Reviews of Hugo Nominees

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Hugo Nominees 2003


  • Bones of the Earth, Michael Swanwick (Eos)
    If I had to give this book a label, it would be paleontological science fantasy, where an in depth analysis of various trains of thought in contemporary dinosaur theory is juxtaposed with a time travel story using the rules established in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure". The result is always entertaining, not always completely understandable, but on the whole succeeds as a narrative without really answering any of the questions it implicitly poses. The story involves Leyster, a paleontologist who is given the opportunity by the mysterious Griffin to travel back in time to study the dinosaurs while they were still living. The only catch is he can't get too curious about the whole time travel thing, how it came about, who knows about it, etc. While the dinosaur lingo is interesting, and a number of theories are proposed as to how they behaved and why they died out, probably more interesting still is the way Swanwick handles time travel, where there is only one rule, you can't change what has already happened. Even this rule is rather haphazardly enforced, and sure enough somebody does tamper with the past, but the ramifications aren't really that dramatic. Swanwick deftly handles all the crossing backwards and forwards of time lines, and shrugs off the causality behind it all in the interest of telling a good story, which is fine by me. The main group of characters all end up in the far future where they meet up with the race that has bestowed time travel to humanity of the present day, and find out why they're so interested in the scientific method and paleontology in particular. If it sounds like it rambles a bit, it does, and it also seems to be somewhat through-composed, that maybe Swanwick wasn't sure at the beginning where he was going to go with the whole thing, but it hangs together enough and contains enough interesting characters and situations to make it worth reading.
  • Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer (Analog Jan-Apr 2002; Tor)
    Sawyer is snubbed by the Locus list again this year, but his book makes it onto the Hugo ballot anyway on the strength of past successes and his stature within fandom. It may be some of those past successes that cause more scrutiny in his newer books, as he has trouble living up to the high standard he set for himself in "The Terminal Experiment" way back when. "Hominids" takes a straightforward premise of a Neanderthal named Ponter from a contemporaneous parallel universe where they became the dominant species who is suddenly deposited into our reality, and how he and the humans who are safeguarding him learn from each other. For the ubiquitous second Sawyer plot line, meanwhile in the Neanderthal universe his partner Adikor is bizarrely accused of Ponter's murder and must devote all his time to defending himself rather than trying to rescue him. This is where the novel kind of falls down, as the courtroom scenes (really more like an inquest) are tedious, because you know Adikor is innocent and his accuser is so shrill as to be reminiscent of Cruella de Ville, and her ultimate motivation for bringing charges against him turns out to be fairly lame. The other storyline, with Ponter and the human researchers, keeps things interesting but is fairly talky and short on action. Even the climax of the rescue attempt sets up a potential nailbiting race against the clock, then doesn't follow through. Another odd thing is that one of the main characters is raped very early on in the book, but without any real repercussions through the rest of the novel that couldn't have happened with a less drastic motivation. Sawyer's depth of knowledge of anthrolopology is impeccable, and he throws in plenty of ruminations on the existence of God, a favorite subject of his lately, the characters are all distinct individuals, including the Neanderthals, and the humans are all quintessentially Canadian, another Sawyer trademark. And it's the first book of a trilogy, although at the end you're left with wondering where else this story could go. It seems like any further contact between the universes would just spell doom for one or the other, and Sawyer isn't one to write gloomy stories, so I'm not sure what he's got in mind. Always readable, mostly entertaining, sometimes enlightening, unique enough to be memorable (I read most of this when it was serialized in Analog and remembered quite a bit of it before reading the book, which is unusual for me). The Worldcon is in Sawyer's home turf, after all, so don't count this one out.
  • Kiln People, David Brin (Tor)
    Brin is typically all over the map in this book, is it a comedy, is it a crime novel, is it hard sf? Well, again typically, it's not really any of those, but Brin writes with the impression that it's all of them rolled into one, plus a healthy dose of speechifying, some of it actually with a point, about the nature of new technology and how civilization adapts to it in its earliest primitive form, then just when you think it's been fully assimilated, we have to adapt again when the next generation of it comes along. There's a would-be private eye named Albert who lives in a future where it is commonplace for people to make temporary duplicates of themselves, known as dittos, which allow them to get everything done that one human doesn't have time to do. There are different castes of dittos for different types of tasks, from low-cost greens who take out the trash and mow the lawn, to reds and greys that can do basically anything a real person can. The next generation of ditto technology is on the horizon, with the promise of dittos that can last for longer periods of time, calling into question their status as sentient lifeforms, among other things. A convoluted and unnecessarily long plot ensues in which one of the founders of the technology turns up dead, the ubiquitous daughter comes to Albert with the suspicion that he was murdered, and the story unfolds told from four different points of view which are all the same person, Albert and three dittos that are on various parts of the "case". This makes following who's who very difficult, since the only clue as to who each chapter is about is alluded to in the chapter heading. There are numerous bad puns on the word "ditto", used in everyday conversation as though the language really has evolved that way. There's a decent story in here, this is certainly an ambitious book, but Brin isn't enough of a stylist or creator of strong enough characters to allow the whole thing to hang together at the length he's chosen to present. There's another book or two in the works set in the same milieu, I think if he chose to tighten up the next one and make it less of a future crime noir, it would have a better chance of success. This one just goes on too long and is too full of promise unfulfilled.
  • The Scar, China Miéville (Macmillan; Del Rey)
    This was the book I really wanted to read, and it lived up to my expectations in every way. Last year's Perdido Street Station was one of the best books I'd read in quite some time, one that, unusually, lived up to its advance billing. This tangential sequel, set in the same universe but only indirectly related, had a lot to overcome, but managed quite well. Mieville stuns you on every page with his descriptions of the planet of Bas-Lag, a place you'd never want to live in, but endlessly fascinating in all its details, filled with desultory characters, weird science, and weirder denizens, from the mosquito people to the vampir to the deep-sea dwelling avanc, plus pirates, power-mad rulers, a floating city made out of old ships lashed together, a rend in the fabric of spacetime in the middle of the ocean, you name it. The plot is less horror-oriented than Perdido Street Station, but some of the things that happen are no less horrific. Mieville's prose is endlessly spun out in a web of intricate sentences, but never bogs down or loses its narrative drive. For all the description and wordsmithing, Mieville is relentlessly plot-oriented, making this book unusual for works of this length in its high percentage of actual story over mere window-dressing. There's even some fairly weighty ideas to be wrestled with here, as various characters grapple with free will, the overtones of a downtrodden society rising up against the dominant part of civilization, it goes on and on. Bellis, the main character of the book, is ostensibly the hero, but for the most part fails in the heroic things she tries to do. If there's one quibble, its the amount of hyperbole given whenever someone has a revelation about what's going on or comes to some new understanding, if only because it happens fairly often, particularly as the book winds down, but it only draw attention to itself when weighed against the impact of the book as a whole on just about every level. Maybe not for everybody, but this is the one to beat.
  • The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam)
    This is Robinson channeling James Michener, and boy is it a slog. The longest book on the list, it's also the most disjointed, consisting of quite a few individual stories with different characters taking place over a several hundred year span of an alternate history, where 99% of western Europe was wiped out by the bubonic plague and the oriental and middle eastern countries rose to ascendancy in their place. I'm not a fan of alternate history to begin with, since it's not really science fiction, more of just a thought experiment, the whole point of which is to look at how things would turn out differently were history tweaked in a certain way. The premise of this book is far more than a tweak, however, such that you have basically an entirely different group of civilizations developing, going to war with each other, and because it's not based in real history there's not much of a feeling of telling a story that has some significance to those of us living in the current reality. If alternate history is to have a purpose, it should be to make us look at our own history in a different way, beyond just "wouldn't it be neat if...". The latter part of the book, though, seems content to just show how muslim or chinese scientists end up discovering the things that would've been discovered by western civilization had it survived, and because you know what those discoveries are it's not that interesting. Even Michener at his best ties it all together, gives you a sense of what it is to have a place in whatever gestalt worldview he's been wallowing in, but I just didn't get that here. Robinson has never been known to be plot-driven, his Mars books unfold in near-realtime, it seems, but they're given more space and fewer years to cover. This book contains a few good stories, and has been gushed over by a lot of people, and is at a disadvantage for me because I don't subscribe to the cult of Harry Turtledove, and is too much of a snoozer to dwell on.

  • "Breathmoss", Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov's May 2002)
    "Breathmoss" was probably the most eagerly anticipated novella on this list, if only because I read MacLeod's "Isabel of the Fall" last year in Interzone and was quite taken with his use of language, although the story itself doesn't necessarily stay with you. Breathmoss is like that only moreso, being about 10 times longer, and set in the same universe. MacLeod's prose is not really impressionistic, but certainly very florid, out-LeGuining Le Guin at times as he depicts a culture where far future descendants of humanity are all female, and the status quo is upset, at least for a while, by the arrival of a man and his son. There's plenty of sexual exploration, plenty of questioning of various character's place in the order of things, there's some indication that a form of time travel allows one of the protagonists to circle back on her past self as someone they knew as a child. It's also very tactile, overflowing with descriptions of how things feel and smell and so forth. In the end, MacLeod gives us more of a plot than Le Guin usually bothers to these days, but not enough is made of the character interactions to really feel like we or the main character Jalila have learned something significant at the end. Still worth a read, and still probably one of the best of the year, just not my particular cuppa.
  • "Bronte's Egg", Richard Chwedyk (F&SF Aug 2002)
    This entry cements the assertion that this category has been populated with some fairly eclectic nominees this year. Actually, this is a pretty well-told yarn about a group of cute sentient dinosaurs that all live together in basically a group home for same, and how one of them named Alex, sort of a wackier version of Rex from the Toy Story movies, decides to send a message to the stars without really having anything to say, and also decides to build a robot called "Rotomotoman", and the various hijinks that ensue. There are a couple of subplots lurking in there, too, including the only time the story takes a potentially serious turn when it transpires that one of the 'saurs has produced an egg and is waiting for it to hatch. When the evil government types find out, they come swooping down on the place, and the 'saurs do their best to look innocent. There's also a possibly imaginary character known as "TV Frog" who pops up now and again, seen only by Alex. The frog shows Alex pictures that cause him to remember how he got there, that the 'saurs are basically the lone survivors of campaign to wipe them out as a debate raged over whether they were truly sentient or not. Chwedyk has apparently used this setting before, but I haven't read any other stories of his. But it's well-paced, with several ideas going on at once, could easily be the next screenplay from Pixar, but in the end this is basically a YA fuzzy dinosaur story without much to commend it to sf classicdom.
  • Coraline, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins)
    I just can't subscribe to the cult of the personality that envelops Neil Gaiman, I was away from comics the whole time Sandman was going on and by the time I got back to it his other big series, Books of Magic, was being written by someone else and was completely incomprehensible. Last year's "American Gods" was good, rambled a bit, at the end seemed not exactly sure what it was trying to prove, and wasn't nearly as compelling or as finely wrought as "Perdido Street Station", but it won hands down anyway. But this book has much less lofty ambitions, being a children's story (provided you don't mind creeping your children out) about a little girl who has to save her parents from the unsavory characters that exist on the other side of the brick wall that separates her flat from the one next door. Young Girl Saves Parents is also the plot of "Spirited Away" (and is a standard anime trope), and if there's a moral here its a somewhat half-hearted reference to "you don't really want to be given everything you say you want". This book wasn't exactly a best seller in the general YA market, but seems to have plenty of supporters within fandom, and is probably the story to beat in this category, but while there's nothing wrong with it there wasn't enough really going for it to think of it as a future classic. The surrogate parents on the other side of the wall are suitably creepy, they're given some motivation and some differences of opinion, there are a few other characters that need to be rescued along the way, the final battle is followed by a relatively routine surprise standoff at the very end, which makes use of the plot device dutifully mentioned in the first chapter. The illustrations look like they were done in about five minutes (I'm not much a fan of Dave McKean's surrealist artwork, I'm afraid), and the story provides enough disturbing visual images of its own that if I read this to my seven year old she wouldn't be able to sleep for a week. Worth reading, but I don't have enough other stories of this type to compare it against to say whether its a top contender, but taken in the context of its competition in this category it comes up short.
  • "In Spirit", Pat Forde (Analog Sep 2002)
    This is a September 11 story, plain and simple, given a quasi-fantastical underpinning by following a character who was tangentially involved in the terrorist plot, now 30 years later and, for some reason, given the opportunity to be a witness to brief moments from various places during that day through some pseudo-scientific device that allows people to walk around like a ghost in certain periods of history. For such a sensitive subject, and done not that long after the event itself, Forde delves right into various difficult scenes, such as trying to get down the stairwells in one of the towers, without being gratuitous, generally turning away just before the most horrible parts. In that respect, this story covers a lot of ground without dwelling to morbidly on any one aspect of 9/11, and ultimately ends up as a palliative interpretation of the tragedy, where family members are able through this process to be with their loved ones vicariously as they meet their demise and give them a little bit of comfort that is able to bleed through the ghosting process. From an sf perspective, and in lieu of religion, it's nice to imagine that the future will provide the mechanism to help assuage the people involved in these kind of tragedies (like Varley's Millennium, where people from the future rescue people out of planes that are about to crash). The central idea, that this is some kind of penance or punishment for the man who has to witness all these events, is a bit much, and while a real person may feel some remorse 30 years out it's not necessary a given in this case and I'm not sure anyone else would feel any better if this made him repentant. It's a story that needed to be written, not necessarily as science fiction, but as a bit of catharsis, and if the message is a bit mawkish I think that's understandable and forgiveable given the subject matter.
  • "The Political Officer", Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Apr 2002)
    The only real sf story of the bunch, and it's a humdinger, told by a relatively new writer out of left field. Taking place in a difficult, cramped, ugly spacefaring future that is full of political intrigue and incessant infighting, it tells the story from the point of view of Max, the eponymous political officer, one of whom serves aboard every starship to make the necessary military decisions representing the political point of view (since way out in space you can't always radio back home for advice like you can on earth). Earth has been through a long war with another planet, things have cooled down but still aren't quite friendly, and it wouldn't take much for the whole thing to blow back up again. Meanwhile Max comes upon evidence that he has to protect at any cost, to the point of causing a nuclear incident on board the spaceship to cover up his tracks. There's also a female ensign on board in this somewhat misogynist future whose loyalties are called into question. Full of sharply drawn characters, all playing endless mindgames with themselves and one another, if the story has a fault it's almost that it isn't long enough, the reader has to jump headlong into what's going on and catch up on the backstory as they go, and since the story is fairly dialog heavy, there's not exactly a sufeit of clues to pick up on. This is a good, clanky, old-fashioned type story sort of like Heinlein or James White at their most cynical, not really hard hard sf, but really the only representative in this category and my favorite of the lot.
  • A Year in the Linear City, Paul Di Filippo (PS Publishing)
    This is Di Filippo's first nomination, and while it couldn't happen to a more worthy individual, the choice of this particular story is peculiar, not because of anything to do with the story, but because it was published by a small press in the UK with a print run of about 800 copies. Since the one I got, straight from the publisher, was numbered in the 250's, I find it hard to believe that this got enough votes to be nominated from people who've actually bought the book. This would mean that either Di Filippo, who has a lot of friends in the sf world, was circulating a lot of copies of the manuscript himself, or else people were nominating this for his body of work without ever actually reading this story. And while it's unlikely to come in above last place because of his own iconoclastic style and reputation, which flies in the face of the funny dinosaur type of stories that seemed to get favored these days, this is still a fascinating story typical of Di Filippo, chock full of ideas, not the least of which is the eponymous Linear City, which stretches in two directions farther than anyone in it has ever ventured, but is only one block wide. Suitably, no real explanation is given for why this is, or for that matter where this is (Earth or somewhere else?) or when (Far future or near future?). The plot as such involves Diego, a writer of "cosmogonic" fiction such as "The Shadow of the Inquisitor" (reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's book titles from Book of the New Sun), his friend who longs to find the end of the linear city, his friend's girlfriend, who through no fault of her own is hooked on heroin, and Diego's relationship with his father, which is strained at best, but takes on a new dimension as the result of his exploits in the story. Like much of Di Filippo's work, while it's full of ideas, there's not much going on or much to say about it, and the strong image of the linear city would seem to cry out for a longer story or series of stories to explore it in greater depth. The characters differ in their perception of their surroundings, with some not finding anything remarkable about a city of infinite length, while others have the explorer's urge to find how far they can go. There's no end to his imagination or his ability, but I'm still waiting for his real breakthough work that puts him up in the ranks with Sterling and Gibson where I think he'll ultimately belong.

  • "Halo", Charles Stross (Asimov's Jun 2002)
    Stross made a splash last year with Lobsters, although opinion seemed to be strongly divided on whether there was really something to it or not. This year's entry is more of the same, told a little more coherently than the previous nomination, but with the same huge amount of new ideas in every paragraph that makes you think maybe Philip K. Dick had no imagination by comparison. The plot, if it matters, centers around a young girl named Amber and her bid in this cybered- and punked-out techno-future to free herself from her well-meaning but domineering mother and strike out on her own, with her father's help and without starting a huge legal backwash over the whole thing. There's the makings of something in here, it's kind of fun to read, I believe most of his stories take place in the same universe, and I think longer forms may be better suited to this all-over-the-map style where you have more time to take in the sense of structure and pacing instead of just being overwhelmed by all the throwaway ideas that are Stross's stock in trade. I expect big things from this guy in the near future.
  • "Madonna of the Maquiladora", Gregory Frost (Asimov's May 2002)
  • "Presence", Maureen F. McHugh (F&SF Mar 2002)
  • "Slow Life", Michael Swanwick (Analog Dec 2002)
  • "The Wild Girls", Ursula K. Le Guin (Asimov's Mar 2002)

  • "Creation", Jeffrey Ford (F&SF May 2002)
    F&SF is pretty well represented this year, and this story is maybe the most overtly fantasy of the bunch. The narrator recalls his childhood when he had learned the story of the creation and then somewhat impulsively sets about creating his own sort of a wood sprite out of bits of stuff he finds in the woods near his house, then observes it through the seasons until the winter is imminent and it can't continue living. Implicitly attached to this is the relationship of the boy with his father, who also seems to have been created for a specific purpose and years later is about to come to the end of his life rather arbitrarily and senselessly. A nice little story, the prose has that quintessential fantasy evocativeness, not a standout in the general scheme of things, but given the other nominees, my vote probably goes to this one as the only entry with both something interesting to say and a clue as to how to say it.
  • "Falling Onto Mars", Geoffrey A. Landis (Analog Jul/Aug 2002)
    This is the only short story entry not on the Locus list (although another Landis story is), and it's kind of an odd choice for a Hugo nominee, in that it's very short (only four pages in Analog) and has no plot per se. It's more of a throwback to the old style sf story that told more about a planet in general and a particular feature and how people in general dealt with it. A few characters come and go, ancestors of the narrator, but the action is confined to a series of brief vignettes. For that reason, four pages is probably enough, but, much as I like and respect Landis and his knowledge and skill as a scientist and writer, I question whether this is really Hugo material, or even if he wrote it with that kind of aspirations for it. The point of the story is that there are no love stories on Mars, that it is a harsh and brutal landscape and there's no time for any of that nonsense. I suppose this is offered as a contrast to the romanticized view of Mars from sf's history, but it's over with too quickly to make much of it.
  • "'Hello,' Said the Stick", Michael Swanwick (Analog Mar 2002)
    One may get the mistaken impression reading some of the reviews from year's past that I have a vendetta against Michael Swanwick, and this is not the case. The guy obviously has talent, he's a very amusing and entertaining speaker in person, he has an interesting habit of working on thirty or forty stories at once. But the stuff of his that ends up as Hugo nominees boggles the mind sometimes, and this is a textbook example. This story is only three pages long in Analog, and I contend that for any story that short to be a nominee it would have to be jawdroppingly original and/or thought-provoking and/or controversial. But this story is none of the above, although there's really nothing wrong with it. A talking stick seems to be some sort of insidious weapon in an ongoing war, in that it ingratiates itself to a passing soldier, befriends him, and then turns on him. It's cute, but it's not long enough to make much of a point, and it doesn't seem to be trying to make a point, and there doesn't seem to be enough there to infer that the author is trying to make a point without making it obvious that he's making a point, so you're left with this little vignette that coasts to a nomination on the strength of the author's position in fandom, and not really anything else. Disappointing.
  • "Lambing Season", Molly Gloss (Asimov's Jul 2002)
    A nicely written, concise, utterly forgettable story about some sort of farm worker who specializes in delivering baby lambs, and in her spare time wanders the nearby countryside where at one point she encounters an alien. The alien lands, looks around, and leaves. A couple of years later, the alien comes back under more extenuating circumstances. Presumably there's supposed to be some connection between the act of helping animals give birth and her encounters with the alien, but I didn't see any clues in the text to any significant metaphor or whatever, so I was left at the end with just a little evocative story that doesn't really accomplish anything or have anything to say. This falls more in the category of Ubiquitous Genre Element Added to Otherwise Conventional Story, and this story just squeaked in after another story was disqualified, so I think it should be honored just to be nominated.
  • "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport", Michael Swanwick (Asimov's Oct/Nov 2002)
    Have I mentioned I'm not a big fan of Swanwick's short fiction? Nothing against the guy personally, but most of his stories don't seem to have much of a point. This one doesn't either, but it's better than most, in that it does have a story to tell, a cute little tale of two would-be detectives, one of whom is a talking dog, who both I believe figured in last year's "The Dog Said Bow-Wow". This time they cross paths with a genetically modified cat, or a woman who's been genetically modified to be a cat, or something. The plot as such doesn't really matter that much (or hopefully it's not supposed to, since I don't remember much of it), but the story is told with tongue firmly in cheek and the usual dash of gratuitous sex and bad language that we come to expect from Swanwick. Given the lackluster entries in this category, this will almost assuredly win, regardless of what I think. Looking forward (well, not really) to next year's installment featuring the dish and spoon.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Warner Bros.; Directed by Chris Columbus; Screenplay by Steve Kloves; based on the novel by J. K. Rowling)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (New Line Cinema; Directed by Peter Jackson; Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson; based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien)
  • Minority Report (20th Century Fox & DreamWorks SKG; Directed by Steven Spielberg; Screenplay by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen; based on the story by Philip K. Dick)
  • Spider-Man (Columbia Pictures; Directed by Sam Raimi; Screenplay by David Koepp; based on the comic book character created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee)
  • Spirited Away (Studio Ghibli & Walt Disney Pictures; Directed by Hayao Miyazaki; Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki [English version by Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt])