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2016 Hugo picks: Novels
power lines
Right at the deadline, here are the novels. I read every word of all five.

5. The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher
In floating Spire Albion, malevolent forces are at work, and an assortment of colorful personalities must stand against it.
I wasn't inclined to like this. Steampunky stuff is usually a hard sell with me, and this was so… silly. But there was still something about it, and I was finally able to enjoy it when I hit on the right way to think about it: this is essentially a Final Fantasy game in book form. With added viciousness. So fun, and yet not. But I did read the whole thing.

4. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
When something blows up the moon, the resulting world-ending meteor shower forces humanity to scramble to preserve a vestige of life in the solar system.
Brace yourself. I am about to Go On.

There was a period of 5-10 years of my life in which Neal Stephenson was hands-down, no-contest, my favorite author. Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon were (and, honestly, still are) strong competitors for my favorite book ever written. And then came the Baroque Cycle. I tolerated the first book, actually enjoyed the second, and pretty much hated the third. It was looking like very much like Stephenson had come down with Editors? We Don't Need No Stinking Editors Disease, which has claimed the careers of so many of our best and brightest in their later years. (And I have to admit that the signs of this were present even in Cryptonomicon, much as I still want to defend all its little tangents.) I took a long break from Stephenson after finishing The System of the World (and I still haven't read Anathem or Reamde). So perhaps you can imagine the mixture of emotions I felt upon starting into Seveneves.

Well, it is my great sadness to report that the disease has progressed, and may be in its terminal phases. I mean, there's a lot to like here for those of a nerdy bent. It has fascinating ideas that are well thought out and well explained, and a return to the "hero scientist saves the day" type of science fiction that I have said I want to see more of [1]. But… That's not enough. The characters are boring, caricatures, and/or boring caricatures that are presented in boring terms. Only the most perfunctory attention is given to the emotional experience of all the crazy things they experience. Take Doc Dubois, for instance. He seems pretty obviously based on Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but Tyson is so much more interesting. It's repeatedly claimed that the character is cool, but he never says or does anything cool (in the non-technical sense), so we're left doubtful. He is also suddenly given a girlfriend right near the beginning, but this is just mentioned in passing, in business-like terms. She gets mentioned regularly but rarely says or does anything. She's obviously just there to increase the emotional stakes for Dubois, but there's never a sense of any emotional stakes to begin with, and so multiplying by zero later still gives you zero. In other words, you can't just stick it in there, Neal, you need put in effort to set the mood and build the tension first [2].

A good one third of this book must be given over to layman's explanations of various problems and proposed solutions in the realm of applied orbital mechanics. Which is interesting stuff. But this is not a novel so much as a thoroughly worked-out thought experiment (in Parts One and Two) and an impressively detailed world-building exercise (in Part Three). It's essentially a collection of notes that could have formed the basis of an amazing series of novels. As it is it was kind of a chore [3]. The frustrating thing is that I KNOW that Neal Stephenson is capable of writing great characters in great style (even the Baroque Cycle had good characters), so why is it he couldn't be bothered this time around?

Look, check this out. This is the opening paragraph of Snow Crash:

"The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He's got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armogel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books."

Compare that to the opening paragraph of Seveneves:

"The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero."

Do you see what I'm talking about here? The first is firmly grounded in character, has a strong and quirky voice that immediately captivates, and wraps the technical details in provocative similes that continue to amp up the adrenaline infusion of the first few sentences (that last trick in particular is virtuoso). The second presents an intriguing situation, but with all the charm of a technical report. These respective stylistic choices continue on throughout their respective novels, with the second of course going on for fully twice the length of the first. No one who hadn't made a name for themselves writing stuff like the former would ever get anything published written in the style of the latter. It's lazy.

And I know I said the technical details were well thought-out, but there are big caveats there. Seveneves falls prey to the problem of a lot of "hard" SF in that, at least from my perspective as a PhD in biology, the physics and engineering are well considered and sophisticated [4], but the handling of the biology (not to mention the linguistics and anthropology) is hand-wavey at best and frequently utter BS. At the end of Part Two it's almost comical when, after killing so many trees to explain how all the spaceflight was accomplished, the biotech that underpins the rest of the book is covered in a few sentences to the effect that, "Yeah, there are some issues here that basically make this whole idea a complete non-starter, but I've got some workarounds for that, which I will conveniently not discuss at all." Yeah. Sure you do. And, like, epigenetics. He keeps using that word. I do not think it means what he thinks it means. Anyway, I won't go into further details, to avoid spoilers, but my suspender of disbelief was working hard to the point of burning out in the later parts of this book [5].

All of which isn't to say I didn't enjoy the book. I did. But I was expecting so much more.

3. The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison
In a world marked by frequent and violent seismic activity, not uncommonly on apocalyptic scales, those called orogenes, with the instinctive power to control such activity, struggle through a world that hates and fears them but still seeks to use them.
There's a lot to like here. The world is fascinating and well-fleshed out at both the physical and cultural levels. It's almost like geological science fiction [6]. It's also very well written. The problem- and I can't believe I'm saying this- is that it's all a little too oppressive for me. This is really a sadistic world these characters have been put into; the deck is stacked against them from the start in just about every conceivable way. I guess what bugs me about it is less that it's oppressive than that it's so artificially oppressive; it makes sense more from the perspective of a speculative fiction writer trying to come up with the most difficult setting she could than from a natural feeling of self-consistency per se. And the sympathy you feel for the plight of the orogenes is rather limited, because they can and do kill vast numbers of people, often with minimal effort or even intention. They are rightly feared. If they weren't a hunted and/or enslaved underclass, they'd be a brutal and merciless elite. In fact, I'm rather surprised a world like this didn't develop in the latter mode, given how much raw power the orogenes wield, not to mention their knack for enabling the survival of themselves and those around them when seismic disaster strikes. But certainly it would be difficult for people without that power to live comfortably with those that do. So the book never quite got me invested in the characters. While horrible things are done to them, they do a lot worse to others, so I have trouble feeling sorry for them. It also had a sudden "Wait… What?" ending that rather irked me.

In passing, it's interesting to compare and contrast this to Seveneves. They both share similar themes but are coming from and heading to such different places. Seveneves is optimistic and technical, while The Fifth Season is resigned and personal (though both can get pretty brutal). It's tempting to chalk this up to their respective cultures of white-male technocrat and black-female political activist, but that's reductive. In any case, what I'd really like is something that does a better job of merging those sensibilities and playing off the dynamic tension between the two.

2. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
A seventeen-year-old girl is chosen to spend ten years as the companion of The Dragon, the wizard who protects the Valley from the evils of the Wood.
It starts out like a hearthfire, in a comfortable cottage on a winter's night, surrounded by pine and snow and malevolence. But soon enough you're dragged out into the dark. This was a very well constructed fantasy novel, in the literary fairy tale tradition. I can't say it broke any new ground, but it was finely crafted, and will stand as a paragon of the genre.

1. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
In the closing novel of the trilogy, Breq faces ever greater challenges as she finds herself a high-value target in the Radchaai civil war.
I feel a little bad about picking this one for the top spot, since it's a sequel to a book that won two years ago, but it was definitely my favorite. It's the only nominee I had read before the nominations were announced, and the only nominee that I actually nominated. I read the whole thing in about 24 hours, the week it came out. It even makes me feel more charitable towards the second installment in the series, which I liked less, because it serves as a nice set up for this satisfying conclusion. Breq is one of my favorite characters in fiction. So cold, aloof, detached, and calculating, and yet so empathetic, observant, devoted, and inspiring. It's a tall order for a writer to pull off that combination, but she did it. Breq provides a model for leadership that seems like something a person like me could aspire to, and I'm very appreciative. (I like the Presger Translators a lot, too.) Well done, Ann Leckie.

[1] Be careful what you wish for?

[2] And don't get me started on the female characters. There are many leaders that parade by in this book, but the only competent ones are men. Ivy isn't terrible but seems passive bordering on paralyzed most of the time. Julia is so one-dimensionally horrible that I couldn't help but roll my eyes whenever she showed up (I fear she's someone's idea of Hillary Clinton). And Camila seems to be based on Malala Yousafzai, but is such a pushover I feel insulted on Malala's behalf. Dinah's not a leader at all; she is almost always just following the lead of Sean or Markus or Doob. Alright, let's just stop. I said I wouldn't get started.

[3] Part Three in particular rather reminded me of 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, but Robinson writes so beautifully that I enjoyed that thoroughly start to finish; I just can't say the same about this.

[4] Though admittedly the idea of using a nuclear reactor to melt ice, split it into hydrogen and oxygen, and then explode them back into water as propellant, all in one engine, strikes me as terribly inefficient, to the point that I'd be surprised if it would ever work without a ridiculous power expenditure. Splitting water is essentially oxidizing oxygen, which doesn't come cheap.

[5] In passing, if you want to read hard SF that does a good job with biology (and the whole character thing), try Blindsight by Peter Watts. He has a PhD in marine biology.

[6] Geopunk? Please no.

See also: