Reviews of Hugo Nominees

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Hugo Nominees 2007

NOVEL

  • Blindsight, Peter Watts (Tor)
  • Eifelheim, Michael Flynn (Tor)
  • Glasshouse, Charles Stross (Ace)
  • His Majesty's Dragon, Naomi Novik (Ballantine Del Rey; Voyager as Temeraire)
  • Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge (Tor)
    Vinge's previous Hugo-winning books, A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky were both full of interesting extrapolations of the future and the future's view of the present. They were also way too long and equally full of boring characters that were mouthpieces for the aforementioned extrapolations. But people ate them up anyway, so what do I know? Rainbows End completes the trifecta, winning the 2007 Hugo, and is a much more accomplished book, still full of interesting extrapolations of a much nearer, alien-free future, and only somewhat too long with marginally interesting characters. Maybe its time to go back and revisit the others, as I seem to be more in tune now with Vinge's style (although I did read this twice and could probably stand to read it a couple more times, or at least the middle third of it). What also maybe helps is having read so much of Charles Stross, who would seem to be the British answer to Vinge, certainly more gonzo and fast-paced, but mostly concerned with the same themes of technological innovation run rampant and how people adapt to it, or don't.

    This book concerns itself primarily with Robert Gu, who about 20 years from now has been cured of Alzheimers and had his body rejuvenated, giving him a brand new lease on life, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. His only son and daughter-in-law are both government agents in differnet capacities, and his only granddaughter is a geeky teenager who wants to bring her grandfather up to date. Robert is less interested, in his previous life he was a poet, and quite the curmudgeon, such that no one from his previous circle is particularly interested in seeing him back. He has trouble getting the creative process going, and more trouble adapting to his suddenly older family and the technological immersion of everyday life that is now second nature to everyone else.

    So far so good, but the middle of the book gets a little diffuse, as Robert gets caught up in a web of intrigue around a riot at the local university library. The most arresting image in the book is that of library workers tasked with shredding shelves of books, which are scanned during their destruction so they can be digitized. The software is sophisticated enough to match up all the individual bits based on the randomness of their shredded edges. This implausible explanation would seem to merely serve to justify using the imagery of shredding masses of books, but it has enough of an impact to Robert to cause him to take up the cause against it, with a little bit of personal gain thrown in if he can get access to a process called JITT that would allow him to get his creative side back in order. There's some sort of avatar called the Rabbit that's calling the shots, nobody knows for sure who or what he is or if in the end he ultimately wins or loses. Robert goes through something of a gradual epiphany that seems a bit lame, some incidents are never satisfactorily explained, although the ending is nicely ambivalent. Unlike Stross he focuses on a more manageable number of ideas, and Vinge's characters, while not very compelling, are more realistic than Stross's foul-mouthed, wise-cracking protagonists. I really want to like Vinge's work as much as everybody else, but it always seems in the end that the whole has been less than the sum of its parts, as though the setup and the denouement were more interesting to him than what happens in between.

  • NOVELLA

  • "A Billion Eves", Robert Reed (Asimov's Oct/Nov 2006)
  • "Inclination", William Shunn (Asimov's Apr/May 2006)
    First-time nominee William Shunn puts forth this intriguing short novella, probably nominated more for its potential than for what it actually ends up with, but still a very readable story in its own right. In some indeterminate future there exists a massive space station, home to two million workers who've been there enough generations to evolve into their own quasi-socialist society, although still with plenty of have-nots. Among that group is the protagonist, a 15-year old named Jude who grows up in a very strict religious community who mostly shun (pardon the expression) all the trappings of modern living, which include rampant body modifications. But this community, the Guild, are the underclass, poor and in debt to the station management, so Jude's father Thomas sends him to work out among the "Sculpted", exposing him to a series of lifestyles Jude barely knew existed, with of course the admonishment not to stray from his luddite faith.

    Within the station is an interesting set of dynamics that can only be touched on within the confines of this story length. Shunn is more interested with his young hero's coming of age, which is mostly a very conventional set of unfamiliar feelings about his sexuality, his relationship with his father, his devotion to his faith but at the same time being tempted by the other side. The title stems from the Guild's worship of the Builder and the six classical simple machines, including the inclined plane, which these followers view as a path towards enlightenment. But Jude's path takes a less fundamentalist turn once he's encountered and starts working closely with the Sculpted. While he's essentially been brainwashed since birth to disavow what he sees and hears, the appeal of how the other half lives and their seeming ease with it all still has its allure. Central to his crisis of conscience is the opportunity to make more money for his Guild, if only he agrees to a small body modification that allows him to live in vacuum for short periods of time.

    The revelations come fast and furious at the end, and you ultimately get the sense that this was really just the prologue to a larger story about Jude showing how he rose above his humble origins. Shunn doesn't directly take on religion, but there would seem to be quite a bit of prodding within the text at the stifling nature of dogma, and the notion of keeping the outside world at bay for the greater good of the community. But for a novella-length, it seems those issues aren't really explored enough, such that the plot, straightforward as it is, comes across as rather conventional. For such a vast station, the drama is played out with a very small cast, and it's missingsome sense of the overall scope of the artificial world in which the characters live, which after all is the only world they know. In the end, this story is a reasonably good read that hints at plenty of material from which to build an epic, but by focusing instead on a mostly conventional plot the reader ends up with something that's not as memorable as it could have been.

  • Julian: A Christmas Story, Robert Charles Wilson (PS Publishing)
  • "Lord Weary's Empire", Michael Swanwick (Asimov's Dec 2006)
    Those poor souls who don't like to read fiction tend to claim, "Why would I want to read about something that never happened?" Even moreso with science fiction, where you typically read about something that can't or won't happen. So along comes Michael Swanwick, who out of his disturbed imagination pulls together bits and pieces of different tropes to create a world that has so many different antecedents that you can't figure out why he bothers except to show off. The milieu of this story is one he's used in other nominated efforts, but every time he's poking around in different corners. It's a mixture of elves and dwarves, underground cities, horses and motorcycles and subway trains, with throwaway references to things like Pepsi and Kawasaki that hint that there must be some connection to our own world, but whether now, past or future we can't tell.

    Lord Weary is a would-be underground kingpin who leads a ragtag band of various mythical humanoids, living in a vast underground network of tunnels and sewers beneath a city. The protagonist is Will, who stumbles into Weary's camp while on the run for some reason he doesn't completely understand. He ends up signing up to serve in Weary's informal battalion, and helps engineer a few skirmishes to steal some horses and lead a raid against some surface dwellers, with the ultimate goal of getting the boss to attain something known as the Obsidian Throne. For much of story you just go along for the ride, there's nothing too deep going on here, and then in the last few pages Swanwick pulls out the rug and calls into question the reality of everything and everyone you've just been paying attention to for the last 30+ pages. In spite of the fact that this world is such a hodgepodge of other realities, such that there don't seem to be many rules, Swanwick is still able to do an about-face and catch the reader off-guard. My overall opinion of the story suddenly went up dramatically at that point. Maybe it's just a gimmick, in that at the conclusion there's no significant lesson to be learned from all this, with or without the twist, but at least it shows he had a plan and wasn't just making it up as he went along.

    Having said that, the story, to my taste, is a bit of a drag. I keep visualizing this cinematically, and it reads a lot like those awful post-apocalyptic biker movies where everything is shot kind of murkily and all the costumes are just scraps of whatever is lying around and all the characters look basically punked-out but otherwise alike and you watch without any idea what's going on or what is the motivation of anyone on the screen. In fact it's so similar that it makes me wonder if Swanwick watched the same movies and assimilated some of that into his punk biker underground elfworld. In a larger story you might get more subplots and more fleshed-out characters and a theme that fits best to this particular world. The story you have here is worth a read, but at the end I don't have enough bits to hang on to that will make it memorable.

  • "The Walls of the Universe", Paul Melko (Asimov's Apr/May 2006)
    This story and author both came out of nowhere as a pleasant surprise. A longish novella by an unfamiliar name would normally not inspire my confidence, but it was liked enough to get nominated, and it turns out with good reason for once. Melko, who has written a handful of stories prior to this but none that achieved much notoriety, has put forth a well-plotted, well-paced, character driven exploration of a boy caught in an endless progression of parallel universes, actually parallel northwest Ohios. John Rayburn is a farm boy who one day out of the blue encounters his double, who has somehow come upon a simple device to shift from one quantum universe to another. Purists will quibble with the fact that the device's provenance is never explained, which then means there is no indication of how it works or how it even came into John's possession. So maybe it's a fantasy story then, except that when John the farmboy gives it a try he finds that John Prime wasn't completely forthcoming with the machine's limitations. What follows are then two parallels stories, with John the farmboy trying to figure out how to get back to his own dimension or quantum universe or whatever you want to call it, and John Prime trying to make use of proprietary information gathered from other universes to get rich and hooked up with his childhood sweetheart.

    Once John has realized his predicament and starts to focus on the device itself and how to find a way back to his own world, he does the sensible thing and looks up a university physics professor, although it takes several tries to be taken seriously. The author delves a little bit into the basic idea behind quantum universes to give the story a more science-oriented focus than if it were just written as straight "fabulist" fiction, but it's not enough that John Campbell would have bought it, and the progression from one universe to the next produces huge contrasts when it's convenient to the plot, followed by several nearly identical worlds in a row when that suits the next scene. But he offers a compelling variety of different versions of John's world, highlighting different variations so that both John and the reader can easily extrapolate just how many variations there could be out there. Melko has also thought of most of the primary pitfalls of jumps between worlds and how you could end up underground or embedded in cement, fortunately there aren't big enough variations in most of the universes where this becomes a common problem.

    What's also interesting are the variations in the same person across universes, particularly John himself. While farmboy John is fairly meek by nature, he can be a bit of a hothead at times. This is nicely balanced by John Prime, where the impetuous side of his personality seems dominant, but occasionally he can lapse into a wistful nostalgia for home and family. In the end both versions find some kind of satisfaction with their chosen surroundings, although not what they initially would have thought or wished for. There's something to be chewed over after reading this story on the nature of causality and free will, not just for yourself but those around you, and those who came long before, and how it can ultimately affect just the one version of you that you know about.

    There's a lot to like about this story, it focuses on a small cast and it doesn't go on too long, and while the story ends satisfactorily there is still plenty more to tell (in fact Melko has since expanded this into a novel). Parallel universe stories were always thought to be too complicated for Hollywood to handle, but with recent releases like Star Trek having major success, I would have to think there's a screenplay of this being shopped around now. It doesn't break any new ground stylistically and the premise seems obvious in retrospect, but Melko makes it work with very readable prose that makes this a worthy Hugo nominee.

  • NOVELETTE

  • "All the Things You Are", Mike Resnick (Jim Baen's Universe Oct 2006)
    Not on the Locus list, but a serviceable story from Resnick about a guy who gets caught up in the story of several men who individually went out in a blaze of glory trying to recapture the image of their perfect woman, which they had originally encountered in the form of some alien intelligence on another planet during a previous war. Resnick takes an interesting approach to this story, telling it after the fact from the viewpoint of the man who pieces all this together and becomes obsessed with what it was that drove these people to intercede in deadly situations, not because they had a deathwish, but because this woman would only come to them if they were in desperate need. He ends up travelling to the planet himself and conveniently gets hurt and meets the very same alien, or type of alien, and develops the same sort of obsession with her in her human form, even after she explains to him that while she's in love with him now, she won't remember him after he leaves. Resnick's working out of the relationship between memory and love and what people will go through to preserve it is the same ground he covered in "Down Memory Lane", his nominated story from last year. This is more original, although the alien seems a bit too good to be true, and it's ability to take the image of a person's ideal soulmate straight out of their head and make it manifest in their own form sounds like something right of Star Trek. Some of the dialog is a bit clunky, too, the characters don't really speak the way real people talk, which is unfortunate because there's quite a bit of dialogue. There's nothing particularly wrong with this story, it jumps right into the thick of things and focuses strictly on the plot from start to finish (sort of the anti-MacDonald), but it's not really of Hugo caliber.
  • "Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth", Michael F. Flynn (Asimov's Oct/Nov 2006)
    This long novelette lives up to high expectations from Flynn, typifying his evocative style and originality. If only it had a point. The premise is that a ferry boat in Seattle has disappeared into a fog bank in the harbor, never to be seen again. But that's not the plot, as this is covered in the first few paragraphs. What Flynn is interested in is the aftermath, both immediate and longer term, telling the story from multiple points of view by characters who were affected by it. In some sense this is a post-9/11 story (although by now it's well-post-9/11), drawing on some of the reactions of the friends and loved ones of the victims, from relief to a sense of renewal to the inevitable banding together of the "Families of the Victims", to hangers-on who really had no connection to the tragedy. But because this is a disappearance rather than a terrorist attack, there's no "closure", are the victims really dead, or are they just somewhere else. Turns out this phenomenon starts to occur on a regular basis, and various people try different things to see if they can determine what exactly happened. In fact, that's how the story ends, where enough time has passed that a specially made submersible is sent into the vortex in the water to see if it can find out what's on the other side. But in lieu of any real resolution, or even a hint as to what might happen, Flynn chooses to end with the title quote, taken from a poem called "The Dead" by English World War I-era poet Rupert Brooke. It's almost like he just ran out of paper and stopped in the middle. So the ending leaves a little bit to be desired, but I guess the ferry boat's ultimate fate isn't really the point. Flynn straddles the line between fantasy and sf well, such that you can't be sure whether there's a scientific explanation for the boat's disappearance or not. He's more interested in the notion that there are as many stories and varied reactions to the tragedy as there are victims, and these events and histories cross as a result in ways that otherwise wouldn't have happened. That's all well and good, but a few more paragraphs at the end to give the reader his own sense at least of direction, if not resolution, would have been nice.
  • "The Djinn's Wife", Ian McDonald (Asimov's Jul 2006)
    Anyone who has browsed around on this site knows Ian McDonald is one of my least favorite writers, but it's not necessarily his fault, and of course he has many admirers who think enough of his work to get just about anything nominated that has his name on it. So here we have this story, set in the same universe as "River of Gods", which I still haven't been able to bring myself to read yet, but it doesn't really matter. In a future Delhi, the human residents share the city with the semi-mythical djinn, which are some kind of nanobot AI that seem to still manifest themselves in human form occasionally and have actual names and responsibilities. The story focuses on Esha, a traditional dancer who becomes entangled with one of those djinn named A.J., and ultimately they get married. Needless to say there are some insurmountable problems of coping with each other's daily lives and habits, and Esha as it turns out can't really cope, to the point that she plots against her husband.

    So as far as it goes, the plot doesn't really cover anything particularly original, but as we know from McDonald's other writing that isn't his point, he's come up with a richly detailed exotic future full of foreign words and place names that are rattled off without explanation, with a whole political subplot in the background around two competing regions fighting over whether a dam gets built or not. In the midst of all this high-stakes intrigue, this small personal story gets played out, and in some respect affects the course of history, so there is that element. Also, McDonald would seem to have taken as a point of departure the notion that swarms of self-aware nanobot AI are the real explanation behind the mythical genie (i.e. djinn), and they seem to be something that has always existed and not just created by humans. Esha is stubborn and independent minded enough to get herself married to one, but as a reader you can't really see why she would, and she obviously hasn't thought this through as it doesn't take long for her to realize that A.J is, for all his human trappings, alien in the extreme.

    Unlike many McDonald stories, this one has a linear, comprehensible plot with a beginning, middle and end, which should be a good thing, but I feel once again like it fails to live up to the backdrop that he has so meticulously assembled around it. By making the story easily related to and following a more conventional narrative, you can't help but focus your attention more towards plot and away from setting, but since the plot is kind of thin, I find the end result unsatisfying.

  • "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)", Geoff Ryman (F&SF Oct 2006)
    You expect an off-the-wall story from Geoff Ryman and he doesn't disappoint, although the end result leaves me wondering what it was all for. The title character, Sith, is the daughter of the famous Cambodian despot, who conceals her true parentage from everyone because of the legacy of genocide he left behind. The house she goes to live in is haunted, apparently by the souls of those her father put to death, and they manifest themselves through the output of the copiers, fax machines and cell phones within the building. She falls in love with a young man, Dara, who has no idea who she really is, and when she finally tells him the truth he thinks its a ruse to precipitate a breakup. The parenthetical "fantasy" in the title is mirrored in the text, where several times Ryman points out a statement or anecdote that is not true, as well as in the plot where Sith builds up a fictional background of a different father who is a more revered deceased political figure, to the point where towards the end he is able to "adopt" her through the ghosts in her house. There is also some attention paid to the idea of redemption, and Sith's gradual acclimation towards her duty to making amends for the sins of her ancestors. The pace of the narrative is very quick, scenes change rapidly and time marches forward, conveying the appropriate combination of dream-state and fable. But these same qualities, while suited to the story, ultimately leave an impression of too much happening too quickly, and not enough to chew on after its over to keep it in memory for very long.
  • "Yellow Card Man", Paolo Bacigalupi (Asimov's Dec 2006)
    Bacigalupi has found a rhythm with this latest in a series of stories set in a so-called "post-oil" future, a meticulously detailed, politicized and utterly depressing milieu from which he seems to draw his greatest inspiration by depicting how this dystopia will manifest man's inhumanity to man. The main character, Tranh, is an old man who was once a shipping magnate, but no oil means no ships, so he is now basically a beggar on the streets of Bangkok, a Chinese refugee and second-class citizen by virtue of his "yellow card" status, which puts him at the bottom of the pecking order for food, jobs, and most of all respect. He crosses paths several times with a former employee of his named Ma, who is doing relatively well for himself and even takes some pity on Tranh's desperate state. But even Ma doesn't have it easy, as he is a foreigner also, and corruption among the police doesn't puts him at a disadvantage that comes to a head when he is accosted one night by three "white shirts". Tranh witnesses this and has the opportunity for at least some redemption or forgiveness, but it all comes to nothing. Unlike other post-apocaltypic futures (i.e. Mieville) that are equally unpleasant to contemplate living in but are at least interesting to read about, Bacigalupi's future is presented essentially without hope, a cautionary tale writ large, and while the details of the backdrop are scattered around enough to keep this from being at all preachy, the reader is left with a well-written two-character study that makes you want to slit your wrists. He's put more than enough thought into this to tell any number of stories, but they can't all be this bleak.
  • SHORT STORY

  • "Eight Episodes", Robert Reed (Asimov's Jun 2006)
    Reed masterfully executes a brief but complex narrative centered around a mysterious tv show, and the eponymous eight episodes that are the only ones broadcast. The show turns up out of the blue, develops a cult following in spite of telling a drawn-out, disjointed tale about a flawed scientist and his discovery of ancient visitors to earth. The conclusion reached is that the aliens that were out there have sent a message to humanity not to bother with interstellar space travel. But is what they're saying true, or do they just want to keep us where they can see us? The blurring between the show and reality comes to light later on, when the origins of the show come under more scrutiny and people start to wonder exactly who was behind its creation and its message.
  • "The House Beyond Your Sky", Benjamin Rosenbaum (Strange Horizons Sep 2006)
    Rosenbaum's story takes place towards the latter end of the universe, where some sort of post-human priest named Matthias is tinkering with a number of individual worlds in various stages of creation. A pilgrim, representing the "old ones" who created him, comes to visit, having heard of his efforts to create a brand new universe, in which they are very interested as the current one is dying. Parallel to this are brief vignettes from six-year old Sophie, inhabitant of this new universe, who is caught in the middle of a violent argument between her parents. Matthias is able to fend off the pilgrim's attempts to take over by retreating into Sophie's teddy bear, at the same time providing the little girl with some extra resolve to try to make things right.
    There's a lot going on here in a very short amount of space, this story is really a prose poem in its use of language to describe setting and mood. Rosenbaum very deftly juxtaposes the medieval aspect of priest and pilgrim with their actual embodiment as essentially computer-based lifeforms. I won't pretend to understand what the author is trying to say here, I suspect given its poetic structure you could take this several ways, but he's mostly poking at the corners of metaphysics and the idea of how sentient existence can relate to a series of bubble universes. Certainly ambitious, nicely evocative, maybe a little pretentious, but in this short form you have the opportunity to read it a couple of times and at least get a sense of wonder out of the story and the author's unorthodox imagination.
  • "How to Talk to Girls at Parties", Neil Gaiman (Fragile Things)
    Gaiman cuts to the chase in this brief vignette about two teenage boys in 1970's London looking for a party. The one they come across turns out not to be the one to which they'd been invited, but they're welcomed anyway, and there's enough pretty girls around to keep them from leaving. Enn, the narrator, tries to strike up a conversation with a couple of different girls but they're all talking nonsense about being part of another universe and seem to be new to the country. Suddenly the other, Vic, breaks up the conversation and drags Enn out of the house. Nothing even vaguely horrific has happened, but he's seen something in the girl he was with and has to leave. The end. I'm not sure what Gaiman is trying to do here, the story is certainly well-paced and evocative, he would seem to be grasping at some sort of image, teenagers crossing over into another stage of life when they're not really ready, maybe, with the time period meant to convey a sense of malaise or rootlessness? Crossed with this is a slight sense of dread that something unpleasant is going to happen, and this bizarre group of obviously alien girls that are essentially doing the same thing as Vic and Enn, just from a different perspective. I'm not sure if this all hangs together or not, there's a little more style than substance, but worth a read anyway.
  • "Impossible Dreams", Tim Pratt (Asimov's Jul 2006)
    This relatively simple story of Pete, a movie fanatic who stumbles across a video store from a parallel Earth where movies like The Magnificent Ambersons were made correctly, other classic movies feature different actors, and some movies exist that never happened in this reality. He befriends the store clerk, Ally, and desperately tries to figure out how to watch the movies on his home theater after discovering that not only are the movies different in her reality, but the formats are different too, as is the money he needs for the rental. Pratt does a good job of taking Pete from euphoria to despair as he exults over his good luck only to run up against one obstacle after another that prevents him from actually watching anything. While all this is going on, he's got even more problems, as the store only appears for a brief time every evening, and that window of opportunity is noticeably decreasing. Ally is just as much of a movie buff as he is, and of course the movies in our reality don't jibe with what she knows either. The ending is a bit predictable, but otherwise this is a nice, small-scale story that would make a good short film of its own, in this or any reality.
  • "Kin", Bruce McAllister (Asimov's Feb 2006)
    This odd and slightly creepy story concerns a young boy named Kim (not to be confused with the title, although the similarity is duly noted) and his mission to find an alien hitman to prevent the government from terminating the birth of his sister in an age of strict population control. He finds one basically by confronting possible contenders one by one with the accusation of their being a hitman, until he finally comes upon one who really is. The alien is too savvy to actually do it, but he does confront the government official with a warning, and sure enough strings are pulled and Kim's parents get to keep the baby. The alien is more interested in how Kim came upon this idea in the first place, and comes to understand there is some kinship (hence the title) in how they view the world. In an short epilog several years later, the alien has died and leaves his vast personal fortune and cache of weapons to Kim and his family, and Kim can't wait until he can travel to where the weapons are stored, implying Kim's destiny may not be too far from that of his benefactor. A little farfetched, maybe a little too pat, but certainly with a distinctive tone.
  • DRAMATIC PRESENTATION: LONG FORM

  • Children of Men (Screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron and Timothy J. Sexton. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Universal Pictures)
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Walt Disney Pictures.)
  • The Prestige (Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Touchstone Pictures.)
  • A Scanner Darkly (Screenplay by Richard Linklater. Directed by Richard Linklater. Warner Independent Pictures.)
  • V for Vendetta (Screenplay by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Directed by James McTeigue. Warner Bros.)

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