Draft Hugos preview

by John Quiggin on August 1, 2005

Here’s the first draft of my Hugos preview. Comments much appreciated.

Thanks to all who contributed. Australian readers can see the final product in Friday’s Financial Review

In the next few days, the winners of the Hugo awards will be announced at the World Science Fiction Convention. While this event does not attract the kind of attention associated with, say the Booker prize, the genres of SF (science fiction or speculative fiction, as you prefer) and fantasy, have a massive presence in our culture. The occasion of the awards provides an opportunity to consider the state of SF.

What’s immediately striking is the quality of the candidates for the main award, that for best novel. Looking at the SF shelf in your local bookshelf, groaning under the weight of multi-volume sword-and-sorcery epics, and tiresome Star Wars derivatives, it would be easy to conclude that the genre is in terminal decline. Yet all the contenders for this year’s Hugo award would stand comparison, not only with the Golden Age of the 1940s and 1950s, but with most contemporary literary fiction. In fact, with the rise of literary modes like magical realism, the whole concept of genre has become more a matter of the subculture to which writers belong than of fundamental difference in content or expression.

The big problem for speculative fiction has been the loss of the future,as a focus of imagination. The sense of inevitable, and transformative, technological progress that drove classic science fiction has come to an end. In many respects, the way we live now is quite similar to that of fifty years ago: we drive petrol-engined cars to work in office buildings, return to houses much like those we grew up in, and turn on the TV for a night’s entertainment.

In particular, human space travel, the central technology of classic science fiction, has gone nowhere. Nearly forty years after the moon landings, we have a half-built space station in low earth orbit, serviced by an increasingly decrepit fleet of shuttles. Even these limited ventures seem doomed in the long run. In this context, stories about Martian colonies, or the exploration of Jupiter seem rather pointless.

In social terms, too, the utopian and dystopian visions that drove classic SF are distinctly out of fashion. Fukuyama’s claims about ‘end of history’ may look a bit dubious in the light of the various wars and terrorist outbreaks that have occurred since he wrote. But even if we are not at the end of history, there seems to be little in our present times or the foreseeable future to provide a basis for radical social speculation.

The one area where technology still exhibits rapid progress is that of computing and the Internet. The startling rate of progress is embodied in the various versions of Moore’s Law, stating that computing power, storage capacity and so on, double every eighteen months or so.

Picking any plausible finite estimate for the computing capacity of the human brain, Moore’s Law implies that computers will surpass it sometime this century. Most people, noting the string of failed promises that makes up the history of artificial intelligence research conclude that this estimate must be wrong, either because Moore’s Law will fail sooner or later, or because quantitative increases in computing power don’t translate into real intelligence.

But if you take the idea seriously, it’s easy to go beyond it. Once computers reach human levels of intelligence and consciousness, the networking capacity of the Internet implies that they will rapidly transcend it, with unimaginable consequences. This idea is commonly referred to as the Singularity, a term apparently arising in discussions between the mathematicians Stanislaw Ulam and John von Neumann. The idea of the Singularity was popularised in the 1980s and 1990s by mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, and later by technological innovator Ray Kurzweil.

Regardless of its validity or otherwise, the idea of the Singularity has obvious appeal as a technical device for SF, since it reopens the door to the limitless possibilities that characterized mid-20th century thinking about the future. On the other hand, since the computer minds resulting from the Singularity are, by hypothesis, unimaginable, it is necessary to postulate their continued coexistence with humanity on some basis or another.

Two of the contenders for this year’s Hugo [Ian MacDonald’s River of Gods and Charles Stross Iron Sunrise] are based directly on the idea of the Singularity, and something like it is central to the work of Iain M. Banks, whose latest novel The Algebraist is also on the ballot.

River of Gods is set in India in 2047, as it approaches the centenary of independence, having broken up, in the meantime into half a dozen separate states, feuding and bickering, with access to water being the bitterest subject of contention in an era of global warming. In an effort to stave off the rise of superhuman AI, research on a range of topics has been banned globally, but is still being carried on in a clandestine fashion in some of the Indian states, with the result that, unknown to any of the characters, the Singularity is rapidly approaching.

This emerges as the central story, but the novel switches viewpoints among a dozen main characters, with subplots centred on politics and gender (the former continuing much as it always has, the latter subject to radical technological modification). The kaleidoscopic effect is sometimes confusing, but it is effective, at least for Western readers whose knowledge of India is already of this kind: a refracted mixture of partial, colourful and contradictory images, ranging from sacred cows and saris to call centres and software mills.

Iron Sunrise is a sequel to Stross’ first novel Singularity Sky, which was one of the Hugo nominees in 2004. The starting point is a Singularity in which an emergent computer intelligence, referring to itself as the Eschaton, masters the capacity to control both time and space, and determines to prevent any other causality violation that would threaten its own existence. Its first action is to disperse the human population of Earth across dozens of different planets, equipping them with a variety of gifts that will eventually permit the discovery of faster-than-light travel, after several centuries of development in isolation

This is an effective device that permits free play with many of the traditional concerns of SF, allowing dozens of different civilisations derived directly from those of modern-day Earth. Singularity Sky was anarchic and playful, with 24th-century Trotskyists grappling with the problems of almost unbounded technological capacity. Iron Sunrise is much darker: the action is driven by a would-be Master Race who open the book by blowing up a star and destroying all life on the planet orbiting it.

Iain M. Banks has enjoyed huge success with a series of novels centred on the Culture, a future civilisation in which the superhuman intelligence of Machine minds has made work and economic activity essentially unnecessary for humans. Much of the plot in these novels deals with relatively traditional SF themes arising from the peaceful or violent interactions between the Culture and other civilisations with which it shares the galaxy. But the real appeal is in the depiction of the Culture itself, perhaps the most convincing evocation of a post-scarcity society that has yet been produced.

None of the Culture novels has even been nominated for a Hugo, and this year’s nomination of The Algebraist, has something of an air of compensation for past omissions. Although the book is a worthy contender, most of Banks’ fans would prefer the award to go to one of the Culture novels.

The Algebraist has been described as a Culture novel in reverse. Humans engaged in a brutal war between space empires of the traditional SF kind seek a technological secret held by a post-technological race dwelling in gas giants, and apparently travelling freely between them. As usual with Banks ,the main interest is not in the complexities of the plot, but in the interactions between society and technology. This is probably better developed in a series like the Culture novels than in a single book.

Singularities aside, SF still faces the problem that the future isn’t what it used to be. The alternative, and a time-honoured strategy in SF is to mine the past. SF has always been as much about the past as about the future: writers from Asimov onwards have replayed of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Then there are the innumerable translations of medieval romances, sea stories and Westerns into various mixtures of SF and fantasy.

The great discovery of recent years has been the fictional potential of the early modern era, from the 17th to the 19th century. The typical mode is that of alternate history, most notably in the steam cyberpunk genre inaugurated by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell takes a different tack, positing a convergence between real and alternate histories. Clarke’s Georgian England is just like the real thing, but has a history in which magic was practised right through the middle ages, and remains a topic of antiquarian interest.

The plot similarly combines an alternate history in which the rediscovery of ‘practical magic’ by the eponymous rival magicians disrupts English history and the course of the Napoleonic wars with a traditional faery story, beginning when Norrell makes the classic mistake of accepting an attractive-seeming bargain from a faery king.

The point of the book, though, is not the story but the style, complete with 18th century spellings and elaborate footnotes. This style, and the fact that the book takes over 700 pages for a story that could have been told in a fraction of the space, has repelled some readers but also attracted many.

China Miéville has taken the whole process a step further, creating a fictional world around the city of New Crobuzon, which is recognisably London of the late 19th century, but with a biological rather than technological basis to its industrial revolution. The politics is that of Continental Europe, and particularly Paris, with gendarmes and agents provocateurs, and a ferment of radical and revolutionary organisations. The first two novels in the series, Perdido Street Station and The Scar, were both nominated for Hugo Awards, and this year’s candidate Iron Council has already won the 2005 Arthur C. Clarke award.

The Iron Council is the name taken by the workers on a transcontinental railway project who have overthrown their masters and fled into the unexplored wilderness, building railtrack as they go. They are faced with the choice between continuing their flight and returning to aid a rebellion in New Crobuzon.

The setting of Iron Council provides scope for an exploration, among other things, of the themes of revolutionary politics and, implicitly, the question of whether any fundamental alternative to capitalism is feasible. Miéville would certainly give a positive answer to this question. However, the conclusion to Iron Council, in which the revolutionaries and the armoured train of the title neither succeed nor fail in their attempt to liberate New Crobuzon, is classically ambiguous, calling on mythic archetypes of sleeping knights in hollow hills.

With such a strong field, and selection on the basis of a membership vote, it’s hard to predict a winner. My personal favourite is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but this is a book perfectly designed to appeal to middle-aged academics like myself. Of the remaining contenders, I think Iron Council is the strongest, though all would be worthy winners.

{ 29 comments }

1

yabonn 08.01.05 at 2:51 am

Is Moore’s law still holding?

I haven’t paid very close attention, but, despite all the dual-thingies and 64-somethings, it doesn’t fell like the growth of a few years ago.

Is it the market? How are they doing in the R&D?

2

Cheryl Morgan 08.01.05 at 4:05 am

Nice survey there John. Although of course there is no more intense view of the inevitable and transformative effect of technology than The Singularity.

A few points to add:

1. All five Novel nominees are by British writers, even though the vast majority of the eligible nominators were American and the Stross book was not published in the UK until after the nomination deadline. (Short fiction is still dominated by American writers.)

2. The McDonald [note spelling please] and Banks may be somewhat handicapped by the lack of US publication (though both are scheduled to appear in the US over the next year).

3. Iron Council comfortably beat out Strange & Norrell in the Locus Poll. Both are nominees for the World Fantasy Award.

As for the Singularity, yes, Moore’s Law is currently still working, though it has some pretty stiff challenges ahead. For the definitive Singularity novel, see Charlie Stross’s latest novel, Accelerando. For a layman’s guide, try Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution.

3

duane 08.01.05 at 4:42 am

The Algebraist was good, but I felt frustrated reading it. It didn’t seem to quite live up to its potential, somehow. The gas giant dweller culture was fun, but a bit clunky. IMO it was entertaining, but definitely one of his lesser works.

River of God was interesting and innovative, but a bit hit and miss. I hated the ending, but won’t say too much more for fear of spoilers.

I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. IMO it is the most perfectly realised of the three books. The style, the language, the setting and the plot all complement each other. On the other hand, I can see how it would bore many people rigid.

I haven’t read the other two contenders. It might get me banned from CT, but I must admit I don’t like Miéville. I’ve only read Perdido Street Station, mind you. I’ve been meaning to read some Charlie Stross for ages. I must remember to get Singularity Sky next time I order some books.

Oh, and Moore’s Law is still holding — the number of transistors on chip are roughly doubling every 18 months. However, that doesn’t mean your computer feels twice as fast, or even that it is getting twice as powerful. We’re at the stage now where to take advantage of improvements code needs to be able to do many things at once, which is much more difficult than doing one thing fast.

4

Dave 08.01.05 at 4:49 am

I agree with your comments regarding The Algebraist – it is a very good novel but I think most fans, myself included, would consider ‘Use of Weapons’ to be his best work in the SF genre.

As a Brit I should be reassured that all five nominees are fellow Brits but in many ways I’m not, it just seems a slightly worrying sign that the Us has not produced any nominees and suggests that the industry in the US is not so healthy as it could or should be.

One point I would make on the alternate history/technology strand is that its not so recent a discovery – Mike Moorcock explored this idea to good effect in his Multiverse/Eternal Champion series via the character of Oswald Bastable.

5

Sam Dodsworth 08.01.05 at 5:40 am

I’ve been meaning to read some Charlie Stross for ages.

If you don’t mind reading onscreen, you can download a copy of ‘Accelerando’ here. Or, if you’d prefer something shorter, there’s “A Colder War” here, at Infinity Plus.

6

Chad Orzel 08.01.05 at 8:05 am

I tend to think the quantity and quality of the speculation that SF offered in the “Golden Age” greatly inflated by the genres’s own myth-making. I’m not really convinced that there’s been that big a drop-off in the modern era. But that’s sort of a side issue.

As far as individual authors go, I have both The Algebraist and River of Gods sitting around waiting to be read (in UK editions, obtained through Amazon), but I can’t really comment on them. I don’t really care for Mieville, either– I can see how people would rate it highly, but I prefer my SF to be less oppressively squalid.

That means I really don’t have a whole lot to say on the Hugos, I guess. As far as Stross goes, I thought Iron Sunrise was a much better novel as a novel than Singularity Sky, even with the Space Nazis. He seemed to almost completely lose control of the plot in the third quarter (or so) of Singularity Sky, and only barely recovered for the ending. The sequel, on the other hand, maintains a reasonably coherent plot throughout. If you put most of the emphasis on the speculative aspect, there’s more going on in Singularity Sky, but to my mind, the improved plotting makes Iron Sunrise a better book.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was excellent, but doesn’t feel like a Hugo sort of book to me. Honestly, I’m not sure I would vote for it to win any awards (though I did put it on my Hugo nomination ballot), but I’m hard pressed to explain why. I don’t think it would be an actively bad choice, in the way that Bujold’s Paladin of Souls was last year (explanation on my book log: http://www.steelypips.org/library/2004_09_01_libarchive.php#109568100070933448 ), but I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about it, either.

I thought one of the very best books in the genre last year was Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle, which I’m happy to see up for s World Fantasy Award. Alas, there, too, it’s crippled by being a small-press book up against the marketing behemoths of Jonathan Strange and China Mieville, but it’s really excellent, and everybody should read it.

7

Jared 08.01.05 at 8:15 am

I’d like to be on record as saying: I for one welcome our new superhuman AI overlords.

8

Luis Villa 08.01.05 at 8:20 am

The reason not to vote for Strange and Norrell is that it would bore 95% of readers stiff. I was stubborn enough to read it (and even all the footnotes) but Stephenson is hard enough to read when Stephenson writes it; much harder when it is humorless and dry.

Aside from that, I have little intelligent to say, because I still can’t get Algebraist or River of Gods here in the states. I’ve been very tempted to have both imported by my local sci-fi store, but that way lies madness. And poverty.

9

Henry 08.01.05 at 8:40 am

Will have more to say on the Singularity soonish – a copy of Kurzweil’s forthcoming book is on its way. In the meantime, I’ll agree with some of the other commenters that the most interesting take on the Singularity so far is Stross’s _Accelerando_. The post-Singularity future belongs not to humans, nor even to conventional AI’s but to intelligent financial instruments gone feral. A nice, wry comment on hedge funds etc.

On the Hugos – my vote, if I had one would be for _Iron Council_, but I liked _Jonathan Strange_ and _River of Gods_ a lot too. The _Algebraist_ as already noted, is minor Banks, “Iron Sunrise” is good, but it isn’t Stross’s best work either. Agree heartily about the merits of Sean Stewart’s _Perfect Circle_ (although I’m fonder still of _Resurrection Man_ and _Nobody’s Son_).

10

Matt McIrvin 08.01.05 at 9:19 am

Some quibbles with the description of the technical/historical background for modern SF:

The whole “loss of the future” crisis isn’t unique to the present situation; almost every new literary SF movement since the Sixties New Wave has claimed to be a reaction against the blithe 1930s techno-triumphalism of Hugo Gernsback. Poor Hugo ought to be well and truly dead by now but young writers keep killing him over and over anyway. Right now we’re in a sort of grim political environment in which people like to throw around speculations about limits and catastrophes, which… smells a lot like the 1970s to me, and I’d expect to see 1970s-like things happen in SF as a consequence.

I’d also argue that the real scientific explosion going on right now is not in information technology but in the biological sciences (though some of that is indeed because of leaps in information technology). This has been tapped in SF, but it’s always been a little off to one side. The Nielsen Haydens often complain that writers who speculate rigorously about biology don’t get the “hard SF” label when they should.

It’s probably because, as you say, the paradigmatic future technology of the genre is human space travel, and the current stagnation of human space travel makes it hard to write fantastic near-future SF about it. You’re right on there. The reactions have been interesting. There’s a whole genre of somewhat sad alternate-history stories about how space travel would have developed if (insert your favorite political demon here) hadn’t impeded it, but there’s also been a resurgence of space opera safely set in the very distant future, sort of acknowledging that it’s more a conventional fantastic setting comparable to the Tolkeinesque medievalistic fantasy world than a futurist projection.

What happened was not so much the loss of the future as the arrival of it. The pulp and Golden Age SF that we think of as the exemplar of the genre belongs to a very specific historical moment and embodies that moment’s assumptions about what the future was going to be like. Same for Sixties New Wave social SF. It was all going to become obsolete no matter what. We have the future as the basis for speculation, it’s just a radically different basis.

(As for Miéville, I’d say the basis of his fantasy world is a little more complicated than substituting a biological for a mechanical-industrial base; it’s a world in which a kind of magic works and is the basis of a whole magical technology, which among other things enables the world’s peculiar biotech, and it also seems to be a world in which information theory is somehow different in a way that makes it much easier to build Babbage-style mechanical computers.)

11

theophylact 08.01.05 at 9:39 am

I would describe the language of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as 19th Century, rather than 18th. Perhaps a fine point, but it’s not because the events of the book are 19th Century; Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series occupies the same historical space as the Clarke, but the language really is 18th Century.

12

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 08.01.05 at 10:16 am

I certainly agree with Chad Orzel’s observation that “the quantity and quality of the speculation that SF offered in the ‘Golden Age'” has been “greatly inflated by the genres’s own myth-making.” Like him, I think the SF of the present day holds its own in that regard.

On the other hand, as one of the judges in this year’s World Fantasy Award (finalists now announced, winners to be announced at the convention in November), I’m a bit baffled by Chad’s imputation that any small-press book is “crippled” in competing for that award by being up against “marketing behemoths”. Exactly which of the five judges is supposed to be so weak-minded that we simply hand out the award to the book with the biggest promotional budget? I can think of things to criticize about the World Fantasy Award, but it’s been quite good over the years about spotlighting and honoring work that doesn’t have an enormous campaign behind it.

Finally, if John is looking for last-minute nits and quibbles for this self-declared draft essay, I would suggest noting that while Banks’ Culture books have “enjoyed huge success” in Britain, they’ve been disastrously mispublished by a series of American publishers; as a result, his US audience is tiny by comparison. Which is a great shame, since while British and American tastes do differ, there’s nothing about Banks’ work that should preclude at least reasonable genre success in the US market.

13

Chad Orzel 08.01.05 at 10:35 am

On the other hand, as one of the judges in this year’s World Fantasy Award (finalists now announced, winners to be announced at the convention in November), I’m a bit baffled by Chad’s imputation that any small-press book is “crippled” in competing for that award by being up against “marketing behemoths”. Exactly which of the five judges is supposed to be so weak-minded that we simply hand out the award to the book with the biggest promotional budget? I can think of things to criticize about the World Fantasy Award, but it’s been quite good over the years about spotlighting and honoring work that doesn’t have an enormous campaign behind it.

It’s a combination of the usual imprecision I suffer when typing quickly, annoyance at being interrupted by telephone solicitators who won’t take no for an answer, and confusion about which awards are judged, and which are voted on. My bad.

(For a popular-vote award like the Hugos, I don’t think something like Perfect Circle has a chance, simply because not enough people will have read it. If it’s only a matter of getting a handful of judges to read it, that’s obviously not an issue.)

14

Dan Goodman 08.01.05 at 11:46 am

First, a nitpick: “Speculative fiction” includes not only science fiction but: fantasy, supernatural horror, and possibly magic realism.

The “Golden Age” was a time when science fiction was mostly a magazine field. Novels were likely to be serialized before being issued as books — and the book version was likely to be abridged. Short fiction was more important and novels less important than currently. This makes it harder to determine the health of the field by comparing
novels from each period.

15

Bill Gardner 08.01.05 at 12:05 pm

A warning about Stross. Accelerando is thought provoking about the singularity, but doesn’t work well as a novel. It’s a rewritten sequence of short stories, some of which are fairly weak. There is also an embarassing sword fight in artificial reality. Iron Sunrise is better plotted, despite the cliche villains.

16

Cheryl Morgan 08.01.05 at 12:12 pm

While the final stage of the World Fantasy Awards is purely down to the judges, the nomination stage involves voting by members of recent World Fantasy Conventions. That is a relatively more exclusive group that the members of Worldcon, who vote for the Hugos, but there is still an element of popular vote.

Oh, and Perfect Circle is wonderful.

17

Brackdurf 08.01.05 at 1:12 pm

Speaking as a literary critic and lover of science fiction, this year’s crop has been one disappointment after another.

Stross’s books seem like a watered down Banks, a more overtly politicized version like MacLeod’s (excellent) novels, but without the imagination or sense of humor. Singularity Sky is the only one I’ve read a significant portion of, but apart from the wooden characters (which writers of neo-Space Operas seem to deliberately indulge in), the Special Relativity 101 details and the master intelligences working to preserve causality seemed just as forced here as it did in Simmons’ Hyperion novels and whenever else a god-like intelligence is posited to patch up a scientifically impossible scenario. This is a pitfall common of singularity stories, and why the sub-genre has rapidly become so conventionalized and un-novel.

Clarke’s book was like a Potter for adults–young adults. Like Potter, the magic had very little imagination or sense of wonder. Next to folks like John Crowley or Philip Pullman, it felt like very weak stuff, and dragged on for ages with little real wit or character to pull you along.

The Banks novel I excitedly picked up when I was last in London, only to very disappointedly conk out on it in midflight back home, having had enough of the supposedly droll gigantic blimp people. Banks: just because it’s big and old, doesn’t make it funny or awesome. The anthropological moments were so tiresome and long I just couldn’t make it back to the real plot, and again, no real character development. The bad guy was like someone out of the old Star Trek (which I’ve always thought Banks’ Culture novels were a clever rewriting of, until this one).

Miéville’s books–I haven’t read the new one yet–have at least pulled me through. The language is great, and the characters seem a bit more real. That said, The Scar was a big step down from Perdido Street Station; the floating city felt very reminiscent of other floating cities (such as the one in Snow Crash), and he too falls afoul of the big-is-cool trap at times. And the last half of the book was obviously written in haste: count the appearances of “aghast” and “his eyes widened,” or note the mistaken reappearance of a second hand on a key character. But that said, at least Miéville’s books have enough imagination, literary craft, and character development per page to keep me going. The same can’t be said for the rest of them.

18

Chris Williams 08.01.05 at 1:24 pm

Big _is_ cool. Read _Consider Phlebas_ for confirmation.

19

yabonn 08.01.05 at 2:01 pm

as forced here as it did in Simmons’ Hyperion novels and whenever else a god-like intelligence is posited to patch up a scientifically impossible scenario

Butbutbut… Isn’t Hyperion something about something else entirely? It’s about books or about litterature or something, no?

20

vivian 08.01.05 at 9:04 pm

Okay, someone want to explain how (some of) you find time to be good and productive academics, have a family, blog regularly (and well) and still read novels for pleasure? I can imagine doing any two, three perhaps with excellent time-management and support, but all four? Show-offs.

(slinks away, muttering)

21

Walt Pohl 08.02.05 at 1:22 am

Vivian, maybe you should hear from their families before you say that.

22

Brackdurf 08.02.05 at 3:09 am

I just reread Consider Phlebas a few months ago, and did enjoy it, though it kind of dissolved into boring action sequences towards the end. I do like the bigness of the Culture ships, but I think that’s because he was the first of the neo-space-opera sorts to do it. By the time John Wright, eg, got to it the novelty was gone (I loved “The Golden Age”, but the other “two” novels in that sequence went steeply downhill). The wonder of the sublimely huge is hard to sustain.

The Hyperion series started out a lot more literary, and again I liked the first couple books quite a lot, but the last two…I think there was something about some entity controlling the teleportals in a manner that just happened to exactly match the needs of a writer narrating the events of that universe. Instead of being driven by the internal logic of the world, an inititally hidden powerful being is posited that happens to want things exactly such that a nice plot is constructed. This is the downfall of many a series, including great ones like the Neuromancer trilogy.

But the difficulty of sustaining an SF series is another topic, I guess, though these last couple years much of Hugo-type SF has seemed like the latter books in a waning series… I think Hyperion was my all-time best abandonment though: I read the first two avidly, the third with increasing trepidation, and the last, some 2000 pages into the series, I abandoned about 150 pages from the end when I couldn’t take the absolute failure to resolve the plot according to anything like a internal narrative logic. Deus ex machina is a pitfall of any SF machina that’s too Deusy–as much SF is today.

23

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 08.02.05 at 3:38 am

“While the final stage of the World Fantasy Awards is purely down to the judges, the nomination stage involves voting by members of recent World Fantasy Conventions. That is a relatively more exclusive group that the members of Worldcon, who vote for the Hugos, but there is still an element of popular vote.”

An element, but only just. The popular ballot (which far too few WFC members bother with anyway) establishes two of the five “finalists.” The other finalists are established by the judging panel, which also selects the winner.

On a different subject, I do want to marvel at the people who appear to have found Susanna Clarke’s novel dry, humorless, devoid of wit, etc. Clearly, humor is a quirky and subjective thing, as we knew already.

Also: Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle is as good as everyone says it is. You can order it (and read four chapters from it) via this page.

24

Matt McIrvin 08.02.05 at 6:49 am

I liked all four Hyperion books, but plotting wasn’t their strong suit, and the big payoff at the end was a little too reminiscent of the big payoff of Alfred Bester’s Tiger, Tiger!/The Stars My Destination

25

Luis Villa 08.02.05 at 8:38 am

Brackdurf: you must go read the last 150 pages of Hyperion now, because you owe it to yourself to know just how bad an ending can be. Really, it was bad beyond the wildest dreams you may have had as you closed the book and put it away for good.

26

Bill Gardner 08.02.05 at 11:36 am

Hey, after you read Perfect Circle, try Galveston and Mockingbird.

By the way, if we are having a contest for greatest disappointment in a final series book, Absolution Gap has to be in the running.

27

Henry 08.02.05 at 12:23 pm

Yeah, unaccountably forgot to mention _Mockingbird_ in my comment above (on thinking about it a little, it’s probably my favourite Stewart). One of the greatest morning-sickness scenes in modern literature. And heartily agree re: _Absolution Gap_. Parts of the book were just plain wonderful – wheeled cathedrals lurching across the waste; quantum-computing fueled cloaking devices and other scarily smart hard-science porn – but the plot left an awful lot to be desired. And the ending … My theory of why it sucked so much is that, as Cosma Shalizi argues somewhere or another, the series was really Lovecraft writ large (with bits of Poe – the Fall of the Spaceship of Usher). Gothic trappings, and a universe that is inimical to human beings, full of vast unsympathetic intelligences ready to squash us like a bug. But the end switches to a completely _different_ and radically antithetical Grand Cosmic Narrative in the space of a couple of pages – we lurch from a subtext of humans trying to stay alive in the wainscotting of a hostile universe, to one of humans clobbered by their own vast technological power and hubris. The two just don’t play together very happily. I suspect it’s the old problem of authors trying to create coherent narrative universes _ex post_, out of what emerged in fits and starts _ex ante_ (specifically, Reynolds trying to retrofit “Galactic North” into a broader narrative where it didn’t work very well).

28

yabonn 08.02.05 at 1:01 pm

Spoilerish.

I see. Its that i never read past the first Hyperion, and was perfectly happy with the no-ending ending. The heroes go on their merry way, hand in hand into whassisname-Oz cave-or-something.

Author tells us, more or less “see? it’s about the tales, the books, litterature and all that”, disappears with a flash and a bang. Good fun.

I don’t get why Simmons explains it all in the sequel? Why, oh why? Maybe i didn’t get the first books after all : were the sequels decided from the beggining?

I see some bad books are mentionned above. So i feel compelled to mention Ender’s Game, who should be added to every list of bad books ever conceived.

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Ragout 08.02.05 at 3:20 pm

It’s true that advances in computing have been a lot more exciting in recent years than advances in space flight. But, paradoxically, there are quite a few recent books that harken back to the space operas of SF’s golden age (i.e., Stross & Banks). And of course Kim Stanley Robinson’s had a lot of success with his (old-fashioned?) books about colonizing Mars.

If you’re looking for editorial comments, I’d say that there are a few points where you lapse into confusing SF/science jargon: “emergent” computers, “causality violations,” and some others. Frankly, I was never all that clear about what Stross was talking about with causality violations, light cones, etc. I’ve read that FTL travel violates causality, but why that’s so is beyond me.

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