The Player of Games (3*)

Book: The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

Games“It was not so difficult to understand the warped view the Azadians had of what they called “human nature” – the phrase they used whenever they had to justify something inhuman and unnatural”

And here’s where I feel like I am committing some sort of faux pax in Sci-Fi circles by failing to be particularly fond of the Culture novels which seem to be fairly generally beloved.

I have to admit that I went into this after having failed to get through one of his non Sci-Fi novels as a teenager so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. In the end I didn’t dislike the book as much as I thought I was going to from the start, but I also didn’t find anything particularly amazing in it either.

Perhaps I am reading this at the wrong sort of time, I have read a lot of books that deal with similar subject matter in a way I vastly preferred to this that were mostly written later on, it’s hard to say for sure though since I can only deal with it in the context of when I have read it, which is here in 2019.

The problem I have with it isn’t that the writing is bad, it certainly isn’t (otherwise this score would be a whole lot lower), it’s more that the main protagonist is an ass, I dislike the Culture and the Azadian people he ends up visiting are basically current human society if we had somewhat better tech and had gone to the stars, but also removed almost every good trait from us and were basically just a load of asshole with no visible redeeming features. I basically spent the whole thing wanting bad things to happen to everyone in it and that… was not massively enjoyable I have to say.

Now for sure, it did come across that the author also agrees that his main character is an asshole, but the problem was that I wasn’t really given anyone or anything to really care about for the whole story. This, combined with the fact that I ended up disliking both civilisations, left me cold. There is also a reveal at the end which came across in a smug, superior way and yes, this is meant to be because of who is narrating it, but it was just pouring oil on a fire to me. I do want to explore this more, but I need to get into spoiler territory so I shall do that further down.

Before I do that I did want to try and find some positive things to say, because I didn’t hate the story, it just disappointed and annoyed me in a number of places. I will say that The Culture is, in some ways, a fairly progressive setting for its time, so it is a shame that it is barely explored at all. I do like that the main character is mostly presented as an unlikeable asshole, too many authors would seem to love this sort of character unironically and he doesn’t.

There are also good themes and ideas in the book, which I did appreciate. Just for me I have seen them done elsewhere in ways more suiting to my taste. I will also admit I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Culture, but a genderfluid, sexuality fluid utopia written in the late 90s was not it (good surprise if you hadn’t guessed). I will say that I thought The Left Hand of Darkness did this sort of exploration of gender differences in a much better way and earlier. The fact that Gurgeh, a straight male (he is clearly shown as such in the books) was the protagonist of such a culture was honestly deeply disappointing.

“All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules.”

Continue reading

Hugo Awards

2019-08-19 14.39.14

This years Retro Hugo (left) and Hugo (right) awards

I had not been to the Hugo Awards before (having never been to a WorldCon before). In fact I had only been to two award ceremonies before it (The British Fantasy Awards last year and the Arthur C Clarke Awards this year). I am glad I managed to get to go though as I had a pretty damn enjoyable evening and there are some things I want to talk about as a result.

One of the awards given out at the Hugos is something that is administered by the convention but is not a Hugo, which is the John W Campbell award for new writer. This year’s writer, Jeanette Ng, gave an amazing acceptance speech which has caused some controversy as a result.

You can watch it here and I do recommend that you do because it is quite something. There was a lot of cheering when she starting speaking and more at the end. But it has put some people’s noses out of joint as they feel she was lacking respect for the honour she was given. I say, fuck that. She has every right to use the platform she was given to speak about this issue. I love how diverse the genre is getting these days in terms of voices, but it was not always so. Go look at the award winners for all the previous years for the Campbell, or the Hugos (and other awards for the genre) and count how many of them are white men. John Scalzi wrote an excellent post in defence of Jeanette, which you can read here and it is well worth a look. I appreciate that he has used his platform to defend her.

For years getting anywhere in the genre if you were not a white man was nigh on impossible. John W Campbell would likely be horrified by the fact that Jeanette has been able to have a voice in the genre at all and she is absolutely right to call this sort of thing out. Even now, it’s not easy to get published if you are not male and harder still if you are not white. I have heard too many authors tell stories of being turned down, not because of the quality of their work but because they “already have one of those” meaning perhaps an Asian inspired fantasy, or an African one, as if after decades upon decades of fantasy rooted in our white, Western culture we can’t have too many books that don’t fit that mold.

Fuck that. Some of the best Science-fiction and Fantasy I have read in recent years has been written by people of colour and rooted in cultures that are not my own and I fucking love it. And looking at who won the Hugo Awards, I am not the only person who loves the diversity that we are getting. This isn’t to say I have stopped reading white men altogether, but they have to be more than mediocre to get my attention when there is so much other excellence around.

But as to the other winners, they were overwhelmingly women, many of whom were people of colour, all of whom deserved their place there. I was pleased that so many of my first choices won, though I do not begrudge the ones that weren’t from their win. Still it makes me really happy because the winners and nominees were chosen by fans. Fans overwhelming picked a short-list that was this diverse and included queer people in it. I watched Becky Chambers pick up her Hugo for best series wearing a suit (and looking fucking amazing as she did it). I watched the first deaf-blind person win a Hugo and also a fan archive set up to help diverse writing in fan-fiction win.

It was an incredible night for diversity, an incredible night that lifted up people who have long been ignored or passed over for others. It gave me hope for where the future of the genre is going and maybe, just maybe, the future of society as well.

And as for keeping politics out of the genre, politics have always been part of it, right from the start (and not always left-wing politics either). What people usually mean is they don’t want identity politics in it, they don’t like it that they see themselves less than they used to.

I want all of the voices. I want to read things written by queer people, by people of colour, by trans folk, by disabled people, by neurodiverse people. I want characters of all those voice too, written by people who either know personally what they are writing about or are willing to put the effort in to get things right.

As for the awards. Maybe we need to look at who we have named them after and if the person’s legacy is not one we want to support, perhaps renaming it would be a good idea. Where are the awards named after Octavia Butler, or even Mary Shelley? There’s a Bram Stoker award for horror, but nothing I could find for her.

Jeanette has challenged us to do better and I think we can do so, awards have been changed before now and they can be again. The genre is changing for the better and it would be good if the awards we give out could reflect that legacy too.

Hugo Short Stories

Stories:

Well here we are at the end of the reading I did for the Hugos. I will do one last post covering other categories I voted for, but after that it will be back to reviews. I may do something from WorldCon, but I am not sure if I will actually find the time to do so, especially since I will need to write and post from my phone so we will have to see how that goes.

I have to say that this was an excellent bunch of short stories and there weren’t any of them that I didn’t enjoy so I highly recommend that you check them out, they are all linked above.

The Court Magician

A street kid becomes fascinated with street magic and gains the attention of someone in the court who offers him a choice, he can stick with the street magic or learn real magic but there will be a cost for it. The story then follows his choice and the consequences of it.

It’s well told and has a very interesting premise at the heart of it regarding the nature of power and what it can cost to use it.

The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society

A group of supernatural creatures sit around and lament about the Scottish lass who stole their hearts and dumped them.

I enjoyed this, I always like tales of positive female sexuality. The author should learn that a Scottish shape-shifting creature that sometimes looks like a horse and likes to drown people is called a Kelpie, not a Pooka. Otherwise a very fun story.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

George Washington was famous for having a set of false teeth. I must admit I don’t know the history of them, but I do know that slave teeth were often used for them so it is certainly a strong possibility that they were.

Anyway, the story is basically telling the tale of the people the teeth were taken from and it’s wonderfully written, given a voice to people often overlooked. Very well done story.

STET 

One of the most unusual short stories I have come across given the form it takes is of notes between an editor and the writer of a piece written about the effects of driverless cars. It is deeply personal and quite raw, especially given how it’s presented. Excellent piece of writing and well deserves it’s place on the list.

The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat

I have to say that the story title alone is absolutely fantastic. The story itself is the strangest of fairy tales about, well, pretty much what the title says it is. Empowering, well written and a whole lot of fun.

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies 

This story is about a librarian, who is also a witch, trying to work out what she should do about one of her regular customers, a young boy who is desperately seeking escape from the life he is trapped in.

I found this story struck a deep personal chord with me and I was actually trying at the end of it. Beautifully well written and honestly explains the reason why I love fantasy worlds so much and also why the idea of portal fantasies spoke to me on such a deep level growing up.

I have to say that choosing the order for these was really, really hard. I dropped the two less serious tales to the bottom, but both of them were still excellent. In the end my choice was between A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies and The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington and I ended up going with the first one, largely because of how personally I felt the story.

But seriously, this is such a good list of stories, it makes me really keen to read more short stories to be honest if this is what the field is like currently.

Hugo Novellettes Part 2

Books:

As promised here is part two of the Novellettes post, including my round-up and who I voted for in the end. As before there are links to those of the stories that you can read online for free.

HarmlessThe Only Harmless Great Thing

Well this is not at all an easy story to read and I do not say that lightly. That isn’t to say it is a bad story, but it deals with unpleasant subject matter so if you do seek to read it, be aware of that before you start.

The story is interwoven between the story of a radium girl working in a factory and her interactions with an elephant worker, both of whom are getting sick with radiation; stories from elephant history; a future meeting between elephants and humans regarding the use of elephants as radiation warning symbols.

All of the threads come together in the end and the story balances various elements involving corporate greed, how connections are made between one incident and a whole group of individuals and the harm that can do. Like I said, it’s not an easy read but it is well done and I certainly felt the power of the tale, brutal as it is.

Ghost storiesThe Thing About Ghost Stories

I have to say that I am a big fan of ghost stories so I was interested in this one just by the title. It follows a woman who is going aroung asking local people for their ghost stories for research for a book she is writing. On the way some of the people she meets tell her that she has her own ghost who is trying to communicate with her.

It’s a very personal story where the pursuit of ghost stories gets tangled up with the main character and her dealing with the loss of mother, first to Alzheimers and then when she died.

Dealing with grief and loss is never easy and I liked how the story wove strands of the personal along with the weird, it works really well as a contrast and to make the story matter more to the reader.

StarlessWhen We Were Starless

This one is a pretty weird story, partly because the protagonist is a lizard woman from a very strange civilisation. There are a lot of terms and cultural nods that are confusing at first, but I do like the way that the story unfurls them, it combined keeping you interested in the background and the story with not info dumping everything in a way that makes no sense for the characters or setting.

The tale follows our protagonist, who is a scout for her clan who can also put ghosts to rest. During one of these missions she encounters something near where her clan are camping that is one of the most dangerous kinds of ghosts, but it begins to talk to her and soon she has to choose between learning more about the things that the ghost can tell her or obeying the laws of her tribe.

It’s very well told, compelling and has some surprises in it that are very well deployed. The pacing is excellent and you learn a surprising amount about the main character for such a short piece of writing. It’s definitely worth a read if you get the chance.

Roundup

Well there we go, all my mini reviews of the novellettes are now done so I thought I would explain my voting and why I chose the way I did. I have to say that overall it was not an easy choice to make, they are excellent stories and well deserving of their place in the shortlist.

  1. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections”
  2. “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again”
  3. “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”
  4. “When We Were Starless”
  5. “The Thing About Ghost Stories”
  6. The Only Harmless Great Thing

Above is my order of voting. The top was because I loved the juxtaposition of the temporal pastries with the flashback memories and the way they brought out the story. Beautifully told, excellent described and with excellent deeper meaning. Zen Cho’s story was such a close second because of the positivity of the tale. The next three it was incredibly hard to decide on an order and I could easily have put them another way. The only reason the one in last place is there is because given all the stuff in the world, I really wanted something more positive to win and the story is so bleak that I just couldn’t love it as much as the others.

Hugo Novellettes Part 1

Books:

Running later with this than intended due to being wiped out at the weekend and not having had a free evening yet this week to get this written up. But here we are, time for my first part of the Novellettes I read for the Hugos, the second one to come soon.

As a note, if you want to read any of these there are links above to them all and you can read them for free. There is also an excellent audio version of The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections on the Cast of Wonders podcast which is well worth a listen.

SucceedIf at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again

So this story follows an imugi (a Korean lesser dragon) in their quest to become a fully fledged dragon, failing a number of times over thousands of years (each attempt can only be done once every thousand years).

Along the way their path meets that of Dr Leslie Han and they end up more entangled in human affairs than they would ever have thought possible.

I will not go into more detail than that because it would be too easy to spoiler this story and I absolutely do not wish to do that! It’s a beautiful tale and honestly it really got to me emotionally. I was quite teary by the end of it. I mean to be honest, given how much I love dragons this story was always going to get to me on some level, but it actually got me on several levels and I absolutely adored it.

Please read it, it’s well worth a look and an excellent start to what was a category full of excellent stories.

TemporalThe Last Banquet of Temporal Confections

With this one, I actually heard half of the Cast of Wonders audio version of it before I got to reading the category, but had to finish it in the text as the second one wasn’t going to be out when I needed it to be. I have now heard both parts and definitely worth a listen.

The story is about a land where it is now ruled by an oppressive regime. In this land there is a baker and his wife, he has developed a way of making pastries that trigger memory responses in those who eat them and the rule now holds banquets for their court with the pastries as a central part.

One of the most impressive things about the story is the way it uses the premise of the pastries as a vehicle to explore how events led up to the banquet at the centre of the story. It also deals with ideas of revolution and the quiet ways that people can resist an oppressive or harmful government.

There are parts of the story that can be hard to read at times, though it is in no way graphic about it, but it does resonate with elements of our current political situation and is very well told.

Nine Last DaysNine Last Days on Planet Earth

In this tale we follow LT, a young man in an alternate version of history where a meteorite shower seeds the earth with strange plants that seem to be from another world.

The story entwines him growing up, dealing with his sexuality along with the growth of the plants and humanity’s struggle to deal with the problems caused by them.

Again, I don’t want to go into too much detail about what is going on with them because it will spoil the story and it is something anyone can read for free.

There was a lot I liked about the story, it’s always nice to see positive gay representation and this does that very well. It’s also an unusual take on an alien invasion that reminded me a little of Rosewater by Tade Thomson (which is also definitely worth a look), though not quite the same scenario and definitely not the same sort of ending.

Artificial Condition (4*)

Book: Artifical Condition by Martha Wells

artificialThis is the last the of the Hugo Best Novella category. I have managed to get all the reading done that I had hoped so there will be future posts from me on those categories and my overall thoughts as well.

This is another one I haven’t read the earlier one in the series but I have to say that it honestly stands up very well as a stand alone and whilst it does reference some things that clearly happened in the first book, they make enough sense to be something that will be added value for fans of the series but does not ruin the enjoyment of the story.

The story follows the tale of a Murderbot, a construct which is a cyborg basically, one designed for security which means they are a very efficient killing machine. This one has broken their programming and is trying to find out more about their past and that takes them to a mining area to uncover the secrets of an area abandoned by a violent incident involving bots, on the way they get entangled in working for a group of humans who have no idea that the Murderbot is not a human security expert.

There was a lot I enjoyed about this story, not only was it excellently paced with a very compelling set of characters (especially considering that a number of them are not human), it also had an engaging plot which kept me interested right up to the end. I also liked that it was clearly a mix of ongoing plot and plot that was just for this story which meant that it had more than one layer to it but was still fine as a stand alone if you haven’t read the others.

One thing that did niggle at me a bit was that at one point the Murderbot is having an internal thought process regarding sex and their complete lack of interest in that sort of thing. Now, on one hand this does make sense for a being that was built to do what humans said and kill those they needed killing, but it does unfortunately reinforce the bad stereotype of asexuals being something other than human. I don’t think that was deliberate on the part of the author, but it was somewhat frustrating. Note that this sort of depiction of asexuality would be a lot less of an issue if it wasn’t the main sort of representation you can find.

I very much enjoy the sort of exploration of what it means to be a person that the series is engaging with and I will definitely be looking to read the rest of them and see how it all goes.

Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach (3*)

Book: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

GM&TLPI am almost at the end of the Novella category now, just one more to go after this. Unfortunately this one was my least favourite of the bunch, but I will get into that shortly.

The story is about a group of scientists going back in time to do a survey on the Tigris and Euphrates area during the Babylonian era and getting caught up with dangers and politics of that era, combined with those they brought with them from theirs.

I will say that I loved that the main character in the story is an elderly woman with prosthetic legs, certainly not something we see a lot of in stories and that was fantastic.

I did find that the story had a really slow start, much slower than I would expect from a novella I will admit given the much shorter length that there is in a novella. The setting is interesting but I think it didn’t perhaps need to be shown in the length it was at the start, which would have helped. I was also really put off by the constant use of the term “fat babies”. I did eventually work out that in many ways it was their version of “millennials” but it was very hard to divorce it from the highly negative connortations of the word fat in our society and as such was very off-putting.

When the pace of the story finally picked up I got really interested in the story and what was going on, curious as to where it was going (though a little disappointed that for the most part the little segments at the start of each chapter were actually ahead of the action so you spend a lot of the story knowing something of what is coming) and then I found the end happened rather abruptly and left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

There also wasn’t enough characterisation of those in the story, despite the slow start and that was also quite frustrating at times. We did learn something of the others by the end, but not in the depth I would have liked to get me to care more about what was going on and what would happen to them.

I also felt that in places the story seemed afraid to actually make much of a point about things using the setting and what they were doing with it and that was also a bit disappointing as the story does cover some interesting themes and I just felt that perhaps it would have been better in a longer format with more exploration, though that is of course down to my own personal tastes.

Overall I did enjoy it though, but not as much as I have enjoyed the other entries on the list, which is a shame because there are honestly some fascinating concepts in here and I could have loved it a lot more with some changes.

Binti: The Night Masquerade (4*)

Book: Binti – The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti TNMGetting to the end of the novella section for the Hugos. I am sure that you are aware that voting ends at the end of this month and may be wondering how I am intending to get it all done. Well, I am not to be blunt. I do intend to read through the Novellettes and the Short Stories though, I am currently blogging behind my reading (as I write this I am half way through the final Novella) so whilst my posts may end up being up after the Hugo voting has ended, I should have done the reading before then.

For the Novellettes I think I shall split them into two posts, review three in one post and then three in the other and one post for the short stories. I may then do a wrap-up of the Hugos and my voting as a whole and try and get all that scheduled before I run off to Dublin and WorldCon.

“Even back then I had changed things, and I didn’t even know it. When I should have reveled in this gift, instead, I’d seen myself as broken. But couldn’t you be broken and still bring change?” 

In regards to this book, I will start off by saying that I have not read the first two. I did debate as to whether or not to read the ones that were parts of a series I hadn’t read but decided that since it was shorter I might as well give it a go and see how I got on.

The story follows Binti as she and her companions head back to her home to see her family and find themselves in the middle of a conflict between two people, one that will cost Binti a great deal even as she tries her best to find a way to stop it before it gets too out of hand.

It did take me a while to get to grips with the story, largely because I had clearly missed explanations of terms and such that will have come up in earlier books, leaving me quite confused in places. I will say that by the end of the story I had caught up on everything and it did make sense, but it was a little slow going at first due to my lack of context.

It’s certainly a very interesting setting, the magical mathematics reminds me a little of the Foundation series by Asimov, though the feel is very different. I do think I would have gotten a lot more from the book if I had read the others first and I do intend to go back and read them as I did still enjoy the story.

One thing that I found a little distracting was that Binti did come across as something of a Mary Sue type character in places. Now, I don’t consider this to be irredemable, people rarely complain when a male character gets to be all sorts of awesome without any real flaws so when a female character does, especially a woman of colour, in some ways it can be a good redress of balance and I think in this case I would count it in that category. Yes, Binti does have an impressive list of accomplishments and abilities (this is also the third book so I may also be missing vital character development from the earlier ones), but she does also make mistakes and is not entirely perfect.

Some more spoilery thoughts below the cut.

Continue reading

The Tea Master and the Detective (5*)

Book: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

the_tea_master_and_the_detective_by_aliett_de_bodardNow I have gone through the Best Novel category for the Hugos I am onto the list for the Novellas.

I actually read this before I knew it had been nominated as I have been in love with the concept of it ever since I heard about it. Since I prefer to read things in physical form that made it harder for me to get hold of, but luckily for me Aliette was at EasterCon and she had a copy for sale which I managed to nab.

What drew me to the story was having it described as Sherlock Holmes if Sherlock was an Asian woman and Watson was a spaceship. I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes and was delighted to discover that the author of this and I have the same favourite castings of both characters (Jeremy Brett as Sherlock and Lucy Liu).

The story follows The Shadow’s Child, a retired military transport with issues related to a trauma caused during that service. She works as a tea maker, someone who makes brews that people need to deal with space travel. During this time she meets Long Chau who needs a brew and also to go into what are called the deep spaces in order to find a corpse.

What results in the two of them becoming embroiled in a mystery that makes the both of them confront things from their past, including something that The Shadow’s Child has been hiding from since she left service.

I haven’t yet read the other novellas set in this same universe, but after reading this one I will definitely be doing so. The setting that is conjured up is rich in texture and voice and I could see, hear and smell what was going on at various places in the story. The tale is excellent told and her versions of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are both recognisably those characters whilst simultaneously being a unique and interesting take on the dynamics.

The mystery itself is well constructed and resolves itself in a way that is both satisfying and thoughtful. I mean the only thing I really have to complain about is that whilst the other novellas are set in the same universe they are not about these characters and I would love to see more of this take on Sherlock, which is the best modern adaptation I have come across in a very long time.

Hugo Best Novel Roundup

Best Novel nomination list

  • The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
  • Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
  • Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
  • Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan)
  • Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

OK, first things first I am going to address the elephant in the room here. If you have been reading my reviews of the nominations for Best Novel you may notice that I have only done reviews for four out of six. This is because I failed to finish Space Opera, which I will explain a little about later on. I have not yet read Revenant Gun because I have only read the first in the series and I want to read some of the other categories in full before I make any attempt at the series, which means that for now I am leaving it off my list to prioritise other things.

So onto explaining about Space Opera. I tried reading this book, the premise sounded absolutely fascinating and honestly I haven’t read much science-fiction comedy in a long while. People likened it to Douglas Adams’ books and I am a big fan of those so I really expected to like it.

Unfortunately I found the language use really put me off. The long paragraphs and overly wordy sentences managed to lose some of the humour for me as I kept having to re-read things to try and work out what the actual intention was, which was basically like having someone explain a joke to you and really does kill the humour. I gave it a good few chapters but in the end I decided that since I was not enjoying it and therefore very unlikely to vote for it, I was better abandoning it and moving on to other things and I honestly do not regret that choice. I am not saying that the book is awful and no one will like it, I am saying that this book is most definitely not for me.

That leaves us with four books left. If you have been paying attention to my ranking system you will note that both The Calculating Stars and Trail of Lightning received four stars from me, which means that much as I really enjoyed both books they are not getting my vote in this category (it was a good field though).

Which leaves it between Record of a Spaceborn Few and Spinning Silver. Much as I am a huge fan of Becky Chambers and her writing. Her characterisation is absolutely excellent and her stories are just so warming to your core in ways that I honestly don’t experience enough these days, I think for me I will have to put Spinning Silver over it. The use of language, the way Naomi Novik weaves the plot, it was just so superbly done that I cannot but wish to see it win.

My winner: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik.