In an earlier post I indicated the nominees and winner of the Hugo Best Novel Award for 2006, and that my own choice was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. After having read a couple of the other nominees, not only is it still my choice, but one entry (Acclerando) makes me seriously wonder about the whole Hugo selection process, as it’s clear that some entries get there on the basis of radical new ideas only, rather than ideas + literary merit. Not that I have a problem with the actual winner, it’s quite good, just not quite as well done as Old Man’s War – but that’s just my opinion, and I’ve had that level of difference between nominees and winners in prior Hugo Awards. But every once in a while I run into something that was nominated and/or won the award, and find myself scratching my head about why it made the list – are my tastes really that much different from the average SF fan, or am I just too demanding for wanting good literature with my SF helping? The following are my reviews of the nominee crop:
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
My Amazon Rating: 5 star My Scale: 8.0
Life Begins at Seventy Five
After reading about ten pages of this, I had to go back and check the title page for the author, sure that it would read Robert Heinlein, not John Scalzi. Mr. Scalzi has obviously spent some time and effort analyzing Heinlein’s methods and style, and the result here is an excellent novel that reads just like a brand new Heinlein.
The opening paragraph grabs: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” Simple, direct, and immediately intriguing. And from this idea of geriatric soldiers the entire story unfolds: how these advanced age people are given new, enhanced bodies, interfaced with a remarkably effective internal computer, and sent to fight the baddies of the universe. Why they must fight. What the reasons are for living. Where the human race is heading. The problems with making assumptions about other life forms – and the effect that has on diplomacy.
Plot wise, this is a series of incidents and battles in the life of a soldier, without any strong goal or endpoint in mind. But as the scenes unfold, the person that is John Perry comes into clearer and clearer focus, a quiet, unassuming man who nevertheless can think on his feet, is not dismayed by radically new things, a natural leader with seventy-five years of experience to back up his decisions and actions, a man capable of deep love. Most of the people around him are not so well realized, but they really don’t need to be.
Comparison is obviously invited with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers with its similar theme and environment. But where Starship Troopers is very much a coming-of-age story, this is an adult trip into the land of survival. And where Starship Troopers had a large amount of philosophy directly exposited, Scalzi’s opinions in these areas are much more muted, more shown rather than told. Replacement of Heinlein’s powered armor with Scalzi’s enhanced bodies doesn’t cut down on the action, but does highlight the importance of the mind inside the body, its spirit, its willingness to fight not just for himself but for all of his compatriots and the race as a whole. Where Starship Troopers might be considered a treatise on government, civic responsibility, and military organizations, this has a somewhat less lofty goal, of showing why life is worth fighting for.
For anyone who loves Heinlein, this is a must. For those who like military science fiction, this is a must. For those who like a good story, powerfully told, this is a must.
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
My Amazon Rating: 4 star My Scale: 7.0
Time in a Bubble
‘Hard’ science fiction novels, all too often, get bogged down in their `gee-whiz’ science, to the detriment of their story and characters. Happily, such is not the case here, as the characters of Tyler Dupree and Jason and Diane Lawton are well depicted, and their story, of just how they react when all the stars suddenly disappear one night, remains front and center throughout this book.
The `gee-whiz’ science here is the `Spin’, a membrane folded around the earth that slows the time rate experienced by its denizens by a factor of 100 million versus the `normal’ universe. This has an implication: in just 40 Earth years, 4 billion years will have passed on the outside, our sun will be nearing the end of its life, and will have expanded to the point that an unprotected Earth would be immediately fried. Where did this membrane come from? Who put it there, and perhaps more importantly, why? What can be done about it? Wilson’s characters, in one way or another, attempt to answer these questions, an involvement that shapes much of their lives, and the lives of everyone on Earth, who are effectively facing a true end of the world scenario.
Wilson presents his science in fairly small, well explained chunks – you don’t need to be an actual rocket scientist to grasp what he is presenting, and this presentation doesn’t interrupt the story flow, unlike all too many books that belong to this sub-genre.
While all the above is quite good, I found I was disappointed in the final answers the book provides. I saw most of the answers long before they were directly shown – not good for a concept of this grand scope. Nor was I greatly impressed by the philosophical points raised. In these two areas, I expected more from a book that took the Hugo award over some other books that are just as inventive and possibly have a deeper level of meaning than this one. The Martian, introduced about the middle of the book, was not characterized very well, nor was his described culture very believable – probably because his function was that of deus-ex-machina device, a way for Wilson to get to his `solution’ space.
An entertaining read with some good concepts, but for my money the Hugo should have gone to John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.
A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin
My Amazon Rating: 3 Stars My Scale: 6.5
A Sea of Words, Signifying Little
The most inventive, intriguing, literate, and engrossing adult fantasy to be written in thirty years, has, unfortunately, hit a rather large road bump with this, the fourth volume. As I don’t follow Martin’s web site I was not aware that this volume only presents half of the main characters of the first three, leaving out some of the most interesting and loved ones, their portion of this time period relegated to the fifth volume, whenever it will be published. This alone is not that much of a problem; Martin’s tapestry is so large that there is plenty of story to be told even within the remaining subset.
The real trouble is, he doesn’t tell that story for the first five hundred pages! Instead, we are treated to seemingly endless descriptions of heraldry; new viewpoint characters whose stories are definitely peripheral to the original story arc – and this is in a story that already has so many characters that it takes sixty pages of appendix just to list them, definitely posing problems for the poor reader trying to keep track of them all; and way too much scheming and talking rather than action. Very possibly a good half of this work could have been cut without losing any of the important story details, and the net result would have been a much stronger work, better paced, where anticipation of impending action could have been sustained until things actually start to happen, which is about the last one hundred pages of this.
That last hundred pages do a fair amount to redeem this volume, where things finally coalesce into definite story lines, and the complex interweave of characters, each with their own desires and schemes to get what they want, which was the overriding trait of the first three volumes, becomes evident again. Jamie at least starts to become an interesting person; Cersie, the person everyone loves to hate, looks like she may have boxed herself into a corner; Sansa, it appears, will be forced out of her safe cocoon and back into being a player in the game of thrones; Arya has, perhaps, the most interesting change in life style and circumstances.
If the fifth volume can maintain the pace and interesting events of the last one hundred pages of this work, the full story will be back on track as one of the best fantasies, ever. However, if it too gets bogged down in too much unnecessary detail and non-happenings, I think it will spell the end to this series, and volume six won’t be purchased by me at least.
Accelerando by Charles Stross
My Amazon Rating: 2 Star My Scale: 4.0
This book managed to come in second in this year’s Hugo Award voting. Unfortunately, I don’t think it deserved that kind of recognition.
This is another entry in the ‘hard’ sf sub-genre, one that has as its major point of focus the Vingeian Singularity, which assumes that technological progress is on an exponential slope that will eventually lead to a complete breakdown of civilization as we know it, being replaced by artificial intelligences that will consume all the physical resources of the solar system.
The book is episodic (which follows naturally from its roots as separate short stories), covering three generations of one family as the world moves from pre-Singularity to post-Singularity times. It also leads to the major problem with this book: none of the characters are particularly well-defined or explored in depth. Many of their reactions to the events of this book do not ring true, do not ring human. Of course, Stross may have been trying for exactly that impression – humans of this future world are not the humans of today. While it is interesting in an intellectual way to see how a normal human will morph into something of much greater thinking capacity as he becomes more and more wired up to external computers, and eventually can become a disembodied intelligence, what is lacking here is any emotional basis for believing in these people. The scientific ideas run rampant over the story and characters, and some of those ideas will be difficult for someone not versed in computer-speak to assimilate and understand, leading to some confusion about just what is really happening at various points in the story.
The ‘solution’ Stross offers to the Fermi paradox (if there are lots of aliens out there, where are they? Why have we seen no evidence of them or had any communications from them?) is plausible, and a lot of the ideas he so casually tosses around are intriguing and stimulating. But without a solid story and strong characters to work within this idea space, the book comes across as more of a scientific treatise than a novel.
Only one more hope left: Learning the World by Ken MacLeod, but I don’t have high expectations given what other reviewers have said about this one.