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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

2014 Nebula Award Nominee List: Final Thoughts

The weekend of June 4, 2015 the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America will announce the 50th annual Nebula Awards. There are several award categories ranging from full novel to short stories. I unfortunately do not have the time to read everything on the nominee list between the time it is announced and the award weekend, so I limit myself to just the novels. Week before last I finished the last of the nominees on this year's list. I will repost the list here, in alphabetical order for convenience sake.





I have linked my review of each novel to the titles above should you wish to review them. Before I get to my choice for best novel, I think I should discuss what I look for in a book. I also must disclose my biases, for like everyone else I do have them and they will affect my choice.



I have never been able to decide if I am a fussy reader or not. I have a preference for the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, but I have read books from many genres. I have read many of the literary masterpieces for example, with "Crime and Punishment" and "Of Mice and Men" among my favorites. I have studied Shakespeare at the university level, as well as Chaucer and Goethe. In my previous profession I was literally a student of Sun Tzu ("The Art of War") and Carl von Clausewitz ("On War".) So when I look at a book, science fiction or otherwise, I have a critical eye. If that makes me a fussy reader then I'll wear that sign. But I really don't think of myself as a fussy reader. I can thoroughly enjoy a book and yet hold it in low critical esteem. Let's face facts, some books are just mind candy. They are written to be fun, and that does not require they be thought-provoking or existentially deep. John Scalzi's Redshirts was one such book. It is hugely popular, but it is not a literary masterpiece.



Many people will say that Science Fiction and Fantasy can never be literary masterpieces. That it is the nature of the genre. That is elitist bull shit. While it is true that much of the genre is not literary masterpiece quality, it is no more or no less well written than all the other genre's out there including the one named literary. Yes, I'm intentionally mixing up two slightly different things here - on purpose. Literary in the language sense means having a marked style intended to create a particular emotional effect. It applies to all written works. The Bible and the Quran are literary in this sense, and so is Red Shirts. Then there is the term literary fiction as used in the publishing industry. It originally only meant the work was outside the normal fictional genres like romance or western. But over time some have implied it means superior fiction or superior writing, and that somehow the genre fictions are lesser works. Codswallop! All fiction has the potential to be a masterpiece regardless of genre. It is not the vehicle of a story which makes it great writing, but the talent of the writer, and writers like Ursula K. Le Guin are not hacks simply because they use a genre vehicle to create a particular emotional effect.



With that in mind, I hold all works of writing to the same standards and maintain that using a classification system as a ranking system is a fool's game. What I look for in a work of science fiction or fantasy is the same as I look for in stories like Crime and Punishment. First and foremost, does the story follow logically and emotionally. By logically I mean do events unfold as they would in real life? Are the emotions appropriate to the situation? In short, is it believable. To any that are still smarting from my declaration that literary fiction superiority is the real fiction, let's address right now the science and technology issue which most of you get hung up on when it comes to my prefered genre. By believable I am not talking about things. I am talking about people, their reactions to situations and the emotions they exhibit. Are THOSE believable, because they are what really matter - not whether you think faster than light travel is possible or not. If the characters' actions, thoughts, beliefs and emotions are well done, that character becomes real in my mind. That's a critical threshold to cross for any writer. If your characters are not believable, then your story is not believable and any larger point you are trying to make is ruined. You can not argue truth from a position of falsehood, and that starts with your characters being true to the human condition and always acting that way even when they are a superhero. All of my favorite superheroes are deeply flawed human beings because that to me is real. That's what I look for in a good book.



The next thing I look for in a good book is entertainment value. Yeah, I'm shallow that way. But seriously, if the story isn't fun to read why am I spending time on it? I do not have enough free hours in the day to waste on unenjoyable endeavors. That's what a job is for, right? :o When I pick up a book I want to be entertained. But let's not sell that word short. There are many ways to be entertained. When an author presents you with a thought-provoking idea that blows your mind as the end of 2010: A Space Odyssey Two did with me, that is entertainment. When an author writes prose so well that each word is the hammer stroke of a master artisan creating the equivalent of a FabergĂ© egg in your mind which so real it seems tangible, that is entertainment. When two characters have an exchange of words that makes you laugh out loud, or cry, or cringe, that is entertainment. When you get from a book what you sought from it in the first place, or that feeling you didn't even know you needed, that is entertainment. That's what I expect from an award winner.



Now lastly, there is one special category I have to cover since the Nebula Award is a science fiction and fantasy award. Those authors who write science fiction have a hurdle to jump. Actually, it's more like pole vaulting with me. In science fiction there is extra onus placed on suspension of disbelief. That is a very hard thing to make me do. I will come right out and say that in the list above there is only one work of science fiction. The other five nominations are all fantasy. That's how tough I am when it comes to suspension of disbelief. And that is also part of my bias. I love science. In my version of a real life alternate reality, I am a scientist. I believe the scientific method is the best way to sort true from false. When an author does the research and gets the science correct, I am ecstatic. That is why I am such a fan of "The Martian" by Andy Weir. He got it right every step of the way. It's also why Interstellar ultimately fell on its face as far as I'm concerned. But they both had another thing I love: space travel. The first science fiction I ever read (aside: the first book I remember reading was "The Emergence of Man" my 5th grade year. The first fiction I remember reading was "Bambi, A Life in the Woods" my 6th grade year) was a Scholastic book titled "Trapped In Space" by Jack Williamson. From the back of the book:



Astronaut Ben is lost - a million miles from Earth! His last message” ‘Strange life forms here…we’re under attack…’

Jeff sets off to rescue him, but soon his own crippled starship is caught in the same eerie web of a monstrous creature from outer space!


That was my hook, line and sinker; I've been biased toward space travel books, and science fiction in general, ever since. I also have a bias towards happy endings. Call me an optimist. The dilemma for me when it comes to these biases is when the story meets all those other criteria above, but fails my own personal bias. Is it fair to the author to think less of the story than it likely deserves? Does fairness matter? It's a tough call.



In the end I can only speak for myself. I try not to let my biases overwhelm what I know makes a well written work of literature. I think I am analytical enough, and identified with Spock enough as a child, that I can pull that off. Only in the case where I really believe the other criteria can't distinguish between two equally well written books do I then allow a bias to become a tiebreaker.



Guess what? That seems to happen almost every time. And really, in the end isn't it all subjective anyway? I have my own ideas how people should act and react. That's a subjective bias. I also know that you can put 100 English majors in the same room, present them with one grammatical conundrum, and they won't be able to agree on what the correct grammar rules are to solve the conundrum. In the end, it often comes down to a choice of style, and that's a bias. Fortunately, I can live with my biases. And, unlike the Hugo awards in August, I only have to pick one of the books above as my choice for the 2014 Nebula Award. No rank ordering required.



Still, it wasn't an easy decision. I enjoyed all these books. They were all great fun. But in the end, I had to go with the one I found most thought-provoking. I choose...



The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu ( ), translated by Ken Liu (Tor)



SPOILER ALERT! STOP NOW IF YOU DO NOT WANT.



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The Three-Body Problem entertained me in many ways. The first thing I really appreciated was the insight it gave me into the Chinese cultural revolution of the 1960s. I thought I had an idea of what it was like, but this book more than any academic text I've ever read on the subject made it real to me. Perhaps to someone born and raised in China this isn't such a big deal, but to my western mind it was enlightening.



I also found the characters, their motivations and their emotions to be genuine. Each remained true to the convictions given them, even when that conviction lead one to send an interstellar message dooming mankind to extinction, and another to collaborate with the exterminators, the Trisolarans , for the good of the planet. There were more than a couple of stereotypes, but they were done purposefully and only one was a main character to my way of thinking. I also like hardboiled cops who play by their own rulebook. ;) It wasn't a failure on the author's part to understand a particular character was a stereotype. There is a difference between those who stereotype from ignorance or inability, and those who stereotype to make a point. I believe Cixin Liu falls into the latter category.



The science in Three-Body was also well-considered and utilized. The story plays out over decades because there is no faster than light means to enable mankind and the Trisolarans  to communicate. There were no faster than light ships with which to launch an invasion. Quite the contrary, the Trisolarans are only 4 light years from Earth in the Alpha Centauri star system, but their invasion fleet will take 400 years to arrive because they are bound by the laws of inertia and travelling at only a fraction the speed of light. From the 1960s technology of the giant radio telescope called Red Coast, to the computer game that educated humans about Trisolaran history and the problems caused by the sun and the flying stars, Cixin Liu gets it right. And that last bit with the flying stars was simply brilliant. I loved how he managed to portray a trinary star system in terms a bronze age or iron age civilization would understand. Trying to figure out what sun would rise and how long it would last was fun. And the use of human historical figures to portray Trisolaran historical figures was exceedingly entertaining.



Eventually, when it came time to suspend disbelief, the seemingly impossible quantum manipulation science of the Trisolarans was still rooted in the current Standard Model. Though highly theoretical, the Trisolaran science does not cross the line of violating the laws of the universe, though it does stretch them quite a bit. But that's why they call it science fiction. :D Suspension of disbelief at that point was very easy for me because who knows, perhaps one day we will be able to turn a quantumly entangled pair of protons into matching supercomputers using quark bits and nuclear weak force circuitry. There is no magic there, just the currently untestable. It was still presented in a coherent, logical, scientific fashion.



In the end, I felt this book encompassed what I feel science fiction is all about. It not only deals with current real world issues which have their roots in past events and decisions, but it explores scientific potentials I'd not considered before. And like all the old school authors I loved reading as a young man, science, hard work and determination provide a route out of darkness - metaphorically speaking. You are never without hope so long as you have intelligence and the will to use it. That's what I feel science fiction should be about. That's what Three-body brings to the genre. That's why I pick it for the 2014 Nebula Award.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for your reviews and pointing me towards Scalzi's and GRR's blogs

    The Three-Body Problem seems to be the favorite. Or perhaps that's just wishful thinking because it's the book I am most interested in reading as well.

    Going to Egypt for a dive vacation by the end of July so I will try to reach my baggage weight limit with at least half a dozen good books (probably aiming for 6000 pages for 10 days).

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  2. Your welcome. :) Have a safe and fun dive vacation and enjoy Three Body!

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  3. Midly spoiler below...

    Oh, man, that computer made of chinese people was hilarious and awesome!

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