The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘hugo reviews’

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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.


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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Today I’m making the leap from the literary categories, starting with what is essentially the television category. It’s interesting to me the way in which this category is systematically dominated by a particular geek show: Twenty years ago it was Babylon 5. Ten years ago it was Buffy. The Retro 1939 Hugo nominations are dominated by Mercury Theater broadcasts. And today it’s basically a loud huzzah for all things Doctor Who.

7. Doctor Who: “The Name of the Doctor”, written by Steven Moffatt, directed by Saul Metzstein.

I honestly don’t understand how this absolutely dreadful hour of television got nominated. Beyond the fan service, there’s absolutely nothing to like about this episode. Moffat rips himself off to create the Whisper Men. When faced with the fact that the entire hook of the episode was complete and utter nonsense, Moffat responded by making a Blu-Ray special in an effort to explain it (but actually just ended up contradicting the episode itself). The bulk of the episode serves mainly to remind us that the Great Intelligence was never actually established as a coherent villain during series 7 (and does nothing to grant him coherency now).

The Name of the DoctorThe end of the episode, of course, culminates in yet another “alternate universe created by an assassination attempt on the Doctor that threatens to destroy the universe, but is averted because… deus ex machina”. Which marks the third straight season finale in a row that Moffat used that plot. (Although, to be fair, the season 5 finale’s alternate universe created by an assassination attempt on the Doctor that threatened to destroy the universe did not require a deus ex machina in order to be averted.)

Bonus points to this episode, however, for hinging the deus ex machina on the stakes of Clara being totally dead if she jumps into the scar… and then just saying “fuck it” 30 seconds later and using another deus ex machina in order to save her. Extra bonus points for the deus ex machina used to save her having been established as being impossible, but then simply ignoring that with another deus ex machina. Moffat apparently can’t be satisfied until he’s got deus ex machina in his deus ex machina in his deus ex machina.

(The fact that it took two whole episodes before Moffat retconned this entire episode out of existence — with another deus ex machina, ‘natch — really makes the whole package extra impressive.)

To be fair, I suppose it can be said that “Name of the Doctor” is an admirable representation of just how utterly terrible the seventh series of Doctor Who was.


5. The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, written & directed by Peter Davison.

The Five(ish) Doctors RebootThis is a remarkable tribute of love for Doctor Who and I was ecstatic to see its release as part of the 50th Anniversary festivities. If you’re a fan of Doctor Who and you haven’t seen it yet, please seek it out with the greatest possible alacrity.

With that being said, this is not a piece which, IMO, transcends its immediate fandom. I’m not even sure it significantly transcends this particular moment in time. So while I’ve watched it multiple times myself and giggled with glee each time, I still think ranking it here is the right place for it.

4. An Adventure in Time and Space, written by Mark Gatiss, directed by Terry McDonough.

An Adventure in Time and SpaceQuite possibly the best thing Mark Gatiss has ever written: An Adventure in Time and Space dramatizes the creation of Doctor Who and focuses a particularly fascinating lens on the life of William Hartness (as portrayed impeccably by David Bradley).

Its only real flaw, IMO, is the moment of gratuitous fan service which mars its finale. I’ve seen several historical dramas lately which have provided “happy” endings for their protagonists by suggesting that they had some sort of non-historical catharsis often featuring some sort of prescience that their legacy would endure. I find it vaguely cheap and rather disrespectful to the actual person.

I would be placing this 1-2 ranks higher if the ending was stronger, but don’t get me wrong: This is a nice little film. And if you’re a fan of Doctor Who then it’s a must-watch title.

3. Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere”, written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter.

I’m actually not a huge fan of the Game of Thrones TV series.

I don’t hate it or anything (and the books are quite wonderful); I just haven’t gotten into it.

The Red Wedding, however, is such a memetically powerful event that the importance and effectiveness of this episode really can’t be questioned.

It is very award worthy.

2. Orphan Black: “Variations Under Domestication”, written by Will Pascoe, directed by John Fawcett.

Orphan BlackI really wish that Orphan Black was just a little bit more intelligent. The main characters all seem to have been hit over the head a few too many times with the idiot ball. (If you want to protect your daughter at all costs, why the fuck are you needlessly carrying her address with you when you decide to break into the bad guys’ home base? And what the fuck? You just got done saying that your apartment isn’t safe, why the fuck are you sending her there as if it were a safe house? … to cite just a couple of the show’s many, many examples.)

With that being said, Tatiana Maslany’s ability to just completely transform herself into different characters is simply unbelievable. (And it becomes even more unbelievable when she plays one of her characters pretending to be another of her character’s and somehow both characters simultaneously shine through.) And the series as a whole is totally addictive while just being one notch away from achieving true mind-blowing proportions (which is why I so desperately want it to be a little smarter). “Variations Under Domestication” is a particularly clever example of what the show is capable of achieving: Farcical techniques of mistaken identity are escalated in a beautiful spiral of comedy and drama.

1. Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor”, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Nick Hurran.

Doctor Who: The Day of the DoctorAs absolutely dreadful as “The Name of the Doctor” and the rest Doctor Who‘s seventh series was, “The Day of the Doctor” was simply magnificent: Clever and compelling and endlessly fun, with healthy doses of fan service expertly deployed in order to improve the story rather than distract from it. It was a completely joyous reminder of the greatness that Moffat is capable of achieving as a writer. (Even if that only leaves you scratching your head when you consider the absolutely dreadful dreck it was surrounded by in “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor”.)

My only quibble with “The Day of the Doctor” is Moffat’s rather anemic understanding and portrayal of the Time War, but that’s not enough to detract from everything else that makes this my #1 pick for science fiction drama in the last year.


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Hugo Awards - 2014Moving up the list of literary length, I’m transitioning from the Hugo-nominated novelettes to the Hugo-nominated novellas. Let’s start at the bottom:

6. “The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen.

This is an astonishingly bad story.

It literally opens with multiple pages of hamfisted “As you know, Bob” exposition. My favorite part of this incredibly lengthy sequence is, “As you know, Bob, you’re the one who brokered the original cease-fire with the horrible aliens.” I was really hoping the response to that would be, “Well, gosh, I’d plumb forgot that, Bobette! Thank goodness you reminded me!” Instead, the actual response is, “As you know, Bobette, I managed to convince the aliens that human religion was such a fascinating mystery that they shouldn’t wipe us out until they understood it.”

And thus we come to the central premise of the story: The aliens are genetically incapable of experiencing “faith” in anything they can’t directly observe or scientifically prove. (There are several problems with that, but let’s ignore them.) During the previous war, a human prisoner of war (our main character) realized that the alien scientists studying them were really interested in the concept of “religion” and managed to negotiate a ceasefire in exchange for teaching them about it. (This is fairly flimsy and is never really locked down with the kind of specificity required to make it seem in any way believable, but let’s ignore that, too.)

Where the story completely falls apart into silliness is when it’s revealed that the aliens refuse to talk to anyone about religion except the main character: Scholars and religious leaders and actual experts are offered, but the aliens refuse to talk to them. Okay, I’ll assume there’s some sort of hand-wavey “this is the way of the aliens” thing going on (although Torgersen never bothers to perform the hand-wave), but it gets even worse when it’s revealed that humanity itself has completely ignored this guy — the linchpin of human survival — for decades. And then it gets completely absurd when we learn that this guy is pretty much completely ignorant about religion and refuses to educate himself about religion in any way.

This final point might, in some way, be defensible if this was a story about this guy’s bullheaded stubbornness and ignorance. But, incredibly, that’s not the story: Instead we’re told repeatedly (and ad nauseum) that this guy will “do anything to finish the job, even if it means disobeying orders.” Apparently “anything” doesn’t include doing the one thing that might let you succeed at your job.

While this incredible sequence of baffling exposition is tumbling out through turgid and repetitive prose (the second scene literally consists of the exact same exposition as the first scene being delivered through a slightly different set of characters exchanging “as you know, Bob” witticisms), the actual plot of the story is slowly unfolding. And it is equally hilarious: The humans have managed to reverse engineer some of the alien technology and have rebuilt some of their infrastructure from the previous war. If they have enough time they might be able to level the playing field, but they know that if fresh hostilities break out that they’re seriously, seriously screwed.

So the humans decide it would be a great idea to start the war themselves by assassinating the alien leader at a peace conference.

You might think that would be the nadir of the story, but no: You still haven’t gotten to the part where the main characters try to outrun spaceships on foot.

Grade: F

5. “Wakulla Springs” by Andy Durance and Ellen Klages.

Wakulla Springs - Andy Duncan and Ellen KlagesThis is a tough one.

“Wakulla Springs” is a beautiful, haunting, multi-generational story rich in atmosphere and character and subtle drama. It is easily the best-written and possibly the most entertaining novella nominated for the Hugo Award this year.

It also isn’t speculative fiction.

So while I highly recommend that everyone reading this take some time out of their day to read it over at; to savor all of its rich complexities; to luxuriate in its soft warmth; to swim through its crystal clear prose; to twist painfully in its easy evocation of a primitive and savage age… Ultimately I’m constrained by the same standard I confronted with “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” in the short story category: This story fundamentally doesn’t qualify for the award, and therefore I’m forced to rank it here.

Grade: A


3.”Six-Gun Snow White” by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow White - Catherynne ValenteWhile reading “Six-Gun Snow White” I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the story to reveal some incredibly clever (and hidden) dimension which would transform it into a mind-blowing experience. But… the shoe never drops. This is a story which fundamentally asks, “What if Snow White was a Native American girl who… I dunno… had a gun?” And then reveals that the answer is, “She would be a Native American girl who has a gun.”

There’s just something lacking in it.

This simplistic reading of the story, however, does it a fair share of disservice. The reason I was waiting to have my mind blown is because Valente’s storytelling is incredibly complex, her prose is richly compelling, her fantastical imagery is richly evocative, and her exploration of character is heart-wrenching. Valente is also doing some really fascinating deconstruction work on the underlying fairy tale and using it to inject immense depth and breadth into her characters.

In short, it’s a great story and it is told with precision and skill. It just never quite reaches the point of critical mass necessary for the scintillating fission it holds out with a tantalizing and yet ultimately unfulfilled promise.

Grade: B-

2. “Equoid” by Charles Stross

Equoid - Charles StrossCharles Stross writes great and imaginative stuff and he writes it faster than I can keep up with it.

“Equoid” is part of his Laundry series, featuring a mid-level employee of the British intelligence service dedicated to dealing with the hidden realities of the Mythos. Previous entries in the series generally take a fascinating and original spin on the Lovecraftian Mythos and hybridize it with a satire or homage of a popular thriller or spy novelist (Len Deighton in The Atrocity Archive; Ian Fleming with The Jennifer Morgue; and so forth).

“Equoid” follows the same model by unveiling an incredibly clever and utterly creepy Lovecraftian interpretation of unicorns and then crosses that with a satire of… H.P. Lovecraft.

And that combination doesn’t quite work. Partly for the same reason that Woody Allen’s Casino Royale or Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers fall flat (trying to satirize a creator with their own work is problematic at best), but also because it seems somewhat mean-spirited to write a series of bestselling novels on the foundation of Lovecraft’s work and then write a story where you literally call him a hack. When you’re standing on the shoulders of giants you shouldn’t unzip your trousers and start pissing on the giants.

I don’t even really think that Stross intends for the story to come off this way, but I’ve read it twice now and the bad vibe it has really takes the shine off.

With that being said, Stross’ conception of the unicorn is awesome. And the plot races forward in a careless careen of headlong excitement. So I still recommend it.

Grade: B

1. “The Butcher of Khardov” by Dan Wells

The Butcher of Khardov - Dan WellsWhen I first scanned the list of nominees for Best Novella, I’ll admit that the WarMachine tie-in fiction was the last story I expected to top my list. But here it is.

And the reason it’s here is because “The Butcher of Khardov” is just a fantastic piece of fantasy fiction: Wells centers his story around the biography of a strong central character and then presents the tightly plotted arc of the character through a cleverly constructed non-linear narrative that cranks up the dramatic stakes.

It should be noted, perhaps, that I am not personally well acquainted with the WarMachine universe, so the milieu of this story really had to live or die on its own merits. And it thrives. The fantasy elements are interesting, the depth of the setting is leveraged to also create a sense of distance within the character’s own timeline, and the day-to-day life of the inhabitants is vividly transmitted through the page.

Grade: B+

 Hugo Reviews 2014 – Part 4: Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

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Continuing my review of Hugo nominees this year, I’m tackling the novelettes today. Ranking them, once again, in reverse order:

6. “Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day.

Easily one of the worst pieces of fiction I’ve read lately. The “world-building” consists of thinly veiling the Catholic Church by inconsistently swapping out the names and terminology and then slapping in some magic-wielding elves. (You might think that magic-wielding elves would have some sort of meaningful impact on the beliefs or teachings of the Church, but they don’t.) The “plot” would be stretched thin on a very short story, but it takes a truly prodigious amount of “talent” to stretch it over the length of a novelette: An elf shows up at a not-Catholic monastery and says, “I killed your missionary. Now I’d like to stay here and study your God.” He decides to stay for several decades while he single-handedly illuminates an entire copy of the not-Bible by himself. This is interrupted by a single scene in which he asks the head of the monastery a question about his religious faith, prompting the head of the monastery to respond by literally cribbing Thomas Aquinas at interminable length. No one in the monastery has their faith or their lives remotely affected by the elf. The elf leaves for a bit and everyone in the monastery is brutally killed by some other elves. Then the elf yells at a statue of not-Jesus Christ.

It’s not so much a story as it is a train wreck of bad writing, bad plotting, bad world-building, and bad characterization.

Grade: F


4. “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen.

The premise of this story is that cartoon Chinese Communists from 1950s propaganda pamphlets are brought to life, travel through time to the 2030s, and assume control of the future Chinese People’s Republic. Zany hilarity ensues.

… okay, not really. It is, however, the only way I can explain how the anachronistic cartoon Chinese Communists ended up in this story.

If you can look past that bit of nonsense, however, the rest of the story is a decent little bit of pulp adventure: Military space-jockeys with remote control exo-suits have to defend the red, white, and blue of their All-American Space Station(TM) from the terrible scourge of Cartoon Communists.

This clears the “No Award” threshold for me, but just barely. (And I’m having second thoughts about that even as I type this.) It would have benefited tremendously from the solution to the Cartoon Communists being in any way clever or thoughtful or unique.

Grade: C

3. “The Waiting Stars” by Alietta de Bodard.

It was really hard to rank the top three stories in this category. “The Waiting Stars” is a beautiful tone poem of transhumanism mixed with a pleasing tinge of space opera. Of all the Hugo stories I’ve read so far this year, this had the strongest and most interesting and most nuanced handling of its characters. In fact, I think the story would have benefited tremendously from giving the characters a little more room to breathe: A bit too much of the story was pushed into a past-tense summary. I would have preferred to actually experience the growth of the characters instead of being so frequently told about it.

The story was also injured for me because one of its central speculative conceits didn’t quite make enough sense. (Keeping things fairly vague in an effort to avoid explicit spoilers: I buy a culture believing that they would benefit from having their AIs go through that experience. But I’m unclear on why they would build them so large as to be dangerous and painful.)

Those quibbles aside, however, I do recommend this story. And it can be read freely on Alietta de Bodard’s website, so you have no excuse not to!

Grade: B+

2. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Another well-crafted character piece with strongly woven themes. Kowal uses alternate history to evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia and then uses that nostalgia to create a strong empathetic bond between the reader and her protagonist. She then capitalizes on that bond by forcing her character to make tough, complicated choices that Kowal refuses to simplify or trivialize in any way.

Also freely available online.

Grade: B+

1. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang.

My one quibble with “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is that I feel it would benefit from more fully developing its central character arc with the great success that, for example, Kowal does in “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”. The reason it edges out “The Lady Astronaut” to receive my #1 ranking, however, is that Chiang expertly invokes an immensely complicated psychological depth around a near-future technology. What I initially thought was going to be simply a polemical text suddenly drops away into a stunningly fractal depth of expression and thought.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is a modern day version of True Names (a fantastic short novel from Vernor Vinge which I’ve reviewed here). But whereas Vinge fired a bold cannon of transhumanism into the heart of the industry, Chiang works subtly within a well-developed theme and pulls out something that feels powerfully and transcendentally real. Reading this story feels like stepping into your life circa 2025. There’s a fervent power to that kind of clear, speculative vision when it is executed with such effortless belief.

And it is also freely available online.

Grade: B+

 Hugo Reviews 2014 – Part 3: Novellas




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