Wednesday, March 30, 2016

2016 Hugos: Written Fiction

Today, I’ll point out some of my favorite of last year’s written fiction—both the short fiction categories and award for best novel. The Hugo Award short fiction categories are comprised of Short Story (< 7.5k words), Novelette (7.5-17.5k words) and Novella (17.5-40k words).  These categories have been challenging for me to nominate in the past.  This is partially because I hadn’t been reading much short fiction and partially because there’s just so much out there that it’s difficult to navigate the ocean. Rocket Stack Rank has helped me to get a handle on the second problem.

It became clear how few people nominate short fiction in last year’s Hugo ballot, which means that the ballot can be determined by a relatively small number of votes.  This really makes the point that every nomination counts, especially in short fiction. I have undoubtedly missed some really nice short stories, novelettes, and novellas, and I’m still trying to see how much more I can read before the nomination deadline.  Since I have mostly read free fiction from 2015, I have also included links to the available works.

For novels, I’m afraid I haven’t read all that many novels published in 2015.  I hope for refocus on this more for the coming year, once I have a more stable reading diet of short fiction.  For now, I’ll just list all of the eligible novels I’ve read along with my thoughts.

Short Stories

In Blue Lily’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard (Meeting Infinity): This short story takes place in de Bodard’s Xuya Universe, but is I think it’s accessible to those not familiar with the setting.  In any case, I’ve only read two other Xuya stories so far, and I didn’t have any issues.  It is a beautiful tale of grief, guilt and healing, in a story involving a mind-altering plague that posed a very serious threat to a spacefaring civilization.

Cassandra by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld, March 2015):  A modern-day Cassandra unexpectedly finds herself becoming a villain to Superman’s hero, as they both try to make the world a better place.  I think it speaks a lot to modern cynicism about the simple morality of Superman, and shows how confusing moral decisions can become when you start to look through to the impact of your actions on the future.

The Way Home by Linda Nagata (Operation Arcana, Lightspeed March 2015): This did not really sound like my kind of story, as I am not particularly a fan of milSF—a military team is stuck in an alternate dimension and must defeat demons in order to open a portal to return home.  Things are a little more complicated than that, but it is essentially a short story about group dynamics under mortal pressure. I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed the story and Nagata’s writing style.

Cat Pictures, Please by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, July 2015): Kritzer is my first favorite new-to-me author I discovered with this new delving into short fiction.  She has a very friendly, conversational style of writing, and her writing involves very familiar present-day technologies.  In this case, the main character is a self-aware search engine that is trying to use all her ‘powers’ (targeted ads, manipulation of search results, etc.) to improve people’s lives.  She desires only adorable pictures of cats in exchange.


Ether by Zhang Ran (Clarkesworld, January 2015): This Chinese novelette was translated by Ken Liu and Carmen Yiling Yan. The prose did not feel like a translation to me, but it is noticeable that some things in the story make more sense if you consider it to be set in China.   The story is set in a near future where insidious censors can turn even the words we speak into meaningless babble, and how the desire for free speech and meaningful communication can still find a way to be heard. 

So Much Cooking by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, November 2015): Here’s another excellent and emotional story by Naomi Kritzer.  This one is told through a middle-aged housewife’s cooking blog, as a deadly flu epidemic sweeps through the nation.  The character had a really distinctive voice, and I loved how the story was slowly revealed alongside increasingly desperate recipes.

Looking for Gordo by Robert J. Sawyer (Future Visions):  After receiving information from an alien species, the danger of a search for further extraterrestrial life is on trial.  I thought the alien database was really neat, and it was an interesting look at how to make sense of such a massive amount of information.  Also, it was fun to see such a positive story of first contact.

Hello, Hello by Seanan McGuire (Future Visions): This is another story with an interesting technological centerpiece.  In this case, it is translation software for sign language to speech, and ideas of how far that kind of software might be stretched.


The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman Malik ( An unusual story about a man chasing after the truth of the stories his grandfather used to tell about a poor princess and Jinn in Pakistan.  It was a really complicated and creative story that all tied together really well at the end.

Waters of Versailles by Kelly Robson ( I would not have expected to be so enthralled by a story about magical plumbing at the Court of Versailles!  It’s a very useful setting to explore the value of living with integrity as opposed to gaining social respect.  I didn’t much like the main character in the beginning, but he won me over by the end.

Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.): This one is set in the same world as the Chalion series, but I don’t think you’d have to have read them to appreciate it.  I don’t think there’s any character or plot overlap with the novels of the series.  It’s a rather adorable story about a well-intentioned young man who accidentally acquires a lady demon, and how the two of them get on with one another.  Demons are dangerous in this world, but also a source of magical power.  There are those who don’t think Penric should be so lucky.


Where available, I will link my review for more information.

Last First Snow by Max Gladstone: I loved this book, and I think it is Gladstone’s best novel so far.  It is a book in a series, and I think it is easier to enjoy if you’ve read the previous three novels.  It takes place in his Craft universe, where faith-based and starlight-based magic collide.

Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley: I am enjoying the Worldbreaker Saga, which takes places in a very creative, but brutally violent and unforgiving world.  However, this is a middle book—the reader really has to have read the first to understand what’s going on, and the final conclusion of the story will have to wait until the final volume is published in 2017.

Persona by Genevieve Valentine: I’m not sure what it says about the world that I find the idea of turning politics into a reality show realistic, but I am skeptical about the destruction of free press.  Anyhow, this is a short, tense, thriller about the attempted assassination of a minor political figurehead and the illegal cameraman who helps her.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor: This is a very weird, chaotic science fantasy about aliens landing offshore of Lagos, Nigeria.  I just finished it recently, and am still trying to settle on what I think of it.  It has an interesting focus on Lagos society and mythology, people with superpowers, and extremely powerful aliens.

Now, I want to mention books I haven’t managed to finish before the deadline.  I love both of these so far, but am not sure it is ethical to nominate a book I haven’t fully finished reading.  Regardless, I'd still like to discuss them here.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson: I pretty much love with this book, but it is just too long for me to finish before the end of March.  Robinson, with his usual attention to detail, takes on the idea of a generation ship.  To be honest, if you love KSR’s style, you’ll like this, otherwise probably not.  I do think that it has more of a focus on characterization and narrative than some of his dryer works. 

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu: I’ve enjoyed Liu’s writing in short fiction and translation, so I figured I was probably going to like his first novel.  The world is painstakingly detailed and unlike any other epic fantasy I have recently read.  I like this direction this one is going.

Altogether, those are my favorite works of fiction published in 2015.  What are yours?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Read-Along: Kushiel's Justice by Jacqueline Carey, Part 2

Welcome to week two of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Justice!  This week covers chapters 8 through 14, and the discussion questions have been provided by Emily of EmmaWolf.  As usual, beware of spoilers through chapter 14 below! 

1. There’s some politics, and Imriel learns a little more about the Ephesian ambassador/Unseen Guildsman Diokles Agallon. Does this shed any light on Melisande’s whereabouts or the Guild? Do you have any new guesses?

It sounds like Diokles Agallon is an opponent of his mother’s within the Guild.  I was a little surprised that Imriel would not want to deal with an enemy of his mother.  It seems his opinion of her has been changing a little since he read her letters and has had time to absorb the knowledge that she has been trying to protect him.  I don’t really have any further guesses on what the Guild is up to, though.

2. Joscelin tells Imriel to give it a year with Dorelei to see if his feelings for Sidonie (or hers for him) fade. What do you think of this advice? Do you have any thoughts on Imriel’s wedding?

I think it is sound advice, especially since they’ll have more options when Sidonie officially reaches her majority.  It would also stop them from causing a major political incident if their love ends up just being teenage lust and the lure of the forbidden, since that kind of love probably wouldn’t survive the year.  I don’t think Joscelin believes this is the case, but in all cases waiting seems the wisest option.

I have to admit that I find myself wondering how well Imriel and Sidonie’s relationship might fare in ordinary circumstances.  They both admit that the ‘forbidden’ aspect is probably part of their attraction, and circumstances have not really allowed them to explore much of their relationship besides sex.  I think that might make it especially hard for both of them to split up, since they don’t really have a solid relationship outside the bedroom yet.

3. We learn a bit more about Alban law and culture. What do you think of the law that imposes harsher sentences on the wealthy/ruling class? What is more dangerous: armies or books? What do you think about the Maghuin Dhonn?

I think that is a better inequality than the other way around.  If the wealthy/ruling class is good at avoiding being caught, though, it might not matter.  For books/armies, I would say armies.  Violent people are much more terrifying and dangerous to me than new ideas. It sounded like the Maghuin Dhonn was a case of wanting vengeance so badly that you’re willing to sacrifice your own soul.  I really hope this doesn’t end up like Darsanga. 

4. Dorelei lays some truths on Imriel. How do you like her now? What do you make of the dream she had of Imriel?

I have always thought Dorelei seemed like a good person, even if I sometimes forgot her name in discussion.  I think she and Imriel really needed to have this discussion.  I hope it helps Imriel see her as a person, and not as a ‘miscast actor in his own personal tragedy’.  After all, Dorelei’s situation is just as tragic—being married to a man who is in love with someone else.  I think they also need to have the BDSM talk soon, though, since it didn’t sound like she really understood why he was sometimes a bit rough with her.  It’s possible there may be some things she’s willing to try, even if she isn’t really into the Kusheline arts. About the dream, I have no idea.  I never do seem to figure these kinds of things out before the answer is handed to me.

Other Things:

--I still find it kind of funny how Imriel sees his chemistry with Sidonie as more like Phedre and Joscelin’s passion.  Phedre and Joscelin’s compatibility in the bedroom was initially more like Imriel’s with Dorelei.

--It’s great to see that the Albans seem to be accepting Alais already!  I hope we get to see some of her dream-reading training.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

2016 Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

As a result of my March vanishing, I’m running a little late with my anticipated Hugo Nomination posts.  They’ll be coming with more density than usual this week, since I want to at least record my thoughts before the nominations close.  Today’s topic is Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (a.k.a. Best TV Episode).  We currently seem to be in a SFF TV Golden Age, so I have plenty of shows to choose from for this category.  I’m trying to decide whether to vote The Man in the High Castle for long form or short form this year, so my ‘nominees’ below are currently going to exceed the ballot.  Another show to mention is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is only not present below because I intend to nominate it for long form.  Now, to my favorite shows:

12 Monkeys, “Arms of Mine”: This was my favorite new show of 2015, and it’s one that really deserves a wider audience.   It shares a premise with the Terry Gilliam film, but I think it’s best to consider the show a completely separate entity.  As you’ll see in this list, I’m a big fan of time travel shows. For a quick summary, human society in 12 Monkeys has been essentially destroyed by an engineered biological weapon.  One scientist who is still alive in this future has developed a method of time travel, and is trying to prevent the outbreak. 

One of the things I most loved about 12 Monkeys is it’s emphasis on character development and its engagement with the moral and philosophical problems of time travel. For instance, do the ends justify the means if the ends erase the means?  If you believe this, then time travel will allow you to justify anything, since your actions carry no moral weight. There’s no guarantee that the future can be changed, though, so you may be chasing an absolution that will never be realized.  It was fascinating to see how the facts of time travel and apocalypse impacted each of the major characters, and to see which of their principles would buckle or hold under such pressure.  I loved this show, and I really hope season two lives up to my expectations. 

I’m nominating the finale, because I thought it tied together the first season extremely well.  It carried a number of revelations that would spoil the first season, though, so I don’t want to say more here!  I also considered nominating the episode “Atari”, since it featured a delightfully twisty and complete time travel story in a

Continuum, “Power Hour”:  This nomination is a goodbye to another time travel show, but one that has ended before its time.  In 2015, Syfy aired the final 6-episode season, which was tasked with the challenge of wrapping up all the story lines.  It was a little rushed, but overall I think the writers gave the show a fitting conclusion.

The show featured a dystopian future governed by corporations, and a terrorist group that was sent back to modern-day Vancouver in order to ensure that future never came to pass.  Along with the terrorist came a loyal corporate cop, Kiera, who is willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to get back to her son in the future.  Things become more complicated when the time travelers meet future CEO and genius inventor Alec Sadler, as well as a future iconic figure for the resistance against the corporations.  The show was sometimes a little muddled thematically, and I still don’t understand why everyone hated Matthew Kellogg, but I loved its thoroughly engrossing and progressively more complicated story.  I think Continuum deserves some recognition.  I picked “Power Hour” as my favorite of this final season, mostly because it addresses Julian’s struggle with accepting the ideology his own manifesto, given his knowledge of what people may one day do in its name.

The Walking Dead, “He’s Not Here”: The Walking Dead has been a show of ups and downs in writing quality, with this previous week’s episode as an example of a down.  However, when it’s good it can be really good.  This particular episode features Morgan’s story, after he lost his family and left his home.  Episodes that focus on him seem to generally be both self-contained and especially emotionally-affecting (such as “Clear” in season 3). This one shows the origin of the ideology Morgan has adopted in order to cope with this post-apocalyptic world. 
Doctor Who, “Heaven Sent”: I know I should probably not nominate Doctor Who, since it has dominated this award for many years.  All the same, I feel like this episode is exactly what a short form award should recognize.  It’s an excellent self-contained story in one television episode, full of horror, mystery and emotion.  I don’t know whether I’m in the majority on this, but I thought “Heaven Sent” was the strongest episode of this season.

Orphan Black, “Certain Agony of the Battlefield”: Orphan Black is the reigning champion from last year, and for good reason.  It’s a highly entertaining show, and Tatiana Maslany does an amazing job playing so many different major characters.  I figured this one was going to be the Hugo contender for this year as soon as I finished watching it.  It was a very powerful episode.

The Man in the High Castle, “Three Monkeys”: I’m trying to decide whether to go for short or long form for this series.  I’ve already given most of my thoughts in the long form post and in a TV Musings review.  I chose this episode because it contained some of the more dramatic developments and unexpected betrayals.

Honorable Mentions:

I’ve liked The Expanse so far, but I think my favorite episodes fall into the part of the first season that aired in 2016. Thus, I’ll probably nominate something from this series next year. In other new shows, Syfy’s Killjoys and Dark Matter got off to a shaky start, but they both improved over the course of the season.  I don’t think they’re Hugo-worthy yet, but they may be for next year if the trend continues in their second seasons.  For AMC, Fear the Walking Dead and Into the Badlands might be contenders for the future, depending on how their second seasons progress.  Agent Carter could also be a contender for a nomination, since I think it’s one of the best of Marvel’s small-screen ventures.  There really are a ton of quality science fiction and fantasy shows airing these days, and even more are premiering in 2016.  I don’t think we’ll run out of nominees for this category anytime soon, and I’m hoping we’ll see a different show take home the prize each year from here on out!

What do you think?  Did I miss your favorite show? If so, let me know!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Short Fiction: February

I’m back!  It’s been a difficult March this year. Anyhow, I’m happy to say that I’m almost fully recovered and ready to write blog posts.  Today, I want to (finally) talk about my favorite pieces of short fiction from February.  If there is a theme for my favorites of this month, I would say it is challenging moral dilemmas.

Charlotte, Incorporated by Rachael K. Jones (Short Story,Lightspeed):  This was a very unusual story about a disembodied brain’s dream of purchasing a body.  How far will Charlotte go to get what she wants?  I really appreciated that Charlotte’s ideas for her future body had everything to do with self-image and sensuality, but nothing to do with physical attractiveness and sex.  I liked how it underlined the simple joy of physical existence.   

Tom, Thom by K.M. Ferebee (Novelette,  This quiet story takes on a common trope—a changeling—but in an unexpected way.  The changeling child is not necessarily evil, but a vulnerable young person who has been cast out to die by his own people. Ferebee has a very strong and beautifully descriptive style, which helps to set the atmosphere of the story.

The Coward’s Option by Adam-Troy Castro (Novella, Analog): “The Coward’s Option” sets up an interesting spacefaring civilization, an alien world, and a compelling moral dilemma involving free will and violent crime. Beware though, that this is a link only to the first part, and the rest is in an Analog back-issue (which was already a back-issue in February, despite being the 'March' issue).  On the strength of the first half of the novella, it was one of my favorites of the month, and I'm going to track down the rest of the story at some point.