Saturday, March 21, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Nominees

I'm leaving for a four hour drive to MidSouthCon in a few minutes but I had to take a few moments to point out the 2009 Hugo nominees:

Best Novel
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross
Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

Best Novella
“The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress
“The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay
“The Tear” by Ian McDonald
“True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow
“Truth” by Robert Reed

Best Novelette
“Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick
“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessel
“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner
“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear

Best Short Story
“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson
“Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick
“Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang
“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick

Best Related Book
Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn
Spectrum 15: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art by Cathy & Arnie Fenner, eds.
The Vorkosigan Companion: The Universe of Lois McMaster Bujold by Lillian Stewart Carl & John Helfers, eds.
What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid
Your Hate Mail Will be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 by John Scalzi

Best Graphic Story
The Dresden Files: Welcome to the Jungle Written by Jim Butcher, art by Ardian Syaf
Girl Genius, Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones Written by Kaja & Phil Foglio, art by Phil Foglio, colors by Cheyenne Wright
Fables: War and Pieces Written by Bill Willingham, pencilled by Mark Buckingham, art by Steve Leialoha and Andrew Pepoy, color by Lee Loughridge, letters by Todd Klein
Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic Story and art by Howard Tayler
Serenity: Better Days Written by Joss Whedon & Brett Matthews, art by Will Conrad, color by Michelle Madsen, cover by Jo Chen
Y: The Last Man, Volume 10: Whys and Wherefores Written/created by Brian K. Vaughan, pencilled/created by Pia Guerra, inked by Jose Marzan, Jr.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer, story; Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, screenplay; based on characters created by Bob Kane; Christopher Nolan, director
Hellboy II: The Golden Army Guillermo del Toro & Mike Mignola, story; Guillermo del Toro, screenplay; based on the comic by Mike Mignola; Guillermo del Toro, director
Iron Man Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway, screenplay; based on characters created by Stan Lee & Don Heck & Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby; Jon Favreau, director
METAtropolis by John Scalzi, ed. Written by: Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell and Karl Schroeder
WALL-E Andrew Stanton & Pete Docter, story; Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon, screenplay; Andrew Stanton, director

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Lost - “The Constant” Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof, writers; Jack Bender, director
Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Joss Whedon, & Zack Whedon, & Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen , writers; Joss Whedon, director
Battlestar Galactica - “Revelations” Bradley Thompson & David Weddle, writers; Michael Rymer, director
Doctor Who - “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” Steven Moffat, writer; Euros Lyn, director
Doctor Who - “Turn Left” Russell T. Davies, writer; Graeme Harper, director

Best Editor, Short Form
Ellen Datlow
Stanley Schmidt
Jonathan Strahan
Gordon Van Gelder
Sheila Williams

Best Editor, Long Form
Lou Anders
Ginjer Buchanan
David G. Hartwell
Beth Meacham
Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Best Professional Artist
Daniel Dos Santos
Bob Eggleton
Donato Giancola
John Picacio
Shaun Tan

Best Semiprozine
Clarkesworld Magazine edited by Neil Clarke, Nick Mamatas & Sean Wallace
Interzone edited by Andy Cox
Locus edited by Charles N. Brown, Kirsten Gong-Wong, & Liza Groen Trombi
The New York Review of Science Fiction edited by Kathryn Cramer, Kris Dikeman, David G. Hartwell, & Kevin J. Maroney
Weird Tales edited by Ann VanderMeer & Stephen H. Segal

Best Fanzine
Argentus edited by Steven H Silver
Banana Wings edited by Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer
Challenger edited by Guy H. Lillian III
The Drink Tank edited by Chris Garcia
Electric Velocipede edited by John Klima
File 770 edited by Mike Glyer

Best Fan Writer
Chris Garcia
John Hertz
Dave Langford
Cheryl Morgan
Steven H Silver

Best Fan Artist
Alan F. Beck
Brad W. Foster
Sue Mason
Taral Wayne
Frank Wu

I'll be going over some of the categories across the next few weeks.

I find the number of young adult books nominated in the novel category to be odd. While there is nothing preventing YA books from being good they are intentionally geared for an immature audience. I'm left wondering if the nominations were due to the popularity of the author or the realities of publishing these days where YA is the ascendant market.

I'm pleased that they introduced the graphic novel category a year early but the nominees do not thrill me. Two webcomics (and in fairness two of the very few webcomics that I follow) and two adaptations of an already popular work from another medium are not strong nominees while the remaining two are climaxes of long running Vertigo books. Ah well, there were many worse choices.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Review - The Physiognomy

The Physiognomy
by Jeffrey Ford
1998 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I suppose I should explain this first: physiognomy is the "art" of reading a personality through someone's physical appearance. Until a couple of days ago I thought it had effectively died out in the nineteenth century and that this kind of fraud had shifted to other things like handwriting analysis and good old astrology. Two days ago someone helpfully pointed out an article on the front page of Yahoo which explained how everything you needed to know about someone was in their facial features. I suppose the continued use of acupuncture and astrology should have reminded me that none of this trash ever goes away, it just falls out of popularity for a few years before getting revived as an ancient secret.

In the Well-Built City the power of it's dictator is focused through physiognomy. His physiognomists are investigators, judges, and executioners who find guilt in the shape of a face. The best of these physiognomists is sent to a mining town where the people who fuel the city slowly turn to stone in order to find someone who stole a fruit that may impart eternal life. What he finds there shakes his beliefs to the core and it puts him into directly conflict with the city's ruler.

In case you couldn't guess it from that brief description this is an allegorical novel. A very heavily allegorical novel. We're talking about allegory that is laid on thick and impenetrible. While Ford's technique was obvious I couldn't see a thread tying the concepts together. It's a novel designed to start arguments about what it all means and I'm not entirely convinced it all really has a meaning beyond that. There is the tale of the superficial moralist who discovers depth and complexity and yet it doesn't seem to connect with some of the concepts used.

The allegory is a tricky form to use well. Too far in one direction and you have a heavy handed, message thumping, unpleasant piece of trash. Too far in the other and you have a book that will only impress literary critics and English majors. Despite my appreciation of multi-layered stories I'm cautious when it comes to those books in the second category; too often they are so dense that the only meaning that can be found by a reader is what they carry into it with them. Obscurity is not quality and The Physiognomy leans very heavily toward obscurity.

Getting past that allegory there's a lot to like in The Physiognomy. The main character's growth from a vile tool of a monstrous regime to someone who tries to redeem himself is handled very well. Ford never provides a moment of epiphany for his protagonist; just a man who begins to feel and recover his humanity. No one else really has enough time on stage to develop; they only play off of him and yet I didn't find that to be a real problem with the novel. The focus in this case worked very well.

Also while Ford constantly spins into allegorical concepts those concepts taken superficially have their own way of grabbing the imagination. A prison colony for one prisoner run by an intelligent monkey and a man who may be two men is an interesting concept even if you're trying to work out the purpose of the duality presented in the wardens. Ford does a reasonable job in integrating these concepts with the story; it didn't come across as a random assortment of "cool ideas".

Ford's prose is a bit old fashioned and it is effective in a novel that focuses on a nineteenth century process. The narrator's voice is distinctive and helps carry the transformation of that character.

There is one more negative thing to mention. This is not something that is a result of Ford's work so I won't hold it against him, it is just an oddity that needs to be brought up. The only hard cover edition of The Physiognomy that I could locate was a large print edition. It's the kind of thing that only matters to collectors like myself.

In the end there's a lot of enjoy in The Physiognomy and if you selected a few pages at random they'll be very enjoyable. The result of the whole, though, is a bit less than the sum of its parts. I found that the whole thing didn't come together as well as I would like and for that reason I didn't care for the book. It's a good effort and I can understand why it was selected for the World Fantasy Award, it just wasn't as effective as it could have been for me.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review - Godmother Night

Godmother Night
by Rachael Pollack
1997 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

If I had to pick a single most common theme in fantasy novels... well it would have to be Tolkien knock-offs. But once we're past that and looking at the scope of fantasy stories across history then the anthropomorphism of death is pretty far up that list. And why shouldn't it? Death as the single most common experience for humanity is a natural choice for use in stories whether he's playing chess with a knight in a dying landscape, taking a holiday, or learning valuable lessons about life. That does mean that it takes a very special story using this theme to catch my interest.

Godmother Night is death in the novel and she watches over the lives of two young lovers. The lovers deal with a disapproving family and having a child. They ask Godmother Night to watch over their daughter and so that daughter is raised so that she can see death around her. Across all of their lives they encounter Godmother Night and her servants in ways that alternatively help and terrify them.

Godmother Night isn't as plotless as that description but it is another book that is a set of strange anecdotes from lives touched by magic. I'm not certain what it is about that form of book that has made it so popular with the World Fantasy Awards. As it happens Godmother Night is a good example of this format since the anecdotes are compelling and (most importantly) the characters were ones that I became very interested in.

The most important of those characters in terms of making the book stand out as a fantasy novel is Godmother Night herself. Using a character theme that is this common invites comparison to other personifications of death and in that very extensive pantheon Pollack's creation is in the upper tier but not a break away success. Night makes familiar comments on the necessity of death and the nature of life and I didn't see any novelty in that aspect. On the other hand she also is treated as a meddling relative and I found giving death that personality was an intriguing difference. By having her pop up and offer unwelcome advice and assistance it made her more interesting.

The human cast is much more rounded. Pollack didn't simply place characters down on the page, she spun lives for them. No character is the same at the end of the novel as they are at the beginning. The passions of youth shift in a different way among all of them whether cast aside for maturity, growing into love, or desperately clung to because it is all they have. Confronting death is a transforming process and in a novel where death is a character it will be confronted often.

I went back and forth on mentioning this and I decided that in the end it is a compliment for the author and should use it: Rachael Pollack wrote her story without an agenda. A full range of human experiences and beliefs are on display in Godmother Night and Pollack completely avoids the moralizing that lesser authors use. Recently reading a book that was heavy with its moralizing on something that came in tangentially to the actual story made the contrast stand out. This is especially true in the later portions of the novel where the belief systems of the characters take the center stage.

I do need to mention that the novel features what must have been the most unnecessary climax I've read in a while. The novel had been building to a climax for one theme (and doing a very good job of it) and then suddenly shifted to a barely touched on climax for something else entirely. It wasn't necessary and it left me wondering why it was in there at the end of the book. Despite being only the tiniest fraction of the novel it is at the very end and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

So I can't call Godmother Night perfect. Still it rarely dragged, featured a cast that entertained me, and often shifted into fascinating concepts. It wasn't the most unique novel ever created but it is a fine work for anyone who likes slice-of-life fantasy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

I've never been one to argue genre names, but "Syfy"?

The SciFi channel has announced that they are changing their name to "SyFy". The claim it's because they can't trademark "SciFi". I'm not a trademark lawyer but I'm pretty sure their planet with "SciFi" written in it logo is trademarked along with the name "SciFi Channel". Irregardless of the actual reason the announcement makes it pretty clear that they want to distance themselves from their original viewer base.

I didn't really care to draw distinctions between science fiction, scifi, or however you want to spell it (though I do tend to use SF as shorthand for speculative fiction). That on the other hand has to be the most worst shorthand for the genre anyone has ever devised. It's like spelling magic with extra consonants. It makes me think of pitiful attempts to be distinctive by not actually changing anything. There has never been a time in human history where swapping an "i" for a "y" in a word has been a good idea. Now it's more of a reason to point and laugh and the people who think it's clever.

Oh well, I guess they could have just changed their name to The Wrestling Channel.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Review - "Another Orphan" and "A Letter From the Clearys"

After the kerfuffle with the 1981 Nebulas I had to mention last week I was hoping for some problems to talk about this time. No such luck I'm afraid, so let's get to it.

"Another Orphan"
by John Kessel
1982 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In "Another Orphan" a stockbroker falls asleep one night in his bed and awakens on board a eighteenth century ship. The crew knows him as if he had been with them from the beginning. To the stockbroker's horror he finds that he has not simply been displaced in time, the ship he is aboard is the Pequod and there's a gold coin nailed to the mast for the first person who spots Moby Dick.

There are many stories about people entering a world of fiction. Inevitably these are light-hearted adventure tales where the protagonist gets to meet the main character of the other work and they have a great time. Kessel, on the other hand, dropped his protagonist into a bad situation for something that reflected on the themes of the original work. Life on a whaler was hard and the ship is doomed; this prevents it from being simply an adventure.

Something I noticed is Kessel kept slipping into and out of Melvillian prose. I thought it was an effective method of carrying the concept of being trapped within a book. When its about whales, obsession, predestination, and the sea the dense sentence formations of Melville come forward.

I've heard of Moby Dick referred to as "classic lit for Science Fiction fans" and that is certainly true; anyone who enjoys lengthy technical descriptions is going to be more inclined to enjoy the efforts Melville put into capturing the life of whalers. I wish I had a chance to reread it before reading "Another Orphan" because I think I would have appreciated Kessel's efforts more. Still I enjoyed it even if my memories of its source material wasn't fresh.

"A Letter From the Clearys"
by Connie Willis
1982 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Connie Willis actually won two Nebulas in 1982: one for the short story "A Letter from the Clearys" and one for the novella "Fire Watch". Willis sold her first story in 1970 but then didn't sell another for nearly a decade. She then only sold a story or two until suddenly in 1982 her popularity exploded and she started that huge collection of SF awards.

The simple summary of the story is that a girl poking through the post office finds a long forgotten letter to her family which she reads to them. But that isn't really what "A Letter From the Clearys" is about. It's about the family dynamics of people struggling to survive. It's about the petty annoyances that each family has. It's about the hurtful things that people can do.

Willis does a great job in capturing those emotions. I do think she is a bit to coy with the situation but she didn't do a whole lot of dancing around the topic (no more than someone trying to ignore the situation would) so it wasn't that bad. So all in all it was an interesting story that took a different direction with some familiar SF concepts.