Monday, April 21, 2014

Lo! In the Distance, Hear the Yip-Yap of Happy Puppies! (And Also Much Wailing & Gnashing of Teeth)

The nominations for the Hugo Awards have been announced, and personally, I couldn't be more pleased with the results -- even if I now find myself faced with the terrifying task of reading all fourteen novels in the Wheel of Time series before, I presume, the middle or end of July.

Others, however, are not pleased -- because some outspoken perpetrators of badthink have made the list. Google "Larry Correia Hugo Awards" for a sampling of some of the vitriol. Since Saturday night, allegations of cheating have been running rampant in the science fiction blogosphere. Some have accused Larry - and Vox Day - of "stuffing the ballot box" by buying World Con memberships for friends and relatives and then voting in their stead, while others have simply declared that these authors' supporters, lemming-like, blindly voted for their proposed slates out of a base desire to troll the awards and not out of any genuine appreciation for the works in question.

Well, it's time to burst their bubble.

I was inspired to pay into World Con and participate in the nominations process in large part due to Larry Correia's blog posts, so you can count me as a member of the "Correia Bloc." At no point did I feel pressured to support any work Larry promoted. There was a considerable amount of overlap between my slate and Larry's, but that's because we have similar tastes in science fiction and fantasy -- and not because I was licking Larry's boots. I didn't vote for anything or anyone I had not read - Vox Day didn't make it onto my slate, and neither did Dan Wells - and quite frankly, I resent the implication I am both dumb enough to be led by others and dishonest enough to vote for anyone based on their politics alone. Granted, I did have an agenda -- but that was to support stories that brought back the genre's old sense of adventure. While I'm certainly enjoying all the myriad ways leftist fen are showing their true illiberal colors, GHH screaming is merely a bonus and never was my primary objective. My primary objective was and is to support works I've enjoyed.

It is truly the height of arrogance to assume - as many have - that Larry could only have gotten onto the ballot via underhanded means. Larry has made it onto the New York Times best-seller list, is currently ranked #77 in his category on Amazon (which, considering the size of the field, is amazing), has had his books translated into other languages, and has won other awards for his work. Indeed, Larry has made enough money now that he's been able to retire to Yard Moose Mountain to write full time. In short, Larry has a butt-load of fans. They just haven't showed up before now -- because until this year, World Con was fading into obscurity and taking the Hugo Awards with it.

Let's face it: In a good year, World Con will attract maybe 4000-5000 attendees, and of those, only a fraction actually send in a ballot for the Hugos. And the people who select the shortlist? That's an even more rarefied group. For the 2014 awards, almost 2000 people submitted nominations -- a figure that smashed all previous records. In the meantime, tens of thousands of people routinely attend Dragon Con - the con I have worked for the past seven years and one that is frequently held on the same weekend as World Con - and over time, its crowds have been steadily growing. In 2004, Dragon Con was held in two downtown Atlanta hotels; ten years later, that number has ballooned to five. Yes -- there are many reasons for this discrepancy, including the decline of reading in general and the overwhelming success of genre media. But Dragon Con's hoards are what I call a potential audience. They clearly like things that are fantastic and geeky; unfortunately, no one in the literary science fiction community - save folks like Larry Correia - has evinced any interest in drawing these people in.

Cedar Sanderson has made this point already, but I will make it as well: If Larry's "Sad Puppies" posts did anything, they gave the Hugos a shot in the arm by bringing in a ton of new blood. Poll the Correia Bloc; I suspect you'll find a lot of Hugo neophytes. And this is a good thing. It's exciting and empowering for those of us who've been disappointed with recent winners, and it will probably invigorate interest in what, up until now, has been a dying brand.

But, of course, as far as the GHH's are concerned, we're just politicizing the awards. Uh, okay. Projecting much? So far, I haven't seen Larry or Vox Day telling their readers to rank "No Award" above authors whose politics they find repellent. That's something the Special Snowflake squad has been doing ever since the shortlist was announced. We are going to read all the works on the list and judge them on their merits (even if, in the case of the Wheel of Time, it may kill us); they have openly announced their refusal to do so on many platforms, stating that if people like Brad Torgersen, Dan Wells, and Toni Weisskopf were on Larry's slate, they obviously don't deserve their nods. Have they read "The Chaplain's Legacy," Brad's nominated novella? Likely not; otherwise, they'd know it deals in part with the importance of inter-cultural dialogue. Isn't that something the left is supposed to champion?

In sum: I'm not at all sorry that we crashed your tiny and irrelevant little popularity contest, and I invite you to buck up and fight the good fight like men -- even if, like me, you are a woman.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Steph Reads Baened Books: Charles E. Gannon's Fire with Fire

If you want clear proof that certain fen have been radicalized beyond all hope of sanity, I present Chuck Gannon's Fire with Fire as Exhibit A. That the aforementioned novel is up for the Nebula apparently bothers fandom leftists -- and personally, that strikes me as absolutely bizarre. For heaven's sake, Gannon's primary antagonist is a multinational oil company. Shouldn't that be right up these folks' alley?

To summarize without spoiling: Gannon's main character, a journalist and polymath by the name of Caine Riordan, stumbles upon a sensational secret on the moon and, for his trouble, is stuck in the freezer for thirteen years. When his handlers finally deign to wake him up, they rope him into their covert intelligence outfit and send him to Delta Pavonis III to determine whether Exxon's future iteration, which has set up operations on the planet in the hopes of cornering the oil market in the outlying colonies, is hiding evidence of sapient native life. Riordan's role in this mission - and what he eventually discovers - makes him the target of some very persistent assassins. It also pulls him into a dicey diplomatic adventure that may very well bring doom to Earth.

This is Gannon's first solo novel, I believe, and the start of a series -- and on the whole, I liked it. Gannon strikes a good balance between penning a story that feels satisfying and complete and introducing some new questions that will no doubt be tackled in book two. I particularly enjoyed the final segment; once the aliens show up, the political intrigue that results is masterfully written. Watching the alien powers in question jockeying for position - and watching poor Earth getting caught in the middle - was absolutely fascinating

There were a few things that bothered me about Fire with Fire, though. I'm not a fan of large corporations, but I do think Gannon misses - or at least fails to mention - how government has played a role in their ascendancy. I also think Riordan is just a little too perfect. Renaissance man though he may be, he would've been more sympathetic if, at least a few times, something turned out to be beyond his multiple areas of expertise.

Still, when I read reviews such as the one discussed in Amanda Green's post above, I boggle. Said reviewer complains, for example, that Riordan doesn't react with sufficient emotion to losing thirteen years plus a hundred hours of his life -- which prompts me to wonder if we've even read the same book because I saw plenty of signs that he isn't happy with his situation and is especially motivated to find out why he was effectively pulled out of circulation. What did this reviewer want exactly? Oh, right -- crying in the bathtub. But here's a newsflash: people don't all react to trauma in the same way. Riordan does not appear to have personal attachments that would have been wrenched by a thirteen year displacement (except for the one which, for spoilery reasons, he doesn't remember anyway). What's more, he strikes me as a stoic; it makes sense, therefore, that instead of bemoaning his fate, he would put on the hat of the investigative journalist and seek to uncover what the hell happened -- with, of course, some liberal amounts of snark directed at the people responsible for his predicament.

And the claim that Gannon's characters are indifferent to genocide? Based on what I read, that's completely off-base. When Riordan discovers that atrocities are indeed being perpetrated against the natives on Delta Pavonis III, he does do something about it -- but because he doesn't spend pages nursing a useless rage about future!Exxon's malfeasance, that fact evidently fails to register on the GHH radar.      

This is a book about people who act in a deliberate and considered way based on high ideals and a mature sense of the universe's dangers. The title - Fire with Fire - refers to the existential crisis Earth ultimately faces and to the sad reality that those tasked with protecting the innocent are often forced to dirty their own noses on their charges' behalf. Upon reflection, I suspect this is probably what bothers the above-discussed detractor most. Many would like to imagine that there is no need for the cloak and dagger -- that there is no need for government secrecy, honeypot spies, and all the rest. But the wolves are at the door, and we do in fact need our own dogs to drive them away. That is the state of the fallen world in which we live.

Final Verdict: Recommended

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Sarah A. Hoyt's Witchfinder

When Sarah Hoyt released Witchfinder, her first wholly "indie" novel, last week, she immediately got nervous. "I didn't realize," she wrote on her personal blog (where Witchfinder was originally composed in bits and pieces over the course of a year), "how much COURAGE those of you who published indie had. I apologize if I ever told you to stop being a ninny and start putting your stuff out because you didn't need a gatekeeper to tell you it was good enough. I was right, yes, but I had no comprehension at all of how SCARY it all is."

Well, having read Witchfinder, I don't think Sarah needs to be too anxious. It's a good book -- one that, I'm sure, will please fans of her other works.

The back-story behind Witchfinder, essentially, is this: Due to a major magical event, the earth has been split into an infinite number of alternate worlds in which magic is present - or not - in varying degrees. We have, for example, modern-day Earth as we recognize it, where magic is severely attenuated but technology has developed to fill the gap. We also have Avalon, where magic is an everyday fact of life. And we have Fairyland, which is not an "Earth" per say but a strange sub-universe in which "reality" is determined by the thoughts of the perceiver. Travel between these alternate worlds is possible, but may be illegal depending on the laws of your point of origin. (Avalon, for example, has proscribed such travel on grounds that resemble the Prime Directive.)

This may sound rather convoluted, but despite having to juggle several settings at once, Sarah never really lost me in her execution. Her plot - in which the protagonists must unravel a conspiracy that threatens both Avalon and Fairyland (and possibly the other worlds as well) - is complex but well-constructed, and her world-building is clear without being pedantic. Aside from her primary villain, who struck me as a bit flat and a little too obviously evil, her characters are strong as well. I like that Sarah allows her heroes to be flawed without completely vitiating their heroism.

The other thing I like about Witchfinder is the overall message. The story is lightly sprinkled with certain ideas that mirror themes found in Sarah's award-winning Darkship series. Once again, our villains are motivated mainly by their desire to seize power and lord it over others -- while the good guys recognize that true leadership requires humility, a desire to serve, and a willingness to allow people to exercise their God-given rights. If you liked the libertarian red meat that is A Few Good Men, there's a high likelihood you will like Witchfinder as well -- even if the libertarian sensibility is more covert.

Overall, whether you're a fan of Sarah Hoyt's other works or not, I definitely encourage you to pick up Witchfinder. It is a solid fantasy novel that successfully held my interest.  

Final Verdict: Recommended

Friday, April 4, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Cedar Sanderson's The Eternity Symbiote

For this week's review, I got to indulge a little more in my alien kink with Cedar Sanderson's The Eternity Symbiote, in which the main characters stumble across an alien parasite that enhances their strength and endurance -- after which they consequently discover that Earth has now become a focal point for a larger intergalactic conflict.

The basic premise here is good and the characters are likable, but to be honest, I wish this book had been longer. While I've always been a sucker for alien takeover plots, the execution here felt very rushed. In one scene, the Ghis offer help to the president; shortly thereafter, they've successfully conquered the entire planet. What happened in the meantime? Why was the president so eager to accept Ghis support? And why did the other countries fall into line? Cedar has limned the basics here - and has done so in an entertaining and well-written way - but there's no detail -- and I think said missing detail contains a good deal of story potential that, as it stands, has been left unfulfilled. Why would some human leaders willingly sacrifice the freedom of the human race? Exploring that question in a gradual fashion, I feel, would've made The Eternity Symbiote a great story rather than a pretty good one.

Final Verdict: Recommended, But With Notes.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: James L. Cambias' A Darkling Sea

Have you been looking for a science fiction novel that combines Hal Clement-style alien world building with an extended reflection on the Prime Directive and other policies of non-interference? Well, look no further! James Cambias' A Darkling Sea is that book -- and I don't think I can sing its praises highly enough.

The novel takes place in the deep ocean of a Europa-type moon where a team of human explorers has set up a science station to study the indigenous life. Said team has been forced by interstellar treaty to avoid contact with the Ilmatarans, the intelligent natives, but one human, a cocky media personality, decides to skirt dangerously close to violating those rules in order to get a closer look. What results is a tragic misunderstanding that attracts the attention of a third civilization, the Sholen, whose most radical political faction believes the human race should be contained within the Terran solar system before human beings do any more "damage." As you might expect, conflict ensues.

Irona and the other radical Sholen embrace the assumptions behind the 1980's version of the Prime Directive: Contact, no matter the circumstances and no matter how peaceful its intentions, will always result in a despoiling of the local culture and environment. But through his storytelling, Cambias invites us to consider a more nuanced viewpoint -- one informed not by the boilerplate left wing reading of world history but by the more optimistic conviction that sapient beings everywhere are actually quite capable of adapting to change. Yes -- Cambias does acknowledge that the meeting of two different cultures must be handled in a way that's circumspect and responsible; the death of Henri teaches us the dangers of reckless arrogance. But at the same time, it is not the human explorers who ultimately initiate the first real conversation with the Ilmatarans -- it is Broadtail, an Ilmataran scientist whose innate curiosity leads him into a human camp. The implicit message is this: It is incorrect - indeed, even insulting - to suppose that beings from a less "advanced" culture would necessarily want to have their society preserved in amber. They may, in fact, be just as eager as we are to expand their horizons and try new things, just as capable of assimilating information that seems to conflict with their understanding of the universe and its natural laws -- and just as likely to angrily object to being "protected."

It took me mere hours to read this book. Granted, I've always been a swift reader, but in this case, my speed of completion was aided by the fact that I could not put it down. Not only did I enjoy the story and its above-discussed message, but I was absolutely riveted by Cambias' rendering of Ilmataran society. As I suggested above, the thoughtful logic of the world building reminded me of Mission of Gravity; everything from the method of record-keeping - knots in ropes - to the style of communication - a mixture of shell tapping and sonar - made sense for blind creatures who live in a lightless aquatic environment. And, true to my usual proclivities, I was equally captivated by the humans' struggles to overcome the language barrier and make themselves understood by Broadtail and the others. Aliens, folks! Just -- aliens. Fully realized aliens.

The Ilmatarans don't look like this. They're more like a cross between a beluga whale and a lobster. But still - aliens.

The end of the novel also sets up an intriguing mystery. Does this mean Cambias intends to return to Ilmatar in a sequel? I certainly hope so! I fell in love with Broadtail and would be quite disappointed if his story ended here.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended

Friday, March 21, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: David L. Burkhead's Live to Tell

I'm sure this particular dream is common enough: You're on the run from a group of evil men -- or monsters. You're pushing yourself as hard as you can, but your efforts seem in vain, as you can hear the enemy drawing closer and closer. If you don't do something soon, they will be within reach, so in your desperation, you hide -- perhaps in an attic or a crawl space. You do your best to quiet your breathing so you don't give yourself away.

The above describes much of the plot of David Burkhead's Live to Tell, a novella in which a sergeant must battle his PTSD to avoid capture by a contingent of alien hunters. This premise is pretty exciting, and, for the most part, Burkhead is able to maintain the required pace. Only once was I thrown out of the mood, and that was when Burkhead described the Eres for several long paragraphs. That felt like a "holy info-dump, Batman!" passage to me. While it was necessary to know something about the Eres anatomy and physiology in order to understand how Yamada could overcome them, I question whether Burkhead's excruciating detail actually served the plot.

But outside this one complaint, I think Live to Tell has the potential to be very empowering for anyone who suffers from genuine PTSD. Yamada could've allowed his fear to completely cripple him, but instead, he manages to use it to his advantage. This, I believe, sends a very important message: that we don't have to be defined by what we've suffered. That we can, instead, use our trauma to accomplish something good.

Final Verdict: Recommended    

Friday, March 14, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: James Young's An Unproven Concept

First off, let's begin with a short video presentation:


Many, many apologies. As I said, I was dared. But now that we've dropped a hint about the premise of An Unproven Concept, let's move forward with the actual review. Concept retells the story told in Young's earlier novella, Ride of the Late Rain (which I reviewed last month), but it does so from two completely different perspectives. On the one hand, we hear from the crew of the doomed civilian starliner (somewhat obviously named the Titanic); on the other hand, we hear from the crew of the military carrier that is sent to attempt a rescue. Alas, we don't hear from the aliens who attack the Titanic, which, for me, is one of this novel's two downsides.

My primary critique regarding this book, however, involves the pacing. As I've noted in the past, military science fiction is one of my favorite genres. I grew up a Navy brat, so I know - and love - the culture; curling up with a military science fiction novel is basically curling up with a book about My People. I will admit, though, that at times, mil-sci-fi can get lost in discussions of weapons and tactics and lose the thread of the story -- and this is precisely what happens about halfway through Concept during the Constitution's extensive battle exercise, which felt more like unnecessary padding than like a critical plot component.

Still, the above criticism aside, Concept is a fun read once the story gets going. Again, Young's style is engaging and accessible, and the heroes are all basically admirable. I also appreciate that the plot's resolution is neither easy nor bloodless. Young is being entirely truthful when he advertises Concept as a story for those who "like their science fiction without hero shields and their protagonists mortal."  Overall, if you like hardcore space battles with high body counts, definitely give this novel a shot!

Final Verdict: Recommended