Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Holy crap. I’m reading slush for Lightspeed Magazine!

Lightspeed MagazineOK, I need to get something out of my system right now:

Ohmygod ohmygod I’m slush reading for Lightspeed this is so awesome everything is awesome someone please pinch me holy crap!

Alright, now let me back up:

A few weeks ago, sci-fi anthologist extraordinaire John Joseph Adams announced on his blog that Lightspeed Magazine was looking for some new slush readers. Those interested were free to apply online. So I did. I filled in all the boxes and fields, gave my contact info, and then submitted it, hoping that the science fiction gods would look down kindly upon me.

I didn’t hear anything for a bit, so I figured they were still wading through applications. However, since I’m an impatient little Virgo, I asked the magazine yesterday via Twitter if they had any updates. Within hours of that tweet, I got an email from Mr. Adams himself saying that I was on board! And that I had an account to access the slush pile right now and everything!

When I saw the email in my inbox I hyperventilated and squealed in delight. I’ve missed reading slush since the closure of Electric Velocipede, and the chance to do the same for Lightspeed – a magazine that I’ve subscribed to for years, and have mentioned in various blog posts here – is so cool. It’s a volunteer position, but I’m pretty sure I can fit it in with the other things I’m involved in, like my new writing group.

One final note: take a look at the Women Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter campaign that Lightspeed Magazine is running. If they make their stretch goals, they’ll do an additional all-female double-sized issue of Nightmare Magazine guest-edited by Ellen Datlow, and even resurrect Fantasy Magazine for an all-female double-sized issue edited by Cat Rambo. Who can say no to a deal like that?

Book Review: Machine of Death

Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !Title: Machine of Death
Editors: Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !
Rating: 4 out of 5
Publisher: Bearstache Books
Format: eBook

A few months ago, I read submissions for Apex Publications’ upcoming Glitter & Mayhem anthology. Reading the slush, and reading more stuff about it in the aftermath, I’ve learned something about what it takes to put together a good themed anthology. Specifically, don’t take stories that do obvious things with the stated theme.

Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !, is a collection of short stories that upholds that lesson in spades.

First, the theme, originally proposed by Dinosaur Comics: in the future, a machine is invented that can predict how a person will die based on a small blood sample. The machine is always correct, yet its predictions are vague and cryptic, resulting in deaths that are unexpected yet technically accurate.

The great pleasure of MoD is seeing what ways the authors have devised of going beyond the obvious idea of people meeting their demises in unexpected yet delightfully ironic ways. Instead, the strongest of these stories talk about what changes this new technology would have on our society, or how it would subvert previously-normal aspects of our lives. This is a long collection – at 34 stories, perhaps exhaustively so, and this length is my only complaint about the book – so instead of going through each story, I’ll pick out a few of my favourites:

“Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions” by Jeffrey C. Wells – I loved that the main character actively welcomes his death and is conditioning his body to be as healthy as possible when he dies, all so that the lions who are destined to eat him will have a good meal. This one had great dialogue, a truly memorable character, and an ending that reminded me a lot of Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt”.

“Firing Squad” by J. Jack Unrau – The framing story on this one is slightly odd, but the political commentary (as well as the uncomfortable truths it exposes about the ignorance of many rich Westerners backpacking through a developing country) pleased my inner university student.

“HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle” by Brian Quinlan – It’s all there in the title, folks. Audaciously brief.

“Not Waving but Drowning” by Erin McKean – This is my favourite from the entire collection. It’s brief, but the narrative voice behind it is spot on. I felt like I really knew this character – a high-schooler in a place where the MoD tests are mandated for all students – and why she made the choices she did to keep her death prediction private.

“Exhaustion from Having Sex with a Minor” by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw – Saucy title aside, this is a clever send-up of the media circus surrounding a political campaign. What really makes it is the twist at the end, which would have been impossible to conceal in any other narrative medium.

“Cocaine and Painkillers” by David Malki ! – This one went on a bit longer than it needed to, but it turns out that combining the Machine of Death with institutional sexism and infomercials is a success.

“Prison Knife Fight” by Shaenon K. Garrity  – Yet another one that comes up with a unique societal implication for the MoD: the death predictions are used as part of the screening and application process for elite preppy pre-schools. Here, the title knife fighter is one such toddler under consideration, and his plebeian manner of demise looms large over his patrician family as he grows up and slouches towards Yale.

“While Trying to Save Another” by Daliso Chaponda – Most of this story didn’t work for me, especially the main character, but there was one scene within it of particular beauty. In it, a secondary character knows that she will die tomorrow, and hosts a farewell party for her friends – the secrets they reveal, and the manner in which the person about to be murdered wishes to be remembered, is extremely poignant.

“Miscarriage” by James L. Sutter – I think this story subverts the anthology’s theme the most out of the entire collection. Ultimately, the death machine bodes well for the start of a life, rather than the end of one. It all hinges on the final line of dialogue.

“Cassandra” by C.E. Guimont – This is the last story in the book, and I can see why the editors chose to close it out with this one. Not only is it the only one in the collection that actually attempts to give a full explanation of where the machine’s predictive powers come from, but more importantly, it shows the devastating length to which one person will go to save herself – and the entire world – from destruction.

Anyways, if you’re up for some morbid, intriguing fiction – or if you happen to love neon green dinosaurs – Machine of Death is a worthy read, despite its length. The sequel anthology, This Is How You Die, will be coming out in July. I’m looking forward into seeing what new ways these contributors will reinvent its central concept.

Book Review: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova Title: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells
Author: Ben Bova
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

I’m going to out myself right now by revealing my lack of true geek cred: before I started reading this book, I’d never heard of Ben Bova. In fact, my knowledge of most of the Golden Age sci-fi authors is pitiful. Asmiov? All I’ve read of him is I, Robot. Arthur C. Clarke? Nada. Sturgeon? The only novel of his I’ve read is More than Human.

The point is that my knowledge of the sci-fi greats is painfully limited, and Ben Bova’s work fits comfortably within that void. So learning that he used to be the editor for Analog magazine – and that he used to read every story that crossed his slush pile – got my attention.

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is Bova’s attempt to teach struggling sci-fi writers the nuts and bolts of story writing so that they can get out of the slush pile. In it, he breaks down story craft into four key elements: character, background, plot, and conflict. Each section is broken down into three chapters: one on using the element in theory, one with a short story showing the element in action, and a third one analyzing the short story in question.

The final portion of the book is devoted to analyzing the differences between novel writing and short story writing, and explaining how the publishing industry works. Considering that this book is nearly 20 years old, the information about sci-fi markets and submission practices is outdated, but the advice about planning, research and story craft ring true.

Despite this, this book is not without its problems. The chapters earlier in the book on theory were much more engaging than the short stories or the ones discussing the element in practice. In particular, the chapter on character theory contained a piece of advice I found so revelatory that when I had a chance to talk to Ben Bova at Ad Astra early in April, I told him how much it meant to me, and how it gave me a completely new way to think about a character I was working on.

He was lovely in person, by the way – a complete gentleman.

The book’s biggest weakness is the stories that Bova includes to prove his points. I’m not quite sure what to think of them – the best way I can describe them is that they exhibit a simplicity and naïveté (especially the story of the young boy running away from home in the hopes that aliens can cure his leukemia, and yes, I am being totally serious here) that seems like it’s dialed straight from the 50s, post-war optimism intact. Considering Bova’s age and background, they probably were written then. But I can guarantee that if stories like those crossed my path in the slush pile, I wouldn’t give them a second chance.

Ultimately, The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is a very handy reference book for speculative fiction writers of all stripes – perhaps I’m just too much of a black-hearted cynic to enjoy Bova’s fiction, even if his non-fiction is sound.


Ad Astra Was Awesome

This letter opener set was so shiny that I couldn't resist. Curse you, dealers' room!

This letter opener set was so shiny that I couldn’t resist. Curse you, dealers’ room!

What, you want me to go into more detail? Sure.

How about this: Ad Astra 2013 was the second con I ever attended (after starting out with World Fantasy last year), and it was just as good (even better!) than I hoped it would be. The panels were almost universally excellent, the food nearby was good, and the variety of books and other goodies on sale – like this lovely letter opener set that I got on the final day for only twenty-five bucks – was great.

But it was the people who made it the most fun. Case in point: a few hours after Rob and I arrived at the hotel, we were waiting for the elevator to take us to the lobby. As we waited, I noticed another woman standing there who looked strangely familiar, resulting in this:

Me: You look really familiar.

Her: You do too.

Me: Why do you look so familiar?

Man standing next to her (her fiance, it turned out): She used to work for Dragon Lady Comics.

Me: **pauses for a moment, then gasps** Kathryn?

Kathryn: Yeees?

Me: The Margaret Atwood lunch!

Both of us: Eeeeee!!! **we rush in for a hug**

Yes, you read that right. A year and a half after we first met, I randomly ran into one of the other winners of the Toronto Public Library contest who had lunch with Margaret Atwood, all because our hotel rooms were on the same floor. Rob and I spent the rest of the weekend in contact with her and her fiance, touching base and going to panels. We even had dinner together at a buffet restaurant I hadn’t been to since I was a kid. The meal was a lovely mixture of deja vu and giddiness.

Two days later, I had a similar meet-cute as I recognized that one of the people staffing the SFContario registration table was an employment counsellor of mine from five and a half years ago. Again, crazy stuff.

But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the people I met and connected with. There was an editor who said she might have a future copy editing gig for me. There was another writer who asked me if I was interested in reading submissions for her magazine. There were people who run blogs that I want to contribute book reviews to. And the authors. Oh goodness, all the lovely authors: I got to meet Julie Czerneda and Ben Bova and Guy Gavriel Kay and so many other writers that it boggles the mind.

One highlight in particular: I got to tell Gregory A. Wilson after his reading that the story (“Spar”, by Kij Johnson) that inspired Speculate, his SF podcast, was recently “remixed” into a more humorous version involving eating bacon. I then read the opening paragraphs of the bacon remix from the issue of Clarkesworld I had stored on my Kobo. Technology connects people and saves the day yet again!

One of the benefits of Ad Astra is that it represents a highly interconnected slice of the SF community. There were several people that I saw participating in multiple panels (Gregory A. Wilson, who I first saw speak at WFC 2012, was a particular delight across the 3 panels I saw him at), and several more that I saw and chatted with at the book launch parties. I felt like I was in the thick of things there – returning to the real world, with my bags much heavier and my wallet much lighter, was a real letdown.

Ad Astra, Hell Yeah!

Ad Astra conventionTomorrow is the start of Ad Astra, and I can’t wait. I originally thought about attending last year when the lovely Beverly Bambury encouraged me to do so, but I didn’t go since I felt it was going to be too last-minute for me – we had talked about it only the week before. Now, though, my fiance and I have everything planned out: weekend passes, hotel booking, and even the  books we’re bringing to sign (as well as planning to buy). There are so many people in Canadian SF/F that I want to meet and celebrate good times and good writing with.

Oh, and speaking of good writing, yes, I am working on the novel, but it’s going slower than I anticipated. I’m thinking I may have to purge the giddy thought of writing 2,500 words a day from my mind, and instead settle on the more practical number of 1,100. Ah well. However, I did find out the results of the Friends of the Merill contest; I was originally going to write about this on April 1st (not a joke!) but then the idea of grappling with sexism/gender bias in genre fiction was too satisfying to ignore. Ultimately, I did not make it into the top 3, but considering this was the first story I ever submitted to a contest, I’m pretty satisfied.

So, Ad Astra. Fuck yeah, I’ll be there. What about you?

Book Review: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

empress_of_mars_coverTitle: The Empress of Mars
Author: Kage Baker
Publisher: Tor
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Life on Mars is hard. Although the British Arean Company promised wealth, growth, and a new life to all Martian settlers, once it found out that it couldn’t terraform (and profit from) the planet quickly enough, it pulled up roots and stranded those left behind without providing enough money for a return trip to Earth. Now the BAC’s presence on the planet consists of a skeleton crew of ineffectual bureaucrats.

Mary Griffith has been forced to make do in the aftermath. Formerly a botanist on the BAC’s payroll, she’s reinvented herself as the proprietor of The Empress of Mars, the closest thing that the entire planet has to a hotel, bar, restaurant, or welcome centre. The Empress of Mars is all about Mary’s attempts to keep a roof over her family’s head – attempts which rapidly gain steam when the discovery of a huge red diamond on her land rekindles interest in the red planet’s resources.

One of the hazy, oft-quoted rules of novel-writing is to avoid prologues. I don’t understand why, because they serve a purpose. The prologue for The Empress of Mars is absolutely astounding – here it is, in its entirety:

There were three Empresses of Mars.

The first one was a bar at the Settlement. The second was the lady who ran the bar, though her title was strictly informal, having been bestowed on her by the regular customers, and her domain extended no farther than the pleasantly gloomy walls of the only place you could get beer on the Tharsis Bulge.

The third one was the queen of England.

That’s it. Three paragraphs. But those paragraphs pack a powerful amount of information. They tell us about the geopolitical structure of this story’s universe – that England has managed to rebuild an empire, and that it has sole sovereignty over Mars. They tell us about the mindset of the people who are settling Mars right now – that they’re playful and informal, but also just really want a beer. They also tell us that life on Mars is a scarce one – there’s only one settlement, and only one bar.

However, this excerpt provides only a taste of what Kage Baker’s Mars is really like. You’ve got abandoned BAC employees like Mary and her colleague Manco Inca, a terraformer who has built a shrine to the Virgin of Guadeloupe in an underground cave. There’s Chiring, a Nepali journalist whose dispatches from the bar have greatly increased the circulation of The Kathmandu Post. There’s Brick, one of the planet’s many sturdy ice haulers. There’s also Eli De Wit, the lawyer who has come to broker the sale of Mary’s new diamond, and Mary’s daughter Alice, who has always hated living on Mars and sees Eli as her ticket off the planet.

One of the things I like about The Empress of Mars is its exploration of what life is like in the frontier of space. Baker references this explicitly through the character of Ottorino Vespucci (Reno for short), a dreamer who has come to Mars to seek his fortune – his time spent as a stuntman at a Wild West amusement park acts as  his chief frame of reference for living on the planet.

This is not new territory for science fiction. However, Baker’s taken great pains to depart from Golden-Age space opera in other ways, most notably in the ethnic, religious, and linguistic variety of her characters. As mentioned above, we’ve got Nepalis, Peruvians, and more. Americans speak English, but other characters speak a new language called PanCelt, while Ottorino speaks Italian. Interestingly, Christianity is no longer a dominant religion in human society, having been replaced in many respects by a New-Age form of goddess-worship. Mary’s tangles with the Ephesian Church make up one of the story’s many subplots.

And what fun they are! They all coalesce towards the end, but there’s a lovely shagginess to the way that all of the book’s various subplots – Mary’s new-found wealth from  her diamond, the marriages of two of her daughters, her dealings with the local clan of Irish medievalists – interact and converge. The plot here is solid, but the throughline of the book moves laterally in all sorts of ways. This is a refreshing change of pace from the vast majority of novels, where it feels like you could render the book on a graph. In some ways, the plot of The Empress of Mars defies easy categorization. But sometimes it’s really nice to have a book like that.

Up next: Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan – my 40th and final book review of 2012!

Book Review: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Title: The Alchemy of Stone
Author: Ekaterina Sedia
Publisher: Prime Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

For someone who claims to enjoy science fiction, I have read surprisingly few full-length sci-fi books this year. First there was the retro superhero novel. Then there was the space opera. And now we come to another esteemed subgenre within sci-fi: Steampunk.

The Alchemy of Stone has few of the traditional trappings of steampunk – no goggles, no airships, no overwhelming sense of can-do Victorian optimism – but it does have an automaton. Mattie, to be precise: An emancipated automaton who was given independence by her creator, Loharri, after learning the skills of alchemy. This is unusual in that Loharri, as a Mechanic, is politically and spiritually opposed to the work done by the Alchemist’s guild, of which Mattie is now part. The Mechanics and the Alchemists have recently been at odds over the direction that their city’s growth should take (think of the Industrial Revolution), and this dispute has come to a head with dangerous results: Civil war is inevitable.

Mattie doesn’t care for political machinations, though, as she’s been requested to tackle an extremely unusual assignment – the gargoyles, the supernatural founders and protectors of the city, want her to use her alchemical skills to somehow transmogrify their stone bodies to flesh. This is no easy task, and she relies on an unusual network of outcasts to arrive at a solution: The soul of the now-deceased alchemist formerly given this assignment, the soul-smoker who houses that soul within his own flesh, and a refugee alchemist who uses the power of blood to weave her spells.

Out of context, all of these elements – automatons, magic, gargoyles, souls, revolution, etc – sound like an unusual mixture. Unfortunately, they also fail to cohere within the book itself. The most interesting narrative choice is which points of view are used in the story; most of it is told from Mattie’s perspective, but a series of smaller portions set in italics are told from the perspective of the gargoyles themselves, and they speak in first person plural to convey their thoughts as a collective. The gargoyle passages are quite lyrical. However, they feel removed from the main political friction that drives the rest of the narrative forward.

One major problem is that this political friction doesn’t have a sense of urgency. Half-hearted mentions are given to refugees taking jobs from city-dwellers and of people being sent off to nearby mines to die as slave labour, but this never feels fully rooted in the history of the setting. It’s telling that I keep on calling the location of the story itself “the city” instead of a definite name. According to the copy on the back cover, the city’s name is “Ayona” – but I had to rely on the book cover to know that, as I can’t recall the name “Ayona” being mentioned anywhere in the text itself. That should be a warning sign when reading any sort of speculative fiction.

This lack of historical context within the book is odd because in other respects the worldbuilding of The Alchemy of Stone is excellent. In particular, I loved the idea of a “soul-smoker” – the book’s equivalent of what we would call a sin-eater. These are people who go to houses haunted by ghosts, and then lure the ghosts down with a wad of burning opium; when the ghost is tempted down from the rafters by the smoke, the soul-smoker inhales the smoke, ghost and all, through a pipe. The ghost then inhabits the soul-smoker’s body, and can communicate mentally with its new host. Given the abundance of souls within the soul-smoker’s body, living people treat the soul-smoker as a pariah out of fear that prolonged close contact with him or her will cause their own souls to vacate their bodies and join the other souls congregated inside the smoker. As Mattie technically doesn’t have a soul, she has no fear of him, and their relationship provides mutual comfort and support. I would enjoy a book devoted to just the two of them talking together.

It’s Mattie’s relationships with other people in the book that I have more of a problem with. In particular, she falls in love with a secondary character in the novel, a rough and uncouth man she barely knows. This sudden realization of love makes little sense considering their limited contact. Secondly, on at least one occasion when they meet, he attempts to physically assault her and is prevented from doing so only by the sudden intervention of the gargoyles. Finally, their relationship culminates in what has got to be one of the oddest sex scenes I’ve ever read – maybe I’m a prude, or not particularly progressive, but it was weird to read about a human and an automaton consummating a relationship, especially when the latter party doesn’t have… ahem… all of the “parts” required.

This is nothing compared to the troubled relationship Mattie has to her creator, Loharri, however. Although he emancipated her, he refuses to relinquish the final hold he has on her: The small piece of metal used to wind up the cogs and gears in her chest that is – quite literally – the key to her heart.

It turns out that not only does he prevent her from attaining true freedom by keeping the one key that keeps her gears in working order, but he also 1) builds a mechanism in her brain that causes her to undergo system failure if she thinks about consulting him but does not do so, and 2) uses her to spy on her Alchemist colleagues without her knowledge. Their relationship is an unhealthy one in every sense of the word.

There are few other things I could mention about why this book troubles me so, but I’ve gone on long enough. If this is the case, why am I still giving the book 3 stars out of 5? I’m willing to give it a pass because of the quality of the prose and because of its worldbuilding. In other words, it’s got great skin – it just needs a better set of bones.

Up next: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

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.

My first sci-fi disappointment

I’ve loved sci-fi since I was a little kid. My dad bought the original “Star Wars” trilogy on VHS when I was 11, and I was hooked. He liked “Star Wars “and he liked “Men in Black”, and he’s the one who bought “Jurassic Park” too. What wasn’t awesome about that? The armchair psychologist in me thinks that I like sci-fi so much now because it’s a way to keep his memory alive.

But sometimes, you have such great hope for an idea or image that the truth is disappointing. So here I’m going to tell you about my first great sci-fi disappointment: The movie “The Fifth Element.”

I’ve only seen it once, and it was such a disorganized mishmash that I don’t plan to watch it again. But there was one scene that other people had told me about in advance, and I looked forward to seeing it more than any other: The scene of the Diva Plavalaguna singing.

People at school had told me that her voice was amazing and her singing beautiful. In the context of the movie, I was psyched. I wanted it to be unique and unearthly. I imagined that her voice would be piercing and synthesized, and would have lots and lots of harmonics so that it sounded like multiple voices escaping from one throat. Sort of like Imogen Heap once she’s in full studio mode:



Instead, I got this:



So, we’ve got an alien woman with blue skin, an elongated skull, and tentacles sprouting from her back and head, and she sounds like….a normal human opera singer? Even with that little funky bit at the end, it still didn’t stretch many boundaries.

What was all the fuss about? I wondered. Sure, an opera singer’s voice is lovely, but the choice of using a voice like that for a body like that was…pedestrian.

There have been other sci-fi disappointments since – like how I slowly but eventually realized that “The Phantom Menace” was a piece of crap – but this particular instance has stayed with me.

So now I ask you: What instance of disappointment over a story or a movie broke your little heart?