Reviewing The Hugo Nominees
A couple of months ago, I mentioned the Hugo award nominees. A post over at John Scalzi's blog reminded me that I'd been intending to write up something about each of the books nominated in the novel category. So here goes (everything here should be free from meaningful spoilers, I hope)...
Rainbow's End (Vernor Vinge)
This was the only novel nominee that I had read prior to seeing the list. I picked this book up whilst travelling late last year and read it over the space of a couple of days. I can't say I really enjoyed this book a lot, but I've also thought about it a fair bit since reading it, so the themes must have been interesting to my subconscious.
Normally I like books set in the near future that extrapolate within reason from our current society. This time, though, the characters annoyed me a bit. It almost seemed a bit formulaic (guy trying to rediscover his memories, has hidden past, etc). The ending felt very unsatisfying and I've subsequently seen a couple of reviews that talked about confusing viewpoints in the writing and I guess that could be part of it. On the other hand, the universe that the story is set in (which is Earth in 2025, so not too fantastic) gives a lot of food for thought. I should probably get over my wish for less disturbing protagonists and admit that as an attempt to entertain as a story, I found it wanting, but as a comment on society and what could happen if we pull this thread over here a little more, it's nicely done.
His Majesty's Dragon / Temeraire (Naomi Novik)
In my original post, I somewhat flippantly quipped that I preferred the US (Tor publisher's) title for this book (His Majesty's Dragon). Having now read the book (and one of the sequels), I would like to revise my answer and say that Temeraire is a truly appropriate name for the books. Temeraire is the main dragon character in the novel (you learn this very early on; I'm not spoiling anything, trust me) and the name certainly conveys the noble nature of the animal.
I loved this book, but I'm not sure it should win the Hugo. It feels a bit lightweight in some areas and Novik certainly does better in the sequel (I'm yet to read the third book in the series, but I'm looking forward to it). I am not usually a big fantasy fan, so I approached this book with some hesitation. I was wrong (as usual); thoroughly enjoyed it.
The books universe is well thought out — what if dragons participated in the Napoleonic War between England and France as a type of air-force, with pilots and crews as well? And what if the dragons were intelligent, vocal animals? Some of the consequences of the assumptions are nicely done: a dragon pilot is devoted to their animal and, as such, practically withdraws from normal society. Women can be pilots in an age where a woman's role is much less liberated than today. The idea of women in the armed forces (and women in pants!) is addressed throughout, with intelligence and humour.
My main gripe is that the main human protagonist gets away with far too much. He starts out as a captain in the British Navy and seems to think nothing of punishing his crew for expressing displeasure in a meeting (a week of no grog), yet, later, in reversed circumstances, he is overtly impolite and seems to not care about finding out what expected standards and normal behaviour might be. No problems there — flawed characters drive a story but this guy never seems to have to suffer any real consequences for his actions.
Partly because of the lack of any real disasters happening to the main character, it's a fun story. I read this book in an evening and went out to buy the sequel (The Jade Dragon) the next day and read that fairly quickly, too. My criticisms, above, of the first book are certainly corrected in the sequel. The poor protag starts out behind the eight ball and it only goes downhill from there for a large part of the novel. The second book is a better novel, I think, but I would recommend reading the first one first (it's not bad, I just think it could be better in places).
Eifelheim (Michael Flynn)
I had forgotten that I had read any Michael Flynn novels before until I noticed he had written Firestar, which is a book I re-read every couple of years. Firestar runs on it characters, rather than the science fiction features and Eifelheim is not too different in that respect.
This is probably the book I would pick to win the Hugo for best novel at the moment, although it may be not be "science fictioney" enough for some people.
What would happen if space aliens crash landed outside a small village in Germany in the 14th century? What is that village contained a priest who, whilst being very devout, had an enquiring mind and was trying to reconcile the emerging scientific discoveries of the age with his religion? Throw in a bunch of other well thought-out characters and it's not a dull historical or religious novel. Don't let my previous paragraph mislead anybody into thinking this book is a religious debate or sermon in any respects. I found it to be a well-written examination of the conflict between belief systems through the eyes of a 14th century priest and some interstellar visitors (who also have a lot to learn about the alternate beliefs).
In parallel with this 14th century tale, there is a parallel 21st century story covering an historian trying to discover why the village has disappeared from the map and his girlfriend who is making a plausible-sounding breakthrough about variable light speed. At times, I found the 21st century storyline a bit of a drag, at other times it was a welcome break from life in the village. So I think the author has probably found a good mix. I am always a sucker for pseudo-scientific-sounding theories like the one Sharon (the physicist girlfriend) pieces together. Overall, though, my impression is that this is a 14th century story with some bits from the future, rather than the other way around.
Recommended as something to read and think about. I wasn't able to read this quickly for some reason (it's not the big words or anything; my brain just need to absorb things slowly), but I'm glad I persisted.
Blindsight (Peter Watts)
I haven't quite finished this (a few dozen pages to go), but it's another good book. It's probably the most overtly "Hard Science Fiction" book of the bunch (I guess Glasshouse is also close, but it felt less fantastical in some ways).
One thing I sometimes find hard about big Science Fiction plots (not thick books; big stories in big worlds) is that it's like the German sentence from Hell. You have to store up a lot of details as they go by, enjoying the scenery and then slowly piece together what you've scene when the necessary threads are all available halfway through the book. It's like finally reaching the verb(s) at the end of a German sentence: you can pop off all the subjects and qualifiers and work out who's talking about doing what). A lot of good novels of this form then give the reader a period of enjoying their hard work as they go for another ride along the narrative that is consistent with the model in their head. The last portion is good entertainment, rather than a puzzle.
Blindsight does it well. It's not necessarily an easy book to read, but the characters are varied enough and interesting enough to interact with each other through the book. The lack of knowledge we (the reader) have at the start does not hamper the storyline, but many things make more sense as you work out how the world works.
Probably not a good choice for My Very First SF Book, but recommended for fans of the genre.
Glasshouse (Charles Stross)
I'm sorry, I really am. I've tried hard to like this book. Charles Stross seems like an important author and I enjoyed Accelerando, one of his earlier novels. But I haven't been able to persist with Glasshouse through to the end and I've tried a few times.
The premise sounds sort of good, particularly the location choice: put people from the far future into an experiment that simulates late-20th century Earth life. I just haven't been able to like many of the characters and there's a lot of conflict from these fish out of water (in the 20th century environ), so the book doesn't fill me with happiness when I read it. The sort of detective-novel style of plot, with somebody or more than one somebody keep trying to kill the main character and he/she — sexual choice can change in this future — has their work cut out a bit trying to get through the experiment without it all ending very prematurely, adds some suspense to the story. Unfortunately, that doesn't outweigh my emotional reaction to the fine details of the story.
Maybe one day I'll be in the right mood to enjoy Glasshouse. Maybe it truly is a great novel. Right now, for me... not so much.
Except for my current dislike of Glasshouse and initial dislike of Rainbow's End, these are all good books. On an entertainment level, I easily enjoyed Temeraire the most. If I had to rank them in order of worthiness for a major Science Fiction/Fantasy prize, I guess Blindsight, then Eifelheim, then Temeraire, although the second two are pretty neck-and-neck.
One comment about buying all these: Australian book shops should be ashamed! I checked out a couple of large book shops in my local area and in Sydney City proper and none of them had all of these books in their not-insignificant SF/Fantasy sections. Thankfully, Galaxy came through (again) and I was able to walk in, spend an hour or so happily browsing the shelves and pick up all the Hugo nominees in one hit (along with Scalzi's Last Colony and three Scott Westerfeld books I want to try out, since Risen Empire was excellent when I read it recently).