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In Arlen Andrew Sr.'s Hugo-nominated novella Flow, a young man named Risk from a place where the sun never shines and the sky is always overcast travels far enough to see blue skies - among many other differences from the northern land he is from - and is totally freaked out by the theological implications.

Risk's family are iceberg-sellers. They live near a glacier at the head of a river. When the glacier calves, they send word to the iceberg-deliverers, who take the icebergs downstream to a big city that needs lots of ice - why, I have no idea, since after all, it's built on a freaking river and should have lots of water.

Risk is a curious young man, so one day he decides to go travelling with the iceberg deliverers to the big city in the south. Once there, he learn about many things, like the sun and the moon and women (here called wen) who unlike females of his own people have big breasts, and strange technologies that have been dug up and used by the big city people, like monofiber filaments, and reading with one's eyes instead of one's fingers.

I'm not sure if all of Risk's people are far-sighted, or if the lack of sunlight just makes visual reading difficult, or if it's just cultural, but Risk's people store information by carving intricate patterns on a wooden "totem" of some kind and read it by touch. In the big city, he discovers, people do things differently.

Risk decides to steal some of this cool filament stuff and take it home, but he gets caught and has to run for his life - going further south along the river to a massive waterfall. Lucky he has this coil of filament wrapped around his torso, because he's just that curious about what lies beyond...

But the so-called novella ends there, so we don't get to find out what risks Risk will face on the next step downriver.

Since this is clearly not a novella, but a section of a serialised novel, it should never have been nominated in this category and hence I plan to pretend it doesn't exist when I fill out my ballot.

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Hugo-nominated novella Big Boys Don't Cry by Tom Kratman is in essence an exploration of a concept - a sentient war machine that has a conscience but lacks the autonomy to live by it. Magnolia, MLN90456SS06150212 - "Maggie" to her comrades in arms, both human and machine - is a Ratha, an AI-controlled superheavy tank that carries both massive weaponry and a crew, either human or mechanical. (Rathas are Kratman's version of Keith Laumer's Bolos, first inagined in his 1960 short story "Combat Unit.")

Maggie has had a long term of service in a long and deadly war. At first outfitted with a human complement of fighters, she, and the other Ratha, now carry mechanical drone units - but she misses her "boys":
I used to have a human commander, one who knew me and cared about me. I carried a short platoon of my own infantry, too, once upon a time; twenty-four men in powered battle armor. They were killed, or retired, medically or otherwise, or reached the end of their service. I think the last of them has passed on by now.
Damaged beyond repair in battle, Maggie relives her past as her remaining functional parts are salvaged, back to the harrowing experiences of her early conditioning.

The novella unfolds in sections, alternating between a present-time narrative line, a past-time narrative line, Maggie's memories of past battles, and expository passages framed as excerpts from various texts discussing Rathas and the war. Despite this complexity of viewpoints, Maggie's story, and the worldbuilding needed to understand her, and her actions, come through clearly. I found the battle sequences a bit repetitive, but then I'm not the ideal audience for this style of milsf. What did keep me reading was Maggie and her response to the moral dilemmas of war.

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Evaluating the editorial categories is more difficult than the literary categories - an editor faces a number of practical constraints that can inference the quality if any given work, and may produce a number of works in a given year. In both categories, I've read anything that was part of the Hugo Voters Packet, and if nothing was included, or what was included was insufficient for me to draw any conclusions, I made attempts (without going broke) to acquire samples of work I could use to make a fair determination.


Best Editor, Short Form

Of the four Hugo nominees [1] for best editor, short form, I had already read and enjoyed a 2014 anthology co-edited by two of the nominees, Jennifer Brozek and Bryan Thomas Schmidt - Shattered Shields, which Schmidt submitted for consideration [2]. Another Brozek-edited anthology, "Bless Your Mechanical Heart," was included as part of the Hugo Voters Packet [3].

I've been aware of Mike Resnick as an editor for many years and have read and enjoyed a few of the anthologies he's edited, though not recently. He is currently the editor of the sff magazine Galaxy's Edge, so I acquired a couple issues from 2014 (I was not prepared to buy them all) and browsed through them.

Which left me with only one nominee that I had no previous knowledge of as an editor. Fortunately, an anthology co-edited with Tom Kratman, Riding the Red Horse, was included in the Hugo Voters Packet, which enabled me to come to some conclusions about this nominee's short-form editing skills [4].

There are some editors whose work I actively seek out, some editors whose anthologies I'll gladly buy if the subject matter interests me or there's a story from an author I like, and some editors whose anthologies I don't find all that interesting and am quite unlikely to purchase. Based on the material I looked at for this award category, Brozek, Schmidt and Resnick fall in the second category, and the final nominee in the third.



Best Editor, Long Form

In this category, only Sheila Gilbert and Anne Sowards submitted material for the voters to consider. Sowards offers a list of the novels she edited in 2014, while Gilbert (who, being the Chief Editor of DAW, may well have had more control over rights to distribute) provided the first chapters of all the novels she worked on last year (great marketing ploy, as well as being quite useful).

Being inclined to fairness, I attempted to find at least a representative sample of the works edited by the other nominees. I had no intention of attempting to read all the novels, but I did read reviews of as many of them as I could.

My deliberations are of course informed by the fact that Gilbert, Sowards and Minz have all at one time or another over the years edited books that I've read and enjoyed, and there's a good chance that Weisskopf has, too - I just haven't been able to confirm it. At the same time, I have also considered what the nominees have said, in interviews or statements readily available on the Internet, about their editorial philosophies and thoughts on the state of science fiction and fantasy because as editors, they play a role in shaping the genres. [5]

When all the available data is factored in and sent tumbling around in the vast echoing spaces of my brain, the conclusions I arrive at are that Gilbert comes closest to my ideal of a great editor, and I'd likely pick up and look at a book I knew she'd edited (though not necessarily read or buy it) just because I enjoy so many of the authors she's worked with and books she's edited. Anne Sowards and Jim Minz have solid client lists. Toni Weisskopf lost me with her "us and them" approach to the genre as exemplified in the guest column "The Problem of Engagement" she wrote on Sarah Hoyt's blog last year [6]. And then of course, there's the fifth nominee, whose editorial agenda and perspectives on the genre are so far from my own that I wouldn't vote for him in a thousand millenia of WorldCons.



[1] Edmund R. Schubert withdrew his nomination after the ballots were finalised.

[2] Comments on this anthology can be found at http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/122289.html

[3] Comments on this anthology can be found at http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/159133.html

[4] Comments on this anthology can be found at http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/153351.html

[5] For another (and far more knowledgeable) perspective on the Editing awards, check out Jim C. Hines' thoughts: http://www.jimchines.com/2015/05/hugo-thoughts-editors/

[6] http://accordingtohoyt.com/2014/03/10/the-problem-of-engagement-a-guest-post-by-toni-weisskopf/

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This is an odd group of nominees, several of which appear to have nothing to do with Science fiction or fantasy, and as such hardly seem to qualify for a "Best Related Work category. Which is sad, because there was quite a variety of interesting and unquestionaly relevant works published this year. But this is what we have to work with.


“Why Science is Never Settled”, Tedd Roberts

Published in two parts on the Baen.com website, this nominated related work is in part a fairly straightforward description of the scientific process as performed in the modern scientific community, from the basics of the scientific method through to publication in peer-reviewed journals. The author states clearly that he, as a research scientist himself, agrees with the process. But. There's the other part to this, which I find myself a bit uneasy about in terms of how it's expressed even though I agree with it in both principle and fact.

The author is very concerned with what he fears is a general belief that science is "settled" - and that this is a problem both of the general public who don't understand that science keeps moving, that theories are tested and sometimes re-evaluated, and sometimes replaced with a theory that better explains the facts, and of the scientific community, which he suggests clings to consensus even when new theories are shown to be more effective in explaining phenomena.

Yes, both these things can be shown to happen, but putting too much emphasis on them also opens the door to the kind of thinking that says intelligent design should be accepted as an alternative theory to evolution because it challenges the status quo, or that the near-universal consensus on the human role in climate change means it's an outmoded theory that is only being held to because people fear change. I may be reading too much into Roberts' essay, but there it is.

Above and beyond that, I'm not sure that this is all that strongly related to science fiction or fantasy. Certainly there were a good many works published last year that were more closely related - the second volume of Patterson's biography of Heinlein, Jill Lapore's Secret History of Wonder Woman, critical looks at the fiction of Greg Egan and Robert Heinlein, the second volume of Jonathan Eller's study of Ray Bradbury, and critical essay collections by various people looking at sff, to mention just a few.



The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF”, Ken Burnside

The hardest of hard sf writers and fans insist that sf should always be based on science that works. No transwarp drives to get us quickly to the action, no ansibles to give us faster than light communications, no transporters to mysteriously beam us up. It's not an argument I agree with, although I'm one of those who is comfortable seeing science fiction and fantasy as a continuum, with a great deal of material that one might label science fantasy in the rich, yummy middle. Ken Burnside starts from the premise that hard sf should conform to physics, and proceeds from there:
Ignoring thermodynamics is one of the cardinal sins of science fiction authors writing military SF; the same authors who wouldn't dream of saying that a Colt 1911A fires a .40 caliber bullet will blithely walk into even more galling gaffes through simple ignorance and unquestioned assumptions.
In this essay, Burnside takes on many of the "errors" made by science fiction writers who fail to appreciate the way that the laws of physics would shape travel - and war - in space: "As combat moves from the bosom of the Earth, and into orbital and interplanetary space, it will be limited by increasingly complex logistics and by thermodynamics."

He addresses such topics as the impossibility of stealth in space, the need for plausibility in propulsion systems (you can take off, orbit and land, or you can travel from orbit onwards, but you can't do both in one ship), and the weapons and tactics that would work in real space combat.

There's some interesting technical material here, and it clearly has something that some of the other nominations lack: actual relevance to science fiction or sff fandom.

Discussion of a nominated work of John C. Wright behind the cut. I am including discussion of this work out of respect for the Hugo nomination and voting processes despite this person's history of public hate speech. Feel free to skip. )


Letters from Gardner, Lou Antonelli

The Hugo Voters Packet includes a "preview" of this book, which appears to contain roughly one-third of the material in the published version. My impressions are based on this truncated text.

Letters from Gardner is several things all at once - a folksy autobiography, a home for some early short stories that are, if they were ever published at all, not out of print, and some scattered advice on how to become a writer. Oh, and there's some correspondence with editor Gardner Dozois, hence the title.

Unfortunately, Antonelli is not really notable enough for anyone other than his fans, friends and family to find a memoir all that fascinating, the stories are, as early stories tend to be, somewhat lacking in many areas - not the least of which is female characters who are more than window dressing - the writing advice is pedestrian, and Dozois' notes to a promising novice writer are pretty much what you'd expect any editor to write under such circumstances. And - one of my personal pet peeves, having worked as a proofreader myself - the book is quite sloppily copyedited.


Wisdom from My Internet, Michael Z. Williamson

I am at a complete loss in trying to figure out what on earth this compendium of mostly unfunny one-liners has to do with science fiction or fantasy. Ok, he mentions Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and a few other sff texts that have become part of mainstream culture in North America, but I really don't think that's enough to justify the nomination.

And there's really not much more to say about it.

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First, the confession. I'm not a huge fan of graphic novels. I read comics when I was a kid in the late 50s and early 60s, and since then, I've read and enjoyed a few graphic novels, from The Dark Knight and The Swamp Thing to Sandman and V for Vendetta to Persepolis and Fun Home. So I'm not what you might call a sophisticated reader of this kind of work.

But I know something about narrative, and something about art - and I know what I like. So here are my impressions of the five nominated works in the Best Graphic Story category.


Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery
written by Kurtis J. Weibe, art by Roc Upchurch

Well, holy shit, this was a wild romp. A swordpunk D&D experience featuring four very weird and warped and wonderful women, doing what mercenary adventurers have been doing (at least in fantasy) for generations - getting drunk, stoned and laid, upsetting the mundanes, and being sent off on quests so everyone else can get some peace and quiet.

The characters are well-developed, the action is fast and furious, the artwork is well worth looking at closely, the dialogue is snappy and the plot has twists, turns, and lots of interesting sidestreets that one hopes will be explored in later volumes. I can see myself looking for those later volumes just to see more of these unlikely heroines.



Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal
written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt

I came to this a complete Captain Marvel/Ms. Marvel virgin. Oh, I read a lot of comics back in the day - that day, for me, being the late 50s and early 60s - but while I read many of the D.C. Universe hero comics, i'd really only gotten into a few of the Marvel Universe heroes, like Spiderman and Fantastic Four.

So I knew nothing about Ms. Marvel before reading this fortunately, that did not get in the way of my enjoyment. The writing is good. I laughed out loud before even getting off the first page. The main character, Kamala Khan, is a teenager dealing with classic teenager issues like finding out who you are and where you fit in - but a young Muslim woman being raised in a traditional Pakistani family, she's living in between two worlds, facing racism and stereotyping outside the Muslim community, and patriarchal attitudes within her community. This aspect was handled very well, as was the process of learning to be a superhero after suddenly being granted special powers. I rarely read superhero comics any more, so I have no idea if the complexity of character shown in this work is common these days, but it certainly made reading this a pleasure.



Saga, Volume 3
written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

Saga seems, ultimately, to be the story of Hazel, the narrator - although in the volume she is a newborn and hence not yet a major character. Her parents, Marko and Alana, are fugitives, being pursued by a dazzling variety of entities, including a robot prince with a television for a head, a bounty hunter and his companions - a truth-detecting cat and a recently rescued six-year-old slave girl - a vengeful ex-girlfriend, and two sweet gay journalists.

The reason Marko and Alana (and Hazel, and Marko's mother Klara, and a rather grisly young ghost girl Izabel) are on the run is because their people - the inhabitants of Landfall and those of one of its moons, Weave - been at war for generations and leaders on both sides fear that news of love for each other might cause a loss of morale.

The narrative follows all the parties - both the fugitives and their pursuers - and the situations they encounter. If this volume is characteristic of the series, every significant character has a backstory, and a development arc, and none of them are exactly heroes or villains, just people trying to make the best of the hands they've been dealt.

I enjoyed this, but somehow it just didn't grab me in a way that made me want to see what had gone before, or what is still to come. Maybe if the story was centred on those sweet gay journalists....



Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick
written by Matt Fraction, art by Chip Zdarsky

While it's true that books and sex are two of my favourite things, the combination of the two in this graphic novel did not exactly send me soaring, if you know what I mean. It might have been the balance - way too much sex, not enough books - or it might have been the somewhat repetitive nature of the narrative.

The narrative begins with an adolescent girl named Suzie who discovers that when she has an orgasm, she is able to enter a jewel-toned euphoric state in which time is frozen, which she calls The Quiet. She ends up masturbating a lot, and when she gets older, having sex a lot. She becomes a librarian, but then her library is threatened when they don;t have enough money to pay the mortgage. At a fund-raising party, she meets a guy named Jon who can quote Lolita and brings him home - where she learns that he can enter the same state, only he calls it Cumworld. I prefer her name for it, maybe because I'm a woman.

Next we are treated to a great many pages in which Jon tells Suzie every detail of his sex life to date, interspersed with what seem to be flashforwards to the two of them stopping time and trying to rob a bank, but being foiled by another woman who can function in The Quiet. This is the overly repetitive part I was talking about.

Then, because they didn't see the flashforwards, they start planning to rob the bank Jon works at so the library will get the money needed to pay the mortgage - which is owed to the same bank. So it turns out that there's such a thing as the Sex Police who monitor the behaviour of people who can do what Suzie and Jon do, and this is how our protagonists become sex criminals. Interesting story, but it still needs more books.


The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate
written by Carter Reid

Carter Reid did not submit his nominated work to the Hugo Voters Packet, and I had zero interest in spending twenty dollars on it when I'm not a huge fan of graphic narratives to begin with, so I was not able to evaluate the exact work he was nominated for. I did, however, spend a few hours paging through the strips archived on his website (zombienation.com) and found myself rather underwhelmed, particularly when I compare this to the other nominated works.

When I do read graphic narratives, my preference is for those that are, if not necessarily funny, satirical or insightful, at least telling a good, interesting story. Unfortunately, Zombie Nation appeared to offer none of these things to any significant degree. Some of the one-off strips were mildly amusing, but the story arcs didn't grab me and the artwork was uninspiring.

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The short story is a demanding art form - in just a few thousand words, the writer must develop an interesting theme, weave a satisfying plot, create and flesh out its cast of characters, and in the case of science fiction and fantasy, build a convincing backstory in a believable world. Some writers do this brilliantly, and their works have been recognised by Hugo voters for 60 years. Stories like "A Rose for Ecclesiastes," "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," "Speech Sounds," "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side," "Aye, and Gomorrah," "When It Changed," "A Study in Emerald," "Tideline" and "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" - to mention a few of my favourites - have been nominated in the Short Story Category, and it is against these as much as against other stories written in 2014 that I judge this year's Hugo nominees.


"Totaled," Kary English

Somewhat sentimental but reasonably interesting story about a research scientist who ends up as the subject of her own research.

As we all know, in the future, either the costs of healthcare or the shortage of organs or some other reason will result in people's bodies being harvested for all sorts of things. English's variation on this has protagonist Maggie's brain shipped off to a research lab when she dies in a car accident (presumably the rest of her bits and bobs went for other purposes). But surprise! When her brain is hooked up to the plumbing designs to keep her brain functional for various tests, she's conscious - and in her very own lab. She finds a way to convince her former associate that it's really her in that lump of grey goo... But surprise again! Their boss arranged for her brain to be collected for the express purpose of completing their research before her brain decays.

And what a trouper she is, working as hard as she can to finish the job before she dissolves into grey soup. Some genuinely touching moments, such as when her associate, having wired her for sight and sound, takes her jar out to see her children getting awards at a school assembly.

Job done, she asks for an end as her consciousness begins to blur in her disintegrating brain... But Surprise! She wakes up again, presumably having had her consciousness transferred into the bionet McGuffin she has been developing. The End.

Decent writing, with some nice touches to demonstrate the slow degradation of Maggie's consciousness. I think English has definite potential and I hope she continues to develop her craft.


“Turncoat," Steve Rzasa

In this story, the future looks like a Galaxy-wide Terminator movie, with Skynet on steroids out to obliterate the humans who created it. Seriously. See, humans went into space, and created the Ascendancy. The people left behind on Earth really got into being cyborgs and developing advanced AIs in a big way, and eventually found a way to upload consciousness into machines, abandoning the flesh altogether. They labeled themselves posthumans and call themselves the Integration. (Gosh, these names are cool and evocative, aren't they?) Then they went out into space with the aim of integrating all the Ascendancy humans. War, of course, ensued.

At the point in all this that the story takes place, the Ascendancy is losing and the Integration, which considers its own cyborgs second-class citizens because they are still part flesh, has decided there's no point in offering them integration any more. From now on, no prisoners will be taken, no human soldiers allowed to retreat from battle, no civilians allowed to escape. All will be destroyed.

Our protagonist is Taren X 45 Delta, an AI inhabiting a battleship, crewed by cyborgs. Taren X 45 Delta is very proud of its battletech, and spends a lot of time telling us about its armaments, but it thinks its crew is weak, smelly and gross. When the new battle orders come through, Taren X 45 Delta has no problems following them. However, after its cyborg crew is taken away to improve its efficiency, it discovers that it misses the goofy things tumbling around inside it, and it starts reading ancient philosophy (including the Bible, apparently, since we are favoured with a verse from Isaiah) as an antidote to boredom and (dare we say) loneliness. It begins to question the new battle orders, and to worry about human souls. It also doesn't like its superior officer, 7 Alpha 7, a condescending and snotty uploaded posthuman.

Not surprisingly, considering the title of the story is a huge spoiler, there comes a time when our buddy Taren X 45 Delta decides it's wrong to fire on a convoy of hospital ships carrying children and uploads itself to one of the Ascendancy battleship escorts, attacking and destroying the other Integration vessels and saving the day. It proudly takes the name Benedict and offers its allegiance to the true humans.

The biggest problem with this story is that so much space is spent on infodumps and geeked-out technobabble that there's no room to show us why and how Taren X 45 Delta comes to the conclusion that the Integration is morally wrong and that defection is the right thing for it to do. I read a review (which I unfortunately did not bookmark and can't find now) that compared Taren's defection with the ineffable experience of religious conversion, and I can see how the biblical verse and the mention of souls could support such a reading, but whatever the process, it's not given enough depth to be believable for me. There is the seed of a really interesting story hidden here, but this isn't it.


"On a Spiritual Plain," Lou Antonelli

Our protagonist is a chaplain posted to a Terran base on Ymilas, a planet with an "energetic planetary core," and "a very strong magnetic field." It seems that this unusual configuration results in the creation of ghosts upon the death of a sentient being. The Ymilans have developed a culture in which these electromagnetic phenomena, which possess the personality and memories of the deceased, are integrated into the family and social structure as "Helpful Ancestors" and many remain with their kin for generations. However, eventually even ghosts grow tired of existence, and so there is a ritual pilgrimage that is taken by the ghosts, in the company of Ymilan clerics, to the north pole of the planet, where the magnetic field "dips down to the surface" and the ghosts can dissipate.

Eventually, a Terran dies on Ymilas, and sure enough, he survives as a ghost. Our chaplain consults a Ymilan Cleric, who tells him about the pilgrimage and offers to take him and the ghost of the dead man - Joe MacDonald - to the pole. For protection against the magnetic fields, our protagonist decides to travel in a Segway, which for me creates an image that rather undercuts the spiritual seriousness of the story's themes (though this could just be a refection of my weird sense of humour).

So, they go to the pole along with a bunch of other ghosts and clerics, all the ghosts including Joe (at least his last name wasn't Hill) are dissolved, and the clerics go hone to wait for more electromagnetic revenants who want to give up the ghost.

Antonelli makes it clear that these ghosts are separate from what both the chaplain and the Ymilan clerics think of as the soul - "a spark of an eternal extra-dimensional over-arching consciousness that is imbued in each of them at birth and ultimately returns to a higher dimensional plane when the physical form is no longer viable." And while conditions on Ymilas give proof of the existence of ghosts (which may or may not be able to form on earth, with its lower magnetic fields), there's still no evidence one way or the other for the reality of the soul.

It's an entertaining science fiction ghost story, and an interesting choice to "prove" the existance of ghosts while leaving a belief in the soul up to faith.


"A Single Samurai," Steven Diamond

So, we're in Japan and this monstrously huge kaiju that's been dormant for so long that soil and trees and even villages have grown on its back wakes up and decides to take a stroll, destroying everything in its path. And this samurai who has special swords that contain parts of his soul climbs to the top of the kaiju-mountain and finds a cave there that's probably the thing's ear or something, because when he goes inside he finds a big green mass that seems to be the critter's brain. So he stabs the brain with his katana, but all that does is create some kind of psychic connection between the samurai and the kaiju. Oops. Initiate Plan B. Remembering how his father committed seppuku in a noble cause, he pulls out his wakizashi and guts himself, which kills the kaiju too because magical sword bonding.

The story was written for publication in an anthology called The Big Baen Book of Monsters, and I think Diamond did manage to write one of the biggest monsters in the book, which is sort of cool if you're a size queen. So that's one achievement of a sort. Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by the story. The narrator keeps telling us how awful he feels that the kaiju is killing his countrymen and devastating the countryside, but somehow I just didn't feel it. He also keeps telling us what a struggle it is to climb the spine of this mountain-sized monster, but I didn't feel that, either. Nor did I feel from the description of what the samurai was experiencing that he was actually riding on a mountain-sized monster. To be honest, I didn't even get much of a sense that he was a real samurai rather that a stereotype, or that he was in Japan.

The writing was flat, and I simply did not engage with the character or his situation. A neat idea, but a bland execution.

Discussion of a nominated work of John C. Wright behind the cut. I am including discussion of this work out of respect for the Hugo nomination and voting processes despite this person's history of public hate speech. Feel free to skip. )
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Riding the Red Horse is an anthology of short fiction and essays with military themes. I received a copy of this anthology in epub format as part of the Hugo Voters Packet. Several of the contributors to the book have received Hugo nominations either for the specific works published here or for their overall body of work, in the case of nominees for the Campbell Award, and one of the editors is nominated in both Best Editor categories. As a supporting member of this year's WorldCon, I read the anthology in order to form an opinion of the nominated persons and works associated with this anthology.

Discussion of work by Vox Day behind the cut. I am including discussion of this work out of respect for the Hugo nomination and voting processes despite this person's history of public hate speech. Feel free to skip. )

I like good milsf, and that is what would normally draw me to investigate such an anthology. The essays cover a wide range of military topics, and not all of these were of interest to me; so I skimmed through a fair number of the essays and focused on the fiction - some of which seemed to be only half of what was promised, being military, but not science fictional.

The opening work is Eric S. Raymond's short narrative piece "Sucker Punch," which describes an invasion of Taiwan by the People's Republic of China and its outcome. It's a thoughtful consideration of the use of untraditional offensive and defensive weapons in an imaginary near-future military operation, but it's not actually a story. Rather, it's a hybrid form, partly a report on a hypothetical military action and partly an imagined dialogue on the consequences of such an action, with a dramatic fragment sandwiched between the two. It is concisely and relatively well written, without too much unnecessary infodumping, and even a non-miltech sort like myself could figure out exactly what was being illustrated. But it's much more of a thought experiment than a story - science to be sure, but not science fiction.

Chris Kennedy's "Thieves in the Night" is a short modern-day action piece about American forces raiding the stronghold of African 'terrorists,' killing as many as possible and 'taking back' women being held and abused as slaves. While a laudable goal to be sure, the suggestion that American military intervention is the only way to end the issues of factional warfare, slavery, corruption, and other problems facing Africa today seems somewhat short-sighted. The writing was flat, the characters one-dimensional, and the action oddly uninspiring. Also, there were no sciencefictional elements that I could discern.

Discussion of a work by Vox Day behind the cut. Feel free to skip. )

Jerry Pournelle's classic CoDominium story "His Truth Goes Matching On" is one of the better pieces of fiction writing in the collection, and that's no surprise given Pournelle's track record. Loosely based on the Spanish Civil War (but with considerable leeway taken with the actual political situation) the story details the growing disillusionment of a young West Point graduate dealing with an untrained volunteer army fighting a brutal war they don't understand, plagued by corrupt political officers, and hampered by a lack of supplies and support.

Christopher Nuttal's "A Piece of Cake" was enjoyable in most respects - believable characters, interesting situation, decently written, although it did do one thing I hate, which is break off in the middle of a planning discussion and then proceed after the plan is discussed and finalised. This usually strikes me as a lazy way to build suspense.

Rolf Nelson's "Shakedown Cruise" is set in the same universe as his The Stars Come Back series of novels; unfortunately, the author didn't bother trying to put in enough background for the story to stand alone. Thus I was completely in the dark as to motivations and implications but the plot was fairly simple: the captain and crew of a military spaceship with a controversial AI are on a training/shakedown mission when they encounter an unexpected mine field, suspect a trap, take cover and observe for a while, and then capture or disable a bunch of other space vessels. There was a great deal of technical and battle description, and a disruptive tendency to switch tenses.

Discussion of work by Vox Day behind the cut. Feel free to skip. )

Giuseppe Filotto's "Red Space" posits a present-day Earth controlled by elites, possibly living off-planet, who manipulate the world's governments into maintaining a state of political and military unrest. One man, Yuri Ivanovitch, who knows the truth, sets out to avenge his nephew's death - and makes sure that others will know enough to follow him. A tightly crafted story with a sympathetic protagonist.

"Galzar's Hall" by John F. Carr and Wolfgang Diehr is an alternate history story written in the universe of the late and well-loved H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen novels, but it's self-contained, stand-alone piece. Simple plot - one group of soldiers is hiding out in the marsh, an opposing group is coming in for an attack. The first group wants to divert the second group without bloodshed. While The set-up scene ends with the words "We have what we need, but we will have to work quickly. First….” which would normally put me off, the story moves very quickly into the execution of the plan, and the encounter ends well. Fun piece to read.

Thomas Mays' "Within This Horizon" posits a war between Western and Chinese forces which has been carried out in space but not planetside - until Chinese automated underwater 'robots' strike to gain control of the Strait of Malacca. The narrator, a former officer in the space navy, reassigned to the terrestrial navy after surviving the destruction of his space vessel, finds a way to use his space experience to solve a key tactical problem in this new arena, despite the defeatism of his captain. Nicely written, solid characterisation.

I have some very mixed feelings about Benjamin Cheah's "War Crimes." On the one hand, it's a story about soldiers tasked with keeping the peace in a combat zone and failing because it's impossible to tell the combatants from the non-combatants. On the other, it's an attempt to discredit the "collateral murder" video released by Wikileaks showing American helicopters killing journalists, unarmed civilians, and people who may or may not have been armed combatants, by the curious means of telling a story about a fictional incident with a vastly different political context in which there is far more ambiguity about the intent and actions of the people involved. So.... As a story, it's not bad at all, despite the underlying snark, but as the counter-propaganda it's intended to be, it really doesn't work for me.

Brad R. Torgerson's "The General's Guard"is a decent enough fantasy story about building morale. The General in question decides to create his personal guard by taking the best soldier and the worst soldier from every regional division in his armies. By making them responsible to and for each other, he makes the weak push themselves to be stronger and makes the strong help the weak to improve themselves. I felt the dialogue was a bit stilted in that 'I'm writing epic fantasy here' kind of way, but otherwise it was a charming piece.

Tedd Roberts "They Also Serve" is an interesting piece about a surgeon in war time doing research on nanobot-based treatments. His research has progressed to the point where it's feasible to create prophylactic nanobots - intended to be injected into healthy soldiers where they remain dormant until the soldier has a medical problem, in which event the nanobots go to work right away - before the soldier has left the battlefield, even before he's located by medics. The problem is that the surgeon has grave concerns about whether it's right to keep patching soldiers up to be sent out to war again. I enjoyed the psychological slant, but was a bit annoyed when the final plot twist handwaved away the ethical concerns that until that point had been driving the protagonist to the point of breakdown.

In Steve Rzasa's "Turncoat" the future looks like a Galaxy-wide Terminator movie, with Skynet on steroids out to obliterate the humans who created it. Our protagonist is Taren X 45 Delta, an AI inhabiting a battleship, crewed by cyborgs but after its crew is taken away to improve its efficiency, it starts reading ancient philosophy as an antidote to boredom and (dare we say) loneliness. It begins to to worry about human souls. In the end, Taren X 45 Delta decides it's wrong to fire on a convoy of hospital ships carrying children and uploads itself to one of the Ascendancy battleship escorts, and offers its allegiance to the true humans. The biggest problem with this story is that so much space is spent on infodumps and geeked-out technobabble that there's no room to show us why and how Taren X 45 Delta comes to this decision. There is the seed of a really interesting story hidden here, but this isn't it.

So there you have it. An uneven selection of short military fiction, much of it overly packed with turgid descriptions of weaponry and military actions, and a sometimes interesting, sometimes tedious collection of essays by military theorists and historians (I have no knowledge as to whether these authors are generally considered to be authorities in their fields, or if they are self-appointed experts). There were some decent stories here - I quite enjoyed Giuseppe Filotto's "Red Space," "Galzar's Hall" by John F. Carr and Wolfgang Diehr, and Tedd Roberts "They Also Serve" - and some stories with serious problems.

As I mentioned above, I enjoy good military sff - the kind that's more than a cloud of technobabble and battle-porn surrounding a cardboard Mary Sue or Marty Stu - but I won't be looking for a milsff fix in the planned sequels to this anthology.

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Only three of the nominees for the Campbell Award (Not a Hugo) submitted pieces to the Hugo Voters Packet - Jason Cordova, Wesley Chu, and Kary English. I've read those and made my comments in separate posts.

Rolf Nelson and Eric S. Raymond did not submit any pieces, but as there are samples of their writing in the Castalia House anthology Riding the Red Horse, submitted by the publisher in support of nominations of other pieces in the anthology, I read those in order to gain some sense of Nelson and Raymond's work. I was not inspired by what was available to go searching for any more samples of either author's work.

Eric S. Raymond's first (and and apparently only) foray into writing fiction is the short narrative piece "Sucker Punch," which describes an invasion of Taiwan by the People's Republic of China and its outcome. It's a thoughtful narrative piece about the use of offensive and defensive weapons in an imaginary near-future military operation, but it's not actually a story. The first third is reportage, not storytelling - at such and such a time, these forces launched, or landed, or engaged, or whatever. The remainder of the narrative is told from the perspective of the commander of an American aircraft carrier group near Taiwan as he evaluates the information, discusses his sense that there is something off in the invasionary force with some of his officers, receives his orders and watches his planes shot down by an unknown weapon. One of his officers figures out what's going on, the planes are recalled, And they watch by satellite as Taiwan initiates its own unexpected defense. After it's all over, the Americans discuss how this military action has just changed warfare forever.

It's concise and relatively well written, without a too much unnecessary infodumping, and even a non-miltech sort like myself could figure out exactly what was being illustrated. But it's much more of a thought experiment than a story - science to be sure, but not science fiction. I doubt that Heinlein would have called it a story, though Campbell might have published it.



Rolf Nelson's Shakedown Cruise is set in the same universe as his The Stars Come Back series of novels; in fact, it is set at a specific point in the series. This was somewhat of a problem for me, as the author appears to have assumed that his readers have read the series, and thus he doesn't bother trying to put in enough background for the story to stand alone. A number of political and military factions were mentioned but not explained, leaving me completely in the dark as to the motivations and implications of much that happened in the story.

The story was long on technical and battle description and short on character development. As best as I could tell, the plot went something like this: the captain and crew of a military spaceship with a controversial AI are on a training/shakedown mission when they encounter an unexpected mine field, suspect a trap, take cover and observe for a while, and then capture or disable a bunch of other space vessels. I have no idea why anyone did anything.

The language was awkward at times. I was also regularly thrown out of the story by frequent changes of tense from past to present and back again. While action was more likely to be described in present tense and dialogue more likely to be past tense, this was not consistent and I could not determine any stylistic reasons for the switches.

I was not engaged or impressed.

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Wesley Chu's Tao trilogy has been receiving a fair amount of critical attention recently, but I had not gotten around to reading the first volume - but when the Hugo voters packet arrived, the submission for Campbell nominee Chu was the second volume in the series. So naturally I had to read the first volume before jumping into the second.

Chu's The Lives of Tao - a combination secret history/spythriller/aliens among us conspiracy tale - is quite an impressive first novel. I was hooked on it from the first chapter - the fast-paced action combined with an intriguing situation and some very good multi-purposed dialogue pulled me into the story, got me interested in the characters and how they came to be where they were, and gave me enough information concerning the series's long and complex backstory so that I didn't feel lost. The material was handled with such confidence that I trusted the author enough to jump in and see where the story was going.

And it is quite a story too. The backstory (much of which we learn in the form of reminiscences and dialogue between characters) starts millions of years ago, with a damaged space ship carrying hundreds of thousands of alien beings - Quasings, whose natural form at Earth-like air pressure is an organic fog - exploded in Earth's atmosphere while trying to make an emergency landing. Many died. Those who survived were scattered around the globe, wherever the fragments of the ship came to ground. Unable to survive in the open, their only option was to merge their bodies with those of the native life forms, using their hosts' nervous systems to maintain their own lives. For millions of years these essentially immortal beings migrated from host to host, only able to change hosts when the current host died. Scattered around the globe, living in bodies without enough brain development to allow them to make plans, they stagnated as a species - until finally some of them migrated into the bodies of some rapidly evolving simians and began a quest to find other survivors of the crash, and then to encourage the smartest of the simians to create a technological civilization capable of building a ship to take them home.

In this universe, the Quasings have shaped human society since its very beginnings. Many of the famous - and pivotal if less well-known - leaders, politicians, warriors, artists and thinkers of human history have been hosts for Quasings. The basic relationship is not one of possession and dominance - Quasings have very limited abilities to directly influence their hosts' thoughts or actions, although they can "take over" when their hosts are asleep. Rather, Quasings propose, advise, negotiate, or use psychological manipulation to influence their hosts. Over time, Quasings have experimented with human societies, trying to find the best way to promote technological progress by persuading their hosts to take various actions. Slowly two broad camps formed - one (the more numerous faction) believing that humans progress the most in conflict situations, and the other holding that humans progress best in co-operative situations (I found myself thinking for a few moments of Babylon 5's Shadows and Vorlons). About 500 years in the past, the disagreements between these two camps became violent, and since then, the two camps, Genjix and Prophus, have been in a state of conflict, each trying to gain control over human society through various means while struggling to destroy the influence of the other group and neutralise its members. One other significant difference between the two groups is that the Genjix see humans as inferior vessels to be used as required, and they control their human hosts and supporters through a rigid cult-like organisational structure. The Prophus see their hosts and associates as partners.

The first novel opens with a mission. Edward Blair and his Prophus symbiote Tao are part of a team infiltrating a Genjix facility to obtain computer files relating to a secret project of the Genjix. The mission is an operational success, but Edward and Tao are trapped behind enemy lines and rather than risk the destruction of both, Edward chooses to suicide so that Tao has a chance to find another host and survive.

With only a few moments to locate a host before Earth's conditions destroy it (Quasings are genderless and do not appear to reproduce, at least not away from their home planet), Tao is forced to select an unwilling, unprepared, and highly unsuitable host, Roen Tan. Thus an immortal being who carries the memories of thousands of the best and brightest of humans, and whose special expertise within the Prophus organisation lies in infiltration and sabotagr, finds himself joined until death with an insecure, overweight, nerdly slacker who has a dead-end IT job in a cube farm. The Lives of Tao tells the story of how Tao and Roen become an effective working unit and Roen.

Chu's writing is strong and confident, the story is intriguing and keeps the reader invested. There are lots of references to science fiction classics and tropes, and to historical people and events, both of which delighted me. The main characters are well-developed and distinctive. Unfortunately, a few of the supporting characters are somewhat derivative (notably the ancient martial arts teacher). My initial impression of the book's gender politics was not wholly favourable. While the few female characters are intelligent and competent women, Roen's romantic interest Jill seemed to have no other independent function within the story, and we see both Jill and the kickass fighter Sonya (host of Tao's old friend Baji) who trains Roen on hand-to-hand combat and weapons, through a pervasive male gaze. At the time, I wondered if this was deliberate, a function of seeing them through Roen's perceptions, because he is the kind of nerdboy who would have that kind of gaze. Reading of the second novel confirmed my thoughts on that score. Overall, The Lives of Tao is an ambitious first novel, well executed.

The second book in the trilogy, The Deaths of Tao, totally avoids the dreaded sophomore slump. In fact, it may be better than the first book. The tone is very different, the story much more complex, and the stakes are higher as we move from a relatively straightforward story about a geek who learns to be a spy to a tale of international intrigue and political machinations on multiple levels, seasoned with intelligence missions, assassinations and eventually, set battle pieces.

In The Deaths of Tao, the story is told from multiple perspectives. Roen and Tao share the focus with a high-ranking Genjix pairing, and with Jill, who is now a Quasing host and plays a pivotal role in the events of the book.

The time is about five years after the end of the first book, and there have been significant changes, both in the lives of Roen and Tao, and in the conflict between Genjix and Prophus. In the hiatus between novels, Roen and Jill have married, had a child, and are now separated. Jill has devoted herself to the Prophus cause, using her (previously referred to but unseen) intellect, negotiating skills and legal prowess in the political branch of Prophus' operations. Roen and Tao have gone rogue, frustrated by what Tao sees as misguided tactics on the part of the Prophus. The third narrative voice is that of Enzo, the product of a breeding and training program designed to create superhuman hosts for the Genji, and the new host of a highly ranked Genjix named Zoras.

The Genjix are winning the battle for control of humanity, and because we the readers have the benefit of a Genjix POV, we know what the Prophus do not - that the Genjix are no longer focused on going home, but rather on Quasiforming Earth, thus creating conditions under which they can live outside hosts and reproduce. The Prophus have been attempting to block Genjix research through manipulation of international trade - we watch as Jill, now an aide to a powerful US Senator, negotiates backroom deals on trade legislation - but their efforts are hampered by lack of intel on what the Genjix really want and how they are routing supplies through world trade channels. Roen and Tao, acting on their own, have come closer to an understanding of what the Genjix are planning, but isolated and lacking the ability to do anything about it.

Then a Prophus mission gone sour pulls Roen and Tao back into the Prophus fold, and into a dangerous mission that could prove what Roen and Tao have suspected for some time about Genjix objectives.

The darker tone and broader scope of this novel provides room to form a more critical opinion of both sides of the Quasing conflict. The tone of the first book, the fact that the viewpoint characters are a naive young man and a member of the Prophus, and the conventions of the apprentice spy novel (i.e. +, that there are good guys and bad guys, and the hero always ends up with the good guys), tended to mask the ambiguity of the Prophus and accentuate the differences between the two camps. Now, even though one camp is clearly intending to take the earth away from humans, leaving them nothing, and the other camp still hopes to go home and leave humans to their own destiny, the similarities between them and the weight of a long history of manipulation by all Quasings are clearer. After all, the division is a relatively recent one, and regardless of differences in how the Quasings view and treat their hosts and humans in general, the naked truth is that for millennia, the Quasings have been manipulating humans and depriving them of their chance to develop "naturally." At one point, in one of Tao's accounts of earlier hosts and their achievements, Chu weaves into that account the final phrase from the iconic death speech of Roy Batty in the film Blade Runner. Which caused me to think about parallels between replicants in the film - shaped, limited, used and then set aside by their human creators -and humans in this series - also in many ways shaped, limited, used and set aside by the Quasings a trend that continues even among the Prophus. What are we to think of the fact that in The Deaths of Tao, the two key protagonists on the Prophus side - Roen and Jill - had no choice in becoming hosts, and that both became hosts because humans were sacrificed to save the Quasing inhabiting them, whereas the obnoxious and arrogant Enzo, host to the Genjix Quasing Zoras, chose to be a host, and went willingly to the joining (granted, he had been conditioned from childhood to want it, but he was nonetheless a willing participant). Such skillfully developed undertones prepare us for the unexpected and game-changing climax of the novel.

I was delighted to see that my suspicions about the source of male gaze in the first novel appear to have been correct. The women in this novel - even the minor characters - are all integral to the plot and have their own character arcs. And the novel passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. In fact, at certain points Chu demonstrates a sophistication in the portrayal of gender in this novel that is reminiscent of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch novels and Andrea Hairston's Mindscape, highlighting the fact that as readers we tend to make assumptions of gender based on cultural defaults.

I'm looking forward to devouring the final book of the trilogy; and I thank the gods and goddesses that it's already in print so I don't have to wait.

Obviously, I am very much impressed by these two novels. Chu easily passes my standard as a worthy candidate for the Campbell.

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In addition to her Hugo-nominated short story "Totaled," English submitted two short works for the Hugo Voters Packet in support of her Campbell nomination.

"Departure Gate 34B" is a short, bittersweet story about love, memory and letting go. In a story told through dialogue, a married couple meet in an airport lounge and slowly reveal the truth about a catastrophic event that prevented their planned vacation. There's some skill here, and some surprise, and for a very short story it packs an emotional punch.

"Totaled," the story which received a Hugo Nomination, is a somewhat sentimental but reasonably interesting story about a research scientist who ends up as the subject of her own research. As we all know, in the future, either the costs of healthcare or the shortage of organs or some other reason will result in people's bodies being harvested for all sorts of things. English's variation on this has protagonist Maggie's brain shipped off to a research lab when she dies in a car accident. When her brain is hooked up to the plumbing designed to keep her brain functional for various tests, she finds herself conscious - and in her very own lab. She finds a way to convince her former associate that it's really her in that lump of grey goo. In a scene that feels both awkward and cliched, we learn that their boss arranged for her brain to be collected for the express purpose of completing their research before her brain decays. And what a trouper she is, working as hard as she can to finish the job before she dissolves into grey soup. Some genuinely touching moments, such as when her associate, having wired her for sight and sound, takes her jar out to see her children getting awards at a school assembly. Job done, she asks for an end as her consciousness begins to blur in her disintegrating brain - a process that was nicely portrayed in the text. But after the coup de grace, she wakes up again, presumably having had her consciousness transferred into the bionet McGuffin she has been developing. The end.

"Flight of the Kikayon," the third of English's submissions, is like the other two in that it features as a protagonist a woman (of unmarked race) whose identity is strongly (though not exclusively in one case) based on being a wife and mother. One might have wished to see more variety.

This is the most complex of the stories in terms of plot and number of significant characters. In this story, the protagonist (Lydia) is married to an abusive husband (Donnie) and has one child, a daughter who is primarily cared for by one of the genetically engineered humanoid servants developed by the husband's company (Cara, who looks exactly like Lydia and was developed from her DNA). The protagonist sees her chance to escape when her husband insists that the family take a "universe cruise" and leave the nanny behind. Lydia smuggles Cara aboard the starliner and makes plans for them to swap identities, at which point Lydia plans to vanish. But Donnie's insistence on a daytrip to a proscribed planet changes everything. Some unexpected plot twists and an open-ended conclusion helped to make this an interesting piece.

English has some definite writing chops, but I felt that there wasn't a lot of variety in the pieces offered, which weakens my overall assessment of her as a Campbell nominee. I have already noted the similarities in protagonist choice. There are also structural similarities in the pieces, and I was irked in that I wanted to use the word "bittersweet" in describing all three stories. I think English has definite potential and I hope she continues to develop her craft.

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Murder World: Kaiju Dawn by Jason Cordova and Eric S. Brown, submitted as part of the Hugo Voters' Packet, is one of several books that Campbell nominee Cordova has co-written with Eric Brown. Of course, it's difficult to know how much of the book is due to Cordova's input, but at least it's something to go on.

It's kind of a fun concept - mercenaries are hired to retrieve something from a military ship that crashed on a presumably uninhabited planet, only to crash themselves and discover the planet is full of kaiju - monsters from Japanese sf films. It's chock full of wisecracking fighters - I particularly liked the lethally kickass woman, as you would expect) and full-tilt action scenes and almost everyone dies before the last survivors make it off the planet (with some unexpected help). The characters and situations are walking cliches, the plot is rather formulaic, the craft is adequate to tell a story of this type, but that's about it. It's what I call a guilty pleasure read - there's nothing particularly remarkable about it, but it hits a few of my favourite plot buttons and it's a quick and easy read when you're in the mood for something that does not challenge in the slightest.

Cordova also submitted a shorter and solo piece called "Hill 142." Set in war-torn Europe (there's reference to The Great War) it features another "high concept" - Germans on giant spiders, referred to in the story as the "dreaded German Höllenspinne Division." Fortunately, the allies have giant attack lions on their side. Unfortunately, there are more spiders than lions, but everyone on the right side is courageous and dies nobly after completing their mission.Also unfortunately, the thing that struck me the most was how on earth the human protagonist was able to dismount from his lion twice without an intervening remount. Must have been the heat of battle.

Basing my assessment on these two submissions, Cordova has a future as an SF writer to be sure, and I enjoyed them both, but to me, his work does not rise to the level of previous Campbell winners such as Spider Robinson, C. J. Cherryh, Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, Cory Doctorow, Elizabeth Bear, Jo Walton, and others.
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Sad to say, none of the novelettes nominated for a Hugo impressed me. While there was some competent writing on display, particularly in the two novelettes that actually were self-contained works rather than excerpts from novels or tightly linked serials, nothing here struck me as worthy of the nomination.


The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt

A man's lover rejects him. His world - and everyone else's - turns upside down. Literally. The earth's gravity well is nullified by some strange and unexplained means and everything on the surface - though not everything beneath the surface, be it the surface of the earth or the surface of water bodies on the earth - is drawn into the sky, and beyond. This is some mighty manpain we are talking about.

In the midst of this extreme upheaval of life as we know it, the protagonist decides the most important thing in the world is returning his ex's goldfish to her - only to find that despite this show of devotion, she still doesn't want him any more. And that she is more concerned over the death of her new lover and her own injuries than his mighty manpain.

This story struck me as an extended psychological metaphor - a most science fictional metaphor, to be sure, and with a good eye for the details and consequences of its extreme literalisation. But the underlying nastiness of the narrative, both in the way that the protagonist's "rival" is killed and his ex-lover injured when gravity reverses, and in the way that he lets one woman die and abandons a child to the mercy of others, undercuts any appreciation I might have for the cleverness of the story's main conceit.




“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart

Aliens with better tech invade a human colony and turn the free men of earth into second-class workers. One man thinks that the aliens are treating the humans too well - apparently because human funeral rituals (which no longer include burial) convinced them that humans were at least somewhat sapient. How to revive the fighting spirit of enslaved humans? Make the aliens treat them worse. How to do this? Horrify the aliens - who our hero has deduced are claustrophobic - by reverting to a form of burial they think of as barbaric - interment. Fortunately, our hero is dying of cancer, so he gets his friends to bury him after he dies. This does indeed freak out the aliens, with the promise of war to come. Humans will be forced from their slavish apathy and defend their imperialist honour the way they should have all along.

Not only is the plot silly, but the characterisation is rather slim and the writing not what I'd call stellar. When I think of some of the other short fiction of this length published last year, this just doesn't make the grade.


“Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner

In Chapter One, we meant a guy named Lyle, sent to diagnose and fix a problem with an automated asteroid miner - but the mission is interrupted by a jab in the back and an unseen voice. Then we have the first of several excerpts from the Internetopedia concerning an alien species commonly known as Snakes who apparently tried to invade Earth's solar system and failed. Survivors of that invasion live in a partially self-governing colony (which was originally an internment camp) on one of the moons of Uranus. Action switches to the colony, where Carl, a human security official, is awaiting the arrival of Corrine, a reporter. We learn in an interview with Glithwah, the leader of the Snakes, that the colony has been plagued by industrial accidents and losses of ships. Corrine notes that humans have been experiencing mysterious losses too (I guess that's what happened to poor Lyle from Chapter One). Carl debriefs an agent named Danica and shares his belief that the Snakes are up to something sneaky, and he compares whatever is happening to the Snake strategy game b'tok, which he has been trying to learn. Suddenly Carl and Corrine are talking about a suspected conspiracy that has manipulated the development of 11 sentient species over possibly billions of years. Then surprise! We learn that the Snakes are secretly putting together an army of robots. Carl and Glithwah play b'tok. Corinne plans to visit an interstellar ship, but there's an accident and her access is revoked. She goes anyway. Suddenly, Carl is planting a bug in the studio of a reclusive artist named Banak while Danica watches him picking up a parcel. Banak is spooked by Snake security and demonstrates that he was a spy for somebody by blowing up himself, the Snake security people and Danica. A trap in his quarters almost blows up Carl. After recovering, Carl is sent home for violating Banak's privacy. He can't contact Corrine, and worries because her pilot had mentioned knowing Banak. There is a news story - his handler (and Corinne's) is dead in an accident. Glithwah prepares to capture the interstellar ship. The End.

Obviously this is not a self-contained story, so what it's doing in this category is a mystery to me. But I guess is a multi-volume series can be nominated for Best Novel, an excerpt from a novel can be nominated for Best Novelette. Judged on its own merits, however, I can't possibly say that a short piece of fiction that stops arbitrarily with at least three major plotlines unresolved is in any way satisfying.



“The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn

This appears to be a lost colony story - or series of stories, to be more accurate. In a previous installment, Teodorq and Sammi, both adventuring away from their people, met and discovered a long-abandoned shuttle with a still-functioning AI. The AI saved them from members of yet a third group who were hunting Teodorq to take revenge for the death of one of their people, and enlisted them in a search for surviving settlements of the original colonists. In this story, Teodorq, Sammi, and Kal - the leader of the third group and brother of the man Teodorq killed - have been captured by a fourth group of people, the iron men, whose technological level seems to be somewhat superior to that of Teodorq, Sammi and Kal's peoples. We learn that the iron men worship spaceship relics - some kind of PDA and the door to a men's lavatory. The leader of the iron men has Teodorq, Sammi and Kal trained as fighters and scouts, intending to send them out against yet another group, the green people. Teodorq and Kal start a fight to the death, but it ends in a tie and the iron men leader orders them not to do it again. The End.

In addition to being yet another incomplete story, nothing much happened here to draw my interest so that I would read further installments. And the dialogue, oh my bleeding eyes. In order to distinguish languages or cultures, the author uses sayings, idioms and slang from 20th century English dialects, broken pidgin, occasional epic storytelling prose styling, gangsta speech, faux 17th century yeoman English with bits that might be derived from Russian, and other treats.

Just to offer some examples (and inconsistencies), Sammi sometimes sounds like Tonto, but on other occasions seems quite capable of creating complex sentences.
Sammi grunted. “Jamly Ghost say much kenning lost since big-f ight-in-sky. Stupid plainsmen forget most; hillmen not so much. Maybe ironmen forget less.” He pursed his lips. “We stay in trees, iron hats no see us. Sneak past stone house, then ride like hell.”

"Sammi never cease to marvel at swiftness of plainsman mind.”
Teodorq's language on the other hand is quite varied and seems to draw on multiple sources - but oddly enough, when it comes to 20th century English idiom, there has been no drift in however many years it has been since the colony was lost.
“Sweet breath of Awāchi!” swore Teodorq. “Do those metal hats of theirs cook their brains? Where else could we come from? Anyone and his great aunt Matilda not wishful of either cliff-climbing or being gator-bait has to come past this here spot, and that there’s a fact. If their heads weren’t iron clean through they’d want to know what I seen in the kraals we passed through. That spy stuff works both ways and . . .”

“Hey, babe, it’s bad cess to the Timberlake folk west of the stony river that Bowman’s gonna muscle in on ’em, but it ain’t no skin off my nose.”

Teodorq ignored the jibe. “It matters not how a man may come to a place. What matters is how he leaves it. The shuttle was a house within a hill. It had come to grief so long ago that the soil and grass grew thick on its back and sides and only through a narrow cleft could a brave man gain access.” He paused and added, “Being the braver man, I went first inside.”
Aside from the dialogue, the narrative passages were often overblown in what seemed to be an attempt at a kind of archaic high fantasy figurative prose - which often clashed badly with the dialogue.
Round about the stronghold huddled scores of lesser dwellings, cattle and sheep pens, yapping dogs, curling smoke from under which issued irregular clangs. Smells of dung and compost floated with the burnt tang of the smoke. Beyond the settlement a waterfall plummeted from the very lip of the plateau, and from that direction issued a steady thump, as if a frost giant strode the earth.
I will acknowledge that the characters were, for the most part, reasonably well-drawn and clearly differentiated. In a better-written work that actually had a full plot with a climax and an ending, I might even want to know more about them. But that is not the case in this work, sad to say.


“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra

As the title says, this is definitely a story in the tradition of the Golden Age pulps. Plot-driven, a bit on the breezy side, lots of tech (not all of it fully justifiable), and the first person POV allows the author to do a fair bit of infodumping without excessively boring the reader.

The plot is a standard one. Three space cadets get into a bar fight and are punished by being sent on a mission to dismantle a planetary exploration camp - hard work, low threat. The exploration team is leaving because their mission has failed - they identified but failed to make any contact with the sentient species found on the planet, a species of vaguely cow-like beings wearing transmitter bracelets on their tentacles.

Naturally, the smartass cadet who started the bar fight has to raise the stakes by asking to see the mission reports just in case he can salvage the mission. He's told he can have them - but if he fails to make that breakthrough, all three cadets will be cashiered out. Smartass spends the trip incommunicado while the narrator, also given access to the records, bravely infodumps it all for the reader.

On arrival, the three cadets and their guide head out to meet some of the natives - where Smartass demonstrates that the real sapients are not the cows, but the tentacles, which are a separate life form. This results in the tentacles all diving underground and causing a massive collapse that kills the guide and severely injures Smartass and cadet number three, leaving the narrator to find a way to communicate with the tentacles so she can get help for her injured mates.

Fortunately, she does this and all three cadets are awarded for saving the original mission. The dead guide is never mentioned, which rather undercut the breezy tone during the story's resolution. But at least this story was competently told, with a consistent style, and it had a self-contained plot with an actual end. Nothing particularly special, outside of a flash of nostalgia for the gee-whiz space stories of my youth, but certainly readable.

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I tried. I really, really tried. But I just could not get into Kevin Anderson's The Dark Between the Stars.

Let me make this very clear. I enjoy a good space opera as much as the next sf fan. I grew up reading space operas, from Doc Smith's Lensman series to Frank Herbert's Dune. I read Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson and Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson. In more recent years, I've been delighted by Catherine Asaro's Skolian Saga, Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, John Scalzi's Old Man's War series, Tanya Huff's Confederation series, the books of C. J. Cherryh and Elizabeth Moon. I even liked the first half-dozen Honor Harrington books. But I bounced hard when I tried to read The Dark Between the Stars.

I gave it a fair chance to capture my interest, but 60-odd pages in, I still have no sense of the characters or the overall thrust of the story. The prose is pedestrian, even awkward at times. Dialogue is stilted. In my opinion, it's just not an example of good, let alone great science fiction.

I appreciate that Anderson has fans, but I'm not one of them. And since I'm not a professional reviewer, I'm not obligated to finish the book, something that makes me happy.

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There's not a great deal to be remarked on about Jim Butcher's Skin Game. It's urban fantasy with lots of action, and a very complicated con/heist/doublecross plot that involves our wizardly hero Harry Dresden, assorted ancient and nasty enemies, his liege lady Mab, The Queen of Air and Darkness, Hades, God of the Underworld, and a plan to steal the Holy Grail from the most secure vault in the Harryverse.

I haven't read any of the previous Dresden Files novels, although I've sort of wanted to check out the series because I watched and enjoyed the short-lived TV show based on the character. So a lot of the backstory that presumably motivated the various good, evil, and ambiguously aligned characters was missing for me. And after 15 novels, there was a lot of history between most of the characters, as this seemed to be one of those novels that brings back all of your favourite guest stars to stir things up between them. I probably missed out on a lot that might have made the book more emotionally gratifying by being a complete stranger to the series, but that's one of the risks of nominating the 16th volume in a series for a major award.

Harry himself seems to be modeled after the classic film noir hard-boiled detective, except that as a first person POV narrator of that particular stripe, he's not really jaded enough, and he rambles on rather a lot.

As a casual read, Skin Game was reasonably enjoyable, and I still might go read a few of the earlier novels when I'm in the mood for frivolous magic and mayhem - but I must say that while reading this, I found myself comparing it with the Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne, another urban fantasy with a male protagonist with which it shares certain types and tropes, and thinking that it did not quite measure up.

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As Constant Reader may recall, I like invented-world fantasies with lots of worldbuilding and history and complicated politics and cultural issues and yummy things like that. The Goblin Emperor is exactly this, and being so well-written and with such fascinating characters, I was immediately drawn into it and devoured it with delight. Sarah Monette, writing as Katherine Addison, has created something wonderful here.

It's a fish out of water court intrigue - protagonist Maia is the unloved and unregarded fourth son of the Emperor of the Elflands, the child of a political match between his father and a princess of Barizhan - the land of the goblins. Both mother and son were banished from court, and after his mother's early death, Maia is raised in a remote town by his resentful, out of favour kinsman who abuses him. Maia's life seems destined to be lonely and unpleasant, until a terrible accident - later found to be sabotage - takes the life of his father and three older brothers, leaving him the heir to the throne of Elfland.

Maia comes to the throne totally unprepared, with no knowledge of politics, the nation's concerns, the intricacies of court life, the duties of an emperor, the bureaucracy and endless paperwork that keeps an empire running. What he does have is a natural honesty, a desire to serve and do the best for his people, and a likable nature that eventually wins him a few key allies amidst a court that views him with disdain as a half-blood savage who does not deserve to rule.

It's the essential decency of the main character that sells the novel from the first page. The reader wants Maia to learn how to thread his way through the complexities of politics, the mechanics of government and the court intrigues, to come into his own and heal a land where divisions along lines of race, class and gender have resulted in a host of abuses, great and small, institutional and personal.

It's a complex and wonderful story, with much to enjoy, and much to think about.

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Liu Cixin's novel, The Three Body Problem, is like nothing else I've read in recent memory - a true novel of science and ideas, specifically the ideas upon which science is based, it's probably the most essentially science-fictional thing I've ever read.

Science is based on the assumption(s) that there are laws, or descriptive formulae, which can be used to predict the behaviour of physical objects, and that these laws do not change. But what happens if one day the laws we believe to be the bedrock of our universe no longer function as they always have before - but are being affected by phenomena whose cause, nature and origin is unknown and external to our theories.

At one point in the novel, Liu's protagonist Wang Miao thinks to himself:
When the members of the Frontiers of Science discussed physics, they often used the abbreviation “SF.” They didn’t mean “science fiction,” but the two words “shooter” and “farmer.” This was a reference to two hypotheses, both involving the fundamental nature of the laws of the universe. In the shooter hypothesis, a good marksman shoots at a target, creating a hole every ten centimeters. Now suppose the surface of the target is inhabited by intelligent, two-dimensional creatures. Their scientists, after observing the universe, discover a great law: “There exists a hole in the universe every ten centimeters.” They have mistaken the result of the marksman’s momentary whim for an unalterable law of the universe. The farmer hypothesis, on the other hand, has the flavor of a horror story: Every morning on a turkey farm, the farmer comes to feed the turkeys. A scientist turkey, having observed this pattern to hold without change for almost a year, makes the following discovery: “Every morning at eleven, food arrives.” On the morning of Thanksgiving, the scientist announces this law to the other turkeys. But that morning at eleven, food doesn’t arrive; instead, the farmer comes and kills the entire flock.
The Three Body Solution weaves together the stories of two scientists, Wang Miao and Ye Wenjie, and in so doing unveils the truth and the hidden factors behind the sudden variability of scientific law.

Ye is a gifted astrophysicist who, having seen her father murdered during the Cultural Revolution, has lost faith in humanity. Assigned to work on a top-secret SETI project, she initiates the first contact communication with extrasolar life - and conceals this from her colleagues. Wang, whose story unfolds many years later when Ye is an old woman, is a nanotech engineer brought into a secret multi-national organisation of military and scientific personnel who - without any awareness of Ye's actions, believe that humanity is under attack by some unknown enemy who have focused on destabilising scientific knowledge and advancement on earth. Wang is selected to join because he has also been contacted by a group that is believed to know something about, or be influenced by, this unknown enemy.

Urged to find out as much as he can, Wang discovers a unique virtual reality game called 3Body, which uses figures and cultures from human history but is set on an alien planet where there are no predictable seasons, no regular pattern of days and nights, and where the sun seems to change size, path, and distance from the planet's surface at random. There are Stable Eras, when conditions are livable, and during those times civilisations develop, and Chaotic Eras, during which conditions can become so erratic and extreme that all life must go into hibernation or perish. As Wang plays the game, he discovers that this game is in effect set on a planet that is caught in the gravity fields of multiple suns - a simulation of the classic three-body problem in physics - and the apparent goal of the game appears to be to solve the problem so civilisation can develop normally. Unfortunately, in real-life physics, the problem is considered unsolvable.

The known laws of physics can easily produce general solutions for the movement of a system consisting of a single body, or of two bodies, but it cannot produce a general solution for the movement of a system consisting of three bodies. One can find solutions for individual cases of a three-body system with specific conditions, but there is no general solution known that can solve any such system.

The game, however, turns out to have another, sinister purpose - to recruit specific individuals into a conspiracy that harkens back to Ye's decades-old interstellar communication, and that knows what factors lie behind the sudden instability of physical laws, and the purpose for their existence.

An astonishing, even mind-blowing novel, ably translated by Ken Liu.

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Having won the Hugo for Best Novel last year with the first volune of the Imperial Radch trilogy Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie has been nominated in the same category this year for the second volune of the trilogy, Ancillary Sword. A deeply engrossing cross between space opera and spy/intrigue thriller, with a sophisticated exploration of the underlying themes of identity, gender and imperialism, both of these novels are suberb reading.

Having made a major impression with her first novel, Ann Leckie does it again in the second volume of her planned trilogy, Ancillary Sword. I continue to be impressed by her storytelling skill. In this volume, the scope collapses to a single solar system, as Breq, now captain of the Mercy of Kalr, is sent by one of the factions of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, to Athoek, a planet assimilated into the Radch Empire several centuries ago, and now the major supplier of tea to the Empire.

As Breq navigates her way through the political and social structures at work on both the planet - where wealthy tea plantation owners live in luxury while transportees from other planets work the fields as indentured servants - and on Athoek Station - where the planetary officials and representatives of all classes except the plantation workers carry out their daily tasks in a microcosm - we discover along with her the nuances of Radchaai culture even as we watch an incisive exploration of colonialism run rampant.

Breq's evolving sense of identity is also highlighted in Ancillary Sword. Linked as captain to her ship, she is at once reminded of what it was like to be a ship, at the same time that she realises most keenly that she can no longer act as a ship. It becomes increasingly clear that the person she is becoming has a profound desire for justice, but does not yet understand the state of being human well enough to consistently grasp what true justice is.

I'm very excited about the next book. I want most of all to see more of who Breq is becoming. And of course, seeing what happens to the Radch Empire.

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