Hugo reading 2018: The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

I saved Katherine Arden for last in this section, since I saw that she had provided a copy of her novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, which looked like a fairy tale retelling – one of my favourite subgenres.

It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous book, and stands alone beautifully, though I gather it is the first in a trilogy (I almost don’t want to read the rest when it comes out in case it spoils the perfection of this story).  The protagonist of the story is Vasya, whose father is a lord in northern Russia, and whose mother had witchy blood.  While her other siblings are normal, pleasant, people, Vasya is wild, loves the forest, and can see the little household and woodland spirits – and the larger spirits, too.  Unfortunately for Vasya, when her father remarries, her new stepmother, the Tsar’s daughter, is a very devout woman who can also see spirits, but believes them to be devils.  She does not like her wild daughter, and matters become even more difficult when the Tsar sends a charismatic young priest, Konstantin, to the household, and he forbids offerings to the local spirits, allowing the demon of winter to begin to prey on the village.

The fairy tale is set in northern Russia, where it is winter most of the time, and very, very cold.  While there are personifications of Winter and Frost in this story, the non-personified season of winter is almost a character in its own right, too.  Even without any supernatural interventions, the frost and cold are formidable foes in this world.  Really, the setting of this book was one of its great strengths – I’m normally there for the characters and can take or leave the setting, but there was just something compelling about how *cold* everything was.  Oh, and I also liked that even though Pyotr is wealthy and important enough to be marrying a princess, his house is still cold, they still start running out of food during winter, and so forth – in this world, even being wealthy doesn’t entirely shield you from want.  It’s a very marginal existence, regardless of your status.

I loved the way the family in this book worked.  Pyotr, Vasya’s father, is a kind, slightly stern father, who loves his daughter, but recognises that in their world, there is no place for a young woman who seems fitted neither for marriage nor a convent, and so he tries to bend her to one or the other of these things, even while knowing that this will not be good for her.  He tries to be a good father, but lacks imagination – and, perhaps also, the power – to make a place in the world that will fit Vasya’s personality.  And he makes hard choices – he does his best to save Vasya from what seems very likely to be an awful fate, but his way of doing so is something that he knows will make her absolutely miserable.  And naturally, he doesn’t ever think to tell her what it is he is saving her from, or why he is so determined to see her settled, whether she likes it or not.

Vasya’s brothers and sisters are close and loving, even Vasya’s stepsister, who is the pretty one and much favoured by her mother, so that was a nice touch.  And Pyotr did not marry Anna from choice, but rather from politics, but tries to be a good husband by the standards of the time (which… aren’t that great, but again, this is more about lack of imagination than anything else, and Anna does not seem to expect anything different from him.)

I also liked the way Konstantin, the young priest, was written.  There were so many clichéd ways he could have been played – I thought this was going to be an old-gods-versus-new-gods situation, but I was pleased to see that this wasn’t where Arden went with the story.  He’s definitely not a good person – he loves power rather too much for that – but for much of the book, he is torn in several directions, between what he believes to be right, and what he is seeing.  He always makes the wrong decision, but he is not always unsympathetic.

The first two thirds of the book were increasingly oppressive and hard to read – I felt like matters spent a long time getting worse and worse before we finally got to see the heroine start taking decisive action – but this is perhaps realistic.  Vasya is still very young, after all, and she does love her family – it takes an extreme situation to push her into defiance. The end of the story was also an interesting and appropriate choice.  I thought the author might go somewhere different (and, well, if there is a trilogy, that may still happen), but was pleased that she didn’t take the easy choice.

I highly recommend this book – if you enjoy feminist fairy tales that have a fair bit of darkness in them but still allow light to triumph, then I think you’ll enjoy this.

Katherine Arden is unquestionably going to be my top vote for the Campbell awards.  I think I want to put Vina Jie-Min Prasad second, because her stories were just such fun, then Sarah Kuhn, Jeanette Ng, Rivers Solomon and Rebeca Roanhorse.

Hugo reading 2018: Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn

Sarah Kuhn provided a copy of her novel, Heroine Complex, and it is enormous fun. It straddles a few different subgenres – I feel like it’s primarily a new adult coming of age sort of story, but the setting is urban fantasy / super hero comic, and it also has strong romantic elements.  Ultimately, though, the novel is about friendship, found family, and acceptance.

Our protagonist is Evie Tanaka.  She works as an executive assistant for her best friend, local superhero Aveda Jupiter (formerly Annie Chang). Aveda has been saving San Francisco from demons since the portal first opened eight years ago.  Incursions since that time have been frequent, but fairly low level – which is fortunate, because so are Aveda’s superpowers.  Primarily, Aveda uses her martial arts skills, her charisma, and her determination to be perfect at everything she does.

The amount of work Aveda puts into being the superhero who can save San Francisco is admirable, but it doesn’t stop her from being an utter nightmare to work for. When she sprains her ankle at training after throwing a tantrum over a pimple, she insists that she can neither go to the awards night to which she has been invited nor cancel it – and instead coerces Evie into pretending to be her (with a little help from their friend Scott’s ability to create glamours). Of course, demons promptly appear at the ceremony, and Evie finds herself having to fight them and thus deal with her own, unwanted superpower.  Also, the demons seem to be evolving, Evie’s little sister is wagging school and getting drunk with her babysitters and Aveda is finding that she doesn’t really like having her best friend outshine her.  And did I mention that Evie’s powers seem to get more unpredictable when she is under stress?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. The characters were well-drawn, and I liked the theme of found family. And really, any book that starts off with a superheroine fighting off flying, fanged, demon-possessed cupcakes in a cake shop is already going to be ticking a lot of boxes for me. If I must look at the novel critically, I’d have to say that I saw several of the plot twists coming – but then, I do read widely in the YA, urban fantasy and romance genres, and in any case, the fun was less in the destination than the journey. I especially enjoyed the relationships between the various characters, particularly that between Evie and Aveda.  It felt very real, from their background as the only two Asian kids in their primary school, bonding over the mockery they received over their lunchboxes, to the way their roles were set early on in ways they weren’t always consciously aware of, and the friction that ensued when Evie was no longer happy with her role. This felt like a very real friendship to me.

I enjoyed the other characters too – Aveda’s trainer, Lucy, who uses karaoke to pick up girls (and who takes far too much interest in Evie’s love life); Evie’s cranky, clever 16-year-old sister Bea; Nate, Team Aveda’s doctor/scientist, who is also clever and cranky and distractingly hot; Scott, who should be hot, but inexplicably isn’t; and the terrible tabloid blogger and her sidekick.  All the interpersonal relationships gave the impression of having existed well before the book started – they had a level both of closeness and of grown-in-assumptions and roles that felt very true to life.

Basically, I loved this book and will be looking for the sequel. I suspect it’s a bit too fluffy to win its category, but it is clever and character-driven and funny and feminist and the perfect antidote to space-slavery-dystopias. I do wonder, sometimes, why I do these Hugo reads – so many of the books are so very much not for me – but every so often one discovers an author one wants to follow, and that’s what has happened here. Sarah Kuhn is going to the top of my ballot.

Hugo reading 2018: Short Story Nominations

I’m doing this category in one giant batch, because I don’t think anyone really wants blog posts that go for two paragraphs at most…

Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience, by Rebecca Roanhorse is a near-future science-fiction story with a theme of cultural appropriation that expands to… appropriate the whole story, for want of a better description. It’s hard to talk about this story without spoilers, but the protagonist works in a virtual reality studio, providing ‘authentic’ Indian spirit guide experiences, which have more to do with what people have seen in old movies than anything relating to either the historical or contemporary experiences of American First Nations people. The story is told in the 2nd person, which is cleverer than it sounds, given the context.  It’s very gritty, and a bit single white female, with a twist at the end that I’m not entirely sure I understood.  It was fine, but didn’t grab me – it’s a bit grim for my tastes.

(Incidentally, Roanhorse was also nominated for a Campbell award, and this story was her contribution to the voter pack.)

Fandom for Robots, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, on the other hand, is a total delight.  In this story, a somewhat obsolete sentient robot who works in a museum discovers an anime series about a human and a robot on a revenge quest and becomes hooked. And then he discovers fanfic. Which is not logical, nor does it portray the robot character accurately. So he decides to see what he can do to increase the standard of accuracy in fanfic, first by commenting, and then, when he sees that honest critiques are not always well received by authors, by writing fanfic himself.   I absolutely loved this story – it’s funny and clever and affectionate and a complete joy to read.

Carnival Nine‘, by Caroline M. Yoachim is an odd sort of story. All the main characters are clockwork toys, who are wound up by the Toymaker every night, and have a certain number of turns during the day. These are determined partly by the quality of the clockwork, and partly by the Toymaker. As the toys get older, their clockwork tends to wind down a bit and they get fewer turns. It’s not very subtle, but the worldbuilding is fun.

The first part of the book introduces our protagonist as a child. She lives with her father, and has a LOT of turns by most standards (generally 35-45), so she is restless and wants adventure. She visits the carnival and meets Vale, and later on runs off to live with him and work at the carnival. It’s fun and the worldbuilding is cute, and it’s all light and fun and enjoyable. And then they decide to make a child together and things go wrong. The child only has four turns a day, which means he can do very little. And so she has to use a lot of her turns on his behalf.

If I’d never heard of spoon theory, I’d probably be fairly impressed by the analogy. As it is, I sort of sat back and watched the author ticking off all the boxes of Life With A Child With A Disability. Relationship falling apart under the stress – check. Guilt about doing anything that wasn’t related to caring – check. Worry about what would happen to child when protagonist dies – check. Resentment at having to use almost all her turns to look after child – check. Guilt about said resentment – check. Focusing on respecting child’s autonomy – check. Finding new ways to accommodate child without completely losing herself – check.

(Andrew wants to point out that this is an instance where the worldbuilding / fantasy genre is helpful in getting people who might not be interested in reading a story about disability to be exposed to these ideas, and he has a point. But I still think it could have been less heavy-handed.)

I like what the author was trying to do, but it felt a little heavy-handed, to be honest. And I felt that the tone of the story was really uneven – it started off very light and bright, but then kind of became a bit of a grim endurance exercise.

Also, I couldn’t help noticing that this was very much disability from the perspective of the carer. We never really know much about what the child thinks about the situation, which I think is a bit of a shame, really.

(Andrew’s perspective is a bit kinder than mine – he sees it more as a slice of life / average life in this world sort of story, though he agrees that the disability stuff is central to the story – but he also pointed out the centrality of not wanting to repeat the mistakes of her parents.)

To me, this story is definitely less successful than Prasad’s story. I’m not sure whether it’s better or worse than Roanhorse’s story. I’ll have to think about that one.

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde is a strange, strange story, where I’m not entirely sure I know what happened. It is told from the point of view of, I think, a carnival freak, who is showing you through some sort of exhibit. The nature of the exhibit is odd and uncanny and seems to have an unpleasant effect on the person viewing it. It mostly creates an atmosphere of gentle horror, rather than having much in the way of plot, but it does this very well. There are little, unpleasant, allusions to the sorts of medical studies done on the guide and people like her; a place where photos are taken of souls; and the atmosphere is such that when she asks ‘may I take your hand’, one is not at all sure that the question is not a literal one.

It’s very well done, if not quite my cup of tea.

Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon is good fun, as stories by Ursula Vernon always are. Allpa, a nice, unambitious, down-to-earth farmer, is bequeathed a magical sword by his grandmother, and has to deal with three spirits who want to train him to be a hero and go forth and conquer when all he really wants to do is grow nice potatoes. It’s funny and sweet, and there’s a hint of a romance to it, and I like it very much.

The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata is a science fiction tale about a future where everything seems to be doomed by lots of little things – natural disasters, antibiotics failing, Mars colonies not working out. The protagonist, Susannah, views time as a Master Torturer – killing the world and the human race inexorably, but excruciatingly slowly, and responds to this by deciding to build a tower on Mars – a monument to the human race that nobody will ever see, since nobody is there except the robots who are doing her bidding. Except that… maybe someone is there. Or maybe it’s just another AI, or a rival corporation, or something else. This is a story about whether it’s safe to hope, and whether one should hope anyway, and it’s probably one we need right now, but mostly it left me depressed (and also quite pissed off with Nate, who withholds some fairly important information from Susannah, with the specious excuse that she didn’t want news… but I feel that he must have known she would have wanted this news, he just didn’t want her distracted from the project…).

This is a hard category to judge, because there were a lot of things I liked (or at least wanted to like) in it. I’m putting Fandom for Robots first, because it is just such a delightful story. If I’m pretending to be all lit-crit-ish, I could comment that it does some interesting things with the ideas of sentience, logic and emotion, but mostly it’s coming first because I just plain like it. “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience is clearly last, because it did nothing for me even after reading it twice, and “Carnival Nine” is fifth, because I got irritated with its lack of subtlety. But I like all the others for different reasons and just don’t know how to rank them! Right now, I’m inclined to put “Sun, Moon, Dust” second, “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” third, and “The Martian Obelisk” fourth, but they could swap at any time, and may well do so before I put in my final vote.

I should probably look at this as being quite a good thing – there is a 2/3 chance that I’m going to be happy with the winner of this category, after all, and a 1/6 chance that I’ll be very happy with it!

Hugo reading 2018: An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

Rivers Solomon provided an ARC of her novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts. It’s set on a gigantic colony ship which appears to contain the last remnants of Earth’s population, possibly on the way to a new planet, though nobody seems to have any expectation of getting there. It’s a dystopian world, with a pseudo-religious dictatorship, and passengers divided into decks by skin colour. On the upper decks, pale skinned people live luxurious lives; on the lower decks, those with darker skin are essentially slaves, producing food and other necessities for the colony ship.  The slaves – who are almost all women or coded female – are subject to beatings and sexual assault by the guards, to genetic mutations whose source is not mentioned but which I suspect spring from their high radiation environment, and also to electricity shortages that leave their residential areas so cold that they suffer from frostbite.  They also have all the high risk jobs, as well as the generally unpleasant ones.

The protagonist is Aster, who is from the lower decks but has managed to get an almost upper deck scientific and medical education, with the help of the Surgeon General, Theo, who is closely connected to the Sovereign, though his mother was black. Aster is written as a highly intelligent and compassionate woman who has something along the lines of Aspergers – she is very literal-minded and her emotions are just a bit… off.  Then again, in that environment, whose emotions wouldn’t be? Also, her mother killed herself on the day she was born, and Aster is trying to decipher her diaries and learn just what she discovered that may have led her to do this.

This is a thoroughly gruelling book to read. The brutality visited on the slaves is endless and pervasive, and periodically rises to deliberate and individual cruelty. Sexual assault is so endemic that part of Arden’s daily routine is to smear her vagina with a lubricant and a numbing agent, so as to minimise pain and damage if she is raped.  There’s an image I didn’t need in my head, thanks.

The mystery of what Luna was working on is compelling and interesting, and the characters and world are well drawn, but dear God this was a harrowing read.  In the last twenty pages, I began to wonder if the book was going to have an actual ending at all (and was preparing to throw a tantrum if it turned out to be another half-book!), but it did, of a sort.  It was very rushed, though, and I’m not sure whether anything was really resolved.  There were a couple of very dramatic events, but I’m not sure how I am supposed to feel about them – while they both have the potential to create positive change, nothing about the world the author has built leads me to believe that these will improve matters for anyone in the long run.

I have a feeling there is a sequel in the works.  I shall not read it.  Maybe I’m shallow, but if I’m going to be made to feel horrified and miserable and faintly guilty about slavery in the US (which is clearly what this author had on her mind when writing this book), I’d rather read about real people and events than made up ones.

In terms of my ballot, I’m not too sure where to put it.  I, too, tend to fall prey to the insidious idea that serious, depressing books are somehow more Worthy, but I can’t bring myself to put a story I so strongly disliked reading high up.  Trying to step back and be objective, the author clearly knows her craft, but I don’t think she quite managed the dismount – I just don’t know what she was trying to convey with the ending, I can’t tell whether she was deliberately making it ambiguous, and I can’t bring myself to go back and re-read it to see if I can determine this.  I do think the ending was rushed.  I would have liked to see an epilogue set a year or a month later, even if all it did was show that nothing had changed, the protagonist was dead and everyone who had tried to change anything had been crushed.

I do think this book is less successful than Under the Pendulum Sun (which also had a hasty ending, but a little more closure, and everything at least turned around and clicked into place so that one could see the whole puzzle at last), and it was certainly less enjoyable to read.

Drat it, I don’t want to put *either* of Ng or Solomon above Prasad, and I won’t.  So there. I’m pretty sure that fluffy will not win out over harrowing in the long run, but I’m not going to be part of encouraging a trend of increasingly miserable books being written and nominated.

Hugo reading 2018: Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeanette Ng

Jeanette Ng was nominated for a Campbell Award for her novel, Under the Pendulum Sun. This was a very good novel, and I should have liked it, but I didn’t.

It’s set in an alternate Victorian England, which has recently discovered Faerie, and the story starts when Catherine Helstone goes looking for her brother, Laon, a missionary who has been trying to evangelise the Faerie realm. Faerie and its inhabitants are as they should be – strange, capricious, dangerous, and subject to a logic and laws that make no sense to human minds. They also seem to derive particular pleasure from mentally torturing the humans they manage to lure into their lands, which makes for some very disturbing reading.

The imagery is gorgeous and fascinating. I especially like the sea whales who float through the air and contain entire ocean ecosystems in their transparent bodies. Overall, the story has quite a gothic sensibility, right down to the mysterious madwoman lurking around the castle muttering strange things. Andrew reckons the main characters are based on two of the Bronte sibling, but I’m not so sure.

I found the plot rather dark for my taste, and I’m really not convinced that a Victorian missionary who had gone to Faerie specifically to avoid a particular sexual temptation, and who clearly takes his vocation seriously, would so easily and without any apparent sense of guilt give in to a different, but similar, temptation later on. Andrew again claims that it’s a Bronte thing, but I’m not convinced; the whole attitude to sex seemed very un-Victorian to me, frankly. There’s some interesting theology that really can’t be discussed without spoiling all the way to the last page – I’m not sure how much I agree with it, but it does fit the setting and the world.

Also, there is some stuff that is really going to squick some people, but it’s spoilerish so I’m putting it in yellow so that you will have to highlight it to read it.

There is SO MUCH incest in this story.  Really, a lot.  It’s consensual, happy incest – Catherine and Laon are the central  pairing, and their relationship is very much a romantic one, and one that the story seems to approve of, in the end – but for me, that did not make it any less squicky and unpleasant to read.  And, to me, it felt out of character given how seriously both characters took their religious convictions.

Overall, I think this is a very good novel, and definitely deserves to be on this list. But it’s really not to my taste, which is a pity, because I really wanted it to be.

Hugo reading 2018: A Series of Steaks, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is just a world of fun.  In it, we meet Helena, an artist in 3D printing, which in this world can be used for everything from making meat from animal cells, to creating replacement organs for human beings.

Helena… started off on the latter track, but after a catastrophe, she found herself on the run from a powerful family, and had to change her name and go underground.  She now makes a living forging steaks, something which is apparently illegal in this world. When she is blackmailed into forging a large order of T-bone steaks, she hires an assistant, Lily, who is perky and energetic and very competent, and who has, shall we say, hidden depths. I sort of want to be Lily when I grow up…

I don’t want to say too much about this story, because it’s too delicious to spoil.  It has moments of darkness – I mean, technically you might say it was in the noir genre – but the relationships between the central characters are delightful. I also really appreciated the description of the artistry involved in forging meat – making sure the marbling is just random enough to look real, but not so random that it no longer looks organic, for example – not to mention the anatomical knowledge required to put a steak together that looks and behaves like a steak.

Also, did I mention that I adored both Helena and Lily?

I found myself chortling with glee as the story wound towards its conclusions.    Highly recommended.

Prasad was nominated for a Campbell Award, and this was part of her voter pack, alongside her short story, Fandom for Robots, which was also enormous fun.  I’ve put her high wherever I’ve seen her on the ballot, and hope to read more of her.

Hugo reading 2017: Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer has been nominated for a Campbell Award, and her novel, Too Like The Lightning, which is her contribution to the Campbell voter pack, is also nominated for Best Novel.

It’s a very creative, interesting, clever, book and I haven’t been so irritated by anything in a very long time (including the government and the NHMRC).  It was *infuriating*.

Let me start by saying what I wish I’d known at the start: this is half a book.  It ends with nothing resolved, a whole bunch of secrets half-understood, and most of the cast headed in the direction of danger and likely death.  This, on it’s own, would frustrate me – I have no objection to two or three part stories, but only if the publisher plays fair and tells me up front that this is what I’m reading.

It’s at least twelve times as annoying when you are reading a book that is profoundly irritating on many, many levels, but you continue reading it because the plot, at least, is interestingly convoluted and you want to know what happens.

I wasted a day on this book and I still do not know what happens.  I was literally gritting my teeth and reading because the style was driving me mad but I cared about the characters and what happened to them, but apparently I don’t get to find out what happens to them unless I put myself through another entire book.  You cannot imagine how furious I am right now.

So, about the book itself.  Don’t believe what the blurb tells you, because it bears remarkably little resemblance to the book.  The story is set in a future world where people live in households that are essentially a formalised version of chosen family, with some biological family thrown in.  At adulthood, one declares one’s allegiance to one of the world’s seven political/cultural groups.  These groups are, of course, in competition in various ways, but also have a number of more or less nepotistic relationships with each other. What else?  Well, gender has basically become a thing that doesn’t get used, except when it does, and religion is banned due to its propensity for causing war.  Instead, there are sensayers, who are part philosopher, part counsellor, part priest, and who are authorised to talk about religion and related matters to their clients, so that people can figure out their own religion/worldview.

The narrator, Mycroft, is a former serial killer of a quite lurid and gruesome kind.  The death sentence was considered too easy for them, so instead they, like other serious criminals, are sentenced to a sort of communal slavery, where they must work for whoever asks them to, in return for food.  They are one of the main protectors of a child called Bridger, who has the ability to make toys real – mud pies become food, toy soldiers come to life and protect them, and so forth.  This is a unique and potentially dangerous ability, and so Mycroft is trying to keep Bridger a secret.

And there is a hell of a lot of political manoeuvring going on, including dozens and dozens of characters, which makes me even more furious, because I’ve just realised that if the sequel comes out in a year, I won’t have a prayer of remembering who is who unless I read this bloody novel again.  Aargh.

So, why did this book drive me up the wall?  Well, first, the narrator is literally the most aggravating character I have read in a book this year, and probably longer.  They mimic an 18th century style, love to talk directly to the reader (and often have an imaginary reader answer them), and while they live in a world and are writing about a time where people are never described in gendered terms, they delight in referring to particular characters as ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of they.  This is evidently a taboo, and one they really enjoy breaking, because they also have to draw your attention to it every. Single. Time.  And, most of the time, they do so by noting that biologically speaking, the person he has just referred to as ‘she’ is actually male, but some particular character trait in this person means that they view this person as female, or vice versa.  (Also, they have a very prurient gaze, which is rather unpleasant.)

I think the author is trying to make some points about gender, but Mycroft’s whole attitude of ‘ooh, aren’t I being transgressive by doing this, and incidentally, I’m flipping the gender around for my own purposes which are probably just to mess with you’ is annoying beyond belief.  It’s extra annoying because I like the idea of a book that explores gender in different ways, but really, all this makes me do is yell at the book and then yell at Andrew about the book, which is not really very much like re-examining my ideas about gender at all.  It’s enough to give one sympathy for the Sad Puppies.

Here is a particularly fury-inspiring example, which I share, because I suspect that if you enjoy this, you will love the book, and if it drives you as crazy as it drives me, you should be warned that if you want to get to the actual story, you will be wading through this sort of thing every couple of chapters.

+++++

Thisbe smirked. “I do have a life outside the bash’, you know.  I’m not a voker like Ockham and Lesley, I’m only on duty twenty hours a week.”

Certainly you too, reader, like Carlyle, had formed a portrait of Thisbe who existed only in that bedroom, drinking tea and waiting for the active cast to come to her.  But let me ask you this: would you have labeled her a stay-at-home so easily had I not been reminding you with every phrase that she is a woman?

Then stop, Mycroft.  Drop these insidious pronouns which force me to prejudge in ways I would not in the natural world.  At times I think thou makest a hypocrite of me simply for the pleasure of calling me one.  Had thou not saddled Carlyle and Thisbe with ‘he’ and ‘she’ I would not remember now which sex each was, and my thoughts would be the clearer for it.

No, reader. I cannot release you from this spell.  I am not its source.  Until that great witch, greater than Thisbe, the one who cast this hex over the Earth, is overthrown, the truth can be told only in her terms.

Thou hadst best be prepared to prove that claim in time, Mycroft.  Meanwhile, since thou insistest on thy ‘he’s and ‘she’s, be clear at least.  I cannot even tell whether this Chagatai is a deep-voiced woman or a man whom thou mislabelest, obeying that ancient prejudice that housekeepers must be female.

Apologies, reader.  And I know it is confusing too that I must call this Cousin Carlyle ‘he’.  With Chagatai, however, your guess is wrong.  It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes.  I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakeably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood beserks them.  That strength wins her ‘she’.

+++++

This is a LOT of gender essentialism and misgendering to stuff into one little piece of narrative in a world that allegedly does not recognise gender anyway.  Also, gah, that style is ANNOYING.  I admit, I’m a lazy reader.  I like interesting characters and an engaging plot, and I object to having to work quite this hard to get to it.  I’m not absolutely slothful – I’m willing to do the work of understanding the worldbuilding and the neologisms required to navigate it, but I find the over-the-top literary style more frustrating than appealing, and the didactic, smug narrative voice and the relentless ‘gotcha’ games with gender are just making me want to throw things.  Probably the book.

Also, the narrative does irritating things like deciding to show an entire conversation in Latin, with the translation in English beside it, and then footnotes about the type of Latin used.  I feel that this is really showing off.

Anyway, for the first 300 pages, the book is worldbuilding and setting all the (many) pieces in place for the various intrigues that are going on, and then all of a sudden we are in Paris and we are in an 18th-century-themed theology brothel.  Where they talk about De Sade a lot.  And philosophy.  But apparently theology is kinkier and more tittillating.  There is also a random nun (not a prostitute dressed as a nun, an actual nun – except that the object of her devotion is one of the characters in the book). This is also about the point where the plot takes off, and I start feeling as though maybe there is a point to reading this book after all.  And I really have to ask myself why one would wait 320 pages to introduce this, when clearly this is what the entire book should have been about.  I feel that this was a mistake on Palmer’s part.  Though I do like the part where someone is described as using theology to incapacitate his enemies.

(SERIOUSLY WHY ARE WE NOT SPENDING THE ENTIRE BOOK IN THE 18TH CENTURY THEMED THEOLOGY BROTHEL???  WHY???)

And then we have enormous amounts of plot and everything starts building to crisis point – and that’s the end of the book, and I screamed in fury and really did throw the book at the wall.

I have no idea how to rank this, either for the Campbells or the Best Novel.  I don’t think it *can* be a best novel, because it is only half a novel.  But 18th century theology brothels in Paris really ought to be encouraged.  On the other hand, really, really irritating narrators and books that are only half books should not be encouraged.  As for the Campbells – I think that technically speaking, Palmer is the most able writer on that list.  But I’m so utterly frustrated by this book that I don’t want to put her first.

Gah.  I’m going to read the Chuck Tingle entry next, as a palate cleanser.  Pure silliness, and if nothing else, I can trust him to actually finish a story, rather than making me work that hard for no good result.

Hugo reading 2017: Malka Older

Malka Older was nominated for a Campbell Award, and has provided the Hugo voters with three short stories and a full-length novel.

The first story is called Tear Tracks, and it’s a first contact with alien story.  Quite a nice, anthropological sort of story about cultural differences with a naive but enthusiastic heroine who nonetheless has a nice professional relationship with her partner on the mission.  It’s a good story, but not subtle, and it ends rather suddenly.

The Black Box is an odd sort of story, and I didn’t quite understand what Older was trying to do with it.  It’s near-future, in a world where children can get a memory chip ‘lifebrarian’ installed in their brains to record their lives.  They can replay events when they choose; others can also replay events stored on the chip with their permission.  The story seems to be about how growing up with such a chip affects you.  Again, it ends quite suddenly.  I felt as though it was trying to be ironic but did not work.

Rupture returns to Older’s fascination with anthropology, and is, I think, the best of the three stories, though it has yet another abrupt ending.  Perhaps this is simply her style?  In this story the planet Earth is slowly coming apart, and most of its inhabitants have emigrated to other planets.  But some people still live there, and a descendant of some of the immigrants decides to visit Earth to work as an anthropologist and study why people stay.  I really liked the characterisation in this, and the awareness of cultural assumptions.

The novel is called Infomocracy and it is… intense.  And fascinating.  It’s a political thriller set in a future world which is divided into microdemocracies.  Essentially, the world is divided into ‘centenals’ (electorates or communities) of 100,000 people, and everyone in the world can vote for any political party in the world.  Whichever party your centenal votes for is the one that governs you, which means that you might share the same laws and culture and government as the centenal next door, or you might not, but you probably also share your laws with a bunch of centenals in Europe, maybe a handful in the US (but probably not many, they tend to still vote Democrat or Republican), a bunch in Africa, a lot in East Asia, and so forth.  Obviously, in larger cities this can be a bit impractical, so practical coalitions form between neighbouring centenals to manage things like lighting and public transport, but in the main, your life is dictated by your specific government.

It’s a fascinating system of government, and I kind of want it.  But of course, it is also rather flawed.  Many of the governments are in fact corporations – Phillip Morris governs a good chunk of centenals, for example – and whichever government has the supermajority can make rather broader laws than anyone else.   For the last twenty years, the supermajority has been held by Heritage.

Our protagonists are Ken, who works for Policy1st, a party that is trying to be about policies rather than personalities, and is doing OK, but not brilliantly, and Mishima, who works for Information.  Information is not a political party – it is part centralised news service, part fact-checker, part library, part Facebook mated with Google and gone metastatic, and basically central to everyone’s life.  There are also two slightly less central viewpoint characters, Domaine, who thinks that the whole system of microdemocracies is fundamentally flawed and that nobody should vote, and Yoriko, a spy for Policy1st.

And they are all in the lead up to an important election, which someone – perhaps more than one someone – is trying to steal, or maybe disrupt, or maybe prevent entirely.

The plotting and counterplotting is well worked out, and I enjoyed the characters and how their view of the system evolves over time.  I also liked the gentle and less gentle prods at our current system (one villainous character starts manipulating the Information at one point, providing contradictory stories to different groups, and cheerfully states that he will get away with it, because people in those different groups don’t talk to each other or view the same information sources anyway…).  It’s extremely clever, and a fascinating extrapolation of our current political system.

The book moves at a breathless pace and felt a lot like watching the entire US election campaign from the standpoint of Facebook while also reading and writing all my blog posts about microparties.  It is *relentless*.  I am as big a politics geek as the next person (as this blog will attest), but possibly not enough for this book.  I was exhausted by the end of it.  But also quite impressed.  I’m not quite the right audience for this book – I’m not hugely into political thrillers – but it was really extremely well done, and I couldn’t put it down.

I liked Older’s work a lot (and also, she didn’t kill any animals which was a VERY PLEASANT CHANGE), though I’m not entirely sure that she has mastered the short story length.  Her fascination with anthropology and politics and how people work was something that I enjoyed very much; it was also noticeable that when her stories were taking place on earth, they tended to be in South East Asia, India, and the middle east much more than Europe or the US (though there was some nice Paris stuff in Infomocracy).  Lots of Asian characters, and lots of diversity generally, which was a nice change.

I think I’m going to put her at the top of my ballot for now, just for the wonderfully compelling world building in Infomocracy.  Which I’m slightly coveting as a political system, because given where I live, I would TOTALLY be ruled by greenie socialists, and I could definitely go for that.

Hugo reading 2017: Haunted, by Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey was nominated for a Campbell award, and provided one short story, Haunted, which came with a content note for domestic violence.  This does not sound promising, but here goes…

The story is written from the point of view of the house in which it happened.  At first, the house identifies strongly with the victim, Marthe, who loved the house, and eventually haunts it, but as time goes by, the house begins to feel trapped and resentful of the ghost which keeps anyone else from moving in, and keeps the house itself from moving on. This is straight horror, with some very good writing. I like this, especially:

He always kept his shoes on.  I should have known, just from that.  He treated the wood on the floors the same as he treated the dirt outside, the same as he treated his wife.

I liked this story far more than I expected to.  I’m not quite sure how to rank it compared to the others (it’s difficult when you are comparing three or four works with just one work), but I think I’ll be putting it second, after Penny, but before Robson.

Hugo reading 2017: Kelly Robson

Kelly Robson provided three stories for the Hugo Voting Packet – two shorts, and one novelette.  Her work is quite explicitly feminist, and tends to revolve around themes of parenting.

In Waters of Versailles, we have Sylvain, who has tamed a nixie, mostly by accident, and is using her to advance his prestige in the court by making water closets and fountains.  This story did a very good job of showing the politics and rivalries of the court, and had a very strong sense of place and time, but for some reason it didn’t grab me.  I did like the way Sylvain went from viewing the nixie as an animal and a pest to viewing her as a child who he needed to protect.  Warning for animal cruelty (monkey death – inadvertant, but fairly brutal).

Two Year Man drove me right up the wall.  It was set in a future dystopia where one’s status, salary, and the jobs one can do are linked to how many years one spent fighting the war.  And I don’t think one gets a choice about how long one is sent for.  The hero of this story is a two year man, which is very low status.  He has a cleaning job in a lab where they cook up babies, some of whom are not quite right – it’s hard to tell whether they are deliberately cooking up designer babies and getting it wrong sometimes, or whether there is a high mutation level in this society.  Anyway, he rescues a baby with a beak from the trash can and brings it home to his wife.  So far, so endearing – he clearly adores the baby, and his wife, and is delighted at the idea of being a father and making this family work.

Except that his wife explicitly married him because she did not want children.  But that’s OK – he concludes that she’s obviously broken, poor thing, but love will fix her.  He also concludes that she will probably throw the child in the trash while he is out, but that’s OK too, because he’ll find another one, and will keep bringing them home until his wife is Fixed.  Which is appalling on too many levels to count, really…  I do think it’s a good story, though.  It couldn’t have upset and frustrated me quite this much in quite this way if it hadn’t been.

The third and final story was called the Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill, and it has all the triggers.  There is an extremely graphic and brutal rape.  There is suicide.  There is repeated death.  There are alien parasites who are trying to cure her, but who are also trying to manipulate her.  There is racism.  There are parent figures and teachers who just couldn’t give a damn about any of this.

It’s horrible all around, and I did not need to read it.  I wish I hadn’t.

In conclusion, then, we have three stories by Robson.  One, I quite liked, and really should have liked more, but ultimately it didn’t grab me. One was deliberately aggravating and horrifying, but what the author was doing was clever enough that I could appreciate it.  And one was an absolute horror and I really wish I could unread it.  She goes above Mulrooney on the ballot, but she’s certainly not going to the top.  That last story was really unpleasant and is largely the reason I dived back into romance novels and stopped reading Hugo ballot nominees for the last month.