The Goblin Emperor—I read little fantasy, but thought this was marvelous. I felt viscerally happy every time I had an opportunity to sit down with it a read a little more. The characters felt more emotionally real than anything I have read in a long time. Two things keep it from being perfect. First, the characters are exquisitely delineated and cover a rich spectrum, but are monochromatic; real humans have internal inconsistencies and contradictions. Second, the central theme is unconvincingly simplistic. Word to the wise: Look at the appendices first!
Three-Body Problem—Probably the first SF work translated from Chinese to get major play in the English speaking world. To me, the core attraction is the ties to the Cultural Revolution and the ongoing role that plays in the psychology of Chinese intellectuals. As SF, it is pretty good but not excellent. It ends in a lengthy info dump, explaining the mysteries developed in the first 80% of the book, which is much less satisfying than working them into the narrative.
The book imports a limited kind of magic into the time and setting of a Jane Austen novel. The magic includes variations on "glamour," changing the appearance of people and objects to the extent of creating significant works of art.
I read it almost back-to-back with Austen's Northanger Abbey, and I think MRK did an excellent job of writing in the style of the the early 1800's (not that I am really qualified to judge). I also think that writing at novel length gave MRK the space to develop her themes and characters more fully than she has done in many of the short stories of hers that I have read.
The novel had a feel of YA (a little bit of over explaining and over simplifying) and none of the sparkling acid sarcasm in Northanger Abbey. For that reason, I would personally be more interested in reading more Jane Austen instead of continuing with this series, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to the right audience.
"The Die-Hard" by Alfred Bester, 1958. Now in the public domain and available here.
This doesn't remind me of anyone involved in the Hugos controversy at all. Nope.
I am reading a few reviews on the web of stories I didn't like, to see if I can figure out why so many people adore something I found dull and forgettable. Let me take some examples from a blog which itself won a Hugo, describing such a story: "the charm...is hard to resist" "consider the many themes that run like tendrils between the lines of the narrative" "layered and nuanced" "a masterpiece of character" heartbreaking subtle....
The reviewer used a lot of words with strong, positive connotations, but did nothing to justify them. The review boils down to "I really really like it, so you should read it." But maybe with even a few more really's.
I am willing to believe there are layers and nuance, if someone would tell me what they are. Because I don't see them. I see a one-dimensional story with some pedestrian fluff. I feel like the reviews are saying to me "What? You don't see layers and nuance? Listen to me repeat myself in a LOUDER VOICE NUANCE NUANCE NUANCE. Did I mention I really really really like it? Let me get a thesaurus so I can express my feelings in a more convincing fashion."
So the next time I write a review, the goal I will keep in mind is to be sufficiently concrete and incisive to change the mind of someone who has read the work already and disagrees with me.
The conservative ideological slate, known for some reason as "sad puppies", came in last in all the fiction categories in which they had a nomination. Only one of the authors was ranked below "No Award", the odious Theodore Beale who writes under a pen name which is a bastardization of the Latin for voice of God. This is consistent with the widely held opinion that the other puppies are serious authors, but Beale is barely literate.
Is there anything of interest to be gleaned from the numerical results? I think it is easy to see that there evidence that some voters made choices based on issues other than quality. Two stories, "Wakulla Springs" and "The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" did not do well in the voting, though I consider them to be of very high quality. They were widely criticized for not being properly in the genres of science fiction or fantasy, and I think they lost many votes because of that. Wheel of Time received the second most votes for the Hugo, but came in fourth in the final tally, suggesting many people voted it down because they thought it was gaming the system some how and not appropriate (it is also possible that WoT is the kind of thing you either love or hate).
The ideological conservative slate received from 6-11% of the first round votes in the fiction categories, so it would be hard to detect intentional downvoting by voters because these nominees didn't have much support to begin with. They think there is bias against conservatives among the Hugo voters, but it is just as possible that the stories they worked to get nominated weren't very good. The fact that Theodore Beale received half the support that Larry Correia did is an indication that most of the voters supporting Correia did so because they thought it worthy, rather than just voting a straight ticket. On the other hand, there are some odd patterns that suggest ideological voting. In the category for novels, Seanan McGuire was last in the first round, but managed to beat WoT and Larry Correia in the end, suggesting the possibility of "anyone else but..." voting. This pattern is not repeated in the other fiction categories. In the category for book editors, the nominee championed by the sad puppies is widely respected and received 25% in the first round, but ended up a weak fourth place, which is disturbingly suggestive of issue voting. (I can't see how to judge a book editor, so I didn't vote in the category and I wonder if many of the votes were really informed.)
Did I get anything out of this experience? I read more speculative fiction in the past 4 months than in the previous 4 years. Most of it I didn't like. I either have highly refined taste or I am picky and arbitrary. I might not have ever read Sofia Samatar or Aliette de Bodard, which would have been a great loss, and I would never have noticed "Wakulla Springs", an even greater loss. I would have read Ancillary Justice eventually, since it has won almost every possible award, and I read everything by Charlie Stross already. Carefully following the Hugo nominees does not seem to be an efficient method for finding good works--it feels more like a slush pile. The awards have a good track record for best novel, but the rest of the winners seem to be widely scattered in quality (meaning the things that I personally find most important). I suspect that rather than paying for a voting membership, I would be happier with a subscription to Clarkesworld and listening to some podcasts about SF. (The ones that are primarily fiction, like Starship Sofa or Escape Pod seem to have a limited stable of contributors.)
Writing up mini reviews after each work was a very good way to force myself to think about them more carefully and to help remember them when it came time for voting.
PS: For some reason I have continued to read Wheel of Time, and it is pretty bad. But like eating a bag of potato chips, I cannot make myself stop despite not enjoying it. The plotting is brilliant, but the writing itself is tedious repetition, characters that have devolved into caricatures, and some embarrassingly obvious copying from other works. There was evidence of engaging and interesting creativity around page 70 and some more at page 2400, but not much in between. But if you only care about plot and only enjoy conflict in literature if it involves swords, WoT is perfect.
There were a number of "issues" related to the ballot this year. The giant one was the political slate--a few politically-minded authors proposed a slate of nominees and encouraged all their followers to vote for exactly that set of nominees, mainly because it would annoy people who didn't like them, rather than because the material was good. I have never read the tweets or blogs, but apparently some of these authors have some vile, reactionary opinions about the roles of women and people of color in society, so one opinion is that all the political slate nominees should be voted below "no award" because civilization requires that we condemn such behavior. Another opinion, which John Scalzi is a well-know proponent of, is that the better thing is to de-politicize the Hugos and judge everything on its merits. After carefully assessing the nominees that are part of the political slate, my opinion is that they are all crap, so either way I put them all below No Award. If these reactionaries want to be truly subversive, they should start by writing some decent stories.
Another issue was that the Wheel of Time series met the letter of the requirements but not the spirit. I didn't think it was good enough to vote for, so I didn't have to decide. These books seem to be widely considered unreadable after the first few.
I didn't know, but Mary Kowal's story was on the ballot last year, and was removed from the ballot after voting took place because it was released only in audio, and she found out sitting in the audience at the Hugo ceremony. While it is terrible that this happened, it didn't affect my voting.
Some people didn't like "Wakulla Springs" because it wasn't really speculative fiction. To which I say PFFFFFTTT, because it is a wonderful story. If you like it, you want to listen to the episode of the Coode Street Podcast where the authors are interviewed just before the story was published. They worked on it for a decade, and when it was done they thought it was unsellable because it didn't fit into genre fiction. But Patrick Nielsen Hayden snapped it up almost instantly.
In my mind, I categorized things into one star, two star, or three star works. I voted for three stars, then no award, then two stars, and left the one stars off completely. If a one star work wins, I can't see that I care which one. I don't think the two stars deserve awards, but I would rather they win then the one stars. I was clear enough in the posts about what I liked, that it would serve no purpose to go over the ballot items again.
Wesley Chu and The Lives of Tao. Incorporeal alien parasites waging a thousand-year war through human super spies. Woohoo! The writing is so lively, the characters so likeable, the plotting so tight that I couldn't put it down. Makes me think of a bowl of M&Ms, not really good chocolate and not good for me but I will keep eating until the bowl is empty. Too many problems to be a great book, but too much fun to ignore.
Sofia Samatar and A Stranger in Olondria. This novel is like nothing I have ever read. The writing is dense with imagery, more than any poem I have ever read: "Outside the village, in a valley drenched with rain, where the brown donkeys weep with exhaustion, where the flowers melt away and are lost in the heat, my father had his spacious pepper farm." Everything is imbued with a rich mythology: "My mother said the elephant god was jealous and resented our father's splendid house and fertile lands, but I knew that it was whispered in the village that my father had sold his unborn children to the god." One thing that gives the images power is that they are unexpected and unpredictable: About the father's older wife "I only saw her look happy once: when it became clear that Jom my meek, smiling elder brother would never be a man, but would spend his life among the orange trees, imitating the finches." There are a million mundane ways of ending that sentence, but bringing in orange trees and finches makes the writing exciting and beautiful and makes the setting feel immediate and real. And the constant inclusion of spices and flowers in the imagery brings in another sense that is usually only addressed sparingly. Despite feeling almost mythological, the characters feel very real as they search for joy in lives of tragedy.
I know I said didn't think much of Sofia Samatar's story "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" but this novel is brilliant. A lesser author would have made a disastrous glop in an attempt to achieve writing of such vividness and mythic strength. You can read the first few pages at the amazon page for the book and see if it connects with you.
I tried to dip into the material as much as possible, I was surprised to find out that there are many good podcasts about the field of SFF. I really like The Writer and the Critic podcast and The Coode Street Podcast. The discussions are remarkably thoughtful and well informed. I picked the episodes from the last few years that discussed books and stories that I had actually read, but I don't think I read enough to be interested in every show.
There is a podcast about the mechanics of writing which seemed very good called Writing Excuses, by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, and others. As a reader, not a writer, I find it interesting to hear about how writers perform their craft because it lets me understand why some stories work or don't work.