Monday, July 26, 2010

2010 Hugo Nominees

A quick rundown on the 2010 Best Novel nominees:

One thing out of the way: Boneshaker is a zombie movie, put into text. It's a well-written, well-plotted, interesting zombie flick, but it's difficult to avoid the feeling that this is a novelization of a B movie, with the well-worn cliches that this implies; there is fog, things jump out at ragtag survivors at inopportune moments, and so on. As in many of this year's nominees, the real star is the city - a steampunk Seattle, covered in corrupting mist, populated with the few diehards who wouldn't leave their homes after the zombifying disaster; their underground world, seen from separately from the eyes of a mother and child is simultaneously terrifying and enchanting. B

What I've seen of Robert Sawyer's work has been characterized by interesting ideas, tripped up by poor characterizations and occasional (to be kind) ham-handedness. www:wake continues that trend, following the development of a collective intelligence in the Internet, as seen through a mis-configured ocular implant of a blind girl. Characters aside, where my earlier gripes apply, Sawyer throws out quite a few tidbits of neat math and computer science - Zipf's Law comes to mind. Unfortunately, these might as well be copied directly out of the Wikipedia pages, as they don't really cohere, or create a great deal of insight into the plot. Spider Robinson also tried the whole sentient Internet gig, with less technical mumbo-jumbo and more interesting characters - see Callahan's Legacy. B-

I wanted to like Julian Comstock. A conservative Christian dystopia, with an evil empire headquartered in Colorado Springs? Hell, I'd write that book. But Wilson not only didn't managed to reproduce the brilliance of Spin, he also managed to turn an adventure story into a slog; the novel's intentionally slow-witted narrator and the faux-oldtimey speech don't help. Much of the world he creates, which has reverted to a roughly 18th-century technological level in the aftermath of oil exhaustion and environmental catastrophe, seems skimmed in equal parts from other post-apocalyptic and industrial revolution fiction. A Canticle for Leibowitz, in particular, does the "distortions of past events become gospel" trick quite well. B-

Since I hadn't managed to finish China Mieville's Perdido Street Station yet, I wasn't expecting great things from The City and the City, and my expectations dropped further when I saw the dedication namecheck Raymond Chandler and Kafka side by side. Surprisingly, that pairing actually gives a reasonable impression of the book to follow, which is more a study in fantastic absurdism than a novel of science fiction or fantasy. Though the gumshoe parts aren't the most original, and the ending is a little unconvincing, I don't think I've seen anything quite this bold, or insane, in quite a while. A-

To my knowledge, Palimpsest sets the record for most sex scenes in a Hugo nominee. Surprisingly, this never feels exploitative - the end result of a plot in which access to a fantastic underworld is sexually transmitted. It's a pity that an equally appropriate title, "Sex and the City," was already taken, preventing me from making puns on Sex and the City and The City and the City. Valente's work has a real lyricism, with beautiful sentences and a dreamlike, but brutally real alter-world, though at times the writing devolves into something stylishly overwrought. Her characters strive and sacrifice, but the novel doesn't reward them with a satisfying finish, stopping all too abruptly. B+

Like Julian Comstock, The Windup Girl is a story about adapting to a world of scarcity; energy and safe food sources are precious as oil is exhausted and mutating plagues scour genetically modified foods. Bacigalupi's particular fixation on food problems occasionally becomes overbearing, and there are some science issues (I can't imagine using large animals to generate electricity ever being efficient, even with massive carbon taxes), but the half-medieval, half-modern Bangkok is a remarkable setting. The characters are mostly not sympathetic, but I don't see that as the point; in Windup, science causes catastrophe and prevents it in the same breath, and each character is trying to come out on top, while their own self-interest keeps Bangkok on the edge of disaster. I should note, though, that the experiences of the "windup" herself, a genetically-designed secretary/sex toy, are more than a little horrifying, but it's almost played out as erotica - which is a little unsettling. The character and her nightmarish job make sense in the world portrayed, and given the cruelty of the other characters - it's not in there for prurient interest, exactly - but nevertheless, the tone is questionable. A-

For the Hugo, I keep switching between The Windup Girl and The City and the City, as the former is probably a better all-around novel, while the latter is a more interesting work that inspires a great deal of fairly weird thought.

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