Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book of the Month Clubs

May 23, 2019

As I mentioned when talking about re-reading “The Stand”, I used to be a member of the “Book of the Month Club” when I was younger. That got me musing about it, and thinking that depending on how things were run that might be a good thing for me. I have the disposable income to be able to simply try things out that look interesting and since reading is the one consistent pastime that I have I’d definitely at least try to read them. So I started Googling around to see how things worked.

So, I found the site that calls itself “Book of the Month”. And it seemed pretty decent. You subscribe to the service, and then once a month you get a selection of books that you can pick one of to fulfill your subscription. If you want more than one, you can pay for the extra ones — essentially at the price of a month’s subscription — to get them. If you don’t like anything in a particular month, then that credit carries over to the next month, which then I presume means that it could be used — and is intended to be used — for extra books or perhaps for extra months after you’ve stopped subscribing. This is better than when I had it originally because there they’d send you a book if you didn’t tell them not to, whereas here the default seemed to be that they’d just credit it to you if you didn’t select one. However, unlike the original one … they don’t ship to Canada. So that’s out.

Browsing around, I found “My Thrill Club!”, which sounded interesting. You can select from Thriller, Mystery, or Horror categories — or a mix — and they’ll send you two hardcover books and an e-book — useless to me — for a fairly reasonable price. However, despite hearing that they did ship to Canada for an extra shipping fee, when I sent an E-mail to their customer service asking about that I got no reply. I’m actually far more concerned about getting no reply than I am about shipping costs to Canada, since them being non-responsive is not a good sign, so that’s out too.

I also tried “Bookcase Club”. Here, you select a category and get sent two books in that category. I was interested in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category and in the Thriller/Mystery category, and since the price was pretty good might have been tempted to have multiple subscriptions to be able to get it. However, they don’t ship to Canada. So that’s out.

I did browse more and found some other ones that likely shipped to Canada, but in general they were either pricey or added on a number of little items that I didn’t want, or both.

I find myself bemused that, for the most part, decent book of the month clubs simply can’t take my money. This is becoming a trend.

I guess I’ll just have to keep doing what I’m doing now. The good part of that is that I still have hundreds of books in boxes in my house to read at some point, so it’s not like I’ll end up deprived.

Thoughts on “The Stand”

May 16, 2019

I first picked up Stephen King’s “The Stand” decades ago when I was in high school and joined the “Book of the Month Club”, as it was one of my free selections for joining. I also think I read it once again at some point after that. But I decided to re-read it now for two reasons. First, I’ve been watching a number of Stephen King adaptations as part of my watching of horror movies, and as “The Stand” was included it seemed like it might be interesting to actually read the book before watching it — I hope to watch it in the near future, as it’s six hours long but something that I want to watch before watching other Stephen King adaptations — to be able to make a direct comparison rather than to just be relying on my memory. Second, I’ve decided that my next slate of books are going to be aimed at reading more literature, and as a noted at least somewhat classic “The Stand” counted, making it a good time to re-read it as well. So, having finished it, the one thing I have to say about it is that it reminds me of “Seveneves”, which is not in its favour.

The problem I had with “Seveneves” is that while it seems that the point of the novel was the end part where they had the seven distinct “races” genetically formed from the last seven remaining women, the book spent over 500 pages talking about the disaster that caused that to be the result and only 300 or so talking about that, which meant that either there were a lot of irrelevant details in the first part or else the first part was what the book was about and thus the second part fails to build on or satisfy those things from the first part. “The Stand” is similar in that most of the book is about a flu plague that kills off most of humanity and what happens afterwards but it seems like the book’s main focus is supposed to be the confrontation between the forces of the Dark Man and the forces of good led by Mother Abigail, which only really comes to the fore at all in the last 200 pages (of a 1100 page expanded edition). So we spend a lot of time on something that doesn’t seem to be the main focus of the book.

However, “The Stand” works a lot better than “Seveneves”, for a number of reasons. The first is that the conflict is directly commented on and telegraphed throughout the entire first part. We are introduced to the Dark Man and to Mother Abigail — at least through her being in people’s dreams — relatively early in the work and so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s simmering throughout the entire first part. Which leads to the second reason, which is that it’s clear how those events relate to the confrontation, as we meet the key characters — on both sides, as it turns out — and learn about them through their struggles to reach their respective Promised Lands. This, then, allows us to make a connection with them — again, on both sides — which then allows us to follow along with them and understand them as they play their roles in the overall conflict.

The third reason is that in “The Stand” the first part is actually interesting in its own right. The premise of the plague is interesting, if not necessarily original, and King does a good job of showing how it progresses in a way that’s entertaining. It also allows him to do what he is arguably best at, which is showing how these sorts of events impact ordinary people with ordinary lives and making that be believable and interesting. Thus, he starts off with ordinary people and establishes that and weaves them into the extraordinary events that are occurring. So whereas in “Seveneves” the focus on technical details was boring and got in the way of establishing the plot or characters, in “The Stand” the focus is on the characters and events that we can clearly see are going to matter to the overall plot. King pretty much pays off almost every hint that he drops in the early stages, even having an off-hand encounter between Nick and Tom Cullen with a selfish teenage girl pay off when she joins the side of the Dark Man and ends up outing Tom as a spy.

Unfortunately, the big issue with the book is that because so much time is spent on those little details the final confrontation ends up being entirely anti-climactic. Again, it is resolved in about 200 pages, much of which is spent talking about various journeys. A lot of the threads, then, get resolved far too quickly for how important they are supposed to be. To return to the point above about the teenage girl, she outs Tom as a spy right before he leaves, and other events start happening so that nothing really comes of that revelation. There were three spies sent right before the final confrontation, and none of them actually provide any information that the heroes use: one is killed before even getting there, the other has to make a heroic sacrifice to stop Tom from being outed — right before he is outed and leaves, making it pointless — and Tom, again, doesn’t ever really tell anyone what he’s learned, nor is it actually important to any of the plot. We have a long character arc of Larry Underwood trying to overcome being a taker when it comes to other people, but in the end while he does end up being the “leader” when the first leader Stu gets injured he never really makes any decisions and the big decision he tried to make — not leaving Stu behind — is overruled by everyone else. Ralph, who comes along, doesn’t even get a lot of development and doesn’t do anything. Glen, the sociologist, is killed taunting the Dark Man but that’s neither a character arc for him nor does it really seem to have anything to do with how it all gets resolved.

And the resolution is the worst victim of the rush towards the end. The four heroes set out on an epic journey to defeat the Dark Man, this huge and existential threat. Before that, the Free Zone was bombed by a traitor who leaves with the Dark Man’s bride in what it seemingly a devastating blow to the side of good: the bride will give the Dark Man a child and two key members of the ruling body are killed. Mother Abigail had just wandered off into the wilderness to get a vision and returns, only to simply tell them to go and then die. So, presumably, these heroes are going to do something meaningful, right? As already mentioned, Stu gets injured along the way. At the same time, the supposedly hyper-competent and knowledge massive threat Dark Man essentially starts shooting himself in the foot. He arranges an accident for the traitor … who almost shoots his bride before he can do the deed. Then, he meets up with her and rapes her, putting her into a catatonic state, at which point he discovers that the spy Tom has managed to get away because he didn’t tell his second-in-command that someone who was associated with Nick was going to be a threat, resulting in the second-in-command not immediately moving on stopping him. But that’s okay, because Tom didn’t do anything anyway, except that scrambling the helicopters to look for him triggers bombs that their resident pyromaniac set after feeling slighted by the others, killing their only trained pilots, which the Dark Man didn’t do anything about despite that person being someone the Dark Man considered important and privileged. Then, as the heroes arrive and are captured, his catatonic “bride” suddenly starts taunting him to a degree that causes him to toss her out of the building in a rage, killing her. Then, in interrogating Glen, he forces his second-in-command to kill Glen despite his not wanting to. Then he sets up a public execution of the remaining two, which seems to have no other effect than to cause a distraction and get one of his followers to reveal that he and they were going to leave, which then causes the Dark Man to create some kind of lightning to kill him, which then ends up setting off a nuclear bomb brought back by the pyromaniac as an offering, destroying everyone in the city.

So, the heroes don’t do anything except maybe be a distraction, and the entire thing was falling apart even before they got there due to the Dark Man’s paranoia and errors. He himself had destroyed his bride and unborn child, meaning that that goal was lost no matter what happened, and the people who stood up to him were going to leave anyway. There was no reason for the heroes to actually make that trek and die there. Stu, I think, later muses that God demands a sacrifice and this could be seen as drawing a parallel to the crucifixion of Jesus … except that Jesus’ death not only had a specific purpose but Jesus knew what that purpose was and so went to his death willingly. The heroes here don’t actually accomplish anything and, even if they somehow did, had no idea what that end they were trying to accomplish was. All this does is make God seem like, well, a bit of a dick, demanding that people die for no good reason to fulfill His Will, which means that any attempt parallel falls flat here.

It would have worked so much better to either have their taunting have a greater impact — actually causing the second-in-command to turn, for example — or else go all the way and have the pyromaniac be driven by revenge rather than reverence, by having him find the incendiary devices and the nuke, desperately want to “play” with the incendiary devices and have him be told no — because the resources were too important to waste that way –, have him overhear insults from important people, and then decide that he really wants to set off that nuke that he found and figures that wiping them out as well would be a great way to go out. The book had already established, at least in the extended version, that he had already ruined his life by his inability to control his pyromania and so it would have tied neatly back into that story. It still wouldn’t have made the sacrifice of the heroes meaningful, but it at least would have seemed a less contrived ending.

So, having read this book at least twice before this, after reading it for a third time the question remains: would I read it again? I think I would. As I said, the overall plot and characterization is interesting, and the only real flaw is that the ending is anti-climactic for something that they set up so strongly throughout most of the book. But that really happens for about 100 pages out of over 1100, as even Stu’s final return home has the character moments that made the rest of it interesting. The length is the biggest deterrent to re-reading it, but still I was able to read it faster than a lot of the historical works that I had been trying to read, so it isn’t that bad. Worth a read as long as you aren’t going to get too attached to the supernatural conflict and instead focus on the story of humanity recovering after a plague extinction event.

Thoughts on “Thrawn: Alliances”

May 10, 2019

I’ve always liked Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels, and have always liked the character of Thrawn, so when I was browsing in a bookstore and saw “Thrawn: Alliances” it was definitely a book that I had to pick up despite my being rather unimpressed with the new Star Wars canon in general. However, “Alliances” ended up being disappointing.

The general thrust of the book is a split story between the time right around Star Wars and the time of the Clone Wars. Thrawn and Darth Vader are sent by the Emperor on a mission to investigate a Force disturbance in the Outer Rim, in a place where Thrawn and Anakin Skywalker ran into each other investigating something else. The book switches between the two timelines and eventually connects the two.

Here’s the thing: given that the cover of the book shows Thrawn and Vader, one would expect that most people who bought the book would be interested in at least one of those characters. However, the Clone Wars plot also includes Padme and spends a lot of time focusing on her, as her actions are important to that plot. But she’s not that interesting a character and that plot isn’t that interesting to take that much time away from Vader and Thrawn. It would be different if the scenes generally related back to the plot in the later timeframe, but that rarely happens. Yes, there are some connections, but about the only interesting one is if Thrawn knows that Vader is Anakin, which the book hints at but never outright states. This makes the scenes where Anakin is directly involved, even with Thrawn, seem extraneous, let alone the scenes with Padme.

Another problem with the book is that it focuses a lot on Thrawn’s Sherlock Holmesean ways, especially in the Clone Wars part of the book. There is a lot of focus on his ability to observe what’s going on around him and draw conclusions from that. The issue is that that is impressive, certainly, but what is most interesting about Thrawn is his ability to take that information and turn it into a creative tactical plan. As most of the events here are at the personal level, that gets underused. This turns the book into far more of a simple action story — especially in the Clone Wars section — which is not what I, at least, buy a Thrawn book for.

The interaction between Vader and Thrawn had its moments, but I think that the Clone Wars section took up time that could have been used to develop it more, and it often turned into Thrawn pretty much begging Vader to let him do what he wanted to do and Vader at first resisting from pique and then eventually giving in. At the end of the day, the interesting premise of the two of them having to get along and work together seems to be mostly wasted.

It’s not that great a book, and I can’t really imagine reading it again any time soon. The writing is still good and Thrawn is still an interesting character, but nothing interesting really happens and so it seems more superfluous than interesting.

More on that Accomplishment Thing

April 12, 2019

Well, another two months, and so another update on how this is going.

DVDs and TV shows continue to be the stars of this. I’m almost finished Season 3 of Voyager (watch for comments on the first three seasons soon) after having finished Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter. I also finished GI Joe, Star Trek the Animated Series, and Daria, and am on Season 3 of 2 Broke Girls. I’m on pace to finish both in the next couple of months which will let me move on to other things. I’ve also managed to watch some movies and get those off my plate. So it’s going quite well.

Reading is going all right as well. My pace is slower than I’d like — I’m currently reading a Thrawn book and have had a couple of recent days when I’ve read two pages maybe — but I’m still getting through things. That Thrawn book is the last thing I want to get through before turning to classic literature, and while I have a couple of history books that I was trying to get through first I’ve stopped because I really want to get started on those other works.

Video games went better but have now crashed out completely. I finished Sunrider Academy and started playing Knights of Pen and Paper, but work has gotten extremely busy which pretty much kills any time I had to play video games. I’ve poked around a bit with the retro games but in general have better things to do than play video games, and was having trouble deciding what game to play anyway. I’ll have to see if things change once work settles down.

And projects went terribly. I’ve made starts on a couple of things but haven’t started on the AI stuff I wanted to do. This is despite the fact that doing these things is officially in my schedule even when I’m busy. I’ve still spent more time playing video games despite that not being on my schedule. So this is something that I really need to work on.

However, I have kept up with the blog and am even settling into a better routine, and with the “Philosophy and Pop Culture” posts always have some philosophy in a week, which is good.

So, why is it that DVDs and reading work so well while everything else doesn’t? Well, it’s because I always watch TV to settle down before going to sleep. Thus, I always have some time carved out to watch DVDs. And since I read while watching TV, that gives me a set time to read as well. This time isn’t vulnerable to distractions because I’m not going to do anything else that evening and anything else that I want to do I can do while watching. So they’re the only things that get a set and consistent amount of time each week. And if things get a little busier or things take longer than I thought, I’ll still have some time set aside to watch something. So not only are they at convenient times in the schedule, they’re also more flexible.

With projects and video games, I not only need to set aside time to do them, in order to make any real progress I have to dedicate significant time to them. If I have an hour, I can watch three half-hour shows, but am not going to make any programming or writing progress. I might be able to squeeze a blog post in. If things take longer than I expected or I get distracted, then that will kill that session for those things. When I get busy, that only makes it worse as I have less time to do them in the first place, which only makes it easier for me to end up in a position where I don’t really have the time to do them when I was supposed to.

I’m going to try to make more of an effort with projects in the next couple of months, although I won’t for video games. We’ll see if this makes a difference.

Thoughts on “The Store of the Worlds”

March 28, 2019

I’m not a big fan of short stories. Even for a write that I like as much as Roger Zelazny I’ve always had a hard time getting through most of his short story collections. However, Robert Sheckley is an exception to that. Included with my original copy of “The Status Civilization” was “Notions: Unlimited”, a collection of his short stories, most of which I enjoyed and some of which I loved. When I bought a number of Sheckley works a while back, I also picked up “The Store of the Worlds”, a collection of his short stories. And then I didn’t read it. After finishing off “The Gripping Hand”, I decided to finally sit down and read it. There were some stories in there that I hadn’t read, and some of the stories in “Notions: Unlimited” weren’t there that I had liked — “Gray Flannel Armor” and “The Leech” being the two notable ones — but, overall, it was a good collection of Sheckley short stories.

Sheckley’s short stories tend to be on the cynical side, highlighting something that’s short-sighted or ridiculous in society and taking it to an extreme and yet logical conclusion, like dating in “Gray Flannel Armor” or love itself in “The Language of Love”, where the main character tries to overcome his inability to express his feelings of love by learning the precise language of love … only to discover that the woman he was doing it for is only someone that he is rather fond of. He mixes this in with humour, as at the end of “The Language of Love” the protagonist writes back to his mentor that he was now married to someone whom he felt “quite a substantial liking”, while his mentor mutters that all he could manage was “vaguely enjoyable”. But many of them take on more substantive issues, with “Watchbird” in particular taking on AI and automation, with the essential point being that relying on machines to learn things might well end up having them learn the wrong things, causing more problems than what they were created to solve. He also takes on prejudice in a very satirical way with “The Native Problem”, where a later traveler from Earth encounters a colonization ship who believes him to be a native and can’t be convinced otherwise, and so merely for self-preservation he ends up going along with it. Sheckley also does some more standard and direct science fiction with stories like “A Wind is Rising”. And many of his stories have unhappy or unpleasant endings, and rarely do you get an unqualified happy ending. So they aren’t stories to read if you’re trying to shake yourself out of depression.

Ultimately, though, Sheckley is unique in that he’s an author where, for the most part, I’d rather read his short stories than many if not most of his novels. This is not to say that his novels are bad, but that his short stories are really, really good. To return to my theme, the worst of his short stories are better than the short stories I read when analyzing the Hugo awards, showing just how far those have fallen over the years. I’m absolutely going to read this and these again.

Thoughts on “The Gripping Hand”

March 21, 2019

“The Gripping Hand” is the sequel to “The Mote in God’s Eye”, written 20 years later. Up until this time, the Moties have kept sending ships through what’s essentially a jump point, and the Humans keep blowing them up. However, a supernova is about to erupt changing the location of the point, potentially allowing the Moties to come through and set up shop, and since they reproduce constantly — if they don’t reproduce they die — letting them into this sector instead of bottled up in their home system risks them breeding enough to build up an army that they can use to expand and eventually take over the entire Federation. So they rush some ships to stop them, including their — as Spock put it once — “Nixon” character, who is someone who hates and distrusts the Moties and so is someone people will trust to arrange an agreement with them. Also along are two children of the captain from the first novel, and a spy-like character, also from the first book, who can act like an operative most of the time and is, without a doubt, the most interesting character in the book.

The ultimate resolution relies on them having found a way to provide birth control for the Moties, and then having to arrange for that to be accepted by them. This is a very convoluted task as the Moties have moved into space and are constantly fighting each other for any advantage they can get, and so this all spawns large battles. This set-up ends up being the biggest weakness of the book, in my opinion, as the most interesting parts of the entire series are the political and social aspects, and the battles get in the way of that, both by taking up time that could be spent there and by keeping the main parties apart for much of the book. The book benefits from us already knowing that the Moties are untrustworthy — which was a major problem in the first book — but then this deal relies on them being somewhat trustworthy, and it has already been established that any Motie leader who can find a way to retain an advantage will do so, and so we can’t guarantee that the birth control modification will be used, even though the sympathetic faction wins.

I think it would have been better if the Moties weren’t set up to be so blatantly untrustworthy and competitive, but instead were set up to be more resigned to the inevitable cycle. As highlighted, their “Crazy Eddies” were people who kept trying to end that cycle and always failed — usually making things worse — which is why they were called crazy. So locking that in as their mindset, and a resistance to changing the cycle, could have easily provided the drama without making the Moties completely unreliable and untrustworthy. The possibility of expansion when they find out about the other planets and working faster-than-light drive — their tests of their version always failed because the other end of the jump point was inside a sun, which they couldn’t survive — could have caused many of them to decide to try to break the cycle through expansion, and thus the threat caused by nothing more than their overbreeding. Then the main conflict could follow from that, as some want to maintain the cycle, and some want to break it, and they keep fighting each other over that. When the birth control method is revealed, this allows for a new way to actually break the cycle, and that fact could be used to change minds as appropriate.

Anyway, this book, I think, is slightly more entertaining than the first one, although I think its overall plot has less to it and less detail as we know too much going in. So it’s more action-packed and reactive than mysterious. Still, again this is a book that I might read again.

Now, before reading these books, I had no idea that the first one was nominated for a Hugo Award for best novel in 1975 (it didn’t win). Do I think it deserved that? As a book overall, it’s not one that I would nominate, although the fact that I’d read it again puts it above the ones I have read. But in reading the comments on it (read them here) it seems like the interest was based on the unique first-contact scenario and how the mystery was built around a new and yet familiar biological aspect, with a unique society built out of that. And I can agree that that was done well, and is indeed the most interesting part of the book. For me, though, the books bored and frustrated me enough to overwhelm that, and I dislike the standard warlike interpretation of that situation. So it’s a nomination that I could see, even if I probably wouldn’t have done that myself.

Thoughts on “The Mote in God’s Eye”

March 14, 2019

So, a couple of years ago I bought a couple of works by Jerry Pournelle because I was ticked off at John Scalzi justifying “No Awarding” Pournelle at the Hugos because of his association with Vox Day, especially since it came at Pournelle’s first Hugos after recovering from brain cancer. So I picked up “The Mote in God’s Eye” which was a collaboration between him and Larry Niven. I actually started reading it at the time, but got distracted by something else — or, rather, decided that after reading all of the Hugo winners from that year I really wanted to read something that I really, really liked — and so never finished it. After reading my Ben Bova books, I thought that this was a good time to actually sit down and read it and the sequel “The Gripping Hand”.

The short version of the plot is that a human Empire that is in turmoil suddenly comes across an alien ship that was sent from the phenomena known as “The Mote in God’s Eye”. This prompts an expedition to encounter them, and while they find them to be friendly there’s a dark secret that they are hiding that could lead to disaster for both the crew of the ship sent to encounter them and the Empire itself.

At the time, I found the book to be okay but not all that appealing. This time, I think I liked it better, but it has some serious flaws. One of those is that it seems to be a bit disjoint a lot of the time; we kinda jump around in things without really good links between them. That’s a minor flaw, however. Far worse is that the last part of it comes apart because the book does a number of things that kill the drama and make the events that follow the heroes less dramatic. The book at times shows us the motives of this new alien race that they’ve encountered by short segments from their point of view. This tells us things that they know but that the heroes don’t. However, this includes that their intentions aren’t exactly honourable. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that as they are deceiving the heroes the heroes treat them as totally trustworthy, and even argue for them being so. As we know that they aren’t being honest, and later even know what their secret and thus what the threat is — as what the threat would be is explained to us at that point as well — which casts a radically different light on those negotiations. On the one hand, they look naive for trusting these aliens, but on the other hand given what they know it’s not unreasonable. But everyone who doesn’t trust them is presented as being paranoid, when they’re actually being correct, and a lot of decisions are made on the assumption that they can be trusted when they clearly can’t. It’s disconcerting.

On top of that, it also leads to one of the worst scenes in the book, as three of the crew that we’ve been following throughout the book end up trapped on the alien planet, and find out the secret. Then they are pursued by the aliens trying to stop them from revealing it. In general, in a scene like this they would get a message out — even if they were killed in the process — and that would kick off the remaining protagonists dealing with the issue. But instead they are mostly unceremoniously killed after a bit of a siege, and the others only learn what happened much later. This makes that whole sequence seem pointless, as all it does is reveal the secret to us, and it has to be revealed to the others later. This leaves the book in a bit of a fix, as it has to reveal it to the others at some point. If it follows them as they uncover it, then it spends time explaining things that the audience already knows. If it doesn’t, then we lose their reactions to it. To the book’s credit, I don’t recall the sequence being extremely onerous, but it was an unnecessary scene that came with a lot of risk.

It doesn’t help that the characters in that scene were generally likeable, and so we also had the disappointment of them being killed. That they were killed for no good effect doesn’t make that any less depressing.

Other than that, though, the book was fine. The technology and how they use it is interesting, and the personalities mix together well into some interesting characters. It doesn’t particularly drag — although at points it does — and creates interesting enough characters and situations to maintain interest. In general, it balances explaining what we need to know and moving along the plot well. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but I definitely might be willing to read it again.

Overall Thoughts on Ben Bova …

March 8, 2019

So, I’ve finished off all of the Ben Bova novels I wanted to read — I ended up ditching the last collection of essays and short stories because it was kinda boring me and I really wanted to move on — and I have to say that after reading all of his works my overall impression is that they were … okay. The only one that I really hated was “Aftermath”, while the others ranged from “Good” to “Meh”.

But I was struck by this thought while about half-way through his works: Ben Bova is a Hugo Award winner, and yet none of the books I had read deserved a Hugo. Could I have been wrong in my Hugo Award assessment? Was it the case that the works that won Hugo Awards were never really all that impressive, and I had just never noticed because I never really bought Hugo Award winning works?

And then I searched for what he had won his awards for. It turns out that he is indeed a six-time Hugo Award winner … all for professional editing. He was only nominated for his writing twice, once for a related work and once for a short story. This is despite the fact that he has a pretty impressive bibliography and writing career. All of that, and he never won or was even nominated for a Hugo for them.

Now, I’m not claiming that he deserved a nomination for them. As I said off the top, I don’t think the works I read did, at least. But this only reveals how the recent historic wins of N.K. Jemisin really seem like more of an own goal than an amazing triumph. In terms of overall writing, I’d say that Bova and Jemisin are fairly comparable. Depending on what sort of stories and styles you like, you might prefer one or the other, but both are generally somewhat competent with some rather obvious flaws. And yet in his entire career, Bova was never even nominated. And yet Jemisin, whose writing isn’t appreciably better and who didn’t create a markedly more innovative world or situation, not only has been nominated six times already in her relatively short career, not has won three times, but also managed to win that historical three times in a row that no one else managed. It’s hard to reconcile that with Bova’s very long career without any nomination. If you say that science fiction was a smaller or niche market when Bova was writing and so it was easier for him to get published, then that should have also carried over to the awards, making it easier for him to at least get nominated. If you say that in his time the greats would have dominated making it more difficult for those who were not to get nominations, then you need to explain how Jemisin managed to get her six nominations and three straight wins in a more competitive time. In the original post I’ve talked about how claiming that the current market is less competitive is not a good idea.

So the only way to escape the charge that the Hugos are being awarded more on external factors rather than overall quality is to insist that Jemisin really is one of the all-time greats of science fiction. But that’s not something that we can assess subjectively, but is something that we should be able to assess objectively. But none of the measures support that. She isn’t overall more popular as her books sell well but don’t outsell even some of the works that lost to her directly, let alone all of them out there. I examined her work objectively and it’s not an all-time great work either (if you disagree, then feel free to show me where I went wrong in my assessment). Other than the Hugo wins, there’s nothing to indicate that she really, objectively, is such a historical all-time great. And since we’re trying to see if the Hugos judge primarily on merit rather than on external factors, you can’t use that as evidence here as that would be circular. So the idea that that’s the reason for her historic win is … dubious, to say the least.

One final note: I could be accused here of obsessing over the Hugo Awards, which could get me accused of having an ulterior motive (likely racism or sexism, as that seems to be the style these days). However, one of the main purposes for me in re-reading old science fiction and talking about it is, in fact, to assess it against that controversy and see if, say, the newer works are just better to see if, perhaps, I was just wrong in my assessment. I’m going to talk a bit about that with my next science fiction books as well. So the ulterior motive I have is essentially this: to see if this controversy that I got sucked into — again, people on both sides of the political fence talked about it on blogs that I read regularly — and is a small part of an on-going culture war — and yes, there is one, even if some want to poo-poo that idea — is correct and if my assessment of it is correct. So, I want to see if I’m right and, through that, who’s right. It’s only if you accept that I was right that doing this could be seen as “obsessive”, as I’d be churning through things to get to a foregone conclusion. Unless you want to argue that I simply cannot be convinced of the truth … at which point I’d simply ask you to try first before giving up on me, and to start by addressing my writing on the subject itself.

Thoughts on “Spider-Man”

March 7, 2019

While browsing in a bookstore, I came across a Spider-Man tie-in novel called “Spider-Man”. I tended to like the Marvel expanded universe books, and so it drew my interest. On looking at it, I discovered that it was a prequel to the new video game, which I had heard of through Shamus Young’s examination of it and so thought, what the heck, it might be interesting. Already knowing how the game started but not knowing the details made reading it interesting.

The book does set-up some of the threads and relationships that are important in the game, such as Spider-Man’s alliance with a police detective and drops hints about his mysterious boss (since he’s researching missing limbs, it really seems like it’s setting up to be Curt Connors, but, minor spoiler, it isn’t). And there might be others that haven’t come up yet (like Maya). From that perspective, it’s okay.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t really manage to hit its emotional notes properly. It introduces a lab assistant with at least potentially a crush on Peter right when he’s having problems with Mary Jane (more on that later) but then kills her off quickly to provide extra angst for Peter, but she isn’t around long enough for us to really feel that much for her, nor is it really Peter’s fault (she follows him to a diner without his knowing that gets hit by the main villain in an attempt to call out Spider-Man, who sets off a bomb that kills her). It’s a plot thread that’s opened, but that doesn’t really go anywhere and doesn’t importantly figure in the issues between Peter and Mary Jane. And the book doesn’t seem to know whether we’re supposed to hate the main villain — or, perhaps, secondary villain if you consider Kingpin the main villain — or feel sorry for him, as the book often stops to tell us stories about the hard life he had as if we are supposed to feel sorry for him, but marries that to a completely psychopathic and self-interested villain with a strange superiority complex who it’s very, very hard to feel sorry for. So those scenes come off as puzzling at best and irrelevant at worst. What happened to him doesn’t justify what he deliberately sets out to do.

As it has to set out the main threads of the game, there’s a lot of little things vaguely linked together that don’t really get resolved, mostly around Kingpin’s arrest — settled in the first act of the game — , Norman Osborn as mayor, and a host of little details — like Peter’s boss — that get settled in the game. As such, they’re all right but seem kinda perfunctory for a book. Still, as a prequel to the game, that’s kinda what you expect.

The worst, though, is setting up the break-up of Peter and Mary Jane. The problem is that it seems to be trying for a new tack in their relationship, a “girl power” sort of thing where she chafes at how supposedly controlling he is as he prevents her from pursuing a career that will let her make a difference. In this case, she’s trying to become a hard-hitting investigative reporter, and the conflict is over whether that’s too dangerous. The problem is that as far as the book itself is concerned, Peter is concerned but not that concerned about the job itself, but that she sets out to make her name by busting the newly returned to America Kingpin. And it seems that she has no real reason to go after Kingpin other than that she wants to use that to make her name, and she wants to do that by pretending to do a favourable story on him while secretly looking for dirt. As Peter points out, Kingpin has in the past had no qualms about killing anyone who might get information on him that he doesn’t want out, and Peter even cites examples of journalists that the Kingpin had killed. As such, her comments about him being controlling come across less like valid complaints and more like a teenager throwing a tantrum over a parent not letting them or not wanting them to do something mindbogglingly dangerous. If Mary Jane had at least had as her main goal trying to help Spider-Man bust the guy he spent so much effort busting only to have him escape and pretend to be reformed when he returned, that would be one thing — even if it wouldn’t lend itself to them breaking up because Peter was too controlling — but that might get mentioned once or twice in the entire book. And that would be, it seems, too selfless for Mary Jane, who wants to do this just so that she can feel validated and like she’s doing something meaningful. Add to that that she often does incredibly stupid things that put her in danger and that she chafes at Peter showing up at things where a) there’s a credible threat to b) not only her, but others as well c) in a book where someone does die as a bystander to the Kingpin’s attempts to discredit Spider-Man and she just comes across as irrational and naive at best. And even how she kicks Peter back into action after he wallows in depression after their break-up screams “strong, independent woman!” as opposed to something that actually makes sense.

It really seems like they wanted to go with the strong feminist theme that so many things want to go with and, like many of those other works, dropped the ball on that completely. Especially when you consider that, in the actual game, a situation is contrived for Mary Jane to save Peter from something that should never had been a threat to him.

That aside, though, the book is all right. It does move, Maya is interesting, and the plot threads aren’t bad. It makes the mistake of piling on the angst to the point where it becomes ridiculous, but for the most part it doesn’t wallow in that for too long before advancing the plot. This is a book that I could read again.

Thoughts on “Sam Gunn Forever”

February 28, 2019

So the last of the Ben Bova novels I’m going to look at is “Sam Gunn Forever”. This is a continuation of a series of books, as far as I can tell, about a heroic and rambunctious hero storming into the future and making and losing fortunes by betting on how new technology will save the world. He’s futuristic, but not afraid to break the rules to get what he wants. He succeeds in the end, but often fails along the way. He loves women and women love him, but at least briefly ends up chained to marriage which he, at least, absolutely did not want to have happen.

This fits into the sort of work that Bova does well at. It builds and nods at future technology and builds a world out of that, but isn’t meant to be a dramatic series and by its nature is more light-hearted. Sam Gunn is a rogue and his adventures follow the standard rogue model, which lets him avoid the overly but nonsensically dramatic situations of the other novels. If his villains are moustache-twirling, that’s okay; they’re supposed to be in that sort of work. It also frees him from focusing too deeply on personal relations, as again they only have to exist to further the rogue plot. So it all works a lot better than his other novels.

But it also has a pretty damning flaw. The novel is based around stories told to a reporter as they head off to recover Sam Gunn after he fell into a black hole and somehow came back out again. This breaks it down into effectively a number of short stories and is a pretty good idea. The problem is that the stories have no real common theme or order. While some of the events are related, they don’t build in any way, to either give us an overall view of the situation or of Sam Gunn himself. They ultimately end up as simply a bunch of disconnected vignettes, which by the end then becomes a bit boring because it’s really all about how great Sam Gunn is, without actually being about that, but that leaves the overall book really being about not much at all.

Still, it’s one of his more entertaining works. It’s just a bit like candy: enjoyable at first, but ultimately unsatisfying.