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A Look at Hugo Nominees, Part 4

Short stories can be read in one sitting. Often they slip from the brain as quickly as they slipped in. The greatest ones, though, can stick with a reader for a lifetime.

The short stories nominated this year are:

“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim–Clockwork doll people.

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde–An entity of some sort takes your coin and may or may not let you into a weird sort-of funhouse place.

“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min–The first sentient robot discovers fandom.

“The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata–a monument on Mars created by an architect on a dying Earth.

“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon–A grandmother gives a magic sword to a grandson.

“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse–Native Americans hire digital version of themselves out to tourists.

When I began this post, I had only read two of the stories. I have since read the other three.

Once again, we have a range, from literary to heroic fantasy to hard SF to AI to social commentary to fable. I note all of the short stories come from online zines: Tor, Uncanny, Apex, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, to be exact. All of them can be read, for free, by anyone. That has to be significant when it comes to Hugo nominations. Only the more dedicated fan, able to spend a little, will have read stories from F&SF, Asimov’s, or Analog, in time for Hugo nominations.

As much as I enjoy reading and voting, a part of me really doesn’t like awards. There is no “best” story, not even a “best” six stories. Any one of us can think of favorite authors and great stories that don’t make the cut. And the field of speculative fiction is the broadest of genres. To compare a high-quality hard SF story to a high-quality heroic fantasy is like comparing a robot to an animated doll. They have speculation in common, but are less similar than they appear.

That said, congrats to all finalists, including those in categories I haven’t discussed here.

 

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A Look at Hugo Nominees, Part 3

A novelette is defined as a work of prose between 7,500 and 17,500 words in length. In contrast to the novella, I have never been drawn to the novelette as a form. It seems to fall into a kind of nowhere-land between the read-in-one-sitting short story, and the deeper dive of the novella. That’s not to say I can’t like a novelette, just that I don’t seek them out. So, surprise surprise, I have read none of the following nominees.

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard–This is in the world of de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen. The novelette falls chronologically between the first and second novels, and involves magic infiltrating powerful houses in Paris. Whether or not this can be read as a stand-alone depends on which reviewer you read. I will give it a try.

“Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee–this is described as a distant future space opera, with an undercover agent uncovering a traitor, and finding a lost ship. Reading online reviews of this one gives me no idea, really, whether or not the story will be my cup of tea. I guess I’ll just have to read it.

“The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer–the protagonist/bot is an outdated model tasked with destroying a rather nasty-sounding pest. Self-aware, narrator AI seem to be a trend, but I’m not tired of it yet. Good thing, because I’m writing a story with one.

“A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad–a 3D printer with which our protagonist prints fake steaks. Food. Stories about food are good.

“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K. M. Szpara–Vampire horror. A vampire who is illegal because he is gay. I don’t claim to be a horror fan, but this one sounds promising.

“Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker–a serious-looking generation ship story about lost records, lost history, and music. Another one where I can’t gauge my reaction from the reviews.

What pops into my mind as I look these over is how different each seems from the others. In the category, we see several different subgenera of the field, namely space opera, sentient AI, effects of new technology, vampire horror, and generation ship drama.

I am in a race to finish all the writing nominees, and it’s going to be close!

 

 

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A Look at Hugo Nominees, Part 2

Novellas are a favorite of mine. Usually under two hundred pages, they don’t take forever to read. You don’t get bogged down. You do have time to get involved, though. It’s not in-and-out, like a short story. Novellas can be found in print and online periodicals, but increasingly can be bought as e-books. Because novellas are a favorite, I’m not as far behind as I am with Hugo-nominated novels.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells–I have read this one, and I recommend it. It is one of several recent works about self-aware AI. This particular entity calls itself Murderbot. It does have a murderous past, because that was the purpose it was designed for. That is not what it wants to be. “Murderbot” is also the subtitle of the novella. The full title is All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1). So it’s a series!

“And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker–This one, I haven’t read. Love the title, though. And, it’s a murder mystery! The title is tough to Google…it keeps wanting to route me to the Agatha Christie novel. I hate all forms of auto-correct.

Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor–I read the first Binti at Worldcon in Kansas City a couple years ago, because it was being discussed at a panel. Binti is a heroic young woman of great intelligence, the sort of person who is held back and is underestimated. I look forward to reading this installment.

The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang–I haven’t read this one. It is described as “silkpunk  fantasy.” This novella was released simultaneously with another, The Red Threads of Fortune, as a twin introduction to the Tensorate Series. According to the author, you can read these first two in either order. A third installment comes out this July. Silkpunk fantasy sounds like a fine idea to me.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire–A second installment of yet another novella series. I’ve read both installments. I’m intrigued by this series, because it’s different in concept from anything I’ve read, while seeming utterly familiar. It concerns a home parents can send their children to, specifically children who refuse–or can’t–live in the so-called real world, but who occasionally escape to other, more fantastic worlds. I’m tempted to say the premise sounds like the biography of the average science fiction or fantasy fan–hence its familiarity.

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey–I haven’t read this one. It is billed as an alternate history about feral hippos overrunning Louisiana bayous around the turn of the twentieth century. That sounds like a very good idea for a story, and I do like alternate histories.

So…four of the six novella finalists are part of a series. Novella series seem to be a thing these days, a thing I like. The effect of a novella series is different from that of a serialized novel, or a novel series. The individual novellas in these series tend to be kind of free-standing. You never pick up right where you left off, even if the story does have an over-arching plot. Sometimes the individual installments are in the same universe, but feature different characters or different locales. It all provides a rich, deep sojourn in the worlds these authors create.

Next: Novelettes.

 

 

 

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A Look at Hugo Nominees

In recent years I have become more aware than ever before how important it is to vote. I’m not talking about the election of public officials–the importance of that has always been obvious to me. But the Hugos, nominating and final voting…well, it has been so easy to make excuses.

My “To Be Read” pile is a chronic feature that has endured in my life from childhood onward. When it comes time to nominate for the Hugos, I have often read hardly anything from the eligible year. In recent years, I have made an effort to nominate something, because I want to do my part to prevent future Sad/Rabid Puppy outbreaks.

Then comes the final ballot. Publishers and artists have been wonderful in recent years about making stories and novels available for Worldcon members to read free of charge, but the texts only become available a few months prior to the voting deadline. It’s a lot, but I’m determined to read as much as I can.

Here’s where I’m at right now.

Novels:

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. Scalzi is always an easy read, so I am confident I will get to this one.

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been meaning to read this. I will.

Provenance, by Ann Leckie. This one is tougher. The book is in he same universe as her Ancillary universe, but is not a sequel to the trilogy, from what I can see. I read Ancillary Justice. I think I admired it more than I liked it. I haven’t gotten to the other two. Can I read this one as a stand-alone, without reading the other two? I’ll give it a try.

Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee. This one is clearly number two in a series, and I have not read the first. Sadly, its being second in a series makes it far less likely I’ll get to it.

Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty. It’s a science fiction mystery. OMG! I love mysteries. I must read it!

The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin. I read the first in the series, The Fifth Season, and I enjoyed that one tremendously. This is the third in the series. I have not read the second. Oh dear. I’ll do it if I can.

Conclusion: I think I’m in trouble with the novel category, because I haven’t read a single one. And it’s the third week of May.

Next post: novellas, novelettes, and short stories.

 

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Genre, for Better or Worse

Once upon a time, I looked at genre–the process of sorting storytelling into type–as a necessary evil of use primarily for marketing, and for organizing large bookstores, and for slapping rocket ship or detective logos on the spines of library books. I didn’t need genre labels. My taste was sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and omnivorous. I bragged I would read anything. I didn’t need genre labels. If it was good, then I wanted to read it

I’ve changed. I no longer view choosing-by-genre designations as narrow-minded and provincial. I remain open-minded in my tastes, but the older I get, the more I feel the need to match what I read or watch to my mood.

This turning point came a couple years ago during a vacation. By the time we’d made it from the airport to the hotel, had dinner and settled into our room, I was tired, physically and mentally. Didn’t feel like reading. Nothing on the hotel TV. My husband was looking at his iPad, so I looked at mine.

I stumbled upon a cozy mystery, Death in Paradise.

It hit the spot. Episodic TV mysteries like this one tickle the brain, but don’t tax it too much. We are given a beautiful locale and clever writing. Relationships between the regulars–the detectives and their allies–lean more toward humor than angst. We understand the murder victim to be a short-timer; we don’t get attached.

Unlike life, the people in mysteries live by the rules. Our detectives may be flawed characters, they may make mistakes, but they will do their job to the best of their ability. We can trust them.

I meander through genres, stopping to visit as I wish. Each offers something. When I’m hungry for new ideas, new ways about thinking about humanity and the future, science fiction is the go-to. It could be the fanciful solar system of Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, or the less fanciful but still stunning one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. I love certain kinds of fantasy, but sometimes Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is too active for me, and I want something more sedate. In a sense, every author is sui generis, and I like that too.

When I finish something, I am thrown into a bit of emotional crisis. What to read next? What to watch next? I scroll through my digital and paper libraries, sometimes spending as much time picking something as I would choosing a new sofa. Sometimes I pick the wrong thing, and have to abandon it. Sometimes I pick just right, and match my mood perfectly.

 

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A Cloak of Ambiguity

In The Invisibility Cloak, a short novel by Ge Fei (translated by Canaan Morse), Mr. Cui tries to improve his fortunes in life. The Kirkus review back-cover blurb describes our protagonist as a “likable loser,” a description I see as off the mark.

Mr. Cui is proud of his life. True, his sister, brother-in-law, best friend, and former wife view him as less than a winner. But Mr. Cui doesn’t embrace their views. He builds tube amplifiers for wealthy clients who want expensive, superior sound systems. Modern Beijing society doesn’t value his genius, but he sees that as an indictment of modern Beijing society, not of him.

His relationships are troubled and confused. His sister and brother-in-law want him to move out of an apartment they own. There appears to be some unfairness here, as the house his sister and brother-in-law are living in is a legacy from their mother, something which Mr. Cui ought to share in. Mr. Cui recognizes the unfairness, but does not dwell on it. Nor does he dwell on why they are doing what they do. He concentrates on getting enough money to avoid homelessness.

His relationship with his ex-wife is equally opaque. He is obsessed with the loss of her, but has little idea why she left him. His relationship with his best friend is equally unreciprocal. Mr. Cui is disappointed by his friend, but lets the behavior slide.

Mr. Cui is obsessed by his work with his beloved high-end audio equipment–unambiguous components, parts, wires, and tubes. Perhaps the clarity of his work brings him a clearer view of his wealthy clients than he could ever have of family and friends. He despises his clients–for their lack of musical taste, their pomposity, and for their disrespect for his skills.

Mr. Cui finally lands a job with a client he comes to like, but also fears. His experience with this client, and the client’s wife, promises to resolve some of the uncertainties of his life, and both succeeds and fails. For Mr. Cui, ambiguity must always triumph.

This is an odd story narrated by an unreliable protagonist. But it’s not Mr. Cui’s fault he’s unreliable. He can’t perceive what others hide from him, nor what he hides from himself. Throwing an invisibility cloak over large chunks of the world might be the only he could ever move forward.

I liked this book.

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Published by New York Review of Books-2016

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Not Scared to be SF

Speculative Fiction: some people don’t like the term. Don’t be chicken, they say. Call it science fiction, not speculative fiction, or worse, spec fic.

I’m not much for spec fix as a term; I believe we should pronounce entire words most of the time, rather than automatically shortening them. I do enjoy speculative fiction, both the term and the stuff itself, however. I’m not afraid to say I read science fiction, because I do. I also read fantasy, selected horror, mystery, and mainstream. I even read that stuff they call literature once in a while.

I divide my reading roughly between fiction its authors consider to be “real,” and fiction from authors who consciously depart from the real–in other words, speculative fiction. Speculative fiction includes science fiction, which in turn encompasses hard science fiction, anthropological, political and other fiction of the soft sciences, cyberpunk, steampunk, space opera, alternate history, new weird, utopian, dystopian, and time travel. Speculative fiction also includes fantasy, itself a term which takes in high fantasy, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, and fairy tales. Then you have the stuff that’s not quite real but not quite not: magical realism, slipstream, and whatever it is that Murakami does. (I like the term “not normal.”) I read all this stuff, and I have need of a term that includes all of them, that differentiates them from that other stuff.

The other stuff also has genres. Examples: literary, historical, mystery, police procedural, political thriller, war novel, spy novel, and romance. The other stuff might go by the umbrella term of realistic, or mimetic, fiction. If I throw the term speculative fiction into the wastebasket, what is my umbrella term for all the types of fantastic fiction I enjoy? Non-mimetic fiction? I don’t like it. Non-realistic fiction? I don’t like that either, for the obvious reason that no matter how far-out my science fictional or fantasy premise is, the human element needs to be dead-on realistic.

The only purpose even to discuss genre, to categorize literature, is so that you and I can have a discussion about the stuff we read. For that discussion to be sensible, we need some agreement between us of the meaning of the terms we are using. Here we run into some trouble. I have no confusion about how I choose to sort books out, but because everyone reads a book differently, different people categorize differently. For instance, people were all over the place with China Mieville’s The City and the City. It is categorized as crime fiction, weird fiction, police procedural, and it won fantasy awards, as well as the Hugo. I call it science fiction for reasons given in a previous post:

https://speculativemartha.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/science-fictio…any-other-name/ ‎

But does it matter if we don’t always know what genre to put a work in? Isn’t part of the problem–if you want to call categorizing fiction a problem–that authors are becoming ever more inventive and interesting in the combinations of genres they choose to include in a single work, thereby making the assignment of genre that much more difficult?

Endless Possibilities

Endless Possibilities

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