Sunday, August 28, 2022

My Hugo award votes 2022. Part - Novellas

 The novellas were a fairly good category this year. The stories were mostly pretty entertaining, and there were only two novellas that felt a bit like a chore to read – and those two went to the last two places in my voting order. The four other stories were more evenly matched, and it took some thought to put them in the “right” order. Their order could almost have been any – in fact, when I checked how I did vote, I had some second thoughts on the order and I might have put at least third and fourth place the other way around.

Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tordotcom)

A planet has been settled several hundreds, if not thousands, of years before by humans. It had been largely forgotten, but a group of anthropologists landed decades (or centuries) ago as there was a crisis on Earth. Most humans returned - save for one who was left “to keep up the fort”. They did not return. The anthropologist had once taken an active role to stop malfunctioning remnants of old technology from harming the inhabitants. That occurred decades ago. Now a princess approaches the base, and the anthropologist is woken from his suspended animation. There are rumors of a demon who destroys the countryside far from the central city that should be stopped. Could The Old One help? Possibly - but there is a rule of noninterference. But he had broken that rule once already. And it seems very likely that no one will ever return from Earth, so who would care? A pretty good story of how different cultures interpret reality and how languages can express only those things that are familiar. Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but there may be things all technology cannot explain completely. A well-told story with interesting characters.  

The Past Is Red, by Catherynne M. Valente (Tordotcom)

The sea levels have risen so far that there is no land anywhere anymore. People are living on Garbagetown, a huge raft that consists of all the waste the previous generation, the Fuckwits left behind. Tetley is a girl who everyone hates and loves to torture for some poorly defined (for most of the story) reasons who lives mostly alone in a small boat floating along Garbagetown. She discusses things with other people and examines some relics the Fuckwits left behind but doesn’t really understand them. She also finds a semi-AI teaching toy that tries to connect to the internet with mostly poor success. The writing was very nice with poetic tang, and the story as such was ok, but only after I started to treat it as a surreal fantasy and not as science fiction. Science fictionally the story didn’t make any sense whatsoever. All continents would not be submerged even if every piece of ice would melt. The rubbish was conveniently sorted by type so that there were mountains of crayons or medicine bottles lying around, and there were piles of banana peels just waiting to compost (after apparently several decades). And there is a connection to Mars with no light-speed delay? Those stupidities were so irritating that this certainly will not be among my top choices.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers (Tordotcom)

The story happens on a moon after pollution and the robot's “uprising”. The robot had achieved sentience and decided to leave humans and stay in the woods. Apparently, at about the same time, humans decided to return to a sustainable lifestyle, and about half of the world is kept in the wild: going there isn’t strictly illegal, but is very much discouraged.

 Dex is a tea monk. They (that is the pronoun used even if it is confusing) serves tea and listens to people's troubles and acts as a kind of counselor. For some reason, they isn’t entirely satisfied with their life and can’t really sleep at night. They decides to make a pilgrimage to an abandoned sanctuary that is outside of human habitation. The roads are in bad shape, and nature is wild. Then they encounters a robot, the first any human has seen in decades or centuries. The robot’s mission is to observe humans and find out what they needs. The pair decides to travel together to the sanctuary. Eventually, through discussions, a friendship seems to form and the counselor gets some counsel of their own. A very good and well-written story, but the downside is that it is more of an introduction than a proper story. It mainly sets up the world and characters; the actual plot seems to be very much secondary to that.

Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard (Tordotcom)

The story happens in some sort of eastern kingdom-derived world, where two princesses have spent time together and fallen in love. They have been separated for some time. When one comes for the diplomatic mission, they meet again – with a lot of diplomatic intrigues, including a wedding proposal, while a fire elemental in the form of a beautiful young woman complicates things. Not my cup of tea: the writing was good as such, but the Jane-Austen-style (I have not read any of her books, but somehow this gives me connotations to her writing) relationship plot was pretty boring and felt silly. Not among my favorites.

A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow (Tordotcom)

A young woman, Zinnia, suffers from a genetic disease where toxins slowly cumulate and will kill her at a young age. It is supposed to be caused by a toxic spill, and several other people have the same disease. (It is strange that a toxin has caused the exact same mutation for several people, an embryogenic toxic effect would have been so much more likely than a genetic effect, but apparently the author had no people with medical knowledge as pre-readers…).

Zinnia has always been fascinated by Sleeping Beauty and even has a degree in folktales. Her friend arranges a Sleeping-Beauty-themed 21st birthday party for her. There is even a spindle to be pricked … When she pricks her finger, she is transported to a fantasy land, where an actual picture-perfect beautiful princess is just about to prick her finger and fall asleep due to a spell cast by an evil witch. Together, the girls try to find the witch to prevent the spell, but should it be prevented? And did it have an evil intent? A fun postmodern take on a Sleeping Beauty story with active female participants. A well-written twist on the old tale.

Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire (Tordotcom)

A story that happens in the same universe as several nominated and award-winning novellas by the same author. This time, the story is not directly linked to the other stories. The main character, Regan, is a young girl who desperately wants to have friends. She follows a selfish and snotty girl almost like an over-enthusiastic puppy. She tolerates her even if she isn’t a “perfect” girl as she seems to be loyal to the extreme. Regan’s puberty seems to be delayed while the other girls start to grow breasts. She feels anxious about that and talks to her parents. It turns out that she has a condition called "androgen insensitivity," and “she” is genetically male even if her body is female. She is not supposed to go into puberty without hormone treatment (actually, in reality, those with that syndrome will go into puberty, at least they will grow breasts but will not have menses, and the vagina might be pretty underdeveloped). As she is distressed about that, she makes a mistake and tells about her condition to her “friend”. That doesn’t go well, and she is instantly bullied and abandoned. As she runs away, she finds a door. After she goes through the door, she finds a world filled with magical creatures, including, among others, centaurs who herd unicorns. The centaurs know that a human who appears in their world means there is some danger that needs defeating. And the human must be taken to the queen – but it is not defined WHEN. So Regan lives years with the centaurs and forms a deep friendship, a real friendship, with a young centaur. But there eventually comes a time when she must face her destiny … A well-written and good story that benefitted from not being an integral part of the series. There was no need to try to remember which character was which and what their storyline and background were. A sad (or is it?) ending, though.  

Best Novella

1. A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow (Tordotcom)

2. Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire (Tordotcom)

3. A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers (Tordotcom)

4. Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tordotcom)

5. The Past Is Red, by Catherynne M. Valente (Tordotcom)

6. Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard (Tordotcom)

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Jarkko Sipilä: Prikaatin kosto (Takamäki #9)

Uusin Takamäki-sarjan kirja, tosin tässä kirjassa Takamäki on vain pienehkössä sivuroolissa. Päähenkilöinä ovat Atari-polisi Suhonen ja hänen vanha lapsuudenkaverinsa Eero Salmela. Kyseessä ovat kaverukset joista toisesta tuli konna ja toisesta poliisi, eniten sen vuoksi, että Suhonen sattui nuorena olemaan pahassa flunssassa silloin kun muu poikaporukka teki ensimmäisen murtonsa. Salmela on vankilakeikalla velkaantunut Pääkalloprikaatille, moottoripyöräjengille, joka pyrkii lisäämään vaikutusvaltaansa. Suhonen taas on joutunut jengin tappolistalle toimitettuaan jengin pomon vankilaan. Kun poliisi haluaa soluttaa jonkun jengin sisäpiiriin, on Salmela juuri joutunut velkojensa pantiksi jengin kerhotilojen siivoojaksi. Tässä tarjoutuu poliisille hyvä mahdollisuus, tietenkin edellyttäen, että yhteistyö ei tule jengin tietoon.

Omasta mielestä etenkään alkupuolella kirja ei ollut ihan sarjansa parhaimmistoa - jotenkin tuo jengitouhu ei ollut niin kiinnostavaa kuin kunnon “vanhanaikainen” murhatutkimus. Vähitellen kirja alkoi kyllä vetää ja loppupuoli oli jo oikeastaan sarjansa paremmasta päästä. Kielellisesti kirja samaa aika tiukan asiallista tyyliä kuin muutkin sarjan osat, eikä siinä ollut uutta. Toivottavasti seuraavassa osassa päästään taas enemmän Takamäen pariin, vaikka hän sivurollissa kirjassa vilahtikin, niin ikävä oli lähellä tulla.

The next book in Takamäki series. This time, Takamäki himself is hardly in the book at all. The main characters are Suhonen, who has worked as an undercover cop, and his old childhood friend Salmela, who finds himself involved with a criminal motorcycle gang and not very voluntarily. Salmela starts to work as an informant for the police which might be a fairly risky endeavor. The beginning of the book was pretty slow, and I personally didn’t find a gang-related book as interesting as a “normal” murder case, but towards the end, the book turned out to be thrilling and exciting and well worth of a read. 

340 pp.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

 A man awakens in a strange room with two withered corpses, and no memory of what has happened. He doesn’t remember anything. It turns out he is in a spaceship, closing on a strange star. The ship is filled with scientific equipment, including an '8000x' magnifying microscope (there is no such thing and there can’t be such a thing; laws of physics prohibit it. And that doesn’t mean an electron microscope, it is mentioned as a piece of equipment.)  He starts to remember glimpses of the past. The sun has been dimming because it is being obscured by a strange one-celled organism that uses the co2 of Venus to reproduce, and which travels to the sun with a matter-energy 'drive' to get energy. (I doubt that even if all the co2 in Venus were used to produce those organisms and put into the sun, it would have any noticeable effect; the sun is big and Venus is really tiny compared to it). He slowly remembers that he used to be a science teacher who destroyed his career by postulating that there could be alien lifeforms that are not water-based. (I don’t understand why that would be such a controversial suggestion - there certainly have been speculations just like those, and published articles). As he is supposed to be the only expert in the world on that subject (hah!) he is in charge of the initial examinations. As he makes a groundbreaking discovery on the nature of the organisms, he is transported via several plane and helicopter rides to a secret base, before he has a chance to share his information (very, very stupid). In space, he encounters an alien whose home planet is facing the same destiny as the Earth. In no time they learn to speak to each other (hah!). They then solve one engineering problem after another with the ingenuity of the human and the magical engineering ability of the alien.

The book is entertaining - in some ways. On the other hand, it is very irritating and filled with stupidities and scientific mistakes. (Freezing apparently kills all germs - the same error was made in 'The Martian'. If only it were so simple). The writing was pretty average at best, and the plot was rather railroaded: problem, solve it, the next problem, solve it, and so on. The book is quite different from the others nominated and doesn’t really have any 'literary' merit. It was entertaining, and if I were thirteen years old, I would have really, really loved it. Now I am a bit baffled as to whether I like or hate it. It won’t be one of my top choices. 

476 pp. 

Monday, August 8, 2022

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

The next in line of the Hugo nominees. A young male-to-female transsexual, Katrina Nguyen, loves her violin and has learned to play it more or less by herself. She plays mostly video game tunes on YouTube and has some followers. She has earned some money by prostitution and video sex and is running from home to escape her abusive and intolerant parents. Shizuka Satomi is a violin teacher who has taught six most accomplished young violinists. She is seeking her next student. But she has made a deal with the devil: she must give seven souls of brilliant musicians to save her own. One more to go… they meet and Shizuka sees something in Katrina’s playing. There is a passion in her playing that Shizuka has not really seen before, and she decides that Katrina will be her next and last student. It takes some time for Katrina to believe she isn’t falling into some sort of exploitation scam when Shizuka offers her free violin teaching. Well, she is falling into a scam, but a very different one than she ever could have imagined.

And then there is an alien family who have a donut shop and who are hiding an interstellar conflict and “end plague“ which always destroys civilizations that have advanced far enough. The mother of that family and Shizuka meet and befriend each other. Maybe spaceships, self-aware AIs, and power by matter conversion might be able to beat a devil?

 A pretty unusual book - I don’t believe that there has ever been anything that mixes a “deal with the devil” plot with a hard science fiction story - and the book even manages that admirably well after the reader gets past the style of mixing the genres. The writing is good and the personalities of the main characters are interesting and well described, although the aliens feel a bit too human and are a bit poorly defined. All in all, a pretty good book. 

372 pp.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

My Hugo award votes 2022. Part 2 - Novelettes

 Vampires and the living dead seemed to be a sort of theme this year. The quality felt pretty average, and I didn’t find any of the stories to be exceptional. On the other hand, none of them was really bad or very irritating either. The first place in my voting was fairly obvious, but after that the choice was harder. None of the other stories really impressed me in a good way and neither in a bad way, and felt pretty average. I put Valente’s story in second place due to fine writing. I toyed with placing “no award” next, as the other stories really didn’t feel award-worthy. In the final voting, I might even do that. The stories in places 4 to 6 might be in any order. 

“Bots of the Lost Ark” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, Jun 2021)

Continues the story The Secret Life of Bots, which won a Hugo in the year 2018. The bot who managed to save humanity more or less by accident in the last story has been hibernating for decades. The ship is returning home, but as it wasn’t able to use a jump gate it has taken a lot of time. The human crew members are in hibernation. Most of the bots in the ship have malfunctioned and imagined _they_ are the crew members. The ship is approaching the area of an alien civilization that doesn’t tolerate artificial intelligences. If the ship can’t prove that humans are in control, the ship will be destroyed. But there is only one human the main computer may awake from stasis – and to reach and inform him, the brave bot is needed. A pretty good story, which isn’t on the same level as the first part, but is amusing and entertaining nevertheless.

 “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Uncanny Magazine, Mar/Apr 2021)

In end-of-19th-century Paris a young Japanese-European woman models for artists, especially for one immortal one. He isn’t, apparently at least, an ordinary vampire but can make other people immortal with a personal cost, and apparently can leach the life force from other people. The woman has dreams of being an artist herself. The artist eventually changes the woman to immortal also. She later lives in the US for decades and eventually manages to achieve fame as an artist, pouring some of her life force into her works. A very good and well-written story about art and what it takes to be remembered.  

 “L’Esprit de L’Escalier” by Catherynne M. Valente (Tordotcom)

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is presented in modern times. Orpheus is a famous singer. Eurydice his wife, has died and lives as a kind of zombie – breathing, moving, but slowly moulding and decaying, with no real feelings. Orpheus feels torn between the love of his (former) wife and taking care of something that isn’t exactly human anymore. Very nice and good writing, but I didn’t really get into the story.

 “O2 Arena” by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki (Galaxy’s Edge, Nov 2021)

Climate change has caused the climate to become almost unbearably hot, and what is worse, the oxygen levels are declining. Everyone who can afford it in any way uses inhalers for extra oxygen. A young man who is studying at university in Nigeria loves a woman – at least as a dear friend, perhaps as more. The woman has cancer and her family doesn’t have money to pay for her treatment. The man decides to join O2 Arena cage fights, where people are fighting with no rules, sometimes to death. The rewards are huge but the risks of dying are also very real. The story was ok, but somehow it was really engaging – something was lacking. Perhaps a little shorter form with tighter writing (or a longer form with more background and characterization) might have served the storytelling.

 “That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell (Uncanny Magazine, Nov/Dec 2021)

A man, Anton, escapes an apparent vampire who has been sucking his blood. The bite marks on his thighs bleed when the vampire is nearby. He escapes with the help of his friend Grigorii and takes him to live with him and Luis, another friend. They both believe that they have rescued Anton from a strange cult. Anton, on the other hand, is very afraid that his captor and his other victims will come to get him back and will hurt Grigorii and Anton as well. Then one day one of the other victims of the vampire shows up – the vampire can’t be far away. Ok story, but it was a bit scene-like with little backstory, and the ending felt somehow disjointed and sudden.

 “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny Magazine, May/Jun 2021)

A dressmaker's shop appears occasionally – it may take years between appearances and appears at random places. The dresses from the shop are _special_, most beautiful and elegant, and anyone wearing one will be the luckiest woman at the next ball. But when someone wears one some strange things may happen and people might disappear. A young woman gets a chance to work at the shop. Her mother did own a dress made by the shop, but she disappeared. What will happen to the girl? The story left me pretty much lukewarm. I couldn't care less about exotic dresses and being the center of dance. The writing was ok, but perhaps not as sophisticated as in some of the other nominees. 

My voting order:

1. “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim

2. “L’Esprit de L’Escalier” by Catherynne M. Valente

3. “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde

4. “Bots of the Lost Ark” by Suzanne Palmer

5. “O2 Arena” by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

6. “That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell