I was well more than half way into Version Control, the second novel by Dexter Palmer, when I realized that very little had happened in the novel. But I also realized that I didn’t really mind either:
Sure, there’s something like a time machine (or rather, a causality violation device – the physicist inventor would very much prefer you not call it a time machine) and some barely near-future technology like self-driving cars. But these speculative elements take a back seat to story that is both deeply intelligent and deeply human, a vehicle that Palmer uses to voice all manner of witty observations on everything from social media, to race relations, to religious faith.
This isn’t a book that I can really do justice to in a brief review, so go check out the more competent reviews on NPR or Mashable, or better yet, just go read the novel itself. Easily one of the cleverest, most affecting books I’ve read in recent memory.
This debut novel by Québécois author Sylvain Neuvel centers around a top-secret project to unearth an ancient humanoid machine, the parts of which were scattered across the earth and buried in a time before human recollection. A sort of mecha, presumably extra-terrestrial in origin and seemingly impervious to human weapons, the relic promises political and military dominance for whoever succeeds in mastering it.
The novel is told in an ambitious documentary style, eschewing conventional narrative and telling its story instead through a collection of transcripts, articles, and reports. The style works well here, giving the book the raw, unfiltered immediacy of watching breaking news, and the result is a fun page-turner and a promising start to a new series.
I did find some serious flaws, though, that I hope can still be at least partly remedied in subsequent books in the series: The geopolitical implications of this seemingly unbeatable weapon are hinted at from the start of the novel, but they really only unfold toward the very end of the book in a way that I found rushed and unconvincing. Also, I was disappointed to see the machine’s backstory given away in one long info dump rather than teased out more subtly over the span of the series.
Still, it was an entertaining book and a solid debut, and I am very much interested in seeing where the story goes in book two of The Themis Files.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley.
Edit: Since I posted this, Lightspeed announced that they’re no longer eligible for consideration in the semiprozine category. Still, they had some great 2015 short fiction, so be sure to check them out. Uncanny is still eligible.
A few months back, Ken Marable started the Hugo Recommendation Season blog in order to “encourage and focus discussion on award worthy works,” “better inform the nominating population of fans,” and “give every Hugo category its due attention.” And I figured participating would be as good an opportunity as any for me to somewhat finalize my own thoughts on what I plan to nominate for the 2016 Hugos. I say “somewhat finalize” because, of course, the whole point is to share and discuss recommendations and it’s certainly possible – indeed, I hope it likely – that I’ll discover something in the process that I’ve previously overlooked.
So this week, the focus is on the Best Semiprozine category, which, I have to say is a bit of an oddball. From what I’ve read, the category was first created in 1984 because Locus Magazine had been dominating the Fanzine category, having won in six of the previous eight years. The Best Semiprozine category, with its slightly esoteric eligibility rules, gave Locus an entirely different category to dominate instead (which it continued to do until another rules change in 2012 made it ineligible for that one also).
In any case, the folks at semiprozine.org have simplified things for Hugo voters by listing all the eligible publications on their semiprozine directory page, and I have two “definitely nominating” picks from that list: Lightspeed Magazine and Uncanny Magazine, both of which have contributed more than any other semiprozine to my list of potential nominations in the short fiction categories.
Uncanny Magazine,by contrast, is a comparatively new publication: they didn’t have enough issues to meet the eligibility requirement last year, but they’re now well past the minimum required for the Hugo, and they just recently met their funding goal on Kickstarter for year two.
Uncanny supplied some of my favorite short stories this year, including “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward An Oral History,” Sam J. Miller’s speculative alternate history of the Stonewall Riots; “In Libres,” Elizabeth Bear’s story of research students in a labyrinthine magical library; and “The Midnight Hour,” Mary Robinette Kowal’s tale of a mad king cursed to only one hour of lucidity a day.
Added bonuses include great cover art by Julie Dillon, Tran Nguyen, Antonio Caparo, and others, as well as podcast versions of the stories, poems, and interviews.
I also appreciate that both Uncanny and Lightspeed offer ePub downloads for purchase (Lightspeed directly through their site, Uncanny through Weightless Books) for those who prefer the flexibility and formatting options that allows. Finally, both sites are attractive and easy to use, which admittedly, for me, has a huge influence over whether I’m willing to spend time with a site’s content.
So, brief note, the “Reading for the Hugos 2016” titles were feeling a little repetitive. I’ll still be reviewing Hugo-eligible works (and they’ll all have the Hugos2016 tag), I just won’t be bothering to note it in the title.
Matt Fraction, of Hugo-nominated Sex Criminals fame, has another graphic novel out this year that hasn’t gotten nearly much buzz. Sex Criminals was my top pick for the last Hugo vote – I’m a sucker for library-related fiction – but I may have liked this even better.
And once again, I find that Goodreads reviewers don’t share my opinion. Well, some of them at least. The reviews seem to be split between What the hell did I just read and This is goddamn genius.
I lean strongly toward the latter, but I understand both perspectives: No doubt, this is not the kind of book you can flip through casually and expect not to get hopelessly lost. It does require a bit of focus (and it doesn’t hurt to have at least a passing familiarity with The Odyssey, on which it’s based), but it definitely rewards the effort of a close reading.
At the start of ODY-C, Odyssia and her all-female crew, having just sacked the siegeworld Troiia after a century of war, prepare the ship for its long voyage back to their homeworld of Ithicaa. The end of the war, however, means the gods have lost a valuable source of entertainment, and the Olympians proceed to make the voyage home for Odyssia very difficult indeed, as the crew encounters a pleasure planet of lotophages, a colossal alien cyclops, and the strange Aeolus who offers them a perverse bargain in exchange for a shortcut home.
So, basically, a gender-flipped SFF version of The Odyssey, but Fraction brings a lot of smart twists to the source material that make it a distinctive story in its own right. Fraction mashes up that sort of magical Clarke’s-third-law technology with elements of myth in a number of original ways, and some of those permutations, like the backstory that explains the lack of men in the story, border on brilliant. And Christian Ward’s art is just a trip, falling somewhere in the hallucinatory terrain between Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune adaptation, a prog rock album cover, and your uncle’s airbrushed 70s panel van.
There are a few missteps: The narration occasionally trips over itself in an attempt to emulate the epic register of Homer’s original (and I spotted at least one glaring typo which I think got missed in the archaic syntax), but overall, ODY-C brings exactly the kind of genre-stretching, bar-raising originality that I think needs to be celebrated and awarded. With so many good graphic novels already released this year and more yet to come, I can’t guarantee it’ll make my final five for the Hugo nominations, but it definitely has a damn good chance.
Somehow, until a trip this weekend to the local comic book store, I had missed completely that Craig Thompson not only had a new graphic novel, but that he had a new science fiction graphic novel. The fact that Space Dumplins was written primarily for a juvenile audience may explain why it had escaped my notice, but it would be a mistake to dismiss this merely as a kids’ graphic novel: Very much in the same vein as Adventure Time, Thompson layers juvenile humor with references and subtexts that only an adult would be likely to get, creating a story entertaining enough for any age.
Gar and Cera and their daughter Violet are a hardscrabble working-class family, and their life only gets harder when a confluence of bad luck threatens to tear them apart. Violet’s school gets eaten by a rogue space whale, Cera’s promotion from textile worker to fashion designer’s assistant doesn’t quite live up to expectations, and Gar’s departure for a special assignment takes him far from his family. And then, it goes from bad to worse as a space-whale diarrhea disaster displaces millions of asteroid dwellers. It falls to Violet and her two friends – erudite sentient chicken Elliot and loud-mouthed lumpkin Zacchaeus – to save Violet’s dad and reunite the family.
As you can likely tell, it’s full of scatalogical humor, dumb jokes, and goofy action, and I loved it. I believe it may also be Thompson’s first full-color graphic novel, and the result is gorgeous. It may be a little lowbrow for more serious SF readers, but if you can enjoy Adventure Time or Powerpuff Girls unironically, then you’ll likely want to check it out.
In other graphic novel news, I also recently finished Warren Ellis’ Trees, Vol. 1: In Shadow, and it too is going on my list of potential Best Graphic Story nominees. Aliens have invaded the earth, landing enormous tree-like structures at various points around the globe and terrifying humanity with the prospect of alien conquest. And yet, the trees do nothing but sit silently, while humanity, reacting in fear and panic, turns against itself. Smart sci-fi with a global cast of characters, volume one of Trees unfortunately ends rather abruptly on a cliffhanger, and it may not satisfy Hugo voters looking for a more self-contained narrative. Nonetheless, I was impressed, and I’m very much looking forward to volume two.
Two other Hugo-eligible works I’ve recently finished and recommend: “The Bone Swans of Amandale,” a new novella published in C.S.E. Cooney’s collection Bone Swans, is very good. I’m not usually a fan of fairy-tale remixes, but this one – a take on the Pied Piper story – really shines. The protagonist, a shapeshifting rat, brings the proper amount of irreverence to a story that might otherwise have come off overly affected, and Cooney preserves the weirdest, most haunting aspects of fairy tales in their raw unsanitized form.
And, in Related Works, I found Felicia Day’s new memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet to be hilarious and utterly charming. If you haven’t watched her web series The Guild or any of her other work, you might get a little lost in parts, but there’s also plenty in Day’s memoirs about how women are treated in certain corners of fandom – Day’s chapter on her personal experiences being doxed and threatened by GamerGate supporters is particularly tough reading – that I think needs to be heard.