Having put my oar into the discussion about the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel in this post (all the books were reviewed under the hugo2010 tag), I feel I should probably report that the winners were announced this morning (or, in the timezone of AussieCon4, where they were announced, last night).

China Miéville's The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl jointly won the Hugo Award; whilst I'm very happy at the Miéville victory, I'm rather more disappointed (though unsurprised) by the worthy, but poor, Windup Girl being awarded.  I must say that I'm rather annoyed that Julian Comstock didn't win; as I've said, I thought it was by far the best novel on the ballot, and it really deserved to win - I'll be interested to see how the voteshares fell out amongst the six nominees.

Either way, congratulations to all the nominees, and moreso to China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi.

The full list of nominees can be found here, and results will I believe be posted there at some nebulous future point.
The entry's behind a trio of cuts, but that's because of length - and the first part does contain a 28-item list. However, don't let that put you off; there's also significant substance and crunch to get your teeth into, so please read - and give me your thoughts!

Quarterly Matters )

Hugo 2010 )

Housekeeping )
Sawyer, in Wake, has written a pseudo-hard science fiction novel. The word "pseudo" is vitally important here for a very simple reason; the science is impossible, in some parts, and just very far off in others (bluetooth doesn't have the speed or bandwidth for what Sawyer tries to do with it; and no computer has the processing power for the speed Sawyer wants, either... for a start). However, this isn't about the science; or about the characters, or even the plot.  Rather, Wake is about the awakening of conciousness - that is, complex abstract thoughts; the process of that awakening, the forms it might take.  It looks at this from two different perspectives - Hobo the chimp and (SPOILER!) an AI-type thing that is emerging from the World Wide Web.

The book takes its cue mostly from Helen Keller's autobiography, and from Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Conciousness In The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  The pair of these books give it a sort of framework, a process for conciousness emerging and becoming, and their influence is obvious on Sawyer and on his characters; it's certainly given me an impetus to read the Jaynes book over summer.  However, the theory does really rather overtake everything else - there's little plot (in a very "literature" sort of way, very little actually happens and a long time is spent both repeating things and dwelling on the very little!), and the characters tend to be... poorly drawn.  The main character, Caitlin, is theoretically a teenage girl, but really is just a sort of thing to hang elements on; all the various characters have that same basic characteristic, not behaving in a really human way, and we don't connect with any of them.

In the end, then, this book isn't really a story. It's a thought experiment, at length, with elements of story thrown at it in the hopes that they'll stick.  Not recommended, except for those interested (as I am, to be fair) in the thought-experiment and the theory of conciousness.

Despite calling this a story of 22nd Century America, Wilson's Julian Comstock could almost as easily be a story of 19th century Britain, in terms of his style and language.  That's not criticism but praise - clearly, given the picture he's building (of a post-oil crash world reversing back into a neo-Victorian sensibility) and the first-person perspective of a person living in these times the Victoriana is absolutely perfect, and the fact he hits it so well is a definite strength.  It's also very readable - he's not dived so far in that it's dense with problematic prose, but it retains some of our modern sensibilities.  It's also interesting in terms of the narrator's point of view - he retains his rustic, half-pious sensibilities throughout, and it shows in the descriptions and depictions of characters and places that are given, in that they impress and overwhelm the narrator and reader both... and in some places, subtle hints replace what in other (or third-person) narratives is explicit, rendered stunningly well.

That leads me on to characters.  They're all rich - all seen through Adam Hazzard's eyes, yes, because he is our narrator, but all the same we do see multi-faceted, well-rounded, and well-written characters with thoughts and minds of their own; that we do not get inner monologues doesn't take from our understanding of the characters (and renders Adam very empathetic), and the fact that we don't necessarily get complete pictures actually adds to, rather than taking from, them (this also relates back to the subtle hints...).  That we get a novel not entirely focused on any one character - Julian and Adam both play central roles in the story and its progression - is also interesting, since it gives us more than one perspective on what's important.

The setting plays a role as important as any character in this novel, and it's a setting excellently painted and explored.  Theocratic, militaristic, Presidential, aristocratic/feudal - this is Palinite/Paulite America taken a little further than, at least, their public statements allow, with added logic given the changes brought about by the False Tribulation (the end of oil, climate change, and more, from the rough sketches in the book - a lot of knowledge is assumed, knowledge which doesn't exist, adding verisimilitude to the novel in an innovative manner).  It's brilliantly drawn, and populated by humans, with people as a part of the system and fighting it; no one is painted as right or wrong in absolute terms, and it's a wonderful piece of work.

The plot... is really somewhat secondary.  Well-written and with some nice twists, albeit a couple of dei ex machinae, it keeps the book moving, serving more as something to hook the characters and world on to and to help us understand them than anything else, it's still a good one - roaring along in that sort of Ripping Yarns way.  Fun, with serious elements, it's perhaps neither the least predictable nor most original plot out there, but it serves its purpose well.

All in all, a strongly recommended book, which I massively enjoyed.  A really fun and thought-provoking read.

This near-future (ish... 22nd century, at a guess?) semi-post-scarcity science fiction novel is bleakly pessimistic and bluntly overcomplex.  Bacigalupi's world is wonderfully well-constructed, with a lot of thought and detail going into the process of taking it from the present day to the near-future topia (neither u- nor dys-, quite) that is created in Thailand.  Actually, it's that that really makes this novel - the detailed history of the world that's conveyed in the characters' histories, each very different; the way it's put across without using the old infodump trick of setting the scene, despite a little of that at the start - although on the flipside, there are elements of the story that do take too long to become properly clear; and the way that it all makes sense, pencils in a lot of information that follows on from everything else, really well.

It's a shame, then, that Bacigalupi has read to much George R. R. Martin.  That is, at any rate, the only conclusion I can come to; the plot is incredibly complex, involving plots within plots, backstabbing, emotional blackmail and otherwise, deals struck and unstruck, and so on.  In many ways the plot is near enough the same as that of A Game of Thrones, in that The Windup Girl also centres on power-struggles for leadership of a country, and the plots are so intricate and intertwined as to cause each other to fail.

The (seeming) Martin influence also carries across in the characters; there's no hero, just different levels of villainy - one character is an exception, and, like in A Game of Thrones, he is killed for his trouble.  The characters are pretty well constructed (breaking out of the Martin mold there at least...) and their internal monologues are informative and useful, and actually relate pretty well to the actions; they also have different voices, with different motivations and different reasons for actions.  Bacigalupi handles all this pretty well, and deftly, with a skilled hand.

Overall then, the characters are reasonable, and the world is stunning, but The Windup Girl is let down significantly by the plot itself.


EDIT 18/5/2010: This book won the Nebula award for Best Novel, beating The City and The City (China Miéville), Boneshaker (Cherie Priest), Finch (Jeff VanderMeer), The Love We Share Without Knowing (Christopher Barzak), and Flesh and Fire (Laura Anne Gilman).  What this means for its Hugo chances is hard to say.
I'm torn on how to classify this; it's clearly steampunk (though without the punk edge of the original genre), but whether it's a book aimed at adults or "young adults" I'm not sure - perhaps it straddles the divide.  Set in a slightly alternative 1880s Seattle (slightly alternative and getting more so), it's dark but without grit to go with it although the grit occasionally threatens to intrude (there are mentions of working girls, good people die, zombies exist).

The characters are a little two-dimensional - there's no really credible fear to any of them, or other emotions (although fear should be the strongest given what happens to them); they react unrealistically to horrific situations, and don't react consistently within themselves or consistently for their characters.  The other major problem is their motivation; their actions don't seem motivated enough to get them to go to the extremes they go to, in most cases - they just don't make sense.

The plot is a telegraphed and obvious, being set up and knocked down point by point, what'll happen being made clear well in advance to even the slightly astute or genre-savvy reader; it isn't original, although this version of it is at least well-executed, and the twist in the end was pretty obvious.

However, Priest has a writing style that draws one in and keeps one's attention regardless of the flaws of her work; the prose is reminiscent of a Western, and her mannerisms for the period (and the racism, from some characters) is perfect.  The book is well-paced and moves, drawing one in and keeping one reading even when one can perfectly accurately predict what one will read next.

Perhaps the high-point of the book is the setting generally; Priest has clearly researched it well - and where she's fiddled with things, the impact of it is well-analysed, and the changes are not huge sweeping things but rather more subtle and more simple tricks.  Seattle, both inside the wall and out, is wonderfully rendered, and here's where the grit might just have been ushered in a little - there's parts here which aren't nearly so simple as the rest of the novel, which is very black-and-white, and the setting is realised and pictured well for the reader.

Overall, the book is not so brilliant a read as has been made out by some, but certainly something to keep one going.

The Big Idea behind the novel, from Whatever.

I said you'd get this review next, and here it is ;)

This was a Christmas present, but I think if my mother had realised what was in it she might've been more leery about actually giving it to me.  The book is... well.  To me, it reads like a study of five characters with added erotica; there's little plot, really, and the whole book is about the four characters - Oleg, November, Ludovico, and Sei - who form a core around which a fifth character is built, the character of Palimpsest itself, the city itself.

As a set of character studies it is interesting, and the inclusion of the city as a semi-independent character studied in it's own right works reasonably well (though hardly perfectly; there are times when it grates, and times when it makes no sense, and times when it simply seems to be bits and bobs thrown together).  However, as a novel, the book doesn't, for me, work; bits of it are taken, wholesale and unchanged, from the short story in Paper Cities and other bits have been included with little purpose except for worldbuilding; there are ideas here that Valente had and chose to include but without any reason to include them, as they do not add to the plot or the character studies in truth.

In many ways, the book as a whole follows this pattern; an interesting idea taken on far too long.  At times it reads like a porn film - sex, with the flimsiest reason for its inclusion; at other times, like a novel that was just a set of whims of the author, something fun they came up with but couldn't actually carry off all that well.

This book, to be blunt, did not work for me; I am sure it has for others, and it does carry a large touch of the New Weird about it, but for me personally, it did not work.


Catherynne M. Valente talks about the work on John Scalzi's blog here.
China Miéville's The City & The City is an unusual book; I'd compare it to something like Gaiman's Neverwhere, perhaps, though even that's not quite as odd in its 'Big Idea' (that goes through to John Scalzi's blog, and a post in which Miéville explains the big idea behind this novel).  The City & The City combines a police procedural novel, of which it is in fact a very good example in and of itself, with Miéville's chosen genre-tag of "weird fiction".

Miéville has created two cities - Ul Qoma, and Beszel, different cities with different politics, laws, international relations, and territories, presumably somewhere in Eastern Europe.  But they're also the same city; geographically, they occupy the same space - and this isn't in a laws-of-physics-breaking way.  This is in the perfectly conventional way of buildings beside each other... but with citizens of each city simply not acknowledging the other city.  To do so, one is in Breach - and what that means, and the consequences of it, is one of the things explored throughout the book by the main character, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad.

Told in the traditional first-person style of police procedural thrillers, Miéville's novel moves along paced extremely well, not too fast or too slow, and without giving us details that are unncessary to the plot; we learn about the history of the city and the city (as it is referred to within the book - not the cities, but the city and the city) and about the politics of the two throughout the novel, but it isn't forced upon us, and Miéville doesn't just infodump, he actually dripfeeds, controlling it, teaching us more.

So, the plot.  A murder at the start, and we get twists and turns and the opening up of a far bigger and more interesting conspiracy... but I can't really say more than that; I don't want to give the game away.  What I will say is that the ultimate villain was (by me at least) pretty unexpected and shocking - Miéville plays his cards close to his chest - but that there are clues scattered within the novel which, on a reread, tip one off to the eventual conclusion, though I reckon this skill only adds to the novel.

All in all, a stunning piece of work - I highly recommend it!  And thanks, mum, for giving it to me :)

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