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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Two for Five

The Hugo Award nominations have been announced for this year's Worldcon. The Best Novel list is:

Unsurprisingly, given that Worldcon will be held in the UK, this is a very UK-heavy list. Two of the books (The Algebraist and River of Gods) I haven't seen on this side of the Atlantic, other than some very expensive import editions at last year's Worldcon.

The final list isn't all that similar to the list I sent in, but I don't have any problems with it. Had I been able to find the Banks, I might well have voted for it myself-- I'll certainly try to locate a copy before the voting for the actual award. What I've heard about the McDonald sounds interesting as well, and I'm willing to believe that lots of people like the Mieville, even if I couldn't make it through more than about a third of Perdido Street Station.

For those who care, here are the nominations I sent in:

Of the books I nominated that didn't make the list, I thought Perfect Circle might well have been the best book I read last year, but it was a small-press publication, and more of a World Fantasy Award kind of book anyway. The System of the World was brilliant, but its chances were always sort of slim, given that it's the third in a trilogy of thousand-page novels set three hundred years in the past, and the only unquestionably SFnal element is alchemical in nature. The MacLeod was one of the best straight SF novels (its main competition being Iron Sunrise) I read that was published in the relevant window (though I'm not entirely sure it was actually eligible).

I didn't nominate in any of the other fiction categories, owing to not having read enough short fiction to have an informed opinion. I was 0-for in my other nominations (both Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden for Professional Editing and Fan Writing, and Fafblog for Best Website-- they're clearly doing journalism from another dimension, and if that's not SF, I don't know what is...).

Posted at 8:15 PM | link |
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Interesting. I was wondering when the nomination list was going to be coming out. It's a very UK-centric novel list (not that there's anything wrong with that...). I've read two of the five (Iron Sunrise and JS & MN), and two have never even blipped my radar (the Banks and the McDonald). I'm still gathering strength to tackle my first Mieville, and I doubt it will be Iron Council.
Anyway, either of the two I've read would be a worthy choice, so.

Trent Goulding, 03.27.2005, 1:40pm | permalink

Interesting. I was wondering when the nomination list was going to be coming out. It's a very UK-centric novel list (not that there's anything wrong with that...).

James Nicoll points out that none of the nominatee works are by American authors. I didn't know Clarke's nationality, but I'm not surprised.

I've read two of the five (Iron Sunrise and JS & MN), and two have never even blipped my radar (the Banks and the McDonald).

I probably wouldn't've heard of either were it not for Locus.

Chad Orzel, 03.27.2005, 9:19pm | permalink

The Banks is very average. Nothing that's gowing 2 anoi aneebodee, but nothing great either. He's definitely coasting at this point, not that I blame him.

Ray, 03.28.2005, 7:57am | permalink

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Iron Sunrise

While the preceding posts have contained some griping about Tor inelegantly splitting long books in two, their occasional foible is as nothing compared to Ace's thoroughly mystifying approach to publishing. It seems like every year sees them make another bizarre move that makes me wonder how they stay in business.

Charlie Stross's Iron Sunrise is a good example. Its first printing, according to the inside cover of the copy I bought at Boskone, was in July 2004, a couple of months before Worldcon. It's a sequel to Singularity Sky, which at that time had already been nominated for a Hugo. I recall seeing copies in the store at about that time, and Locus said nice things about it, but as I hadn't read Singularity Sky yet, I decided to hold off.

Come September, there were copies to be had in the Dealer's Room at Noreascon, but not a lot of them. I had finished Singularity Sky by that point, but there were quite a few books ahead of it on the to-buy queue, so again, I held off (I think I picked up The Atrocity Archives instead).

And since then, copies of Iron Sunrise have been as rare as principled Republicans. I haven't seen a copy in any of the local stores since last August, and it's been on my list of books to look for. The crappy Barnes and Noble stores don't have it, the good Borders store soesn't have it, Flights of Fantasy doesn't have it-- nothing. It's a direct sequel to a Hugo-nominated work, it's been called a better novel than the first book, and it's a good candidate to be nominated for a Hugo this year, and there aren't any copies in stores.

It's not like this is an obscure foreign edition of a cult-favorite author from ten years ago. It's a major new book by an up-and-coming author-- I shouldn't have to go to Amazon, or the dealer's room at a con to find a copy. And yet, this seems to happen all the time with Ace-- if you don't buy their latest book immediately, you're out of luck. A month later, it's gone.

Anyway, the book. It is, as I said, a direct (but self-contained) sequel to Singularity Sky, consisting of the further adventures of Rachel Mansour and Martin Springfield. This time, they're called on to investigate the destruction of the planet Moscow, whose star was "iron-bombed," inducing an artificial supernova. It's not clear who caused the bombing, but Moscow's deterrent system, a set of planet-killing missiles, has been dispatched toward an innocent world, and somebody is killing off the surviving diplomats who could send the recall order.

Meanwhile, in a parallel plot thread, a Muscovite refugee girl calling herself "Wednesday" stumbles across a dead body and some important papers while waiting for her station to be evacuated. The information in those papers may provide the key to unraveling the mystery of Moscow's destruction, and somebody is willing to kill to prevent them from being found. Inevitably, these plots intersect, and Rachel, Martin, and Wednesday find themselves battling to stop a diabolical plot that may threaten the weakly godlike Eschaton itself.

On the whole, this is a better novel than Singularity Sky, and I was happy to nominate it for the Hugo. It's much more controlled than the previous book, and the plot benefits greatly from the tighter focus. The space Nazis are maybe a little over the top, but this is space opera, so I'm willing to accept a certain amount of exuberant excess.

There were a couple of moderately annoying notes, though. A couple of plots elements are trying just a little too hard for current-events relevance, and having the intrepid journalist character be called a "warblogger" is so fifteen minutes ago. It's the same sort of cringe-inducing slang intrusion that mars so many "Golden Age" books and stories.

Those are relatively minor quibbles, though. It's a good book, better than the previous one. If you like the New Space Opera, and you see a copy, pick it up. You might not get a second chance.

Posted at 3:04 PM | link | 2 comments

A Succession of Midnighters

Three books in one post, this time out. Well, strictly speaking, it's only two books, with one presented in two volumes.

The one-in-two book is Scott Westerfeld's space opera novel, Succession, published as The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds. I do understand the reason for the split, as it would've been an awfully long single volume (the paperbacks are 341 and 405 pages, respectively), but I wish it had been handled more gracefully. As it is, the first book just stops, right at the point where the action really gets going. The split is abrupt enough that the last two pages of the first book are tacked onto the second as a prologue.

Both volumes are out now in paperback, and I strongly recommend buying both at the same time, if you decide to read this. And it is worth reading-- the prose gets a little purple at times, but that sort of goes with the space opera territory. The universe of the books is an interesting one, though, and the space battles are well-thought-out.

As is obligatory for space opera, the setting is an interstellar empire, the Eighty Worlds, ruled by an immortal Emperor, who controls the secret of immortality, and doles it out to a favored few (the Risen), who form the core of the aristocracy. The Eighty Worlds are in conflict with a cyborg collective called the Rix, who are dedicated to propagating the machine intelligences that the Emperor rejects.

The main action of the book kicks off when the Rix invade a frontier world, and capture the Child Empress, sister of the Emperor, whose long-ago illness drove him to the discovery of his immortality mechanism. She also holds a Secret that could threaten the stability of the Empire, and so must be recovered at all costs.

The ensuing conflict is seen through numerous different viewpoints, but the main ones are Laurent Zai, a badly wounded war hero who commands the rescue mission, and Nara Oxham, a Senator from a political faction that rejects immortality. They're nicely positioned to provide good views of both the space battles and political machinations that make good space opera fun. They're also having a semi-secret affair, so you get the whole power-of-love thing as well.

There are a couple of nice elements in the setting, including the way the government is organized. This is a space opera with FTL communications, but no FTL travel, so the government is organized around the demands of Special Relativity-- Senatorial terms are fifty years, with much of that time spent in hibernation. The full Senate is awakened only for momentous events, which happen quite slowly when travel times from one end of the Empire to another are measured in decades. (This also makes Zai and Oxham's affair possible, as they can synchronize her hibernation with his relativistic flights.)

Against that setting, the plot unfolds in a manner that is both predicatable and surprising. The Rix incursion sets off a chain of events that shake the Risen Empire to its core, of course, but there's enough doubt about where things are headed to keep the reading interesting. The Emperor's Secret is a bit of a disappointment, when it's revealed, but the path to that point is a good deal of fun.

The other book in this entry, Midnighters: The Secret Hour is completely different in tone, being a YA novel. An award-winning YA novel, actually, and the theme for the author's website (at the moment, at least). It took a while for me to read this, both because I had a hard time finding it, and also because Kate (who's usually the one on top of the YA scene here at Chateau Steelypips) had heard vaguely negative things about it.

The "Secret Hour" of the title is a twenty-fifth hour of the day that only occurs in Bixby, Oklahoma. At midnight, everything in bixby stops, for everyone but a small handful of kids who were born exactly at midnight. They remain awake, and active, and acquire special powers in the frozen midnight world. Of course, these Midnighters aren't alone-- dark things move around in the midnight world, and provide the conflict that drives the plot.

It's a good YA novel, and manages to avoid most of the traps of the genre. The main character, Jessica Day, has just moved to Bixby, and while she does face some of the stereotypical new-kid issues, the book doesn't fall into making the easy "popular = evil" assignment. While most of the other Midnighters are social outcasts, the book did not follow the too-predictable path of forcing Jessica to reject the more popular side of the school-- in fact, her more popular friend turns out to be a thoroughly decent person.

Of course, at the same time, some of the heroes are not nice people. They have realistic interpersonal conflicts, and they do some unpleasant things in the service of their cause. This doesn't particularly bug me, though I could understand how it might put some people off.

The Secret Hour is the first book in a series, with the second volume due to be published any day now. I definitely enjoyed the first volume, and will probably pick up the second when I see it.

Posted at 10:31 AM | link | 4 comments

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Wrong About Japan

I saw some reviews of this book when it first came out, and marked it as something to look for. Of course, I then promptly forgot the title and author, until reminded by a helpful comment. I picked it up on the next bookstore run, and read it last weekend while on Long Island for a family party. (I'm jumping it ahead of some other books because I plan to loan it to my father, who's looking for reading-group material.)

Wrong About Japan is an unusual sort of travel book, which is much more about the person doing the traveling than the place being visited. Actually, it's about the people doing the traveling, specifically, Peter Carey and his son Charley, who appear in a quintessential parent-with-teenager photo on the inside back cover. Charley is a quiet kid who becomes a huge fan of Japanese comics and animation, and they take a trip together to Japan to meet some manga and anime artists, and so the elder Carey can attempt to confirm what he thinks are deep insights about Japanese culture.

The real strength of the book is in the interactions between father and son, which are just perfect, as in the scene where they meet their first real otaku:

Yuka Minakawa was an attractive, gym-toned young woman in a yellow dress and fuck-me heels who came clicking so sexily toward us across Kodansha's banklike foyer. Could this be an otaku? Yes, absolutely. Could it be a woman? I didn't think so. I glanced at Charley.

"It's okay," he said. "I get it."

"Are you cool?"

"Dad, we live in the West Village."

As a father-son story, it's terrific.

It wanders into strange territory, though, when it comes to the "deep insights" part, and this is probably what accounts for the mixed reviews. Carey is constantly asking Japanese people to confirm what he feels are deep insights gleaned from careful reading and watching, and at every turn, he's wrong. Hence the title.

It's easy to understand how a reviewer could find this utterly maddening, and, indeed, it makes the book a little hard to evaluate. But on another level, I think it's absolutely brilliant-- it requires a breathtaking degree of arrogance to think that you understand the inner workings of a rich and ancient culture on the basis of watching a few videos and reading a few books, and seeing that punctured is weirdly delightful. You could almost read it as a sort of meta-commentary on the entire idea of a "deep insights" travel book. Or it may just be that I spend too much time with academics.

The negative reviews generally refer to it as "slight," and they've got a point. It's only 158 pages, and a good many of those are given over to graphics of various sorts (somebody got paid well for the design and layout). And it doesn't make any pretense of reaching a conclusion, or delivering any true insights. But, hey, neither did Lost in Translation, and that got nominated for an Oscar.

In the end, this book worked very well for me, in much the same way that Will Ferguson's Hokkaido Highway Blues does (only, you know, a whole lot shorter). It does a fabulous job of highlighting the slightly surreal nature of modern Japan, and conveying the weird combination of disorientation and fascination that I felt as a foreigner in Tokyo. Like Ferguson, Carey shows why it is that many foreigners find Japanese culture so compelling, but he also vividly demonstrates some of the ways in which foreigners are ultimately shut out.

Would it work without that nostalgia value? That's a tougher call. You might want to check it out of the library, but I think it's worth a look. It's a book that raises many more questions than it answers, but they're interesting questions to think about.

Posted at 10:51 PM | link | no comments

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