What I’ve Been Reading

It’s been faaaaaaaar too long since posted here. I’ve been having trouble coming up with things to post about, as usual. This included trying to write a couple of book reviews that never worked out, so, in lieu of that, here’s some brief thoughts on the books I’ve read since the last review I posted, so many months ago. These are listed in the order they were read.

The Grace of Kings – Ken Liu
I wish I’d been able to write a real post about this one. This is a great epic fantasy, about two men from very different backgrounds who become friends, and then become leaders of a revolt with very different ideas of how to rule an empire. The voice of the novel is the kind if omniscient narrator you don’t often see in modern fiction. It moves easily between the intimate and the sweeping, reading in parts like a historical epic and including elements of classical myth. The world, too, is just different enough from standard fantasy settings to be interesting. Highly recommended; the best epic fantasy I’ve read in years.

The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu
This was a quick read for my trip up to Edinburgh in August. A race of aliens that lives inside of human bodies and has been directing history for millenia is fighting a secret civil war – and now, by accident, Roen Tan has been drafted into it. Entertaining for a light read, but I honestly found it a bit too clichéd. The alien premise was interesting, and the history of Tao’s long life was the best part, but the plot was nothing special.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik
A young woman, Agnieszka, is chosen by a wizard called the Dragon to come and live in his tower for ten years – a prospect that terrifies her. Meanwhile, the Wood, an ancient and corrupted forest which the Dragon holds at bay, has been advancing. Taking from classic fairy tales and spinning them into something new, this is a really excellent book.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps – Kai Ashante Wilson
A novella, this story follows a sorceror travelling with a caravan south through the treacherous Wildeeps, stalked by a dangerous beast. Reminiscent of the Dying Earth genre, this is a primitive-seeming fantasy setting where the weird and impossible is peppered with hints at a distant past of wildly advanced technempire  It is beautifully written, and in a distinctly African-American vernacular that makes it stand out among the plain English and faux-Medieval language of most fantasy. If it has a major flaw it is its length – the ending is abrupt.

Empire Ascendant – Kameron Hurley
The second book in the Worldbreaker Saga, this has much of what was in The Mirror Empire – carnivorous plants, alternate reality doppelgangers, scheming politics, and a bloodthirsty conquering empire on the ascent. But this is the middle book of the trilogy, the Empire Strikes Back, and it is brutal. Everyone suffers, often in horrific ways; nothing is easy. If you think George R R Martin likes to hurt his characters, try this one and see the difference.

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
You shouldn’t need me to tell you this was good: this is the final book of the trilogy that started with Ancillary Justice, which took home every major SFF award in 2014. A direct continuation of the story told in Ancillary Sword, this sees Breq defending the Athoek system from the effects of Anaander Mianaai’s internal war. Like Breq, Leckie seems to like defying expectations, and this conclusion to the trilogy takes things in some unexpected directions. Like Ancillary Sword, this is a quieter book with a focus on the interpersonal relationships of the people around Breq – if you liked the previous volume, you’ll like this one.

Many Discworld Audiobooks – Terry Pratchett (read by Stephen Briggs)
While reading these other few books I’ve continued my big listen through the Discworld series – I am currently on Wintersmith – and they are just brilliant. Terry Pratchett was a master, and he’ll never be replaced. I’m convinced, for example, that it would be impossible to improve the funeral chapter in Wintersmith.

Now that I’m caught up, I’ll try to find more things to post about – soon!

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately

I haven’t blogged about books since April(!) and that was about a book I read in January, so I think I need to get back on top of that. Long gone are my days of Book-A-Week, which I was never going to manage to sustain. Anyway, there are a lot of things I’ve been wanting to talk about and not getting round to, so I thought I’d throw up a shorter post about them here before the tumbleweeds start rolling through.

These are the books I’ve been reading since early August:

The Eternal Sky Trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear
I have tried to write a longer post about these books, but keep getting stuck. An epic fantasy trilogy set in a world inspired by central Asia, these three books – Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky – are very much worth picking up. Great, complex characters; a setting that contains a wide diversity of cultures and peoples; interesting mythology and magic (each culture has an entirely different sky, different gods, different magic, and all of it is real and true simultaneously); and an excellently written and plotted story. The trilogy, as a complete work, will probably take a slot on my Hugo ballot next year.

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
The final volume of his Southern Reach trilogy (after Annihilation and Authority, which I also hadn’t written about), probably VanderMeer’s strongest work to date. A work of weird science fiction with something of an environmentalist theme, these books about the mysterious Area X, and the Southern Reach organisation that studies it, are difficult for me to describe, except to say that they are strange, beautifully written, and full of mysteries that will keep you guessing at the true nature of everything that is depicted inside. Acceptance provides a very satisfactory closing chapter to that tale, with just enough answers and just enough mystery remaining. This trilogy will also probably make it onto my Hugo ballot.

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor
A science fiction novel about an alien invasion that is really a book about the Nigerian city of Lagos and its people – their different lives, their beliefs, their language, and all that makes Lagos what it is. A lot of dialogue in Lagoon is in Pidgin English, which I found a little tricky to follow at times (I did not notice the glossary in the back until I was done), but don’t take that as a criticism of the book – I’m only a monolingual Brit, and I still found a little confusion worth it for the feel the use of these characters’ natural speech gave the book. An enjoyable read, and a little weirder than I had anticipated. Worth checking out.

The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley
I started talking up this book and recommending it around before I even read it. Luckily I was right to do so: This is a really excellent beginning to an epic fantasy series, and it has some of the most original and complex worldbuilding I’ve come across. A world filled with hostile, flesh-eating plant life, where bears and dogs are huge creatures used as mounts, where magic is granted by strange satellites in the sky, and where every 2000 years, one particular satellite appears and brings with it invaders from other worlds. Not only that, but Hurley has created unfamiliar new cultures for each of the nations on this world, from a pacifist, consent-based society with five genders, to a violent matriarchy where men are little more than breeding stock. The strangeness of all of this at once (and more besides) at the beginning of the book can feel a little daunting, but after a few chapters it becomes a fast, compelling read. It is also a pretty violent book, and Hurley seems to like to put her characters through the wringer. Highly recommended – another candidate for my Hugo ballot.

“Scale-Bright”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
I’ve mentioned it before: Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes really excellent short fiction. “Scale-Bright” is her first novella, and it confirms that she is just as good in a longer format. Gods and demons, romance, family – Sriduangkaew gives us all this in a beautifully written package, one that I very much enjoyed reading. You can guess what I’m going to say: Hugo ballot.

Anyway, those are the books I’ve read since the start of August. I’m not sure what is next – I have big stacks of unread books, and a few of those are brand new releases I want to get to. I will try to write about the things I’m reading here more often.

The Hugo Awards 2014

So the Hugo Awards were handed out on Sunday, and I was there for the ceremony. Despite some of the controversy about the shortlist – which I’ve spoken about before but won’t go into now – the results were pretty pleasing.

Ancillary Justice continued its clean sweep of the major awards – it has now won Hugo, Clarke, Nebula, BSFA, Locus, and Kitschie Awards, was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick award, and made the Tiptree Award Honors List. It’s pretty much the most successful novel ever published in the genre in terms of award wins. And there’s a sequel out soon, so expect to see that making a pretty big splash.

I was very happy to see John Chu and Mary Robinette Kowal take home awards for their stories, but I was a little more surprised by the Stross win – Equoid was a good story, but in my mind the category was between Cat Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White and Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages’ Wakulla Springs, and the panelists on Friday’s discussion of the short fiction ballot at Loncon3 had suggested the same. Looking at the full voting figures, it turns out Wakulla Springs wasn’t even close.

Kameron Hurley was a big success this year, taking home Best Fan Writer and Best Related Work for her essay “We ave Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative”. That essay may have also played a part in the victory of Aiden Moher’s A Dribble of Ink in the Best Fanzine category. As I said back in my post about my votes, I had been very uncertain of what the “best” work was in the Related Work category, because it’s so hard to compare the different things; but Hurley’s work is one I can get behind winning the award.

Going through the full statistics is one of the more interesting parts of the Hugo Awards announcements; it’s always enlightening to see the actual numbers behind the results. Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form was always going to draw my eye, as I like to spot where the Doctor Who votes go as each entry is eliminated. “The Name of the Doctor”, among the worst episodes (that nevertheless made it onto the ballot), received the fewest votes for 1st place and ultimately ranked 5th. Interesting to note that of the 83 who ranked it 1st, 50 ranked “The Day of the Doctor” 2nd, and 6 listed no other preference after this one episode. Most of the votes for “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot” similarly went to “The Day of the Doctor” or “An Adventure in Space and Time” when it was eliminated. The key here, though, is that it looks like almost as many people ranked Game of Thrones below their first choice Doctor Who item; that and the 2nd place votes of half the Orphan Black fans kept “The Red Wedding” in the lead.

The nomination details can be pretty interesting too; not only can you see what almost made it (The Shining Girls, Locke & Key, and Joey Hi-Fi were very close to the ballot in their respective categories), you also get to see just how low the bar is for nomination. While it takes about 100 nominations or more to get onto Best Novel, the Short Story that went on to win the award had only 43 nominations. All but one of the Best Graphic Story nominations received less than 40 noms (Saga was miles ahead with 164). And fully half of the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form list received less than 50 nominations. (The really awful Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Time of the Doctor”, was itself only 3 nominations short of the ballot, at 35.)

And looking at these numbers, I actually feel encouraged. Not because it’s a good thing they’re low, but because it means that the things that got onto the ballot that maybe weren’t very good, well, they actually weren’t that popular in the first place. It takes surprisingly little to get something on the shortlist, but once on there, it’s quality that tends to win out, as the wins for Ancillary Justice and “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” show. So I find myself wanting to keep taking part, and to encourage others to do so. I want to be one of those numbers, to bring the numbers required upward, and in so doing maybe to help make what’s on the ballot better reflect what’s good in the genre*.

I have nominating rights to next year’s Hugos, as a member of Loncon3. I might decide to buy a supporting membership to Sasquan, so that I can vote on the awards and also for Helsinki to host in 2017. Whatever I decide, I will be taking part on some level next year.

* I realise I sound like I’m trying to prescribe what other people should like, here. I don’t intend to fault people for enjoying what they enjoy; I just think it’s possible, for example, to like Doctor Who while acknowledging that it’s pretty often badly written and not on the same level as other eligible works. I enjoy watching Doctor Who; I just don’t think it’s great television.

Loncon3 – Sunday

Another day, another Stroll with the Stars; I said hi to a few people but once again didn’t really manage to chat with anyone. On the panels side, I started with The Spies We (Still) Love, all about spies in mostly TV and movies but also a little in literature. This was one that kind of got into just a series of people calling out names of spy shows they like, and it felt like the 1 hour slot didn’t give much room for discussion.

After a lunch break, I ignored some of my instincts and went to Learning the World, a panel about worldbuilding in secondary world fiction. I figured it’d be interesting, and the panelists – mostly experts in one area or another, like medicine or archaeology – did offer some good points on various things, but the panel seemed to spend a bit too much time focusing on small details. There were a couple of pretty bad questions from obvious amateur writers in the audience, and the moderator had a tendency to talk at length about what he was doing in his own work-in-progress (the words “In my fantasy novel…” came up too many times to count).

The Wrong Apocalypse was next, a panel about climate change and the environment, and the ways our media does, does not, and should tackle this serious issue. It was a good, interesting panel, which gave a lot of things to think about. I was planning to hop straight into another panel afterward, but by that point I was sore from sitting so long and very thirsty, so I didn’t go to my next panel. Not sure that was the right decision, because it left me with nothing to do for most of that hour and a half.

When I did get back to programming, it was for the We Have Always Fought panel, which used Kameron Hurley’s essay as a starting off point for a discussion of depictions of women’s roles in fiction, in history, and just in general culture. This was one of the more interesting panels, which touched on a lot of topics: real female figures in combat roles in history, particularly discussing female pilots; how gendered pronouns in language affect perception of characters; the gendered perceptions of genre as pertains to the labels “hard” and “soft” sci fi… There were just a lot of good points here, although the moderator got a little lost in her notes now and then. I was also happy to hear Rupetta by Nike Sulway recommended, because I really loved that book. I still need to get around to James Tiptree, Jr and Joanna Russ, sometime.

The last thing before the big event of the night was a reading by Elizabeth Bear; she read a portion of her short story Shoggoths in Bloom, which has me very tempted to go buy her collection in the dealer’s room tomorrow before I leave…

Finally, I did in fact attend the Hugo Awards ceremony. I’m not sure I gained anything from being there in person, other than tired hands from all the clapping, to be honest. I would’ve tried to chat with people beforehand, but I wound up sat between a group of friends talking in French and another guy who didn’t come across as feeling sociable. As for the results of the awards, I wasn’t very surprised, although I really didn’t expect Charles Stross’ story to win; I’ve come to think of Wakulla Springs as the best thing on that ballot (even though you may recall I actually voted it second place to Cat Valente). I’ll be taking a look at the full results at some point soon, and might decide to write about it a little.

So, that was my Worldcon. I leave tomorrow, and don’t really have time for any programme items at all, so this is the last of Loncon3 I’ll see. I have of course only seen a tiny portion of all that’s on here, and one person’s Worldcon will be very different from the next, there is such a huge variety of things to do. Being as unsocial as I am, my experience is certainly not representative of what the convention is for a lot of other attendees.

I have enjoyed the con a lot, though the question is still unsettled in my mind as to whether cons are my type of thing. It’s supposed to be a very social event, but as expected I myself have gone through it pretty isolated. While I’ve enjoyed the programming, generally, I’ve not so much enjoyed the dead spots in between panels, where I, not knowing people and not being able to go up and talk to people I don’t know, would find myself lapping the fan village, dealer’s room, and exhibition area, or just sitting on a bench checking twitter. If I’d had longer here I might have eventually started to relax about starting conversations, but almost as soon as it’s started this is done, and who knows how long it might be until I come to something like this again. I don’t know if I could manage the same thing while also having to travel into a foreign country for it.

I didn’t talk about it here on the blog, saving it for Twitter, but my anxiety issues hit me pretty bad yesterday, and I don’t know if that was just a single specific incident, or a sign of what I’m likely to go through if I keep putting myself in these situations. Maybe I just can’t cope with it.

As always, I wish I knew more people in real life who shared my interests in science fiction and fantasy. I wish I knew how and where to find those people. It would help me a lot to actually be able to engage with people about the things I love, rather than only the kind of shouting into the void I do here. This trip was supposed to give me a taste of that, and it did, briefly, at Friday’s Welcome Party, but I guess I just can’t get past the way I am.

Anyway, I did not go into this post intending to run off on this particular tangent; I came here to talk about the things I did do at Worldcon, not what I didn’t do. And what I did was hear a lot of interesting, informative, and entertaining discussion of science fiction and fantasy and related issues. I enjoyed that side of it and that’s the memory I want to try to take away with me.

Thursday Linkdump

Time for my weekly post of interesting links. This is mostly just to make me post something at least once a week even when I have no ideas.

1. Guantanamo Again
Artist Molly Crabapple returned to Guantanamo Bay for a second visit, this time to tour the prison, and wrote up another excellent piece for Vice.

2. Batwoman Won’t Get Married
…As a result of editorial decisions which led to the writers quitting the comic. i09 talks about why DC’s explanation of the decision is bullshit.

3. Men Entering Traditionally Female Fandoms
Kameron Hurley wrote a piece talking about the entrance of men into My Little Pony fandom, and how men becoming fans of something somehow legitimises that fandom, while also marginalising women who had been in the fandom before them.

4. What Editors Really Think
…About your manuscript, but won’t put in the rejection letter.

And not a link I was saving, but: Are you listening to Welcome to Night Vale? No? Well go get on with it, then!

A Few Links

Good things seen on the web recently.

1.
You should read this excellent essay by Kameron Hurley on the depiction of women in media and in history lessons, and its effect on cultural perceptions. And also llamas.

So you forget the llamas that don’t fit the narrative you saw in films, books, television – the ones you heard about in the stories – and you remember the ones that exhibited the behavior the stories talk about. Suddenly, all the llamas you remember fit the narrative you see and hear every day from those around you. You make jokes about it with your friends. You feel like you’ve won something. You’re not crazy. You think just like everyone else.

2.
io9 has posted a very funny FAQ that tears apart the many, many plot holes in Star Trek Into Darkness. I saw the film a bit over a week ago, and while I did enjoy it, I can’t help but agree with the points made here. Note: Spoils the entire film.

3.
And in fiction, I recently read this excerpt from the novel Rupetta by Nike Sulway, posted on Weird Fiction Review: The Miracle of Consciousness. It has easily convinced me to buy the full novel. Check it out.