Reading the Hugos: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

This is the last of my Hugo reading, as I decided after the short stories that life is already full of pointless suffering, and why should I inflict more upon myself?  Plus, I’ve had a convention to chair, a novel to write/revise, and also a day job.

Accordingly, my ballot looks like this:

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and Best Fan Artist

Not voting, haven’t had time to do research.

Best Fan Writer

Not voting, as the only nominated writer I’ve read is Laura J Mixon for her piece on RequiresHate/Winterfox/Benjanun Sriduangkaew, which to my mind doesn’t constitute a body of work.  (Plus, I just hate giving Sriduangkaew oxygen.)

Best Fancast

I’ve only ever enjoyed one podcast enough to listen to it religiously. (Sorry, podcasters, I’m just not very aurally-oriented.)  Luckily, Galactic Suburbia is one of the nominees.  I’m going to give that my first preference, and otherwise not vote.

Best Fanzine, Best Semiprozine, Best Professional Artist, Best Editors (long form and short form)

Not voting, as haven’t had time to look at nominees.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

Finally, a category where I’m familiar with more than one nominee!  I’ll be voting thusly:

1. Orphan Black, “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried”

2. Doctor Who, “Listen”

3. Game of Thrones, “The Mountain and the Viper”

I haven’t seen Flash or Grimm, so I’m ignoring those.  I hope Orphan Black wins, just because I love it so much, and the second season finale was outstanding — but I also suspect this episode will be completely mystifying to anyone who hasn’t watched at least the preceding season.  Likewise Game of Thrones.

“Listen”, on the other hand, is a perfect, standalone piece of creepypasta, and I adored it, and won’t be at all sorry if it wins.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

I’ve seen three of the nominated movies — Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie — but I can’t get excited about any of them.  I’m not voting in this category.

(Stephanie note: This is because Liz doesn’t have enough heart to have feelings about the Steeb and Bucky story)

(Liz response: My heart is a cold, misandrist lump of coal with no room for manpain.)

Best Graphic Story

You know, I probably have time to read the nominated works before the deadline.  I read Ms Marvel: No Normal last year, and loved it, but there are a couple of other nominees that were already on my radar.  Let me come back to this.

Best Related Work

I’m not voting in this one, partially because I haven’t read any of the nominees, but also because I’m pissed off that the thoroughly deserving Queers Dig Time Lords didn’t get a nomination, thanks, Puppies.

Plus, Companion Piece — remember that book I co-edited? — is eligible for nomination next year, and I feel like I just have too much personal involvement in this category.

Best Short Story

No Award.  No hesitation.

(Okay, some hesitation.)

Best Novelette and Best Novella

Not voting; haven’t read them.

Best Novel

  1. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
  2. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
  3. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
  4. No Award

“Wow, Liz,” you might be thinking, “you’re ranking The Goblin Emperor below Ancillary Sword, which you were quite lukewarm about?”

Yes, Hypothetical Reader, I was surprised, too.  Lots of my friends loved The Goblin Emperor, and found it engaging and enjoyable on every level.  And that’s great!  I am quite happy, and also a little jealous, that they enjoyed it so much.

I found it beautifully written, with interesting worldbuilding, and completely boring.

The plot: Maia, unloved half-goblin son of the elf emperor, unexpectedly takes the throne when his father and half-brothers are all murdered.  Despite his lack of training, and lack of self-confidence, he sorts out various political situations and solves the mystery by being really, really decent to people.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying that The Goblin Emperor is a response to the trend for grimdark fantasy.  I really hope not, because the opposite of grimdark is not dull.

I feel a bit weird saying this, because Characters Being Competent and Political Shenanigans are two of my favourite things in fiction.  But Maia’s competence feels unearned.  He instinctively knows how to deal with people, he instantly befriends trustworthy and reliable allies, and where he makes bad decisions, the consequences are minor.

Likewise, the Political Shenanigans are, well, predictable.  The traitors are just who you would expect, and Maia deals with them appropriately, and no one minds very much because the traitors weren’t even that good at their jobs, let alone popular or widely supported.

I’ve been thinking about the problems with The Goblin Emperor for a few weeks, and I think what it needed was a second POV character.  Maia is interesting, but he has very little context for the places he goes and the things he does, and that gets old fast.  And all of the supporting characters around him are two-dimensional in the extreme.  It’s difficult to imagine any of them having a life that doesn’t revolve around the main character.

Likewise the women — not that there are many.  The sympathetic female characters are what I think of when I hear that horrible phrase “awesome ladies”: they turn up, do or say something to subvert the patriarchy, and then step back and let the men get on with the plot stuff (such as it is).

The unsympathetic women are all ambitious and super-feminine (and they’re still subordinate to the plot-driving men).

In short, I was extremely disappointed in The Goblin Emperor, and really only forced myself to finish it for the sake of the Hugos.  It’s possible I was just in the mood for something more plot-driven.  But I don’t plan to read anything else by Addison, whether under that name or her Sarah Monette identity.  Life’s too short.

Reading the Hugos: The Three-Body Problem by Li Cixin, plus Kevin J Anderson

I loved this book. I inhaled it. I spent two hours sitting on the floor of a cold, empty house, reading it as I waited for a removalist that never came, and I don’t begrudge that time.

And yet, there is a plot-twist so absurd that if it had come from an Anglophone author I would have asked if he was taking writing advice from Rupert Murdoch.  The male protagonist is bland; his family appear for one scene and then vanish, despite numerous developments that would directly affect them; I have doubts about the earth-based worldbuilding, which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

But I loved it.

It helps that I read the translated version.  A novel in translation can be challenging to read: phrases that felt natural in its original language become clumsy; the dialogue is nearly always stilted.  2013 saw me reading a lot of Japanese and Scandinavian crime fiction, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that my vision of the text was distorted, like I was wearing semi-opaque lenses.  I couldn’t quite bond with those novels.

With The Three-Body Problem, I appreciated that distance, because it kept reminding me not to judge it by the standards I’d apply to western writing.  That helped me tolerate — and even enjoy — the long expository scenes.  It also meant that when I hit the absurd plot twist, I didn’t write it off as hilariously bad right wing propaganda, the way I would if a western author presented such an idea with a straight face.  I’m not really up on contemporary Chinese politics, so I can’t put his work into a proper context.  I had to take it as it is, and that was refreshing.

(I did recognise one political thread: a debate between aliens about the value of totalitarianism versus democracy when it comes to the long-term survival of a culture.  Basically the only thing I know about current Chinese politics is that that is a heated issue.  Cixin himself doesn’t offer any easy answers.)

Probably part of the reason I loved it is that much of the novel is set during and immediately following the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Reading reviews, I’m quite surprised at how little American readers seem to know about this period — several even seemed to think the setting was a Communist revolution.

I have an advantage, in that my mother studied Mandarin at university in the late 70s/early 80s, at a time when the department was basically run by Maoists.  I scribbled in her copy of the Little Red Book when I was tiny, and I’ve always been really interested in the Cultural Revolution.

One of Cixin’s themes is that everything can be distorted by politics, including the seemingly immutable facts of the universe, and the Cultural Revolution is a perfect example of how that works.  (This also makes my instinctive desire to put his work into its political context seem all the more ridiculous.)

I’ve heard that the second volume in the trilogy is more character-driven, and I really hope that’s the case, because the male protagonist here was passive and quite dull.  (As opposed to the female lead, but to say more would be a spoiler.)  But I did love The Three-Body Problem — it had lots of things I don’t like, yet it executed them all on such a scale, and with such confidence, that I was drawn in despite myself.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, even when I was texting Stephanie to tell her that [SPOILERS] are really [SPOILERS] for a [SPOILER].

At this point, I think The Three-Body Problem is likely to get my first preference in the ballot, and it is absolutely deserving.

Kevin J Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars, however, is going to go below No Award.  That, too, is deserving.

Obviously Three-Body was going to be a hard act to follow, but The Dark Between the Stars had numerous strikes against it.  I read six chapters (remember, I said I’d give a book three chapters to convince me, so really, I went above and beyond).

I’d complain about Anderson’s two-dimensional female characters, but actually, the men are no better.  I didn’t much care for his depiction of a bitchy, career-driven wife and mother and the husband who kidnaps their son and escapes her.  (It’s not that these things don’t happen, it’s just the complete lack of nuance.)

I had even less time for the clumsy writing, where characters take several chapters to figure out things that were obvious to the reader from the very first scene.  I have no idea what the plot was going to be, or the history of this universe — which I believe is one Anderson has written in before — because the writing was so terrible, my brain just went NOPE and shut down.

An animated gif of an octopus scuttling across the field, the words

That octopus really speaks to me.

Now I’m reading The Outback Stars, which is also terrible, and yet really interesting?  ABORIGINAL RUNES.  But also a completely dysfunctional stores department on a starship, which is (a) interesting; (b) relevant to my peculiar interest in workplace issues; (c) a side of milSF we don’t often get to see.

I mean, that aspect is still terrible (fake rape claims!  All the Japanese officers are either Yakuza or prostitutes!  The space navy is allegedly based on the Australian navy but has US-style rules against fraternisation!), plus I really don’t care for the romance.  And yet I keep reading, because [see (a) through (c)].

Stay tuned for a No Award post about the trilogy.  It’s quite something.

Wednesday reading (on Thursday)

Yesterday was just very busy, okay?  On the upside, the old house is now clean and empty, with the very last round of stuff to be picked up this evening.  I guess I can take time out of reading Free Comic Book Day stuff on Saturday to drop off the keys.

Books Recently Read

The Life and Death of Harold Holt by Tom Frame

This wound up being a bit of a slog, which is what happens when you have a subject who’s basically a decent person who avoided major scandals and kept his private life to himself.  But it didn’t destroy my illusions about Holt being quite a good sort, and made me extra-sad that the Liberal Party has become everything that Menzies and Holt wanted to avoid.

Also read: four out of the five Hugo-nominated short stories.  But you all knew that, because that post was the second-most visited on this blog ever.  (The first: the one where I spoil the ending of the Australian Secrets & Lies.  IDK, it got picked up by an entertainment site or something.)

General consensus on that post seems to be that I’m an easy grader.  And I agree; I think I was trying too hard to not seem like I was rejecting stories just because they were on a slate I strongly disagree with.  So I’m inclined to unearth some of the nominated stories of recent years, read those, and reconsider my choices for this year.

Currently reading…

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

A nominated novel, of course, and a very good one so far.  I had heard it described as didactic and heavy on the exposition, which are two of my least favourite things ever in fiction — Stephanie, back in our Ann Leckie discussion, was curious to see how I’d cope with Chinese SF — but so far, so good?

But then, I really need some of the scientific exposition Liu supplies — I don’t have much of an education in science at all, and I just can’t get my head around physics whatsoever.  I struggled with the science in Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman — note to self, make Stephanie read that series so we can talk about it — so the contemporary/near future/recent past stuff is way over my head.

I’ll do a proper post about The Three-Body Problem when I’m finished.

What I’m reading next…

I have the nominated Kevin J Anderson novel checked out from the elibrary.  I don’t expect it will be difficult.  (Not an insult — I love good, solid storytelling.  I breezed through Leviathan Wakes when that was nominated, and loved it.)

I also have The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald checked out.  I hope it’s good, but Americans writing about Australian Indigenous cultures is always rich with the potential for grossness.  Either way, I’ll probably get a post out of it.  I think Steph is also going to read it, so maybe we can make it substantial.

Liz reads the 2015 Hugo-nominated short stories

I thought that Project: Read As Much As Possible And Vote By Merit would be easier if I didn’t sit around waiting for the voter pack.  Accordingly, I’ve reserved a bunch of the nominated novels at my elibrary of preference.  As for short stories, all but one are available online, and I’ve started reading and organising my preferences.

(I really love preferential voting.  I like to have my senate ballots prepared weeks ahead of an election.  Of course I vote below the line.  SO GREAT.)

The stories!

“On A Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli

It’s not clear whether this version on Antonelli’s blog is the same as that published in Sci Phi Journal #2.  For the sake of my embarrassment squick, I hope not.  The blog version’s dialogue is full of run on sentences, which (aside from being grammatically problematic) makes it a bit hard to read.  I dearly hope it’s a first draft.

Anyway, it’s a story about an alien planet whose magnetic field creates ghosts of the dead, and a human chaplain who has to deal with the first human ghost.

The concept is mildly interesting, the execution mildly frustrating.  An example:

Ymilans believe–as do many Terran religions–that each individual has a spark of an eternal extra-dimensional over-arching consciousness that is imbued in each of them at birth and ultimately returns to a higher dimensional plane when the physical form is no longer viable. I told him we call it the “soul”. They also know–I won’t say believe because the evidence was obvious on Ymilas–that while alive we develop an electromagnetic imprint as a result of the experiences of life that survives after death. I told Dergec an ancient Terran religion had the same belief, and in fact built elaborate pyramids and tombs filled with personal belongings to keep those spirits happy.

I don’t know that the Egyptian concept of the ba had anything whatsoever to do with electromagnetism, but the Ymilan religion — where ancestors remain part of a person’s life after death — has more to do with Chinese beliefs anyway.  Beliefs which are contemporary and actually practised right now in the actual real world, and aren’t in fact alien in any way whatsoever.  That the author doesn’t seem to realise this is … well, it shows a certain carelessness in research, or a lack of general knowledge, or maybe a cultural arrogance?

I found the writing amateurish and the central idea poorly executed.  This is going above No Award, but only because it’s not actually insulting.

“The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C Wright

This is actually insulting.  If Bible-quoting animals debating their place in the world after the extinction of humanity is your idea of a good time, this might be the story for you.  If you thought that The Last Battle was amazing but needed to make its metaphors more obvious, this is definitely for you. If you like interesting, original and insightful fiction, I’m sorry, you will have to move on.

Wright is trying very hard to incorporate Catholic theology into this story, but the result frankly makes me a bit embarrassed to share a religion with him.  It takes a very talented writer to pull off explicitly Christian references in what appears to be a secondary world fantasy setting, and John C Wright is no C S Lewis.

Going below No Award.

(A note: both of these short stories have been posted to blogs but formatted for paper — indents, no paragraph spacing, etc.  Guys, don’t do that.  It’s fine for a book or ereader, but in the context of a website, it’s just hard to read.  And neither story has been worth the eye strain.)

“Totaled” by Kary English

Finally, some formatting I can read!

And this is the best story so far, which is not to say it’s not derivative in concept and execution, and kind of sexist in its portrayal of the sandwich-fetching grad student hated by the heroine.  A scientist working on the preservation of living tissue after death is killed in an accident, her brain is preserved, but she only gets a short afterlife before decay sets in.

The idea’s been done a bunch of times, but this gets a neat ZOMGObamacare twist: preservation is dependent on your monetary worth.  Death panels, guys! It’s weird and specifically American, but hey, this is an American story.

I’m pretty lukewarm overall, but it was readable (in every sense of the word) and largely inoffensive.  I’m probably going to give this my first preference.

“Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa

Look, the integration of human, AI and spaceship is not a new idea.  Anne McCaffrey wrote The Ship Who Sang before I was born; Ann Leckie gave the concept a powerful new twist, oh, just a couple of years ago.

I guess Rzasa deserves some praise for claiming the subgenre for People Who Aren’t Named Ann(e), but it’s just soooooo boring.  A whole paragraph about the protagonist’s hull and weaponry?  *snore*

This feels like the author read Ancillary Justice and went, “Yes, but what this really needs is less ambiguity and a really boring main character.”  It’s competently written, which is sadly high praise for the short story category this year, but that’s all I can say.

This whole “vote by merits” thing is really hard, guys.  Like, I don’t think that this deserves an award.  And yet two-fifths of the category is SO BAD that the overall standard is so low, I can’t in good conscience NOT place it second on my ballot.

The fifth nominated story is “A Single Samurai” by Stephen Diamond, which doesn’t appear to be available online.  That will have to wait for the voter pack.  Until I’ve read it, my ballot currently looks like:

  1. “Totaled”
  2. “Turncoat”
  3. “On A Spiritual Plain”
  4. No Award
  5. “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”

(I keep typing “The Parliament of Beats and Birds”, which I presume is about DJs and HORRIBLE AVIANS gathering together to work out their place in the universe after the fall of non-DJ humanity.)