Christina Vasilevski

Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience

Book Review: Digger by Ursula Vernon

Digger: The Omnibus Edition, by Ursula VernonTitle: Digger: The Complete Omnibus
Author: Ursula Vernon
Publisher: Sofawolf Press
Format: Print (Softcover)
Rating: 5 out of 5

Stories are living things. As they grow, so do the creators behind them. Most of the time, this change is imperceptible because it happens page by page and panel by panel. But sometimes, sometimes, you get the opportunity to see that growth as it happens.

Like, say, when you read a single-volume collection of an awesome, epic webcomic that was originally published over the course of six years.

Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels is a wombat. Not only that, but she’s lost. She hit a pocket of bad air while tunneling, and got so turned around that when she unexpectedly emerged from the floor of the temple of Ganesh in the backwater town of Rath, she did so with relief.

Unfortunately, that tunnel was much longer than anyone expected. Rath is far, far away from home, and it appears that someone, somehow, had been planning for that tunnel to be created for a long time – someone who wanted to escape into the world above-ground. Now Digger and her new-found companions – including an outcast hyena, a child made of shadows, a shrew-turned-pirate-turned-professional-troll, and a traumatized monk – are entering very dangerous territory involving prophecies and undead gods.

And, oh yeah: there are the usual fantasy elements like oracular slugs, winged librarian rats, and vampire squash. All quite normal, really.

Digger first appeared on my radar back when I was in university. I’d heard about it through another comic – I think through Bruno by Christopher Baldwin. At that point, it was only a few chapters in, and once I hit the paywall for the comic, I didn’t go any further. Despite that, it still occupied a place in the back of my mind. Talking wombats! Hyenas! Gods! Really foreboding, distinctive black and white art! How would the title character, a lost (but eminently pragmatic and capable) wombat, return home?

I let that question stew in my head for years, only for the comic to reappear on my radar with the 2012 Hugo nomination slate. I was delighted when it won, as I had fond memories of the opening chapters. But it was really a recent episode of the SF Squeecast that spurred me to buy the whole thing.

God, there’s so much to love about Digger. It takes all of the best aspects of Jeff Smith’s Bone – the black and white art, the relateable main character, the epic mythology, the length – and piles on deadpan humour, pathos, even more kick-ass female characters, and such difficult-to-address topics as…

  • the nature of faith
  • culture shock
  • domestic abuse
  • the meaning of familial bonds
  • the nature of evil
  • how to brew a good cauldron of druid beer

That last one is a bit of a joke, of course, but the others in that list are true. What does it mean to believe in a god? How do you show respect towards the dead if paying that respect involves doing something against your nature? If people avert their eyes to avoid addressing a bad situation, are they any less to blame when that situation gets markedly worse? Vernon touches upon all of these issues and more.

That said, there are other places where the comparison to Bone isn’t so positive. Neither comic quite stuck the landing, I feel. In particular, with Digger, the final confrontation with the antagonist happened much more quickly than I expected. Also, the motivations and actions of the secondary antagonist (Captain Jhalm) were underdeveloped: I never truly understood why he felt that his course of action made sense.

However, against the rest of the book, those are smaller concerns. What’s really valuable here is that this is a compressed time capsule of years upon years of work. All stories are like that, but few stories show that progression so linearly – you can see it in the change of Vernon’s drawing style, as she moves from a style that’s scratchy and linear to one that’s more fluid. It’s like watching a river find its own particular riverbed. And it’s definitely worthy of a Hugo.

A final note: you can get the omnibus edition through Sofawolf Press here, or you can read the entire comic online at www.diggercomic.com.

My 2012 Hugo Award Nominations

Today was the deadline for this year’s Hugo Award nominations, so I finally got down to work and submitted my ballot.

I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable of the field to submit nominations in every category, but I also wanted to talk about what works I did nominate, and why. So here goes:

Best Novel

Best Novelette

  • Fade to White by Catherynne M. Valente, published by Clarkesworld Magazine – Valente is one of those authors I desperately want a blood transfusion from, in the hopes that I might absorb and recreate her writerly amazingness. Like the previous year’s “Silently and Very Fast”, this story examines the uneasy ways in which technology and progress affect our bodies and our families, but this time through the lens of 50’s boosterism and Cold War paranoia. The full text is available to read here.
  • The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal – A lovely story that blends together The Wizard of Oz; 50’s-era retro futurism; and painful truths about old age, losing the one you love, and balancing your family hopes with your career. You don’t think it would work,  but it totally does. The full text is available to read here.

The whole “revisionist look at the 50’s” theme present in both stories is just a coincidence, I swear.

Best Short Story

This is the category I felt most informed about because of all the stories I consume, but even so, the frontrunners were obvious.

  • Robot by Helena Bell, published in Clarkesworld Magazine – The thing I love about this story is that it’s written in second person – and God, does Helena Bell make it work. This has to be one of the most jaw-dropping, inventive, virtuoso-like (virtuosic?) stories of 2012. The full text is available to read here, but I honestly think it’s better in its audio form – Cat Rambo’s narration gives it an extra edge of pain and verisimilitude. You can listen to the podcast version here.
  • Immersion by Aliette de Bodard, published in Clarkesworld Magazine – This was one of the most heartbreaking stories I heard last year. This is one in a string of stories written by Aliette de Bodard taking place in the future on a series of Vietnamese space stations. She is one of several authors whose writing has forced me to analyze my position as privileged reader and writer of speculative fiction – being that I’m white, anglo, straight, ablebodied, and cis-gendered – and for that I am grateful. The full text is available to read here.
  • Spindles by L.B. Gale, published in Lightspeed Magazine – This one is a bit more experimental, but I’m a sucker for stories that reinvent and subvert fairy tale tropes, and this one has a healthy, heaping tablespoon of feminist dissent. The full text is available to read here.
  • The Seven Samovars by Peter Sursi, published in Lightspeed Magazine – This one isn’t as “deep” or issues-laden as the nominees above, but there’s something about the breeziness and whimsy of it that I dig. It’s quite dialgoue-heavy, but it works because it sells the otherworldliness of the story’s setting; I would love to work at a coffee shop like the one in the story – either that, or have a cup of Erzebet’s mint, basil, and lemon verbena tea, which sounds delicious. The full text is available to read here.
  • Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain by Cat Rambo, published in her anthology Near + Far by Hydra House – Cat Rambo read this story aloud at the 2012 World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, and it made me and the audience gasp. Literally. I figure any story that can do that is worth greater attention. The full text is available to read here.

Best Related Work

  • Writing Excuses with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells – This podcast has taught me so much about writing in the year and a half that I’ve been listening to it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Best Editor, Short Form

  • Lynne M. Thomas for Apex Magazine – I really love Apex in the short time that I’ve been subscribing to it, so I might as well give it, and her, another form of support.
  • John Joseph Adams for Lightspeed Magazine – It took me a long time to get into the groove of Lightspeed after I subscribed to it. A lot of the time, I don’t like the stories and novellas he chooses for this magazine. However, his choices do display a consistent editorial sensibility, and for that, I respect him.

Best Editor, Long Form

  • Brett Savory of ChiZine Publications
  • Sandra Kasturi of ChiZine Publications

What can I say? I love me some ChiZine. I love the work they put out (as evidenced by my Best Novel nominations above), and I love the fact that they’re based in Toronto like I am.

Best Fan Artist

I found these suggestions through Twitter – thanks, Mary Robinette Kowal and co!

Best Semiprozine

I subscribe to the first three magazines, and read slush (quite happily!) for the fourth. There is no way I can be objective about this category.

Best Fancast

  • SF Squeecast – Yes, this won the Hugo last year, but I only started listening to it a few weeks ago, and it’s amazing. I love the hosts’ crazy conversations.
  • SF Crossing the Gulf – I love Karen Lord, so I’ll gladly support the podcast she cohosts with Karen Burnham.
  • The Geeks Guide to the Galaxy – Transcripts of GGG’s interviews show up in my electronic subscription to Lightspeed Magazine, and I quite enjoy them, so this gets a nod. One caveat, though: I much prefer the transcripts over the original audio versions.

Best Fan Writer

  • Requires Only That You Hate – Like I mentioned above, several websites in the last year have made me re-examine the privilege that I hold in regards to being a “normative” consumer and (hopefully) producer of fiction. I’m nowhere near close to writing truly inclusive, progressive fiction, but Requires Only That You Hate, with its queer, feminist, and PoC critical lens, does a fine job of lobbing introspective grenades.

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

  • Damien Walters Grintalis – Here I admit my bias again: Damien is an editor at Electric Velocipede, which I read slush for. I haven’t read her debut novel Ink, but several short stories of hers are available online, and they’re dark, literary, and fantastic. Try these on for size if you’re interested: When She is Empty and They Make of You a Monster.
  • Peter Sursi – As I mentioned above, I quite liked “The Seven Samovars,” and figured that since he was one of the few new/upcoming writers on my ballot, I should show him some support.
  • L.B. Gale – Same thing. I liked “Spindles”, and I also quite like her blog, so I want to support someone new and awesome.
  • Rachel Hartman – Seraphina was Hartman’s debut, and as far as I’m aware, she hasn’t published anything else. Since her book was one of my favourites of last year, it’s foolish to leave her off the list.

So that’s my ballot for the year. What about you? Even though today’s the deadline, what remarkable fiction from 2012 can you recommend?

The Hugo Nominee Ballot, Part 2

This is a follow-up to my previous post about the Hugo nominees in various categories of fiction. Last time I discussed the short story, novelette, and John W. Campbell shortlists. Today, I’ll discuss the novella and novel shortlists.

Best Novella

My choices: Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente and The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson

The Best Novella shortlist was easily the hardest one to vote for on the entire ballot, as both of the novellas listed above were extraordinary.

Silently and Very Fast is the story of Elefsis, an artificial intelligence that has interacted with the bodies and minds of one family over generations – they inherit it and merge with it in dreams. But it’s also about much more than that. It’s about the freedom that dreams afford us to imagine the beautiful and fantastical. It’s about the layers of resentment that build up when families have predicated their identities so thoroughly on one thing that to try to live a life outside of that thing is nearly impossible. It’s about the fear we have for the machines that will eventually replace us. It’s about fairy tales. Above all, though, it’s about Elefsis’ bone-deep need to be recognized as a being with needs and wants as complex as any human’s.

The Man Who Bridged the Mist is about Kit Meinem, an engineer from the capital coming to a small riverside town to build a bridge. This is not just any river, though – the current is made not of water, but of a roiling, caustic mist with no riverbed beneath it. Giant creatures writhe in its depths and the only method of crossing it is by ferry. However, the ferry is sporadic at best, as the ferrymen and women can sense the river’s moods and cross only when they feel it is safe to do so. The bridge could transform the sleepy little town into a vital trading centre, but it would also mean the loss of the ferrypeople’s livelihoods. Of course, the bridge is not just a symbol for the town, but for the engineer himself, a distant man who slowly but surely – and to his own surprise – becomes an integral part of the community.

Both novellas display assured pacing and characterization. I especially appreciated the “rightness” of the ending for Bridged the Mist, and was happy that Kij Johnson didn’t break the ruminative, contemplative tone of her story by inserting needless  drama into it. However, I ended up making Silently and Very Fast my first choice in this category because its ambitions were so outsized, and it was working on a much broader canvas.

The others: (in no particular order)

  • Kiss Me Twice by Mary Robinette Kowal -This was a fun police procedural set in the future, where cops solve cases with the assistance of AIs that they interact with through VR glasses. Metta, the Portland police department’s AI, has been stolen, and it’s up to detective Scott Huang, working in tandem with a backup of Metta, to understand the case. It’s an interesting concept with a great workaround for mashing up Hollywood glamour with sci-fi tropes – Metta’s avatar when she works with Detective Huang spouts Mae West quotes – but ultimately, the central mystery left too many questions unanswered for me to enjoy it.
  • Countdown by Mira Grant – This novella is a prequel to Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, and explains the genesis of the trilogy’s zombie plague. However, the novella itself was plagued by flat, dead writing. I felt no spark when I read this – the text felt like a lifeless series of “this happened, and then that happened” occurrences. It brought to mind all of the other zombie/plague stories I’ve read – The Stand, World War Z, etc – and suffered immeasurably by comparison.
  • The Ice Owl by Carolyn Ives Gilman – This was a science fiction story with faster-than-light travel and hypersleep that also incorporated elements of the Holocaust into the plot. Its biggest flaw was the relationship between the main character, Thorn, and her mother, Maya. In the end, Thorn decided to run away from her mother, because she was sick of Maya’s bohemian, peripatetic ways – Maya’s carelessness resulted in the death of the title animal, the last of its species, which was given as a gift to Thorn by a friend. However, when Thorn arrived at her destination after years of hypersleep, her first independent taste of hostility had her running back into her mother’s conveniently nearby arms. The characters were unvinvolving, the references to the Holocaust were ham-fisted, and the setting was unmemorable. This was easily the weakest nominee on the novella shortlist.
  • The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary by Ken Liu – What if time travel actually worked, but time travellers could revisit the same time and place only once? The Man Who Ended History is the story of how one man’s idealistic use of time travel – to unearth the truth surrounding Unit 731 – ended up causing an international diplomatic crisis. Most intriguing was the formatting of the story as the transcript of a real documentary, complete with descriptions of camera movements. I appreciated Liu’s skill in telling this story, but it was depressing, to say the least.

Best Novel

My choice: None.

This may sound harsh, but it really isn’t. On the ballot, you can list your votes in order of rank. you can state that none of the nominees deserve to win, or – as I did – you can abstain from voting altogether. I abstained because I didn’t feel informed enough to make a choice. Here’s what happened with each of the nominees:

  • A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin – I didn’t read this book. I haven’t read a single book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and I didn’t want (or have the time) to read the 4 gargantuan novels that preceded it in order to determine ADwD‘s own merits. My guess is that this one will win the Hugo anyway – HBO has allowed Martin’s books to reach critical mass with the public, and the fact that the TV show is now so popular/recognizable will definitely affect its vote count. Think, for example, of the 2001 Hugo award given to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – you can bet that it won not because of a large slate of informed fantasy afficionadoes, but because it had a huge fan base. In a nice bit of irony, Harry Potter won out over A Storm of Swords, another book in Martin’s series.
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey – I reviewed this one previously. It was a fun story, and I am definitely considering reading the sequels, one of which is already out. But as I said in my review, I don’t think that this book was groundbreaking or ambitious enough for it to be considered award-worthy.
  • Deadline by Mira Grant – I didn’t read this one either. In general, I decided I didn’t want to bother with catching up to the latest books in series that I wasn’t familiar with. Anyways, if the calibre of writing in Deadline matched that found in Countdown – mentioned above – I’m probably better off for skipping it.
  • Among Others by Jo Walton – I just posted my review for this one a few days ago. I appreciated the depth of effort that went into making Mor a living, breathing person, but the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying. Also, as I mentioned in my review, I’m worried that the book’s built-in references to and praise for various genre books from the late 1970s was a calculated attempt to win voters/judges over.
  • Embassytown by China Mieville – Alas, we come to the odd book of the bunch – the one I started to read, but could not finish. I am aware of Mieville’s critical reputation, and I am aware that he’s a very acquired taste. However, I just could not get through this book. I bailed about 10% of the way in. The book’s world-building was thorough, but too immersive in the sense that Mieville just expected you to accept the realities of his world without any context. Does this speak to an intellectual laziness on my part? Perhaps. But at the very least, I’d like to understand what I’m reading.

What does this mean in the long run?

This was the first time I’ve ever voted on the Hugo ballot. Overall, I was very pleased with the experience, as I got to read the work of a number of writers that were previously unknown to me, like Karen Lord’s wondrous Redemption in Indigo. It cost only $50 to get the support membership package, which meant that I got the entire collection of fiction on the ballot – all of the Short Story, Novelette, Novella, Novel, and John W. Campbell Award nominees – for a ludicrously good price. And it was all in electronic format, meaning I could upload the whole thing to my Kobo! Pure bliss.

Paying the membership fee also means I can nominate good works for next year’s ballot. Given the choice, I would gladly do this all over again in 2013.

On a related note, the World Fantasy Convention just released their shortlist for this year’s World Fantasy Awards. This is a set of juried prizes, but it’s pleasant to see some overlap between the WFA and Hugo ballots.

Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Title: Among Others
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook
Note: Nominated for this year’s Hugo award for Best Novel

Most of us feel miserable as teenagers, but we often don’t understand the depth of those feelings until adulthood. This is one of the things that intrigues me most about Jo Walton’s Among Others. Mor is aware that she’s isolated (being a working-class, Welsh, crippled girl in a posh British boarding school will do that to you) but will the depth of her isolation become truly apparent to her later on as an adult? Among Others is all about Mor’s isolation, her roiling thoughts, and her one coping mechanism: Reading a ton of science fiction and fantasy books.

Walton has structured the book in an unusual way. There are no chapters; instead, the book is presented as the diary Mor keeps during her first year of attendance at Arlinghurst, a boarding school in England. What’s more, the catastrophe that has shaped Mor’s circumstances – the castastrophe that tends to take centre stage in the books she so loves to read – is in the past, and due to the diary-like nature of the book is never presented in flashback.

Instead, we learn the following: Mor is the survivor of a pair of twins. Both of them, like their mother, were able to practice magic and converse with the fairies that lived in the ruins and forests surrounding their community in Wales. Her sister, also named Mor (one being short for “Morganna” and the other being short for “Morwenna”), died the previous November in a car accident that left the surviving Mor crippled.

Immediately before the accident, both twins had been involved in a fight against their mother. Mor is vague with the details, and says only that the fight was a magical one done to prevent their mother from turning into a “dark queen” – to quote Lord of the Rings – and gaining even more power. After the accident Mor ran away, and custody over her was not awarded to her extended family in Wales, but instead to her father, a man who abandoned the twins when they were children.

Now she’s been packed off to Arlinghurst by her father’s overbearing older sisters. Her only solace is reading loads of (now classic) science fiction and fantasy books from the late 70s – books by LeGuin, Zelazny, Heinlein, and Vonnegut, for example.

The omnipresence of science fiction and fantasy literature in Among Others accomplishes several things:

  • It establishes the time period: Mor’s diary takes place from 1979 to 1980.
  • It makes the narrator’s voice feel natural: Mor’s opinions about the books she reads are the kind of hyperbolic, righteous ones that are endemic to teenagers. I like to imagine that when she’s an adult, she’ll look back on her diary entries and cringe with embarrassment over how amateurish she sounded.
  • It reinforces one of the key themes in the book: That the magic that Mor reads about in her books is not like the magic she practices.

This last point is the most important. In many ways, Mor is looking for validation in what she reads, but she knows from her own attempts to practice magic – the consequences of which often scare her – that it’s much messier and less systematic in real life than it is in fiction. This also prepares us for the climax, when Mor finally confronts her mother again and manages to subdue her permanently using both her magic and her love of books.

However, the use of the diary format makes the final magical fight less immediate and rather anticlimactic. This is one of my biggest problems with Among Others. While I admire Walton’s consistency – magic in books isn’t like the real magic Mor knows, so why should the final battle read like something that came out of a book? – it’s not psychologically satisfying.

Perhaps this subversion of standard fantasy plots is why the book won the Nebula award for best novel, and why it’s also up for the Hugo award. However, I fear that the major reason for the book’s critical reception is precisely that it praises so many books that are part of the genre’s canon.

As an interesting parallel, think of how many Oscars The Artist won earlier this year. I haven’t seen it myself, but I understand the reservations of others who think the The Artist won because it praised the magic of movies and kept telling Hollywood how beautiful and pure it used to be. A similar strain of “Wasn’t sci-fi and fantasy fiction in the past just grand?” nostalgia threads itself throughout Among Others, and this became extremely grating. In essence, I worry that it’s going to win the Hugo because it gave the genre a hand job.

With all this in mind, did I enjoy Among Others? Yes. But do I think it deserves the Hugo award? As I said with Leviathan Wakes, no. Crafting a protagonist so eminently real as Mor is one thing. But trying to gain access to the Critically Praised Genre Novel Club just by invoking past members of said club is another.

Up next: The Big Short by Michael Lewis.

The Hugo Nominee Ballot, Part 1

Yesterday was the deadline for voting on this year’s Hugo nominee ballot. I bought a copy of the Nominee Packet as soon as it became available in mid-May, and devoured the contents over the next few weeks, so I’m going to discuss my choices behind which nominees I voted for.

Note: This post and a following one will be a discussion of the five main fiction categories only: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, Best Short Story, and the John W. Campbell Award.

Update: The follow-up post is now live.

Best Short Story

My choice: Movement by Nancy Fulda – I’ve written about Nancy Fulda’s short stories before, but I was blown away by this one when I first encountered it, and continue to be when I re-read it. The throughline is consistent, and the metaphors sprinkled throughout the story all serve to complement the main story thread: Hannah’s gradual decision that she does not want to sacrifice her unique traits and become neurotypical, even if it means a lifetime of continual isolation and misunderstanding. Plus, the dialogue that ends the story is wrenching; you hope against hope that Hannah’s mother will understand what she’s truly trying to say.

The other nominees: (in no particular order)

  • The Homecoming by Mike Resnick – Not a bad story by any means, but the final reconciliation between father and son was too sudden to be believable. Plus, the narrator relied on the word “Dammit” too much to convey his frustration with his son. Ultimately, I feel the pathos that the ending tried to evoke wasn’t supported by the events that preceded it.
  • The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu – If Movement weren’t on the ballot, I would probably have voted for this one instead. It’s definitely the most inventive/fantastic of the nominee slate, and the imperialistic tone of the negotiation between the wasps and the bees was spot-on. My only quibble was that the ending was too abrupt, but I’m willing to concede that this is a matter of taste on my part rather than poor narrative structure on the author’s.
  • The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu – You know what? I’m just going to swipe quote from a comment I posted on Jim C. Hines’ blog about the short stories category. Here we go:

    I’m the odd one out in that I didn’t like this one very much. Like The Homecoming, I thought it tried too hard to reach heights of emotion it didn’t earn. I was okay with the story until we read the mother’s letter to her son – that brought it to a screeching halt for a few reasons:

    1. The story says that the mother’s letter to her son was written on the same paper that she had used to create the paper tiger. Yet it also says that this same piece of paper was torn apart and taped back together. Could she really have written a letter of that length on an origami-sized piece of paper in such poor condition?

    2. The mother mentions she grew up among farmers and other peasants, and then became an undocumented worker in Hong Kong. This would indicate a low level of literacy – yet the letter she’s left behind is skillfully written, and there aren’t any odd/broken turns of phrase you might expect from someone with her level of schooling. Granted, the letter was spoken out loud by an interpreter, so we can’t know if the interpreter was smoothing out some of the language, but I still found it jarring.

  • The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue by John Scalzi – This one was a wickedly fun satire of fantasy cliches, but I found it didn’t have enough substance to compare with the other nominees on the ballot. Plus, Scalzi was pretty shameless about soliciting votes for this story in other competitions, even if said shamelessness was hilarious.

Best Novelette

My choice: Fields of Gold by Rachel Swirsky – Of the Novelette nominees, this story stuck in my memory the most. Perhaps it’s because I read this nominee first, but I also like to think that it’s because the main characters were so believably drawn. Who hasn’t known a man like Dennis, who wants the rewards of adulthood without the responsibility it entails, or a woman like Karen, a born problem-solver filled with contempt for her husband? In the end, it became a moving commentary on life, the afterlife, and failed expectations.

The other nominees: (in no particular order)

  • Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders – This was the one I enjoyed most after Fields of Gold. An interesting exploration of toxic relationships and whether the bad things that happen to us happen because they are inevitable, or because we refuse to believe that any positive alternatives exist. However, it’s also a real downer. Read at your own risk if you’re just getting over a nasty breakup.
  • What We Found by Geoff Ryman – This won the Nebula for Best Novelette, but I have to admit I don’t understand why. Ostensibly, it’s about the terror that a Nigerian scientist feels over his impending wedding, and the fear that he will pass on his family’s history of dysfunction to his future children. However, I got the sense that while the novelette strove for a deeper, more philosophical meaning, that meaning was never made fully apparent – the story was too disjointed to allow anything to cohere. Considering the recognition this story has gotten in other circles, I’m not sure if the problem lies in it or in me.
  • The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell – Apparently, this novelette is part of a series, a previous installment of which was also nominated for a Hugo award. It’s an alternate history involving… what, I’m not exactly sure. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mindset when I read it, or maybe I would have understood it more if I had read the other installments, but on the whole, I found it nigh incomprehensible.
  • Ray of Light by Brad R. Torgersen – A nice, solid, SF story that imagines what would happen if humanity’s last remnants had to start living on the ocean floor to avoid the effects of massive surface glaciation. I particularly liked the idea of a generation of teenagers who grew up without experiencing sunlight, and so decorated an abandoned ocean habitat to look like a beach. However, the main character’s quest for his missing daughter, as well as his discovery of the true state of the planet’s surface – Hey, it’s actually livable up here after all, but we adults were just too complacent to find out for ourselves! – was too pat.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

My choice: Karen Lord – Honestly, just read my review of Redemption in Indigo. That review alone will tell you why I chose Lord’s story over the others. And for the love of God, don’t stop there, but read the book itself too.

The other nominees: (in no particular order)

  • Mur Lafferty – Ah, Mur Lafferty. I love her as a podcasting personality, and I know that she’s tried her hardest to make a name for herself in the publishing industry for nearly a decade, but I was unimpressed by what she contributed to the Nomination Packet. For one thing, it was a single short story while the other nominees contributed much more. For another, the story she did contribute felt hollow at the centre, like it was missing some important bit of plot or information that would have tied the whole thing together.
  • E. Lily Yu – The works she contributed to the Nomination Packet were very strong, including her Hugo-nominated short story The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees (above). I don’t think she’s award-ready yet, but she’s certainly one to watch.
  • Brad R.Torgersen – Of the nominees in this category, Torgersen’s work hews most closely to the “golden age” concept of science fiction. I give Torgersen credit for writing good prose and fleshing out his ideas, but the ideas themselves aren’t that new. Even more troubling, the three stories of Torgersen’s included in the Nominee Packet all seemed to share the same broad strokes: Humanity is on the brink of collapse, and it is up to a straight white man in an isolated environment to battle loneliness and despair in preparation for some event that will drastically change his circumstances. Ultimately, I felt his work, while skillful, didn’t take speculative fiction writing in any new directions.
  • Stina Leicht – I didn’t get very far into Of Blood and Honey, the novel Leicht included in the Nomination Packet. The first chapter contained some extremely clumsy infodumping, so I stopped out of frustration. This review in Strange Horizons didn’t encourage me to give it a second chance, either.

That’s it for now. Come back in a few days to read Part 2 of this post, where I discuss the Best Novella and Best Novel categories!

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Title: Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, Book #1)
Author: James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
Publisher: Orbit
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook
Note: Nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel

Like any well-adjusted nerd, I grew up with Star Wars as a healthy part of my cinematic diet. I didn’t know it then, but Star Wars belonged to the sub-genre of science fiction known as space opera. Despite my exposure to the original trilogy I still haven’t read much in the way of space opera, so Leviathan Wakes was as good an introduction as any. I read it because it was one of this year’s Hugo Award nominees.

From what I gather, Leviathan Wakes uses many of the elements common to space operas: a diaspora of humans spread across several colonies within the solar system, space stations, and asteroid mining. However, it also includes science fiction concerns that are more contemporary, like sociopathic corporations, terrestrial ecological limits, and the proper use of military power.

Please note: this review contains spoilers.

It all starts with Juliette Andromeda Mao, the scion of a lunar corporation who rejected her affluent upbringing to join the Belters – the restless, entrepreneurial, and hardscrabble people who have abandoned life on Earth and Mars to make a go of it in the asteroid belt. Julie’s gone missing, and it’s fallen to Detective Miller – a cop on Ceres – to do a cursory investigation for his employer, a security agency partially owned by Julie’s family.

James Holden, the commanding officer of of an ice freighter, has found an abandoned ship in the middle of space and is captaining a small shuttle to investigate it. However, when his home ship is destroyed by a third party attempting to protect the abandoned vessel from interference, he sends out a distress signal that inadvertently shatters the fragile balance of power between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Ultimately, Holden’s search for answers and for safe harbour dovetails with Miller’s search for Julie Mao, which leads them both to the discovery of an alien life form that poses a threat to all three factions.

First off, there are several things that Leviathan Wakes does right. In particular, I appreciated the effort that went into imagining what a non-terrestrial form of human society would look like. Corey came up with subtle but effective touches, like imagining the resinous scent of air that’s been scrubbed through machine filters for generations, or how Belters would come up with an exaggerated set of gestures to convey information despite the bulkiness of space suits.

Less successful, but still interesting, was the inbuilt antagonism that Belters had for Earthers. Early in the book, Miller is partnered with Havelock, a detective from Earth. Later on this is revealed as an attempt by his supervisor to isolate both men; since no other Belter detective wants to work with an Earther, she decides to saddle him with Miller, a lonely has-been cop downtrodden by alcoholism and a messy divorce.

Havelock’s presence is meant to highlight the mutual distrust that those from Earth, Mars, and the Belt have for each other, but this fell flat, as all of the animosity was one-way – although Miller’s peers were antagonistic towards Havelock, Havelock didn’t respond in kind. This left me wondering where exactly the focus of class/privilege in the book resided. Did Belters feel naturally superior to Earthers? Did Earthers feel naturally superior to Belters? It makes sense for the latter to be true in context, but all of the Earthers present in the story were either neutral or supportive of Belter politics.

Such is the case with Holden, who gets caught up trying to find his way out of the web of Martian armies, Belter rebels, and corporate interests that he’s gotten himself tangled up in. He’s such an upstanding person, always willing to do what is right, that in the end he’s as distinctive as a slice of bread. This points to one of my biggest problems with the book – the lack of nuanced characterization. Miller’s a depressed alcoholic trying to solve his Big Case so that he can Make Things Right and restore his self-respect. James Holden is an honest man who grew up on a farm/commune, of all places.

However, sad-sack cops and forthright farmboys have nothing on the real villain: a corporation that has discovered an engineered parasite created by another species and wants to reverse-engineer it so that it can genetically modify humans for intergalactic travel.

This is where the space zombies come in.

You heard me right. Space zombies. As in, people infected by said parasite, who die, reanimate, and then dissolve into some sort of fleshy goo that coalesces into a giant sentient hive-mind.

One one level, this is is pretty cool. Zombies have been popular for a while now, and this twist on the genre is gonzo enough to work. But the book already contains enough interesting speculation on intrastellar life and politics that adding mutagenic zombie parasites into the mix seems a tad garish.

Despite this, I still enjoyed the climax, where Miller finally does meet up with Julie – or what’s left of her after she gets infected. Throughout the novel, Miller’s focus on Julie Mao has taken hold of him so thoroughly that his conscience eventually transforms into her likeness. When he finally meets her in person and talks to her, and she understands what he’s saying and asking her to do – when she realizes that she’s become the index case of the infestation she tried to escape, and that she has to sacrifice herself to prevent others from meeting the same fate – it’s a moment of sadness and beauty.

Did I enjoy Leviathan Wakes? Yes. It had some intriguing sociological insights, and some lovely images and events going on, especially at the climax. Would I be interested in reading the sequels when they are released? Sure. However, do I think that this book is worthy of the Hugo Award? No.

I’ll discuss the merits of the Hugo nominees in greater depth later, but suffice it to say that I was looking for a book that made me go “wow” – and this book was not it. It was workman-like and competent, but it didn’t have the radical political commentary of The Disposessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, the intricate thoroughness of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or the sheer holy-crap-this-is-amazing-ness of American Gods. In other words, it broke absolutely no new territory – and if anything, I think the best science fiction or fantasy book of the year should do at least that much.

Up next: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt

Book Review: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Title: Redemption in Indigo
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Rating: 5 out of 5
Format: eBook
Note: Nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

This was one of several works that I read in preparation for filling in my Hugo Awards ballot. There’s one more novel I need to read before I cast my vote, but this was one of my favourites.

About the book: Paama has a knack for making the best out of bad situations. After returning to her family, she manages to break off her marriage to her gluttonous husband with considerable tact and aplomb. Her actions attract the attention of supernatural beings who think that she is uniquely suited to control something far more dangerous than a fool with a mountainous appetite: the Chaos Stick. However, the original wielder of the power of Chaos wants his rightful property back…

What I liked: Good god. The whole story sounds like you’re hearing a storyteller in a courtyard. There’s a spider-shaped trickster spirit. There’s a prideful demon-spirit with indigo skin and eyes. There’s an order of women who have the ability to control dreams. There’s a poet, true love, secret identities, and magic. There’s a woman who, through the sheer simple force of her dignity and compassion for others, teaches the indigo-skinned demon-spirit about the value of duty. There’s delicious-sounding food. In short, what on earth didn’t I like?

What I disliked: I think this was a problem with my eBook copy, but the introductory chapter to the book was not listed in its table of contents. As such, I didn’t read it, so when some information came to light at the end of the fourth (or is it fifth?) chapter, and the Chaos Stick was mentioned by name, I nearly chucked my Kobo in frustration. Here I was, reading a lovely series of anecdotes about a resourceful woman and her foolish husband, and then the Chaos Stick showed up – an object with such a ridiculously portentous name that it sounded like it was ripped straight from a comic book. How on earth could something as cosmic as that fit in with what I had read of a woman trying to avoid scandal in a small town?

Then, of course, the spirits and magical women and tricksters showed up. This disconnect is part of why I enjoyed the book so much – it didn’t turn into a cheesy comic-book story, like I worried it would. However, I don’t think the title Redemption in Indigo prepares readers for what the story is about. Yes, the villain is a spirit with indigo skin who redeems himself, but compared to the heart of the story, the title is oblique at best.

The verdict: The characters are relatable and human – even the ones who aren’t human. In Redemption in Indigo, pride gives way to humility, and the force that changes the world, that melts the proudest heart and fills it with understanding, is dignity. All talk of morals aside, it’s reassuring to find a book with such a humane message – to have a villain who isn’t evil, but just bitter and tired, and to have a heroine who isn’t brave or plucky, but stable as an oak. The emotional state of each character changes subtly but realistically from chapter to chapter, like a river flowing. It’s wonderful to read something so assured and understanding of the human condition. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Up next: The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg