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Draft Hugos preview

June 18th, 2006

Here’s my draft preview of the contenders for the Hugo best novel award, some bits of which have appeared here previously. Comments much appreciated.

Update Thanks for some useful comments, which I’ve tried to take into account in the revision

Hugos

Despite the supposed impact transgression of boundaries under the influence of postmodernism, the genre hierarchy in literature remains as strong as ever. The recent New York Times effort to locate the best works of American fiction in the last 25 years came up with the usual literary suspects – Toni Morrison, Dom DeLillo, Philip Roth, John Updike and so on, with only Cormac McCarthy to suggest that lower-class genres like the Western can possibly contribute anything to the canon.

In particular, despite the immense influence of science fiction and fantasy on our culture (with the Lord of the Rings routinely being named by the general public as the most influential book of the 20th century) the genre only makes lists of this kind in the hands of approved literary authors like Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood (who presumably didn’t count as ‘American’ for the purposes of the NYT exercise).

So, for those who think that science fiction may have something to say, and want to discover the leading contributions it’s still necessary to look to the annual Hugo awards, to be announced in Los Angeles in August. Although there are many categories

Last year’s winner, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was a mixture of alternate history and fantasy, set in a Regency England where magic has been practised in the past and is now being revived. With its Austenesque tone and academic footnotes, Jonathan Strange was about as far from traditional hard SF as it’s possible to imagine being.

Although there’s one fantasy work among this year’s nominations, I find it hard to imagine the success being repeated. A Feast for Crows is Volume 4 in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy sequence A Ring of Ice and Fire. Martin’s fans have waited five years for its appearance, and the nomination appears to reflect their enthusiasm for the series, rather than the merits of the work considered as a novel (which is, after all the category).

If my experience is any guide, Hugo voters who try to assess the work as a novel are unlikely to find it compelling. I started gamely enough, and the opening chapters held my interest, but after 100 pages nothing had happened except conversations between various characters about events that had presumably taken place in Volume 3. I cheered up when I noticed that there was a dramatis personae at the back, but then realised that the list itself ran for many pages and included hundreds of characters who had not yet appeared. Pushing on to the end, it turns out that some of the most important characters in the series don’t appear in A Feast for Crows, but have been saved for a promised Volume 5.

The style is engaging, and Martin is great at evoking the menacing atmosphere of medieval power politics, but it’s clear that if you want to tackle his work, you have to start at the beginning of the series. And, just as any long book has some necessary slow bits where the various threads are gathered, so any multi-volume epic has some slow moving transitional volumes, of which A Feast for Crows turns out be one. That’s appropriate in a series, but the result is not, in my view, a candidate for a Hugo award for best novel. Given the popularity of this form, maybe a separate category is needed. Alternatively, some may think, that would only encourage yet more of these sagas.

Of the remaining contenders, the least satisfactory is Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. The blurb promises something that reads like an original work by Robert A. Heinlein, and Scalzi delivers, but a lot has happened, in science fiction and in the world, since Starship Troopers.

In terms of the standard features, Scalzi doesn’t do a bad job. We get the recruiting office, a pretty good bid for the “meanest drill sergeant in the Universe� award, the usual battle scenes and the inculcation of a military ethos, along with a recognition that “War is Hell�. Heinlein fans will love all this. And there’s the twist in the title. The Colonial Defence Forces only recruit 75-year olds, for reasons that are explained a few chapters into the book. {The later appearance of the Ghost Brigades (I’ll avoid a spoiler on this), seems to me to undermine the rationale, but maybe this will be explained in the subsequent eponymous book.)

Where the book fails is as hard science fiction. As you’d expect from the genre the underlying view is what might be called interstellar realism; the galaxy is a tough place and there are a lot of species out there eager to seize our planets and eat us. But Scalzi gives no answer to the Fermi problem: how come the neighbours haven’t already dropped in for dinner, instead of waiting for us to go out to meet them. And even when the book is set, Earth is mysteriously immune from external attack, despite the absence of any of the defence forces that are needed everywhere else.

Then there’s fundamental problem faced by all modern science fiction. Whereas SF writers of the mid-20th century could look back on past progress, from trains to aircraft to rockets, and presume that this trend would lead on to interstellar travel, all the evidence available to us today is that, short of some fundamental transformation, travel beyond our own solar system is out of reach. The most common solution to this problem is the idea of a Singularity, in which exponential and self-sustaining growth in computing power suddenly reaches a critical point. Given the Singularity, humans can upload themselves as data and travel at light speed and it seems plausible to posit faster-than-light travel through mechanisms that transcend the ordinary limits of physics. But Scalzi simply assumes an interstellar drive, just as Heinlein and his contemporaries did.

Then there’s Earth itself. The book is set at least a couple of hundred years after Earth has developed an interstellar space drive which must have required massive technological advances, but these advances seem to have vanished without trace. The Earth-based scenes could be set in the present (in fact, apart from a passing reference to an office computer, they could be set any time in the last half of last century). The hero is a retired advertising agent, and his companions have similarly 20th century jobs. He produces a driving license as ID, signs up in a strip mall and takes a plane to the spaceport (operated by the Colonials, not Earth).

The lack of political development is similarly striking. There is supposed to have been a nuclear war between the US and India some decades in the past, but otherwise the passage of several centuries and the exploration of space seem to have produced less change in the global political structure than a single year like 1989. Even the Northern Ireland problem is referred to (in terms more suggestive of the 1970s and 1980s than of the present). Perhaps some profound point is being made here but if so, it will have to wait for future instalments in the series to become evident.

If Scalzi disappoints on the hard science fiction front, Robert Charles Wilson delivers with Spin. The book starts with the earth being mysteriously sealed off from the rest of the universe by a barrier within which the passage of time is slowed. This idea is not entirely new – Howard Fast’s The First Men. employed an impervious barrier in which time was shifted by a nanosecond or two. However, the use Wilson makes of the idea is certainly novel. The slowdown of time is so drastic that one human lifetime is comparable to the remaining lifetime of the Sun. This is a daunting prospect, but such a time differential opens up some fascinating technological possibilities, and, in the best hard SF tradition, Wilson explores these possibilities and their impact on society and on the main characters in the novel.

Wilson also makes use of the idea of the Singularity in a novel fashion, not as an initial assumption to allow humanity to spread throughout the galaxy, but as part of the resolution of a novel set entirely in our own solar system. He manages, very neatly, the tricky feat of explaining the Spin, and resolving the developments in the novel.

The plot is centred on the narrator’s relationship with two childhood friends, a brother and sister with whom he witnesses the appearance of the barrier, manifested as the disappearance of the moon and stars from the sky. The characters are reasonably well-developed, and certainly an advance on the cardboard cutouts of traditional hard SF, but they are still more of interest as vehicles for the plot than in their own right.

Given the system of exhaustive balloting used for the Hugos, Wilson is probably the favourite for this year’s awards. Spin’s many merits guarantee a strong first round vote, and with no obvious negatives, it’s sure to pick up more votes in subsequent rounds. The remaining contenders are likely to attract more intense, but less broad-based support.

Learning the World by Ken MacLeod is, I think, the first novel whose title is that of a blog (a few millennia of human economic and social development have added a couple of letters to make it a biolog, but it’s recognisably a blog). The blog is that of Atomic Discourse Gale, a young woman growing up on a starship engaged in a multi-generation voyage of exploration and colonisation (this is the other solution to the problem posed by the infeasibility of travel faster than the speed of light).

She and others on the ship are faced with the unforeseen problems that arise when their target solar system turns out to be inhabited by humans, or at least humanoid creatures with batlike wings. Although their physiology, and the existence of a related, but non-sentient quasi-slave species, makes for some interesting social differences, the humanoids are at a technological level close to our own. So their perspective on First Contact is much more like ours would be if we were approached by an alien species with massively advanced technology.

The central planetary character, Darvin, an astronomer who first detects the advancing ship is sympathetic and appealing, as he tries to make sense of aspects of his world that are suddenly and radically called into question. Everything from the system of nation states to a social structure based on the existence of two unequal species is rendered obsolete by the arrival of the alien humans.

MacLeod renders both the ship world and the planetary world very convincingly, and develops the internal conflicts that arise as both sides try to deal with the unexpected intrusion of the other into a universe they had assumed was theirs alone. Unfortunately, the denouement is hurried and not entirely satisfactory. It’s rare to say this in the world of SF, but this is a book that would have benefited from another hundred pages or so.

Finally, there’s Accelerando by Charles Stross. It’s the ultimate Singularity novel (at least assuming it can be called a novel). Starting at a breakneck pace and picking up from there, Accelerando captures the Singularity in its form and prose. Stross’s super-evolved lobsters and feral abaci make for an account that’s both more readable and, paradoxically, more convincing than serious works like Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near.

The book begins in the near future, just on our side of the Singularity, introducing Manfred patriarch-to-be of the Macx family, who is a kind of nomadic netrepreneur, using his Internet-enabled sunglasses to make innovations for which he is paid in reputation. The intelligent agents he designs to exploit financial derivatives markets soon develop into self-aware structures (the ‘Vile Offspring’) that soon outgrow any need for the human creators, who are forced to migrate to the neighbourhood of Jupiter. Subsequent generations of the Macx clan take the story further, in a plot that’s appropriately impossible to summarise.

Stross bombards us with new ideas and new takes on old ones, at a pace that carries its own conviction. The Fermi problem, for example, gets a good treatment. Earth is not the only planet to have undergone its Singularity, and space turns out to be full of products of, and refugees from such processes, exploiting uploads and wormholes to engage in virtualised faster-than-light travel.

Accelerando is a dazzling tour de force, showing how SF still has the capacity to enliven our thinking about the future. Regardless of what the Hugo voters may decide, it’s my pick for the best science fiction novel of the year.

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  1. June 18th, 2006 at 15:41 | #1

    Cool review!

    I have to quibble, though. The only books I can think of where a Singularity enables FTL are Stross’s Singularity Sky and sequel, and MacLeod’s Newton’s Wake. Posthumans developed wormholes in The Stone Canal but they were human-replicable, and wormholes are semi-respectable to physicists these days. I’d guess even most modern SF deals with interstellar travel by handwaving an FTL drive. Conversely, the obvious way for a Singularity to deal with it is by messing with biology and psychology, not physics — the millennia old crew of Learning the World, or uploads and AIs who can radio themselves across the stars (once a receiver has been pushed out there.) Or who can wait out a long journey with ease, as in Accelerando.

  2. June 18th, 2006 at 16:22 | #2

    Have to agree with you about the Accelerando. However, I haven’t read Spin yet (it’s on my stack) and it’s looking good.
    Will be interested if you read the new Vernor Vinge (also on my unread-books stack), since I believe he entirely ignores climate change in his otherwise well-realised future ;) Which is no doubt going to annoy me, although I expect it to be great regardless.
    Speaking of which, David Marusek’s Counting Heads was another sf tour de force from last year, which almost beats the Stross, IMHO… Like Charlie’s novel, it’s probably not to everyone’s taste, but has some stellar ideas and, I think, great characterisation and setting.

    Still, fingers crossed for Charlie.

  3. lars
    June 18th, 2006 at 17:45 | #3

    A fascinating image was evoked by the phrase ” tackle his owrk”. Reminds me of the kiwi field research program in which rugby players were hired to catch wild birds, as kiwis are apparently superlative broken-field runners and nobody but rugby players could muster the necessary reflexes to nab them in the bush.

  4. June 18th, 2006 at 18:15 | #4

    JQ – I sort of like the SF novels that do not attempt FTL. Like Ender’s Game and the Dispossed the speed of light is not exceeded and the characters accept the time dilation that would accompany interstellar flight at high light speeds.

    Anti-matter drives are not beyond physics and offer a glimpse of what is possible to make high speed ships possible.
    http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/213.web.stuff/Scott%20Kircher/fissionfusion.html

  5. Andrew
    June 18th, 2006 at 22:01 | #5

    As a matter of interest,I just read the third volume of GRR Martin’s keep-writing-until-sales-dry-up-ology and it referred (without explanation) to events in the previous novel..

    Presumably the second refers to the first equally, and the first must therefore refer to the last. Thereby creating a singularity capable of sustaining interstellar flight.

  6. June 20th, 2006 at 04:22 | #6

    Card and Le Guin used ansibles, though, giving FTL (instantaneous) communication; for a casuality-concerned physicist that’s just as problematic. That said, I do appreciate their effort.

    Learning the World was pure STL (relying more on immortality than generationshipness.) Alastair Reynolds technically lets in FTL but it’s creepy dangerous to use, and human tech is pretty much STL. Greg Egan tends to go the uploading route.

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