Archive for March, 2009

Hugo 2009 (3)

This is the third entry about the Hugo 2009 Finalists. A page with all reviews can be found here.

The Novellas

  • (A) “Truth” by Robert Reed
    A prisoner has knowledge that seems to imply that he comes from the future. He is a terrorist who doesn’t believe in the goals anymore and offers his help to save the USA, but the price is very high…
    This is a very interesting story with well described characters. It mainly consists of two parts. First we have the disturbing idea of time-travelling terrorists and their impact on our society. I was a little bit reminded of The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson, which explored a similar change in detail. In the light of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 this gives the story a special touch. The overshadowing questions are how far would you go and how paranoid are you?
    The other aspect in the story is the interrogation of the prisoner, involving manipulation and psychological games. He looked very much like Ben from the series Lost who had the same capability of getting things the way he wanted. The duel is made interesting by adding details that could come from a How to read a person handbook and by the past of the interrogator.
    I liked the story and would recommend it but it’s a pity that the final touch is missing to make it great. It would have been better to focus on the exploration of the idea of time-travelling terrorists only and to better flesh out the events that have occured or to focus more on the duel between interrogator and prisoner.

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Recently, after reading more short stories than ever before, I made an interesting observation: normal fantasy stories don’t appeal to me anymore. This was kind of surprising as I used to enjoy fantasy novels a lot. Has my taste changed in the last year or are short stories too short to draw in the reader?

I started to think about why I love the books and stories that are on top of my personal list. First I have to name Gene Wolfe. His unique style has spoiled low-quality stories to me forever. He gives the reader something for the time he invests: vivid characters, intellectual puzzles, interesting plots. One can be sure that, though some attempts didn’t work for me, he has at least carefully crafted his pieces.

Writers like Theodore Sturgeon on the other hand are able to write about deep emotions and use the SF to ask the next question. Other writers create a terrific, unique atmosphere (Jeff Vandermeer) or strange and exotic worlds (Jack Vance). In the SF genre we also find many writers with amazing ideas (Ted Chiang, Greg  Egan) who think about something completely new, who look into the near future (Paolo Bacigalupi) or bring cynicism to the next level (Ray Bradbury).

I could go on further but let’s see what all these stories have in common. They tell something about a possible and impossible future that makes you think or they provide insights into the human soul. In the first case I enjoy to play around with the ideas and to see the consequences explored. In the second case there is something touching with sharing believable emotions that the hero or heroine goes through.

These are the two most important things for me to enjoy a story. This is by no means absolute, sometimes a story can impress by sheer originality but it’s a good general guideline. Many fantasy stories fail to score in these two categories. They set up a world and forget to explore it in a way that the reader can take something with him into his own real world, let’s say some values that are worth fighting for or knowledge about the universe (fictional or not). If the reader remains in the position of an observer who returns home as if nothing has happened then something went wrong.

Nothing is lost though if the story works on an emotional level with interesting, believable characters. Most of the time this is true for dark fantasy because it takes a careful look at the true, violent nature of humans and other beings. High fantasy has a harder time, easily falling into the trap of putting characters into the spotlight who are either good or bad or whose motivations are unbelievable. When you are young it’s easy to ignore the flaws but once you have tasted the genre masterworks you are spoiled forever!

In future I will label my reviews with exploration and/or emotion where appropriate so that it’s easy to see into which category a story falls and whether it was successful.

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Other Earths will be available soon. This is an original anthology of stories about alternate history. Usually I am not a big fan of this stuff but this time it’s different. Among the authors who have contributed are Robert Charles Wilson, Jeff Vandermeer, Gene Wolfe, Alastair Reynolds and Lucius Shepard! This is really exciting.

I face an interesting decision though. The book is only available as paperback and as eBook. After purchasing a Bebook this year I prefer to buy books as eBook and consider the hardcover or trade paperback only if there is a chance that I read the book more than once. The readability on the Bebook is superior to all other formats (paperback, mass paperback) because of adjustable fonts, font-size and line spacing. Trade paperbacks would be on par and have the slight advantage of a bigger book size but they cost more.

So what about Other Earths? Should I buy the paperback or stick to the eBook, which is – for whatever reason – not even cheaper when you buy a non-kindle version? I think I will go for the eBook. Fictionwise is currently running one of their special sales and give 30% rebate, which reduces the price to  $5.19.

By the way, if you think that this collection is hot then wait for the Songs of the Dying Earth with stories from Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Lucius Shepard, Jeff Vandermeer, Robert Silverberg, …!

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Hugo 2009 (2)

Following up on my review of the Hugo Finalists 2009 I have read another story.

Update: I have read all stories, a page with the reviews can be found here.

The Novelettes

  • (A) “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi
    A disturbing view on the media landscape of the new future – or today??? Men like Ong have to write stories for a big news company to generate clicks and money. A good formula is SSS: sex, stupidity and schadenfreude. Ong comes from Laos and he is different. He wants to write about serious topics like global warming or the extinction of rare species. However, this is not what most people want to hear about so his boss gives him an ultimatum: he has to raise his clicks or  he gets fired, looses his visa and must return to Laos. A colleague is trying to help and arranges an interview with a celebrity from his home country… This is a wonderful story that makes you think. It starts with a little too much infodumping but then it really kicks off and cleverly integrates Ong’s past into the plot. The characters are very well done and the clash of cultures was interesting to follow. Highly recommended!

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Last year I tried to review the various nominees for the Nebula and Hugo and although many have been available online, I failed poorly. This is going to change this year. I have reserved some time and already started to read some shorter works. The finalists including download links can be found here. The stories are rated A (good story), B (okay) and C (didn’t like it).

Update: I have read all stories. A page with the reviews can be found here.

The Novels

  • As expected, Neil Stephenson’s Anathem made it into the last round. From the reviews it looks like a strong book but to be honest, it’s very long and I hesitate to start reading it. Neil Stephenson has a particular style and sometimes the plot simply drags along way too slow. I will skip it.
  • I recognized The Graveyard Book from several announcements from Subterranean Press (they offer an expensive limited edition) and decided quite early that this book is not for me. When I found the book on the Hugo list, I was surprised, checked the various reviews – and immediately ordered the book!
  • When I hear the name Cory Doctorow something blocks inside me so it’s very unlikely that I will pick up Little Brother. It may be unfair but it’s the same with Stephen Baxter or Mike Resnick, I cannot convince myself to read something written by one of them.
  • Saturn’s Children had many bad reviews and the contents doesn’t appeal to me. I won’t read it.
  • Before I start with Zoe’s Tale I will read the other works of John Scalzi – which, I must confess, is quite unlikely.

The Novellas

The novellas look very interesting. Here I will have the chance to read my first Cory Doctorow! Let’s see how it will turn out.

The Novelettes

All novelettes are online and so far I have read one.

  • (B) “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear
    Shoggoths are beings from H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination. The story takes place shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Professor Harding wants to analyze the Shoggoths to discover the secret of their immortality. It’s a well written story in which the author manages to include racism and the slaughter of the Jews in Nazi Germany. However, I couldn’t connect to it. At the end it’s just a fantasy story and easily forgotten.

The short stories

I have already managed to read 4 of the short stories.

  • (B) “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson
    This story is about 26 monkeys who can disappear. With this act the owner travels from fair to fair, making a fortune and trying to find out the secret behind it… A well written story with a nice ending but it couldn’t grab me, mainly because I couldn’t identify with the protagonist.
  • (C) “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick
    I mentioned above that I’ve never read anything from Mike Resnick before, something was always blocking me. Well, this time it’s different and I regret that I didn’t listen to my innver voice. The story is about a robot who starts to think about god and wonders whether it has a soul and wants to join the church. This idea upsets the normal people and causes some serious trouble. The idea itself is not bad but the robot is described in such an old-fashioned way that made me wonder why such stories are still written today. If the robot is a machine, the whole story doesn’t make sense because it’s easy to deny him a soul. If he is indeed smart enough then the way how he is treated as a slave is very upsetting and sooo out-dated. I don’t know which point Mike Resnick wanted to make here and I was seriously annoyed by the story.
  • (A) “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang
    I am a big fan of Ted and in this story he proves why he is an outstanding writer. This is very Hard idea SF. In a world unlike ours something strange happens: the time suddenly seems to run  faster. A “man” does some self-experiments and what he finds not only solves the mystery but also reveals of what the world is made off – and the beings living on it. As usual the story is well written with some mind-blowing ideas. It’s not among Ted’s very best because some “flesh” is missing to make the world-building easier to experience. Anyway, a good story and a must for fans of Hard SF.
  • (A) “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
    This is a wonderful short story about a smart chimp. It’s very touching and manages to tell so much in so few words – highly recommended and easily my favourite in this category.

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