Reading the Rocket: Best Novel
Are there any recent SF novels as good as The Three-Body Problem? Novels with world-changing ideas? Wild sweeps of imagination? Nail-clenching consequences for the characters? The ability to inspire my younger self to a passion for science? Published post-2010 and in the English language…
Going by the rest of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel, the answer would be… erm, no.
I didn’t read all the novel nominees cover-to-cover. There were several reasons for this. I had a health scare and I’m writing my own novel at hell-neck pace. I ended up skim-reading the first three chapters on a bus yesterday afternoon – hours before the voting deadline. I expected this to be a problem, but it wasn’t. Mostly, it saved me several hours of my life.
#1 The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translation by Ken Liu)
This book is incredible. Period.
It begins with a professor tortured and executed for lecturing revolutionary science, while his daughter watches. Then she, too, is threatened for the seditious act of reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Soon we’re facing the critical dilemma of the book – why are a group of physicists committing suicide? And why do they believe physics does not exist?
The writing style is mind-blowing. It’s sharp, crisp and fast-paced, but without losing the sense of place or characterisation. The ideas are huge, e.g. what is the laws of physics changed in time-and-space? But conveyed light touch, without info dumping.
I haven’t finished The Three-Body Problem, but I’ve carried on reading it. My husband, who also bought a supporting membership, is avidly reading it. This is a book I wish I could write, but don’t have the ability, which is – after all – the purpose of the Hugo Awards.
This is a book that would have inspired my teenage self to a passion for science. It’s a book that expresses the wonders of the universe, the marvels of human potential, and all our frailties and our triumphs. This is on par with the Foundation Series or Rendezvous with Rama. This is downright good. I hope it wins the Hugo for best novel because, otherwise, something is wrong with the world.
#2 Skin Game by Jim Butcher
There’s no doubt that Jim Butcher is among the best pulp writers working today. I hadn’t encountered his Dresden Files before the Hugo Award nominees were announced, but I’ve now read all fifteen of them, including the latest Skin Game…
Reading all fifteen Dresden Files was an onerous task (NOT), which I mainly completed on holiday in Sicily. They’re great urban fantasy about a wizard in modern-day Chicago who fights off faerie, vampires, the undead – all the usual suspects. There’s nothing especially original about The Dresden Files, but they’re sharp, witty, modern and the quality doesn’t flag over fifteen books – an achievement in itself.
Moreover, they tackle some heavy-duty ethical dilemmas. Should you sell your soul to the devil to save your friends? Is evil about actions or intentions? Do evil powers always lead to evil acts, even if your intentions are good? Should people who’ve committed heinous acts be given a second chance?
#3 No Award
Sorry, some things have to be done…
#4 The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Once upon a time, there was a book about a young man (or ferret or space alien) who unexpectedly found he had become Emperor. So he went to a pseudo-medieval court in which everyone had silly names like Unseelieboudie or Aehterlieasii. And there he sat around on his throne while court machinations happened and no one liked him, but they had to bow and scrape. And probably – somewhere beyond the bit I read – someone tried to kill him…
You probably read this book, aged about seventeen. I did, about a thousand times. I read Daughter of the Empire, which is actually good. I also read… well, a bunch of stuff by David Eddings, and a bunch of rubbish stuff I’ve forgotten.
This book reads exactly like the rubbish stuff I’ve forgotten, but without any of the drama, conflict or over-described silly costumes. It does have racism and child abuse (apparently, I didn’t notice in Chapters One through Three), which may explain why it was on the Hugo Award nominee shortlist. Let’s put it this way – The Goblin Emperor wasn’t there for its originality…
It’s very talky, but it’s that talky that happens in bad fantasy novels where Lord Chancellor Xapenasis the 15th needs to talk about the religious rites of Sabenaisis that the new king Yerobozerbilos XIII must perform to placate the powerful Sreyaueona family before his coronation. The experience is akin to listening to the US President discussing Chicago onion futures, if you were a Martian native who didn’t eat onions.
i don’t think I would have no-awarded The Goblin Emperor, but I read it within minutes of the first three chapters of The Three-Body Problem and they simply don’t belong on the same shortlist…
#5 Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
I have an admission to make. I tried reading Ancillary Justice last year, got a chapter in, and gave up. I felt I should read it, as it was getting a lot of hype, so I tried again… got two chapters in and gave up.
My major problem with Ancilllary Justice was the dry, flat and emotionless first-person narrator, which I attributed to a brilliant, but misguided, attempt to write in the voice of a former AI. Ancillary Justice is the only book I’ve read to make an (apparently) dead body on page one sound deathly dull.
The Hugo packet excerpt of Ancillary Sword exceeded Ancillary Justice in its dullness, by containing zero ideas, zero (interesting) conflict and zero (meaningful) drama. Reading the excerpt on the bus, the main conflict in Chapter One involved two terribly-polite middle-class people who were unsure whether to take rose-glass teabowls on a spacefaring warship. One of those middle-class people was supposed to be a former AI who had lived in thousands of bodies. I promise… it was less fun to read than it sounds.
Later, the former AI agonises over whether another character – whose only distinguishing trait is lilac eyes – is too anxious and green to take along. It turns out the AI’s boss has done some cruel and unusual surgery to lilac eyes in order to spy on the mission. Again, I’m making this sound interesting. It wasn’t. And it wasn’t obvious it was taking place on a starship either. It could have taken place in a Japanese tearoom. Or a freelance hot-desking facility in contemporary San Francisco. Or at a dinner party of accountants in Fulham, London.
All the characters were uniformly polite, middle-class, and had exactly the same voice… Oh, and had brown skin and brown hair and brown uniforms… It was like reading a weird clone mission. Maybe they were clones. Maybe the author had some strange belief that an AI wouldn’t notice that human beings look different, which would be weird if they’d been working with them. Heck, I think cocker spaniels look different and they’re so inbred that mine has the same great-grandfather twice.
And the brown skin? Have you met anyone who says ‘I have brown skin’? People don’t have brown skin. They have milk-chocolate skin with blue-black hair. They have caramel skin. They have coffee skin. They have fair skin with freckles. They have olive skin, and honey-gold skin, and pale skin bronzed by the first touch of summer. They have midnight-dark skin, deeply furrowed from working outdoors in the sun. Never brown skin…
So, yep. Limited conflict. Insipid meek ideas. Boring dialogue. Boring, poorly-described characters. No real sense of the lived experience of being an AI who’d been in lots of bodies. Silly made-up names like Tisarwat (I checked, not a real name), which fit the bad fantasy trope of ‘sounds a bit Asian to ignorant Westerners’, but could be replaced by ‘Sam’ for all the difference it makes.
Yuck… Yuck… Yuck…
Simply insipid. And massively over-hyped.
#6 The Dark Between The Stars by Kevin J Anderson
I find Kevin J Anderson’s books boring. He spends too much time telling, and not showing, which means I don’t care about his characters. Also, the density of original ideas and original situations is low. The Dark Between The Stars was no exception. It didn’t annoy me. I was simply bored and insta-forgot what I’d just read.