The Political Prisoner, by Charles Coleman Finlay


While a couple of this year’s novella nominees are so sfnal as to be essentially incomprehensible, Finlay gives us a story that is a compelling read and throws around a few questions and ideas worth pondering, but could be accused of not being science fictional enough. Following along from his 2002 Hugo-nominated novella “The Political Officer”, this story features the return of that tale’s protagonist, Max Nikomedes, who has the dubious occupation of double agent in the midst of an ongoing war between two quasi-religious factions whose motives are unclear. In that first story Max had to cause a nuclear accident on a spaceship in order to accomplish his objective and keep his cover, and this story picks up not too long after that where the ongoing skirmishes between his two rival masters lands him in the wrong place during an assassination attempt and ultimately bound for a labor camp.

The bulk of the story focuses on Max’s efforts to stay alive and gain any advantage while being held prisoner, ultimately befriending a group of humans called Antaeans who have gone through enough genetic modification that they are no longer treated as humans. Finlay channels Solzhenitsyn in his account of the camp, from the looming specter of imminent death and mind-numbing misery to the conceit that many of the characters names are Russian. The underlying theme seems to be that when presented with two opposing points of view, such as in a civil war, everyone is compelled to choose a side and has to subsequently stand by that decision whether they want to or not, especially when it can quickly turn against them. I don’t think there’s anything too substantive to take away from this idea after having read the story, but Finlay does a creditable job in conveying the desperation and fragility of human life among the prisoners. There just isn’t much science fiction in this story to make it significantly different from if it really did take place in Stalinist Russia. Yes, there are “aliens” in the form of the Antaeans, but they could just as easily be some indeterminate eastern European nationality, and everyone’s motives are fairly universal, the whole thing between Max’s two bosses and their corresponding factions is kind of vague and doesn’t seem to be that important except to provide a reason for the plot.

At the end, Max has inevitably changed, with a deeper understanding of the distinction between oppressed and oppressors, but it’s not exactly uplifting. At novella-length this story almost isn’t long enough, in that everything seems to be leading up to Max’s abduction to the camp, and yet his time in the camp goes by fairly quickly, and the ending is tied up in just a few pages, such that it’s difficult to tell what the focus of the story was supposed to be. Still, well worth reading and with some broader questions to ponder, just not sure if it benefits from the trappings of sf or if it would be just as effective as non-genre fiction.

Zoe’s Tale, by John Scalzi


For those of you who enjoyed Scalzi’s nominee from last year, The Last Colony, here it is again, retold from the viewpoint of the spunky teenage girl who saves her planet and achieves intergalactic peace where zillions of others have failed. It’s hard to imagine the intent behind this, other than as an exercise for the author to see if he could actually do it. Scalzi admits that retelling the same story without becoming redundant and keeping them consistent is in fact very difficult, and I don’t doubt it, the question the reader keeps coming back to is whether it is really worth it or not. The Last Colony was a good story, but it wasn’t exactly Dune, does it really need to be given the same treatment as the Alexandria Quartet?

According to Scalzi, yes it does, there were a couple of missing parts in the last book that could have been filled in more, concerning both the “werewolves” and how Zoe ends up being given the one gizmo that can save her colony planet. So under the guise of presenting Zoe’s side of the story, the author can correct these omissions and at the same time present Zoe in all her YA trappings as the “chosen one” of a race called the Obin, newly raised to consciousness thanks to her father, and who now consider her their sacred mascot. This is all very compelling for a younger reader who can envy or empathize with the hero who is “special”, but in the context of the story it seems very contrived. Zoe and her friends are all supposed to be around 15, yet they all talk in wry ripostes that sound like they’ve just been introduced to the work of Oscar Wilde, and the adults aren’t much better. Hundreds of years in the future, humanity’s very existence is hanging by a thread, and everyone is trying to out-bon mot one another? Seems hard to believe to me, but maybe teenagers would eat this up.

Because most of the interesting parts of the story were told in The Last Colony, concerning the eternal John Terry and his final mission to lead a new settlement that turns out to be a giant sham created by his government to lure the enemy Conclave into their territory so they can be wiped out once and for all. The battles, the tense negotiations under the threat of treason, all happen off stage like a Shakespeare play, too expensive to produce. Zoe is mostly concerned with her interpersonal relationships and the events around her have an impact, but they are fleeting ones. When she’s called upon to be an emissary for the enemy General Gau, we’re in serious Heinlein mode, presumably on purpose, where the kid narrator does her duty and saves the world. Earlier parts of the book when the colonists first land on their new home seem straight out of Farmer in the Sky.

This isn’t a bad book by any means, but I’m probably more complaining about its intent than its execution. Scalzi seems to have accomplished exactly what he set out to do, and by a certain standard that would be commendable and more than sufficient, but why this should be legitimately considered worthy of nomination for a Hugo is beyond me.

Pride and Prometheus, by John Kessel


All you have to read is the title of this story to know that it must be a cross between Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein, and that’s exactly the case. The originals were published only 5 years apart, but are very different in composition and tone, never mind the subject matter. I suppose I should recuse myself, since Austen bores me to tears, but Kessel has done a masterful job of channeling the right amount of Austen’s prose style without getting too cumbersome. As the stories come together, if anything he starts to stray even more, introducing more Romantic tropes without succumbing to the overwrought style of Shelley’s prose.

The story concerns the younger Bennett sisters, Kitty and Mary, after the older ones have been married off, when the mysterious and obviously troubled Dr. Frankenstein is a guest in their house. Frankenstein is shadowed by his creation, who seems to have taken matters into his own hands for finding a suitable bride to use as the doctor’s next subject. The initial conversations around the dinner table between the Bennetts and Frankenstein sound the most like Austen, with every observation about human nature turning into Socratic dialog, made more relevant because Kessel can provide them with specific contemporary subjects like Darwinism to talk about. This all ties in nicely with the plot and provides plenty of foreshadowing.

He veers into Shelley-esque territory when the sisters encounter the monster during a raging thunderstorm, and Kitty is taken ill from the experience and her exposure to the elements. Given the circumstances, the monster’s choice of bride isn’t too hard to guess, and Kessel finishes up by integrating remaining pages into the last part of the original Frankenstein story, with tragic consequences for the doctor and many of those around him. I was dubious at the beginning of this story, since this was obviously not a send-up of Austen, but Kessel knows what he’s about and makes the story work, even though the ending takes place primarily offstage and Mary’s fate from the experience is spinsterhood and a career as a writer, which isn’t particularly tragic or uplifting either. Still, an altogether successful pastiche, given the popularity of the two classic authors within the genre I’m surprised no one’s done this before.

The Gambler, by Paolo Bacigalupi


Bacigalupi makes a departure from his popular, poetic post-apocalyptic stories to focus on this quiet tale of a young Laotian man named Ong who comes as something of a refugee to a future US to work as a reporter. Rather than a newspaper, Ong’s employer is some kind of umpteenth-generation web site where the news is tailored to what will get the most clicks and generate the most traffic, which in turns brings in the most revenue. The author concisely draws a very plausible near-future that isn’t that much different than how tv news works today, except everything has moved to the web and a given story’s success or failure can now be determined within minutes of its publication.

Ong has no interest in the type of story that generates traffic, choosing instead to focus on political or ecological stories that need attention but are inherently depressing. As a last resort to get his average up before he’s fired and deported, Ong is given the opportunity to interview a reclusive Asian movie star named Kulaap, who helps him out by making some news in which he plays a part, giving him an exclusive angle to report the story and increase traffic to his byline. The gambler of the title initially refers to Ong’s father, who was a gambler both in monetary terms and in western ideas in his repressed home country, but by the end Ong has become a gambler himself, choosing between popularity and importance in his reportage.

Bacigalupi tends to write stories that are generally depressing, his usual “post-oil” milieu doesn’t come across as hopeful or redemptive or uplifting at all. The stories he chooses to write are those that make an easy extrapolation of the present into the near future, but with an immediacy and richness of detail that shows the reader just how close we are to seeing this come to pass. The world of The Gambler isn’t as dystopian as what we normally get from him, but his protagonist still serves a similar function as a lone voice of reason in a future you would not prefer but which seems somehow inevitable. There may be some analogy there with the author himself, but either way this is a nicely done story.

The Tear, by Ian McDonald


To make up for my lack of anything substantive to say about this story, I have to start by wondering how it got nominated, not because of its quality, which is a separate debate, but only because it was published in an SF Book Club-only edition, which does not sound like it had a very large initial print run. I’m not aware of anyone active in SF who buys books from SF Book Club, an organization that is a shadow of its once-great self. If you’ve looked at their recently redesigned website, they now will sell you any book in print, and you have to squint to see whether its something available only through SFBC. The main reason I stopped buying their books was that most of the hardcovers I wanted could be had through Amazon for just about the same price, and it was worth a couple of dollars extra to get a real hardcover and not a cheaply made reprint.

A lack of accessibility both physical and literary does not seem to be an impediment for McDonald, who gets nominated for something year after year. You could say he is one of the major driving factors behind my writing down these reviews, since I would otherwise have no recollection of any details at all concerning “The Little Goddess”, “Brasyl”, or “The Djinn’s Wife”, nominees all. Unlike all of those, which take place in future or alternate South America or India, the Galactic Empires remit means we’re in the far future, with a race of people who may be descended from humans and who manifest different personalities with different names at different points in their lives. The main viewpoint character starts out as a child named Ptey, but with each section of the story he transforms into another “manifold” with a different name, seeking out friends who have done the same thing, it must get very confusing after a while. Most of the characters have j’s in their names in odd places, making them look similar and hard to pronounce. There are three planets involved, their homeworld Tay, another planet around a distant star with whom they have some tangled history, and a third planet Tejaphay, which is all water and may or may not support life. Due to time dilation effects, millions of years go by as Ptey matures, leaves home and ultimately returns, wars break out in which billions of people are killed in less than a sentence. At this scale, evolution is a factor in successive interactions among the characters, until at the end Ptey, in his older form as Oga, is reunited with his childhood friend Cjatay, who never was able to take on the extra personalities.

The main problem with McDonald’s work is the density factor, the story he is trying to tell is a personal tale involving just a few characters, but it is set against a world-spanning backdrop over millions of years. This would still be okay if the backdrop was just that, but McDonald repeatedly insists on populating his universe with relentless details of its history, politics, religion, sexual interaction and traditions, creating a richly thought out and worked through canvas which only ends up dwarfing the actual story he is trying to tell. Plenty of people love this stuff, I think these are either people for whom plot isn’t all that important, or who subconsciously read more into the story than is really there in order to better balance the overall effect. Since I don’t fall into either camp, his work consistently comes up short for me, but I can’t deny that it is endlessly imaginative and original, and McDonald is unmistakeable in the evocative nature of his prose. The Brits love him, if you can live with a serious penchant for LeGuin-itis, then he’s your man.

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow


Doctorow’s first novel nomination is a rabblerouser aimed squarely at older teenagers, but must also appeal to your average flaming liberal regular Hugo voter. Hackers rise up against a corrupt government, what more could you ask for? Told from the point of view of 17-year old Marcus, the story is based on the premise that if there had been a second major terrorist attack within the U.S., the government’s response would be a much wider and more oppresive crackdown on personal liberties under the guise of keeping people safe. If you’ve ever read or heard Doctorow before, you know he has a lengthy background in security and privacy issues as they relate to digital media and computer technology, so the novel serves as a soapbox on which he can point out all the ways the government can use these things to spy on people, whether they’re under suspicion or not. The fact that people know they’re being spied on can cause them to act suspiciously, which means the feds are spending a lot of money and wasting a lot of time going after the wrong people.

The story is set in San Francisco, and Marcus and his friends are in the wrong place when the attackers blow up the Bay Bridge. When the Department of Homeland Security mobilizes a sweep of possible suspects, they’re all caught up in the dragnet, and since Marcus is a techno-geek already, he looks a little more suspect than most. His run-in with the DHS incites him to rise up against the oppressors, if anything making matters worse by fomenting dissent among his fellow hackers, who start an informal campaign of disruption that could be argued as a form of terrorism of its own. So you have three different kinds of “terrorism” at play here, the original attacks themselves, the government’s crackdown on basic liberties in the name of security, and the hackers’ retaliation against the crackdown through flashmobs and small-scale technological disruption. But Doctorow skirts around the ambiguity of the last kind, seeing it as a modern-day form of civil disobedience.

If you’re not into detailed descriptions of cryptography, tunnelling, and various other low-level computer gunslinging, or if you think the Bush-era scorched earth response to terrorism is perfectly acceptable, then this probably isn’t going to be that interesting of a read. Doctorow moves the story along at breakneck speed, those computer-oriented backstories don’t get in the way, there’s enough teenagers rising up against The Man (and young geeks in love) to satisfy the younger crowd, the nominating crowd I think appreciates the author’s command of the subject matter and how he is able to weave together a bunch of real-world computer concepts into a compelling story. While Marcus is a bit of a goody-goody, he and the other main characters are all well-defined and have their own unique voices. For a kid, he probably is a little too informed on the comparison between urban areas in San Francisco and elsewhere, and the while the prose has the occasional clunky or awkward phrase, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s doing it on purpose to keep within the character of the first person narrator.

Beyond the initial premise of the terrorist attack, and maybe the noticeably high percentage of Stalinists in the government, nothing else in the book is SF. Doctorow is using the trappings of the YA novel to reach a young audience with a warning message that your government is watching you (not to mention your school, advertisers, the RIAA, ad nauseam), and they really shouldn’t be, and you can do something about it if you keep informed. This book can really change the way you think about the world, and does it in an entertaining, thought-provoking way, which after all is what science fiction is supposed to do.

Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross


If you’re inclined to despair at the number of YA nominees for best novel in this year’s Hugos, look no further than the annual entry by Charles Stross, which channels the sex and politics of Heinlein with the technology of Asimov into a somewhat entertaining mishmash that is Saturn’s Children. In the future, robots have done such a good job of taking over all the tasks that humans would rather not do that humanity itself has died out, leaving the robots to make their own destiny. This poses particular problems for certain kinds of robots, starting with the protagonist, Freya, who comes from a line of, well, basically sexbots. She herself was not created until years after humanity’s passing, there’s still plenty of sex to be had with other robots (and not even just the humanoid variety), but it’s just not the same thing. For dubious reasons she goes from a vague previous existence on an outpost of Venus to gradually becoming an interplanetary secret agent, giving the reader the grand tour of several planets within the solar system and without. One advantage, if you can call it that, of being a robot is that the lengthy travel times between worlds don’t mean much to your overall lifespan, although they’re still boring, and pesky problems like radiation are not particularly dangerous either.

Although Stross starts his story at the beginning, he does drop you into a future backstory that takes a while to be revealed. There’s something of a method to his madness, since all this intrigue revolves seemingly around a plot to resuscitate humanity, which may have been humanity’s plan all along. Freya herself isn’t always privy to what’s going on until well after it’s already happened, such that some of the revelations late in the book don’t pay off as satisfyingly as they could have. All the robot sex serves to make the story less grim and clanky than other Stross efforts, but it still seems a little silly, Heinlein at least seemed genuinely invested in the future of sex, but I’ve never gotten the impression that this is one of Stross’s areas of interest. But he does do a good job of extrapolating a robot-centric Asimovian future realistically, to the point that much of the time the various characters don’t even really need to be robots, but Stross still keeps their mechanoid origins and idiosyncracies front and center, less this devolve into just another future spy novel. At the end, things get kind of rushed and the main story sort of fizzles out, but for me it was okay as I was ready to move on by that point anyway.

You can’t under-appreciate the magnitude of what Stross has done here, keeping the information density fairly high but still comprehensible, there are few throwaway techno-references, the backdrop is wide-ranging but still focuses on a few core characters, it’s still at heart a personal story told against a much greater canvas that all seems to fit together very well. After it’s over, maybe a little more canvas spread out over a few more pages would have given the story more heft, but the novel’s forebears could achieve much with much less. The modern sf novel can’t get away with the economy of means that Asimov or earlier Heinlein could, such that by today’s standards this book comes across as a little too abrupt, and the perfunctory ending doesn’t help mitigate that impression. Not as satisfying as Glasshouse, perhaps, but still worthwhile and completely different yet again from his prevous books, which should count for a lot.

The Erdmann Nexus, by Nancy Kress


The Ludlum-esque title to the always entertaining Nancy Kress’s latest nominee gives the reader the impression he’s in for some sort of espionage thriller, but in fact what you have is “Physicists in Love”, as she assembles a varied and true-to-life cast of chracters trying to cope with a new phenomenon that is outside what their scientific beliefs can explain. The title character is a 90-year old professor of physics who starts having episodes of some kind of heightened brain activity, coming as a flash that leaves him disoriented. Other old people in his retirement community start experiencing the same symptoms at the same time, to the point that they can collectively and inadvertently cause things to happen, the opening of a locked safe or brining down a small plane. The reader gets the explanation before the characters do, that there’s some sort of gestalt mind power going on here that’s starting to manifest itself on Earth because of the increasing numbers of older people, and some alien intelligence is racing towards the earth to investigate.

Mixed in with all this is Erdmann’s home health aide, Carrie, who has an abusive boyfriend; Evelyn, who talks a mile a minute to anyone who will listen, and everyone is too polite to tell her to stop; Anna, a aging former ballet dancer with a broken leg who has to face up to the fact that she’ll never dance again; Detective Garaci, who starts out investigating the safe cracking but ends up getting embroiled in the whole group mind thing; the list goes on. The story might be a little long, but Kress does a great job of pulling different threads along, with a strong cast making the unknown force acting on them seem truly upsetting, and getting into their heads individually about their fears around aging, their feelings towards the other characters, and so on.

In the end, you can’t help thinking of the movie Cocoon, where the old folks have the opportunity to join the aliens. While the science is prominent in the story, it doesn’t take over the story, which is a good thing. What happens to this little group of people is happening all over the world, it just happened to them first, and the only reason given is that somebody had to be first, and Dr. Erdmann is not so much the nexus as the first to recognize that something strange is happening. Despite the title, a strong effort from Kress with the best and most varied cast of any sf story I’ve read in a while.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman


The most disturbing statistic from this year’s Hugo ballot is that 3 of the 5 novel nominees were marketed as YA books, with the voters passing up hard SF heavyweights like Baxter, MacLeod, Bear, Egan, Haldeman and Banks in favor of more lightweight fare. Is this cause for concern? Are YA books more appealing now that there are more entries by big-name authors, coupled with shorter length and less clanky plots? Stephenson and Stross, both the antithesis of this approach, still made the ballot, so the sky wouldn’t seem to be falling yet, a couple of Harry Potter nominations at the beginning of the decade weren’t a harbinger of doom either.

Anyway, this is one of the YA books, written by this year’s Guest of Honor, which would seem to give it a leg up in that you’ll have that many more people who don’t normally do Worldcon’s coming just to gaze upon his personage and touch his raiments and maybe take a crack at the Hugo voting too. The story concerns a boy named Nobody, or Bod for short, who survived the murder of his family as a baby and ended up being raised by the denizens of a nearby graveyard. The attacker, referred to as the “man Jack”, still intends to finish the job, so the graveyard is as much as a refuge as a school and nursery for Bod while he grows up learning more about the ways of the dead than the living. Gaiman makes the idea of living in a cemetary almost appealing, giving it a sense of adventure without being too horrific, although there are obvious shortcomings, particularly in Bod’s limited contact with the outside world.

He meets a girl about his age named Scarlett who lives nearby, but she soon moves away. Years later she comes back, and sets about to help Bod find out about his family with the help of a neighbor, Mr. Frost, whose real identity I must say was pretty obvious given the small number of characters, at least living ones, in the book. There’s a big dust-up and everything works out well for Bod, he can’t live in the cemetary forever, there’s a nice bittersweet Gaiman-esque sequence near the end as Bod has to watch his childhood friends, including his adoptive parents, become inaccessible to him one by one.

The story moves along, even given its somewhat episodic nature, I think Gaiman has conjured up an original idea and kept it original while integrating into a Harry Potter-style milieu of witches and night gaunts and so forth. There are no great truths to be worked out here, but that’s not the point. It could be argued that many of the great early sf books were written for an equally young audience and some of those won Hugos, but I would counter that the genre has moved on. On its own terms its a perfectly serviceable story, memorable enough and self-assured in its style. Still it’s a children’s story, moreso certainly than Coraline, so while I can enjoy it and remember it, I’m not going to vote for it.

Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

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.