Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Recent Reading Roundup 41

It's been a little quiet on this blog over the summer, mainly because I've been busy with various projects for other venues (for example the Clarke shortlist review).  But also, because I've been busy reading.  A lot.  2016 is shaping up to be one of--if not the--most prolific reading years of my life.  Quality-wise, it's also been very rewarding, and though my other writing prevented me from giving some of these books the more in-depth look they deserved, this is still an impressive bunch of books, and worth a closer look.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik - Novik's Nebula-winning, Hugo-nominated novel--her first standalone after a decade with the His Majesty's Dragon series--has echoes of Howl's Moving Castle and Seraphina, and stands up reasonably well alongside those antecedents.  In a thinly-glossed, cod-medieval Eastern Europe, a wizard known as the Dragon exacts a mysterious but unrelenting tribute from the residents of the villages that border the malevolent, magical Wood.  Every ten years, he selects a seventeen-year-old girl to live in his tower and serve him.  The girls always return, unharmed, claiming to be unmolested, and handsomely paid, but they also always leave soon after, cut off from their families and communities.  The villagers tolerate this custom because the Dragon protects them from the predations of the Wood, which encroaches further every year, contaminating food and water and occasionally stealing people, who return (if they do at all) altered and sinister.  Heroine Agnieszka is of an age to be chosen by the Dragon, but she, like all her neighbors, believes that it's her beautiful, brave, talented best friend Kasia who will be taken.  When the Dragon takes Agnieszka instead, he reveals that it's because she has magical power, which he is legally bound to train.  But Agnieszka's training soon gives way to the demands of the real world, as the cold war with the Wood heats up, and threatens to engulf the entire nation.

    What works best about Uprooted is the way that Novik combines her obvious inspirations in Eastern European folk tales (including liberal references to Baba Yaga) with a carefully worked out fantasy world.  The most exciting parts of the novel are when Agnieszka and the Dragon learn to combine their magical approaches (somewhat predictably--and a little annoyingly, to my tastes--his magic is scientific and methodical, whereas hers is intuitive and rooted in nature) and come up with tools with which they can fight the Wood's increasingly complicated attacks.  The Wood itself is a fascinating and terrifying opponent, both for its corrupting effect on people, animals, and places, and for the obvious intelligence driving its tactics.  A sequence in which Agnieszka and the Dragon are compelled by an adventurous prince to accompany him into the Wood in order to rescue his kidnapped mother is tense and hair-raising, and Novik does a good line in pulse-pounding action storytelling.  Also rewarding is the fact that the book does not abandon the relationship between Agnieszka and Kasia after their separation, and that the two girls remain each other's strongest supporters even as they both undergo profound changes and take on bewildering responsibilities.  Like Seraphina, Uprooted takes the attitude that the only thing to do with a heroine who turns out to have super-special, super-awesome powers is to pile her high with increasingly challenging responsibilities, constantly raising the stakes every time she manages to solve a seemingly impossible problem.  But it's nice that alongside that refreshing unwillingness to be in awe of its own heroine, Uprooted also gives her someone who is always in her corner, and that that someone is also a girl.

    If I have one reservation about Uprooted (aside from the way that the novel's breakneck plot loses focus a little as it approaches its climax), it is with the central romance.  On one level, there is nothing here to complain about--Uprooted is as much a romance novel as a fantasy novel, and it does a good job of establishing not just the emotional but the physical attraction between Agnieszka and the Dragon, so much that it will be a rare reader who finishes the novel not feeling desperate for these two crazy kids to make it work.  But at the same time, the Dragon is also the same person who has spent a century abducting and abusing--emotionally, if not physically or sexually--teenage girls, and the book doesn't do quite enough to bring him back from this.  It is, perhaps, to Novik's credit that she doesn't delve into the Dragon's tragic past and blighted love life to justify his arrogant, high-handed behavior--she recognizes that nothing that he's suffered justifies the suffering he's caused.  But at times that approach feels undeservedly forgiving, as if it's enough for Agnieszka to point out to the Dragon that he's caused a great deal of pain, and this will make it alright for her to end up with him, because he's agreed not to do it any more.  It's not quite enough to mar the book's ending--as I say, you do end up rooting for this romance--but I get the feeling that Novik was trying to buck some of the more poisonous conventions of the romance genre, and I don't think she's done quite enough to achieve that.

  • Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie - I've mentioned before that I've gotten in the habit of reading the first volume in a trilogy, enjoying it well enough, and then never getting around to reading the concluding volumes, because there are so many other, in some cases standalone, books to attend to that who has the time.  If it hadn't been for my desire to get a good grounding in this year's Hugo-nominated novels, I might have done the same with the final two volumes of Leckie's massively successful series, and though I enjoyed both books, I'm not sure that they're enough to get me to change my habits--while both elaborate on the ideas and the world introduced in Ancillary Justice, neither one adds enough to it to justify their existence on their own merits.

    My understanding is that a lot of readers were disappointed in Ancillary Sword, and one can see why given that it suffers from pretty classic middle book problems (another reason, in my experience, to avoid trilogies--if 33% of your experience is going to be stage-setting, you might as well stick with standalones).  But it also does a great deal that I ended up appreciating in its own right, as distinct from the series's overarching story.  The book, which sees former ship's AI turned individual turned ship's captain Breq dispatched to a system with strategic importance to the Imperial Radch, in order to hold it for the "right" version of the tyrant Anaander Mianaai, an individual distributed over many bodies who has experienced a schism within themselves, leans very heavily on the novel of manners aspect of the story, an important component of a lot of space opera that doesn't get nearly enough play in most discussions of the genre.  Most of the novel is concerned with internal politics on Breq's ship, diplomatic maneuvers with the officials she meets in the system, and negotiations with various interest groups among the local population.  It's all done with the same light touch and wry sense of humor that characterized Ancillary Justice, but besides being a fun, breezy read, it's nice to see a novel about the running of a gigantic space empire that recognizes that a lot--the vast and overwhelming majority, in fact--of the work that goes into keeping such an edifice going involves talking.

    One of the things that Ancillary Sword gets to highlight, now that Breq is in a position of authority, is how much of a role language plays in maintaining and reinforcing the imperial project.  By classifying certain people as uncivilized, illegal, or unapproved, the empire's officers ensure that they can never be anything else, because that very designation ensures that they will never have access to the tools that will allow them to climb the ladder of ranks that supposedly gives every citizen of the empire a fair shake.  Breq tries to act as a force of justice, to point out the rhetorical tricks by which the empire blinds even its diligent and conscientious officers to the injustice they're perpetuating.  But even she ends up functioning as a tool of oppression, for example when she uncovers an assassination plot, and hands the perpetrators over to justice even though she knows that the less privileged, and less guilty, of the two will get a harsher sentence.

    When the story moves on to Ancillary Mercy, however, these issues turn out to be, well, not exactly ancillary to Leckie's project, but a lot less important than I would have liked.  Mercy picks up from the relative doldrums of Sword and places Breq at the center of a military dispute between the different factions of Anaander Mianaai, with much of the population of the system at stake.  It's here that the series's polite, mannered tone starts to work against it--Breq's ability to find a way through the tangle of conflicting interests that threaten to destroy her, her ship, and her crew feels, by the end of the novel, a little magical.  This is a particular problem when it comes to the novel's main concern, the rights of AIs to self-determination.  When human characters point out to Breq that the ships and stations that house AIs are responsible for the lives of thousands of people, and that giving them total freedom could endanger those residents, her response is to insist that ships love their crew and would never hurt them.  Which may be true, in the series's world, but if so it reinforces the feeling that the Ancillary books can sometimes be a little too nice for their own good--that the underlying assumptions of their world make it difficult to say meaningful things about the problems of empire.  Ancillary Mercy is just as charming and engaging as the previous two volumes in the series, but in some ways this is precisely its problem--it can't quite earn the ending that Leckie has been aiming at for three books.

  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin - I wish I had a bit more time on my hands to write a proper, full-length review of this book, the recent and richly-deserved Hugo winner.  Then I might have some chance of doing justice to all the many remarkable things it does.  Near the top of the list would be the way that Jemisin balances so many tropes and genres--epic fantasy, Dying Earth SF, post-apocalypse, X-Men-style persecuted superheroes--and combines them into a whole that is not only coherent and effortlessly readable, but often quite poetic.  Set in a world called the Stillness that has already experienced several industrial flowerings and collapses, and which is currently riven by massive geological instability--which periodically leads to supervolcano eruptions and subsequent years-long winters due to ash in the atmosphere, the "fifth season" of the title--the book follows three heroines who possess a superpower that allows them to control the vibrations of the earth, to quell quakes and volcanoes--or to unleash them.  Damaya is a "feral," a child whose gift for "orogeny" appeared unexpectedly in her family, and who is surrendered to the Fulcrum, the organization that trains and controls orogenes, in part because her parents know that people like her are so feared and reviled that her life would be in danger if she stayed in their community.  Syenite is an adept at the Fulcrum, who is dispatched on a mission with Alabaster, one of the most skilled orogenes alive, with orders to conceive a child with him, thus furthering his bloodline.  Essun is an escapee from the Fulcrum who has lived hidden in a remote community for years.  As the book begins, her husband discovers her secret and murders one of their children, kidnapping the other.  Essun sets out after him, in hopes of retrieving her missing daughter, and of revenge.

    Through the three women's eyes, Jemisin weaves a portrait of a civilization defined by its awareness of its own impermanence.  With quakes and fifth seasons an inevitability, all of society is structured to survive catastrophe, and Jemisin is great at capturing the nuances of how that would affect even the most minute aspects of life, and the habits of thought of all of the Stillness's inhabitants.  Constant apocalypses mean that societies in the Stillness don't tend to climb very far up the technological ladder, but their approach to this is interestingly hard-headed--low technology is survivable technology, the kind that can withstand and carry a civilization through a fifth season, and characters in the book are full of disdain towards more advanced "deadcivs" whose inability to weather these stresses is proof, in their mind, that their approach was the wrong one.  As a result, much of the book's society feels typical of epic fantasy, but Jemisin works to demystify it, stressing things like bureaucracy, the structures of civic government, and all the tedious work that goes into making such a society function, which make the entire novel feel a lot more modern and of the moment than it otherwise might have.  (In that sense, it reminded me a great deal of Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories, which in turn feels inspired by Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, a line of influence that might be worth investigating further.)

    The theme of necessity warping thought processes can also be observed in the reaction to orogenes, and more importantly, in how they are taught to see themselves.  The Stillness both needs and desperately fears orogens, and though both of these reactions are understandable--over the course of the novel, we witness orogenes, driven by anger and grief, causing destruction that claims the lives of millions of people--the mechanisms that it has created in order to control them are horrific.  Orogenes are taught that the Fulcrum is the only place where they can be safe and themselves, but these privileges come with a price--think a twisted (or perhaps more realistic) version of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.  Within the Fulcrum, orogenes are subjected to psychological and physical abuse (and, if you count Syenite and Alabaster's forced breeding, sexual as well), designed to stamp out their independence and free will.  Their lives are circumscribed by Guardians, who form twisted bonds of mingled control and affection with their charges, the better to isolate them from the world and ensure that they never make decisions on their own.  Orogenes are taught to seek control above all things--any indication that they might be slipping in this respect is cause for punishment or even destruction--and at the same time, they have no control over their own lives.  One of the chief accomplishments of this novel is how it conveys the psychological effects of this conditioning--at three different points in life--and the way that it inevitably leads the orogenes to participate in their own oppression, not just because they fear the Guardians, but because they crave their approval, and believe that the only way to achieve something resembling freedom is to play along with the system.

    All three women end up pushing against the system that has confined and abused them, in different ways that nevertheless lead them, inevitably, to an exploration of different ways of ordering society which do not depend on the exploitation and oppression of orogenes, and to an investigation into the nature of orogeny and the reasons for the Stillness's instability.  It's that latter point--though its execution is typically excellent--that leaves me a little worried about future volumes in this projected trilogy.  Despite the momentous events it describes, and the hard work it puts into building its world, The Fifth Season is largely a character-based novel, an exploration of the ways in which abuse and oppression warp the soul, and of the corrosive effects that repeated grief and loss can have over even well-meaning people.  But it is also, very clearly, a novel of setup, whose purpose is to bring its heroines to a particular point so that the story proper can begin.  I'm a little less interested in the promised next phase of this story, already teased in the novel's closing chapters, in which Essun explores hidden cities, investigates her power over the mysterious remnants of ancient technology left in her world, and meets what appear to be aliens (it doesn't help that it's in these chapters that the book's ironclad control over its pace and structure goes a little wobbly; too many secondary characters just happen to show up at the same place and time, and too many new concepts are introduced at once, in a way that's clearly designed to set up the sequel, not service the current volume's story).  Still, The Fifth Season is so accomplished, so well done, and such a pleasure to read, that I would be a fool not to break my own habit, and commit right now to keeping up with this series.

  • The Vision, Vol. 1: Little Worse Than a Man by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta - The biggest deal in Marvel comics this year, at least for people like myself who aren't regular comics readers and know the company's universe mostly from the MCU, is Ta-Nehisi Coates's Black Panther.  I'm looking forward to the first trade collection of that story, but in the meantime, I wish a little more attention were being paid to King's new run of The Vision, which is absolutely a story that SF fans should be flocking to.  io9 highlighted it a few weeks ago, which is why I ended up picking it up, but I'd like to see more discussion of this story, in which the eponymous purple synthezoid makes himself a family, complete with wife and twin teenage children, and moves them to the suburbs.  The actual plot is hardly original--robot tries to be human, with disastrous results--but the execution is flawless, resulting in a story that is sad, creepy, and disturbing.  We're told from the outset that the Vision's experiment in normalcy will end in tragedy and death, but the terms in which that story is related, as the Visions keep making decisions that might make sense in the moment, but which quickly snowball into awfulness, are refreshingly undramatic.  The Vision's own clear-headed, rational way of seeing the world informs King's storytelling, even as he and his family keep making choices that are completely irrational in order to protect themselves and each other, and this gives the story a force it might not have had if it had taken the more obvious approach of melodramatic grimdark.  (Walta's art, which confines the story's increasingly deranged events into neat panels, helps to convey the sense of a normalcy that is stifling rather than relaxing.)  In the end, we're left to wonder: did the Vision's experiment fail because he and his family are too different from humans, or because they are too like us?

    I'm less enthusiastic about the story's final turn, which brings in the Avengers and a potentially world-destroying calamity, and heralds a more conventional direction for the next volume.  But taken on its own, Little Worse Than a Man is brilliantly bleak piece of SF storytelling, that finally does something interesting with a character whose movie incarnation I've found rather pointless.

  • Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson - Robinson's latest feels of a piece with his 2012 novel 2312, first in the sense that they seem to take place, more or less, in the same continuity (though Aurora is set several centuries later), and second because they're told in a similar combination of the personal and the technical, with passages from the point of view of human characters interspersed with long segments from the point of view of the AI of a generation ship, who narrates events on the ship with journalistic detachment, and a strong focus of the scientific and engineering challenges of keeping the ship and its inhabitants going over the centuries.  But despite their similar approaches, Aurora has a very different feel from 2312, precisely because of the difference in their settings.  2312 was a freewheeling grand tour of a colonized solar system.  It delighted in jumping from one location to another, showing off the outlandish ways in which humans had figured out how to live on nearly every rock in our system, and interspersed its narrative with news clippings and encyclopedia entries that showed off the richness and diversity of human experience in this setting.  Aurora, in contrast, is deliberately constricted.  Whether they realize it or not, its characters are trapped in a tiny, make-believe world that is warping them in a million tiny yet noticeable ways--from skewing their evolution, to constantly threatening to collapse their living environment, to depositing them on a dead world that may be even more dangerous than the centuries-long journey they've made to it.

    Aurora is a bleak novel, and it has been accused in some quarters of being tendentious--or arguing and in fact skewing its argument towards the conclusion that the exploration and colonization of deep space are a fool's errand.  Without regular contact with the planet on which they evolved and for which they are perfectly suited, the book's characters discover, their civilization falls prey to a host of poorly understood disorders that leave them physiologically and psychologically scarred.  More importantly, they end up feeling robbed and used, the pawns in a megalomaniacal project to colonize the galaxy that never took into account the human cost of such a project.  Aurora ends up treating the architects of generation ships (and the people in the present who, despite the failure of the story's mission, still insist that it is humanity's ordained fate to colonize the stars) as callous fools, who cavalierly dismiss the suffering, starvation, and death endured by the would-be colonists as an acceptable cost for a prize that might never be achieved.  It's not an easy read--the combination of a bleak, claustrophobic tone with characters who ultimately have very little control over their lives, and whose only triumph comes from admitting defeat and giving up on the mission they inherited, makes for a slow, halting reading experience.  But it's also one of Robinson's most soulful and thought-provoking novels, a work whose main concern is trying to get at the connection between humans and their environment--a connection which, Robinson argues, can't be replicated in an artificial world, or an alien one.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: The 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist, part 2

The second part of my review of this year's Clarke shortlist is now online at Strange Horizons, covering Arcadia by Iain Pears, Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson, and The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.  You can find it here, and in case you haven't already read part 1, that's here.  The actual winner will be announced in London in a few hours, but as I write in the conclusion to the review, I tend to see that announcement as less of a triumph for any particular book, and more a data point that will help to clarify--at least a little--what the judges were aiming for with this year's bland and conventional shortlist.  The book that wins will tell us a great deal about how this year's judges saw the Clarke, and their task as its jury.  But I'm hopeful that next year the jury will make more interesting, more challenging choices.

Martin Petto has updated his collection of links to discussion of the shortlist, including this essay by Megan of the (new to me) blog From Couch to Moon.  It's very much worth reading, including some interesting reflections on both the Clarke and this year's nominated books.  To me, it also clarified many of my problems with this shortlist.  Megan and I largely agree about the ranking of the six nominated books, and our thoughts about the ones that, I suspect, we'd both happily knock off the shortlist are largely in line.  But when it comes to the two books that I think we'd both class as good--Europe at Midnight and The Book of Phoenix--our opinions diverge widely.  Megan sees Europe as much more self-contained and self-sustaining than I do (to me it feels like a pendant to the previous volume in this trilogy, Europe in Autumn, whereas Megan calls it superior to that book).  And though we both agree that The Book of Phoenix is the most likely winner of this year's Clarke, it's clear that we took very different things away from the book, and read it quite differently.

And that, not to keep repeating myself, is how the Clarke should work.  The books it highlights should be the ones that people disagree about, even if they're broadly in agreement about their quality and literary merits.  I want the Clarke shortlist to be full of books that I could write 3,000 words about, and then go and read someone else's 3,000 words and discover a whole host of ideas I'd never considered.  I hope I won't have to wait too long before getting a shortlist like that again.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Review: The 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist, part 1

The first part of my mega-review of this year's Clarke Award-nominated novels appears today at Strange Horizons.  This is the fourth time that I've reviewed the entire shortlist, a tradition begun by Adam Roberts at Infinity Plus and carried on by Strange Horizons with rotating reviewers.  I'm sad to say that this was by far the least fun I've had reviewing the Clarke shortlist, not so much because the nominated books are bad--though a few definitely are--but because there ended up being so much less to say about them than I'm used to.

After finishing my read-through of the nominated novels, I started reading a few of the books that were submitted for consideration, and the difference is striking.  It's not so much that the books left off the Clarke shortlist are masterpieces--on the contrary, I would have had serious reservations about most of them if I'd had to review them for this project.  But that's precisely the point.  I would have had so much more to say about, for example, Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, a book I struggled with but found utterly fascinating, than just about any of the choices this year's Clarke judges made.  What makes the Clarke special, to me, is that not so much that it makes consistently good choices, as that it makes consistently interesting choices.  It failed at that task this year.

The first half of my review--which discusses Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time, J.P. Smythe's Way Down Dark, and Becky Chambers's A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet--is here.  At his blog, Martin Petto has been collecting other reviews of the shortlisted novels, and thoughts on the shortlist as a whole (on the latter front, be sure to read Nina Allan's meditation on the shortlist and the Clarke as a whole).  The second half of my review will be published on Wednesday, and later that evening the Clarke winner will be announced.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Winners

A month ago, when I posted here to remind people that the Hugo voting deadline was coming up, it was with a bit of trepidation.  Last year, when puppies of various stripes decided to get their jollies by trying to tear down this award, we saw a huge influx of new voters who showed up to make it clear that this was unacceptable behavior.  That the Hugo belongs to the people who care about it, not people who try to use it to score outdated, bigoted political points, or further their fevered personal agenda.  This year, it was clear that a lot of those same voters weren't coming back.  They had made their point, and were, quite reasonably, moving on to the things that interested them.  It's a funny fact about people who spend their lives concentrating on the things they care about, not the things they'd like to destroy, but it's usually a lot harder to corral them into action against the latter.  Which is great, but also potentially worrying, because if the people who had nothing better to do with their lives than try to destroy the Hugos outnumbered the ones who do, we could have ended up with some depressing Hugo results.

I should have known better.  The one thing I keep learning, again and again, as I study this award is that, much as it frustrates me, much as it throws up shortlists that disappoint me, much as it often seems stuck in a middlebrow rut, the Hugo is always what it is.  It doesn't take thousands of new voters to keep the Hugo true to itself, because the people who vote for it every year will do that job themselves.  With something like half the voters we had last year, we still managed to send the same message: that we have no patience for astroturf; that we have no time for writing that embarrasses the paper and ink used to print it; and that this is an award that can be gamed, but it can't be stolen.  This year's Hugo voters had no trouble telling junk from serious nominees; they saw the difference between the nominees being used as shields by the puppies and the ones that truly represent their literary tastes and politics.  And even more importantly, in the best novel and best novella categories in particular, Hugo voters recognized some of the finest and most exciting work published in this genre in years.  That Vox Day's second swat on the muzzle came in the form of a Hugo award for N.K. Jemisin is extremely satisfying, but that's just icing on the cake of handing the Hugo to The Fifth Season, a genuinely brilliant, defining novel.

Now that we've established that the Hugo can take care of itself, what next?  The voting and nominating breakdowns published this morning paint an interesting picture.  The bump caused by 2015's influx of voters is very noticeable.  If you compare this year's nominating numbers to last year's, it's interesting to note the huge surge of nominating ballots required to get on the final ballot, even among non-puppy nominees.  In 2015, for example, Laura J. Mixon, the highest-ranked non-puppy nominee in the best fan writer category, got 129 votes.  This year, that wouldn't have been enough to get her on the ballot.  In fact, my 141 nominating ballots (50 more than last year) would have left me below the threshold, even if there had been no puppy nominees at all.

That in itself is unsurprising, but what's interesting is how that effect disappears when you move to the voting phase.  Pretty much across the board, the total number of valid ballots in each of this year's categories represents a 50% drop from last year.  In other words, and as I noted above, most of last year's protest voters exercised their right to nominate in this year's Hugos, but they didn't stick around for the voting phase (for which they would have had to pay extra).  This is equally true of the puppy voters.  In its analysis of this morning's stats, Chaos Horizons theorizes that there were approximately 450 puppy nominators for this year's awards, but that only about 160 of them stuck around for the voting phase.

What this means is that the puppy problem is, to a certain extent, self-correcting.  For all their bluster last years, it's clear that most of them weren't interested in undergoing a repeat performance, and moved on to other, easier trolling targets.  That's no reason to get complacent, obviously, but it's an important data point that we should pay attention to as we seek to reshape the Hugos in order to prevent another Puppygate.  To that end, two proposals were passed in today's WSFS business meeting.  The first was the second-year ratification of E Pluribus Hugo, the complicated vote-counting algorithm intended to counter the effects of slate voting.  In preparation for discussion of this proposal, the award's administrators ran anonymized nominating data from 2015, 2014, and this year's awards to see what effect EPH would have on the resulting ballots.  The results aren't exactly encouraging: EPH does some good in this year's ballot, but hardly any for last year's, where the problem was a great deal more pronounced.  It is, at best, a partial solution. 

(I'm less bothered than some by the fact that EPH also changes "organic" ballots.  For one thing, I think that was a highly predictable outcome, and it was perhaps naive to assume that such profound changes to how we count nominating ballots wouldn't have any undesired effects.  And for another, I don't see anything "unfair" about this sort of change.  If there's a system and everyone knows how it works, then the fact that it produces certain shortlists is perfectly fair.  To complain about that strikes me as not unlike the occasional outrage you get when someone realizes that a certain nominee got the most first-place votes before the lower tiers were redistributed, and starts screaming about unfairness because that nominee didn't end up winning.)

Another proposal, which passed on the first vote, and needs to be ratified next year, is Three Stage Voting.  This would add a longlist stage to the nominating procedure, allowing voters to weed out astroturf--or just plain bad--nominees.  I think this proposal has the virtue of being straightforward and transparent to the voters, but it also has the problem that any additional encumbrance to voters will naturally suppress participation in the award.  It will also make it harder for voters to make informed choices, since in the second voting phase they'll have less time in which to read more nominated works, and this will naturally benefit more popular work by more visible writers. 

As I wrote above, I'm no longer convinced that this kind of fiddling with the Hugos is even necessary anymore.  In general, it feels as if there's a movement towards limiting access to the Hugos, after more than a decade of moving in the other direction--one proposal raised before the business meeting was to eliminate nominating rights for members of the next Worldcon, and I've seen people suggest that members of the previous Worldcon should be stripped of nominating rights as well (at the moment, members of the current, previous, and next Worldcon can nominate for the current Worldcon's ballot, but only members of the current convention can vote on the winners).  I can certainly understand why this shift is happening, but I think it's important to remember that the Hugo's relevance and legitimacy rest, in part, on the breadth of participation in it.  We don't want to go back to the days, not at all distant, when the award was handed out based on the votes of fewer than a thousand people.  This year's nominees and winners are far from the ideal situation, but as always, it's worth remembering that there is no ideal with the Hugo.  At its best, it will always be a compromise award, one that often fails to recognize the boundaries of the genre, even when they're where the most interesting work is happening.  Instead of trying to legislate that fact away, we should be coming up with more constructive ways to deal with it--and, eventually, accept it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: Two Weeks Out

In two weeks, voting for the 2016 Hugo Awards will close.  You could be forgiven for being taken aback by just how quickly that deadline has rolled up on us, seeing as, especially compared to last year's all-Hugos-all-the-time news extravaganza, the conversation surrounding this year's awards has been so muted that at points it's seemed that the only person even participating in it was Chuck Tingle.  And even he seems to have found other interests recently.  And on one level, it's easy to see why the Hugos have fallen by the wayside this year, given that we're in the middle of a news cycle that has included, in the last month alone, terror attacks in Orlando, Baghdad, and Nice; two black men shot by American police officers while committing no crime and a sniper attack on a peaceful protest that left five police officers dead (edit: in the six hours since I wrote the first draft of this post, another such shooting seems to have occurred in Baton Rouge; WTF, America); an attempted coup in Turkey and vicious reprisals for it; the UK nuking its entire political system from orbit; and, of course, the ongoing carnival act that is the US presidential race.  But at the same time, genre fandom has been able, in the midst of all this political upheaval, to pay attention to Game of Thrones, Hydra!Cap, and the new Ghostbusters, so why so little conversation about the Hugos?

There are, I suspect, several factors involved.  The first is that everyone is a little tired.  We went through this rigmarole last year, and there's quite honestly a limit to how much time and effort we can be expected to spend on a group of people whose pet project to destroy something that other people enjoy is, let's be honest here, really boring.  It's a lot more fun to talk about new things, even if they don't get you write-ups in the Guardian and Slate.  Second, and not unrelated, is the fact that there isn't really anyone to talk to anymore.  Last year, there were a lot of people willing to carry water for Vox Day and his ilk, and to pretend that Puppygate was something other than what it clearly was, a destructive act by someone whose hatred of the Hugos fell only slightly short of his bizarre hard-on for one particular science fiction writer.  Those people kept trying to start a conversation about the Hugos' politics, their supposed exclusion of particular kinds of SF or particular kinds of SF fans, and, at one point, whether of not books had spaceships on the cover, which was inevitably hampered by the fact that none of these supposed arguments could hold water.  This year, and to their credit, most of the people on the Sad Puppy side opted to participate in the Hugos instead of trying to tear them down.  Instead of a slate, they did what the rest of us do, and came up with a scattered, broad recommendation list.  And, just as we discover every year, that turned out to have very little effect on the resulting nominations (though it might have had a little more effect if the Rabid Puppies weren't still trying to ruin everyone else's fun).  But as a result, it's now become very clear that this is only nominally about politics.  That what this issue is about is a dispute between the people who care about this award, and the ones who want to destroy it.  And there's not really much to talk about there.

And then of course there is the matter of the nominees themselves.  There was a lot of talk, when the nominations were announced, of how and whether to approach the puppies' decision to slate works that were not only deserving, but very likely to have appeared on the ballot regardless of their influence.  That talk, too, has died down, for the simple reason that, despite what the puppies seem to think, none of us are susceptible to this kind of middle-school gotcha! maneuvering.  I'm not telling anyone how to vote, and I recognize that different people can have different views on this issue.  But literally the only people who think that awarding a Hugo to, say, Nnedi Okorafor's novella about a Namibian tribeswoman who is a mathematical genius and travels to space university, with multiple observations about the evils of racism and colonialism, would be a victory for white supremacy are the ones who have realized that they have no chance of claiming a win any other way.  If you think that it's more important to slap down the puppies than give an award to Okorafor or other nominees like her, that's your call, but I don't think there's anyone who, if she does end up taking home a Hugo in August, will lament that the puppies have won.  Once again, what this means is that there's not much to talk about.

Which is great on one level, and on another is worrying.  Because another thing that hasn't been happening this year is the huge influx of Worldcon members buying supporting memberships for the sole purpose of protesting against the puppies' attempts to dominate the Hugos.  At the moment, MidAmericon II has 5,600 members, and is on track to be a mid-sized North American convention, which probably means fairly normal Hugo voting numbers, not the outsized protest vote we saw last year.  Now, as I've said many times in the past, I have a great deal of faith in Hugo voters' ability to tell astroturf nominees from the real deal, and to smack down nominees that have no business being on the ballot.  But the numbers still need to be on our side.  Chaos Horizon estimated that there were between 250 and 500 Rabid Puppy nominators this year.  I'd like to believe that the real number is closer to the lower boundary than the higher--there can't, surely, be 500 people with so little going on in their lives that they'd be willing to spend good money just to make Vox Day happy (or whatever approximation of the human emotion known as happiness can be felt by someone so occupationally miserable).  But if I'm wrong, and those people show up in the same numbers this year, then they have a solid chance of overwhelming the good sense and decency of the people who want the Hugos to be what they were meant to be, an award recognizing the excellence and diversity of what science fiction and fantasy achieved in the last year.

So, if you are a member of MidAmericon II, please remember to vote.  If you're not yet a member, and you're able to become one, please consider doing so--even at this date, you can join, get your PIN immediately, and vote for the Hugos.  And if you're a member and a voter, please remind others who might not be that they can still do both, and how important it is, for the future of this award and this convention, that we do so.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream, adapted by Russell T. Davies

Today at Strange Horizons, I write about Russell T. Davies's adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the BBC.  It was a bit of a surprise to me that this film even existed--whatever promotion there was for it seems to have been swallowed up by the media blitz for the second season of The Hollow Crown.  And as I write in the review, this turns out to have been massively unfair, because whereas this year's Hollow Crown sequence was an uninspired slog enlivened, here and there, by a few fine performances, Davies's Dream is witty, fun, and most of all very smart in its approach to the play and its problems.  To be clear, this is still a Russell T. Davies production, with all the good and bad things that implies (the Murray Gold soundtrack is quite a hurdle, for example).  But ultimately, he and the play turn out to have been a perfect match, and the result is one of the most rewarding Shakespeare adaptations I've seen in some time.

My positive reaction to the movie is also rooted in the timing of my watching it--a few hours after I finished it, the news started pouring in about the horrible shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  On that day, Davies's approach to his material--in which diversity of race and sexuality is directly opposed to the forces of fascism and brutality--felt not just entertaining, but necessary.  But the review is being published on the same day that Britain wakes up to a new, post-EU reality, and suddenly the optimism of Davies's vision feels insufficient.  In a world in which the right wing has an even stronger grip on UK politics, is anyone going to let artists like Davies create follies like a TV movies of a Shakespeare play (which, among other things, bring supposedly "high" culture into the living rooms of anyone with a TV, not just those with the money and means to go to the theater)?  Will artists who want their work to be explicitly pro-diversity, pro-LGBT, and anti-fascist be able to find a platform?  So I find myself feeling a lot less hopeful about this work than I did when I watched it and wrote the review, but maybe, for people feeling hopeless today, Davies's Dream is exactly what they need.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Recent Reading Roundup 40

2016's reading continues to be rewarding, and though perforce less swift now that I'm no longer on holiday, still moving along at a steady clip.  This bunch of books includes several that I can already tell will be on my list of favorite reads at the end of the year.
  • The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie - This spring's it-litfic comes with blurbs by Ursula K. Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler, and has a quasi-literary, quasi-romantic, quasi-slipstreamy premise that seems instantly appealing.  The novel spans the short but eventful engagement of Veblen, an underachieving temp worker and sometimes translator who lives in a storybook house in the woods and talks to squirrels (who sometimes talk back), and Paul, a neurologist whose new gadget to prevent traumatic brain injury in the field has been picked up for testing by the US military.  Right off the bat, the book feels like an invigorating blend of the personal, the political, and the topical.  Veblen, whose retiring, accommodating nature is the product of years of emotional abuse by her narcissistic mother, whom she has only barely managed to escape in her adulthood, is simultaneously a dreamer and a clear-eyed critic of our society's ills.  Part of her inability to engage with the world is rooted in her awareness of how society immediately capitalizes and monetizes anything good--such as Paul's gadget, whose good intentions are immediately transformed into a moneymaking venture--and how much of our public discourse is merely thinly-disguised advertising.  Paul is struggling with the same questions, seduced by his employers' promise of wealth and dreaming of an affluent suburban life with Veblen, while also dimly sensing that this is not what she wants.  The early chapters create the impression of a comic social novel, along the lines of Dexter Palmer's Version Control, which effortlessly blends the counter-factual and mundane.

    It doesn't take very long, however, for The Portable Veblen to get bogged down in the waters of cuteness.  The book that I ended up comparing it to was not Version Control but Where'd You Go, Bernadette, in that like it, what initially seems like an engagement with social issues quickly becomes a solipsistic examination of the difficulty of living in the world when you're a white, upper-middle-class Northern Californian who is so much smarter and more creative than everyone else.  Like Bernadette, Veblen ends up focusing its story on the restoration of family--which means that it is far more forgiving of Veblen's mother than I think is warranted, and even Paul's relatively-nurturing parents, who have nevertheless spent his life neglecting him in favor of his disabled brother, get off pretty lightly.

    McKenzie is clearly trying to tell a coming-of-age story for both of her protagonists, who have to put behind their many justified grievances against their parents and learn to relate to them as adults, but this feels like a much smaller, lighter-toned story than the one the novel initially seemed to be telling.  In its final chapters, The Portable Veblen doubles down on its comedy (including a rather gruesome ending for one of its villain characters that hardly feels earned, or in keeping with the rest of the novel's tone) and its romance, seeming to suggest that Paul and Veblen can overcome the inescapable problem of living in late-era capitalism by sheer virtue of their specialness.  The book's epilogue finds them living in Scandinavia, engaged in the kind of virtuous, rewarding, and not very taxing occupations that people in romantic comedies are constantly having dropped in their laps.  In the moment, this feels totally earned--McKenzie is good at getting us to care for both of these people, and to want good things for them--but the further I get from the book, the more curmudgeonly my reaction to it becomes.  What started out as a story with something to say about the world ends up as a story about two privileged, fortunate people, and to me that's decidedly a devolution.

  • High Aztec by Ernest Hogan - I'm indebted to Vajra Chandrasekera for alerting me to the existence of this novel, which was published in 1990 and seems to have been undeservedly forgotten.  It's not a perfect work--there's a lot more worldbuilding than there is plot, and even at a mere 200 pages the book ends up outstaying its welcome--but there's a lot here worth reading for, that not many other writers today are doing.  Set in the mid-21st century after the collapse of the US, High Aztec imagines a Mexico in which the Aztec culture, religion, and language are experiencing a revival.  This has led to profound social unrest, with rising tensions between different Aztec revivalist groups, and between them and mainstream society and government.  Our protagonist is a feckless, atheistic artist who becomes infected with a virus that makes him believe in the Aztec religion, which makes him valuable to almost every power in Mexico City (or Tenochtitlán, as the novel calls it).  He bounces from one pair of hands to another as his infection deepens and his view of the world is overlaid with hallucinations of the gods of the Aztec pantheon.

    Though not strictly a work of cyberpunk, High Aztec has the strong flavor of that genre, with its emphasis on an on-the-ground exploration of how technology and social changes affect the lives of people on the margins of society (in that sense, it reminded me strongly of Lauren Beukes's Moxyland).  The guided tour of religious cults, street gangs, criminal organizations, and sinister government facilities eventually pales a little, as does our protagonist's increasingly addled state of mind, but High Aztec is nevertheless a great example of the kind of SF novel that gets its power simply from exploring its setting--an exploration that is only made more enjoyable by the wit and irreverence of our viewpoint character.  If I have one complaint, it is that women in this novel are rather flat characters, driven primarily by their desire for men, and described solely in terms of their attractiveness (some of this has to do with the protagonist's own limitations, but Hogan doesn't do any work to suggest that there's more to the women he meets than he realizes).  It's an unfortunately glaring flaw in what is otherwise a fascinating and unusual novel.

  • Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon by Jane Austen - I don't know why I've been so resistant to reading Austen's three "official" unpublished works.  Maybe it was the knowledge that the latter two were unfinished at the time of her death, and that I'd therefore end up craving an ending that would never come.  Or maybe it was the awareness of how much revising and reworking went into making Austen's published novels as perfect as they are, and a fear that what I'd get from her leftovers would be, at best, Austen-lite.  In the end, it took Whit Stillman's forthcoming adaptation of Lady Susan, Love and Friendship, to get me to discover the original, and though I'm not sorry that I've done so, it's easy to see how this novella works better as a starting-off point for someone else's story, than as a story in its own right.  Written in an epistolary format, Lady Susan follows the title character, a beautiful but impoverished widow, as she flees the home of the married man she's been carrying on with for the relative safety of her brother-in-law's house.  Susan's main objective in life to marry off her inconvenient daughter Frederica to a rich but empty-headed baronet whom the girl despises.  But while she's in her brother's house, she resolves to revenge herself on her sister-in-law, Catherine, who has always looked down on Susan's flirtatious, amoral behavior, by seducing Catherine's morally upright, judgmental brother Reginald.

    For a work that was probably written when Austen was a teenager and then abandoned, Lady Susan is remarkably accomplished.  Though its tone is more reminiscent of Austen's broader novels, like Northanger Abbey, it already features her impeccable command of language and tone, the ability to convey her meaning perfectly with a few well-chosen words (though it must be said that this control falters near the end of the story, when the epistolary format rather gets away from Austen, and she wraps up the narrative in an epilogue that feels more dutiful than artful, as if she just wanted to get the business over with).  The chief appeal here, unsurprisingly, is Susan herself, who is a remarkably rounded villain.  Manipulative and calculating, she proceeds through Regency society like a grandmaster at a chessboard, casually discarding a pawn or accepting the loss of a piece, and reacting philosophically to temporary defeats because she always believes (rightly, as it turns out) that she can turn them into victory.  I was reminded a great deal of Sense and Sensibility's Lucy Steele, which makes sense because that novel was also originally written as an epistolary work, which in both cases seems to have forced Austen to give more thought than she usually does to the inner life and humanity of her villains.  And Susan is, despite her calculations and cold-bloodedness, undeniably human: very funny in her assessments of everyone around her, and surprisingly honest about the often-petty motivations that drive her behavior.  Unlike other Austen characters on the make, the older and perhaps wiser Susan isn't looking for one final score, but mainly for a bit of fun, because she knows and accepts that it will never last.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the problem with the story turns out to be everyone else in it.  The critic Q.D. Leavis called Lady Susan a dry-run for Mansfield Park, and one can certainly see the truth in that.  You only need to flip the perspective of this story, about a witty, amoral woman who upends the norms of a sleepy country estate and captures the heart of a priggish man who keeps trying to convince himself that there is some goodness in her that simply doesn't exist, to get to Austen's most controversial novel.  The key difference between these two works, however, is that Susan takes up all the air in her story.  Between them, Catherine and Frederica split the role that is played by Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, but neither of them achieves the frustrating complexity of that character--Catherine is too savvy, and too untouched by Susan's machinations, and Frederica has all of Fanny's outward milksop appearance, and none of her slightly-scary strength of will.  Reginald, meanwhile, barely even registers, a quality he shares with all the other men in the story.  In fact, one of the things that most distinguishes Lady Susan from Austen's published novels is how little the women in it seem to think about men.  Oh, the men are always the pretext for the story--they need to be trapped, or saved, or fobbed off--but the relationships in the novel, and of course the letters that give it its form, are between women, perhaps most interestingly between Susan and her equally immoral and rather bored friend Mrs. Johnson.  It's a quality that I wish was more present in Austen's more polished works, for all that Lady Susan never approaches their other accomplishments.

    The Watsons and Sanditon are both fragments, the opening chapters of novels that Austen started and abandoned, or, in the latter case, died before she was able to finish.  Both are tantalizing, but in very different ways.  The Watsons, written when Austen was about 30 and living in Bath, feels like a classic, quintessential example of her work (which is all the more surprising when you remember that this was a fallow period, both creatively and emotionally, in Austen's life).  Its central event is a country ball attended by Emma Watson, who has recently returned to the home of her impoverished family, after spending most of her life as the ward of her relatives.  When her adoptive uncle dies and her aunt remarries, Emma finds herself cut off from her expected inheritance, and forced to return to a home and a family she barely remembers.  The ball is Austen's way of introducing us to the three or four families who will make up this novel's business, but also of establishing the fact that Emma, though lonely and out of place, is self-possessed and has a strong moral code.  This puts her at odds with her family, and particularly her sisters, whose blatant husband-hunting she recoils from.  The opening chapters set up several interesting avenues of story, none more so than the relationship between Emma and her oldest sister Elizabeth, who though lacking Emma's refinement has a clear-eyed pragmatism that the younger woman lacks.  Since none of this will ever be resolved, what's left is to enjoy in these chapters is Austen's clear control of her material, the way she effortlessly sets the scene and establishes a scenario in only a few short chapters.

    Sanditon, on the other hand, feels like a huge departure.  When reading The Watsons, it's very easy to guess how Austen would have developed and ended the story, but Sanditon is very different from anything else she ever wrote, more a social novel than a novel of manners, and more strongly comedic than any of Austen's published works.  This is particularly notable in the way that the fragment fails to develop, and indeed seems rather uninterested in, its heroine, Charlotte Heywood, who travels to the titular resort town with friends of her parents, and there encounters a wide array of ridiculous characters.  The actual subject of the novel seems to be Sanditon's rapid development, from a sleepy village into a tourist destination, and the various forces driving and impeding that transition.  Charlotte's host, Mr. Parker, wants to build up Sanditon's reputation and bring more visitors to it, because he believes in progress, and believes it will prove a social good.  His partner, Lady Dunham, is a skinflint who resents the possibility that prosperity might give her social inferiors ideas above their station.  Both are surrounded by hangers-on who are each ridiculous in their own particular way, and whom Charlotte observes with growing bewilderment.  At the end of this fragment, it's almost impossible to guess where Austen would have taken her story--for one thing, because though she has introduced several young women into Charlotte's circle, there are hardly any eligible men in it.  It is, however, exciting to discover that Austen was stretching her wings and exploring new possibilities as an artist, and is yet another reason--if more were needed--to regret that her life and career were cut so short.

  • Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge - At first glance, Hardinge's next-to-last novel feels very much of a piece with last year's The Lie Tree.  In both books, the elaborate and detailed fantasy worlds that have characterized most of Hardinge's previous work are replaced by a real-world setting (albeit a historical one--Cuckoo Song takes place a few years after WWI, whose shadow lingers over its events).  This was a disappointment to me in The Lie Tree, since Hardinge's ability to work out the rules and customs of fantasy worlds that also happen to be utterly bizarre and unlike those created by any other writer is one of my favorite things about her.  That Cuckoo Song was, like The Lie Tree, more rooted in horror than in fantasy, and locked in a tight third person on a young heroine who teeters on the verge of becoming a villain, led me to expect a very similar reading experience to The Lie Tree, which I liked but didn't love nearly as much as Hardinge's other books.  To my surprise and pleasure, however, Cuckoo Song turns out to be a more complex work than I initially suspected, and far more elaborately worked-out than its opening chapters suggest.

    Our heroine, Triss, wakes up after an accident with a fragmented memory and a sense of overpowering strangeness.  As the days pass, that sensation deepens, especially as her younger sister Pen keeps treating her like a stranger and an interloper.  The seeming normalcy of the book's opening chapters turns out to be a reflection of Triss's sense of self, which disintegrates as she learns more about her accident--and about her own nature.  Peeling back the layers of her identity requires Triss to delve beneath the normal surface of her world and discover the strangeness the lies just beneath it, a journey on which we join her.  By its midpoint, Cuckoo Song's apparent realism has cracked to reveal such deranged elements as a movie theater where silent-film characters try to drag the audience into the screen, letters from the dead delivered by winged creatures with the faces of old women, cities full of elves and demons hidden in the cracks and corners of human ones, and a girl made of leaves and thorns who can devour almost anything in her quest to stay alive.

    Hardinge's gift for invention turns out to be even more effective as an engine for horror than for fantasy, but underlying the horror of her fantastic inventions is the horror of abuse.  Triss is a child in a world that leaves very little space for children, that treats them as inherently untrustworthy and casually hands them over to plausible-sounding adults who mean them harm.  Her parents, unable to cope with the loss of their oldest son in the war, have warped both of their daughters with emotional manipulation and gaslighting, and Cuckoo Song is squirmingly effective at conveying the sense of claustrophobia and isolation that dominates in their home.  When the girls are thrust into the world without protectors and facing terrible danger, it's still a relief, because they're finally able to direct their own lives instead of living under the control of untrustworthy and sometimes harmful adults.  Like most Hardinge novels, Cuckoo Song doesn't pretend that it is possible to fully heal from this kind of damage, but it also offers the hope that some grown-ups can be trusted to treat children like people, and that with their help, both Triss and Pen can find their way back from the things that were done to them, and the things they've done.

  • Wake by Elizabeth Knox - Knox is turning out to be one of those writers who never writes the same kind of book twice.  I'm still in the early phases of my journey through her bibliography, but already I've encountered a YA fantasy (Mortal Fire), a historical romance (The Vintner's Luck), and now, with Wake, a tense, can't-put-it-down work of psychological and supernatural horror.  Even as she jumps effortlessly between genres, there are some underlying Knox-isms that shine through all of her work, such as a commitment to low-key, naturalistic emotion even in the face of the utterly bizarre or devastating, a sly and often dark sense of humor, and a determination to work through the cosmology of her strange and fantastical premises (the McGuffin that drives the events of Wake even feels slightly connected to the setting of Mortal Fire, both of which have to do with alternate realities).

    Wake begins purposefully, and with an intensity that lays out the novel's intentions.  On an ordinary morning, every inhabitant of a small New Zealand town is driven suddenly and incurably mad.  Within an hour, they're all dead, either through violence or by having simply stopped breathing.  The only survivors are thirteen people who happen to have arrived at or returned to the town after the madness began, and who now find themselves trapped by an invisible force field that surrounds it.  It's a premise that owes a great deal to Stephen King (most obviously his 2009 novel Under the Dome), and throughout the book there are other flashes of King-isms, such as a fascination with the scatological (in a harried, horrible sequence in which the survivors' food is poisoned) or a character who seems to suffer from multiple personality disorder.  But King hasn't been this compulsively readable in decades, and more importantly, Knox's project with this novel seems to be a deliberate rebuke to the assumption made by him, and other horror writers, that the immediate response of people under pressure, and in the face of impossible situations, is to lose all semblance of humanity.  The survivors in Wake are sometimes fractious and unpleasant, but they never devolve into savagery.  Even when they argue--over how to act or who gets to give orders--they manage to do so like adults, and with the obvious recognition that they'd all rather stick together, not just for safety, but for the comfort that human bonds and company give them.

    This is not to say that Wake is a mild novel or lacking in human drama.  On the contrary, the very fact that the survivors don't end up at each other's throats makes their conflicts all the more intense and hard to read about.  Under the right circumstances, the survival of civilization turns out to be just as horrifying as its breakdown, as the survivors insist on maintaining normal modes of behavior in a situation that grows increasingly hopeless.  Most of the first half of the novel, for example, is taken up with a discussion of whether and how the survivors should bury the hundreds of bodies scattered throughout the town, and the toll that this act of humanity takes on them--the resentment they feels towards those among them who suggested the plan and seem confident in it, and the coping mechanisms they come up with to deal with what they see and have to do--is all the more brutal for Knox's refusal to sensationalize it.  As the characters themselves begin to die--from self-inflicted wounds which may be a normal human reaction to horror, or a recurrence of the madness that took the town--they have to start wondering what the purpose, or meaning, of survival in their situation even is.

    In its final chapters, Wake's existential horror gives way to a more concrete explanation of what happened to the town and what the survivors are facing, that might, in another book, have felt like a letdown--like Knox backing away from her exploration of how humans behave in the face of certain death with a choice to make that death a little less certain.  But the unflinching brutality of the preceding chapters--a brutality that is made all the more punishing by the mundane, matter-of-face way in which Knox presents it and the characters react to it--makes this release valve necessary.  Knox has worked so hard to make her characters human even in the face of an inhuman set of events, that it would be cruel and punishing not to give them at least a chance of surviving them.  It's not a perfect ending--in particular, the way it uses a mentally disabled person as a means to an end is a King-ism that Knox might have done well to leave by the wayside--but it's precisely the one that her characters have earned.

  • The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley - Whiteley's latest novella is--deliberately, one imagines--very different from The Beauty, one of my favorite stories of 2014.  That story was suffused with claustrophobia, body horror, and a sort of queasy eroticism.  The Arrival of Missives, in contrast, starts off extremely proper.  But that's because it's told by an extremely proper young lady, Miss Shirley Fearn of the village of Westerbridge.  It is just after the end of the first world war, and Shirley--bright and earnest, clean of mind and body--is full of plans for how to make the world a better, more peaceful place.  These plans are bound up in Mr Tiller, the local schoolteacher and a wounded veteran of the war, whom Shirley idolizes and loves.  When Shirley discovers a horrible secret about Mr Tiller, she's driven by both love and idealism to not only keep the secret, but enlist herself in his mysterious agenda--an agenda, he tells her, which is guided by messages from future, instructing him on how to save the world.

    The early parts of The Arrival of Missives are a bit hard to get through, not because they're badly written, but because Whiteley so perfectly captures Shirley's earnestness and iron-clad certainty, and these are a little hard to take.  This, however, makes it all the more powerful when Shirley, under the twin pressures of Mr Tiller's mission and her growing realization that her parents have her life all planned out for her, starts to stretch her wings as an adult, and to discover her power to affect the world--as well the very real limits put on that power by her youth and gender.  The very certainty that initially makes Shirley seem naive and childish becomes something more complicated when she begins to feel out her desires--for a place in the world, for a sense of importance, and for control of her own body and sexuality.  Slowly but undeniably, she grows into a heroine who is capable of seeing the adults around her, including Mr Tiller, more clearly, and to make decisions not only for herself, but for the future of humanity.  The Arrival of Missives is a lot of things, and among them is the origin story of a heroine whose power comes from recognizing and respecting her own wants, and not cancelling them because society or propriety tells her that she should.  I don't know if Whiteley plans to tell other stories about Shirley--certainly she's left the door open for it--but whether or not she does, it's easy to imagine her having a heroic, adventurous life.