Thursday, September 26, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1965 The Wanderer

Fritz Leiber
Read 2/2013, reviewed 4/13/2013
2 stars

This is disaster porn at its best.  It reads like an Irwin Allen or Roland Emmerich script.  The story line has a planet suddenly appearing the orbit of the moon, disrupting the earth by its gravitational force.  There are a few major characters who have major plotlines.  In addition, there are lots of minor characters with lots of disparate subplots.  There are so many characters, I could easily see it as a poster for a 70’s disaster film with the line of stars headshots at the bottom, like Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and Airport. 

I liked the basic premise.  However, the execution eventually just became boring.  Its appeal is mostly to my love of disaster porn films. 

I had a love/hate relationship with Tigerishka, the alien.  She was too cartoonish.  The name itself is too hokey.  The characterization was obviously an anthropomorphism of the basic housecat:  sexy, devious, toying with her prey.  To me, it is the big mistake of the hack science fiction writer.  Leiber creates an alien based on human experience and interpolation of a similar creature, here, the housecat.  It assumes an extrapolation from an earth creature, rather than the result of an extraterrestrial evolution.  I find this to be just trite.  There are other examples of where it works much better:  Nessus and Speaker-to-Animals in Ringworld.  Yet I still liked Tigerishka, particularly the development of her relationship with Paul. 

I liked the science of the book:  the destruction of the moon and the geophysical disruption of the earth.  I actually thought the disaster descriptions could have been more extreme.  And given our world’s recent experience with major phenomena like the 2004 Indonesian and 2010 Japanese earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanism in the past few decades, if this book were written now, it would probably have reflected more devastation.  As an example, compare the disaster sci-fi of the 50s and 60s with the Emmerich films “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012.”

I gave the book 2 stars because that seems to be the average rating of just about all disaster porn movies.  Kudos for effects, boos for the soapiness.

Hugo Winner Review: 1964 Way Station

Clifford D. Simak
Read 3/2013, reviewed 4/13/2013, updated 9/26/2013
5 stars

Okay, so if you read many of my reviews, you’ll notice that my biggest problem is that I find it difficult to put together cohesive thoughts for books I love, especially when I began writing reviews in April of 2013.  “Way Station” was one of the first books in my Hugo quest that moved so deeply that I didn’t want to leave it.  It’s been a while since I’ve read it and can’t really add to the review with much more insight.  So I’ll just let you read my original text and let you revel in my stream of conscience gush:

I loved this book.  I loved the main character, Enoch.  I loved the deaf-mute neighbor girl.  I loved the plot, that Enoch is the custodian of a Way Station for travelling aliens.  I loved his interaction with the aliens.  I was totally enrapt by the government spying and conspiracy.  I was emotionally gripped by the struggle to keep the white trash neighbors away and to keep the deaf-mute girl safe.  And OMG, what an ending! 

I can’t describe my excitement about this book in any other way.  It totally entranced me.  This is what great fiction, and great science fiction, should be. 

I had a taste of Simak when I read his novelette, “The Big Front Yard.”  It also won a Hugo.  Out of the Volume 1 Hugo Winners collection, it was my favorite.  Way Station has the same feel of a gorgeous, peaceful landscape with an isolated home, occupied by a simple man with a wild secret.  His writing style just draws you into his setting and into immediate empathy with his main characters.  The science is not that hard, but it’s not as relevant as the fact that the peaceful existence of a simple person is being disrupted in some amazing way. 

When I am done with the Hugo winners, I will definitely read more books by Simak!  This is a 5 star book! 

Hugo Winner Review: 1963 The Man in the High Castle

Philip K Dick
Completed around 4/5/2013, reviewed 4/13/13.
3 stars

SPOILER ALERT!  This review contains a spoiler to the ending.  DO NOT READ this if you intend to read the book.

I enjoyed this book.  It was a great example of an alternative universe novel.  The plot takes place in a universe where the WWII axis powers have one.  The US, was well as other nations, are divided between Germany, Japan, and Italy, with a few neutral exceptions.  The story follows several interconnected characters who are exposed to a book about an alternative universe where the Allies won.

I loved the alternative universe within the alternative universe device.  I was confused, though, at the great reveal at the end.  HERE'S THE SPOILER ALERT:  Juliana Frink and the book’s author reveal that the book is the truth, not the reality around them.  I found this to be highly confusing.  My only thought was that at that point, the characters are made self-aware, that they are merely characters in a book about an alternative universe.  I’m not sure this is correct, but that’s how I read it.

My only problem was the grammar of the narration by the Japanese characters, and the speaking of the American characters in the Japanese accent.  It made it occasionally difficult for me to follow. 

I give this book 3 stars because while I thought it was a great universe, I found the characters all a bit boring.  As described in another blog, the book well describes the despair of being a conquered people.  But I think that is what made them a bit boring.  Once I met the characters, I wasn’t really interested in what else happened to them.  I was distracted by all the subplots which did not follow the journey of Juliana.

Hugo Winner Review: 1962 Stranger In a Strange Land

Robert A. Heinlein
Completed Feb 2013, reviewed 4/13/2013
3 stars

I enjoyed this book, but I’m not sure if I actually liked it.  I liked the basic premise: a human, Valentine Michael Smith, born and raised on Mars by Martians comes back to Earth and becomes a new Messiah.  The writing was good; it kept my interest and kept me reading.  My biggest problem with the book was that it felt like two very different books mashed together.  The first “book” is a chase, trying to free and hide the human Martian.  The second half is an in-your-face polyamorous hippie commune-based messiah story.  At times, I found the long dialogues arguing and supporting the polyamorous society to be not much more than well-written propaganda.  And there’s quite a style difference between the two halves.

From my research, I've found that it was quite shocking when it was first published.  I am a little perplexed that this book is now located in the young adult fiction section at the library.  While not shocked by the polyamory, I find it amazing that our conservative vocal minority, even in my liberal town, doesn't meet nightly at libraries with torches, ready to burn the book, or at least keep it out of the young adult section.

All of Heinlein’s books can be seen as, in some way or another, simply essays on war, libertarianism and polyamory.  But Heinlein does it so well!  If the book weren't so well written, I wouldn't have given it the stars I did.

Of course, the female characters never seem to make it above being secretaries or supporting wives.  At least they were a little more fleshed out than Starship Troopers or Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  This is most evident with Gillian Boardman, a nurse who discovers and rescues Valentine Smith from the government, starts out as a strong woman in the first half of the book, but her character’s strength dissipates in the second half.  The homophobia and racial slurs also caused me trouble.  As usual, I have to step back and realize who wrote it and when.

I really love that in all three of these books, Heinlein uses the device of the old smart man.  In Moon and Troopers, he’s a professor.  Here he’s an old writer/lawyer/doctor, kind of a Deus ex machina, all-wise and compassionate, having tons of money, and getting the main characters out of trouble.  I liked him more than Smith, who almost becomes a caricature by the end. 

I gave the book 3 stars.  Because it is so well written, I wanted to give it 4, but I knocked off a star for the significant change in writing style between each half of the book, for how he just had to put down gays and other minorities, and for turning all the strong women into Ivory Soap Girls.

WOGF: Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Completed 9/25/2013, Reviewed 9/26/2013
5 stars

Shortly after beginning my personal challenge to read all the Best Novel Hugo winners, I read a collection of essays by Isaac Asimov on SF.  In many of the essays, he referred to “Frankenstein” as the first SF novel.  So when I began the Women of Genre Fiction 2013 Challenge, I saw it as a wonderful excuse to read “Frankenstein.”  Initially, I was nervous.  In my youth, I never enjoyed reading classic literature.  I usually found I couldn't stay focused on lengthy, rambling, descriptive prose.  And besides, who talks like that?  So I avoided classic lit for many, many years.  To my surprise, “Frankenstein” completely changed my mind.

The joy of “Frankenstein” is the prose.  It is a delight to read.  Rather than fighting the prose, I found myself wrapped in it like a warm blanket.  Modern posers like Michael Chabon should take a lesson from “Frankenstein” in how to use description in a more organic, less pompous way. 

The copy I borrowed from the library contained essays and critical analysis of the book.  The analyses regularly reference an original manuscript of the story that still exists, though not complete.  It shows that Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy, edited the original text for her, making hundreds of changes to her word choices.  Apparently, her text is rawer, more Anglo-Saxon.  His changes Latinized her language.  I was horrified.  It was afraid that what I loved was Percy’s editing rather than the Mary original work. 

To ease this cognitive dissonance, I had to step back, and realize that it shouldn't matter.  I’m not  on a scholarly quest.  I had to take the book on face value and allow myself to enjoy the pleasure I had in reading it.  Percy-fied or not, Mary Shelley wrote an amazing story and I can revel in it.

Another technical note about the book is that I read the 1818 version.  In 1931, a second edition was printed, with Mary making drastic changes to the text.  Based on the analyses, I’m glad I chose the 1818 edition.  (You’ll have to read some of these understand all the differences).  However, someday, I’d like to read both the 1831 edition, and what remains of the original manuscript and then re-read some of the analyses comparing the texts. 

As you will always hear, the book is nothing like any of the movie versions ever made.  The book is about fear, guilt, and wretchedness.  It is not hard SF; there is no laboratory, no electricity, no hunchbacks.  The creature is borne of un-described chemistry.  There is obsession and remorse.  There is innocence and anathema.  This is my type of SF.  It’s about the relationships and fortunes of the people as a result of the science.    

One of the most interesting essays in this edition noted how easy it is to overlay any theme on the book:  feminism, homophobia, etc.  I found myself reflecting on the bullying and hatred I endured in middle and junior high school, and the outright maliciousness of high school classmates.  Like the monster, I perpetuated the bullying by abusing others, rather than breaking the cycle of abuse.  Unlike the monster, I did not consciously choose to be abusive.  But maybe that’s part of the moral of this theme.  Hate begets hate; abuse begets abuse; something must die for transformation to occur.

I also found the theme of the nature of god rummaging around in my mind.  Certainly, there are the comparisons to Prometheus and Adam.  But I considered the nature of humanity, the fact that evil exists and we are condemned to live with it.  What did humans do to deserve such evil?  Catechism teaches us that it is the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, that God really does love but we brought this upon ourselves.  So if God is omniscient, why would it have created us if in its omniscience, it already knew we would sin and have to suffer through life.  Is this love, or is it abuse?  The monster’s despair is the existential crisis resulting from this conflict.  God is flawed, God has abandoned us, God hates us, and ultimately, God is dead.  The monster receives no salvation, no relief from his wretched state, and is condemned to die in despair.  That is the horror of this story.

Okay, enough heaviness.  “Frankenstein” is a great read whether you see deeper meanings in it or not.  The characters are amazing, the plot is tight, and the twists, exciting.  And despite the wretchedness of the main characters and the horror it induces, I was moved by its beauty whenever I sat down and opened the book.  This is a 5 star book.

If you are interested in reading this edition with the essays and analyses, here’s the info: “Frankenstein: the 1818 text, contexts, nineteenth-century responses, modern criticism;” edited by J. Paul Hunter, New York: WW Norton, c.1996, a Norton critical edition.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1960 Starship Troopers

Robert A Heinlein
Read 2/2013, reviewed 4/13/2013
3 stars

This book is exactly the reason I don’t enjoy war novels.  It’s filled with descriptions that I can’t relate to.  It contains military slang I don’t understand, and situations that I wouldn't put myself in, physically or intellectually. 

The book is well written, as is everything I've read by Heinlein.  From my browsing through the internet, it’s apparently the standard by which all novels of this genre are judged.  But I just didn’t enjoy it. 

Like all his novels, though, I love and hate his political and social soapbox scenes.  He writes them so well.  Usually, while I may not necessarily agree with him, like the poly-amorous structures in "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and "Stranger in a Strange Land," I can buy into it being a premise of the novel.  Here, however, the constant proselytizing of war becomes offensive.  That and the fact that only veterans can vote becomes too much to take.

I give this book three stars because it is written well.  But I just didn’t like it.  Having read quotes by critics in Wikipedia (assuming they are true), I agree that the main character Rico is just a sounding board for Heinlein’s politics and philosophy.  There’s no characterization here.   He’s just an automaton of a military industrial complex that glorifies war and deifies soldiers.  I think I would have hated being Heinlein’s wife.

Oh yeah, and the book was better than the movie.

Hugo Winner Review: 1959 A Case of Conscience

James Blish
Read 2012, reviewed 4/22/2013, updated 9/25/2013
4 stars

This is one of my favorite types of SF: a study of religion/theology in a futuristic context.  A priest has to decide if a race of intelligent aliens have souls.  The beginning and end of this book deal specifically with this theme, and they are the best parts of the book. 

I loved the whole question of the religious establishment determining whether or not aliens are part of  God’s creation.  Are they also made in God’s image?  Are they washed in the same Original Sin as us?  Do they require redemption?  Does a Church have the right to determine this?  It made me think about pop SF films like the original film version of “War of the Worlds,” where a minister walks towards one of the Martian ships with a Bible in his hand ready to spread the Gospel.  It also called to mind the emphasis on God and the religious terrorist in “Contact.”  Is this how we’ll react when we finally find out we are not alone?

The middle part is odd.  One of the aliens becomes a new messiah who is just the toast of the town.  At one point, there’s a party for the alien with a roller coaster-type ride which is just plain weird.  It’s like a deconstruction of the Masque of the Red Death.  A group of decadent people are at a party, and there is a device to get us through a bunch of rooms with odd scenes.  I didn’t get it.  However, I loved the contradiction of a new messiah who may not have soul.  Does this mean he’s the Antichrist?  Could the Antichrist be an alien?

As much as I loved the book, I couldn’t give it 5 stars because of the weird middle, even though I was quite moved by the book in general.  I settled on 4.  In retrospect, this book was probably initially published in a magazine and the three parts were the issue divisions.  This book is on my reread list.  I’m hoping that a reread will make the parts I find incongruous a little clearer.  

It should also be noted that it is almost a year between my reading of the book and this review.  I’m responding mostly to memory of my reaction to the book.  I am trying to avoid relying too much on other people’s synopses and reviews and giving my opinion without outside influence.

Hugo Winner Review: 1958 The Big Time

Fritz Leiber
Read 2012, reviewed 4/22/2013
2 stars

I didn't get this book.  There were many things about it I could recognize and react to.  A group of people are locked in a room and philosophize on what’s going on outside.  In our case, outside is a war where time travel is used in an attempt to change the course of history.  The scenario reminded me of Sartre’s "No Exit," or Genet’s "The Balcony."  In the end, though, I just didn’t get it. 

What I got most out of the book is the concept that other reviewers refer to in their synopses and reviews, the conservation of time.  It says that when the past is changed, time will do as much as it can to have the minimum effect on future events.  It’s a fun concept, and having a war to change the past enough to have a substantial effect on the present is brilliant. 

I also agree that this would have made a great play.  I think it would have told the story better, and would have been a better philosophical soap box.

I enjoy existentialism and the absurd, but I was often distracted while reading the novel.  I found myself drifting away, and suddenly not realizing who was even speaking.  This may be one to put on the re-read list, just to see if I get it better the second time.

2 stars.  I reviewed this book about a year after reading it. Perhaps another reason to re-read this book: so I can review it again, but a little less sketchily.

Hugo Winner Review: 1956 Double Star

Robert A. Heinlein
Read 2012, reviewed 4/22/2013
4 stars

This was the first Heinlein I’d read since Starship Troopers in college.  I loved it.  I was excited that I loved it.  It redeemed Heinlein for me and gave me hope that he wasn't always trying to expound on his belief systems in his novels.  

Writing this review after reading the rest of his Hugo winning novels, I realized that his larger works simply seem to be novelizations of his very strong philosophies.  "Double Star" is different.  It has an accessible story, and he sticks to it.  He doesn't go on for pages and pages building arguments.  The story is a common one; if not already trite at publishing time, it has become trite in the succeeding years.  The difference is that it is written really well, and in an SF context.  A powerful leader becomes ill and his cronies find someone to impersonate him.  Here, the powerful leader is an interplanetary politician with lots of enemies. 

The character arc is great.  Of course, the impersonator, Lawrence Smith, first resents being asked to do this, then is fearful for his life, and inevitably accepts his role.  The joy of this book is Smith’s journey through the arc. 

When I described to my partner how much I loved this book, he recommended I read a collection of Heinlein’s short stories.  After I finish this Hugo challenge, I want to read them.  I’m guessing that his short stories are more like Double Star than his later novels.

I gave this book 4 stars.  Since consciously deciding to read all the Hugos, this was the first SF novel which felt like what the winners were supposed to be.  And it is my favorite type of SF:  character studies in a futuristic or fantastical environment.  The details of the science are not as important as the characters, their relationships with each other, and their interaction with the SF/fantasy context.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1955 The Forever Machine

1955 The Forever Machine (aka They’d Rather Be Right)
Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
Read 2012, reviewed 4/22/2013, revised 9/24/2013
Rating:  1 star

This is one of the first books I read when I formally decided to read all the Hugo winners, but well before I decided to write my own reviews.  So my memory of specifics is a little shaky.  What I do remember is my emotional response to this book.  I was very disappointed.

I read this book after The Demolished Man, and thought that there was fan-orientation toward voting for books about ESP, or psi.  I thought this orientation was the only way this book could win, because it was soooooo badly written.  As with other co-authored books I’ve read, I could definitely tell when the author had changed.  It was usually when the writing went from bad to worse and back to just plain bad.  This being the second Hugo winner, I for some reason expected it to be great.  I mean, really, this was the time of great science fiction, right?  Instead, it was a terrible experience.

To be honest, there were times when I started to get into the plot, but then there’d be a change in writing style and I’d become disoriented. 

What I didn’t know while I read this book was that it was a front for Dianetics.  I thought the basic premise of the book was original:  a specific type of mental therapy using an AI device programmed by geniuses can free you of your issues and make you young, beautiful, and immortal.  I could buy the science fiction of it.  I could willingly suspend disbelief.  What I couldn’t do was accept this as someone’s propaganda for a religion (or philosophy or cult, whatever you want to call it). 

As I will illustrate in future reviews, I love SF and fantasy that explores, critiques and plays with theology and religion, as found in the books of Roger Zelazny and James Blish.  I can even appreciate and enjoy books which promote the author’s philosophies like the free-love cults in Heinlein’s works.  What I don’t like is being suckered into a story that’s a propaganda front for religion.

I originally gave this book 2 stars, but dropped it down to one when I discovered the premise was not original.  The one star is for the few parts that worked for me: the action sequences, the applying of the therapy, and scenes involving the hiding of the patient.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hugo Winner & WOGF Review: 1992 Barrayar

1992 Barrayar
Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 9/22/2013, Reviewed 9/23/2013
Rating:  4 stars

Cordelia is a war hero from Beta Colony and pregnant.  She is married to Aral Vorkosigan, an admiral from Beta Colony’s former enemy, Barrayar.  The admiral becomes regent for the child emperor, plunging the couple and their unborn child into constant danger from coup and assassination attempts.  Full of political intrigue, plot twists, and delicious humor, Bujold delivers a fine example of what a great space opera should be.

The book is told in Cordelia’s voice.  This in itself is a great choice.  Being a woman and a Betan, she is an outsider to the male-dominated maelstrom that is Barrayar politics.  She brings a clear, critical voice to the events into which she is thrust.  She has a wry and wicked sense of humor which you sometimes hear in her thoughts as well as in her conversations.  In fact, most of the really dark comedy comes from the retorts in her head.  I think if this story were told solely from a male Barrayaran perspective, it may not have been nearly as interesting, clever, or exciting.    

Barrayar is one of approximately 18 books in the Vorkosigan saga.  Initially, I was concerned that I hadn’t read any of the previous novels, though I was aware there was only one earlier novel directly related to Cordelia.  Still, there’s a part of me that has a hard time not reading all the preceding novels in a series.  In fact, I had to stare at Wikipedia’s discussions of internal chronological order vs. publishing order to convince myself I could read Barrayar before The Vor Game, Bujold’s previous Hugo winner from the series. 

Regardless of the order, Barrayar stands as a great book on its own.  I found the character development to be nearly perfect.  This is often one of my big beefs in literature, and particularly in space operas.  Too much development and not enough page time, too many characters and not enough development, and so on.  Instead, I found myself growing to like all the characters, even the crazy and whiny ones.

My one problem with the book, and I’m sure I’ll have this with the other books in the saga, is the Vor prefix on the names of the upper class families.  It’s a great concept, but, particularly with secondary characters, it makes for a lot of potential confusion.  Fortunately, I was able to sort out most of them.  And many of the supporting characters are not Vor___, so that helped. 

Another problem I had was my own inner dialogue as I was deciding on the number of stars to assign.  I had to fight with my own prejudices about soap operas.  I had to keep clear in my head that just because the story is told from the point of view of a woman and deals with love, relationships, pregnancies, and children, doesn’t mean this is a soap opera.  Sure, it’s a space opera.  But it is also a realistic commentary on the brutality of war and the futility of a society that’s not much different than the one we live in today.  It happens to be told from a woman’s perspective, and that’s what helps it rise above pack.  Once I cleared my own perceptions, I realized I couldn’t give this anything less than 4 stars.  Having read “Barrayar,” I look forward to Bujold’s three other Hugo winners.

Friday, September 20, 2013

What Does 5 Stars Mean?

I thought I’d share a little about how my rating system works. 

My system is based on a 4 star system, where 4 was excellent and 1 was pretty bad.  I often used half stars as well.  On this star system, I had a special ranking, 5 stars, for excellent books that “changed my life.”  By this I mean that it moved me emotionally in some profound way.  While reading them, I would go to a warm place inside that felt so good to rest in, whether it made me happy or sad.  Some excellent books include Brin’s The Uplift War, Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, and LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.  These would all get 4 stars.  Excellent books that changed my life include LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness,” Miller’s A Canticlefor Leibowitz, and Willis’ The Doomsday Book.  These would get 5 stars. 

As for the lesser stars, 3 would be a very good book.  I’ve used these when I liked a book, but had several issues with it.  A typical use for 3 stars would be when a complexly structured book succeeds with some of the narratives and characters, but not on others.   I‘ll assign 2 stars for a book I would just call good.  If you asked me for a recommendation, I’d probably not think of this book.  A typical case for assigning a 2 would be a book that reads like disaster porn (Imagine reading the novelization of “Earthquake” or “Airport ’75) or a tedious noir.  (Yeah, I’m not a big fan of noir).   Finally, 1 star would be a bad book.  I think I've only awarded 1 star once so far.  I'll post that review soon.

If something was practically unreadable, I would give it ½ star, just so that the low score gets averaged into World Without End’s rating system.  So far in the past year and a half, I would have only given out one ½ star, for Martin Millar’s “The Good Fairies of New York” (no WWE link available).  I was close to putting that one down before finishing it.

Since the World Without End site lets you rate books on a 5 star system, I’m keeping mine.  I’m going to avoid using half stars, like 2 ½ and 3 ½.  Only a no star rating will be translated to ½ a star.  I was a little concerned that I would be skewing the WWE ratings because my 5 does not mean excellent.  But if I changed mine to a system where 5 were excellent, how would I account for those special few like “Leibowitz” and “Doomsday?”  It's a little like being in a metal band and needing an amplifier that goes up to 11!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Hugo winner review: 1996 The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson
Competed 7/8/2013, Reviewed 9/19/2013
Rating: 3 stars

Set in a dystopian future with a caste society of neo-Victorians, cyberpunk, and drummers(?!),The Diamond Age introduces the idea of nanotechnology being used to make one a more fully realized person.  It is the relationship between a young girl, an actor, and one such device, the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, that makes this book a good read.

I really liked the main character Nell.  I loved watching her develop from a child into an adult with the Primer.  The Primer incorporates its user, Nell, with her environment to create a series of learning programs and puzzles to help her understand and get through life.  What thickens the plot is that there is also a live person, involved behind the scenes of the Primer.  Miranda is an interactive movie actor, or ractor.  She is the live voice among the various AI characters and scenarios of the Primer.  Through the Primer’s puzzles and stories, Nell and Miranda both become obsessed about the other, without ever really knowing for sure who each other is.  The progress of this relationship is an intense roller coaster ride as Miranda helps guide Nell through some harrowing life experiences.  I think this concept is amazing, and loved the excitement of it.

Of less interest to me was the pursuit of the Primer by its creator.  John Hackworth never seems fully realized.  His sole dimension is that he is a sad sack who makes a lot of bad choices.  I never empathized with him, I never really cared.  This I found frustrating because his story is the second main plotline of the book. 

And a review of this story isn’t complete without mentioning the drummers.  They are a bizarre underground cult whose primary function is to drum and have orgies.  (Uh-oh, this paragraph is going to be deleted when I submit it to the my library’s website review database!)  This was so bizarre.  It felt forced and incongruous.  It just kind of appears and you think to yourself, “Where the heck did this come from and why is it necessary?”  It was like Stephenson was trying to create an homage to Heinlein’s free love cult stories, but wasn’t able to figure out how to really do it, and plopped it into the middle of this story.

In general, I have not enjoyed most cyberpunk stories.  I often feel I lose the plotlines and excitement because I have to muddle through the technology.  However, I thought the nanotechnology here was interesting.  Perhaps it seemed a little more organic to me.  Or maybe I’ve just read enough cyberpunk that I’d gotten a little more accustomed to or less put off by it.  Perhaps it was the more steampunk nature of the story that made it more interesting.  I think ultimately, it was the intensity of the relationship between Nell and Miranda through the Primer that made the nanotechnology more palatable and interesting. 

Although this book is classified as cyberpunk around the web, I felt it had more of a steampunk feel to it, even though there was no steam.  This may be due to the fact that the upper class had a creepy neo-Victorian aesthetic.   And they used dirigibles.  I therefore am coining a new genre for this book: Victorian-nanopunk. 

I think I could have given “The Diamond Age” four stars if I could have just cared more about Hackworth and if the drummer sequences were less incongruous.  So it ends up with three stars.  I would still highly recommend this book as a good and interesting read.

WOGF: Redemption in Indigo

Karen Lord
Completed 9/13/2013, Reviewed 9/19/2013
Rating:  5 stars

This delightful fairy tale was a wonderful tonic for me after reading a tedious 600 page space opera.  The author uses an oral storyteller format.  While some authors turn this into an annoyance, Karen Lord uses it to create a magical feeling of being gathered around a fire in the center of a rustic village with the town storyteller gracing us with a parable of love, gluttony, chaos, and redemption.

The story takes place in a world subtly, and occasionally dramatically, manipulated by the “djombi,” the undying ones.  The main character is Paama, a woman who has left her gluttonous husband and receives a talisman that gives her the power of chaos.    A particularly powerful djombi wants this power.  Paama and the djombi travel through space and time learning from each other about this power, the nature of good and evil, and the nature of being human. 

Paama is a wonderful character.  She approaches her challenges with strength and pragmatism, but remains open and teachable.  I immediately fell in love with her.  As she interacts with the cast of colorful supporting characters, and finally the powerful djombi, I couldn’t help hoping she would come out on top.  I also loved Paama’s husband, despite being so flawed.  I think it is a tribute to her narrative style that I could find him despicable and yet feel immense empathy for him.  Despite being such a short book, Lord creates all her characters, no matter how minor, with the depth and simplicity.

I loved the many scenes with other djombi.  It’s quite fun watching them interact with and subtly manipulate the humans.  Lord’s storytelling creates such an awe-filled world that when you encounter the first scene between a djombi and a human, you accept it as a normal daily occurrence and giggle with the comedy it creates. 

The trickster, a spirit who pops up in many cultures, has a large role in this story too.  Some of the best scenes have the trickster appearing as a large spider, sitting at a bar and casually interacting with humans. 

“Redemption in Indigo” put me in an incredible place.  It affected me as only a few books recently have, such as “Dreamsnake” and “Left Hand of Darkness.”  I cared about the characters, loved the world she created, regretted the book had ended, and wanted to make everyone around me read it.   

I have to note that I’m grateful I was able to get someone else to read it.  Fortunately, Judi, my mother-in-law, read the book and happened to say, “I did not expect that ending.”  At first I thought I knew what she meant, but then I realized I must have missed something.  After a few minutes, I asked, “What did you mean you didn’t expect it?”  When she answered, it made the story even that much more amazing.  Of course, I won’t give the ending away in this review.  Suffice it to say I was a little thick, and it made me want to read the book again to see if I missed anything else.

I read this book for the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction challenge.  It was my random pick, only having noticed it in the WWE home page random reads.  I had no idea what to expect.  The result is I have read another five star book.  I do not give out such a rating lightly.  If I think a book is great, I give it four.  I only give five if a book moves me in some profound way, or evokes a deep emotional response.  “Redemption in Indiogo" is one of these rare books.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1953 The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester
Read 2012, Reviewed 4/22/2013, Updated 9/17/2013
Rating:  3 stars

This was the first novel I read when I decided to read all the Hugos.  I had already read some winners, but this book was the first one where I consciously had chosen to read the rest.  This being the first, for some reason, I was expecting the ultimate SF novel.  I was rather disappointed.

This book reflects the state of science fiction in the 50s.  It is distributed by virtue of magazines, because regular publishers weren't producing SF.  So the stories had to be shorter, easily divided between multiple issues, and therefore have enough action to make you want to buy the next issue the finish the story. 

It mixes the noir detective with the ESP or esper genre.  It’s dark, fast-paced and engrossing, but unsatisfying.  You know the bad guy’s gonna get caught, the question is just how.  And through most of the book, I was waiting for something dramatic, but it never really came. 

There were two aspects which I did enjoy.  First was the way Bester translated communication between espers.  Sometimes I find playing with text formatting to convey meaning annoying, but here is was fun.  Second was the party the main character attends to apprehend the killer.  At first I was put off by the party and the game of sardines.  After finishing the book, I realized it made me think of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.  Specifically, it was the description of the house where the party was held, its rooms, and the macabre nature of the party game.

In writing (and polishing) this review more than a year after reading the book, I’ve noticed that the decadent party is a recurring theme among the Hugos.  I wonder if this is an homage to Poe, or a reflection of the parties of the upper and/or bohemian classes so often recreated in the films from and of the 50s and 60s.  Perhaps it is a vision of the lifestyles of rich and alternative people extrapolated beyond the decadence of the post-war era.

I’m going to stop here, because I've lost many of the details of the book to time.  I gave this book three stars because I realize this was decent SF., especially for the environment within which it was produced.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1993 A Fire Upon The Deep

Vernor Vinge
Completed 9/10/2013, reviewed 9/16/2013
Rating:  3 stars

The back cover of the paperback edition of this book contains a quote praising this as a great space opera.  I’d heard the term.  I knew “Star Wars” was considered a space opera, but I wasn't exactly sure of the definition.  I did some reading of sources on the net to find one.  To my surprise, the definition is fluid.  It has been changing, evolving, going from a derogatory term to definition of a legitimate sub-genre.  Reviewing the list of Hugo winner’s I've read, and having done some preliminary scanning of reviews of those I haven’t, it appears to me that the ‘90s were the decade of the space opera Hugos.  "A Fire Upon The Deep" is one of these books.

The novel is complex, weaving multiple plots with multiple narratives.  There are two main plots.  The first is the survival of children marooned on a planet whose sentient race is a dog-like creature.  Called Tines, they have many of the characteristics of Earth dogs, but their sense of personhood is only complete when multiple individuals come together as a pack of four to eight dogs.

This plotline is great.  It’s imaginative and exciting.  There are many great characters: the two children Jeffri and Johanna, and the some of the Tines, Peregrine, Woodcarver, Scriber.  These characters are threatened by the deliciously evil Flenser and Steel, who are trying to overthrow the existing order with an army bred for aggression and obedience.    

In the second plotline, a rescue mission is launched on the heels of the potential destruction of the galaxy by an evil man-made entity called “The Blight.” It introduced the very interesting Skroderiders, a plant like sentient being that communicates and is mobile because of a computer/vehicle it rides on.  And the main humans are fairly interesting, Ravna and Pham.  These two humans and two Skroderiders take up the mission on the ship, the Out Of Bounds II, to save the children. 

I’d call this a penultimate space opera:  marooned children, a civil war, the destruction of the galaxy.  There’s a massive chase scene, a battle scene, a few narrow escape scenes, and, oh yeah, the soapy relationship between Ravna and Pham.

The narrative jumps back and forth between the two plotlines.  A good novel often has multiple plotlines and voices.  Here, though, I found it weakened of the excitement of the children with the Tines, and often left me with a feeling of incompleteness in the character development of the crew of the OOB.  Whenever the plot switched back to the OOB, I felt annoyed that I was leaving the world of the Tines.  But as the second plot would progress and the characters develop, the narrative would switch back.  Rather than organic and episodic, it usually felt stuttered.

I didn't like how Vinge introduced new characters.  Instead of bringing them in through the existing voices, he introduced new ones.  This introduced more disruption into the mix.    Then the characters leave the plot a chapter or two later.  This style reminded me of Stephen King, particularly in "Tommyknockers", where the main character’s sister is introduced with great detail in one chapter, and killed off in the next.  I didn't like it then, I didn't like it here.

Despite my frustration with the book’s format, I have to say that in the end, I thought the book was good.  The last 100 pages were incredibly exciting.  I think a good editor could have helped the author keep the excitement at a better pitch. I give this book three stars.

I’d like to point out that this book tied for the 1993 Hugo with Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book I find this a travesty.  I thought “Doomsday” was far superior.  That book gripped me and I nearly cried at the end.  “A Fire Upon the Deep” had the potential with the marooned children plot, but over-reached and ended up just another space opera.  

It Started With The Hugos...Welcome!

Back in 2012, I took a trip to Powell's Books in Oregon, the Cedar Hills location.  I wanted to pick up a new copies of a few science fiction books that I had read for an SF class in college.  I went to the SF section and found a bookcase dedicated to the Hugo Awards.  I was amazed that quite a few of the books from that class were Hugo winners.  I chose Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr and Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny.  I loved these books the first time around, and had been wanting to reread them for years.  Browsing the other winners, I was amazed to see so many titles I recognized.  One surprise was Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark.  I had often seen this massive tome and never realized it fell under this category.  Feeling adventurous, took a copy.  Feeling like I really needed to live on the edge, I decided I needed one more.  Jacob, my partner, recommended A Case of Conscience, by James Blish.  So with (only) four books in hand, and a little 5-1/2 by 6 inch quick reference sheet of all the Hugo winners for best novel tucked in my shirt pocket, I checked out.

I read the Miller and Zelazny books quickly.  I fell in love with them again.  Next I read the Blish.  I thought it had some problems, but overall, I loved it too.  Finally I dove into Jonathan Strange.  It took me about six weeks to get through it, but I loved it.  Every second of reading was a delight.

About this time, I had a recurrence of several health issues.  Soon I was on disability.  When I wasn't dozing from the myriad of medications, I read.  Jacob had finished an omnibus edition of the Anne McCaffrey's DragonRiders of Pern trilogy and gave it to me.  I read these books in college, but was open to reading them again.  Next thing I knew, I read DragonsDawn and All The Weyrs of Pern.

Sometime while travelling in Pern, I had become infatuated with the Hugo winner quick reference sheet.  I had already read about ten books on the list.  At one point, I found all the winners and nominees online, copied them into a spreadsheet, and marked all the ones I read, the approximate year I read them, and assigned a rating based on 4 stars.

The following morning, I woke up with the insatiable desire to read all the winners.

Fortunately for my bank account and my already stuffed bookcases, I renewed my library card at the Beaverton City library, and began reading.  Forty-nine books and reviews later, I've decided to take Jacob's advice and begin a blog.  By the way, he also suggested I review them fairly early on, but I didn't begin writing reviews until last April.  And now it's September and I'm finally getting the blog off the ground.

Despite being in IT for most of my life, this is my first blog.  It may take me a while to get it looking how I want it, so bear with what I expect to be constant tweaking of the format.  Until I start getting my reviews posted, links to books I've read will send you to the Worlds Without End site.  It's a great place to keep track of books you've read, post reviews, and find new books to put on your reading list.

I'd like to give acknowledgement to The Hugo Endurance Project.  I discovered Jeremy's blog last March, and it has been a great resource to get a preview and general feel for books before beginning reading them.  I often had very different opinions of the books after reading them, but I didn't care.  The blog gave me inspiration to keep pursuing my own quest.

I hope this blog will not just be about posting reviews.  And I'm not going to post all 49 reviews at once. (Whew!)  I plan to use this blog as a way to express myself by writing: maybe stories, maybe an occassional philosophical rant, maybe reviews of non-fiction and non-genre fiction.  We'll see as time goes on.  And maybe I'll get a few people who might be interested in what I'm reading and what I have to say.