Hugo Blogging: Best Novel

Bet you thought I’d forgotten about these, didn’t you?
No, it’s just that the thought of reading any more John C Wright stuff made me feel physically ill, so I gave up on the novellas several times. I did my best, though…
The novels are a slightly better bunch. Thanks to two of the Puppy slate nominees dropping out, there is actually a decent selection of books in this category, for almost the only time these awards. As always, I’ll look at these in the order in which I’m ranking them.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is precisely my sort of thing. It’s a semi-hard SF story, about ideas, and very reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s work, both in the way that it looks at how world events affect low-level characters’ plans, in a story taking place over decades in a non-linear fashion, and in the way it has an implicit right-wing political stance (although how different left and right are in China — Liu’s home country — to the UK or US I don’t know) without making me give up on the book in disgust.
I have only two problems with the book. The first is that there are no characters worthy of the name — everyone stands for one or another social or political stance. The other is so bad that were the book not so good, and were this another year, I would rank this below No Award — this isn’t a full novel. It’s the first third of a trilogy, and when the book finishes, we’ve only got all the pieces in place, nothing has resolved.
But if, unlike me, you don’t think that being asked to buy a third of a book is an insult, this is very highly recommended. It’s the kind of novel that has enough ideas in it for five good ones, and I do look forward to parts two and three.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is almost the opposite. This is a book entirely about character, and almost devoid of ideas.
It is, in short, exactly the kind of thing I *dis*like, and the fact that I am ranking it second should show how good the actual writing is. The book is, essentially, a story of intrigue at court, with a cast of thousands all with interchangeable names (there is a list of characters and places at the back, full of stuff like “Belvesena XI (dec.): Belvesena Zhas, the 125th Emperor of the Elflands; son of Belmaliven IV; brother of Belmaliven VI” or “Drazhar, Maia: only child of Chenelo Drazharan and Varenechibel IV (fourth son of the emperor); relegated by his father first to Isvaroë (with Chenelo Drazharan) and then to Edonomee (with Setheris Nelar); see also Edrehasivar VII”). These characters are given almost no physical description, and are all engaging in extremely subtle plotting and hints which only make sense if you can keep all these names straight in your head.
On top of this, there’s the fact that this isn’t really a fantasy novel. Yes, the title character is a goblin in a world of elves, but you could do a find-and-replace for the words “goblin” and “elf”, change them for “African” and “European”, change a handful of references to ears raising to make them about eyebrows, and make the tiny bit of handwavey magic (no more than a page and a half in the text, total) used in the murder investigation that drives the plot into a normal detective investigation, and the book would read as a standard 19th-century novel of manners. There’s nothing fantastic here.
Yet… despite all this, I remained gripped, and finished it in a day. The standard of writing and storytelling overcomes all these flaws, and my personal lack of interest in this kind of story. Three-Body deserves to win, but this wouldn’t be a bad winner.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie I just bounced off, I’m afraid, possibly because I still haven’t given Ancillary Justice the second chance I know it deserves — but either way, it should stand up without the earlier book. Ranking it above No Award because I know there’s a difference between my own preferences and objective quality, and it seems like something I *could* come to enjoy in the future.

The other two books obtained their place because of an unethical vote-rigging exercise carried out by neofascists to advance moral, political, artistic, and financial agendas I consider inimical to human civilisation. They would go below No Award for that alone. Happily, they also deserve it on their own merits.

Skin Game by Jim Butcher is merely not very good. I actually picked up the first of the Dresden Files novels last year, because I’d seen in several places that Butcher’s work was similar to the Laundry novels by Charles Stross (which I enjoy a lot) and the Rivers Of London series by Ben Aaronovitch (which are much less good, but which I find curiously addictive).
Butcher’s work has clear resemblances to those books, but is much more masculine, American, and conservative, to the extent that I couldn’t finish the first of the books (though I did think “so that’s where Larry Correia got his ideas from!”). This is the sixteenth in the series, and in the part in the Hugo packet (I didn’t pay for the full thing) is more of the same. It’s a competent enough action adventure story of its type, but no more deserves to win a literary award than a random episode of CSI deserves to win a dramatic one.

And The Dark Beneath The Stars by Kevin J. Anderson…
Those of you who’ve read anything I’ve said about SFF will note my distaste for continuing series as opposed to standalone novels, and in particular for “sagas”. This is book one of a trilogy, “The Saga of Shadows”, that is in itself the sequel to a seven-book series called “The Saga of Seven Suns”.
This means that much of the early chunk of the book is infodumping. And the rest… well…
Kevin Anderson boasts that he typically writes his novels in six weeks, with little or no redrafting — he goes for long walks, dictates the books into a voice recorder, and then gets them typed up. This seems to work for him financially — he’s published over 120 novels, of which fifty or so have been bestsellers, although it’s worth noting that the ones that sold well have been the ones with “Star Wars” or “Dune” in the titles, written in someone else’s world.
But on a basic prose-writing level, this doesn’t even rise to amateur status. I’ll choose a page at random — the start of Chapter 6 (and this is truly at random, I just clicked randomly in Calibre):

In uncharted, empty space, the ship floated among the mysterious globules. Two days of unthreatening quiet gave Garrison and Seth freedom to just relax. They played games, and Garrison told him about Roamer history and other planets they would someday see. It was the sort of family life he’d hoped to have with Elisa.
They had plenty of fuel and supplies, but he knew he and Seth couldn’t stay here forever.

OK, so let’s try to track the subjects of these sentences. There are two people here — “Garrison” and “Seth”, introduced in the second sentence. In the third sentence, we have “Garrison told him…”. There’s no antecedent to this “him”, but from context we can assume it’s Seth, as no-one else has been mentioned.
Fourth sentence “It was the sort of family life he’d hoped to have with Elisa.” — we can assume this is Seth again, as there’s no indication the referent has changed.
Fifth sentence, though “but he knew he and Seth couldn’t stay here forever” — here “he” clearly can’t mean Seth, so somewhere the subject of the passage has changed.
This is the sort of bad writing that a GCSE English teacher would point out.
And a page later those “globules” have become “nodules”. A globule means either a small round drop, or in the case of astronomy a dark cloud against a light background. A nodule, on the other hand, is a lump or mass, usually a lump of cells, but sometimes of minerals. The two words have distinct meanings, but then things like the meanings of words don’t matter when you’re a bestselling author.
The only good thing I can say about this book is that at least it wasn’t written by John C Wright — but even Wright at least seems to take some care over the words he uses. This is not, in any meaningful sense of the word, writing.

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7 Responses to Hugo Blogging: Best Novel

  1. misssbgmail says:

    I keep bouncing off 3 body, but couldn’t put ancillary sword down. Maybe we’re not the same person after all.

    Alisdair likes the Dresden books :(

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I think that’s because you’d already read Ancillary Justice and I hadn’t — I tried it last year, but it was when I had cognitive problems thanks to blood pressure, and I actually couldn’t read. I need to reread that, and then give Sword another go.
      As for Three-Body, I found the first third or so *very* heavy going, but it got *much* better.

      • misssbgmail says:

        I just can’t bring myself to care about anything or anyone in it :/

        I’ll give it another go though. And I’m looking forward to Goblin.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Yeah, the lack of actual characters is a big negative. But the ideas get good.
          Goblin has basically the opposite set of problems from Three-Body. They both have half the qualities for a great novel, and completely miss the other half.

  2. prankster36 says:

    My ex compelled me to read the Dresden books (well, the first five or six). They’re, I have to admit, curiously addictive, despite being completely devoid of original ideas and TERRIBLY written. Dresden himself is written as a “witty smart-ass” by someone who is drearily unfunny and not particularly smart. They’re very much in the pulp vein, including the constantly put-upon hero whose life is forever being made worse by Trying to Do The Right Thing.

    I have to admit, this being before the whole GamerGate/Sad Puppies nonsense blew up–and trying to be positive about something my girlfriend liked–I may have talked myself into liking them rather more than I normally would. I’m actually struggling to remember a lot of the details but I don’t *think* they had any of the really noxious SP stuff, just a lot of the annoying geek-pandering tropes and a basically small-c conservative worldview. But I may be forgetting stuff. I’m definitely not gonna defend them as literature, but I do know they have a substantial following, enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised if they made it onto the ballot under their own steam and without the Puppies?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, there’s no more racism or sexism or whatever in Skin Game than is normal for that genre (so quite a lot, but not Puppy-level). But no, it wouldn’t have made the ballot without the Puppies — none of his others have, and apparently even his fans think it’s not one of his best…

  3. Richard Gadsden says:

    I read Kevin Anderson’s Star Wars novels when I was a Star Wars EU addict in my twenties (as a result of reading the – excellent – Tim Zahn novels).

    I will not pick up or read anything with his name on the cover under any circumstances because they were so utterly appallingly written. In fact, if Mike Stackpole hadn’t rescued the EU, I might have given up on it entirely, which would mean I’d have one shelf fewer of books that I keep intending to dispose of.

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