Hugo Blogging 2: Grandville, Feed, Blackout, Cryoburn

Continuing my reviews of this year’s Hugo entries. Remember, if you want to get a ton of SF ebooks for $50 and vote in the Hugos yourself, you can get the Hugo packet here.

One point here – the four books I’m reviewing here are a sequel, part one of a two-volume story set in a world where that author has apparently set several previous books, part one of a trilogy, and part of a ‘saga’. The Best Novel candidate I’ve not yet read is also part one of a trilogy. Since when did SF writers become physically incapable of writing individual, stand-alone books?

Grandville Mon Amour by Bryan Talbot

Nominated for Best Graphic Story, while this is far from the best comic released during its year of eligibility, it’s still a Bryan Talbot comic, and therefore deserves to win.

The sequel to Grandville, this has the same strengths and weaknesses as the previous book. The art is still gorgeous (though reading it as a PDF on the computer means you can’t see his masterful layout work in full) and it’s still as fun to play spot-the-reference as with the early League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen issues (I especially like the cameo by the misogynist aardvaark). But like the earlier work, the plot is a bit lightweight – and while the first one was roughly based around the conspiracy theories around the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, this one is *very* roughly based around Jack The Ripper conspiracy theories. This means it invites comparisons with From Hell, which are unfair, as this is a deliberately light, pulpy comic.

It’s no Luther Arkwright or Alice In Sunderland, but even when he’s just having fun Talbot is always worth reading.

Blackout by Connie Willis

This was really, really, really annoying. Five hundred and eleven pages long, this is all set-up with no resolution at all, because the resolution is in another book (I didn’t realise this til I was up to page 507 and the major plot point hadn’t happened yet). It would be an exaggeration to say that nothing at all happened in the book, but certainly the actual *events* in it could be compressed into a short story. Well, half a short story. The Wikipedia page for the book has a nine-line plot summary – and a nine *paragraph* summary of the sequel.

Willis writes well, but fundamentally this is like if someone had taken just the World War II parts of Cryptonomicon (say), removed all the discussion of ideas so you were just left with the painfully accurate research about the war years, and put that out as a book. Except have all the fiddly little details right about the war but totally wrong about the country in which it’s set. Yes, it’s part one of a two-part novel, but it’s still not structured *at all* as a single volume – it just stops, and after 511 pages giving the reader no reward whatsoever seems more than a little unfair.

Over and over again Willis assumes that the UK is really just exactly the same as the USA except for us all drinking tea and loving the Royal Family. It’s a minor point, but the biggest problem I had with the book was that everyone speaks in USian dialect – they say “I’ve got to go get that” rather than “I’ve got to go *and* get that”, and “January thirteenth” instead of “January *the* thirteenth”. If you’re going to go to the trouble, as Willis obviously has, of researching dates of bombings and the names of shops on Oxford Street in the 40s, you could at least bother to listen to an English person speak. Maybe even get one to read the book before you put it out. Judging from these posts, the ePub has actually been revised and the most egregious errors fixed compared to the original paper publication. Christ alone knows how bad this was before that. Utter, utter, unmitigated crap.

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
The ePub file for this crashes my e-reader, so I’m just mentioning it so people know I’m not ignoring it.

Feed by Mira Grant

While I’ve had more than enough of zombies at the moment, seeing on the title page that Grant also writes as Seanan McGuire gave me hope, even despite this being ‘part one of the Newsflesh trilogy’ – McGuire’s piece had been the one piece I’d really enjoyed in Chicks Dig Time Lords, so I expected this to be at least decent.

And while hardly great, it was a pleasant, enjoyable read. The worldbuilding is deftly done – set a few decades after a zombie outbreak, the anti-zombie precautions are very much in the same mould as our current ‘anti-terror’ laws – though I’d question the idea that blogging will still be regarded as ‘new media’ at that time, rather than hopelessly antiquated. All the characters were well sketched, the plot, while predictable, does have one twist that I at least didn’t see coming (though I really should have) and the prose style is very easy to read.

In fact, this reads like what we are now euphemistically supposed to call ‘Young Adult’ books (they’re not for young adults. I’m a young adult – I’m 32 – and they’re not aimed at me. Call them what they are, children’s books – or use the old term Heinlein used, ‘juveniles’). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it makes the book very, very readable. But the end result is something lightweight and lacking substance.

That sounds a harsher judgement than I mean it to. I enjoyed this (and despite it being part one of a trilogy, it had a proper structure and ending. It can be done, Willis) and while I’m not going to eagerly seek out parts two and three of the trilogy, nor am I going to avoid them. Definitely the most enjoyable of the ‘best novel’ candidates I’ve read so far.

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold started with so many strikes against it that I almost didn’t even get through the first chapter. It’s part of a ‘saga’ (I don’t do sagas, and I’m certainly not normally going to start reading something that’s part nineteen or whatever of a story). The characters have odd names in what appear to be multiple different orthographies, causing extra cognitive load to keep track of them. It’s set on a planet where people address each other with -san or -sensei endings but in all other ways behave like Westerners, and its main characters are important in some sort of Galactic Empire (unless you’re Asimov, I want my viewpoint characters to be fighting against hereditary dictators, not helping keep them in positions of power) and have hereditary titles themselves. Were I not trying to read everything so I can vote honestly in the Hugos, I wouldn’t have read this if you’d paid me.

However, *despite* all those things I ended up quite enjoying this. It seems to be riffing off Clifford Simak’s Why Call Them Back From Heaven? and its main effect was to make me want to reread that book, but I found myself almost unwillingly drawn into the story. Admittedly, the plot runs on rails so obvious that I predicted one twist ( “Gung’f abg zl zbzzl!” (ROT13 to avoid spoilers)) two chapters in advance down to the precise wording, but it’s still a *decent* plot, and it’s well-written. I won’t be seeking out any more of Bujold’s work based on this, but am pleasantly surprised by how decent it seemed given that it’s very, *very* much Not My Sort Of Thing.

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4 Responses to Hugo Blogging 2: Grandville, Feed, Blackout, Cryoburn

  1. Wesley says:

    I can think of three reasons for the prevalence of series in SF, listed here from worst to best:

    1. The Lord of the Rings was a trilogy (actually, one long book split into three for practical reasons). Therefore, when writers started imitating The Lord of the Rings, they wrote trilogies.

    2. As indicated in the parenthetical, very long books aren’t always publishable in one volume. Charles Stross, who has had to massively rewrite one series (the Merchant Princes books, which are far from his best work), has written on his blog about how practical and economic factors influence the lengths of books.

    3. Science fiction and fantasy, more than any other genres, are particularly concerned with worldbuilding. Long stories, or multiple stories in a single setting, give the writer more room to build in. This may also be the reason some writers, as their careers progress, end up tying unrelated books together into a single world.

    I find that Connie Willis is a perfectly competent writer of screwball comedy at shorter lengths, but as her work gets longer she gets progressively more mediocre.

    It’s a shame Cryoburn turned you off Lois McMaster Bujold–it’s kind of a “Bujold on autopilot” book, and I suspect it ended up on the ballot out of series loyalty more than anything. It would probably not be worth it to try another book in that series, though, if you don’t like sagas–it’s a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts kind of thing. (For what it’s worth, one ongoing background element is that, now that the hero’s backwards feudal empire is back in contact with the rest of the human race, it’s starting to take baby steps towards a more humane, egalitarian society.)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, I can see all those as reasons for it to be *more* prevalent in SF – and some of my very favourite genre works have been in series form, whether the Faction Paradox stuff, the Discworld books or Stross’ Laundry books. But I can’t see any or even all of those explaining why pretty much *all* SF books are now series. And it’s sad, because I’d be *far* more likely to buy a book that wasn’t “Book 1 of the Farblaster Trilogy”. (ESPECIALLY since you never know if you’re going to get books two or three. I had to resort to torrenting books 2 and 3 of David Louis Edelmann’s Jump 255 series, because they’ve still not been published in the UK and I wanted to see how the story finished).

      Willis’ prose style seemed fine, and some of her minor characters did show a competent comic touch but… I don’t know if Blackout is the worst book I’ve ever read, but it’s the one I’ve got least from.

      And Cryoburn didn’t turn me off Bujold – I was mildly pleasantly surprised by it, given that I’d already decided that it probably wouldn’t be for me. I’d probably read some of her other books, but can’t see myself bothering with any more of the Vorkosigan books. (In fact Cryoburn was almost exactly the opposite of Blackout for me – I normally loathe space opera of that type, and love time travel stories (and have an interest in WWII), but Cryoburn was well enough done that I could get over my distaste, while Blackout pissed away all the goodwill I had for it).

  2. I suspect part of the problem is that many sf readers, and even more fantasy readers to the extent that those are different categories, like books that are part of a long series, because it means the story will last them a good long time. As these are the readers that are easiest to please and read the least non-sf stuff, it makes not reading long series a good strategy. Keep meaning to read Bujold because I’ve heard her mentioned a few times at the end of “Space Opera is terrible garbage except for” type constructions.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I can sort of see that, but as someone who does read a lot of SF, I’d read a lot *more* if it weren’t so bloated with trilogies and tetralogies and sagas and so forth. I suppose I’m just not anyone’s core market – I tend to hate the stuff comics companies do to please the core too. But I suspect there are a lot of people like me who buy four or five SF/F books a year but would buy twenty or thirty or more were the market not skewed to the core fans.

      As for Bujold, that sentence does seem to fit pretty well. On the evidence of this she’s *very* embedded in the space opera genre (Foundation-style subgenre) but can definitely write.

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