Hugo nominations

by Henry Farrell on February 27, 2013

“John Scalzi”: reminds me that there are only 10 days left before Hugo nominations close. Three recommendations (one the subject of a recent CT seminar; another the subject of a forthcoming one), and more about other 2012 f/sf books that I liked below the fold. People should obviously feel free to add other recommendations in comments.

Karin Tidbeck, _Jagannath_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: A lovely and original collection of stories by a Swedish author, most published for the first time in English. It’s hard to pick an individual story, but “Brita’s Holiday Village” is as good as any and “available online”: Tidbeck writes in the afterword about the profound influence of H.P. Lovecraft. However, the affect of her work is very different. Her stories are not motivated by self-loathing or disgust with the human race, but by a kind of wary affection. The monsters in her stories are our faintly embarrassing relations, and acknowledged as such.

Felix Gilman, _The Rise of Ransom City_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: Up for discussion soon at _Crooked Timber_, along with its sort-of-prequel, _The Half-Made World._ Like its predecessor, it’s an oblique take on the American Dream, albeit a different version of it – one which perhaps owes less to the mythologies of the West than to Mark Twain, and perhaps O.Henry’s Jeff Peters stories. It’s funny and self-aware in a way that few f/sf books are (another excellent example is Robert Charles Wilson’s _Julian Comstock_).

Francis Spufford’s _Red Plenty_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: All you could want to know here, and, arguably one of the best science fiction novels written in the last several decades. I say ‘arguably’ only because one might “claim”: that it isn’t, and shouldn’t count as part of the genre. The underlying question is whether you think about science fiction as a genre consisting of books about the future, or as a particular method of fictional inquiry. If the former, it plausibly should not be included (although the fact that it is _haunted_ by science fiction, as both Gilman and Holbo suggested in their essays for our seminar, explains some of its power). If the latter, it should be, and should indeed be taken as a model for _how you do_ ambitious sociological science fiction, while retaining an interest in individual human beings.

Other books I (1) liked, (2) found interesting (I read much too much mind-candy to even begin to list it) and (3) haven’t mentioned before at CT:

Kij Johnson, _At the Mouth of the River of Bees_ ( “Amazon”: I liked it quite a bit, but not as much as many other readers (many critics cited it as the standout collection of the year). Some of the stories seemed slight (e.g. the title story, which has a lovely metaphor, which was spoiled for me by the sentimental ending); the two pieces that I thought were genuinely exceptional were the most awkward and uncomfortable ones (‘Story Kit’ and ‘Spar’). I liked the first of these in particular – a metafictional account of the relationship between writing fantasy and a love-affair gone sour (a kind of short story version of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, but much less self-important).

M. John Harrison, _Empty Space: A Haunting_ ( “Powells”:, “Amazon”: The third (and, I think, final) book in Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract sequence. Two of Harrison’s books, his ambiguously fantastic _The Course of the Heart_ and his ambiguously realist _Climbers_ are core texts for me. I’ve never warmed as much to his more recent books, although they’ve been more successful (the chair of this year’s Booker panel has been talking up _Empty Space_ as one of the best books of last year. The parts of this book set in something roughly resembling the present day, focusing on Anna Kearney are wonderful, and imo the best thing he’s ever done – the skill with which he depicts the contrast between an aging woman’s rich interior life and how she is perceived by a world towards which she deploys vagueness as a defence is extraordinary. The parts which are more science fictional I didn’t find nearly as interesting, although given the general reaction this is likely a product of my personal idiosyncrasies.

Kim Stanley Robinson, _2312_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: Classic Robinson. A beautifully described utopia (based on Spuffordized quantum minds), literary grace notes (not the least utopian and delightful aspect of his future is that John Crowley is so well known that people refer to him by his last name only, like Dickens), and sympathetic characters. The plot is less a driving force for the narrative than an excuse for a travelogue of Robinson’s imagined solar system, but the travelogue is wonderful.

Ysabeau Wilce, _Flora’s Fury_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: (but you should probably start with _Flora Segunda_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: A book of the class usually described as ‘Young Adult,’ set in a skewed and fantasticated California, the third in a series that shows no immediate sign of ending. What I like about these books is that in addition to being enormous fun, they become increasingly sophisticated and complicated as the heroine grows up. Characters that seem cliches at the beginning become more complicated and ambiguous. People on the side of ‘good’ turn out to have nasty motives.

Madeleine Robins, _The Sleeping Partner_ ( “Powells”:, “Amazon”: A detective novel, whose main character is a Fallen Woman in an ever-so-slightly-skewed version of Regency London. Sharply intelligent and beautifully written. It isn’t quite as good as the first two novels in the series, _Petty Treason_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: and _Point of Honor_, but those two are among the best popular novels of the last last several years; Robins’ ear for language is wonderful. These books haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as they deserve – when Robins began writing them, they fell between several genres (crime, alternative history, a very carefully measured out soupcon of romance), and are too spiky and discomforting to fit easily into the genre of urban fantasy that has emerged in the meantime. Their feminism is served straight.

So those are the ones I liked – feel free to disagree, or to talk about what you liked instead in comments.



L2P 02.27.13 at 7:19 pm

I liked Red Plenty, but if it’s Science Fiction it’s hard to argue that any epic book isn’t. China Achebe’s work about the Biafran conflict or The Octupus certainly don’t seem that different in structure, theme, and “method of fictional inquiry.” And why limit ourselves to these sorts of books? How is this any different than The Other Boleyn Girl?

I think I’d put Red Plenty right in the middle of historical fiction. If it was set in Nazi Germany instead of the Soviet Union I don’t think anyone would even consider it for a Hugo.


ponce 02.27.13 at 11:32 pm

Prometheus or Cloud Atlas get my vote for movies.

For TV, Fringe, even though it went off the rails the last couple seasons.

For books, meh. I haven’t read a really good sci-fi book in 20 years.


David 02.28.13 at 2:35 am

Ponce must not read very much.


Nicholas Whyte 02.28.13 at 4:01 am

Thanks for the link! But you have linked to my backup blog; I would prefer if you link instead to which is the primary source.

L2P has it right. If you assert that Red Plenty is sf, I think you now have to tell me why Tristram Shandy isn’t.

The other book on your list that I have read is Empty Space, where I agree with you that the Anna Kearney sections are much superior to the more overtly sfnal bits.


ponce 02.28.13 at 6:23 am


I read a fair amount of modern Sci-Fi.

I’m currently trudging through Perdido Street Station.

But I may have overlooked a gem.

If you think there’s been a Sci-Fi book published in the last 20 years that is the equal of classics like Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama or even Ringworld, please post the title here and I’ll check it out.


shah8 02.28.13 at 6:37 am

Looks like someone is out of touch.

If you’ve got your jimmies rustled by cyberpunk or something, I don’t really think I can help you.


ponce 02.28.13 at 7:07 am

I enjoyed Neuromancer and Snow Crash, shah.

But they were published over 20 years ago.

Just looking for a book title, not snark.


chadwick crawford 02.28.13 at 7:33 am

Ponce, any Iain M. Banks, any M. John Harrison, Steve Aylett, Jeff Vandermeer, Connie Willis, Kelly Link, Kim Stanley Robinson. There. There are half a hundred or so for you.


Katherine 02.28.13 at 9:57 am

I shall certainly check out Madeleine Robins, Henry, so thanks for that recommendation.


Katherine 02.28.13 at 10:01 am

Although alas I find that only the third book in the series – The Sleeping Partner – is available as an ebook.


ajay 02.28.13 at 10:43 am

Ponce, any Iain M. Banks, any M. John Harrison, Steve Aylett, Jeff Vandermeer, Connie Willis, Kelly Link, Kim Stanley Robinson.

I think you could add Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, and Ian McDonald to that list.


DaveL 02.28.13 at 1:25 pm

Nice to find another “Flora” fan. There was a comment from Wilce somewhere that made me feel she was somewhat tired of the series, which I hope is a misinterpretation on my part.

Adding to the previously listed, Ponce, you might try “The Windup Girl,” by Paolo Bacigalupi. (“Genepunk,” to coin a phrase.) He has also written short stories and two YA novels set in the same scruffy future.


Gretchen Hummel 02.28.13 at 3:34 pm

While perhaps I shouldn’t plug my own book, Dreamer’s Island, it did earn a USA Best Books Award of 2012. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale of a mother seeking her kidnapped daughter in a post-plague world. Archetypes, tarot symbolism, and lucid dreaming along with plague-gifts are a few of its motiffs.

I came to the work prepared with an MFA in Creative Writing and a few publications in Literary journals under my belt. Margaret Atwood is my muse.

I enjoyed reading the posts here–some kindred souls.

Thank you

Gretchen Hummel


C Trombley 02.28.13 at 5:04 pm

“If you assert that Red Plenty is sf, I think you now have to tell me why Tristram Shandy isn’t.”

Tristram Shandy _is_ SF, given the primitive state of S at the time.

The entire plot revolves around parody “scientific” theories of natal/child development. If you sprinkle in the phrase “Turing Morphogens” a couple times and notice that Walter Shandy’s ideas about the correlation between nose length and destiny is similar to certain people’s opinions on the relation between height (What they call “IQ”) and destiny, you’ll see that it is a quite amusing SF extrapolation of present day ideas.

A more serious discussion occurs in the approximately contemporary _D’Alembert’s Dream_. Diderot bruskly and rightly dismissed the natal theory lampooned in Tristram Shandy (Sterne calls the non-existent objects postulated a “Homunculus”, Diderot “pre-existing germ cells”), and D’Alembert states – who doesn’t believe in the theory either, but feels he must mention alleged merits – “But without these pre-existing germ cells, the original generation of animals cannot be imagined.”, so that you can see that these ideas were deeply tied to Scholastic ideas about species (that species were so rigid that Aquinas asserted blandly that God cannot transmute a Man into a Donkey).

So … yeah.


Henry 02.28.13 at 8:54 pm

Nicholas – link changed accordingly. I haven’t, to my shame, ever read Tristam Shandy through. But to throw back the challenge in your direction, can you come up with a definition of sf under which Red Plenty is not SF, but William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is? Or perhaps you don’t agree that Pattern Recognition is sf – but in that case our understandings of the fuzzy borders are probably too different for us to be able to argue about this usefully.


Henry 02.28.13 at 9:56 pm

Actually, on thinking about it, that last sentence came out sounding as if I thought you were fundamentally wrong, which isn’t at all what I’m saying. Rather that we are coming at this from basically different perspectives. I think that Pattern Recognition is sf, despite its lack of futurism, because it uses a broad toolkit of inquiry to figure out stuff about the relationship between technology, individuals and society. A lot of that is going in Red Plenty too.


David 03.01.13 at 3:09 am

Perdido Street Station should be enough to show him the error of his claim. Certainly most of the others mentioned, to whom I would add Robert Reed and Michael Swanwick. Clarke was a terrible writer, Niven is passable but pedestrian.


Daniel Nexon 03.01.13 at 2:37 pm

I second the Rise of Ransom City. In an age deluged with “steam punk,” it is terrific to read an alt-western which successfully interrogates the coming of modernity and the mythology of the American postbellum west.

I’m rather partial to Madeline Ashby’s Vn. Although it has some pacing issues, I found it a fascinating reworking of the “laws of robotics trope” and a pretty sophisticated riff on commodification.

There’s a lot more, obviously. I disagree with ponce. And I’d suggest that this argument gets made in every year, in part because “great works” stay with us and much of the chaff disappears from memory.


Phil 03.02.13 at 2:39 pm

David – who are you replying to?

I picked up Climbers second-hand years ago, on the strength of the blurb including a reference to situationists – seemingly not the mostly-Parisian kind, it appeared to be an approach to climbing. Never got round reading it; wondering now if I’ve missed out. I loved Course of the Heart (“Yaxley wants to try”). (I seem to remember there’s a Death Eater called Yaxley, so JKR does read.)


David 03.04.13 at 1:17 am

I’m commenting in general, agreeing with the various suggestions of authors that Ponce seems to have overlooked and scratching my head that he could be reading Mieville and not see the error of his pronouncement.


Henry 03.05.13 at 12:09 am

If you like TCOTH definitely try Climbers. It’s entirely non-fantastic (in the technical sense of genre), entirely about fantasy, and entirely brilliant.


bartkid 03.05.13 at 3:55 pm

>If you think there’s been a Sci-Fi book published in the last 20 years that is the equal of classics like Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama or even Ringworld, please post the title here and I’ll check it out.

You just reminded me. I always thought Childhood’s End was a sidelong prediction of today’s generation gap: the youth are a hive mind via cellphone/social media connectedness.


Irrationalnumb3r 03.06.13 at 4:36 pm

I liked The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi as far as novels from 2012. Hope it gets some recognition.

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