Posted by: NiTessine | July 17, 2014

Finncon 2014, Part II: The Obligatory Literary Snobbery

Continuing from my previous post, this is a sort of appendix about my thoughts on the Hugo fiction categories. Quite a few of them are available online, and links have been supplied.

The panel. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

From left to right, Tommy Persson, Marianna Leikomaa, Jukka Halme, yours truly, and Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

I tried to read all the material before the panel. I got everything else done but had to give up on Wheel of Time after the fifth book. I simply cannot see the appeal of the series, and I object to the length. I think that in a novel, the first 300 pages are free. That’s a good length for a novel. It may suck, but it’s a decent pagecount and whatever else its successes or failings, will not feel too long. After that, though, you have to earn every page with something more than just “entertaining”. You need to have themes, depth, ideas, beautiful prose, something to bring it meaning. Neal Stephenson can pull it off. Eleanor Catton can pull it off. Umberto Eco, George R.R. Martin, Thomas Pynchon, and yes, J.R.R. Tolkien himself can pull it off. Should Hannu Rajaniemi someday be possessed by the imp of the perverse and pen an 800-page doorstopper, I am sure he would pull it off and look good doing it. Robert Jordan did not, in his first five novels, even remotely pull it off. The length of the series is respectable, yes, but apart from the distinction of numbering among the longest works of literature ever written, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. There’s your Chosen One, complete with whining about his destiny, your Prophecy, your guiding Obi-Wan dudes, your orcs and your Dark Lord and your plot coupon collection. To top it off, it’s so damn humourless. David Eddings told the same story, but he only took five to three novels per telling and he could be funny when he tried.

I admit that I cannot speak for the Brandon Sanderson novels that cap off the series since I never got that far. Perhaps they are better, perhaps not, but I am separated from them by a gulf of thousands of pages I’ve no intention of reading.

That said, the Wheel of Time is not the most objectionable thing on the ballot this year. It merely bores me and takes up far too much space. It does not actively offend me in the way that Vox Day’s “Opera Vita Aeterna” does, for instance. Apart from what thoughts I have of the author’s political views (he’s something of a caricaturish embodiment of all the negative stereotypes about Christian fundamentalists), it’s some remarkably bad writing, with clumsy English, clumsier pseudo-Latin, and a vestigial plot that has the tension of an overcooked noodle. It feels like background worldbuilding for a larger series and the entire payoff of the story is tied to that some other series. There are also enough descriptions of medieval monastic interior decoration to make a novelette-length story somehow feel bloated. Then, it’s probably necessary for the story because it would never have made the shortlist at short story length.

I am also not entirely taken by Brad Torgersen’s stories, “The Exchange Officers” and The Chaplain’s Legacy, which read like someone found a couple of unedited first drafts written in 1956 and decided to print them as-is.

Larry Correia’s Warbound, on the other hand, I was predisposed to dislike, but the entire trilogy was in the voter’s packet so I read it all and was quite entertained. The 1930s superhero setting works, and reminds me of Godlike in a number of very positive ways. It feels gameable. The story keeps going, it maintains a sense of humour about how goofy it is (Count Zeppelin was an Active supergenius) and has a nice touch in Hitler getting executed for his troubles after the Beer Hall Putsch and the bad guys being Imperial Japan. I’ll read any novel where Ishii Shirō gets offed. That said, I still don’t think Warbound has much of a place on the ballot. It’s not nearly as strong as the trilogy’s first part, Hard Magic, and for all its virtues as fun entertainment, it simply has no depth. I am also not enamoured with the occasional gun porn or the overly gory descriptions of violence. They feel off and out of place.

Read this.

Read this.

Ranting over. Like I said, we all thought Ancillary Justice was the best of the lot. It’s science fiction doing what it was born to do, exploring the what ifs and why nots of the human condition. The novel focuses especially the concepts of identity and language. The main character is actually a part of a spaceship, whose native language has no gendered pronouns – and she defaults to she in English (it also just occurred to me that “Radch”, the name of the empire that is the main character’s home, is probably pronounced /ɹɑːdʒ/). It is a simple and elegant way of highlighting and problematizing something that we take for granted, the male as the default. It also probably renders the novel untranslatable into any language that doesn’t do gendered pronouns, like Finnish.

It’s also a bit of a send-up of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, another favourite of mine. It’s already deservedly picked up pretty much every other major award in science fiction, and the Hugo would be a logical extension of the series. I mean, I won’t cry if it loses to Neptune’s Brood (Charles Stross at his internet puppiest, complete with an extended Monty Python joke, clever ideas by the bushel and a rather too abrupt an ending), but it really shouldn’t.

In the novel category we also have Mira Grant’s Parasite. I do not have a lot to say about it since it brings together medical horror, which I dislike, and zombie horror, which I hate, and the pacing is off. Almost the entire first half of the novel consists of doctor’s appointments, treatments and the protagonist’s everyday life. It does pick up once the zombie outbreak gets going, but it’s too little, too late. Additionally, there is a revelation at the end that was implicitly told to the reader a hundred pages previously. Even I caught it and I was skimming at that point. Sometimes figuring out the big reveal ahead of time makes the reader feel smart, but this one was too obvious and felt like sloppy writing. Personally, I think the zombie novel has jumped the tapeworm.

In the novella category, we get Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, which is a fascinating blend of western and fairytale. The story is beautifully written in this frontiersy, Deadwood kind of voice, and I ended up reading it aloud to myself to better appreciate it (as well as the sound of my own voice).

There’s also Equoid by Charles Stross, which is a worthy instalment to the Laundry series, with H.P. Lovecraft and the coolest unicorns anywhere. my favourite thing about the story is how the writing dates it between the second and third novels of the series, sometime in 2007 or 2008 – someone has a MySpace account. The category also features Wakulla Springs, an evocative story of the early days of filmmaking. And swimming. It has a very strong atmosphere and a powerful sense of place, but I find the speculative fiction elements kind of lacking. Someone commented that it should be read as a work of American magical realism, which I guess works, but does not quite do it for me.

This, too.

This, too.

In the novelette category, my favourite is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, a sentimental, beautiful and sad retro-futurist story about getting old and the pull of the final frontier. It’s just good enough to pull it off without becoming cloying. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars” was interesting and well-written, with an intersting way of tying the two seemingly unrelated narratives together. Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” I felt was somewhat distancing and cold, a very methodical exploration, perhaps even a dissection, of its themes. It was too explicit about them, and I think I would have preferred a subtler approach.

Finally, there are the short stories, the only category where I did not feel the necessity to field the dread “no award” option. My favourite was John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere”, very closely followed by Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, which is seriously funny. I think too many writers forget that humour is sometimes necessary to offer contrast to the bleakness and even more often that something being legitimately funny in its own right is a valid thing to aspire to. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” and Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” don’t quite do it to me in the same way, but neither is bad.

The darkly funny thing about the inclusion of Correia and Vox Day and Torgersen on that list is that they’re all known for being politically somewhat to the right (sufficiently to come around into being politically wrong), and there is a certain temptation to frame this particular year’s ballot as a true test for the fandom, to reject the bigotry and the outdated values of yesteryear, to once and for all declare that science fiction and the people who love it truly stand for progress, for looking into a better future. However, it really isn’t. If it were Orson Scott Card or Dan Simmons on the ballot, that argument could possbily be made. What we are up against here, though, is one decent entertainer and a couple of guys whose work has the subtlety of a political manifesto, the finesse of a boot to the head, and a grasp of language easily rivalling that of an an eight-year-old English-as-second-language student. I can come up with no metric of literary quality that would see any of these men walking away with a rocket statuette. It is defeat enough that they’re on the ballot. While I would have no problem voting No Award over any of their works simply because there is a point in political discourse where I can no longer in good conscience agree to disagree, it is not relevant to the situation because their works are not the Best Novel, or Novella, or Novelette of the year, or even among the ten best, or in most cases any good at all.

Rant over, hopefully for good this time. We’ll see next month.

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