It felt right (hey!)

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I know, it’s a very pretty bedspread. I’ll give your regards to my mother’s decorator.

And we’re back! I haven’t stopped writing completely, but life and stuff conspired to leave all those words in my drafts folder for the time being. I don’t feel great about that, since one of my biggest goals for starting this blog was keeping at the writing and the publishing of said writing. I have a tendency to start these things and get absolutely despondent when I fall off the pace, and can’t keep writing and posting regularly. Which leads to despondency, avoidance and all that good stuff. So I’m going to let myself off the hook, and be glad that I’m back at it.


 

It’s going to go right down to the wire, this whole “read all the finalists in the biggest Hugo categories in order to vote for the 2016 awards” thing. I knew all along it was going to, but it certainly wasn’t helped by the need (“need”, I should say) to get through all three of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary books in addition to the four other novel finalists. Ancillary Mercy is the one that’s nominated, but passing judgment without having read the preceding two would have been unfair, and I suspect, difficult. Also, the completist in me (who is, to be honest, most of me) simply wouldn’t allow it.

So I think I might be able to finish the novel, novella and novelette categories before the deadline on Sunday, but that might be as far as I get. We’ll see.

In many ways, this whole exercise is a bit stupid, but I’m still thoroughly grateful that I put myself through it. The four novel finalists I’ve read so far have all been varying shades of excellent, and given how much I’ve loved Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, I have a hard time believing Mercy will be a disappointment. Bar one, all of these authors have been new acquaintances, and I feel lucky to have made all of these new acquaintances. Excepting Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass, there’s a big chance I never would have read any of them, and even that one I harbored some serious prejudices towards (more of which in a later post, now that I’m writing again). I know there are people who would quibble with the inclusion of the third book in a trilogy, or a pure entertainment like Butcher’s, but to a newcomer like myself, it feels like this novel category, at least, has done the Hugo awards proud. It’s a lovely mix of fantasy and science fiction, hard and soft, entertainment and art, YA and, err… OA (?) — often all in the same book.

My motivation for reading all these finalists was to push myself out of my comfort zone, reading-wise, and also to contribute in a voting process I felt was politically significant (at least on a smaller scale). We’ll see how the vote turns out in the end, but the reading has been a rousing success, at least. Even if you’re too late to contribute to the voting, I encourage you to read these novel finalists. In fact, if you do, and don’t find any of them to your liking, I’ll buy you a book. Or a beer. Whichever you prefer.

Secret destroyers

Being a review of the very book pictured below, finalist for the novella category of the 2016 Hugo Awards.

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Technological implants aren’t science fiction any longer; they’ve been a reality since before the turn of the century. The concept itself still lingers in sf’s idea space, though. The very thought of a subdermal foreign object evokes the retrofuturism of cyberpunk, or some other no-hope near-future. Which is why Alastair Reynolds can build an entire novella around the image of an identification implant shaped as a bullet, and not risk bringing to mind the RFID chips we tag our pets with, or something equally quotidian.

Even though this space opera branches out far and wide from the grubby war-is-hell opening scene introducing the so-called slow bullets, the story’s pivotal moments are still tied to this concept. Reynolds handles the motif gracefully, keeping our attentions trained on the grander, more urgent plot developments (of which there are plenty), but still making sure that his projectiles are worming their way under our skin.

Along the way, there are moments of both queasy-making cosmic horror and genuinely touching humanist uplift, but Reynolds is careful not to let either distract from the pragmatic, no-nonsense tone of his stranded cast. Their plight is about as existential as you can get while still retaining believability, but like in any other crisis, the here and now is more than enough for these people, even if their lives are crashing down around them.

Aside from the aforementioned outlier moments, I was ready to chalk Slow Bullets up as a solid, well-crafted B+ piece of entertainment. The more I think about it, though, the more ingenious its construction seems to me, its science fictional ideas not just window dressing, but powerful motifs to reflect the themes of the story.

In the last few years, controversy has arisen around the supposed loss of the aspirational in sf literature. To me, Reynolds provides a stirring response here: more often than not, there’s nothing noble in progress, nothing heroic or pretty in the kind of situations that best highlight the perseverance and indomitability of the human spirit. But even when we’re at our lowest and most petty, there’s still something life-affirming and beautiful about how we refuse to give up.


Some housekeeping related to my journey through the Hugo finalist field:
Still waiting for that paper copy of Uprooted, so I can finish it. Because of reasons related to how the nomination process was manipulated for the Short Story category, I might skip that specific read-through, which should free up some time. Maybe I’ll reread and write up the story I’ve decided to vote for (really enjoyable, by the way!) as the deadline approaches. Anyroad, I think I’ll just get stuck into one of the other novels next, as they’ll take the longest to finish.

Johnny looks up at the stars

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The Hourglass Nebula (photo courtesy of FreeImages.co.uk)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of science fiction. Not the familiar trappings, though, not the rockets, rayguns and aliens, but the ideas. The ideas, and to a slightly lesser degree, the difficulty (I’ll get to that in a bit).

 

I’m as a much of a sucker for a good space opera as the next nerd, but once you start getting into the harder types of science fiction, to me the experience takes on the taint of horror. The highly coveted sense of wonder the genre is supposed to strive towards is for me indistinguishable from the liminality at the core of the most frightening horror fiction. This might sound hilarious to you, but just considering the unknowable vastness of space will more often than not fill me with the kind of existential dread one might expect to be overwhelmed by should you poke at the implications of your own mortality in a dark moment.

So you might have gleaned that I’m not that much of a horror guy either, though my aversion to that genre feels a bit more honest and garden-variety. “Oh, you’re squeamish about horror? So’s every other human being”. As I hinted at with the “hilarious” aside, being afraid of sf is less easy to admit, or even explain. Now, I’ll be heading into some self-analysis here, so be forewarned. But it’s my blog and I’ll navel-gaze if I wanna.

My fear of science fiction is a complex thing, inextricably linked with my shame of not being smart enough to understand the science part of it all. Not only am I frightened by the infinite, I’m also averse to reading this stuff because I’m afraid I won’t understand it, afraid of the frustration I know I’ll feel when I don’t understand. I realise everyone can feel existential anxiety, but this fear of knowing and testing my own limits seems to me a very personal one. Not easily admitted, but central to the depression and anxiety that’s made my adult life (16 years and counting) an exercise in hiding from people and pain .

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It’s not like I flinch away, incapacitated by the sight of the words “Stephen Baxter” on the cover of a book or anything like that. My fears just means that I’ve never read much science fiction, that’s all. Both because of fear, and because I haven’t developed an affinity for it. It’s one of the milder, consequence-light results of my avoidance.

– – – –

Thus, my opinions on the sf nominees in this competition won’t be the most well-informed. Even so, I enjoyed Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets quite a bit. It’s not the hardest of hard sf — meaning that at no point during reading it did I feel like a moron — but Reynolds still takes a few well-aimed prods at my preconceptions and prejudices. At one point, the story even veers into what I’d argue to be cosmic Lovecraftian horror, although it turns out to be a detour designed to bring a sense of scale, ineffability and, yes, abject horror to the rest of the tale.

Even so, I don’t feel worse off for this foray into the to-me horrible territory of harder sf. I wish I wasn’t as familiar… wait, strike that, I wish I was more familiar with this feeling of my fears and aversions being totally unfounded, but that’s depression and anxiety for you. With an outside perspective, its behaviours are the most petty, foolish things imaginable. But there, in the moment, so utterly resistant to reason.

I would apologise for oversharing, but if you’ve read this, I’d wager your interest for the inner workings of the minds of strangers is above average. You’re welcome.

I’ll write up an actual review of Slow Bullets for my Goodreads page, and post that as tomorrow’s entry.

Our ways to be saved

So I bought myself a support membership for the 2016 World Con. With membership comes voting rights for the Hugo Awards, arguably the biggest genre literary award going. Member perks also include a voter’s packet with digital copies of a swathe of the nominated works. All for the tidy sum of 50 USD. Not the hugest bargain, but nothing to turn your nose up at either.

Voting closes 31 July, so I thought I’d take a wack at chronicling my way through the nominees. I’ll be concentrating mainly on the novel and short fiction categories, but I might dip into some of the others if I get the time.
I’m shooting for short, daily posts here, with longer reviews when I finish the novels (and maybe novellas).

My Hugo odyssey started with Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Today I reached the end of the 200-odd page excerpt provided by the publisher. I’ve already ordered a paper copy of the book, which should give you some indication as to how much I’ve enjoyed it so far.

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The cover for the Macmillan hardcover, which I’m coveting something fierce

It’s a tight, traditional fantasy, both in terms of language, structure and setting. I’m purposefully keeping away from discussion and promotional materials concerning any of these works until I finish them, but I get a sense that this might be marketed as YA. The age of the protagonist (late teens), the relative simplicity of the language (not a knock on Novik’s prose, which is lovely), and the lack of plot sprawl all echo more the classic fantasy I grew up on, more than the modernist/post-modernist/new-new-wave strain(s) I expected to find on a major awards ballot in 2016.

That’s not to say Uprooted is a trifle, far from it. From the start, Novik gives us a seventeen year-old protagonist who acts her age. That is: rash, headstrong and occasionally stupid. Even though Agnieszka’s placed into situations against her will, Novik always leaves her with enough agency that the story never feels like a retread of the classic chosen-one tropes. It easily could have been, though it’s only now, taking a small step back, that the thought had even struck me, such is the subtlety and deftness of Novik’s craft.
I’ll have more on this particular book as I go along, but I might hop on to some short fiction or novellas while I wait for the paper copy to arrive.