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2014 Hugos: Best Novel - Bela Lugosi's Dead, Jim
June 8th, 2014
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2014 Hugos: Best Novel

General notes:

  • Major spoilers for everything on the ballot!
  • Reviews in order of reading/watching.

My current ranking is:

  1. Ancillary Justice
  2. Neptune’s Brood
  3. Parasite (but it’s very hard to order this with Neptune’s Brood!)

Neptune’s Brood (Charlie Stross)

Since my Kindle started me at the first page of actual novel text rather than the very first page of the book, it was whole pages before I concluded “Charlie’s been reading David Graeber” - something I could also have discovered by paging back once or twice.

This is a sequel of sorts to Saturn’s Children. I feel pretty comfortable saying that it largely stands alone though: while elements of the basic setup are shared they are reintroduced here, along with a bunch of new concepts. I expect that one could safely read them in either order without losing anything.

Anyway. Krina Alizond is, essentially, an accountant-historian. As it turns out she is in quite a lot of trouble, for reasons to do with her family and profession. This sets up two strands to the book.

First there is adventure. Alizond travels through a sequence of environments meeting allies and enemies along the way: religious fanatics, space-faring life-insurance underwriters, mermaids and squid. Every living character in the book is a robot and the majority of the principle actors present as female. Although there is a slightly slow part late in the book, on the whole it is entertainingly written and well-paced.

The second strand concerns the interstellar economic background and the backplot to the story of the book. Alizond’s own level of understanding of the backplot grows substantially through the book so although details of this aspect can be opaque at times, perseverance is rewarded. The book is lightly sprinkled with fannish and industry humor (is that an industry mogul depicted as a parasitic worm? The very thought, etc.)

The discussion of interstellar economics is trickier, and I had to draw a diagram to follow it. Sequence diagrams may not be a usual component of novels but in this case I think it would have been entirely justified. I’m still working through the descriptions of failed transactions (one of them seems to be wrong) and popular frauds.

The structure is an improvement over Saturn’s Children. Although both books contain lengthy lessons in the history, physics, economics etc of their universe, Neptune does a better job of applying it to forward movement of the story as a whole.

In conclusion: an excellent read, though I need to spend some more time figuring out some of the details above. Could it be best novel? It’s in with a chance but it’ll certainly depend on the competition.


Parasite (Mira Grant)

The story here is essentially a zombie apocalypse brought about mad scientists. The controlling agent is a genetically engineered intestinal parasite, originally designed to enhance the human immune system but getting out of control and taking over the brains of their hosts. There is plenty of scientific furniture placed around this idea, which I’m not really qualified to judge the plausibility of, but I didn’t find myself shouting “oh come ON” at any point.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Sally Mitchell, an early adopter of the parasites who begins the story waking from a coma following a car crash. Her pre-accident personal memory, and personality traits, are completely gone: she has to re-learn English and indeed is still accumulating vocabulary six years later, when the bulk of the story occurs. She is functioning relatively well in society by this point, working at a low-pressure job and managing to analyze the relationships between her and the various other actors in her life.

Most ominously these include the corporation behind the parasite, which is held, fairly plausibly, to be responsible for her miraculous recovery from the coma. Her parents are somewhat overprotective but, as later becomes clear, her father also has an interest in the real story that isn’t just personal. Her boyfriend Nathan, on the other hand, does a much better job of acting consistently in Sally’s own interests.

The catastrophe unfolds gradually at first. At first only small numbers of people fall victim to the control of their parasites, with doctors baffled by the causes. During one of Sally’s visits to Symbogen it turns out that Symbogen’s staff are no better protected than anyway else, though they do have a means of detecting the problem early, which Sally is able to communicate to the authorities via Nathan (conveniently, a doctor) and her father (conveniently, a research chief for a military medical research organization).

As things get worse - large scale attacks, a sister at direct risk - Sally and Nathan find themselves in contact with a mysterious ally who ultimately turns out to be one of the original designers of the parasite and, conveniently, Nathan’s long-lost mother. It turns out that parasite-controlled individuals aren’t all shambling threats: given time they can become fully intelligent and more-or-less socialized individuals, not immediately distinguishable from the uninfected, and with their own agendas.

By this point of course the reader should have figured out what the real story behind Sally’s accident and recovery is, though Sally herself resists acknowledging it until the end of the book. Initially it seems like she is being stupid about realizing this but to my mind the author makes it fairly clear that really she is in denial about it, working increasingly hard to resist an unpalatable truth.

Sally’s convenient choice of father and boyfriend are somewhat motivated by the story (her father’s involvement in medical research explaining the family’s early adoption of the parasites, and she spends a lot of time around hospitals and therefore unattached doctors) but happening to form a relationship with the son of one of the parasite’s inventors is explained as pure coincidence. Two partial coincidences and one total one seems a little much, at least if we’re to assume that nobody involved is lying, which may not be completely safe.

Symbogen turns out to have been penetrated by a couple of its opponents, though apparently not by the state, something explained in the text by the power of lobbying money but, I thought, a little strange given the financial, legal and technological resources the real USA readily brings against perceived threats. That said, (i) Sally might well not find out about it despite her father’s candor and (ii) this is in any case the first of a trilogy, leaving plenty of room for further revelations about who is spying on who.

All in all a pretty intelligent zombie story, and I’ll be looking forward to the sequels.


Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)

A number of people have compared the background of this book to Banks Culture, but really it is somewhere on a line drawn from there through Neal Asher’s Polity and beyond. The setting is a vast interstellar empire held together by superintelligent computers (embedded in spacecraft, space stations, etc). But much as Asher’s Polity is darker in character than the Culture, the Leckie’s Radch is darker still.

The Culture, then, operates not only in the interests of its (generally rather coddled) citizens but also takes responsibility for those outside of it, and moreover is powerful enough not only to implement this policy on a grand scale but also to face down or, if it comes to it, militarily defeat, most of the threats it faces. Asher’s Polity in contrast, although in principle defending its members interests, takes a harsh approach to justice and on occasion is prepared to sacrifice substantial numbers of them in pursuit of its wider interests. In the face of serious external threat it is sometimes forced to content itself with stalemate.

The Radch certainly talks a good talk. Its name translates as “civilization” and (like the Culture’s Marain) its language does not distinguish between human genders at all. It implements religious tolerance via an enthusiastic syncretism, and is carves out compromises where this turns out to be unworkable. Access to government jobs is based on exam performance. An uncritically-minded Culture citizen speaking to a well-off Radchaai citizen, while certainly considering their civilization backward in important respects, might nevertheless feel that they were heading in the right direction, and at least not in need of immediate intervention.

(Quite a bit is made of the absence of masculine/feminine distinction in Radchaai language or society, with One Esk largely unable to recognize or articulate gender distinctions in societies and languages that do distinguish. She does seem to manage a she/it distinction though; perhaps it has the same animate/inanimate distinction found in some real languages.)

But the Radch is an empire. It expands by conquest, its gender-neutral language perhaps also being neutral between the anaemic term “annexation” used in the text and the expropriation, mass murder, slavery, rape and occasionally genocide that actually happen in its invasions. The conquered fund the expansion. It routinely allies with its subject elites: the oppressed stay oppressed, under new senior management. Its politics is a system of clientage and nepotism, and those exams are rigged.

The plot of Ancillary Justice grows from challenges to these abuses. Broadly speaking, there is a one thousand year plot arc, with Radchaai expansion running up against a subtly constructed existential threat from a rival alien civilization. This initiates overt and covert policy changes, an invisible power struggle in the governing class, and destroys the fortunes of one of the human characters. The long-term fallout of these events meets in the person of Justice Of Toren, which is both a spacecraft AI and a collection of individual human bodies (usually with tightly linked minds) used for planetary excursions, valeting, and so on. After becoming unwittingly ensnared in the power struggle, Toren is destroyed, leaving just one of its bodies (One Esk Nineteen) left to seek revenge.

(One Esk is a unit of twenty bodies usually directly linked to Toren, called ancillaries, hence the title. One Esk is somewhat unusual among ancillary units: it sings choral music. Moreover, it likes to sing truly ancient songs. The author links to some of the source material here.)

The story is also somewhat driven by coincidence: familiar people keep turning up in convenient places. One Esk isn’t particularly perturbed by this, having a fatalistic attitude exhibited also in her occasional religious references, but it’s not the book’s strongest point.

The first two thirds of the book alternates between One Esk making progress on her quest and flashback filling in its origins. Although there is action, some of it violent, much of it is simply talking. One Esk, although a soldier and perfectly capable of fighting when necessary - and on several occasions it is necessary - spends a great deal of time using persuasion to achieve her goals. This gives much of the book a low key, slow-moving but intense feel.

The third part One Esk more directly prosecuting her goals. While there is no shortage of talking and pondering here it is a bit faster-moving, and much tenser - the threats that surround her are closer, more ubiquitous and more serious. Her actions eventually have huge consequences, though are not really explored in detail.

In conclusion: compelling character in an interesting and detailed future, analyzed through the challenges to it rather than simply through tourism. Deserves to win.


Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles (Larry Correia)

Haven’t read it yet.


The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson)

Haven’t read it yet and cannot imagine reading the whole thing in time for the ballot!

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From:naath
Date:June 9th, 2014 09:53 am (UTC)
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I had forgotten that Marain is gender neutral, Banks translates into English with m/f as appropriate (or at least *unchallenged* by any of the people thus gendered).

Justice of Toren's experiences with misgendering people suggest that human Radchaai do so too, so it isn't *just* that she is an insufficiently well developed AI, which is sorta interesting (I guess all the different cultures mark gender very differently). All this confusion has lead to me having basically no idea what any of these people look like, but I don't much mind that.

WoT is obviously amazing and you should read it all, right now! (all 10,000 pages of it...) The first book stands alone fairly well (alas is not especially representative of the entire series, but no other part works without the context).
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From:ewx
Date:June 9th, 2014 06:26 pm (UTC)
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The web quotes PoG as saying:

Marain, the Culture's quintessentially wonderful language (so the Culture will tell you), has, as any schoolkid knows, one personal pronoun to cover females, males, in-betweens, neuters, children, drones, Minds, other sentient machines, and every life-form capable of scraping together anything remotely resembling a nervous system and the rudiments of language (or a good excuse for not having either). Naturally, there are ways of specifying a person's sex in Marain, but they're not used in everyday conversation; in the archetypal language-as-moral-weapon-and-proud-of-it, the message is that it's brains that matter, kids; gonads are hardly worth making a distinction over.

i.e. their society does have some kind of personal gender distinction, albeit not one they consider very important, and their language doesn't force speakers to express that distinction.

Edited at 2014-06-09 06:27 pm (UTC)
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From:emperor
Date:June 29th, 2014 10:13 am (UTC)
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I have finally come to read this having read the Novel nominees myself (and wanting to avoid spoilers); I don't have much to say, but I did spot a tyop:

"During one of Sally’s victims to Symbogen" should be visits.
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From:ewx
Date:June 29th, 2014 10:31 am (UTC)
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Thankyou, fixed.
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