Friday, January 9, 2009

The Scale of Hugo Winning Short Fiction

I was placing my biweekly Amazon order today and it has come time to order the final anthologies containing Hugo winning short fiction. Looking at the results I thought it was worth it to look at scale of this collection.

The complication for anyone who is attempting to read every single Hugo winner is the dividing line between 1994 and 1995.

You can read the entire history of the short fiction awards between 1955 and 1994 in just nine volumes comprising only about eleven inched of shelf space, though if you get paper back editions the scale increases a bit since the Hugo Winner collections that Asimov started editing in the early sixties were subdivided further. The biggest complication for any collector in this is that the Hothouse stories by Brian Aldiss are hard to acquire. The only collection of the original stories I was able to find was a leather bound Easton Press edition. An edited version of the stories is available in The Long Afternoon of Earth and that is likely to be a better solution for most readers.

In my collection these years are covered by:

The Hugo Winners Volumes 1 & 2 (in one omnibus)
The Hugo Winners Volume 3
The Hugo Winners Volume 4
The Hugo Winners Volume 5
The New Hugo Winners Volume 1
The New Hugo Winners Volume 2
The New Hugo Winners Volume 3
The New Hugo Winners Volume 4

There is no hardcover edition of The New Hugo Winners Volume 4 which is annoying but then many of it's descendants are only available as trade paperbacks.

After 1994 things get bad. It took me 23 books to fill out my collection through 2007 (I read the 2008 winners which I read when they were offered through some websites and they'll enter my collection once they've had some time to be anthologized). That's thirty-three inches of shelf space though in this case the anthologies purchased often contained more worth reading than just the one or two stories that won an award. The books that I acquired to complete this collection are (with authors noted for single author anthologies):

The Nebula Winners Volume 30
Stories of your Life by Ted Chiang
The Hard SF Renaissance
Quartet: Four Tales from the Crossroads by George R. R. Martin
Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon by Kristine Katharyn Rusch
New Dreams for Old by Mike Resnick
The Dog Said Bow-Wow by Michael Swanwick
The Winds of Marble Arch by Connie Willis
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirteenth Annual Collection
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourteenth Annual Collection
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fifteenth Annual Collection
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Sixteenth Annual Collection
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Seventeenth Annual Collection
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Chronospace by Allen Steele
Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson
Inside Job by Connie Willis
Science Fiction: The Best of the Year 2003
Science Fiction: The Best of the Year 2007
The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realms
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
Hart & Boot & Other Stories by Tim Pratt

The Science Fiction: Best of the Year anthologies are only available in small paperbacks while Resnick, Swanwick, and Pratt's anthologies are only available as trade paperbacks. Also two stories ("...Where Angels Fear to Tread" and "The Ultimate Earth") are only available expanded into novels.

It's the curse of being a collector I suppose that sometimes it takes a great deal of effort for very little gain but there's something to be said for completing a collection.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Review - Watchtower

by Elizabeth A. Lynn
1979 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

A few weeks ago when I began this new list of novels I mentioned that I don't read a lot of fantasy. Watchtower is a perfect example of why I don't. It is a catalog of everything I hate in popular fantasy novels. Someone who is willing to accept genre conventions might be able to overlook the problems that I had with the book though even in that case I suspect the book might fall a bit too far on the derivative side.

The story opens with the titular watchtower falling to an invading army, it's prince captured, and its last surviving commander pressed into service to guarantee the prince's safety. Together they make an escape from their former home and run to a legendary Buddhist commune established ten years before (don't ask me; initially the book made it out like Shangra-La and then it turned out to be something recent) where the commander must overcome his prejudices in order to find assistance.

Hey, that plot sounds familiar for some reason. Probably because other than the hidden kingdom possessing a special power that the main character learns in order to overcome the invaders that he lost to at the beginning of the novel being a Buddhist communist (as opposed to a hidden village of elves or something like that) the plot seems to have been ordered ala carte from a menu of generic fantasy cliches. Sometimes this happens because the novel in question was the one that popularized the concepts but Watchtower doesn't have that excuse.

My biggest problem with the novel (and with so many others) is simple: 1300 AD is not the same as 1980 AD. This isn't a simple matter of substituting a few words; society was radically different. Even the educated people thought and acted in a manner that would be thought of as terrible today. Some authors can't pull themselves out of the modern mindset and have all of the "sympathetic" characters think and act as though they were living today. See the Buddhist commune for a perfect example of that (the book never calls them "Buddhist" but that's effectively what they are); they're presented as the ideal lifestyle compared to those people living like they were in a medieval setting.

Then there's the hypocrisy of the major characters. Just sticking with events early in the novel there are a pair of characters who are members of an organization trusted because they're neutral parties to all conflicts. It's a stretch but I can accept that. The problem is that they're willing to violate that neutrality without even thinking about it for the sake of the "right" side. It's the kind of action that should have far reaching consequences but because

Lynn does make a pretense toward having a more complicated morality (which, I suspect, is the reason that she won the World Fantasy Award) through humanizing the enemies and making the stakes in the conflict a "kingdom" that is barely bigger than a postage stamp. Unfortunately she undercuts this by repeatedly drumming the idea that because someone's ancestors centuries ago conquered a piece of land it makes it okay for someone else from that same country to repeat the action. That argument is repeatedly given by the ruler of captured kingdom.

So the plot was thin, the setting annoyed me, and the characterization finished off the final lingering thread of suspension of disbelief. I will say that Lynn is not bad with her prose. It didn't impress me but I've read much worse in published novels with effectively identical plots, characters, and settings.

If you like your fantasy novels to feature characters that might as well be modern people transplanted to something vaguely but not really resembling medieval Europe who proceed to go through derrivitive plots with no tension then thanks a lot for changing the fantasy and science fiction section of book stores into something that is a complete waste of time for me... oh, and Watchtower is a book you might enjoy. For those who want something more from their books you'll need to look elsewhere.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Review - Gloriana

by Michael Moorcock
1979 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

This book is exactly why I have pursued this odd project of reading all of these award winning novels. It's very different to the point of being something that I'd never pick it up on my own and it is one of the most memorable books I've ever read. I can't justifiably call it a great novel: it's incredibly heavy handed with its symbolism but it's audaciousness alone makes it something worth a look.

To describe it in one sentence Gloriana is Moorcock shoving Mervin Peake's Gormanghast moved to Elizabethan England with a lot more sex. In an England whose empire spans the globe and brings peace to every corner of it the queen rules justly and is beloved. Gloriana rules the day in a court that emphasizes the glory of chivalry while the ugly pieces of government are kept out of her view by a protective advisor.

She has one problem with her life between pagents, masques, festivals, and courtly diversions: she cannot achieve an orgasm. So at night she attempts all forms of sexual experiences and maintains a stately pleasure dome behind her chambers.

These dichotomies endure until one of the agents who does the dirty work of assassination, murder, and plotting feels slighted and becomes resolved to tear down the kingdom by corrupting the court and driving them into hedonism.

So can you find the symbolism there? You better get used to that if you read Gloriana because Moorcock lays it on thick. It's painted on in bright primary colors, pointed out by blinking neon signs, and has blaring klaxons to alert the reader. The symbolism is piled on so high I can only read it as a clumsy attempt to create a "serious novel".

On the other hand the themes that the symbolism is there for keeps things interesting. Watching the repressed sexual desires emerge and destroy the characters is fascinating and the biggest strength of the novel. Every character is split in two by their private and public lives and these divisions drive the book forward. Moorcock may work in archetypes but he's very good at bringing those archetypes to life. That's a good thing since that's what really drives the novel; the plot itself isn't much but these broken people playing off each other worked well for me.

If you haven't read Gormanghast then the descriptions of the court and the labrynthtine palace that has congeled into a maze of hidden warrens might feel very distinctive. Moorcock does a good job of replicating the feel but in the end it does feel that Gloriana borrows a bit too heavily from Peake's earlier book.

Moorcock's prose is a very hit or miss situation for me; I have read some of his stories where I enjoy it immensely and then other times he just pushed too far into the purple. He is edging on that line between poetic and purple in Gloriana but this time I think he came down on the correct side despite an opening dozen pages that had me dreading how the rest of the novel would be written. Fortunately he settles down to a more tempered tone before too long but if you pick it up and start reading the book then you may bounce off the first oddly worded chapter.

Gloriana is a book that I am going to remember for some time and for that reason alone I recommend checking it out. It's an interesting novel though some people will find its conclusion objectionable; Moorcock rewrote it in the late 90's to remove some of the objectionable content but the edition I have included the original, much better chapter. I can't promise you that you will enjoy Gloriana but it will stick with you.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Review - "The Concrete Jungle", "The Faery Handbag", and "Travels with My Cats"

Jim Burns
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

The painting I selected is the cover to Nancy Kress's Crucible. Interestingly enough the year after he won Burns did covers for the reissues of many award winning novels and a few of my favorite books that hadn't won awards.

It's also an interesting set of anthologies that I pulled the 2005 winners from. "The Concrete Jungle" was taken from a recently released pairing with it's novel predecessor The Atrocity Archives. Since that book has been on my "Must Read" list for a while I didn't mind picking up a copy of it. "The Faery Handbag" I read in The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm which features illustrations for each story from Charles Vess. Finally "Travels With My Cats" was read in the single author anthology New Dreams for Old.

"The Concrete Jungle"
by Charles Stross
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

This sequel The Atrocity Archive left me with some mixed feelings. On the one hand, it's an interesting mash-up of espionage fiction and dark fantasy; the kind of fantasy where horrible things are done for even more terrible purposes. They play off each other very well and I'm looking forward to digging into The Atrocity Archive for more of that. On the other hand the conclusion story depends on odd leaps of logic and knowledge of British managerial styles which left me out.

There is a British espionage group that deals with all the things that go bump in the night. They're so wrapped up in secrecy, both institutional and magically enforced, that they cannot come out and tell each other anything; only hint at it so that the other person comes to understand. One of their agents specializing in information technology is sent out on an emergency call of the highest priority because an extra stone cow has appeared in an art installation off of a major highway.

To go further than that would be to damage the pacing of the good parts of the story. And for the first three-quarters it is very good. Subtle revelations pile on top of each other and Stross manages to hint at unrevealed dark secrets better than most (the trick of conveying the concept but not the details is one that escapes many writers who try to be mysterious). It falls apart when suddenly the main character has an epiphany regarding the nature of the event that I couldn't follow and wraps it all up with some business terminology that I've never encountered and isn't explained in the story.

That adds up to "The Concrete Jungle" coming across to me as an interesting effort but not quite there. I liked the concept and the characters enough to be willing to stick with it for another story but I can't really recommend this one.

"The Faery Handbag"
by Kelly Link
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

I'm going to be grossly unfair to Kelly Link so I will say this right at the start: there's nothing really wrong with "The Faery Handbag". It is a perfectly serviciable story cut from the modern mold of fairy tale magic occuring in the modern world and it bringing relatives together. The problem for me is that this is a theme that has been beaten into the ground in the past ten years.

A young woman has a mysterious aunt from Europe who tells stories about living in the distant past and having a bag that contains a magical world where one night can last a generation. While laughed off my most people in the family our protagonist comes to be believe the story.

If you like that kind of thing you'll probably enjoy "The Faery Handbag". On the other hand I just found it to be a bland retelling of a story I've heard a dozen times before. I think it is because Link is relying on the mysterious magical handbag to provide color for the tale and I've reached a point where such things fall into the background.

"Travels With My Cats"
by Michael Resnick
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

A young boy buys a travel book titled Travels With My Cats for a few pennies from a garage sale and finds himself falling in love with the story. Thirty years on he's a loser living alone with his books, stuck in a dead end job, and doing nothing with his life. Upon rereading his childhood favorite he falls in love with the descriptions of distant lands again. He then finds himself visited by the spirit of the author and they discuss their lives.

The story itself is fairly interesting but once again I felt let down by the ending. To dance around the details I felt that Resnick was going for optomistic romanticism while I viewed it through a lens of cynicism. However I have had that issue with Resnick in the past where I'm left uncertain at the end where there was a disconnect between how he as the author was intending things and how I as the reader was viewing them. Upon reflection perhaps he intended both points of view to be valid.

Which I guess makes that a recommendation for reading "Travels With My Cats". If I change my mind while I'm organizing my thoughts then it is at the very least a thoughtful story worth the effort of reading.