Hugo: Fahrenheit 451 (1954/2004)

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Read May 12-14 2016

Premise: In the future, firemen are the censorship arm of the surveillance state burning books (which are illegal) to ensure the cohesion of a society built on sensationalism and shallowness.

Verdict: I had read this book a long time ago and my local library did a read-along of it in May. It’s small enough to knock out in a few hours tops so I re-read it, loved it, and headed off to the library discussion which was all doom, gloom, and terror. Sci-fi is all about speculating on the dark paths our actions may lead us down in the future, but I think something about this group (who were all at least 50 or older and most claimed to hate science fiction) just made them more inclined to declare that the entire world was degenerate and our society was failing. Also, if you’ve read any of my previous Hugo project reviews, lately I’ve gotten free of a lifelong abusive situation and have been working on my brain. All fun things. So, with that preface, here’s what I thought about Fahrenheit 451 on this, the xth time I’ve read it.

When I first read this book I was convinced it was about how stupid our culture is because people don’t want to think. I was an angry teenager who loved books and learning and I was relentlessly bullied for it. Fahrenheit 451 felt like a vindication to me. Now that I’m not an angry teenager it still feels like a vindication, but less of intelligence and more of compassion. Our discussion at the library eventually got into Cold War paranoia which was an astute conversation topic. But I feel like it’s worth noting the censorship aspects not from a totalitarian angle, but more from the way Bradbury presents a culture of despair.

Reading this novel is very familiar, not because I’ve read it before, but because our society becomes more and more recognizable in its dystopian future. The novel presents a utopian infrastructure (with what’s basically a hyperloop, virtual reality television, ubiquitous transportation etc.) but a totalitarian rule of information. The head fireman Beatty does plenty of philosophizing, but it’s explicitly stated that society itself decided it no longer wanted anything to do with critical thought. Ideas in books became “too confusing” because you could never reach blanket consensus. People willfully gave up their right to think and instead consume pre-packaged sensationalistic media. As someone currently living with a disagreeable roommate who alternately blasts CNN or Bravo, reading this book in this house was surreal. “Sitting around and talking” is weird because “what do you talk about?” Your life is judged by what you consume and the populace is kept busy by manufacturing need in consumers to strive for more and “better” goods. The culture in the novel is so disconnected that they literally have a special “handyman team” of medical professionals who go around “cleaning out” the stomachs of the plethora of people who attempt to commit suicide every day. The McCarthyist paranoia is rampant, but it just emphasizes that American culture on the whole has never recovered a sense of trust in others. We still have a default mode of “everyone is out to get you.”

What’s even more prescient, perhaps, is the notion of a live high-speed televised chase that has to have narrative structure. The Hound chasing Montag at the end narrativizes chunks of life in ways that satisfy the culturally constructed notions of justice and payoff. It’s all about eyes, not information. This book is so short, but it’s creepily like Bradbury just peeled a little window through time and cast judgment on what he saw. Good sci-fi is like that.

At any rate, for me the burning of books became less about censorship and more about the books symbolizing critical thought. Yes, censorship is bad. But censorship also implies that some part of the culture wants the information they have no access to. Either that, or that there is a state-sanctioned brainwashing going on a la nationalistic book burnings. There’s something eerie in reading about the narcissistic disaffection of society in a novel written in 1954. Maybe there’s nothing particularly special about 2016 except the speed at which information flows.

I mean, this book is a classic. One of the must-reads of American literature. So go read it.

On Star Wars: The Force Awakens: But Is the Damn Thing Any Good?

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

I think it’s appropriate to inaugurate my sci-fi/cult-ish/whatever blog with my thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, yes? Here goes. 2000% SPOILER-FREE, I ASSURE YOU.

I have complete apathy for any upcoming installments of Star Wars. Ever. I do not care.1 If I cared any less I would probably turn inside out and become a black hole of uncaring. I am not moved by the marketing, I am not swayed by the nostalgia. I actively dislike J.J. Abrams in general. I have no emotional investment in this endeavor, be it positive or negative. I am very interested in film/TV narrative franchises, however, so the mechanics of the thing are fascinating to me. Additionally, my soul revolts at the very threat of spoilers. So I figured, hey, no one will tell me if this movie is actually any damn good irrespective of all the hype. I might as well go and see it before it gets spoiled.

There is nothing particularly special about this film. Overall, when you subtract Luke, Han, and Leia, what you’ve got is a basic, uninspired space opera. Essentially, it’s fan fic. Now, this is by design. The original Star Wars is the quintessential space opera. The space opera to begin and end all others. The original formula of the original films is invoked in full force precisely because it worked, because it is familiar, and because that’s what people are paying to see. But that still means that, every beat the film hits, every homage, and every plot point is laid out and inevitable within the first five minutes of the movie. It’s not even a matter of guessing what’s going to happen: you know. It’s almost categorically impossible to legitimately spoil anything. It’s all a forgone conclusion. (That said, I do not spoil. May I be struck down from on high should I ever spoil something without a warning.) Additionally, at times The Force Awakens almost willfully ignores the fact that the three prequel films happened, thank the stars. It’s a complete return to the atmosphere of the original trilogy which is why, even as inevitable as it is, it works.

It might be predictable, kind of trite, and a bit boring as far as plot, but the movie is still a treat to watch. The special effects aren’t obtrusive but are used in cool ways. The old aesthetic of the original trilogy is back with a vengeance and that’s what lends the film about 80% of its charm. There are Chosen Ones and Saviors and those Seeking Redemption and so-on and so-forth, but even as each character fits snugly into their prescribed role, it’s still fun to watch them in their trials and battles. It’s not ’80s high-camp, but it leans that way.

I’ve seen a lot of kerfuffle over whether Rey is a Mary Sue or not. Let me unpack the term “Mary Sue” a bit. There are two schools of thought: one is that it simply describes an improbably flawless, hyper-competent character (male or female, though “Gary Stu” is an equivalent male version); the second is that it’s sexist vocabulary used to invalidate female wish fulfillment fantasy characters. To my mind, Mary Sues are intentionally and necessarily constructed to have no flaws and very little conflict that they cannot immediately solve. Most Mary Sues that I come across are half-assed attempts at “strong female characters”—the lazy kind who are empty functions that shoot machine guns and blow up bad guys without any motivation, conflict, or personality. The kind you get when writers think they are being asked to include “badass” women when really what people want is fully-formed, well-realized characters who also happen to be female. That’s it, y’all.

Rey is flawless with very little conflict but, in the context of the film and her function within it, I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue. Both Rey and Finn exist as audience projection fantasies. Neither is particularly developed nor conflicted. Revisiting such an iconic mythos requires that these characters not be too defined. Because we are projecting onto them, to give them too much personality risks alienating the paying customer. As Rey and Finn discover the quirks, references, and homages to the original, culturally omnipresent works, it’s as if the viewers themselves are plonked down in these iconic situations like they’re running around a theme park. Neither character actually has that much conflict, that much background, or that much interest individually. I really loved Rey and Finn’s rapport, their friendship, etc. But the fact remains that, while they’re sometimes goofy, and while they do mess up a few times, they are still blank canvases for all of us to cast ourselves onto. I’m sure there’s a TV Tropes-style term for that, but my encyclopedic knowledge of TV Tropes is failing me at the moment.

I promised no spoilers so I’ll forego the rest of my commentary for now. I will say that I instantly fell in love with Poe Dameron. Every time he was on screen I was grinning like an idiot. But Poe also asserted a definite persona right from the start. Overall, I’d say I still have complete and total apathy for any future installments in the Star Wars franchise. There’s just nothing here that I really care about. That said, I’m sure I’ll go back in the future. Just out of curiosity.

(My actual favorite part: the Captain America: Civil War trailer before the film rolled. You will quickly learn that this blog will mostly be a dumping ground for my Marvel Cinematic Universe rants.)


1 I do feel obliged to mention that one of my best friends is a massive Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) fan and once ceremonially burned Mickey Mouse in effigy to express her displeasure with the erasure of the EU. Personally, however, I have no real interest or vendetta.

Hugo: Among Others (2012)

Among Others by Jo Walton
Read April 28, 2015

Premise: After a mysterious accident, a teenager runs away from her controlling mother to her father she has never met and is sent away to boarding school. There are fairies, magic, and a late-’70s science fiction book club mixed in.

Verdict: I devoured this novel in one day. For a start, the descriptions and philosophies of magic are so close to my own that it was a bit like reading my own ramblings.  Magic in this novel is easily dismissed as chance or coincidence, but it has far-reaching consequences and implications. The fairies can be real or can be her adolescent over-active imagination. The narrator, Mor, is sent away to a crappy boarding school and has to deal with being an outsider. And then, in a desperate effort at connection, she finds a science fiction book club in the local town and basically keeps notes on her lit crit activities for a huge list of classic sci-fi. This book is pretty amazing. There’s the sort of wish-fulfillment you’d expect from a novel about an outcast nerd, but there’s also plenty of self-empowerment and coming into one’s own. Mor was recently crippled in a devastating accident, and there was a line in there about this story being what happens after the adventure novel ends and is the boring stuff you’re not supposed to see. I liked that. I also loved the way blood relationship was presented as not really that important when it comes to forming close bonds. Just sort of generally, I’m curious if the prevalent (and gross) idea that “family” cures all and loves you in a disgustingly simplified, pervasive, and simultaneously dismissive way is a cultural wish fulfillment of its own? This is one of my pet peeves so I was really thrilled that this novel was like “you know, these people might be related to me but they really suck and I need to be away from them.”

Holy crap, this was amazing. Please read it (and every book mentioned in it) and let us discuss.

Hugo: Ancillary Justice (2014)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Read April 17, 2015 – April 19, 2015

Premise: An artificially intelligent warship whose consciousness is housed in a human body becomes embroiled in intergalactic imperial politics. And if I told you anymore it would give away way too much.

Verdict: All my love for this novel. All of my love ever. This is imperialistic space opera at its best. The politics are presented but never preached. The world is well-built but not laboriously over-described. The characters are startlingly relatable given that the narrator is a piece of a the aforementioned artificially intelligent warship’s hivemind. Aside from the stylistic elements that I’ll get to shortly, it doesn’t even hammer home weird messages of gender, sexuality, and reproduction (glaring at you from across the playground, Bujold.) One of the (innumerable) things that I love about sci-fi is both figuring out the perimeters and premises of the speculation and then tracing it over the course of the novel to see where it goes. Ancillary Justice never falters once. I’d hold it up as an example of how space opera and even military sci-fi should be in my ideal world.

On the purely stylistic side, it subtly challenges the cultural default to imagine anyone whose gender is not specified as male. Gender is unimportant in the Radch and Esk One is terrible at reading gender markers so she just blanket refers to everyone as “she” in narration. This has the effect of rendering the entire universe default female until someone mentions specifically that a character is male—and usually the narrator continues to ignore male gendered pronouns even then. It’s delicious, and unsettling simply because it forces you to realize just how ingrained looking at the world with a male perspective is. I loved it.

I also loved that the entire impetus of the plot is a grudge Esk One has because the ships harbor intense affection for certain people/officers exactly the same way a human would. The affection is presented extremely well, and Leckie most definitely demonstrates it rather than just explaining, so that man, I felt everything the ship felt. The incredibly large amount of perspectives just from the one character are also woven together so seamlessly (in places sometimes three or four things are going in in different places at exactly the same time) that I really felt like I too was a ship with an enormous omniscience and two-thousand years of experience.

As far as politics go, it questions individuality v. collective on top of the rigid social casting system of the old Radch. It manages to do this using two of the main ship’s former officers: an aristocratic one from a thousand years ago and a more recent one from a common family. The interweaving of time, stories, and motivations is superbly done. I basically read this thing in one long wallow because I didn’t want to put it down.

Love. Love love. Throwing confetti and dancing I loved this book so much.

Next time someone gives me the same bullshit about sci-fi being shallow, exclusionary, and poorly written I’m just going to hand them Ancillary Justice and shut their ass up. This is everything I love about science fiction and the potential for science fiction as a storytelling device all wrapped up in one well-reading package.

Hugo: Redshirts (2013)

Redshirts by John Scalzi
Read March 23, 2015

Premise: A group of ensigns on an exploration starship in the distant future try to find a way around the certain, brutal, pointless deaths that plague the peons on the crew. It is, basically, what is says on the tin and very meta about it.

Verdict: I’ve been trying to get my hands on this book for at least two years so reading it was a pleasure. I will say, however, that while the first half chugs along hard at all my favorite tropes, and meta storytelling styles, once it actually gets into the why/what/where/how of the thing it gets less interesting. The logic of the plot is a bit hand-wavy, but given the nature of the story that’s possibly another meta feature. This whole book is basically Star Trek meets Stranger Than Fiction meets a little bit of Kilgore Trout. At the end it even starts fighting with itself (including a debate about whether Final Draft or Scrivener is better, so even when it’s off on its tangents it still kept me rolling. It’s very funny throughout.) It’s fairly obvious why this won a Hugo. Hugos are a fan-voted award and this is just enough of a high-camp send-up of sci-fi and fandom combined with a relentlessly logical intellectualism to appeal to the kind of people who would vote in such a thing. That’s not a strike against it; all that crap is what makes it so fun. But I’d say, if you’re not a geek maybe don’t try this or you’ll be confused. Since I personally found it overall a bit weak, I’m not nearly as enthused about it as I was earlier today when I started. But it was truly a joy to read. Kudos.

This book is fun. Read it. Enjoy.

Hugo: Blackout / All Clear (2011)

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
Read from December 16, 2014 – January 2, 2015

Premise: Three Oxford historians time travel to their assignments during World War II only to find themselves stuck with no way to return to the future.

Verdict: Hey ho, friends! I have returned to my Hugo Project after such an obscenely long break that it should be criminal negligence. I’m still here, reading away! But, you know, life-stuff happens. I also read a ton of other random books over the past two years, but ironically not a single Hugo winner.

Anyway! Let’s talk about Blackout/All Cleara one-story, two-book time travel adventure set during World War II. I read both of these novels the day they came out, so re-reading them was an interesting experience. I re-read the entire Oxford Time Travel series as a winter treat to myself, remembering how much I adored Doomsday Book and how struck I was by To Say Nothing of the Dog, which was one of the first books in this entire project when I started it a lifetime ago. Reading the entire series straight through reveals all the nods and connections in this book to all the others in the same universe. But you don’t have to read these books to understand the others, or read any of them in order for that matter. They all stand up well as separate stories.

That said: Blackout/All Clear was way better the first time. The thing with this novel is that about 70% of it is the main characters running around just missing meeting each other or the people they’re trying to find. Most of the suspense comes from those missed meetings, so when you know what happens already it gets tedious as hell. Even the characters who I remembered loving and the relationships I enjoyed were a bit strained, just because I felt like I was wasting a lot of time reading about everyone dashing here and there and groaning about it being futile “because time travel” and obviously if they’d made it they’d already have been rescued etc. It’s all very dire. If you don’t know what happens. The rest of the novels (and the novella Firewatch) stand up much better to re-readsparticularly Doomsday Book which is a frickin’ masterpiecebecause their plots are much more character focused. This go around, however, all the time travel elements made a whole lot more sense.

Annoyances aside, this novel (and the extreme length of it) is testament to Willis’ fixation with World War II (which comes through in all the other novels in the series as well) and she plays it out in pretty much every possible scenario. They’re also long enough that Willis can weave together her classic humor and her penchant for emotional devastation into one seamless work. The setup of the multiple storylines is fun, playing out like the mystery novels the characters love so much, but once you figure out even that you just want her to frickin’ spit it out already and get on with it. The first time I read these I was wrenched horribly. This time they feel bloated way out proportion.

All that said: I still enjoy them. Alf and Binnie Hodbin (two street urchin terrors) are plenty entertaining; Willis’ portrayal of gentle clergymen always gets me where I live somehow; and the three main characters are truly wonderful and make insightful observations related to whatever thesis they were working on as a history assignment. The relationships they all form with the contemps are appropriately heart wrenching, as I’ve come to expect. And, as ever, I am madly in love with Mr. Dunworthy. It’s just that the whole thing is so damned drawn out.

If you like this series, go for it. As an entry into Connie Willis, I wouldn’t suggest it. Go with Doomsday Book.

 

Hugo: The City and the City (2010)

The City and the City by China Miéville
Read September 12, 2013 – September 20, 2013

Premise: Two cities co-exist in the same geographic space—to the point of adjacent buildings being in different cities—only separated by the culture of each and the compliance of the citizens to maintain the boundaries. A detective in one city investigates the murder of a young woman from the other city whose body, somehow, has made it across the border.

Verdict: This book was amazingly evocative while still staying true to its appropriated genre style—by which I mean, the sparse language of the crime/cop novel was used very well to describe the setup of the cities in question (which I myself have failed to do five times now when trying to explain this book to people.) Sometimes I would look up from the page and have to readjust to the world not being the way it was in the novel. I found the climax itself a bit confused and muddled but I guess, in the end, it all came out rather nicely (if slightly predictable—which isn’t a strike against it by any means.) I had some plot hole complaints while reading it, but once I was finished it all shook out well enough that I don’t feel like complaining anymore.

Definitely recommend—especially if you want to give yourself a little trippy break from the real world.

NOTE This book tied for the 2010 Hugo Award with The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Hugo: The Diamond Age (1996)

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
Read July 3, 2013 – July 21, 2013

Premise: In the not-too-distant (but not too close) future, you can compile anything you want almost-for-free out of centralized matter compilers, the world has split into “Phyles” or self-defined ethnic groups based more on shared values than on national boundaries (which are defunct) and you can make some seriously sophisticated technology if you know how. One man, Hackworth, is asked by his company’s CEO to make “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” or a computerized educational book that will teach the CEO’s granddaughter “subversiveness” in the face of the strict moral codes of the Neo-Victorian Phyle she belongs to. Hackworth does so, compiles a stolen copy for his daughter, is mugged by thugs, and the copy falls into the hands of Nell (who amounts to something like a street urchin in this society.) Nell is basically raised and educated by the Primer (and the “racter” or actor hired to read the lines to her.)

Verdict: I adored this book, and then it got more towards me being emotionally confused instead of just adoring. There were parts in the novel related to literacy and adventure that got me kind of choked up because they were very poignant and beautiful. The parts where the Primer is a refuge or an incredibly patient and effective teacher are amazing. I’m even especially fond the Stephenson’s technological future and the way he envisions race, class, and ethnicity in a world that’s both idyllic and Rodenberry-esque but also horrific and full of culture-clash and racism without shying away from it. Which is why I think the climax/conclusion is sort of rammed onto the end and not as self-aware as the rest of the book, just because of the creepy racial implications that it has—more with regard to Nell and her Mouse Army, and Hackworth’s Seed than anything else. Neo-Victorians are basically the white English-speaking folks from around the world, with modified Victorian mores. Pretty much all of the main characters are Neo-Victorians who live in Shanghai (which isn’t abnormal because it’s illustrated in the novel that the various races/ethnic groups have spread all over the world regardless of national boundary. I don’t want to spoil anything but I’m not as thrilled with the last like twenty pages of this book as I was with the rest of it.)

I do really like Nell’s being the sort of “big sister” to the “Mouse Army” (which is a bunch of rescued ethnic Han Chinese girls from the devastated interior of China), and I found it very touching when she basically freed them from enchantment in the Primer, but it got sort of weird when they lifted her up on their arms in real life and started carrying her through the streets. Also: the bits where Nell is raped and she “transcends her soul with the power of her mind” or whatever the shit were just sort of like wtf.

I also feel like I’m less inclined to forgive it these faults because it was incredibly well-written and well-imagined and I’m astounded that it was written in 1995 and (a few notable times) forgot that it wasn’t actually real life.

I really loved reading this until I got around to the strange conclusions full of white saviors, and almost-ignored rape and now I’m just confused as to how I feel because a large part of the story was about the fluidity of ethnicity and “nationalism” when such things are largely defined by technological practice and shared social codes. So I don’t know if it’s like “hurray, white saviors!” or using it to make a point or was just a spiffy conclusion or what.

Hugo: The Gods Themselves (1973)

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
Read August 14, 2012 – August 17, 2012

(Yes, I’m back! You’ll note the over one-year gap between novels. I was in grad school and had a master’s paper to write. Now I’m thoroughly over-educated and unemployed. A lot has happened to me over that big break, but I’ll endeavor to keep the reviews the same.)

Premise: A group of catty egotistical scientists attempt to one-up each other in the realm of physics and energy while systematically ignoring the dire consequences to the universe. They create an “energy pump” which trades elements with a parallel universe where the laws of physics are opposite. In that parallel universe, a group of extraterrestrials also deals with the identical problem.

Verdict: The title of this novel is taken from a German play about Joan of Arc—the full quote being “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.” That seems to sum up the whole novel quite well. The novel is in three parts (the parts originally published in Galaxy Magazine as three separate stories)—the first part is the humans discovering the strange element, the second is a sociological almost-soft-sci-fi exploration of the social structures and scientific dynamics of the aliens in the parallel universe, and the third returns to the humans and features a moon colony and a scientist focused on the problem and not the politics. My favorite part was the part with the aliens and the novel is well worth reading if only for that section (entitled “The Gods Themselves.”) The last section suffers from the same sort of genre-disease that most male-written sci-fi of this time exhibits. Through the mid-60’s, really, science fiction was dominated by male authors which can make for some unfortunate portrayals of women in their novels. Then you have people like Le Guin (and others) coming in and stirring the pot, so all the old white dudes were like “crap! We need to put women in these books!” What you end up with is the sexually-free, independent woman who nevertheless needs the middle aged man and desires a traditional nuclear family the second she meets him. This happens constantly—particularly with Heinlein, but also Asimov. It’s tired, but it’s expected when I’m reading this from this time period, so I just roll my eyes and move on.

This book was enjoyable and a quick read. Basically, read this novel for the aliens.

Pseudo-Hugo: Memory

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold, published 1997
(In-Universe #10 chronologically in the Miles Vorkosigan Saga)

I’ve discovered that I have this strange sympathetic, semi-symbiotic relationship with Miles Vorkosigan. Lack of Miles gives me anxiety attacks. When Miles screws up and falls into his major depressions, my depression gets even worse. The people that Miles cares for, I adore. The people he doesn’t like, I hate. The only places that I seem to disagree with him, I’ve already mentioned (and they generally have to do with the theoretical ethics of sci-fi universes). On to the actual review of this book. By the by, this one was truly nominated for a Hugo. Also, it’s probably my favorite since The Vor Game.

Miles screws up big time and gets fired. Illyan becomes mysteriously ill and his brain goes crazy. Miles, Gregor, and Ivan are all still the most exceedingly lovable Vor boys ever. Gregor gets engaged. And Miles actually does an awesome job at his makeshift position, and gets a new job. Tada. There really isn’t anything else to say about this except it is a fantastic exploration of what happens to you emotionally when you screw up so bad that you lose all of your dreams.

I’ve got three more out of the library right now, there are two more I can get from State, and the newest one I will just have to hunt down. Then I will have read them all. I’m not sure I’ll keep writing up these reviews. I just sort of wanted to say that, while I was highly upset by the beginning of this novel, I think it settled back down into an acceptable continuance by the end.