Reviews of Hugo Nominees

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Hugo Nominees 2005

NOVEL

  • The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks (Orbit)
  • Iron Council , China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
    If Perdido Street Station was a horror novel and The Scar was more science fiction, then Mieville completes the hat trick here with a fantasy novel that to my mind doesn't measure up to the other two. In his previous Hugo-nominated books, there were weird goings-on aplenty told with equal measure of florid prose and foul language, and the setting was really the main character, but there was enough of a plot to keep things moving along and a couple of interesting viewpoint characters to react to the bizarre events happening around them. In this book, you get plenty of mood and setting but not a whole lot else. The Iron Council is basically a train that roams the planet, the passengers having long ago severed their ties to the government and formed their own vagabond society, laying down new tracks in front of them and pulling up old ones behind. The story jumps back and forth quite a bit between the past, when the Iron Council first formed, to the present, where the main character Judah goes in search of the wandering train, which has now ascended to mythic status and few people believe exists, or ever existed. The jumping back and forth wears a little thin, there aren't any other characters who straddle both timelines, and the alien terrors of the previous novels are noticeably missing. Mieville paints vivid scenes with assured, lyrical sentences, but you get the feeling he's less involved in his subject matter, and the roaming train is, coincidentally no doubt, reminiscent of the wandering cathedral in Reynolds' Absolution Gap, although its purpose and inhabitants are completely different. But even Mieville at less than his best is still worth reading and more interesting than 99% of the competition, so you can't just brush it off. His world of New Crobuzon adds more depth and more variety of substance, you just wish a little more of that substance had rubbed off into the plot this time.
  • Iron Sunrise , Charles Stross (Ace)
    Stross's first novel, Singularity Sky, was a nominee last year and a bit of a surprise in that it was probably the most accessible thing I had read of his, a strong indication that his talent was actually better suited to longer forms. This follow up novel now proves the point, this is tautly plotted, deftly suspenseful novel by someone who is at the top of his form, yet still with plenty of techno-speak and throwaway ideas that populate his shorter stuff. Somewhat reminiscent of Gibson in terms of character and mood if not style, the book starts out with three separate narratives that come together relatively quickly, the most prominent being that of a teenage girl Wednesday (meant to evoke Charles Addams, maybe?) who in the midst of going through her awkward years comes across some information that turns out to be of use to a couple of groups of people investigating why the nearby star was blown up, and are trying to figure out how to stop a retaliatory attack on the supposed perpetrators. One of these groups includes Rachel Mansour, who I think figured in the previous book or one of his earlier stories, although she doesn't seem to be as interesting of a character as Wednesday. There are enough twists and turns along the way as the plot thickens, told at a breathless, completely non-British pace, that even if you see some of the more obvious clues along the way there are so many clues and so many independent agendas going on that you can't possibly keep track of them all. What puts Stross a cut above the average sf space opera thriller is his attention to detail, particularly as it relates to future politics and future technology and how both impact the lives of every type of character in the story. It's still a straightforward narrative, there's no gothic feel or larger-than-life characters like in Reynolds, but as a result the book unfolds at a much more natural rate, with very little feeling of padding. In the shorter forms, this type of detail tends to overwhelm the plot, but with this book Stross seems to have found the right mix of tech and story to deliver a space opera that stands above the rest.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell , Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
    The Harry Potter surrogate entry for the year is actually pretty good, although, like HP, it goes on longer than it really needs to. Clarke's first novel is a meticulous accounting of the eponymous English gentlement and their effort to restore the practice of magic in the early 19th century. Norrell is the scholarly one, the first to make some sense out of the various ancient texts left by his predecessors, where Strange starts out as his apprentice but quickly displays more natural talent that allows him to quickly eclipse his mentor in the scope of the magic he attempts. While Norrell is reasonably content to work for the British government holding back floods and controlling the weather, Strange is sent off to the European front to do the bidding of Lord Wellington in his various campaigns on the continent. Throughout the book, magic is treated as a somewhat obscure but totally ascertainable enterprise for those with the knowledge and the perserverance (Norrell tends to make it harder for other would-be magicians by hording all the old books he can find on the subject). Things start to go awry when Norrell reluctantly brings back a popular society woman from the dead, and starts a chain of events that leads to magic coming back to England to a greater degree than he had bargained for. Clarke deftly handles the gradual loss of control of the protagonists with the things they've set in motion, but I don't think there's much in the way of subtext in there, other than poking fun at the general arrogance of the average English aristocrat. Even the church is swept up by the advent of magic, where you would tend to think they would put up more of a fuss. Perfectly suitable for younger readers, too, it never gets too graphic or too creepy. It basically is one long story, and although it's broken up into three parts, I don't think they would've help up independently. A significant time investment, but in the end a memorable and offbeat story wins you over.
  • River of Gods, Ian McDonald (Simon & Schuster UK)
  • NOVELLA

  • "The Concrete Jungle", Charles Stross (The Atrocity Archives, Golden Gryphon Press)
    Reviewed February 2008: This is an extremely entertaining if ultimately unsatisfying story from Stross, who's hit upon a fun premise of a quasi-governmental agency called The Laundry, who are charged with secretly keeping the world safe from all the Lovecraftian horrors that routinely crop up to destroy it. HPL's "Old Ones" are mentioned once in passing, but the basic idea is that Earth is continually fending off intrusions from that sort of mystical realm through an unsubtle use of ordnance and technology. The premise of this story is that one of those technological defenses against these unspeakable horrors, namely the ability to use hidden surveillance cameras to turn a potential threat to stone (in a scientific way), has been corrupted by persons unknown. Stross jumps into the story from the first sentence, told by hard-boiled geek detective protagonist (for some reason named Bob Howard, although Robert E. Howard's connection to the Cthulhu Mythos is minor; it would've made more sense to call him Howard Phillips), called out of bed in the middle of the night to investigate why a park sculpture installation of statues of cows now has one extra. Howard speaks with a kind of foul-mouthed, rapid-fire, techno metaphors that seem very stylized, although if you heard Stross talk you could basically envision him playing the role. In fact most of the other characters talk the same way, giving us the impression that in the future everyone will sound like they're in a 1930's pulp novel except with more computer references. But this is part of the story's charm, and it zips right along, let down only somewhat at the end, where the villain behind the plot is revealed and it seems a bit out of left field with somewhat sketchy motivations, but ulimately it doesn't really seem to make that much difference. There's definitely more potential to be tapped in this world, and Stross has only scratched the surface with this and a handful of his other stories. Here's hoping Stross comes back to it once in a while.
  • "Elector", Charles Stross (Asimov's Sep 2004)
  • "Sergeant Chip", Bradley Denton (F&SF Sep 2004)
  • "Time Ablaze", Michael A. Burstein (Analog Jun 2004)
  • "Winterfair Gifts", Lois McMaster Bujold (Irresistible Forces, NAL)
  • NOVELLETTE

  • "Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes’ by Benjamin Rosenbaum", Benjamin Rosenbaum (All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, Wheatland Press)
  • "The Clapping Hands of God", Michael F. Flynn (Analog Jul/Aug 2004)
  • "The Faery Handbag", Kelly Link (The Faery Reel, Viking)
    Reviewed September 2007: There would seem to be no such thing as a bad Kelly Link story, and her usual choice of the fantasy-laced fable isn't something I would normally even want to read, so that's saying a lot. This one mixes the fable and legend of the past with a fantasy story told in the present, about a young girl whose eccentric grandmother, Zofia, tells a lot of outrageous stories surrounding her eponymous handbag, which serves as some sort of portal to another world where time passes at a different rate. Her own husband lives in there and only comes out once every 20 years for a day or so. No one believes a word of any of this, but things do keep disappearing, from library books to people, mostly never to be seen again. Worst of all is when the narrator's sweetheart Jake, an exceptionally bright boy who keeps getting into trouble, disappears into the bag after wresting it away from Zofia. All this is in told in the past, including stories from her grandmother which are from even further in the past, surrounding the possibly made-up country of Baldeziwurlekistan where she was born. Pop culture references intrude a couple of times, there is one 4-letter word that seems to be there only to prevent the story from being construed as just for children. But in the end, Link does a masterful job of mixing the shifts in time, and comes up with simple yet original tall tales to enliven the story, taking what could be a fairly ordinary fantasy and making it something memorable.
  • "The People of Sand and Slag", Paolo Bacigalupi (F&SF Feb 2004)
  • "The Voluntary State", Christopher Rowe (Sci Fiction 5 May 2004)
  • SHORT STORY

  • "The Best Christmas Ever", James Patrick Kelly (Sci Fiction 26 May 2004)
  • "Decisions", Michael A. Burstein (Analog Jan/Feb 2004)
    A drab title reveals a decent little parable about a space traveller named Aaron who ventures to the edges of the solar system only to find himself back on earth days before he actually left. The laws of causality and time travel are given short shrift in order for him to meet his past self and ultimately take his place to figure out what's really going on. The basic premise, that all-knowing aliens are keeping us from exploring past Pluto because we're not ready to meet the rest of the galaxy's inhabitants yet, sounds like tv sci-fi, but what really bogs this story down is the preachy moralizing we get in the last half about how humanity needs to prove themselves worthy, blah, blah. Kind of a 70's throwback, an idea that could merit further exploration, but it ends up taking a back seat to The Message, which is not original enough to turn many heads.
  • "A Princess of Earth", Mike Resnick (Asimov's Dec 2004)
  • "Shed Skin", Robert J. Sawyer (Analog Jan/Feb 2004)
  • "Travels with My Cats", Mike Resnick (Asimov's Feb 2004)
  • DRAMATIC PRESENTATION

  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus Features; Story by Charlie Kaufman & Michael Gondry & Pierre Bismuth; Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman; Directed by Michael Gondry)
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Warner Brothers; Written by Steve Kloves; Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)
  • The Incredibles (Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios; Written & Directed by Brad Bird)
  • Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow (Paramount Pictures; Written & Directed by Kerry Conran)
  • Spider-Man 2 (Sony Pictures Entertainment / Columbia Pictures; Screen Story by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar and Michael Chabon; Screenplay by Alvin Sargent; Based on the comic book by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko; Directed by Sam Raimi)

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