Tuesday, June 23, 2009

2009 Hugo Nominees: Anathem, The Graveyard Book, Little Brother, Saturn's Children, and Zoe's Tale

As a preemptive strike, I added the 2009 Hugo nominees to my list, if for no other reason than to be able to grouse more effectively when the winners are announced.

Anathem is Neal Stephenson's latest, initially set within a monastic city that has limited contact with the outside, more technological world, while still embracing scientific and mathematical studies. The monkish focus, the initial emphasis on world-building, and the connection between intricate philosophy and epic events all remind me of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. This may have colored my experience, because though I found Anathem incredibly enjoyable, the plot struck me as comparatively weak. Most of the negative reviews I have read have focused on the initial development of the monks' lives, but I feel this was the strongest part of the novel, setting up the society inside the monastery walls by direct example, and the outside one by contrast. Yes, it takes hundreds of pages to get to any real plot development, but it hardly matters when the world is so engrossing. The real failure of Anathem is a lack of ambition in its second, faster-moving half; having set up this complex society, complete with conflicting philosophies and an alternate history, Stephenson puts up a fairly shallow resolution that occasionally feels like an action movie. The ride is fun, but I can't help feeling a little let down that Anathem isn't just a little bit better. B+

The Graveyard Book is Neil Gaiman's interpretation of The Jungle Book, but with a child raised by ghosts, not wolves. I can shrug a lot of analysis off just by pointing to the author's name - you know the book is going to be creepy, mythologically inspired, and well-written. Gaiman brings his A game, but his ambitions are smaller than in American Gods; Graveyard Book is an excellent children's book, but doesn't wander too far from the boundaries already set up by Kipling, Dahl and others. (And for a personal "it-just-bugs-me," I've noticed that I always want to know either more or less about Gaiman's villains - they always seem to be in an uncomfortable place between inexplicable horrors and well-developed characters.) A-

Little Brother is set a good five or six minutes into the future, in that paranoid, metal-detector-surrounded, hormone-fueled hell known as high school. All of this year's Hugo nominees except, ironically, Saturn's Children, focus on children and adolescents, but this was the one that had me continually flashing back. The focus is on civil disobedience in a technological age, facing an overzealous, data-mining, Department of Homeland Security, over-responding to a terrorist attack. Cory Doctorow: where was this book in 2002, when we needed it more? I can think of many similar stories just from my high school, about students screwing with school technology, getting tear-gassed while protesting, getting into fights over the "patriotic" reaction to terrorism, and so on. Doctorow really grabbed the combination of cynicism, naiveté, and stubbornness that characterizes many smart high schoolers. The strident tone, adolescent characters, and focus on technology make Little Brother occasionally read like Slashdot: The Novel, but there is ambiguity behind the sermonizing, as the protagonist's cohort are shown to be 21st century Yippies, with all the mixed feelings that invokes. As I said, this book would have been better in 2002, and I'm not at all convinced it will age well - but it's certainly a powerful anti-authoritarian mover now. A-

Charles Stross has been previously nominated for five Best Novel Hugos, but I don't think Saturn's Children is his breakthrough novel. The central idea (How can a robot society designed to serve humanity evolve after humanity's extinction?) is interesting, and the plot is a reasonably exciting adventure story, but Stross owes too large a debt to his clear inspiration, Heinlein's Friday. Stop me if this sounds familiar: Freya, initially designed for pleasure but now uniquely suited as a courier, becomes involved with a conspiracy, faces hatred because of her design, goes globe-trotting and along the way has sex with everything. Freya even uses Friday's name as an alias! The theft is well-acknowledged, so I'm not going to hold it against Stross, but Friday is so packed with ideas (including a dead-on parody of California's gubernatorial recall, written years before it happened) that Saturn's Children looks worse in comparison. B

John Scalzi is another writer with a clear debt to Heinlein, but though Zoe's Tale has a little bit of Tunnel in the Sky going on, Scalzi's Old Man's War universe is its own beast. Sadly, very little new in that universe actually ends up on display in this novel; this may be because Zoe's Tale is revisiting an earlier Scalzi novel (one I haven't read) from a different perspective. Scalzi doesn't meet the gold standard of this trick, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow, and though I enjoyed the novel, it seemed empty compared to his earlier Old Man's War. While the teenagers are interesting characters, Zoe's maturing is too neatly matched with the events around her, and the end result feels like a little too much like an episode of the Wonder Years. B

Given all that, who would I give the Hugo to this year? In what might seem a surprise given my grades, I'd have to choose Anathem. Graveyard Book is almost perfect in what it attempts, but it attempts much less than Anathem, and while I loved Little Brother, it's not a book for the ages. Anathem isn't a complete success, but it is a beautiful monstrosity.


  • I now feel very silly that I didn't think to ask Danny Hillis what he thought about Anathem when I met him.
  • I also wrote a little about Anathem in an earlier entry
  • Little Brother is available for free online, for those of you who like ebooks.

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