Archive for the ‘Philosophical Writer's Guide’ Category

Hugo Award Assessment: Final Thoughts

January 16, 2017

So, my final thoughts on the 2016 Hugo Award Best Novel nominees:

If this is the best science fiction and fantasy have to offer, then I weep for science fiction and fantasy. The works here were “Meh” at best, and utter crap at worst. I find much less flawed and even philosophically deeper works in the X-Wing series, and it’s not even really trying to do that. Even worse, in order to keep my mind uncluttered I refused to read any actual science fiction and fantasy novels, and since reading is my major pastime I ended up reading graphic novels and, most importantly, the “Order of the Stick” books, and found that that stick-figure comic had better characterization, plots, and generally was more entertaining than any of the Hugo Award nominees. To rub salt in the wound, I read the “Order of the Stick” books twice while reading these works, and can’t think of a book here that I would ever read again. Science fiction and fantasy is in dire straits, it seems to me.

Another thing I noticed in every work is the focus on super-competent and generally female protagonists, being able to do what no one else things wise or even possible. Gwen in “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”, all of the “Seven Eves” in “Seveneves”, Breq in “Ancillary Mercy”, the main protagonist in “Uprooted” … all of them are hyper-competent and almost never fail due to their own fault. I had thought for a while that “The Fifth Season” would avoid that, but even though Syenite isn’t as powerful as Alabaster, even in those sections she does almost everything of importance and never fails, and even the trans character (male to female) is overly impressive in a number of ways. Jemisin only avoids doing this outright because she really fails to establish anything about any of the characters beyond soundbites, which leaves little room for them to be overly impressive.

Now, people may reply that male protagonists were always that hyper-competent, and it’s just that when it’s women that I’m objecting. To counter that, let me present characters from the Amber series and from David Eddings’ “Elenium” and “Tamuli”, all of which are among my favourite works. Corwin in the first Amber series starts off with amnesia and has to trick others into helping him, and relies on Random and Deirdre to fill him in, protect him, and get him to the castle. In the first book, he joins with another sibling to take the throne of Amber, and fails miserably. Later, it is implied that he was actually manipulated by his sibling. He is blinded, and recovers his sight, not because of some super-special ability, but because he is arguably better at doing what all of his family can do … which only means that he does it faster, not that they wouldn’t recover in the same way. And, when his sight recovers, it’s not portrayed as this huge victory, but instead as a spur for him to escape because if he doesn’t he’ll be blinded again. As he escapes, he curses Eric … and opens the way for the forces of Chaos to attack Amber. He returns in the second book to take the throne, and wins because of unique weaponry … that he discovered not because he was some sort of great chemist, but instead purely by accident. For the rest of the series, he investigates various things, almost gets killed on a number of occasions, and arguably screws everything up in trying to save it. He learns humility and decides that maybe his feud with Eric — and the fight over the throne — wasn’t worth it, and while he meets his son, at the end of it all he wins neither the fair maiden nor the throne, and loses his most beloved sister … and is mostly content with that.

In Eddings, the most powerful character is … the secondary female character Sephrenia. And while she is very wise and experienced and very powerful in magic, she’s pretty vulnerable to weapons, and so has to be protected a lot of the time. Thus, she fits neatly into the mentor/wise advisor role. Sparhawk, the main character, is important because he has a destiny and is generally a jack-of-all-trades: he can fight and use magic, but isn’t necessarily the best at any of them. And at the end, when he gains ultimate power, he gives it up because he doesn’t like the person he becomes while using it … and only uses that ultimate power to fight the other ultimate power.

Good heroes need weakness and flaws to exploit. They need to struggle and fail, and overcome it all in the end. Modern science fiction and fantasy — at least in these Hugo nominees — seem to attempt to take away the struggle … but heroes who never struggle are uninteresting to us, and plots featuring them are boring. “Uprooted”, “Seveneves” and “Ancillary Mercy” are prime examples of how uber-competent protagonists kill any drama in the plot.

Okay, all that aside, here are my picks, starting from the worst and working my way up. If you’ve read my commentaries, the work at the bottom of the list will not surprise you, but the book at the top might:

5) Seveneves: This work is just terrible in every way imaginable. It’s only interesting at all as hard sci-fi and doesn’t even do that right. This is the only work that I’d even consider “No Awarding”.

Hugo Award standings: 4th.
Vox Day’s standing: 2nd.

4) The Fifth Season: While last place (and first place) were pretty much clear for me, 2 – 4 was a tight race. For the longest time, I had this in third, but the primary job of the first book in a series is to make us want to read the next books in the series, and it’s clear that the way Jemisin chose to do that falls completely flat due to a lack of development. It fails at its main goal, and isn’t really good at doing anything else either.

Hugo Award standings: 1st.
Vox Day’s standing: No Award.

3) Ancillary Mercy: For all of the time that this languished in fourth place, I was torn over it … and am still torn over putting it third. The problem is that most of the problems with this work are not the fault of it, but are instead the fault of the other works in the series. If it had tried valiantly to save the series and failed, I would have been more charitable, but at the end of the day, it didn’t.

Hugo Award standings: 3rd.
Vox Day standing: No Award.

2) Uprooted: While it is still terribly flawed, boring, and suffering from an utter lack of drama due to an overly powerful protagonist, it manages to come in second by being pretty much a standard if lackluster fantasy work. One ought not be proud of coming in second because the work wasn’t specifically horribly flawed.

Hugo Award standings: 2nd.
Vox Day standing: 1st.

1) The Aeronaut’s Windlass: The work is boring at times and relies heavily on us feeling an emotional connection to people, places and things that it doesn’t do the legwork to ensure that we do develop that emotional connection. But … it actually has a plot and some interesting characters, which is enough to get top spot. Again, that’s not really something to be proud of; I would think that all authors would want to achieve something more than “well, there’s a bit of a plot and characters there, so you win!”.

Hugo Award standings: 5th.
Vox Day standing: 3rd.

There you have it. I was starting to read “The Mote in God’s Eye” (which so far was “Okay”), but I now think that I need to cleanse my palate, and go read something that I actually like. And I’m going to try to sell all of the Hugo Award nominees if I can, because I will never read any of them again.

Hugo Award Assessment: The Fifth Season

January 9, 2017

“The Fifth Season” is the last of the Hugo Award nominees, which means that it’s the one that won. That being said, it’s not a particularly good book.

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Hugo Award Assessment: Uprooted

January 2, 2017

I swear I didn’t realize this until after I had finished reading “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik.

A while ago, I wrote a post about the female author sweep of the Nebulas, and explicitly called out one of those interviewed for not understanding science fiction and fantasy because she insisted that she wanted to do something different, an alternative narrative that wasn’t as revenge driven, when there was, indeed, tons of science fiction and fantasy that had ignored revenge narratives and/or subverted them … like her very examples, in fact. This actually becomes ironic because I will sum up “Uprooted” this way:

The best thing you can say about it is that it’s a pretty much standard fantasy narrative, bringing nothing new to the genre and sticking pretty close to the standard or expected formula.

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Notes on “Ancillary Trilogy”

December 26, 2016

“Ancillary Justice”:

First Reading: 100 pages in (after leader arrives in the flashback):

– Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: the use of “she” as the third person personal pronoun. I don’t really see the point of it. It does require some mental gymnastics — which I avoid most of the time — to translate it all out, especially when you get phrases like “she was definitely male”. So it’s a bit of a burden on the reader. If you put a burden on the reader, you have to make sure it pays off, or else you risk them giving up on the work or disliking it for the extra work they have to do. The problem is that I don’t see what using “she” actually does so far. If Leckie wanted to reverse the typical presumption of the male personal pronoun, then a) someone’s almost certainly already done that and b) that doesn’t come across because we don’t use the male personal pronoun when referring to a specific person. So since it does more than that, it’s not a good way of presenting another viewpoint. Additionally, given the circumstances, using Shale’s “it” would work better: the AI would be thought of and referred to as a thing, and so by it, and yet that’s how the consciousness would have learned to refer to persons. This then would play into the struggles to pretend to be or act human, as it would refer to people as if they were things, but then people would be genuinely offended by that. Referring to them by the wrong gendered pronoun isn’t anywhere near as off-putting. And doing this would avoid the “she was clearly male” lines.

Now, what I find myself doing here is assuming that every character is female, and so the point might be to get people doing just that, and so again challenging the male presumption. However, an easier way to do that would have been to simply make all the characters female, especially if specific gender doesn’t make a difference (and so far it doesn’t seem to). So this is a bit of an awkward structure that doesn’t seem likely to have a big payoff in the series. But maybe it will later.

– The story is somewhat interesting, but the backstory sections are so long and detailed compared to the present day details that so far the present day seems like an aside to that story … and it isn’t clear yet how the two are actually related. So, so far, they don’t seem to be. And being 100 pages in should mean that I have a better idea why the two stories matter to each other.

– So far, though, the book is a solid “Meh”.

Second reading: 200 pages in (after Severeiden)

– It might be just my imagination, but it seems to me that the nastiest characters are all eventually identified as male …

– The use of “she” still gets confusing — especially when Leckie mixes in people using “proper” gendered pronouns — and doesn’t seem to fit the civilization. How is it that their genderless pronoun came to be what we would consider the female one? This would be an interesting exploration that is, so far, completely ignored.

– World building is lax. 200 pages into the first book, I should understand more about the culture that’s driving the plot events than I do. Butcher’s book did this so much better (and I still found it a bit lacking).

– Events drag.

– Severeiden seems to be a pointless addition. The scenes with that character were short, the character didn’t contribute to much if anything in them, and ending it here seems to be an attempt at character building that doesn’t build character. Given that these scenes were also the least interesting of the two and featured the least interesting secondary characters, it would have been better to just document the journey to Strigen and have the conversations there.

– Awn is an interesting character, but the scenes after the massacre drag.

– Still in the “Meh” category, which is a boon after “Seveneves”.

Third Reading: Up to Chapter 20.

– I still think it would have been better to have done the race like the Asari, all female, using only artificial means for reproduction. Some sort of disease that wiped out all the men could demand it and make sense of the use of the female pronoun, plus having no idea of what identifiers identified gender.

– There are interesting scenes and some action, but it drags and the conversations meander. If we cared more, we might sit through the ruminations, but as it is the conversations definitely seem to meander too much.

– The risk with Seivarden is that making a character that the protagonist hates might cause us to hate them, too … and since Seivarden is an important cog in this part, that might mean disliking this part.

– I’m 300 pages in … has anything happened yet? Sure, it’s the first book in a trilogy, but it’s building up too quickly to carry this one story the entire trilogy, and yet nothing has HAPPENED in this story.

Fourth Reading: End “Ancillary Justice”

– From reading this and reading the blurbs for the last two … ah, this is THAT kind of trilogy, where we follow the adventures of one character in a new world with its own problems. Given that … the book fails. Breq is an interesting enough character, but the book neither builds the characters or world enough to serve as a sufficient introduction to the world. Again, we are left wondering why all of this matters and is important. The structure of it itself is confusing, and while it might be meant to be Breq itself doesn’t really seem to be. Which side are we supposed to be cheering for? Breq hates them all, and yet is still sucked into being a captain to make things better? Really? Seivarden moves from pathetic to suddenly exceptionally competent, just in time to drive those plot points.

– The plot points and character points often get buried under what seeming is supposed to be clever banter, or internal ruminations. But the banter is generally not clever because it doesn’t really GO anywhere. It meanders too much to work as exposition but doesn’t have the consequences to work as verbal fencing.

– Overall: As the first book in a trilogy, it doesn’t really work because it doesn’t leave an interesting enough conflict to drive us to read the next book in the series. It’s all driven by wanting to read more of the series itself and more about that character, which is hampered by the lack of interesting plot or character conflicts and the idiosyncratic “she” pronouns; it’s harder for me to work through the book because I either treat all characters as women or have to consciously remind myself who’s who, but the characters and plots and world aren’t interesting enough to make me want to do that extra work. As a standalone work, it’s a “Meh”, as the plot and the resolution to it are too quick, and the fact that the main character is interesting doesn’t overcome that.

“Ancillary Sword”

First Reading: 100 pages in

– Why is this book Ancillary Sword and the next one Ancillary Mercy when in this one the main character captains a Mercy? Progressing the character from a Justice to a Mercy and finally to a Sword makes sense and reflects planning, and then the titles reflecting that would give us a nice sense of that progression.

– Why is Breq still alive? The leader doesn’t trust Breq at all, Breq is willfully defiant, and cannot be trusted at all to do what the leader wants. Surely there’s a way to get through that armour, even if by surprise or with poison. Or blowing the entire ship out of space, which the leader is certainly ruthless enough to do. What does Breq bring to the table that makes them so valuable, other than being the viewpoint character?

– Breq is WAY too competent for this, defusing almost everything interesting with knowledge or skills or whatever. For example, Breq foils the leader’s insertion plan by seemingly knowing about it from the start. More time working out the puzzle would have made the resolution more entertaining, but instead it’s just a quick “Oh, rip the implants out and we’re done”, and everything is mostly settled. One of the more interesting plots is resolved in about 20 pages. That’s … not good.

– Is it Leckie’s intent that I find it so easy to ignore any thoughts of presentation and real physical gender and just picture all of the characters as female, given the pronoun? The bad thing about that is that when she tries to talk about presentation or real physical gender I get annoyed, both because I don’t care and second because it drags me out of the story for a bit while I briefly wonder if I should care and adjust my mental model. Since it almost never DOES matter, I’m getting better and better at simply ignoring those parts and getting back into the work. That doesn’t seem like an attitude that justifies Leckie’s move to deliberately do it … and leaves me thinking that having all of the main citizens BE all female would have been so much better than what she’s doing here.

Second Reading: After translator killed

– Leckie sets up the translator in a brief scene before killing her. This is a constant flaw in this series, as things happen WAY too quickly to be interesting.

– The pacing is relatively good; the book moves quickly so you’re never really bored reading things. However, nothing really happens, so we have a lot of conversations that are detailed and often interminable that don’t work for either plot advancement, character development, or verbal fencing.

– This might have worked better as a political work than as … whatever this is. At least then all the conversations could be reworked and cast as verbal fencing and political maneuvering, which we don’t really have here.

Third Reading: After the greenhouse goes boom

– Leckie tries to add in romantic and sexual relationships here. This is both awkward given her pronouning and is, in fact, still mostly irrelevant, so it gets in the way of the story.

– About the only thing of interest learned here is the overall corruption of at least the system, and perhaps of the entire empire … but it would have been better to show that in the earlier books instead of focusing so much on the protagonist’s backstory. Since we’ll be with this protagonist for the entire series, certain aspects of the history could have been brought out later.

– It might pay off later, but so far the translator’s death seems to be nothing more than an excuse to get them down to the planet.

– Because the culture hasn’t been established yet, all of the mourning requirements seem like things pulled out to allow Leckie to get the main character into the situations she needs her to be in. As I’m over half-way through the series, this is not the time to try to introduce stuff like that.

– The dishes thing was a cute aside at first. At this point, it’s just WAY overdone.

– It’s interesting that I considered Rhegaud (the abuser) to be male. I’m not sure if Leckie said that or if I’ve been so conditioned to think of abusers as male and the abused as female. If Leckie had made a big deal of this and inverted it — the abused is biologically male and the abuser is biologically female — then that whole pronoun thing might have paid off. It might still be the case — I can’t remember what she said and am not going to look back to look it up — but it needed to be highlighted more to allow for a revelation. But the structure of the book itself doesn’t allow for it.

Fourth Reading: End.

– The supports breaking between the Garden and Undergarden was WAY too convenient. Just because you set something up and make references to it doesn’t mean that it can’t be seen as being too convenient, especially if it works to the advantage of the protagonist (working against them just gets classified as “Everything always happens at the worst possible times). And here it meant that Station wouldn’t hesitate to intervene and wouldn’t worry about risking the life of the hostage.

– So, about page 200 – 220 or so, another ship was introduced with another Fleet Captain, which I recall wanted to take over command. What happened with that?

– The resolution of the bombing and the Captain’s plan and ring again was too quick to matter.

– Breq, the protagonist, is too competent for good drama. Conspiracies don’t work because she figures them out too quickly and is hardly ever if ever surprised, and she somehow always knows everything before anyone else does, even if it relies on having information that we are not really given. As a first-person work, it would be better if she struggled a bit with this. But as she’s so competent every move is met by “I knew that, and I know what I’ll do next, and everyone will do what I want and what I expect.” This gets very boring.

– I’m getting sick of this series.

Ancillary Mercy:

Pre-book thoughts: The final book in a trilogy has to wrap up all the loose ends. But I’m not sure there ARE any really interesting loose ends that NEED to be tied up. Sure, the ancillary civil war might be one, but if it stayed in a detente that would be reasonable; do we REALLY expect Breq to be able to settle all of that? I guess the Praesger issue might be one, but they’ve been an aside for two books now, and so only rate as a complication that we might not have needed. Breq has seemingly resolved relations with Awn’s sister here, so that’s gone away, and neither Seivarden’s nor Tsarwart’s stories are interesting enough for us to care about their resolutions. And there’s not much of an arc to complete with Breq either, so her going on as before would work as well. I think the first two books did not really do much to help the last one turn out well … and, as I said, as I’m starting to get sick of the series because of the second book they might have actually very much hurt it.

First Reading: 100 pages in

– A third of the way through the last book, and it seems like Leckie is still stage setting. All of that should have been done by now.

– Leckie lampshades Breq always being right, but dismisses it. Lampshading something does not make it go away.

– Leckie reminds us of the other Fleet Captain only to do nothing about it in the first third of the book.

– The big issue here is that everything has been a background event in the previous two novels. The Civil War has been in the background, the Undergarden has been in the background, the Praesger have been in the background, Serivarden has been in the background, Breq has been in the background, the ship AIs have been in the background, and so on and so forth. So up to this point, all this book can do is talk about background events that we don’t really care about. But this is a clear flaw in the work because things that could be serious are treated dismissively. The new Translator shows up early in the book but only acts strangely up until now. The other palace falls, ships might arrive from the “other” leader … and when they arrive Breq merely comments to keep an eye on them and that she’ll be back in a couple of days. Leckie makes a big deal of the Ship in the Ghost Gate … but then the reaction to finding one of those ancillaries is “Give it a job”. We don’t care about Seivarden’s arc and relationships because it hasn’t been brought up much in the other books. And Leckie can’t get us to care about the kef recovery because most of the time it’s irrelevant and Leckie only brings it up when she wants to talk about Seivarden having “emotional turmoil” that requires medication. We don’t care about Tiswart’s issues because, again, they’ve only been background. This is a prime example of a work that seems to want to express ideas but doesn’t want to actually do anything with them, explore them, or make an interesting story out of them.

– Two examples: 1) Leckie talks about how bulky and beautiful Celar is, which could be an attempt to go after “fat shaming” … except that we don’t have any actual context for it, Leckie herself doesn’t focus on it, and so we are unaffected one way or the other. We don’t really know — or care — about how that alien humanity judges beauty. Also, Leckie talks about AI issues at the end here, and about making the Station AI control itself completely … but it is too late to RAISE those issues, and besides there doesn’t seem to be much potential for a pay-off here. If the AIs were presented as being the only rational agents that might be able to take over, rule, and govern, then you’d have the interesting dilemma of releasing them and risking them having a completely different view than humans, and so risk vs reward. But it’s clear that other than caring about their own inhabitants a lot, they aren’t any better than anyone else, not more competent, more caring, more honest, or anything like that. Their short-sightedness makes them unqualified to lead, and they are just too much like the humans to replace them. So bringing it up here adds an idea that can’t be explored properly to an already cluttered set of ideas. Again, expressing ideas but doing nothing with them.

Second Reading: 200 pages in.

– Were we supposed to cheer and be impressed and happy when Seivarden apologized to the other lieutenant? It’s been a sideshow the entire time, an aside, an afterthought. Why should we care?

– Gee, that gun can destroy entire ships! Maybe there’ll be a problem with it being used! That will come up in the last 100 pages! Meh.

– There might have been some drama and excitement around finally confronting the other leader’s forces, but it went way too quickly and then got buried under the internal conversations that went no where and weren’t that interesting.

Third Reading: To end.

– And nothing got resolved at all. Sure, nothing needed to, but it leaves the last book with nothing at all to do.

– Small spaces of dramatic action buried under interminable, pointless conversations.

– The final “resolution” is all the worse from being blind luck — Translator and the other ship would have had to come with her for it to work, but she had to think it up during the shuttle ride — rather than from her exceptional and unbelievable competence … especially since it still required incredible competence for her to pull off the arguments.

– Leckie hinted at the issues with mistreating non-Significant species before, but never explained anything about it. So we have no idea why the Translator would even go along with any of that.

– The Seivarden sequence continues, but again why in the world would we care?

– Overall: the book is very disappointing, but that’s mostly because the rest of the series fails to give it anything of interest to do.

Hugo Award Assessment: Ancillary Mercy

December 19, 2016

The last book in a trilogy has a specific purpose that it must be measured by. The last book in a trilogy needs to wrap up the main plot and character threads in a satisfying way, and so in general it is judged by how well it manages to do that.

“Ancillary Mercy” was betrayed and destroyed by the previous books in the series. They developed absolutely no interesting plot or character threads that in any way required resolution. And a big reason for this is that this entire trilogy is a prime example of a work that simply expresses ideas but fails to develop them.

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Notes on “Seveneves”

December 5, 2016

The notes I took while reading “Seveneves”. All below the fold:

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Hugo Awards Assessment: Seveneves

November 28, 2016

So, it’s been a month since I finished “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” and started “Seveneves”. It’s taken me that long in part because I’m still insanely busy at the moment, but the most important reason is … “Seveneves” is just a really, really bad book.

I’m going to analyse it in detail — and use some concepts that Shamus “No-Award” Young talked about in his discussions of science fiction — below the fold, but the short summary is that “Seveneves” is a book that doesn’t seem to know what plot it wants to get across and drowns anything of interest in technical details and uninteresting Mary Sue characters.

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Thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse

November 2, 2016

So, I recently watched the latest X-Men movie, and as a long-time X-Man all I can say is that I was very, very disappointed in it and it might well be the worst of the X-Men movies, at least in my opinion.

Since this is a relatively recent movie, my thoughts on it will be below the fold:

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Hugo Awards Assessment: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

October 17, 2016

I’ll start with the short summary: if I was reading this just for enjoyment and not as something to analyze, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. However, it still is a deeply flawed book.

Since my comments will contain spoilers for a fairly recent work, the detailed analysis is below the fold:

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Sorting …

October 5, 2016

So, when I first started this blog, I had a category called Philosophical Writer’s Guide, which was inspired by the Opinionated Guide at SF Debris. I did a few posts in that category, including the analysis of the Prime Directive and a full-form summary/review/analysis of the revamped Battlestar Galactica mini-series. I also have a category called Not-So-Casual Commentary, which started as a bunch of video game columns for a now defunct gaming site. Lately, I’ve started including movies and books and other things in the latter category, which left me wonder what there was for the previous category to do. Do I need both categories? Should I just put everything into “Not-So-Casual Commentary”?

Now I’m doing my in-depth Hugo analysis, and as I look back I note that the Philosophical Writer’s Guide includes a number of posts where I analyze the writing of works more in-depth. While I sometimes do stuff like that for video games, Not-So-Casual Commentary tends to be more, well, commentary, either quick discussions or discussions that focus on more than just the writing. Given that, I’ve made a decision on how to divide the content among the two categories:

1) Philosophical Writer’s Guide will contain posts where I get into the details of the writing or story or plot/characterization concepts used in a work. This will include the Hugo Award analysis posts. However, it will exclude commentary on video games.

2) Not-So-Casual Commentary will contain posts about video games, and then posts that either address all aspects of a work, or more shallow discussions of a work and what it contains.

There may still be some overlap, but that’s why you can put a post into more than one category, I guess [grin]. Hopefully, with this everyone will know which category they want to look at for what sort of content.

Look for the analysis of “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” soon.