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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hugo: Mirror Dance (1995)

Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold
Read March 6, 2011 – March 17, 2011

Premise: Miles’ clone from Brothers in Arms turns up, pretends to be Miles, gets into a hell of a lot of trouble, Miles goes after him, gets into even more trouble, and much angsting ensues.

Verdict: This is the third and final Hugo winner to date in Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. There are, however, five more novels after this one.

Look, very seriously, no one in their right mind—not even Miles—would be pleased that they had a clone and immediately accept him as a brother. The psychology and ethics on that one are so far out the window that I don’t even buy Beta Colony originating them. Miles is just a nutcase. That’s more beef with Brothers in Arms than with this one, but it still was a major driving force of “wtf” behind my reading. I’d also like to note, for readers of this series, that Miles is MIA (literally) for over half the novel, and Mark (the clone) spends that half of the novel angsting and being annoying. Mark eventually redeems himself and one grows to rather like him—after he stops being an idiot. And after everyone on Barrayar has the sensible reaction of being dubious and wary of clone-Miles (Aral Vorkosigan—I continue to love you to absolute pieces. I’m fairly certain that you still beat Miles by a close margin). Nevertheless, I sort of wanted to kill people for the lack of Miles. It didn’t help that I was reading this book in the midst of a bout of depression and it was actually feeding my anxiety attacks more than anything else. I was also fairly upset at the “badass decay” of Bel Thorne. I loooove Bel and s/he (still refusing to say “it” like the text!) was one of my favorite non-Barrayaran characters. It wasn’t badass decay so much as gigantic mistakes and essentially being kicked out of the plot. I guess s/he was getting into too uncomfortable of a situation, but I am glad that s/he finally kissed Miles. I’ve been begging for that for volumes. And, two of the best characters from Barrayar (does anybody else remember that long ago??) sort of resurfaced. I was always upset that Kou and Drou just disappeared off the face of the plot-earth. They apparently had four daughters, all of who are gigantic Valkyrie blonds. Kou and Drou are still sort of absent, but at least they (sort of) show back up.

At any rate, in the end this book redeemed itself, Mark redeemed himself, everything was pretty good, and I suppose I enjoyed it. Minus the anxiety attacks and wanting to throw it out the window for lack of Miles and it taking me two weeks to read because of all manner of things.

Sometimes, I just shake my head and keep reading. But, well, I guess it turned out all right. I’ve got the rest out of the library as we speak.

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Pseudo-Hugo: Borders of Infinity

Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold, published 1989
(In-Universe #8 chronologically in the Miles Vorkosigan Saga)

This was a compilation of the three novellas in the Vorkosigan universe, with a little bit of a frame narrative to string them coherently together. These three novellas (“The Mountains of Mourning,” “Labyrinth,” and “Borders of Infinity”) have also all been collected in the various omnibus editions, but placed in the proper in-universe chronological order between the novels.

The Mountains of Mourning. You know, I was reading up on historical methods of birth control for one of my stories. Turns out the most common, socially acceptable, and widely practiced method of birth control was infanticide. Miles, honey, I love you, but I can’t decide if the human rights stance in these books is extremely liberal or the most horrifically conservative thing I’ve ever seen. It seems to be some terrifying mixture. Basically, a kid born with a harelip is offed and Miles is sent to figure out who did it. Ladeeda.

Labyrinth. Further proof that Miles will screw anything female that shows interest. Also further proof of Miles’ bordering-on-unbelievable human rights stances. It occurs to me that, long long ago, before I was made aware of intense overpopulation issues and zealots dedicated to the human meat puppet, I would have more-or-less agreed with all of these positions. But now they just make me fairly uneasy. And I want to say “Miles, get your ass back out into space and play soldier.” Jackson’s Hole, by the by, seems exceedingly interesting. Also, it’s very much a shame that Miles won’t screw Bel Thorne as he/she (I cannot say it, like the text) is a Betan hermaphrodite—but aside from that is one of the coolest characters in this series. See, Beta colony screws my mind up because you have people who are violently against abortion but are exceedingly sexually free. The way you get around that, as an author, is that you give Beta Colony default sterility treatments until people actually want to reproduce. This does not make things better, in my opinion. Also, I just wish Miles could practice what he preaches. It’s not like Bel isn’t female.

Borders of Infinity. This is the story that gets the whole little compilation an A+. It has war, intrigue, tactics, crazy people, Miles-being-Miles, and no strange sexual situations of a dubiously political nature. This is also the “Dagoola incident” that I heard so much about in Brothers in Arms and was like “um, hello, I want to read that.”

I know that I’m way over-thinking these books by this point. I also know that most books aren’t written to be in-your-face socio-political at every turn. But I certainly tend to read things that way. Plus, trying to apply my socio-political position to books from the ’80s and ’90s is not the wisest thing to do, but I don’t usually have such deep-seated problems with books that I whole-heartedly adore. That’s just the power of Bujold, I suppose! I can overcome even my personal issues with the books while I’m reading them. They are that awesome.

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Pseudo-Hugo: Brothers in Arms

Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold, published 1989
(In-Universe #7 chronologically in the Miles Vorkosigan Saga)

I skipped Ethan of Athos 1.) because it’s not in my library and 2.) because it doesn’t have Miles. I’m fairly sure I’ll go back later and read it at some point.

This was a really nice suspenseful novel and it made me laugh frequently, wig out frequently, and essentially keep turning the pages. I liked Elli Quinn’s character here and how we actually get to meet her now instead of her just being an injured soldier in the infirmary like she was in The Warrior’s Apprentice. I am pretty much hopelessly in love with Ivan Vorpatril. In fact, Miles went a little weird in this one and started to rub me the wrong way like Barrayar and Shards of Honors did and I’m getting to like Ivan more.

I liked the story Miles made up about being/having a clone. I loved how Miles was frazzled and pretty much had his multiple personalities splitting and converging and going absolutely wild. What I did not love was the actual appearance of a clone and Miles going wiggy over the really odd human rights status of said clone in various cultures and then to his own mind. I just don’t find it believable that someone finds out they have a clone and is instantly accepting of that. That’s fairly unrealistic. “Hey you have a clone!” “Awesome!!” No. By the end of the novel I was pretty fed up with Miles and his “free-thinking.” I’m inclined to agree that clones have human rights (like androids!), but seriously I just don’t think someone who was unwittingly copied is going to be that thrilled about it. That’s probably why I was far more sympathetic to Ivan by the end who basically ends up on the bad end of all of Miles’ plots. I love Miles being a spastic hyper genius, when he went off into unthinking Betan human rights lala-land he rubbed me wrong enough that his spastic hyper geniusness ended up being quite annoying. So, let’s get back to Awesome Miles instead of Annoying Miles, ok?

I liked this novel. Yet again. Bujold and Miles continue to amaze (and continue to eat my brain). So far, I think my favorite is definitely The Vor Game. That certainly stands out as the high point at this point.

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Hugo: The Vor Game (1991)

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
Read February 6, 2011 – February 9, 2011

Premise: Miles Vorkosigan (remember Miles?) has a problem following orders. As in if it would be better to disobey the order to achieve the goal, he cannot obey it. So he ends up gallivanting across the universe, rather by accident, and rescuing Barrayar from the evil Cetagandans (again, by coincidence), not to mention saving his Emperor from himself.

Verdict: This novel won the Hugo the year before Barrayar did. And you know what? Since Barrayar only exists to tell the story of Miles genesis, I’m now willing to forgive it a ton of things that rubbed me the wrong way to begin with. Miles is a snark. He’s entertaining, absurdly lovable (from the reader’s standpoint anyway), and just all around fun to read about. This novel follows his trials getting through his first few months in the Barrayaran military (I think the military came out on the bad side of that deal, if that gives you any idea about Miles.) Last time, I said the only person I loved more than Miles was his father. This time, the only people I love more than Gregor Vorbarra (Emperor of Barrayar) are Miles and his father. Ha. Another interesting character was the psycho-lady Commander Cavilo—the leader of another mercenary group sort-of-fighting against Miles. She basically uses sex for evil. Bujold managed to pull her off as a terrifying character instead of just throwing her in for titillation which I definitely commend her for. And what is “The Vor Game” anyway? As far as I can tell it’s “the game of life” that the upper classes of Barrayar have to play involving honor, intention, politics, and on and on and on (in this case it’s much about the Emperor of Barrayar). If you like space opera, political intrigue, the rest of this series, or good books in general, I’m fairly certain you’ll like these.

Certainly keeps you turning the pages. Onward!

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Pseudo-Hugo: Cetaganda

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold, published 1996
(In-Universe #5 chronologically in the Miles Vorkosigan Saga)

This one was fairly weird and utterly not like the others in the least. Miles and his cousin Ivan are sent to Cetaganda (remember evil Cetaganda? They’re really just a weird eugenics culture that’s pretty nuts) as a diplomatic courtesy to attend the funeral of the Dowager Empress. They end up embroiled in some internal Cetagandan political turmoil.

There aren’t really space battles, or tactics or anything beyond explorations of the Cetagandan culture and a pretty transparent “mystery” story of court intrigue here. It was fun and I was interested in the Cetaganda social structure (which was pretty nifty) but this one definitely leans away from the amount of substance you get in the other books. It was fairly strait forward and suspenseful enough to keep the pages turning, but it lacked the really urgent suspense and anticipation that I’ve seen in the other books in this series.

Bear with me as I ramble off into theoretical land. BUT! I keep thinking about how much I hate Dune (see evidence here) and why. Essentially, it’s written by a male member of a patriarchy about a male character who is also a member of a patriarchy and who is doing nothing but reaffirming said patriarchy by proving the uselessness and redundancy of women. The Vorkosigan saga is written by a female member of a patriarchy about a male character who is also a member of a patriarchy but who sees the structure in which he operates and—being himself handicapped—is essentially demoted down that ladder of dominant hegemonic respect to the level of women who are deemed useless, frivolous, and who garner less-worth in the social structure. It’s essentially Miles’ mission in life (and the point of his existence) to expose the patriarchy to those who are so wrapped up in it that they cannot see it. Rock on Miles. For some reason, every other minority group—racial, geographic, religious, etc—are currently getting some level of respect as far as acknowledgment of their status as legitimate human beings within the power structure. Even those of non-traditional sexual orientations are gaining visibility and respect. But when it comes to the subject of women, society is still pretty full of scorn and skepticism. Bujold: I love you.

Now that I have all of those run-on sentences out of my system…

As ever—ONWARD! The next novels have earlier publication dates. Lookin’ forward to ’em.

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Pseudo-Hugo: The Warrior’s Apprentice

The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold, published 1986
(In-Universe #3 chronologically in the Miles Vorkosigan Saga)

Basically, stunted “mutant” Miles Vorkosigan (who you may remember from last time), fails to get into Military Academy, goes to see his grandma on the liberal planet, ends up accidentally getting into a war, and is (as he has been so perfectly described to me by a friend) “such a spaz.” But a genius, hilarious, endearing, and brilliant spaz.

I don’t have much to say about this. My sheer glee and adoration of it is beyond my powers of in-depth description at the moment (and frankly, I’d rather go to sleep, given the hour). What I do know is that I adore Miles Vorkosigan. My love for him is surpassed only by my love for Aral Vorkosigan. Curse these feudal class systems of honor and female oppression! They are far too tantalizing. Thousands of years of cultural evolution is hard to combat with only a few decades of feminism. That’s probably why all the female characters in these novels are such intense badasses. The Counts and Lords and all their barbaric ways speak so deeply to the human psyche, even as we know that the enjoyment of such things are a dirty secret to indulge in. I shall say that I am slightly willing to overlook the utter-oddness of some of the stuff in the first two books, just because it gets me Miles (and since they were written completely out of order, I guess maybe it took some retconning to get it to work right.)

Onward! I have checked out this entire series from the library in one fell (and, I am told, “aggressive”) swoop to prevent anyone else from checking them out while I’m trying to blast through them. Bwahaha. The next one is an actual Hugo winner.

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