were: tracked, antigravity, both but with an emphasis on tracked and an anti-gravity assist to reduce ground pressure" -- well, there are two more options, but you get the idea.  "Meanwhile, the Ratha's secondary armament, a 75mm KE cannon, electrically driven and coaxially mounted, plus two similarly mounted 15mm Gauss Guns…"  I have to be honest here -- I skimmed through a lot of this.  I'm not all that interested in weapons, but really, I can't think of anything that I'd read huge lists of with interest -- dogs, chocolate, you name it.

I know that some people like meticulous descriptions of weapons, that it's one of the tropes of military sf.   (Also explosions.  There are lots of explosions here too.)  And I have no problem with that -- have at it.  The only thing is --

Well, about midway through, the story changes.  Maggie starts remembering the unjust wars she took part in, the innocent people she slaughtered at the command of her superiors.  And for me, this juxtaposition didn't work -- there seemed to be a huge disconnect between the two sections.  It seemed to be saying, "War is terrible -- but also, it's a lot of fun!  Look at all these cool weapons!"  The parts never joined up into a full, rounded whole.

And there's another thing.  I expected to be reading a good many right-wing talking points in the Sad Puppy stories, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of them had no conscious message at all.  I was almost to the end of the ballot, home free, and then…

It's almost as if the author can't help himself; he has to take pot-shots wherever he can, or even carve out a place for them if one doesn't exist.  So people who don't make preparation for war are "low-grade morons" and "moral lepers" -- this from a third-person viewpoint, which makes no value judgments before or after this one outburst.  One of the few women in the story, a planetary governor "unimportant in every mind but her own," is shown to be incompetent and over her head.  A man named Garcia is described only as short and "greasy looking."

The weirdest jab is for the concept of non-binary gender.  One of the Rathas "has certain peculiarities in its crystalline brain (to wit, being unable to decide whether it was male or female, hence never given a nickname, and never fully integrated into the unit)."  Why?  Was zie manufactured like that?  Why would this happen, if all the other Rathas were created to identify as male or female, and binary gender is important to the cohesiveness of the unit?  But the whole point, of course, is to show how unnatural non-binary gender is, how the other Rathas don't like zir (why not?), and refuse to let zir join in any Ratha games.

The prevailing mood of the story is mournful, elegiac, a character coming to terms with a difficult past.  Every time Kratman pauses to insert his opinion on something unrelated it jars badly with the tone, pulling the reader right out of the narrative, making them wonder what the point is.  (For example, why is the planetary governor "unimportant"?  She's certainly important enough for someone to nominate her as governor.)  And it turns the story into "message fiction," something I thought the Puppies were against.

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New Review at LOCUS ONLINE

May. 24th, 2015 | 11:39 pm
posted by: pgdf in theinferior4

What about the new one from Clive Barker?


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The Hugo Ballot, Part 14: A Brief Trip Back to Short Stories

May. 24th, 2015 | 03:58 pm
posted by: ljgoldstein in theinferior4

I've gotten the Hugo packet and am now able to read the stories I missed.  And with the first of them, "A Single Samurai" by Steven Diamond, comes a problem I haven't had in this read so far.  Namely, that I didn't like the story, but I can imagine people who would.

If your idea of fun is seeing really big creatures -- I mean really big -- stomp past leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, if you've held onto that child-like joy that only a rampaging monster can bring, then this story might be for you.  It's a very simple tale -- a samurai tries to stop a monster from destroying his land -- and the monster isn't very well described, and there's a lot of unnecessary verbiage about samurai swords, and the end has some spectacular problems (about which more later), but that enthusiasm is there.  On the other hand, if you like stories about giant mythical monsters, you'd do far better to read Lucius Shepard's Dragon Graiule stories, which have a sheer descriptive power and a vast strangeness "A Single Samurai" never matches.

But the fact that some people might go off and read this story prompts me to put in a


warning before I talk about the end.

Okay, is everyone ready?  First of all, it's weird that the brain of the monster is out in the open like that, with no protection.  If the samurai can fall into it, what's to prevent anyone else from doing the same? What about those weird cats the samurai has to kill -- what's to stop them from dropping down into the cave and munching on some tasty brains?  Why on earth would something evolve that way?

The second problem is far worse, though.  As Nick Mamatas has already pointed out, although the samurai tells the story in first person, he ends up dying at the end.  How can he possibly be narrating this story?  Are we to assume that while he's bleeding out all over the monster's brain he's also sitting there and writing everything down?  Beginning writers make this kind of mistake, when they haven't learned the nuances that go with each point of view.  Here, it makes everything that's gone before look a little silly.

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The Hugo Ballot, Part 13: Novellas

May. 21st, 2015 | 03:48 pm
posted by: ljgoldstein in theinferior4

In "Flow," by Arlan Andrews, Sr., we follow a crew riding an iceberg down a river to the Warm Lands.  The first half of the story is little more than a travelog, as the main character, Rist from the Tharn's Lands, learns about the Warm Lands from his compatriot, Cruthar.

It's not terrible.  The two societies are different in interesting ways, and Rist makes a good naive traveler.  But it is, once again, not a story but an excerpt; we've already missed the beginning and there is no real ending.

There are other problems as well.  For one thing, Rist seems remarkably dim.  It takes him an unbelievably long time to realize that the sun covered by mists in the Tharn's Lands is the same as the shining sun in the Warm Lands.  He learns Warm Lands' words for things -- "day" instead of "dim," for example -- and yet every time he goes to use a word he forgets it and has to remind himself, or someone reminds him.  (The Warm Lands' words are all italicized -- west and east and morning and Shining One -- something that started to drive me up the wall.)  And it's not just Rist who seems none-too-bright but everyone from the crew.  At one point Rist waits patiently until Cruthar counts up to three.*

I don't know if this is intentional -- if the Tharn's Landers are actually not as smart as the Warm Landers, maybe even another species.  (They look fairly different.)  But it's something the reader should be able to figure out.

The writing is pretty hard to get through as well.  There are far more adjectives than necessary: "'Welcome to the Warm Lands, bird-rider!' his rough berg-companion Cruthar shouted back, also trying to be heard through the thunderous crashing, sharp creaks, and long groans as their shepherded small mountain of ice slid and pounded against the river stones."  There's a sharp point-of-view switch, when with no warning we're in Cruthar's head instead of Rist's.  At one point we hear about Rist's father's "advanced literacy in reading" -- as opposed to, I guess, his advanced literacy in basket-weaving.

Like I said, though, it's not terrible.  There's some action, finally, after pages and pages of exposition -- although, unfortunately, the most interesting part seems just about to occur when the story ends.  But there's nothing new here, nothing that stands out or makes this worthy of a Hugo.


* Fairness compels me to admit that something else may be happening here.  Cruthar is making several points to Rist, and has gotten through numbers one and two.  Then he pauses, and "Rist waited while Cruthar struggled to count up to the next point."  So Cruthar could be trying to think of the third point, but that's not how I read it at first.


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The Hugo Ballot, Part 12: Novellas

May. 20th, 2015 | 04:02 pm
posted by: ljgoldstein in theinferior4

The next novella -- oh, God help me, it's another John Wright story.  No, I can't face it.  It's too much.  Look, I'll tell you what -- instead of dealing with all the things that are wrong with this story, I'll narrow it down to just one.  I'll try to discover why, whenever I try to read him, I end up lost in a haze of confusion, why my mind wanders and my eyes lose focus and great black spots appear between me and the computer screen.

A brief summary of "Pale Realms of Shade," just so you know what I'm talking about -- Matt Flint, a private eye, has been killed and returns as a ghost.  He doesn't remember who killed him, and goes on a quest to find out.  (If you've read what Wright had to say about Marilyn Monroe in the previous entry you can probably make a good guess who the murderer is.  Hint: it's the wife.)

A lot of this murkiness, I think, is the prose.  Wright never uses one word when ten or twenty will do.  "As I swam, I could feel the tugging, towing, hauling, heaving, wrenching sensation trying to pull me back," he says.  Or: "It was not just a bolt of lightning, but an intricate symphony of lightning, of pure light, the divine powers blazing with all the colors of the spectrum, and the million other colors human eyes never see, beyond infrared and ultraviolet, all the way from radio waves to cosmic rays, each one more beautiful than the next."  I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which of those words can be cut, but, really, you could probably take out a fourth of them and still keep the sense.  Then there's "[W]e acknowledge none to be superior to us, to gainsay our word, nor say us nay," where the last two phrases mean exactly the same thing.

Some of it is the poorly thought out similes and metaphors.  Here he is, swimming through the waters of time itself "from America before Columbus, maybe before the Indians, to whatever horrid future was waiting for us -- I could see it all."  And what does he compare this mystic, awe-inspiring experience to?  "It made me dizzy, like I was a groundhog trapped in the wheel of an airplane during takeoff."

Or what about this: "Her wild mass of gold-red hair was like a waterfall of bright fire tumbling past her shoulders… Atop, like a cherry on strawberry ice-cream, was perched a brimless cap."  Okay, let's try to sort this out.  Her hair is a waterfall, but the waterfall is also fire.  And her hair is also like strawberry ice-cream, and on top of this hair/ waterfall/ fire/ strawberry ice-cream is a cap.  Or a cherry.

It all just feels like words thrown at the reader.  The story stops dead while the poor befuddled reader tries to figure it out, to pull all these unrelated images together.

And the meaningless mythic names are back: "Turns out the Crow Cousins were Renfrews, playing footsie with the Night Folk of the Blood Feast.  And then there was a whole coven of Drowned Ones cooperating with smugglers and Nicors causing all those wrecks up the coast, near the haunted lighthouse the Good Witch uses."  The reader has no idea who or what these things are; Wright never says.  And since we don't know, the names just slide past.  There's nothing to catch hold of, no light in the darkness.

A final reason for all the confusion is that the narrative feels disjointed.  Flint visits his partner, goes swimming in the aforementioned waters of time, surfaces at a cathedral, goes back to swimming, meets what seems to be the devil… Well, it goes on.  Looking back I guess I can see some reason he has all these experiences, but Wright is in effect saying, Trust me on this, it'll all make sense in the end.  There are some writers I would trust without hesitation, but having already read three turgid stories by this same author I have to say that Wright isn't one of them.

And I'm done!  (With John C. Wright, at any rate.)  And I hereby make this sincere promise to my future self -- you will never, ever, have to read anything by Wright again.

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New Review at the B&NR

May. 20th, 2015 | 10:47 am
posted by: pgdf in theinferior4

I look at the new one from Neal Stephenson:


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The Hugo Ballot, Part 11: Novellas

May. 18th, 2015 | 04:06 pm
posted by: ljgoldstein in theinferior4

I love the idea behind "The Plural of Helen of Troy," by John C. Wright.  There's a City Beyond Time, Metachronopolis, with shining towers and bridges and gardens.  Fog caused by too many time changes shrouds the lower towers, and in the upper stories live the Masters, who control the forces of time.

Unfortunately there's something of a fog on the story as well.  It starts with the protagonist , Mr. Frontino, watching Marilyn Monroe from one of the towers.  She is attacked, and John Kennedy and Frontino go to her aid.  Then there are multiple iterations of Kennedy and Frontino, there are people going back and forth in time and offering advice or finding new weapons, there are destiny crystals and time-shifting robots and helmets that erase memories, and at every introduction of some new spin or new piece of technology the story stops dead to explain it: "Now, you may ask, why did Tin Man not simply step backward in time and step to one side of the predicted flightpath of the harpoon?"  It all makes for a very long, very prolix narrative.

At one point Wright must have looked at this tangled snarl of a story and thought, "How can I make it even more complicated?  I know -- I'll start at the end, and work my way toward the beginning!"  (Yes, I know events in time travel occur out of order.  It doesn't work in this story, okay?)

The style fails on another level as well.  Frontino is a private investigator brought to Metachronopolis from the fifties, the kind of person who in pulp fiction speaks rarely and then only to utter a wisecrack.  Every so often Wright seems to remember this, and the narrative style tightens and Frontino uses a word like "haymaker" or "dame."  For the most part, though, it's sentences like this one: "Behind me was the gently arching bridge leading across the nothingness to the shining tower of Babylon, where the Greeks didn't win the pennant at Thermopylae, and it was the Persians who…" Well, it goes on from there.

Oh, and Marilyn Monroe is also Helen of Troy.  (Don't ask.)  The descriptions of Helen are about what you'd expect: "The sinuous folds of the silk clung to her body and emphasized her curves," etc., etc.  But every so often another, more sinister narrative emerges.  "Look, I don't blame the dame for using the tools Nature gave her any more than I blame a spider," Frontino writes. "But I'd seen one guy trapped in her web, and I'd heard all about the others.  Even if it was a web she did not spin on purpose, she was a spider… Guys… lost their hearts over this girl, lost their minds, lost their good names.  Sometimes they even lost their lives."

Really?  Men hurt her and use her and want to rape her, and it's all her fault?  She's the spider?  I … don't even know what to say about this.  It takes blaming the victim to a whole new level.


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The Hugo Ballot, Part 10: Novellas

May. 17th, 2015 | 04:04 pm
posted by: ljgoldstein in theinferior4

We've made it to the Novellas!  (Halfway through!)  Coming up, three John C. Wright stories in a row.  I'm not doing these in the order on the ballot but in the order the download came in, because that's the way I read them.

First up, "One Bright Star to Guide Them."  When Tommy was a child he and his friends Richard, Sally, and Penny had adventures very similar to the ones in the Narnia books, where they "faced the Faceless Warlock, and broke the Black Mirror of the Winter King."  ("…faced the Faceless Warrior," incidentally, is pretty awkward.  How do you face something that doesn't have a face?)  We don't get to see any of these adventures, unfortunately.  Instead we start when Tommy's over forty and is reunited with the cat who had accompanied him and the other children.  The Winter King has returned, says the cat, Tybalt, and Tommy is needed once again.

Tommy goes to his old friend Richard but discovers that Richard now serves the Winter King.  There's a battle with the king's servants, and at the chapter's end "the smell of the sea filled his nose, and Tommy could neither see nor breathe."

We don't get to see what happens next, either.  Instead, unbelievably, the next chapter starts with Tommy meeting another of his old friends, Sally, and telling her what had happened.  It's as if someone had taken an entire book, cut out all the interesting parts, and published the rest.  (Amusingly, in "John C. Wright's Patented One-Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction," included with Wright's stories, he stresses the importance of "showing, not telling" to the narrative.)

Gradually, though, the story grinds to a start.  It becomes the usual fantasy quest: Tommy has to go various places, do various things, collect various objects.

There are more problems than just the lifeless nature of the narrative, though.  For one thing, we're inundated with mythic folderol.  "You followed the clues and found the Shining Sword trapped in the roots of the Cursed Black Oak in the middle of Gloomshadow Forest, where none of the Fair Folk could go.  The wolf boy helped you…"  None of this ever coalesces into a coherent system; it's all just names: the ships of Lemmergeir, the Tall White Tower of Noss, the Crystal Cup of Vision.  They end up blurring together; it they have any incantatory power at all it's to put the reader to sleep.

At the end the cat Tybalt urges Tommy to kill him.  Tommy resists but finally gives in, and the cat is reborn as something like a panther or tiger or lion, but bigger and with wings.  (We don't get a terribly clear description.)  At this point, for me, the story stops being an homage to the Narnia books, or speculation about what would happen to the kids if they grew up, and moves perilously close to plagiarism.  Though I don't remember the Pevensie children actually killing Aslan, and the theology of doing such a thing is more than I can figure out.

In addition to the homage (or whatever) to C.S. Lewis, there seems to be a hint of G.K. Chesterton in this story.  At the beginning Wright seems to try for Chesterton's wise, wide-souled view of the world, his ability to see the strange and magical in the familiar.  But as the story continues, as nearly everyone Tommy meets turns out to be associated with the Winter King or other evil forces, the mood turns bad-tempered, sour.  Hey, if everyone I met showed the mark of Evil Eye or turned into a hideous monster, I'd be surly too.  It's a pretty grim and unhappy way to look at the world, and it makes for a grim and unhappy story.

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