Locus Winners

by John Holbo on June 25, 2008

Some good reads. The Locus Award winners have been announced.

Michael Chabon won for Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I thought it was ok – fun – a bit of a disappointment after Kavalier and Clay. What did you think? OK, I’ll write a short review to finish this post out. Now, on down the list.

Terry Pratchett, Making Money. Very funny, as usual, but sort of by-the-numbers.

I haven’t read Miéville’s Un Lun Dun or Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box. (Put them on the to-read list.)

Cory Doctorow’s “After The Siege” is magnificent. It’s a harrowing tale. It will definitely give you that ghastly, crazy, infowar siege of neverland feeling. I listened to it as a podcast, read by the author himself. I see that someone else has re-recorded it. Throw it on the iPod.

“Witch’s Headstone”, by Neil Gaiman. Haven’t read it.

“A Small Room in Koboldtown”, by Michael Swanwick. You can download it as a free PDF. (And here’s a podcast.) I guess I’m a bit surprised it won. It’s a funny genre mash-up. Hardboiled detective fiction, locked-room murder mystery, meets … well, I’ll quote the first paragraph:

That Winter, Will le Fey held down a job working for a haint politician named Salem Toussaint. Chiefly, his function was to run errands while looking conspicuously solid. He fetched tax forms for the alderman’s constituents, delivered stacks of documents to trollish functionaries, fixed l&i violations, presented boxes of candied John-the-Conqueror root to retiring secretaries, absent-mindedly dropped slim envelopes containing twenty-dollar bills on desks. When somebody important died, he brought a white goat to the back door of the Fane of Darkness to be sacrificed to the Nameless One. When somebody else’s son was drafted or went to prison, he hammered a nail in the nkisi nkonde that Toussaint kept in the office to ensure his safe return. He canvassed voters in haint neighborhoods like Ginny Gall, Beluthahatchie, and Diddy-Wah-Diddy, where the bars were smoky, the music was good, and it was dangerous to smile at the whores. He negotiated the labyrinthine bureaucracies of City Hall. Not everything he did was strictly legal, but none of it was actually criminal. Salem Toussaint didn’t trust him enough for that.

Here’s a good sentence: “Salem Toussaint stood in the doorway, eyes rolled up in his head so far that only the whites showed. He held up a hand and in a hollow voice said, ‘One of my constituents is in trouble.'”

Haints and boggles plugged into the usual Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald slots. I don’t mean to grumble, especially about a writer as original and talented and eminently award-deserving as Swanwick (thanks for introducing me to his stuff, Henry). But maybe awards should be reserved for bolder stuff. I feel like we’ve been seeing the genre mash-up game played – and well – for a while now. But this one is fun. Definitely worth a read.

Skip past a bunch of stuff I haven’t read (although I did flip through Barry Malzberg’s Breakfast In The Ruins, without acquiring any special opinion about it, one way or the other.) The true winner this year is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s a wordless graphic novel. You can see sample pages at the author’s site. The art is beautiful. It’s an immigrant tale. The description at the author’s site will do:

A man leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages. With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.

Except, as far as I could tell, the town wasn’t so much impoverished as threatened by giant dragons. The author’s great achievement is in the evocation of the immigrant’s urgent anxiety, in an environment in which every symbol, every building, every artifact, every plant and animal, is unlike anything he has seen before. The author achieves this the hard way: by making every symbol, every building, every artifact, every plant and animal unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

Now, back to Chabon. A while back I meant to write a review and I collected a bunch of quotes. I made sure that none of them are plot-spoilers, alone or in unison. So read with impunity.

Nineteen fourty-eight: Strange times to be a Jew. In August the defense of Jerusalem collapsed and the outnumbered Jews of the three-month-old republic of Israel were routed, massacred, and driven into the sea.

You’ve probably heard already what the plot is. Jews in Alaska, where many of them end up after they are kicked out of Europe, Russia, Israel, elsewhere. (Apparently there is some actual historical basis this – some proposal that never went anywhere.) The outer story frame is: ‘the Reversion’ is coming, the Jewish lease is up, and they have to leave again. But the hero has a murder to solve in the meantime.

Landsman is a tough guy, in his way, given to the taking of wild chances. He has been called hard-boiled and foolhardy, a momzer, a crazy son of a bitch. He has faced down shtarkers and psychopaths, has been shot at, beaten frozen, burned. He has pursued suspects between the flashing walls of urban firefights and deep into bear country. Heights, crowds, snakes, burning houses, dogs schooled to hate the smell of a policeman, he has shrugged them all off or functioned in spite of them. But when he finds himself in lightness or confined spaces, something in the animal core of Meyer Landsman convulses. No one but his ex-wife knows it, but Detective Meyer Landsman is afraid of the dark.

This is fun but maybe a bit too cute. The tough-guy hero with the ‘snakes, why’d it have to be snakes?’ weakness. This is, in a way, Chabon’s problem. He does a very commendable job, wringing real human character out of his characters, but he just can’t do that much with them, given the genre constraints he has submitted to – because he wants to have fun writing hard-boiled Alaskan Jew dialogue. He wants the hero to wander around for about three days without sleep, getting in trouble with his superiors, knocking on doors he probably shouldn’t and, once or twice, getting hit on the head. Maybe a soft-hearted dame will help him out of a scrape. It’s hardboiled.

He turns, and Brennan’s there, that large-headed man, hatless and coatless, necktie blown over his shoulder, a penny in his left loafer, bankrupt in the right. Patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket, its color a practical shade of gravy stain. His cheek could use a shave and his pate a fresh coat of wax. Maybe things didn’t go so well for Dennis Brennan out in the big time.

“Look at the head on the sheygets, the thing has its own atmosphere,” Landsman says. “Thing has ice caps.”

“Indeed the man has a very big head.”

“Every time I see it, I feel sorry for necks.”

“Maybe I should get my hands around his. Give it some support.”

Brennan puts up his larval white fingers and blinks his little eyes, the color of skimmed milk. He works up a practiced rueful smile, but Landsman notes that he kept a good four feet of Ben Maymon Street between him and Berko.

“A need to repeat the rash threats of yore does not, I assure you, exist, Detective Shemets,” the reporter says in his swift and preposterous Yiddish. “Evergreen and ripe with the sap of their original violence they remain.”

Brennan studied German in college and learned his Yiddish from some pompous old German at the Institute, and he talks, somebody once remarked, “like a sausage recipe with footnotes.”

Just one more bit.

This is how Berko once explained to Landsman the sacred gang knows as the Chasids of Verbov: They started out, back in the Ukraine, black hats like all the other black hats, scorning and keeping their distance from the trash and hoo-hah of the secular world, inside their imaginary ghetto wall of ritual and faith. Then the entire sect was burned in the fires of the Destruction, down to a hard, dense core of something blacker than any hat. What was left of the ninth Verbover rebbe emerged from those fires with eleven disciples and, among his family, only the sixth of his eight daughters. He rose into the air like a scarred scrap of paper and blew to this narrow strip between the Baranof Mountains and the end of the world. And here he found a way to remake the old-style black-hat detachment. He carried its logic to its logical end, the way evil geniuses do in cheap novels. He built a criminal empire that profited on the meaningless tohubohu beyond the theoretical walls, on beings so flawed, corrupted, and hopeless of redemption that only cosmic courtesy led the Verbovers even to consider them human at all.

“The way evil geniuses do in cheap novels.” The trouble is: Chabon is writing a novel like that. That’s why this character is like this. But, unlike Kavalier and Clay, in which the comic book story becomes a clever commentary on itself, here it just feels like a slip. Characters in genre fiction should not notice that their lives are strangely like the lives of characters in genre fiction unless it’s some kind of joke on the genre. Which it really isn’t, in this case.

But again, it’s tremendous fun. Because then you get to describe the evil genius.

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see.

“I suggest we dispense with the pleasantries,” the rebbe says.

His voice comes pitched high, droll, the voice of the well-proportioned, scholarly man he must have been once. Landsman has heard that it’s a glandular disorder. He has heard that the Verbover rebbe, for all his bulk, maintains the diet of a martyr, broth and roots and a daily crust of bread. But Landsman prefers to see the man as distended with the gas of violence and corruption. His belly filled with bones and shoes and the hearts of men, half digested in the acid of his Law.

I’m a Mervyn Peake fan, so I really can’t help loving the crazy description. Still, I think Chabon can do better overall. The literary whole feels like less than the sum of the stylish parts.



roac 06.25.08 at 2:24 pm

Being only in sporadic contact with the sf/fantasy world, I have never heard of the Locus awards. Some background would be welcome. How does this differentiate itself from Hugo and Nebula and the guys I know?


John Holbo 06.25.08 at 2:31 pm

I really don’t know, roac. Mostly I just noticed that I’d actually read most of the stuff, so I fired off a post.


Amber 06.25.08 at 3:02 pm

Heart-Shaped Box is impressively suspenseful, albeit marred by a somewhat cheesy ending. Hill’s collection of short stories is probably better.


Patrick 06.25.08 at 3:32 pm

The thing about Swanwick is that he mixes a flurry of the bizarre with the grinding and gritty, oscillating back and forth so fast and never explaining anything, until his books take on a dream like quality and you just accept it. Its hard to explain- by the time the novel reaches a conclusion, he’s convinced you to suspend your disbelief so completely that he can take the story in some really odd directions, and you just go along for the ride.

Its almost like the characters have suspended their disbelief alongside you.

The Koboldtown story is actually a portion of a larger novel. I doubt you’d get the full effect from just one chapter.

I don’t know if its Locus award material, but I did enjoy it.

Also, letting Pratchett win is almost like allowing ringers. Of course he won. He’s Pratchett. You can’t even judge him in comparison to other authors anymore- just in comparison to his own prior work. Just give him some kind of award Emeritus and let other people have a shot.


ejh 06.25.08 at 3:37 pm

Michael Chabon won for Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I thought it was ok – fun – a bit of a disappointment after Kavalier and Clay. What did you think?

It’s the only one of his I’ve read – I’m supposed to be writing a review (in conjunction with Ronan Bennett’s not-very good Zugzwang) for the English chess magazine Kingpin and am currently nearly three months past my deadline.

I mostly liked it but lost interest somewhere towards the end, perhaps on the basis that I didn’t really care that much how it turned out. But I also found it hard to believe that such a large community would be so close to being turfed out en masse with nowhere to go and yet there wouldn’t be mass panic, large numbers of people arming themselves and so on. The mental atmosphere of the place didn’t seem right.

(I should say I also found myself raising my eyebrows at the depiction of the Arabs.)

Is the Shaun Tan book the one that’s titled Enmigrantes in Spanish? Our bookshop never sold any of that one (too expensive) though we’ve done very well with El Árbol Rojo. It’s the sort of book, though, that I call a “¡Qué bonito!” book, i.e. one that tends to sell to adults because they like the illustrations, rather than to the children for whom it is supposedly intended.


Dave Maier 06.25.08 at 3:39 pm

I started Un Lun Dun, but I couldn’t get through it. The library had it in the “young adult” section, and it did seem aimed a little lower. Not that that was the problem though – it just didn’t grab me. In particular, the alternate world seemed pointlessly odd, as if he were trying too hard.


Ragtime 06.25.08 at 3:57 pm

What made the story particularly interesting (difficult?) to read was that Chabon translated Yiddish idioms literally, because the conceit was that they were all speaking Yiddish.

One character would say to another, “Stop banging my kettle!” which is the literal translation of the Yiddish “Hak mir nicht in tchainik,” but the phrase means “Stop bothering me.”

I think a lot of the Yiddishisms and characterizations (involving the string man, and the Verbovers, primarily), were packing lots inside jokes for the in-the-know Ashkenazim in the audience.


Russell Arben Fox 06.25.08 at 4:28 pm

I actually thought Kavalier and Clay kind of feel apart with World War II. The long and, I think, ultimately pointless chapter–even pointless in its Catch-22-esque commentary on the pointlessness of war–taking place on the Air Force spy base in Antarctica just killed off the whole force of the story of me. The comic-book world-within-a-world he had going for and giving meaning to his characters died with that plot shift, and the concluding chapters were a bit facile and humdrum. Two-thirds of an absolutely compelling novel, though.


Kate Nepveu 06.25.08 at 4:30 pm

Hugos: voted on by attendees & supporting members of Worldcon, a yearly convention.

Nebulas: voted on by members of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Locus Awards: voted on by anyone with a subscription to Locus or access to the web.


Russell Arben Fox 06.25.08 at 4:31 pm

“…kind of fell apart…” and “…the whole force of the story for me.” Sheesh, I can’t write sometimes.


franck 06.25.08 at 4:32 pm

I liked the Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but I agree with John Holbo that Chabon didn’t stretch himself. It’s the only thing I have read of his though. The settling Jews in Alaska gambit was a real plan, thwarted by a senator from Alaska. In the alternate history of the novel, he is killed by a drunken taxi driver while crossing the street in DC, who becomes a folk hero to the “Frozen Chosen”.

As I recall, there aren’t any Arab characters in TYPU, and maybe ten sentences total on the real situation in the Middle East. What Chabon is really portraying is what people in Alaska think of the situation in the Middle East – the readers aren’t meant to take that as factual reporting. Part of the end of the novel is about the craziness of using prophecy and your own views to replace a realistic view of the world.


Bruce Baugh 06.25.08 at 5:04 pm

I’m sure that at least some of Pratchett’s award is sort of a cumulative-achievement one, given that we have no clue how much he’ll be able to appreciate any in future years. (For those who don’t know, he has early-onset Alzheimer’s.)

Heart-Shaped Box is really good and sometimes truly excellent. The ending is cheesy, but the trip’s completely worth taking.


ejh 06.25.08 at 5:56 pm

As I recall, there aren’t any Arab characters in TYPU, and maybe ten sentences total on the real situation in the Middle East.

A bit more than ten, but anyway – take a look at them and see what you think they say.


F 06.25.08 at 6:33 pm

I read “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” and thought it was awful. Unlikable characters doing stupid things that we were supposed to think were endearing for some reason. Are Doctorow’s other books better?


Dan Goodman 06.25.08 at 10:05 pm

roac: Here’s how the awards differ. Hugo: voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Convention, from among nominations made by Worldcon members, for the previous year. Nebula: voted on by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA — and yes, the abbreviation only has one F), for a period whose limits I don’t understand except that it’s not exactly the same as the previous calendar year. LOCUS: Voted on by LOCUS readers — LOCUS being the major (currently, only) on-paper news magazine for the speculative fiction field(s).


Doctor Memory 06.25.08 at 10:21 pm

f: in my experience, no. As a novelist, Doctorow seems to me to make an excellent blogger: “Eastern Standard Tribe” is the worst book I’ve read in the last five years, easily. But my opinion seems to be distinctly in the minority, so I guess there’s no accounting for taste.


Zora 06.26.08 at 12:36 am

Cory’s latest is his best, IMHO. You can get Little Brother for free at his blog (Did I get the code right? The preview box isn’t showing for me.)


Demosthenes 06.26.08 at 1:27 am

Little Brother was brilliant. Doctorow’s fine with me.

And so’s Chabon; I agree with many of the critiques in the review, but I think the strength of the situation shows through. I also felt that the character was a decent personification of his people: he was so tired of everything that had happened to him, so bereft of hope, that he didn’t even really care that doom was riding down on him.


winer 06.26.08 at 2:35 am

i think your review of policeman’s union is right on. it’s a good read, but not as good as kavalier and clay. i loved that novel. i went with the antarctica stuff and found myself completely into the story. anyway, yeah, chabon’s a great novelist. his merely good stuff is still better than most imho.


vivian 06.26.08 at 2:46 am

Funny, I thought Eastern Standard Tribe was a clever idea, nicely plotted and fast-paced, and generally funny and satisfying to read. Light but very good fiction. Several clever ideas, actually, but the protagonist’s occupation was just brilliant (spoiler-free). All in that very good-natured way that characterizes most of Boing Boing.

Making a note to get Chabon now though, thanks.


Jon H 06.26.08 at 3:53 am

“LOCUS being the major (currently, only) on-paper news magazine for the speculative fiction field(s).”

I’d say it’s more of a professional/business news magazine focused on the speculative fiction field. Your description could apply to a fan-oriented magazine, while Locus gets into things like who signed a novel contract with which publisher, and which editor is moving to a new imprint, and doesn’t get so much into the starlet-on-the-cover media fanboy coverage.


4jkb4ia 06.26.08 at 6:31 am

Yiddish Policemen’s Union: very enjoyable book. Not sure it works as the best genre book of the year.


4jkb4ia 06.26.08 at 6:35 am

Will be interesting to see if the Hugo voters support it and make Michael Chabon a full honorary member of the SF community. Will be even more interesting if Michael Chabon comes to Worldcon to accept it.


chris armstrong 06.26.08 at 9:28 am

I think Chabon is a very talented writer, but the brilliance of Kavalier and Clay must hang like a bit of an albatross around his neck. But I’ve got Policemen’s Union on my bookshelf and this has now prompted me to start it. I started a Mieville book once too, and gave up with the same ‘well, what’s the point?’ feeling. The Gaiman short story is from his forthcoming book ‘The Graveyard Book,’ which is in that venerable tradition of fairy stories for adults, I think.


roac 06.26.08 at 7:37 pm

Late thanks to those who filled me in on the various sf awards.


Aaron Swartz 06.26.08 at 9:22 pm

“Characters in genre fiction should not notice that their lives are strangely like the lives of characters in genre fiction unless it’s some kind of joke on the genre.”

Why not? My life is often like genre fiction and I point that out. (Indeed, I often make jokes to the effect that I must be a fictional character.) I suppose perhaps I am kind of making a joke on the genre, but not really. It seems perfectly reasonable for fictional characters to behave the same way.


Rah 06.28.08 at 1:02 am

For the past couple years I’ve seen increasing division between those who thing Doctorow is a genius & those who think he’s a moron, & I can never predict which side someone will come down on. I think it’s a side-effect of “underground” fame generally, having watched the same thing happen to various bands over the years.

My chief objection to Eastern Standard Tribe was that it has pretty much exactly the same plot as Magic Kingdom, & it’s not a terribly interesting plot. I greatly enjoy the playfulness & surprising resonance of Doctorow’s world-building, but I hope he’s getting over whatever made him hang two novels in a row on The Idealistic Slacker Who Gets Betrayed by His Own True Love. I’m sure there are at least three other stories in the universe!

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