The Alexandrian

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2. Max Gladstone – Three Parts Dead / Two Serpents Rise

Three Parts Dead - Max GladstoneAs I type this, I am once again second-guessing the order of my top two picks for the John W. Campbell Award. But I’m just going to stick with what I put on my ballot while simultaneously encouraging you to check out both of these authors.

The central conceit of Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead is that (a) the performance of magic is a matter of manipulating certain laws; (b) it often involves a contract (or pact) between two parties of power; and (c) therefore the first thing any respectable sorceress is going to learn is contract law.

That feels like half a gimmick, but then Gladstone rapidly develops that simple idea into an infinitely clever universe.

An idea that I’ve heard ascribed to John Campbell, Frederick Pohl, and Connie Willis is that, given the idea of an automobile, pretty much anybody can imagine a highway. But the good science fiction writers will imagine the traffic jam. And that’s what Gladstone does here: Not in the sense of “magic is technology”, but rather building an entire society and culture and all the complex modes of life around the derivative consequences of a single, clever conceit.

And then Gladstone doubles down by hooking a literally epic murder mystery onto the glorious edifice he’s constructed: A god has been murdered.

Gladstone’s herorine — Tara Abernathy — is one part of insurance investigator, one part district attorney, and one part Merlin. She’s also a brilliantly realized and well-rounded character, joining a wide panoply of similar characters who populate the steampunk-infused metropolis of Alt Coulumb.

Frankly, this book is just fabulous. And while it mixes a lot of your favorite things, it also manages to infuse everything with a fresh breath of innovation that’s really exciting to see in a new author. I didn’t hesitate to add Gladstone to my “automatically buy his next book” list and I don’t hesitate to recommend him thoroughly and completely to you.

1. Ramez Naam – Nexus

Nexus - Ramez NaamI had very similar reactions to Nexus, but what pushed it to the top of my ballot is how deeply intrigued I was by Naam’s unique vision of the transhuman cusp: A drug (the titular Nexus) has appeared seemingly out of nowhere. It has a nanotech component that, basically, wires up the brain to receive and send wi-fi signals. The early iterations of the drug just produce a weird and unique high, but then computer scientists (i.e., our main characters) realize that they can hack the thing and basically perform a bootstrap installation of a custom-built OS.

And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

(Where did this drug originally come from? Good question. The mystery behind that question is one of the things that really intrigued me about the book.)

This particular instantiation of the transhuman and Naam’s exploration of the different ways in which the technology could be used is definitely interesting and basically worth the price of admission here all by itself. But what elevates Nexus to the next level is Naam’s ability to portray characters with radical different opinions about the implications of both transhumanity in general and this technology specifically: Most authors would just give us “good guy transhumanists vs. evil luddites” or (vice versa) “dangerous transhumanists vs. good guy liberators of humanity”. Naam not only dodges that bullet by making both sides of the argument legitimate, he goes one step further and shows us how each side of the argument is actually a panoply of different opinions that are held for different reasons and pursued in different ways.

(This falls apart somewhat in the last twenty pages or so of the book as a couple of the characters kind of dip their toes into the moustache-twirling-villain pool, but this slight stumble at the finish line isn’t enough to detract from the rest of the accomplishment.)

I know quite a few people who follow this blog are fans of Eclipse Phase: This is going to be right up your alley. Check it out.

A FEW CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I really couldn’t be happier about participating in the Hugo Awards this year. Combing through the nominees introduced me to some truly wonderful authors who I will be making a point of paying very close attention to in the future, particularly:

  • Alietta de Bodard
  • Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Benjanun Sriduangkaew
  • Max Gladstone
  • Ramez Naam

And a number of other delightful and wonderful works (like “Wakulla Springs”, “The Butcher of Khardov”, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, “The Water That Falls on Your From Nowhere”, and “Selkie Stories Are for Losers”) that I would not otherwise have had the pleasure of encountering. I can only hope these reviews will serve to point some of you to exciting and invigorating discoveries of your own.

The 2014 Hugo Awards have been awarded at Loncon, but I wanted to share one last round of reviews for the John W. Campbell Award nominees because there’s some really awesome works among them that I want to share with you.

For those unfamiliar with it, the John W. Campbell Award is given to the Best New Writer whose first work appeared within the last two years. (This means that some of the nominees are in the second year of eligibility, whereas other nominees could be nominated again next year.)

Due to time constraints, I mostly limited myself to the works provided by these authors for the Hugo Voters Packet.

5. Wesley Chu – The Lives of Tao

The Lives of Tao is a perfectly nice piece of pulp fiction.

The central conceit is that an alien spacecraft crash landed on Earth several million years ago. These immortal aliens are wraith-like and find the harsh conditions of Earth’s environment debilitating and deadly. Fortunately, they’re able to merge themselves with higher lifeforms, like humans. While merged they can’t necessarily control their host (without great difficulty), but they can communicate with the host, providing them with superhuman insight, knowledge, and experience.

What makes the book effective pulp fiction is the emotionally satisfying life-transformation experienced by the geek-insert protagonist when he’s possessed by one of these aliens: From an unmotivated blob of nerd fat, he ends up becoming a fairly competent secret agent. Feel-good moments of engaging character development are intermixed effectively with a sequence of well-paced action sequences which slowly reveal more and more of the mythos which Chu has created.

The Lives of Tao - Wesley ChuWhat makes the book fairly forgettable, however, is the general lack of craft displayed in its execution. (As seen, for example, in the sloppy and repetitive prose.) What hurts the book particularly is the lack of real thought given to the world being built: I’m generally skeptical of “every important person in history was actually an alien/vampire/telepath” SF stories, but Chu actually carries off the broad strokes of that conceit better than most. Where he falls down is failing to really appreciate scale and impact: You’ve got a bunch of aliens who can’t talk to each other for millions of years until humans evolve because only humans have vocal cords. (Apparently the aliens forgot how writing works.) Then they all sit around not creating technological societies for several million years because… Umm… Well, actually, I don’t know. Historically that didn’t happen because it took human culture a long time to figure out that sort of thing was possible. But when you’ve got super-intelligent aliens guiding our actions who already know how technological societies work, it feels like it should have happened a lot sooner. It also feels like the holy books in this universe (all written by alien-possessed humans) should be filled with useful advice like “boil your water” and “wash your hands”, instead of random bullshit like “the flesh of a woman during her menstrual cycle is unclean”.

If the aliens had crash-landed in, say, 1453 AD (or even 157 BC) it would have all made a lot more sense. But it feels like Chu really liked the idea of his aliens remembering the time that they inhabited dinosaurs and he just kind of latched onto that image without really thinking through any of the consequences.

In any case, I don’t want to be too hard on The Lives of Tao. I’m actually being very sincere when I say that it’s enjoyable pulp fiction. In fact, I enjoyed it enough that I’ve got the sequel (The Deaths of Tao) tucked away on my reading list. If you’re looking for some entertaining fiction, this is definitely something you should consider. It’s just that Chu is so clearly outclassed by every other nominee for this award that his placement at the bottom of the list is fairly self-evident.

Grade: D

4. Sofia Samatar - A Stranger in Olondria

I’ll be honest in saying that Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria faced an uphill slog for me because the particular type of fiction she’s aiming to create is not one that I generally find palatable. (It’s not really a specific sub-genre; it’s just the quasi-literary feel of the story.) If your mileage varies, I suspect you could easily love this book. (And clearly the mileage varied for a lot of people because Samatar won the award this year.)

I suspect this book also fared poorly with me because I had so recently read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun: A Strange in Olondria is trying to accomplish a lot of the same things that Wolfe did (albeit in a classic fantasy setting instead of a science fantasy setting), but Wolfe just clearly does it better in every single possible way, whether you’re talking about quality of prose; depth of character; pacing; creativity; impact; etc.

A Stranger in Olondria - Sofia SamatarMore generally, I knew that A Stranger in Olondria had problems when I saw that I was 20% of the way through the book and nothing had happened: The author had guided us through a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age story of a young boy who really loves books (yawn!), but nothing had actually happened in the course of that story.  It was just generic events being reported generically. I decided that I would give the book until 25% completion to actually do something (a luxury I almost certainly would not have given it if not for the award nomination), and it just barely managed to accomplish that by launching the actual plot of the book just before hitting that mark: The character is possessed by a ghost and has to figure out how to get rid of it.

At this point there’s a short flurry of activity and then… nothing happens again. For a very long time. There’s another lengthy gap (this time to the 50% mark) and then there’s another flurry of activity and then… Yeah. The gaps between points of interest shorten and eventually the last tenth or so of the book manages to get some momentum going. But up until that point reading the book felt like watching a drunk lurch somewhat haphazardly down the street.

Grade: C+

3. Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Stories of the Hegemony

Ranking the top 3 positions on my ballot for the John W. Campbell Award was actually quite difficult for me. Sriduangkaew dropped to the third position primarily because she’s in her first year of eligibility, whereas the other two authors were in their final year of eligibility. I suspect she’s likely to get nominated again next year with a more robust body of work.

Benjanan Sriduangkaew in Clarkesworld MagazineSriduangkaew’s work to date has primarily orbited a sequence of stories set in or around the Hegemony, a future society in which humanity’s mind has become so wired up and interconnected that the government is able to retroactively edit not only the records of society but also the memories of society. (If that sounds dystopic to you, that’s because it is.) What makes these stories particularly compelling is that Sriduangkaew uses the wide canopy of the Hegemony to tell a vast variety of stories: A souped up secret agent who can edit memories to insert herself into deep cover situations. A common person struggling to survive. A scientist enmeshed in the maintenance of the system. A resistance fighter trying to turn the empire’s system against itself. Interesting characters and fascinating ideas mix freely with beautiful imagery to create captivating stories.

As some small indication of her quality, I will note that Sriduangkaew was the only Hugo-nominated author I read whose other work I immediately sought out and read. I heartily suggest you do the same. Conveniently, many of her stories can be found on (or linked from) her website. For her Hegemony stories specifically, you can check out (in the order I recommend reading them):

Also available are:

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Numenera: Into the Violet Vale - Monte CookMonte Cook’s Into the Violet Vale was released yesterday. This is the Numenera adventure I ran at Gencon this year. It features a nifty in media res opening that will make the adventure a little more challenging to incorporate into an ongoing campaign, but which works great if you’re looking to run a one-shot. On the other hand, it’s also remarkably flexible and non-linear compared to most convention scenarios I’ve experienced, so I definitely think it can be worth the effort. I’ve run it 4 times and found it to be delightful and mind-bending every time.

As part of my prep work for running the adventure, I put together a bunch of resources and an expansive cheat sheet that I think y’all might find useful. And now that the scenario has been released to the public, I can share them with you.

SPOILER WARNING

Numenera: Into the Violet Vale - Cheat Sheet

(click here for PDF)

This cheat sheet for the GM supplements the adventure in several key ways:

First, I’ve prepped a specific MISSION BRIEFING featuring three specific questions to help players orient themselves into the scenario. This is designed to retain the in media res quality of the opening while providing enough context to meaningfully inform roleplaying without requiring the players to simply listen to a big wall of text. (In practice, the answers to these questions often had a radical effect on shaping what followed.) The final question (“How are you securing and transporting Sinter?”) is designed to transition with a hard pivot directly into the opening scene.

Second, I’ve included a lengthy REGLAE REFERENCE. During my playtest, the players really wanted to tear the titular, dimension-warping flowers apart. So I whipped up some really weird, non-terrestial biological traits to reward their attention.

Third, several of my players commented that the adventure felt too “generic fantasy” and didn’t do enough to really highlight the awesome “weirdness” of the setting (particularly early on). In an attempt to address this, I’ve added some EXTRA WEIRDNESS to the abandoned camp at the beginning of the adventure. I’ve made some similar additions to Lady Weiss and her brute bodyguards.

I’ve specified FRIN’S CYPHERS. These were just pregenerated randomly, but it let me include them on the cypher cards I prepped for the adventure. (See below.) If you don’t want to use those cards, there’s no reason you can’t just generate them randomly during play.

I’ve added a bit where the PCs can theoretically MURDER FRIN and reverse engineer an alternative (but dangerous) method of escaping the valley. (This also changes the method Lady Weiss uses to help the PCs escape the valley.)

Finally, I’ve prepped NPC ROLEPLAYING SHEETS for all of the major NPCs (Sinter, Lady Weiss, Frin, and Meriod). I’ve talked about these before, but the short version is that I derived this format for NPCs from Mike Mearls’ In the Belly of the BeastI’ve found that it makes quickly referencing their information and assuming their character so incredibly simple.

OTHER RESOURCES

In addition to my master cheat sheet, I’ve also prepped these resources:

  • Handout: Grodon’s Journal: A one-page version of the handout with a fancy-looking font. (The font is SF New Republic. I use it as a kind of lingua franca in the Ninth World.)
  • NPC Portraits and Graphics: These depict Lady Weiss’ Tower, Lady Weiss, Frin, and Meriod. They’re formatted to be printed as 4×6 photos. The character portraits have been heavily photoshopped from the group portrait on pg. 10 of the scenario so that you can present each NPC individually. The picture of Lady Weiss’ Tower comes from here. (Check it out, it’s pretty cool.)
  • Cypher and Ability Cheat Sheets: These are designed to eliminate book look-ups for the pregenerated characters included in the adventure. I’ve found that they save about 20-30 minutes of playing time, so their use greatly improves pace if you’re using Into the Violet Valet as a one-shot for introducing people to the game.
  • Cypher Cards: These are for all the cyphers that the PCs can find or gain during the adventure. (This includes the three cyphers that Frin brings them, see above.) These cards are designed to be printed on Avery 8471 business cards, but can easily be printed on any paper or cardstock and then cut out. (There are two full sets so that I could just print the page once and have enough for both of the sessions I was scheduled to run at Gencon.)
  • PC Tent Cards: Once again featuring the pregen characters. I prep these and put them in the middle of the table. As people approach, they can select whichever character looks appealing to them and put the tent card in front of them. It’s a nice, quick way to facilitate character selection and also means that you (and other players) can quickly identify who’s playing who with a quick glance during play. These files are designed to be printed with Avery “Small Tent Cards” (template 5302), but you could also just print them on normal cardstock. What you need to do is take each A file and then flip it and print the matching B file. (Each sheet has four tent cards, so I’ve designed the three files so that I get two complete sets of character names if I print all three (to minimize wastage). If you just want one set, print sets 1 and 2 and you should be good to go.)

Numenera: Into the Violet Vale - Monte Cook

The Great Filter - waitbuywhy.com

Even if you’re already familiar with the Fermi Paradox, you might find it worthwhile to check out this excellent treatment of the subject. What makes it particularly worthy of attention is the comprehensive totality of the coverage, offering detailed breakdowns on more than a dozen different Fermi-related scenarios.

The Fermi Paradox is very relevant to both Eclipse Phase and The Strange, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

This is just a naked plea for assistance: I need additional space in my Dropbox account and I can get it if 30 people who don’t currently use Dropbox to follow this referral link, set up a Dropbox account, and install their app (if you don’t install the app, I don’t get the credit):

https://db.tt/iIjfJ7NQ

Once you’ve done that, you can delete the app if you’d like.

Dropbox accounts are pretty nifty, though, if you use multiple devices. I use mine to maintain a library of RPG reference material and prep material so that I can access the rulebooks and scenario materials for my current campaign regardless of whether I’m on my computer, my tablet, or my phone. I need the extra space because some limited term promotional space I got from my cellphone manufacturer came to an end over the weekend.

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