Saturday, August 9, 2008

Your 2008 Hugo Award Winners!

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet the winners of the Hugo award spread out from the ceremony to the world the second they're handed out.

Novel - The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
Novella - "All Seated on the Ground" by Connie Willis
Novelette - "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang
Short Story - "Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear
Best Professional Artist - Stephan Martiniere
Editor (Long Form) - David Hartwell
Editor (Short Form) - Gordon Van Gelder
Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) - Stardust
Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) - Doctor Who: "Blink"
Best Related Book - Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction by Jeff Prucher
Best Semiprozine - Locus
Best Fanzine - File 770
Best Fan Writer - John Scalzi
Best Fan Artist - Brad Foster

Congratulations to all the winners.

So how'd I do with my selections? For predictions that I made (all the fiction and dramatic presentation awards) I hit them all except short story. For my preferences "Tideline" was my second choice but "All Seated on the Ground" was far from my favorite novella; that was a selection based on the fact that the story would be a home town favorite.

One of Those "Has it really been that long?" Things




It took longer to have someone make a game based on Fallout than it took them to make a game based on Wasteland.

Obviously Fountain of Dreams doesn't count.

And if that doesn't make an old gamer depressed then let me remind you that VGA is now eighteen years old and is eligible to vote. No presidential candidate has yet come forward in support of 320x200 resolutions and 256 colors.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Review - Galaxy Quest

Galaxy Quest
2000 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

We're less than twenty-four hours from the 2008 Hugo winners being announced but there's still work to be done talking about the past winners. For what it's worth I'm rooting for the long shot Stardust in the long form category and the only way "Blink" is going to lose in the short form is if it splits the votes with the other Dr. Who nominee.

Let's go back to the summer of 2000 when Galaxy Quest had made its splash and walked away with the award. Comedy is a rare choice for any award and Galaxy Quest is the last comedic Hugo winning film or television show (one "speech" won later). It hits on themes familiar to any science fiction fan.

Tim Allen plays an actor who had a popular science fiction show very similar to but legally distinct Star Trek. He continues to live off of convention appearances with the rest of the show's cast as well as an album of spoken word versions of popular songs. Wait, that last part was William Shatner.

Anyway after blowing up at some fans and giving them the "Get a life!" speech (not followed up by letting them know it was a reenactment of the evil captain created in a transporter accident from episode ten) he is abducted by aliens who thought the show was real. They built an exact copy of everything they saw on the series and want him to use it to confront a warlord. Hilarity ensues, lessons are learned, and everyone lives happily ever after except the evil warlord and the token red shirt.

It's a comedy so there isn't a whole lot to say. I laughed, that was the purpose of the movie, so I'd say it was successful. It's cute if you don't know your Star Trek lore and much more funny if you do. The lines for the most part aren't particularly witty, the film relies more on the crazy situations for the humor.

It does follow the standard Hollywood comedy plot arc (bad person becomes good person by learning to help other people) which may be a negative for some people but if I'm amused I don't mind it. The entire cast was fun to watch and appropriately quirky for a comedy.

If you absolutely cannot stand formulaic comedies I suppose you might not like Galaxy Quest. The rest of us can watch it and have fun. It's not deep or particularly clever or brilliant but I enjoyed it.

Herbie Unleashed

We are nearing the release of the Herbie Archives and Herbiemania is growing! What? You don't know him? He's Alan Moore's favorite superhero:

Herbie is incredible where ever he goes. Here is in a page from The Bride of Hembeck (taken from the recent The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus) where Herbie beats up western anti-hero Jonah Hex and steals Betty and Veronica away from Archie:

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Review - Slow River

Slow River
by Nicola Griffith
1996 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Let me continue my trend of being hostile toward the Nebula winners by going over all the things I didn't like in Slow River: occasionally people greatly underestimate the resilience of a water system and how dilution will affect contaminants. It will not take a week for a fifty thousand gallon pond system to recover from a pint of vodka being poured into it and one sip of municipal water that has been contaminated with industrial run off will not damn you to a slow, painful death by cancer. In fairness, though, this is mentioned rarely and the portions of the book that do deal with waste water processing get at least the basics that I know right.

There was one other thing that was bothering me at the start of the novel that turned out to be a narrative device.

Everything else I loved. I know, I'm shocked too. After covering stuff like The Terminal Experiment, Red Mars, and Tehanu I despaired of encountering another decent book among the Nebula winners. Obviously something was fundamentally wrong with the SFWA; were they voting for people that the bulk of the authors didn't feel threatened by, being played by publishers looking to promote certain people, or perhaps having an evil joke on SF fans? Then I hit Slow River which might be the finest wastepunk story ever created ("wastepunk" being a term I just coined mainly to annoy Mike Sterling).

Lore was the daughter of one of the richest families in the world in a not-quite-grimey-enough-to-be-called-dystopian near future. She was kidnapped and when the ransom wasn't paid she fled her kidnappers killing one of them in the process. At the beginning of the novel she's bleeding to death in a London alley after the attack and is unwilling to return to her family since she suspects the ransom wasn't paid because she knew too much. She's found by Spanner, a technically skilled petty criminal, who nurses her back to health.

The book develops three stories in parallel. The first is Lore trying to rebuild a life after escaping a bad relationship with Spanner. She's working at a sewage treatment plant where it's obvious that corners are being cut and neither the public or employee's safty matters much. However Spanner isn't done with her as there is one last big heist to pull. There is also her relationship with Spanner who takes advantage of Lore's vulnerability to pull Lore deeper and deeper into the underworld. Finally there is Lore's life as she grows up in a family where hostilities are lurking just beneith the surface and a "monster" could come after little girls in the night.

Slow River is a perfect example of how to handle a novel told mainly in flash back well. The narrative arc despite being a good story isn't the important thing, it's the emotional arcs that matter. Griffith doesn't synchronize her arcs to hammer home a point, she lets the layers of conflict play off each other. Events intersect and illuminate but because they do not occur on consecutive pages the story moves more naturally.

That emotional arc wouldn't work without characters I could care about. There are almost three different Lores that you read about: the confused child trying to understand her family, the adolecent with a shattered world who is completely lost, and the adult trying to recover from the lowest moments of her life. By the end of the novel you can see how one transitions to the other and that journey is worth seeing. Spanner is clever and manipulative but also self-destructive; she uses people and throws them away but Lore might be breaking through her shell. Since their relationship forms the central framework of the novel they're the most defined. The minor characters tend to exist more to develop the story but I never felt that even the "villains" were reduced to complete charactures.

One aspect to the character development that threw me was that Griffith seems to dance around the concept that Lore and Spanner are lesbians for quite a while. There were hints dropped but it felt more like something from a book in the 1960's than something published in the 1990's. As it turned out Griffith gradually became more explicit in their relationship as it developed until eventually there's a brief scene that's hard to describe in any other term than "pornographic". It works in context of their development but it did throw me off as I was reading.

I also need to compliment Griffith on the science in the novel. All I know about waste water treatment is what I've read in different magazines but the chemistry and developments she postulates felt real to me. They were a natural extension in then state of the art handling of sewage and I can't think of a single other science fiction story that has even touched on this topic.

Slow River is on my short list of best novels to have won the Nebula. It's a rare SF writer who can built both an interesting character driven story and plot driven story and even rarer when they can fit them into the same book. Griffith has managed that and I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

New Logo!

As I approach finishing off reading the Nebula winners (and finally have them all handy) I thought it was time to change up my logo to include those other winners. Sure the 2008 Hugo winners will be announced in a couple of days but I'm confident that The Yiddish Policemen's Union is going to win for the novel.

That's the cue for someone else to walk away with the Hugo leaving me with egg on my face but I've got room now to add another winner.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Review - The Terminal Experiment

The Terminal Experiment
by Robert J. Sawyer
1995 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Welcome to the bottom of the barrel, the worst of the worst. The Terminal Experiment is easily the worst of the Nebula winning novels I have read. Unless The Yiddish Policemen's Union turns out to be one of those situations where everyone who loves literary fiction is raving over something from a high school creative writing course this is unlikely to change.

Let me get the plot recap out of the way quickly since this is going to be a doozy. In short a man having trouble with his wife makes three copies of his brain into a computer and modifies one to behave like its dead and in the afterlife and another to think like its immortal. One of the three (yes, the obvious one) goes on a killing spree. I'm skipping over quite a bit of stuff here since Sawyer dropped a lot of big ideas in the book and didn't really follow up on any of them.

The best thing I can say about this thing is that it is not as bad as Sawyer's worst book to win the Hugo award Hominids. On the other hand that is like saying the bubonic plague isn't as bad as the Ebola virus since it has a slightly lower mortality rate. The Terminal Experiment has the exact same problems as Hominids but isn't as egregiously stupid. It fails on levels of concept, plot, characterization, and prose and it does phenomenally poorly with all of them. Hominids was bad enough to make me suspect that Sawyer was completely incompetent as an author; The Terminal Experiment confirmed it.

And yet somehow this man who writes like Michael Crichton after a head injury has a following (not to compliment Michael Crichton). Obviously he's won two literary awards in the face of a large crowd of people who despise his work so somebody has to be willing to vote for him. I've encountered people who think that anything Sawyer writes is brilliant and run out to get his latest book. They say that Hominids is a daring book and The Terminal Experiment is a work of genius. It's an attitude so divorsed from reality that I suspect alternate universes may be the cause.

So here for educational purposes is...

Why Robery J. Sawyer is a Terrible Author (Using Examples from The Terminal Experiment)


A central problem with Sawyer's books is that he throws major concepts in front of the reader and doesn't consider the implications of them. Rather than follow consequences he follows a plot he's already determined even when they're contradictory. Since the consequences of the high concept ideas is at the heart of any speculative novel he undermines the foundation of the book.

At the beginning of The Terminal Experiment a company develops immortality. For just twenty million dollars they'll grant you an indefinite life span through the use of nanotechnology. This would cause a fundamental upheaval in society. There have been novels written about just this concept. Not The Terminal Experiment however where interest in living forever is so low that they have to sell it like a time share vacation. That's right: no one wants to live forever, the medical nanotechnology that puts the stuff in The Diamond Age to shame and could revolutionize everything is ignored, and they sell a $20 million dollar medical procedure through hotel seminars.

Then the main character discovers that when you die the last thing that occurs in your brain is an electrical impulse bounces around before ending near a thin part of the skull. Obviously this could be a "soul" but the evidence is very thin on that. Except for one part that is apparently in context supposed to be "satirical" no one ever questions if it is the soul. It just is and the novel proceeds full steam with that premise.

Which leads us to the computer simulations of the mind. The main character wants to know what he'd be like in the afterlife so he removes all mortal concerns from one of the simulations. While this might make for interesting examination it is far from the definitive view of life after death as Sawyer presents it. This is a direct example of what I'm talking about; the simulation can never be anything more than a mind that has been tampered with but Sawyer not recognizing the implications of his concepts says in the omniscient narration that it is exactly what the afterlife would be like.

The book does attempt to have a theme with the idea that temporal immortality and spiritual immortality are distinct concepts. That's fine. The problem is that to build this point Sawyer treats them as mutually exclusive prospects ignoring the fact that the laws of thermodynamics and entropy means that the people who choose temporal immortality get both while everyone else just gets one. So his thematic premise collapses like a house of cards.

As a final example there's a bit of philosophy for you. Are you aware that agnostics and atheists are inherently amoral sociopaths? According to Sawyer the threat of punishment must exist for an ethical system to carry any weight and the idea of eternal punishment through an afterlife is the only thing keeping humanity in check. That's a theist argument for the necessity of religion that has been torn down more times than I can count; it would take someone exceptionally ignorant to use it these days.

I'm only glossing over things, though. I didn't mention the fact that the device that lets you detect the soul is essentially a better, cheaper form of MRI and yet it is never used as anything other than a soul detector. Or the fact that an early chapter picks up the question of how to identify that an organ donor really is dead but then after working a full chapter to establish this debate completely abandons it. Or that computer networks function just like physical locations. The Terminal Experiment would be laughably bad in its concepts if it wasn't for the fact that it won the Nebula and so it just makes me want to cry.


Beyond the premises that the novel is built on (which are also the easiest things to tear apart) Sawyer is incapable of structuring a plot. He has the loose framework of one but events do not flow naturally from one to another. Events occur mainly because he's decided on the plot rather than justifying them within the story.

A perfect example is the series of murders that forms the actual story. Why does the AI murder people as a cover up when it would draw more attention rather than simple discrediting them as we know it can do? Sawyer gives his characters abilities which they never take advantage of mainly so the plot will advance. It's an idiot plot and that seems to be all that Sawyer is capable of writing.

In addition the first half of the novel consists almost entirely of set up. Not a development of a story; just events to drop into place so that when the story does start about half way through things are explained in explicit detail. Subtlety in motive or development has no place in a Sawyer novel as each turn must be spelled out in detail. Naturally many of these details don't make any sense.

And let's talk about that structure for a moment despite the fact that I touched on some of it in the concepts section. Chapter one gives us a character who enters the book late and explains the plot and then the book goes into flashback. This is a bad idea since a flashback that starts at the novel's beginning and ends before the climax damages the pacing of the book; the reader knows what is coming and it takes a very skilled author to twist those perceptions to something interesting. Then there's a chapter about organ donation and telling the dead from the just brain dead that could have been completely dropped without losing anything in the book; it doesn't give us anything on character, setting, or even concepts that are important later. It's a conflict that is established and abandoned (thinking on the fact Sawyer clearly learned about how organ donation works but nothing about the medical ethics involved it's probably for the best). There's a bit of character work and then a chapter about immortality where he spells out exactly how the immortality process works; in other words a chapter of exposition that doesn't make sense which is then forgotten about. Then there's a few chapters on the discovery of the "soul" for a third plot line which isn't developed. That's almost half the novel on things that aren't developed.


As you might guess based on the fact that events serve the predetermined plot rather than occurring organically the same thing applies to the characters. At best in Sawyer's work they're card board cut outs at worst they're personalityless ciphers. I'm not going to bother pointing out characters who could be defined by throwing darts at a cliche board to select their traits ("This guy is smart so I'll use longer sentences and three syllable words!"). Rather I have an example of what Sawyer thinks passes as characterization.

Early on in the novel the wife of the main character has told him that she has had an affair. Sawyer makes it very clear that she has low self esteem and daddy issues using some weak arm chair psychology. Sawyer has done everything but spell it out for his readers.

Then she goes to a counselor who within two pages of discussion spells it out for us. Sawyer literally has the character come out and provide a personality profile after they've talked for ten minutes. I've never encountered anything like it in published fiction and I don't mean that in a good way. It's the kind of thing that never comes up in writing lessons because it's so monumentally bad that it shouldn't even be considered.

And this is what Sawyer puts in his book as characterization. There's no hope for someone who writes like that since it demonstrates a fundamental lack of ability.


Finally Robert J. Sawyer is simply bad at forming his text. While an editor prevents things like spelling and grammar problems it lacks any depth or weight. His text reads like the popular novels along the lines of Clive Cussler or Michael Crichton only with even less ability. The prose is roughly on the fourth grade level; I've read YA books with a more rich vocabulary and complex sentence structure.

Rather notable is how Sawyer handles location descriptions. At the start of a scene he gives three sentences that describe the building and then one sentence about incongruous feature. It came across to me as though he read about this as a way to handle things and he uses it as the only way to develop setting.

So that is why in more words than you'd ever care to read is why Robert J. Sawyer is a terrible author and you should avoid him. I know that sometimes there are irrational reasons for liking something but there are too many good writers out there to defend him as a great one.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Review - "Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge", "The Martian Child", and "None So Blind"

Jim Burns
1995 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Burns's Hugo in 1995 is a perfect example of the flaws with the Professional Artist award. Burns has done fine work but none of the pieces he did in 1994 that I could find, the period that people were voting on, were of exceptional quality. I chose the cover to Pasquale's Angel as his representative piece because it was the one I disliked the least. Burns won mainly because he is a British artist and Worldcon was held in the UK that year. Even more than in the fiction categories people voted on the name not the work.

Also, this is it for the short fiction. I've reached the end of the Hugo winning short stories I have handy. Next week I'm going to skip ahead to the 2008 Hugo winners since I've already read them. After that, who knows? I'm going to be filling out the short stories but covering the short fiction is going to become more intermittent. I may round things out through the Nebulas since I want to collect all of the Nebula showcase books, cover a few stories at a time based on what I have handy, or just do something else altogether.

"Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge"
by Mike Resnick
1995 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1994 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Resnick is a perfect example of why I do this. While I think I've read things by him before I started it didn't make an impression. His Hugo winning stories on the other hand have all been absolutely brilliant and are driving me to seek out more of his work.

Mankind burst out from the Earth to conquer the galaxy, crush dozens of alien races beneath his heal, and then suddenly died out. An archeological team thousands of years later travels to the planet of mankind's birth to search out artifacts and hope to understand them. Among their number is an alien that can merge with objects in order to view their past and this alien plays witness to the history of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania which acts as a showcase for man's sins.

I suppose the worst thing you could say about Resnick's story is that it is very cynical. If someone told me they couldn't stand his story because no one was sympathetic in it then I couldn't really argue with that. I personally don't need sympathetic characters, I need interesting and "Seven Views" packs that in to its tiny vignettes. Resnick holds no one innocent and the them of the victims turning into the monsters is repeated in the different views.

What makes the story effective beyond being a catalog of man's inhumanity is that people in this story endure. They may enslave their fellow man or murder innocent children afterward but they endure. It's not be a warm fuzzy message but Resnick makes it more powerful in stripping away the pretense of being a victim as a virtue. It's that complicated worldview that made his other Hugo winners so effective and now I want to read more.

"The Martian Child"
by David Gerrold
1995 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1994 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

And just to demonstrate that I do not in fact have a shriveled lump of carbon for a heart we're going from a bitterly cynical story to a sentimental one and I liked it too.

David Gerrold, who doesn't bother to disguise the fact that this work is semi-autobiographical, adopts a child and bonds with him. The boy tends to say that he is a Martian and Gerrold treats it as a defense mechanism that he needs to work through until he finds that his child is far from the only "Martian" in the world.

It's not a very deep story, it mainly exists for Gerrold to write about his then recently adopted son. On the other hand it is sweet and sentimental and about as well written as anything I've ever seen by Gerrold. You'd have to be carved from stone to not be moved by this story which avoids the easy paths that this kind of story has followed before. It strikes all the notes just right without descending into outright sappiness so I have to recommend seeking it out.

"None So Blind"
by Joe Haldeman
1995 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

A genius asks the question "Why aren't blind people all geniuses since they have brain power to spare?" His quest for the answer may destroy his marriage, change the world, or both.

This story is all exposition but its exposition told in an interesting voice which makes that a bit easier to forgive but it's an awful lot of telling instead of showing. That narrative voice is really the only thing to read this story for; the concept has been handled before with more thought on the implications and a more structured telling. Consequently I would say that this isn't a bad story to read but it isn't worth your effort to hunt down.

The Martian Canals

As I end my Mars Week with a set of reviews that includes the story of a possible invasion from Mars I wanted to put out there the original. This is Percival Lowell's own map of the Martian "canal system" that defined how people viewed the red planet for decades. Scientists never gave much serious consideration to Lowell's observations since they contradicted everyone else's but his image of a thriving Martian civilization caught the public's imagination. Perhaps in his own way he contributed to the foundation of science fiction.