Monday, May 11, 2015

Reading for the Hugo's

I am still alive.  It is finals week and I have about 5 metric tons of grading to get done in the next week, but I have been coming up for air occasionally. For example, I have been reading about what happened to the Hugo's nominations this year and getting increasingly appalled. So, a while ago I got a supporting membership and started reading some of the nominated works.

In the novel category, I am currently reading The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Tor Books). So far, I am quite enjoying it.  It isn't fast moving or action packed, and I understand why some people have complained about all the names, but in terms of a deep character study and exploration of a fantasy culture I think this book is a real winner.  

I am glad that I have Gobin Emperor to fall back on because, to put it politely, the material I have read in the other categories so far has been dreck. 

I have read all of the entries in the Best Novelette category since they are all posted on-line (You can find links at SF Signal) and, well, I haven't liked a darn one of them. Here are my reactions in brief ...

Warning SPOILERS and very snarky. 

“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014)

The descriptions in this story need some serious work. For example we have ...
"The interlocking flutes were sharp edged and equipped with heavy-duty pins as long as his forearm that secured it in the off-hours."
That sentence stopped me dead. There was lots of verbiage, including that bit, and I have no idea what I was supposed to be picturing. The only thing I got out of it (and only very tentatively) was that the Peshari don't like ceilings - which turns out to be a key point.

So the Peshari have been on the planet eleven years and there have been human rebellions of some sort, but they never tried explosives?  Or hiding out in the mines? I had a great deal of trouble understanding how we had reached the point presented in the story after over a decade of contact. 

In terms of something actually happening in the story, well the plot finally gets going at the very end and just as you start to get interested the story is over. With some decent editing this story at least could have lead to something. However, it certainly doesn't qualify as a "best" of the year.

“Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014)

This one was an absolute labor to read. So you struggle through the first chapter and it ends with a guy named Lyle Logan getting a gun jabbed in his back, with a voice saying to him, "Do not move." So, good setup, right? Except that is the last you every hear about or of Lyle. The whole first chapter doesn't lead anywhere. 

So you have to struggle though the next bit trying to sort out who is who, and why you should care about anything, only to get buried under names and conspiracies. It is totally unwieldily in terms of who is working with whom or why. Infodumps extraordinaire and just like with the previous entry, absolutely no payoff.  

Oh, and the titular B'tok is explained like this ... 
Except that b’tok was to chess as chess was to rock-paper-scissors. For starters, b’tok was four-dimensional and could only be played virtually. The offensive and defensive capabilities of a b’tok game icon depended on its 3- D coordinates, the time spent at that location, and interactions with nearby pieces both friendly and rival. Also unlike chess, with its unchanging board of sixty-four squares, the b’tok domain of play evolved. It developed turn by turn, and the view differed by side. A player saw only as far as his pieces had explored.
Um, author dude, that is called wargaming. Have you been living under a rock?  

“The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014)

A more unlikeable protagonist you would be hard pressed to find. So the narrators girlfriend dumps him (actually from the description it almost sounded like he stalked her until she agreed to be his girlfriend, very creepy).  And since the narrator is clearly the center of the universe, once his world got turned upside down, figuratively, it of course had to happen to the entire planet as well.

I think that the author did manage to generate the portrait of a generally jerky lovelorn person wallowing in the aftermath of breaking up (the narrator reminded me of people in college after their first big breakup) so, while I didn't find the narrator sympathetic (actually I pretty much hated him after that one bit of extremely evil behavior), I could understand the narrative choice (though, like in college it mostly made me want to dump a bucket of ice water over him or at least stay very far away from him). It is still possible to write a good story with a loathsome narrator. But, that isn't what happened in this case. I am not going to go into it, but the narrator is one nasty, self-centered, creepy jerk. Yuck.

However, trying to ignore that I hate the narrator, what really, really drove me nuts was the bizarre and inconsistent abuse of physics (and biology). The world building (or unbuilding in this case) didn't make any sense!!!

If the switch to "upside down" was so forceful that people were killed by slamming through their ceilings, how the heck did the buildings stay together ? You could somehow paraglide without getting shot out into space, and water stayed put but everything else shot out into space ? What? I don't ... huh? What happened to the atmosphere?  That is only held here due to gravity. 

The author was also inconsistent with their use of the term down, like when describing the Krogers bags were pulling someone down? i.e. out into space? I don't know - if things suddenly flipped like that I am pretty sure that my brain would insist that the ground - where the dirt is - is down, regardless of the direction that things were falling right then. This made the descriptions even more laborious to understand.

And he totally killed that fish. 7-Up for pete's sake!  Fish do NOT breathe though their lips!

And stylistically, I just didn't think it was that well written. There is a core of an interesting idea there, but the descriptions were confusing at best and sometimes simply awful. 

Finally - where in the heck was he narrating this from?

“The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014)

OMG - this one was just awful. Conan the Barbarian (or perhaps Tarzan) meets Tonto and calls the nearest princess "babe."  The verbiage just floods you with metric tons of tell (with no show) utterly burying you with unnecessary words. And I thought generic "barbarian dialect" went out of style ages ago. I mean really, is this necessary ? 

“Maybe star-folk, like Jamly tell us find?” suggested Sammi. “Big magic, pile stones so high.”

Ugh. Me no likey. 

For one extra bit of pain - the descriptions of sword fighting were enough to make me choke.  See, I was a fencer / recreation sword fighter.  I know how to use an edged weapon.  I even have the basics of dagger fighting. So reading passages of stuff like this ... 
Kal, as expected, rushed forward with his sword held in the “batter’s stance”—the hilt gripped in both hands with the blade over his right shoulder, ready to swing into a hack or a slice as opportunity presented. Teodorq waited unmoving until his foe was three arms-length’s away, then he swung Lifesaver up into “the bull,” holding the hilt beside his head with his left arm crossed over, ready to push the pommel. This aimed the point of the sword at Kal’s face and blocked the downward motion of Rabbit-killer on the aft part of the blade. Kal, disinclined to impale himself, checked his rush, spun to Teodorq’s left, and disengaged.
Kal held his sword in “plow,” arm extended from the waist. Teodorq stepped forward, brushed the fore aside and thrust in long-point. Kal retreated again, but spun and threw an understrike, which Teo parried with an “iron pinwheel.” Both he and Kal reset the combat.
is enough to make me simultaneously stabby and headdesky. One of the reasons the fencing bit in Princess Bride is so funny is that while they are having a dialogue name-checking the authors of famous fencing manuals, they are not actually doing any of those moves! It is all an intellectual game while their bodies are performing the moves without conscious thought. If you actually have to think "I am going to go into ward 4 and block his weapon with my tang and then repost" - too late, you are already dead. 

This 'fight' scene has clearly been written by someone who has no idea how sword fighting actually works. It just hurt to read. Also, this one is, once again, part of a larger story though it has the grace of completing something of an arc, even though nothing much really happens. 

“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014)

At least this one was a self-contained story. I will grant it that. Pretty much all I will grant it. I don't care that in the context of the story "EE" stands for Exoplanetary Explorers, in this universe, EE means electrical engineer - a person sorely needed by the author to help them. I am going to pretty much ignore discussing the three main characters (since there really isn't anything to discuss - standard issue 'brilliant' cadets), except to note that Emily, the team leader, at no point does anything in the way of "leading." Her character is almost totally passive until the rest of the team has been incapacitated.

So, our heroes have "ultra-portable inertia gear we all wear, quantum-spin-liquid crystals woven into our uniforms" which allow them to "bulk up" their inertial fields, basically becoming immobile objects or lighten up so they can float.  Alright - this is far future science fiction with space ships, etc.  I am willing to suspend my disbelief to accommodate this (even though it makes less and less sense). 

As punishment for getting involved in a bar brawl, the trio get sent to help an exploration team evacuate from the planet called Abreathon. For whatever reason, Priam decided to smart mouth the mission leader and claims he will come up with a way to salvage the Abreathon project and make the evacuation unnecessary. If he doesn't, they will be kicked out of the EE.  

Apparently trained EE personnel have been on planet Abreathon (seriously?) for thirty odd years trying to make first contact with what appear to be passive grazing animals because they wear metal bracelets that can be used to transmit and received signals.  (It sounded to me like tags on a herd.) 

So, here is my problem. The EE folks have inertia control but apparently don't have thermal imaging, ground penetrating radar, EMI or any other form of remote sensing. They don't even seem to have string and a camera to stick down one of the stupid holes that start appearing around the animals they are trying to contact.  Nope - they use snowshoes and ignore the holes.  This is all too stupid for words.  

You will never get me to believe in your super high tech futuristic gear if you don't even have a basic grasp of the things that exist right here, right now.  For pity's sake.  

I am done ranting now.  Sorry - this really was supposed to be brief.

TL;DL version - I don't think any of these stories qualifies as a best novelette of the year.  

1 comment:

  1. "Both he and Kal reset the combat."

    Ah, there's the problem. I was thinking that even when I was 10 and 'fencing' against my brothers with shishkabob skewers (which I will totally deny if my mom sees this, and we only did it once), I'd seen enough movie fights to not hold the thing like a baseball bat! But that last line makes the whole thing read like an arcade video game, with big simple moves and strict turn-taking.


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