Monday, August 31, 2015

Musical Monday - The Doomsday Machine by Five Year Mission

I'm going to line up a couple of humorous songs next, so I'm okay with going to a song here that is a little darker at this point in the set, so I'm going to put one of my favorite Five Year Mission songs about one of my favorite Star Trek episodes in this slot. The Doomsday Machine is a bleak and harsh episode that doesn't really have a happy ending, which seems kind of fitting as it seems to have been inspired by Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series of stories (which I would recommend as being quite good, albeit in many cases dark and grim). Even though Kirk ends up figuring out a way to halt the implacable doomsday machine, the price Starfleet pays for the victory is quite high.

But Five Year Mission was able to transform this bleak episode into a really great song, so it has that going for it. And then they made a great video to go along with it. But really, this is a great song and the band doesn't seem to play it live often enough any more. In my version of reality, they do, and so it gets stuck right in the heart of the imaginary set.

Previous Musical Monday: Miri by Five Year Mission

Five Year Mission     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Blogger Hop August 28th - September 3rd: The Roman Emperor Hadrian Executed Four Ex-Consuls in 118 A.D.

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: What time of the year does your library have its library sale?

I am lucky enough to live in an area where there are multiple good libraries within a fairly short distance. Most of these libraries hold two sales per year, one in the spring, and one in the autumn. I don't leave the issue up to chance, as there is an excellent website that I highly recommend named Book Sale Finder that one can use to locate book sales all across the United States, listed by state.1 The site doesn't only list library book sales, but library book sales do seem to comprise most of the entries. The site has a function that allows you to set it up to send you weekly e-mail alerts letting you know when sales are taking place in specific states. As I live near all three, I have e-mail alerts set up to tell me what books sales are taking place in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C. As a result, I am usually able to go to one or two library book sales per month every spring and fall.

1 I don't know if there are similar websites set up for book sales in other countries.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, August 28, 2015

Follow Friday - King Ardashir I Destroyed the Parthian Empire in 224 A.D.

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Books Are Life and One Book Two.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Share a random quote from the book you are currently reading.

I am currently reading Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons, a collection of twelve pieces of short fiction by Tom Purdom. Here are quotes from the first three stories in the collection
They were good subjects. They would keep him occupied for decades. He had now lived over three hundred years. Nothing lasted forever. He had his whole life ahead of him.
               - from the story Fossil Games
It was a very civilized hijack.
               - from the story Haggle Chips
The King's sleeve flicked again. " Think you can understand the difficulties we will face if the people of our new province feel they have been rescued by a Hapsburg who offered herself as sacrifice. You must show them that Prussian discipline - and Prussian firepower - are a better defense than the skirts of a Hapsburg princess."
               - from the story Dragon Drill

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Random Thought - Things to Consider for 2016 Hugo Nominations

As most people in the genre fiction world are aware by now, the Sad and Rabid Puppies created a campaign slate and bloc voted in the nominations phase of the 2015 Hugo Awards to pack the ballot with candidates of their choosing that ranged from mediocre to incredibly awful. At the awards ceremony the WorldCon voters let the Puppies them know just how much they appreciated this effort and relegated virtually every Puppy nominee to a position behind No Award.

Many people have looked at the raw statistics and have used various methodologies to try to "un-Puppy" that Hugo ballot and figure out who would have been nominated but for the unethical slate -based tactics used by the Puppies. That is a worthy effort, and I may do that at some future point, so that I can have a central place to keep track of my reading for those authors whose works were shut out of Hugo nominations by the actions of the Puppies. But that's not what I want to do today, because quite frankly this year's Puppies have become quite tiresome. Today, I want to look forward to the 2016 Hugo Awards.

It is almost certain that the Puppies will return for the 2016 Hugo Awards and do the same routine again. The Rabid Puppies will put forward a slate. The Sad Puppies will dance around the issue a lot, but in the end, what they come up with will be a slate. The Puppy supporters will be nominating out of spite - as some Puppy commenters have tried to rationalize, even though their nominees were humiliated in the voting, at least they managed to keep other people off the ballot. By loudly declaring their intent to use next year's nominating process as "revenge" for losing the vote in the actual awards this year, any pretense that their actions are anything other than organized thuggery evaporates. The Puppies have revealed themselves to be vandals, and nothing more. No matter what happens, their selection of nominees will both be generally terrible and dominate the ballot. For the most part, no matter what anyone else does in the nominating process will matter.

As depressing as this fact is, this does not mean everyone else should simply throw in the towel and not bother to nominate anything. The Hugo Awards are the end of the process, not the beginning. Most voters nominate works they love, and people whose work they loved. To do that, you have to read it and love it during the year prior to the nominating process. The reward for the author (and the fan) is loving the work, not the decision of who gets the hardware.

With all that in mind, I am starting a list of the eligible works that I have read (in the case of written works) or watched (in the case of dramatic presentations) and either have already reviewed, or will review shortly after they are added to the list. This is an ongoing list: Works or people will be added to the list as I read them, watch them, or become familiar with their work (in the case of nominees for categories like Fan Writer, Fan Artist, or the Campbell). Anyone who wants to suggest potential nominees should do so in the comments, and I will try to get to as many as I can.

Note: Although I have endeavored to place all of the stories and people in the right categories, I'm not a Hugo Administrator, so I cannot be certain of the accuracy of my placement. In the case of the short fiction, I am placing them in the category the publication the appeared in said they were, but sometimes that doesn't align with what the Hugo rules say they are. I'm not going to sit down and do a word count of every story to be sure. I'm also mostly guessing at what does and does not qualify to be a Semiprozine. I know Clarkesworld doesn't qualify in that category any more, but the ones I've listed here still do, I think.

Best Novel

Cress by Marissa Meyer
Dawnbreaker by Jay Posey
Fairest by Marissa Meyer
Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz
Kahahari by Jessica Khoury
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Dearest by Alethea Kontis
The Left-Hand Way by Tom Doyle
The Rebirths of Tao by Wesley Chu
Time Salvager by Wesley Chu

Best Novella

Johnny Rev by Rachel Pollack, found in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015)

Best Novelette

The Body Pirate by Van Aaron Hughes, found in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015)
The Curse of the Myrmelon by Matthew Hughes, found in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015)
The Deepwater Bride by Tamsyn Muir, found in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015)

Best Short Story

Dixon's Road by Richard Chwedyk, found in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015)
Into the Fiery Planet Gregor Hartmann, found in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015)
Oneness: A Triptych by James Patrick Kelly, found in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015)
Paradise and Trout by Betsy James, found in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015)
The Quintessence of Dust by Oliver Buckram, found in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015)
The Silicon Curtain: A Seastead Story by Naomi Kritzer, found in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015)

Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work

J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons
You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

Best Graphic Story

Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters
Ms. Marvel, Volume Two: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson, Jacob Wyatt, and Adrian Alphona
Order of the Stick (Strips 972 to Present) by Rich Burlew
The Rat Queens, Volume Two: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth by Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch, and Stjepan Sejic

Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form

The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form

Best Professional Editor: Short Form

Neil Clarke
C.C. Finlay
Lynne M. Thomas
Sheila Williams

Best Professional Editor: Long Form

Claire Eddy
Sheila Gilbert
David G. Hartwell
Beth Meacham
Patrick Neilsen Hayden

Best Professional Artist


Best Semi-Prozine

Apex Magazine
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Lightspeed Magazine
Strange Horizons

Best Fanzine

File 770
Journey Planet
SF Mistressworks

Best Fan Writer

Liz Bourke who blogs at Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Alexandra Erin who blogs at Blue Author Is About to Write
Natalie Luhrs who blogs at Pretty Terrible
Foz Meadows who blogs at Shattersnipe: Malcontent & Rainbows
Abigail Nussbaum who blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions

Best Fan Artist

Lorraine Schleter who has art on Deviant Art, Tumblr, and her website Lor Illustration.

Best Fancast

Galactic Suburbia Podcast
Sword and Laser
Under Discussion: The Undergophers Podcast

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Carmen Maria Machado [sadly ineligible]
Andy Weir [eligibility unclear]
Alyssa Wong

What Are the Hugo Awards?

Go to previous year's nominees: 2015

Random Thoughts     2016 Hugo Award Nominees     Book Award Reviews     Home

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Biased Opinion - 2015 Hugo Awards Post Mortem

What Happened at the Hugo Awards?

It was a rout.

Strike that. It was a complete and total rout.

At the 2015 Hugo Awards, with 5,950 ballots cast, the fans of science fiction rallied to decisively repudiate the slate-tactics of the interrelated Sad and Rabid Puppy groups, relegating every single non-Dramatic Presentation Hugo nominee from the slates to a dark corner behind "No Award". It was a comprehensive rejection of the idea that as long as a group can work together as a bloc to pack mediocre to miserable nominees onto the Hugo ballot, they deserve to get a trophy as a result.

After using bloc voting tactics to get their nominees on the ballot, the Puppies suffered an almost complete and total loss in the actual voting, in large part because the nominees they put on the ballot were, taken as a group, so very weak. This is something of a missed opportunity for the Pups, as their core narrative was originally either that excellent works by politically conservative authors were being kept off the Hugo ballot by a secret cabal of insiders (for which they provided zero evidence) who were bent on rewarding the "right" kind of books by the "right" kind of authors, or that science fiction had strayed too far from its roots and that rollicking adventure stories with rocket ships and space marines needed to be recognized by the awards again.

But the stories that the Pups placed on the Hugo ballot were mostly neither excellent, nor rollicking adventures. The stories nominated by the Puppy slates ranged from the merely mediocre, such as Kary English's Totaled or Jim Butcher's Skin Game, down to stories that were so awful that they made one wonder how they actually got published. The only real point the Pups made with their nominations is that if their nominees represented the best that conservative science fiction can offer, then they haven't been overlooked by the Hugo voters: They have been accurately judged and found lacking.

Further, very few of the stories nominated amount to rollicking adventures. Butcher's Dresden Files novel fits the description more or less, and maybe one or two of the short fiction, such as Steve Diamond's A Single Samurai, could possibly be described that way, but for the most part the slate-nominated stories simply were not. Anderson's The Dark Between the Stars was plodding and tedious, while stories such as Rinehart's Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Aluvium and Antonelli's On a Spiritual Plain were simply slow and boring. The slate of nominees the Pups offered to Hugo voters consisted of stories that were mediocre to bad and often dull and uninspiring.

This isn't new for the Puppies. In 2014, when Larry Correia ran the "Sad Puppies 2" slate, he managed to get a handful of works on the 2014 Hugo ballot, and they too ranged from mediocre to terrible. And the Hugo voters read those works and ranked them accordingly. The Puppy slate makers have had two bites at the apple so far1, and both times the Puppies have pushed works that were simply not particularly good. The Pups have grabbed two chances to impress the Hugo voters with their selections, and each time they chose to nominate a collection of crap, burning away any goodwill they may have had with the voters. Based upon their established track record, I suspect that in the future, any Puppy-touted nominees will be justifiably regarded with skepticism at best, and quite likely outright derision.

As usual for WorldCon, the Hugo Administrators released the voting data almost immediately after the award ceremony was completed, and the data shows that many of the Puppy narratives that have been bandied about the last several months simply don't hold up to scrutiny.

How Big Was the Rout?

Complete and total. If this had been a little league baseball game, the mercy rule would have been invoked. Not only did no Puppy nominee win, none came even close.

A brief summary of the rules for Hugo voting: To determine who the winner in each category is, the Hugo Administrators use what is called "Australian Instant Runoff Voting". When each voter submits their ballot, they rank the nominees in preferential order, putting their top choice first, their second choice next, and so on. Under the Hugo rules, voting for "No Award" is always an option, and can be ranked just like any other nominee. After the votes are cast, the first place finishers are tallied. If one nominee gets a majority of votes, they win. Because there are usually five nominees in each category (plus the aforementioned option of No Award), this rarely happens. If no one wins a majority, the nominee who received the lowest number of votes is eliminated and their ballots are redistributed among the remaining nominees using the second choice preferences from those voters. This process is repeated until one nominee has a majority of votes. This process usually requires three, four, or even five "passes" to determine a winner - for example in this year's Hugo Awards, Best Novel and Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation required five "passes" to declare a first place finisher, and Best Fan Artist required three. The Hugo administrators then set aside all of the first place votes for the top finisher and rerun the process to determine the second, third, fourth, and fifth place finishers.

There were five categories in which the only nominees were drawn from the Sad or Rabid Puppy slates. The significance of the fact that "No Award" won on the first pass should be readily apparent. And in most of these Puppy-exclusive categories, the outcome wasn't even close.

No Award VotesOther VotesNo Award Percentage
Best Novella
Best Short Story
Best Related Work
Best Editor, Short Form
Best Editor, Long Form

The closest the Puppy nominees, as a group, came to equaling the total number of No Award votes was in the Best Long Form Editor category, where a switch of 44 votes from No Award to the other candidates would have prevented No Award from taking a first round majority. Looking at the remaining passes through the category, it seems unlikely that even if 44 voters had placed Weisskopf first on their ballot rather than voting for No Award, she probably still would not have ended up beating No Award for the win. Such a switch probably would have resulted in a number of passes being required, but it seems unlikely that it would have changed the ultimate outcome.

As decisive as these figures are, they don't tell the whole story. In any category other than the two Dramatic Presentation in which there were non-Puppy and Puppy nominees, all of the non-Puppies finished above No Award, while all of the Puppy picks finished below it. Not only that, once the placement of the non-Puppy picks was made, it only took one pass for No Award to win over the remaining nominees on the ballot. For example, in the race for position four in the Best Novel category, after The Three-Body Problem, The Goblin Emperor, and Ancillary Sword had placed first, second, and third, the vote count looked like this:

No Award
Skin Game
The Dark Between the Stars

In the best fancast category, after Galactic Suburbia and Tea and Jeopardy had claimed the one and two spots, the race for third place looked like this:

No Award
The Sci-Phi Show
Adventures in SciFi Publishing
Dungeon Crawlers Radio

This pattern is repeated throughout the Hugo results. With the exception of the Short and Long Form Dramatic Presentation categories, No Award won on the first pass any time there were only Puppy nominated picks left on the ballot. In short, the voters comprehensively rejected the Puppy nominees.

Did the Non-Puppy Voters Vote as a Bloc?

In a word, no.

There was certainly substantial consensus among non-Puppy voters that the Puppy nominees were undeserving of awards, and a fair amount of consensus that most of the Puppy nominees were undeserving of their places on the ballot, but imagining this to be a bloc ignores two salient facts (1) consensus is not a bloc, and (2) there was noticeable variability in how non-Puppy voters responded to the slate-driven Puppy nominees.

As I pointed out earlier, for the most part the Puppy nominated works were simply terrible. In a handful of cases, the Puppy slate seems to have almost accidentally pushed something that rose to the level of mediocrity on the ballot. The interesting thing is that in those cases, the voters reacted accordingly. By way of example, both the Best Novella and Best Related Work categories, which were populated entirely by Puppy picks, were widely seen as being comprised of nominees that are fairly bad pieces of work. In those categories the voters picked No Award as the first place choice on their ballot 66.5% of the time in Best Related Work and 65.5% of the time in Best Novella. The overall condemnation of the quality of the nominated works in those categories was resoundingly clear.

By contrast, the Best Short Story, and the two Best Editor categories were seen as having a few nominees who could be regarded as "not so terrible". Kary English' story Totaled was seen as being at least competently written, while Mike Resnick in the Short Form Editor category, and Toni Weisskopf and Sheila Gilbert in the Long Form editor categories were viewed as being at least somewhat credible choices. And this is reflected in the voting. In the Best Short Story category, No Award only placed first on 58% of the ballots. That's a convincing win, but it isn't as huge as it was in Related Work and Novella. In the Best Short Form Editor category, No Award only won with 55.1% of the vote, and in the Best Editor Long Form category, No Award only won on the first pass with 50.9% of the vote. When the Puppies nominated better works, the voters responded by supporting them more. The slate-produced works didn't get enough support to overcome No Award, but it is clear that many of the non-Puppy Hugo voters were making an assessment based upon the quality of the nominees and voting accordingly.

One can also note that a fair number of voters who were probably not Puppy supporters voted for specific Puppy picks, so long as those picks were of at least middling quality. I estimate that the combined strength of the two Puppy blocs represented at most somewhere between 900 to 1,000 voters, but in many categories the Puppy nominees got more votes than that in the first pass, even if they didn't ultimately end up finishing ahead of No Award. And the votes were not evenly distributed among the nominees. Once one edits out the putative Puppy votes, it becomes clear that those nominees generally regarded as being at least passable had more votes than their competition. In Best Short Story, for example, Theodore Beale instructed his slavish followers to vote for Steve Rzasa's Turncoat (published, coincidentally by Beale's own press Castalia House), and it got 525 votes in the first round, but Kary English's Totaled garnered 874 votes, revealing that a fair number of non-Puppy voters found her story to be the best of a fairly weak field. In Best Short Form editor, Beale gave marching orders to his minions that they vote for him for the trophy, and wound up with 586 first place votes, but industry veteran (and multiple Hugo winner) Mike Resnick earned what support could be had from non-Puppy voters, and wound up with 873 first place votes. In Long Form editor, Toni Weisskopf got 1216 first place votes, and Sheila Gilbert got 754. In short, some non-Puppy voters decided to vote for those nominees who were of higher quality than others. In many cases it was picking the best of a bad bunch, but this is clear evidence that many of the non-Puppy Hugo voters were working with what they had and trying to make a decision based upon perceived quality.

Further, after No Award had won, many of the remaining nominees picked up votes. While every voter does not list nominees after they voted No Award2, some do, preferring to be on the record as to what should be ranked afterwards. In every category in which there were only Puppy nominees, between 314 and 487 voters expressed additional preferences, with the bulk of those preferences being in favor of the works that were generally acknowledged to be the cream of the sour milk that was the Puppy nominees. Totaled picked up 365 out of 487 post-No Award votes. Flow picked up 360 out of 471 post-No Award votes. Of the 314 post-No Award votes in the best Long Form editor category, 134 went to Sheila Gilbert, and 92 went to Toni Weisskopf. It seems relatively clear that even among voters who made No Award their first choice, there was willingness to acknowledge that some of the Puppy nominated works were better than others.

Conversely, works that were generally regarded as the worst on the ballot received a minimal boost from post-No Award rankings. The Parliament of Beasts and Birds only got 12 of 487 post-No Award votes. John C. Wright's three novellas only received a combined total of 53 out of 471 post-No award votes. Wisdom from My Internet, widely regarded as quite possibly the worst Hugo nominee in history, only got 23 of 327 post-No Award votes. Theodore Beale, nominated in both editor categories and whose editing skills have been widely derided, only got a 28 vote post-No Award bump in the Short Form race, and 38 post-No award votes for Long Form. While many of those who chose No Award as their first choice seem to have been willing to reward quality works, very few seem to have been inclined to throw their votes behind the very dregs of the Puppy slates.

Some Oddities That May Be of Interest Only to Me

The big story of the 2015 Hugo Awards was, of course, the domination of No Award over the nominees from the two Puppy slates. Hidden inside the statistics there are, however, a couple of little details that I found interesting.

The first crops up in the Best Fanzine category, where the website Black Gate was pushed onto the ballot by the Rabid Puppy slate. After much deliberation, Black Gate elected to withdraw from the Hugo ballot (much to Theodore Beale's apparent consternation), but did so after the deadline by which they could be taken off of the official ballots and replaced. Therefore, the Hugo ballot went to the voters with Black Gate still on the ballot, but with a request from the editors of the site not to vote for them. Even so, Black Gate got 489 first place votes. Journey Planet won the category, and No Award came in second, but Black Gate ended up in third place, taking the top position among Puppy nominees in the category. Of the people who voted for Journey Planet to take the top spot, 95 of them put Black Gate as their second choice, and of the people who voted for No Award as their first or second choice, 134 picked Black Gate third. I don't know where these votes came from - it is unclear if these votes are Sad Puppy voters simply choosing Black Gate as the best of the choices from the slates, Rabid Puppy voters choosing Black Gate because it was the only solely Rabid Puppy pick to make the ballot in this category, or non-Puppy voters voting for Black Gate either as an assessment of quality or as kudos for their principled attempt to withdraw their slate-garnered nomination, or likely some combination of all of these sources - but what is clear is that Black Gate outperformed every other Puppy nominee in the category. Not only that, it wasn't really a close race: In the competition between Black Gate and Tangent Online, the nominee with next highest vote total in the race for third place, Black Gate finished with 737 votes to Tangent's 415.

In the Long Form Editor category, Beale instructed his minions to vote for Toni Weisskopf first, and placed himself further down his instructional list. Despite this, 166 voters placed Beale first on their ballots, putting him ahead of Jim Minz, who only got 58 first place nods. The really interesting action in this category took place after No Award won and the race was on for second place, which took three passes and let us know exactly who the people who ranked Jim Minz and Theodore Beale first (or second behind No Award) on their ballots voted. The race for second place looked like this:

Pass 1Pass 2Pass 3
Toni Weisskopf
Sheila Gilbert
Anne Sowards
Theodore Beale
Jim Minz

After Minz was eliminated, 26 of his votes went to Weisskopf, 18 went to Gilbert, 9 went to Sowards, 3 went to Beale, and in something of a surprising twist, 14 went to no preference or No Award. Given that Minz and Weisskopf are both editors for Baen, and would generally be expected to draw from the same pool of supporters, the somewhat middling loyalty shown by his voters towards Weisskopf seems unusual. What seems really odd is the number of apparent Minz fans who weren't even willing to cast a secondary vote in anyone's favor, and instead preferred no one get their vote if he did not.

The real interesting action comes from Beale's supporters. When he was eliminated from contention, he had 207 votes. Out of those supporters, 85 went to Weisskopf as an alternate choice, which makes sense given Beale's public support for her nomination. Only 20 chose to throw their support to Gilbert, while a paltry 7 went to Sowards. But the story here is the fact that 95 of Beale's supporters elected to list no one after him at this point. This number is not enough to have changed the outcome of the race but it means that almost half of Beale's supporters chose to leave their ballot blank rather than vote for Weisskopf, Gilbert, or Sowards. I'm not going to say that there was definitely misogyny at work here, but the implication is pretty obvious.

How Many Puppies Were There?

There are theoretically two groups of Puppies. The first group is the Sad Puppies, led by Brad Torgersen, and a number of other mostly conservative, mostly mediocre authors. The second group is the Rabid Puppies, led by Theodore Beale, a loathsome bigoted individual with delusions of grandeur. The two groups overlap by quite a bit, both in terms of leadership and, as far as one can tell, membership. Noted homophobe John C. Wright, for example, was touted by both group's slates, and many of the voters who voted for nominees from one slate appear to have voted for nominees from the other as well. Even so, estimating the relative strength of the two groups is worthwhile, as their long-term responses to the results of Saturday night's awards may vary to a certain degree.3

Rabid Puppies

In most of the categories there was such substantial overlap between Sad and Rabid Puppy nominees that it is difficult to separate out how many from each group voted for each nominee. One thing that makes estimating Rabid Puppy strength somewhat easier is that Beale gave his followers marching orders, telling them which nominee he was voting for, and telling them they should vote for those nominees as well. Notably he stated that the adherents to his cult should vote for One Bright Star to Guide Them in the Best Novella Category, Turncoat in the Best Short Story category, The Hot Equations in the Best Related Work category, and himself in the Best Editor Short Form Category.

The most straightforward markers are the Best Editor categories where Beale put himself forward as a nominee, but the Sad Puppy slate-makers did not. In the Long Form category, Beale directed his minions to vote for Toni Weisskopf, while in the Short Form category he touted himself as the person to vote for. Given that Beale is generally a loathsome individual, and most of the Sad Puppy voters probably voted for other nominees, his vote total in the first pass through the balloting can be taken as a reasonable proxy for the upper limit of Rabid Puppy voters. That number is 586. I suspect that some small number of Sad Puppy voters ranked Beale first on their ballot, and it is possible that some voters unaware of the controversy and unfamiliar with Beale may have ranked him first, but those numbers are likely to be small.

With 586 as an upper bound, we can turn to the other categories and see how many of Beale's supporters followed his lead. In Best Novella, One Bright Star to Guide Them had 556 first place votes, in Best Short Story, Turncoat had 525 first place votes, and in Best Related Work The Hot Equations got 595 first place votes. Given that The Hot Equations was regarded as one of the better works in a miserable field, it seems plausible that a certain portion of its initial support came from non-Rabid Puppy sources, we can discount the 595 number as being an overly large estimate for the Rabid Puppies. The remaining range is between 525 and 586, and while I doubt that every one of those votes came from a Rabid Puppy, it is likely that the majority did, and there's no really good way to figure out what sliver of support came from some other voting population.

So there is a core group of Rabid Puppies that possibly comes in at somewhere between 525 and 586, and probably slightly lower than that who will vote Beale's way. Given the fact that Beale phrased the entire Rabid Puppy slate as nothing more than a culture war, and has stated that his objective was to "leave the Hugo awards a smoking ruin", one can expect that this cadre of voters could mostly stay intact for the next year. On the other hand, they may get distracted by some other culture war target and scamper off to another fruitless frontal assault on reality. For those who stay, running into the stiff-arm of fandom time and again may cause them to become discouraged at ponying up supporting membership fees every year in order to suffer repeated losses, but it may take some time. Although it is clear that they know they have no hope of ever actually pushing anyone to win a Hugo Award, even the most dedicated follower will find a Quixotic campaign in search of a Pyrrhic victory to be difficult to sustain.

Sad Puppies

Accurately assessing how many Sad Puppy voters there were is slightly more difficult. Since the Sad Puppy campaign didn't have quite as polarizing a figure as Beale nominated who wasn't also nominated by the Rabid Puppy slate, figuring out how many Sad Puppy supporters there are is more complicated. Dave Freer as Fan Writer and Steve Diamond's story A Single Samurai are among the few Sad Puppy nominees that made it onto the ballot without also being Rabid Puppy nominees. In the first pass-through in the vote counting in their respective categories, Freer garnered 251 votes, while A Single Samurai received 386. This gives a rough estimate of Sad Puppy numbers, although it is not completely precise as one might expect some number of Sad Puppies to have voted for the other nominees in those categories.

To refine this estimate, one might look to the ultimate vote totals for A Single Samurai, Turncoat, and On a Spiritual Plain, once all of the passes had been completed. A Single Samurai topped out at 1,111 votes, Turncoat managed 1,064, and On a Spiritual Plain finished with 1,040. Subtracting the Rabid Puppy upper estimate of 586 from these numbers gives figures of 525, 478, and 454. Assuming that some small number of non-Puppies voted one or more these stories above No Award4, means that a rough estimate of upper bound of the total number of Sad Puppies might somewhere in the 450 to 500 range. After No Award was eliminated these three stories picked up a combined total of 110 voters, and presumably very few of them came from Sad Puppy or Rabid Puppy voters. Discounting those votes from the final total reduces the Sad Puppy range to between 340 and 490 voters, which seems like a reasonable estimate.

The question is what these voters will do in the future. Assuming they are fans, and not merely culture warriors, one has to suppose that they hope to actually vote for Hugo winners. This may be overly optimistic - after all many of the Puppy leaders in the just completed 2015 Hugo Awards were unwilling or unable to explain what they actually liked about the books they pushed onto the Hugo ballot with their slate, even when asked directly. If they are actually fans, one has to wonder how long they will tilt at windmills with the knowledge that they simply cannot win. There were 5,950 ballots cast in the 2015 Hugo Awards. Roughly 400 to 500 were Sad Puppy supporters, roughly another 500 or so were their fellow travelers from the Rabid Puppy brigade, leaving almost five thousand non-Puppy voters, the vast majority of whom were perfectly willing to vote No Award when confronted with a ballot of Hugo nominees populated by slate-supported works of dubious quality.

I suppose that they might decide to try to recruit more voters congenial to their point of view, but that seems to be unlikely to bear much fruit. The Sad Puppy leaders spent enormous amounts of time promoting and defending their set of nominees, exhorting their followers to sign up and vote in the awards. Head Rabid Puppy Beale made numerous blog posts on the subject, ginned up phony controversy about editors at Tor, and even gave those followers who became involved badges as a reward for loyalty. In short, they flogged the horse as hard as they could, and came up with about a thousand people willing to pay the supporting membership fee and vote. Meanwhile, mainstream fans signed up to participate at a rate sufficient to result in a six to one majority despite much more modest active recruiting efforts. In fact, the best spur for non-Puppies to become involved and vote were the antics of the various Puppies. It seems clear, based upon the results of the voting, that the Puppy claims to represent "real" fandom were not only wrong, they were very wrong.

I suspect that by this time next year, many of the current Sad Puppy supporters will have quietly separated themselves from the group, abandoning it as a bad idea. It seems likely that very few authors, editors, or artists not already fully committed to one or the other groups will be willing to allow themselves to be put on either slate, and even some who think the Sad Puppies are a great idea may decline as well. After all, getting a Hugo nomination and then finishing well behind No Award is probably not particularly enjoyable, or particularly good for one's career. No one likes to set themselves up for a certain loss. Few people are willing to continue to work for a persistently losing cause. The Sad Puppies have been at this for three years now, and they have lost every time.

I expect there to be slates next year, but I think they will be less substantial than they were this year, mostly because one can already see some of the Sad Puppies becoming fatigued at the effort of maintaining their rage. Some Puppy proponents have claimed that their group represented the silent majority of fans. Now that the numbers have shown that they are actually a relatively small splinter group, I expect some in their number to become further demoralized. I expect that by the time I am doing this type of analysis next year, the number of Puppy voters will be slightly less, and the number of non-Puppy voters will be somewhat more.

1 Sad Puppies 1, which took place in 2013, doesn't really count, as it was mostly unsuccessful at getting nominees on the Hugo ballot.
2 I do not. Once I have determined that No Award is the best remaining choice, my stance is that I simply do not care which of the remaining nominees (if any) end up winning.
3 In the short term, the Puppy reactions are very predictable, ranging from silly declarations of victory because "No Award" was what they wanted all along, to frothy rage over their candidates being denied the Hugo Awards they were due.
4 For example, 27 voters ranked Antonelli's On a Spiritual Plain first, but either expressed no preference or voted for No Award second, while 45 voters appear to have ranked Wright's The Parliament of Beasts and Birds first or second, but ranked No Award below that.

Biased Opinions     2015 Hugo Award Nominees     Book Award Reviews     Home

Monday, August 24, 2015

Musical Monday - Miri by Five Year Mission

After City on the Edge of Forever, the Five Year Mission Dream Set needs something to pick up the pace and lighten the mood. So how about a song about an episode in which kids live for hundreds of years, but suffer from a horrible sickness as soon as they reach their long delayed puberty? Yeah, that sounds about right, so the next song in the lineup is Miri. So go bonk-bonk on the head and enjoy.

Previous Musical Monday: City on the Edge of Forever by Five Year Mission
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Doomsday Machine by Five Year Mission

Five Year Mission     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, August 22, 2015

2015 Hugo Voting - Best Novel

I am a supporting member of Sasquan, which is the location of this year's World Science Fiction Convention. Because of this, I am eligible to vote in this year's Hugo Awards. In the Best Novel category there were three really excellent nominees, one mediocre nominee, and one pretty terrible nominee. Of the three nominees that I ranked above "No Award", the difference in quality between first and third was quite small, while the gulf between them and the remaining two novels was quite large. My ballot in this category was as follows:

1. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu) (actual finish 1st): A hard science fiction novel that starts in the chaotic maelstrom of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that moves on to incorporate conspiracies, musings about big scientific ideas, a computer simulation of a confusing reality, and finally, the human response to an impending doom carried by an alien invader, The Three-Body Problem is simply brilliant. It does have some serious flaws insofar as the characters are generally incredibly stiff and somewhat two-dimensional and some of the science seems somewhat ill-thought out, but the excellent parts of the book far outweigh these minor foibles. The novel is made even more interesting by the fact that it is a Chinese novel written by a Chinese author with Chinese sensibilities, a set of facts that give it a distinctly unique feel that is very different from most books that a typical American science fiction fan will have previously encountered.

2. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (actual finish 2nd): In sharp contrast to The Three-Body Problem, this novel is entirely character driven, with the narrative pushed forward almost entirely by the personal development of the titular character and his relationships with the other members of the elvish court. The novel has been criticized as slow and being somewhat short of fantastical elements, but those are minor, and I think off-base criticisms. The plot of the novel recounts the return of a despised half-goblin child who assumes the throne of the elvish empire after most of his family is killed by an act of sabotage. Addison weaves together multiple political elements to create an intensely gripping tale of courtly intrigue centered on a confused and uncertain protagonist that is laced through with just enough magical elements to give it an otherworldly feel.

3. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (actual finish 3rd): The sequel to last year's Hugo-, Nebula-, Locus-, and Clarke-Award winning novel Ancillary Justice, I liked Ancillary Sword a little bit better than its predecessor. So why, despite the fact that I think Ancillary Justice deserved every single one of the many accolades bestowed upon it, am I ranking this novel third in my voting? The answer lies in the fact that it is the second novel in a trilogy, and like most novels of this sort, it suffers a little bit from middle book syndrome. I found the novel to be excellent, but I had read the novel before it, and so the plot threads that carried over from the previous volume didn't bother me at all. Looking at it from the perspective of a new reader, this novel might have too much left over from the previous installment, and too much left hanging for the next, and so I ranked it slightly lower than the two novels listed above.

4. No Award (actual finish 4th): If none of the three books listed above win the Hugo for Best Novel, I simply don't think that either of the other two should. Both are at least competently-written novels, but one is of indifferent quality while the other is simply weak and both are simply not good enough to win a Hugo. Everything below this mark simply got left off of my ballot as not being worthy of the Hugo Award.

5. Skin Game by Jim Butcher (actual finish 5th): Skin Game is, at its core, a disposable urban fantasy heist novel with a wisecracking protagonist, scheming villains, and a kitchen sink approach to world-building. It is also the fifteenth book is a series. It is an entertaining book, but that is really all that it is. To be worth a Hugo win, a novel has to be exceptional, and while Skin Game is a reasonably diverting pieces of fluff, it is nowhere near exceptional. It is, in a word, mediocre. Being a competently written adventure romp makes for decent beach reading, or something with which to while away the hours of a long flight, but it doesn't make for a novel that is good enough to deserve a Hugo Award. I briefly considered ranking this one behind "No Award", but then realized that it wasn't really good enough for even that.

6. The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson (actual finish 6th): While Skin Game is merely mediocre, The Dark Between the Stars is downright terrible. The book has competently written sentences, but that is about all of the favorable things one can say about it. The characters are one-dimensional, the villains aspire to be cartoonish in sophistication, what little plot there is evades the story for the first two hundred pages and then turns out to be incredibly thin and dull, while the tiny amount of science in the book is often ridiculously wrong. At seven hundred and forty pages, this novel barely has enough actual substance for a book half that length, and even if it were cut down that much it would still be a plodding snoozefest.

2015 Hugo Award Nominees     Book Award Reviews     Home

Book Blogger Hop August 21st - August 27th: Master Chief in "Halo" Is Also Designated John-117

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: When you read a book that isn't for review, do you still feel the need to write a review of it?

I review pretty much every book I read. I don't review all of the stuff I have read for work: I'm pretty sure that almost no one wants to read a review of technical manuals concerning the Federal budgeting process or even the Government Accountability Office's five volume set of Principles of Federal Appropriations Law and related annual updates.1

For the most part, any book that I read on my own - be it science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, history, science, or really just about anything else - will be reviewed eventually. I've even been known to review role-playing game manuals and adventure modules. I suppose that the driving force behind my push to review everything is because the underlying reason for my reviews is to give myself a record of what I read, and leaving books unreviewed defeats that purpose.

1 For the record, I have a copy from when Principles of Federal Appropriations Law was still published in print that includes both Volumes IV and V. The version that has been published electronically more recently has had the material from the first four volumes condensed into three, and seems to mostly dispense with the material from the fifth volume.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, August 21, 2015

Follow Friday - 223 Is the Only Number to Require 37 Fifth Positive Powers in Waring's Problem

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - The Book Junkie and Little Book Heaven.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: If you could have any animal in the world as a pet, what would you pick? Fictional ones count too!

Can I pick a dead animal? Because if I could, I'd pick my dog Harry, who was the greatest dog in the history of the world. I mean, I'd want him brought back to life, preferably as a puppy so I could get another twenty years with him, but really I'd be happy to take any amount of time available.

He's been gone for more than twenty years, and I still want him back.

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review - The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

Short review: In the Cultural Revolution, China turned on scientists. In the present day, life is better for scientists but they keep committing suicide. Wang Miao wants to find out why.

Secret red program
Disaffected scientist
Ends humanity

Full review: The Three-Body Problem is a near future science fiction novel set in China, authored by Chinese novelist Cixin Liu and translated into English by Ken Liu. A number of commentators have described the novel as hard science fiction. I'm not sure I would go that far, as the science in the novel seems to break down at times. A more apt description might be "hard-ish science fiction", as the novel mostly hews to science as we know it, with a handful of departures. But the interesting thing about The Three-Body Problem isn't the accuracy of the science, but rather the fact that it tells a story is both rooted in Chinese sensibilities, making it seem alien in some parts, and also evokes the classic science fiction style of writers like Asimov and Clarke, making it seem oddly familiar at the same time.

Perhaps due to its Chinese origins, the book isn't structured like most novels that western readers will be familiar with. Instead of a single narrative thread, the book wanders between a couple of interrelated stories, stopping at times to digress about a particular historical or philosophical point, and then plunge back into the action. The story is at various times an exploration of the ills of Chinese political history, a murder mystery, an exploration of a complex and as yet unsolved physics problem, an alien invasion conspiracy, and a description of some relatively dubious subatomic engineering. The various threads are all interesting enough when taken individually that even when the novel seems to have wandered off of the rails or become slightly didactic, it is still engaging and interesting. Even though Cixin Liu is not entirely able to stitch all of the moving parts of the story together into a completely cohesive whole, it still holds together well enough that some of the rough edges are forgivable.

The novel opens during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, as physicist Ye Zhetai is condemned by the Red Guards for teaching the reactionary theory of relativity and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. Unlike many of his colleagues who have recanted and toed the party line, or committed suicide to escape the humiliation and pain of a public savaging, Zhetai has chosen to remain true to his principles. His adherence to scientific truth in the face of ideological assault results in his death, and causes his daughter Ye Wenjie, a college-educated scientist herself, to be sent into exile in the countryside to work as a lumberjane. Years of hard labor and a betrayal that leads to a brief imprisonment and political disfavor later, Wenjie has been radicalized enough that when she finds herself in the unexpected position of being a technician on what essentially amounts to a Chinese SETI project, she elects to betray humanity the second that they make contact with extraterrestrial life. And this decision sets into motion everything that follows in the book. The element here that makes this novel so interesting is that this is an almost uniquely Chinese sequence of events, told from a Chinese perspective. The anti-intellectualism as represented by the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, the exiling of educated urban people to become rural laborers, and the paranoia and treachery all meld together to form a believable backdrop for the betrayal of the human race.

After setting the stage, Cixin move the action forward to near-future China and turns the focus of the novel to Wang Miao, an expert in nanotechnology research who is called in by an international group of senior military and political leaders to help them try to figure out why scientists have mysteriously started to commit suicide with alarming frequency. Wang is provided a handy foil in the form of allegedly corrupt cop "Da" Shi Quiang, who supplies a layman's view of the events of the novel and also serves as a handy person to whom Wang can explain the science in the book. Wang follows up on his one clue - the suicide of a prominent scientist, and this leads him to her mathematician boyfriend who is working on solving the "three-body problem", and a computer game that doesn't seem to make much sense (or even be connected to the plot in any real way at first). The key to understanding the novel is understanding the nature of the three-body problem, which is a basic exercise in gravitational physics. In simple terms, it is easy to figure out the gravitational effects that two bodies have on one another, but devilishly difficult (and some might say impossible) to figure them out for three or more bodies.

The mysterious suicides and the odd computer simulation turn out to be connected, and in a bit of inside-out storytelling, the significance of what Wang has learned is backloaded into the narrative: First, Wang learns things, then he learns what their significance is, and finally, the actual events underlying what Wang has learned are shown. Although the computer simulation sequences can seem overlong, by the end of this portion of the book the reason for their length becomes clear - including the fact that the story simply could not convey the information needed if they were shortened. Through the computer simulation sequences, Cixin builds sympathy for the alien trisolarians, using their plight as a springboard to pull on the reader's emotions. At the same time, the author lays the groundwork for the sharp reversal that the book is building to, demonstrating how trisolarians culture had become so harsh and ruthless. In the broad sweep of events, Cixin's ability to hit just the right emotional note is almost masterful.

This mastery, however, highlights on of the serious failings of the book: Many of the characters seem flat and stiff, and their relationships with other people seem almost perfunctory. Wang, for example, has a wife and son, but his wife only shows up in a single scene in which he has her take some photographs so that he can test a theory. Other than this one scene, Wang's wife and son may as well not exist in the novel as the scientist sets about following the various metaphorical rabbits down their metaphorical holes - even when he nearly gets killed in an explosion or jets off to Panama, neither his loving wife nor his son show up to check up on his injuries or see him off on his journey. That's probably okay though - he doesn't really seem to think of either of them much when he's out all night drinking with Da Shi. And this sort of lack of characterization is endemic to the novel. Most of the characters in the novel seem to be defined, at most, by their job, and maybe by their political allegiances, but almost nothing beyond that. Maybe there is a cultural element unique to Chinese fiction that I am missing, but even so, the characters feel like little more than empty mouthpieces for the author to use to move the plot along.

On the other hand, The Three-Body Problem isn't really about characters, but rather about ideas about science on a grand scale. Through the novel, the scientists that Wang comes into contact with are grappling with fundamental issues concerning how the universe works ranging from the titular gravitational problem to subatomic particle physics. For most of the novel, Cixin is able to weave the science into his narrative quite convincingly, but near the end, when he shifts to the actions of the trisolarians, things seem to fall apart just a little bit as he ranges just a bit too far beyond the realm of believability. Liu also makes the somewhat controversial assertion that should the advancement of particle physics be blocked, all scientific advancement would grind to a halt, a notion that seems unsupportable. In the end, the novel is convincing enough that the reader should be able to roll with these quirks, although they do mar the fabric of the story somewhat.

Wang leads the story back to Ye, now the putative leader of a movement dedicated to a brutal and self-destructive, but idealistically driven goal. It is the structure and nature of this movement that illustrates that Cixin chose to start his novel with scenes from the Cultural Revolution not merely to radicalize Wenjie into action, but also to hold up a mirror to show the very nature of both Wenjie's resulting movement. Like the Cultural Revolution, Wenjei's movement is driven by an ideology that is unconcerned with the cost in human lives. Like the Cultural Revolution, Wenjie's movement is riven by factional resentments. Like the Cultural Revolution, Wenjie's movement is opposed to free scientific inquiry. Like the Cultural Revolution, Wenjie's movement drives scientists to suicide. The reader is shown that, in many ways, Wenjie has replicated the Cultural Revolution, but her actions are in the service of an inhuman and ultimately monstrous master. After making Wenjie an entirely sympathetic character in the first act of the novel, Liu succeeds in making her the architect of a terrible organization and keeping her sympathetic at the same time.

Attention must also be paid to Ken Liu's translation efforts. Although I cannot read Chinese, and so am unable to determine how faithful to the original text the translation is, the book has been rendered into English in a form that makes it quite accessible. Ken Liu also helpfully supplied a number of footnotes in sections in which Cixin cites specific events or references whose significance would be readily apparent to a Chinese reader, but whose meaning might be opaque to the average English-speaking member of the audience. The end result is a novel that manages to preserve what feels like a uniquely Chinese sensibility while also being comprehensible and even comfortable for a western reader.

Despite some pretty obvious flaws - whether the result of cultural differences between Cixin Liu and this American reader, or the vagaries of translation, or simply deficiencies in Cixin's writing ability - The Three-Body Problem remains a bold and at times brilliant book. Combining the savage sweep of relatively recent Chinese history with science on both the largest and the smallest scale possible (albeit often weirdly flawed science), Cixin Liu has created an intriguing, engaging, and exceptional novel that is sure to entertain any science fiction fan.

Subsequent book in the series: The Dark Forest

2014 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novel

2015 Campbell Award Nominees
2015 Hugo Award Nominees
2015 Locus Award Nominees
2015 Nebula Award Nominees
2015 Prometheus Award Nominees

Cixin Liu     Ken Liu     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review - Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Short review: Queen Mab forces Harry Dresden into working with some of his worst enemies to steal the Holy Grail from Hades. Butters becomes a Knight of the Cross.

When Mab makes a deal
Harry becomes the marker
Payoff: Steal the Grail!

Full review: In the fifteenth installment of the Dresden Files series, Butcher gives the reader a caper story about a heist masterminded by evil genius Nicodemus Archleone who has assembled a collection of mostly willing ne'er-do-wells who are all looking for a big payoff, but otherwise don't really like each other much. The "twist" to the story is that Harry Dresden, wizard extraordinaire and Winter Knight beholden to Queen Mab of the unseelie court, is required to work alongside one of his most despised enemies because Mab owes Nicodemus a debt. The story winds along, hitting most of the predictable beats of a heist story involving an eclectic mismatched crew of supernatural beings, with one reversal that is only accomplished because Butcher pretty much lied to the reader, and then moves on to a somewhat desultory final fight before the book ends leaving numerous plot threads up in the air.

The story itself is simultaneously fairly straightforward and needlessly convoluted. In a previous volume, Dresden agreed to become the Winter Knight for Mab, the queen of the Winter Court. In order to deal with what he believes to be a dangerous psychic parasite of some sort locked inside his own head, Dresden also retreated to an island in Lake Michigan that serves as a supernatural prison so he can hide out and practice parkour. Then Mab shows up to tell Dresden she needs him to undertake a task on her behalf, and in return she will remove the dangerous entity inside his head. To keep the entity at bay, Mab gives Dresden an earring to wear, and in a display of juvenile homophobia, he makes her put it on his left ear. It turns out that Mab has a debt to pay, and she's using Dresden's services to do so, forcing him to work with all-around villain and member of the Order of the Blackened Denarius Nicodemus Archleone, although Dresden does manage to force Nicodemus to accept Dresden bringing a companion as insurance - Harry's policewoman friend Karrin Murphy.

Having secured Dresden's services, Archleone assembles the rest of his team, at least some of whom seem to have been selected specifically to irk Dresden: Hannah Ascher, a warlock on the run from the White Council, Binder, a specialist in summoning demons who Dresden had previously specifically warned to stay out of Chicago, Goodman Gray, a shapeshifter who seems to take an immediate dislike to the wizard, and Deidre, Nicademus' own demonic daughter. Eventually it is revealed that Nicodemus has also recruited a massive, mostly invisible bigfoot-like being known as a Genoskwa to his raiding party as well, and it seems almost inevitable that the creature takes an immediate dislike to Dresden.

Because heading off to accomplish the object of the heist (or even revealing the target of the heist) would make the story too short, Butcher has to introduce a couple of complications. First, everyone has to go and get the final member of their group: The thief Anna Valmont, last seen stealing the Shroud of Turin. Picking her up at a hotel would be too simple, so Dresden and Ascher run into some fomor servants who try to kill them while they are there, but not before Butcher spends some time having Dresden drool over how attractive Ascher is. The fomor serve absolutely no purpose in the story other than providing some random obstacles to pad out the length of the book, and the fight scene they supply isn't even really all that interesting, as the outcome is pretty much assured. On the other hand, it also provides an opportunity for Dresden to get injured, which seems to happen quite a bit in the story, although he never seems to be particularly discomfited by his wounds once he has been patched up by handy not-doctor Butters.

The story moves on, with the group needing to secure the identity of a banker so that Goodman Grey can impersonate him as part of the still undefined heist. This time the complication is Nicodemus' ex-wife Tessa, who seems to want to foil her ex-husband and daughter for unknown reasons and is accompanied by ghouls. Dresden fights to keep the innocent banker alive to no avail, and is injured again, this time by stupidly trying to block something in a way that anyone who has ever studied martial arts will tell you is the exact wrong way to do it. Grey gets what he needs, and the story moves on. Next, Harry's suspicious friend Butters tries to spy on Nicodemus and Dresden has to pretend to chase his friend and sometime emergency medic while surreptitiously fighting off Binder's demons and the rest of Nicodemus' crew. Everything leads to a showdown in which Murphy breaks something valuable before being horribly injured, and Michael Carpenter, armed with the sword of the cross Amoracchius and the grace of an archangel, ends up taking her place as Dresden's backup while Murphy is bundled off to the hospital.

Nicodemus finally reveals that the objective of his heist is a vault owned by Hades where the Holy Grail is stored. After this groan-inducing turn of events, he also reveals that to get there they have to break into an earthly vault owned by notable supernatural mob-boss John Marcone. The heist goes off mostly smoothly (although there is a brief side-track when Tessa shows up again to try to kill Dresden), with everyone playing their assigned role: Valmont gets past Marcone's security door, Ascher gets through the Gate of Fire, Dresden gets through the Gate of Ice, and Nicodemus kills his own daughter to get past the Gate of Blood. Once in Hades' vault, Dresden figures out that Nicodemus isn't really after the Holy Grail, but at the same moment Hades decides to stop time so he can have a little chat with the wizard, revealing everything to have been a carefully planned set-up before dropping Dresden back into regular time in the vault.

Once back, Dresden claims the other, mostly not identified items, that are lying with the Grail before Nicodemus shows up to claim his prize. Predictably, Nicodemus betrays Dresden as soon as he is able to do so without breaking his agreement with Mab, which is more or less okay as Dresden was pretty much going to do the same. With Michael at his side, Dresden faces Nicodemus who has Ascher and the Genoskwa to reinforce him. Things seem to be really bade for the good guys when it turns out that both Ascher and the Genoskwa are carrying black coins, making them also members of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. And at this point, the novel simply falls apart with a plot twist so poorly done that it completely destroys the entire story. The plot twist itself is not a terrible plot twist - the problem is that it is executed in such a hamfisted way, in a manner that is not supported by any of the previous story. In the famous adage about stories, if a gun shows up in the first act, it needs to be used in the third. But the converse is true: If there is no gun in the first act, having a character produce one in the third is playing dirty pool with the audience. Not only that, the "twist" is directly contradicted by some of Dresden's own internal monologue from earlier in the book. Plus, the twist is literally handed to Dresden by Santa Claus, which is an eye-rolling bit of silliness in and of itself.

After the twist, the battle is mostly resolved in short order, including a fairly silly sequence in which the demon-assisted Genoskwa who had previously been described as being almost indescribably supernaturally fast and strong is unable to keep up with Dresden as he parkours the creature to death. despite having obtained the Holy Grail, Nicodemus seeks revenge against Dresden leading to an anticlimactic final fight that mostly involves ordinary goons and flash-bang grenades and seems to exist mostly so that Butcher can write the first Jewish Knight of the Cross into the story and give him a light saber. Yes, that actually happens, and it is really that groan-inducing. With the fighting over, the story wraps up a couple of the other plot threads in an almost offensively perfunctory manner as Dresden's supernatural brain parasite is removed entirely off-camera, Dresden decides to try to start up a relationship with Murphy, act like a father to his daughter, and no one seems to bat an eye at the idea of a Jewish man still being Jewish in a world in which actual angels walk among men and there are magical swords made from pieces of the True Cross.

Despite the silliness of the story, it is still a mostly fun romp, so long as one doesn't actually think too much about the various plot holes, the fact that the characters are pretty weakly developed, and the world-building seems to consist of simply throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the mix. Sure, this is the fifteenth book in the series, so one would expect that some of the characterization would have been done in the earlier books, but even so the various characters presented here come off as little more than broad sterotypes: The tough-babe who needs rescuing, the dangerous temptress, the solid man of faith, the surly hood, and the juvenile wise-ass, to name but a few. One might even be able to overlook the fact that Dresden himself is such a childish character who is so insecure about his manliness that he has to engage in alpha wolf style confrontations with pretty much every other male character he meets, except that with some very notable exceptions, most of the other male characters in the story seem to share those same traits. One has to wonder how any of these supposedly professional criminals are able to actually function in a criminal underworld without getting shot in the back of the head.

The biggest criticism of the book is that it is the fifteenth book in the series, and that means that a lot of the elements of this book are built upon relationships and events drawn from previous works, while several things get brought up in this volume that are simply left unresolved, presumably to serve as fodder for future installments in the series. To a certain extent, reading Skin Game is like watching a mid-season episode of a television show one is not familiar with: The direct story of the episode mostly hangs together, but the characters all reference things they did in previous episodes, and start conversations that won't bear fruit until later ones. This novel seems especially prone to this, as the entire plot of the book seems to be little more than a set-up for a future, as yet unwritten story. The Grail is stolen, as are a collection of other powerful artifacts, but nothing comes of it in this volume. A character steals a drop of Dresden's blood, an event that one would think would be of some importance, but the issue is simply dropped with no further comment. And so on. On the other hand, we are told that Dresden has has prior dealings with Valmont, last seen in Death Masks, and also with Binder, last seen in Turn Coat, but the reader is expected to get those references based merely upon the names being used, as nothing in this volume serves to explain anything more than the barest outlines of these previous relationships. Similarly, Ascher makes references to events that took place in previous books that affected her, but once again, if the reader is unfamiliar with the details the text of this book leaves them in the dark.

My biggest criticism of the Dresden Files series as a whole is the world-building, which is just a massive, sloppy hodge-podge of ideas that appear to have been thrown in almost at random. It seems that basically every element of myth or folklore exists in the Dresden universe: The Greek myths are real, the Norse myths are real, Japanese myths are real, vampires are real, werewolves are real, angels are real, Jesus was real, demons are real, Celtic myths are real, Santa Claus is real, and so on and so forth. There are knights using swords that incorporate metal from the nails from the True Cross, evil villains carrying around the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid off with, the Holy Grail, and pretty much every other magical artifact one can think of floating about. I'm sure the Tooth Fairy, the Easter, Bunny, and Brer Bear are real as well. After a certain point, it doesn't seem so much like world-building, as it is simple laziness. Literally everything is up for grabs, and none of it really makes any sense at all. To a certain extent, it seems that this is intentional. After all, the Dresden Files books are supposed to be fun romps, so why not throw literally every mythical being and idea into the mixture for added zing. On the other hand, using this sort of melange of every fantasy concept ever conceived by humans as a fictional world serves to prevent the books from being much more than a collection of adventurous romps, which is, at times, somewhat disappointing.

In the end, Skin Game is what it is: An enjoyable but mostly disposable adventure story full of two-dimensional characters alternatively grudgingly working alongside one another with tense banter and then gleefully bashing one another over the head with magic and supernaturally enhanced weapons. While this isn't a great book, it is a reasonably enjoyable one, with a decently plotted caper at its core (so long as one doesn't mind the occasional eyeroll-inducing development), a collection of fairly standard-issue movie-style characters populating its pages, and a magical world in which literally every kind of magical being one can think of is lurking around the corner. It is, in short, a big dumb, mostly mindless, but ultimately fun collection of shenanigans revolving around a big, dumb, mostly immature but ultimately engaging character. There's nothing particularly special to be found here, but if one is looking for reasonably good mindless escapism, this would fit the bill quite nicely.

Previous book in the series: Cold Days

2015 Hugo Award Nominees

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