Tag Archives: nebula award

Book Review: Pandemonium (Daryl Gregory 2008)

Note: in this review, I avoid specific spoilers beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb. I discuss my reaction to the ending, but none of the specific events.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I chose to read Pandemonium because it was the book club selection for a book club meeting I failed to attend (sigh, moving). I devoured this book in less than 48 hours and I really enjoyed the process of reading it. For two reasons, this book forced me to contemplate the nature of science fiction versus fantasy: 1) because the book explicitly calls out the artificiality of the separation and 2) because I myself strongly tilt towards science fiction.

Pandemonium is set in a world where demonic possessions happen. They come in many flavors; there’s the Captain, who possesses soldiers and performs acts of bravery and there’s the Little Angel, who possesses little girls and releases old people from the pain of the world. Del Pierce was possessed as a child, and now as an adult he suspects that the demon never entirely left him.

Science wants to understand these possessions as much as it wants to understand cancer in our own world. Del wants to be freed of his demon, by science or otherwise. He’s damaged by what he’s endured. He talks to scientists and to their less-scientific groupies. Del’s condition isn’t considered possible by science, and he’s exasperated by the limitations of science. The characters criticize the way the scientific community regards the demonic possessions. It felt like the tired criticisms of our scientific process. Perhaps, as a scientist, I’m over-sensitive to such things.

People separate fantasy and scifi in different ways, and here’s my separation: fantasy is about exceptions to the rules and scifi is about inevitable outcomes of the rules. Harry Potter is an exceptional member of an exceptional class of people. Piers Anthony’s Xanth stories are about the people with the best magical powers. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is about one of many sentient programs that through a unique set of circumstances becomes something more. Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain is about the first products of genetic engineering. Both genres often focus on exceptional characters, but in scifi the character is exceptional due to circumstances and in fantasy the character is inherently exceptional in some way that cannot be explained.

In arguing a lack of separation between science fiction and fantasy, Pandemonium has the trappings of fantasy but makes several explicit science fiction references. Early in the book, a character (named Valis) quotes Philip K. Dick and asserts that “you cannot separate science fiction from fantasy.” There are references to AE van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon. I made a mental footnote to expect something genre-defying at the end.

After the book argued for the lack of distinction between the genres, the ending didn’t challenge my definition of fantasy. For me, this was a book about demons and possession and the human psyche. Which is fine. But like Chekov’s gun, after a lot of discussion about the blurred lines between two genres, you expect to partake in a book with blurred lines. I didn’t dislike the ending, but I didn’t feel affected by it either. I flew through the book, finished it, and shrugged.

Pandemonium is a lovely read. As a mild scifi snob, I am out of its core audience, and I can’t say how those with different genre sensibilities might feel about it. For me it just felt insubstantial, like a book that will fade from my memory.

Book Review: Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie 2013)

Note: in this review, I spoil nothing beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie grabbed me quickly, with tight writing and careful and intriguing word choice. The winner of both the 2014 Hugo and the 2014 Nebula Awards, the most prestigious in sci-fi, it clearly had this effect on others. Only on page 3, we get the wonderful phrase “She was probably male”. The novel reminded me a lot of C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, with high space opera and sophisticated scheming. The protagonist, Breq, is a semi-human fragment of an artificial intelligence. I found Breq interesting in expression and nature, and she was easy to root for.

You will notice gender in this book. Breq is from the Radch Empire, where gender is not determinable from appearance nor is it important to try, and thus everyone, male or female, is referred to as “she”. Surprisingly, this totally achieved gender anonymity for me. In Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, all pronouns are male, which left me picturing every character as male even though some of them are physically ungendered. Perhaps because female doesn’t seem like the default pronoun, using “she” didn’t feel the same. We know that Breq is a female human and her companion Seivarden is a male human, but we don’t know the gender of most of the characters.

Unlike Left Hand, Ancillary Justice doesn’t dwell on gender. The Radch convention is what the characters use, unless they are speaking in another language, and that is that. We never find out why the Radch in particular ignore gender in a way that must have been a determined effort at that level. Have their sexual proclivities evolved with their language too? I wondered. In a way, not knowing answers to questions that had inspired such curiosity in me bothered me. But in a way, it was in keeping with the Radch Culture– gender wasn’t important there and it wasn’t important in the book, and it was my hang-up only that kept it there. Why did anyone’s gender matter to the story?

I suppose it’s strange to devote such a chunk of my review to something that the book doesn’t dwell on. But still, in the contexts of our language, it was a major choice on the part of Leckie. It makes my brain itch in such a delightful way.

The novel has several other nifty science fiction ideas. Breq’s current sentience versus her life as an AI is wonderful. Leckie uses music to characterize Breq in a way I really enjoyed. The Radch Empire is also pretty interesting, though it sounds obnoxious. They run around and brutally conquer and are filled with narcissistic oligarchs like Seivarden. The empire is run by several thousand clones of the same person, Anaander, who for some reason I kept on picturing as Edna Mode from The Incredibles, but that weird detail is almost certainly on me as a reader.

I ended up giving the book a 4/5, though I still debate myself over the rating. A book that I read in a day and a half because I was so enthralled, a book that still has me thinking a week later should be a 5/5. But I felt like the book didn’t quite come together for me at the end, like it was all sweetness and no substance. I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable or uncertain as to the outcome. That said, I would read it again, and recommend it to others. Read it yourself and see what you think.

The Best of Science Fiction

I began reading science fiction novels almost by accident. One day I saw an Alfred Bester book on the shelf at a book store. Viewers of Babylon 5 (the best TV show ever) will recall a character by this name. I had read many Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 books, and I followed science fiction TV with ardor. So I assumed this book was in the same vein. It was not. The B5 character was named for a writer from the 50s.

Alfred Bester is best known for two novels: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. They’re both amazing, and I recommend them. “The Demolished Man” works on a simple premise: how would someone go about getting away with murder in a society in which telepaths existed? “The Stars My Destination” (loosely based upon the Count of Monte Cristo) explores what would happen if people could transport themselves at will. How would prisons work? How would you prevent theft? “The Demolished Man” won the first Hugo Award in 1953. “The Stars My Destination” has been credited as perhaps the creator of cyberpunk.

After Bester, I was hungry for more. I scoured the web for lists of the best science fiction novels. Here is one good list of the top novels, though it is somewhat weighted towards older books. I also tried to read the winners and nominees of the Hugo and Nebula awards (you can find a list of wins by author here). Wikipedia lists the Hugo Award wins according to year here. I personally strongly prefer the Hugo Award books to the Nebula Award books, but you may find differently.

So after all that hunting, here are my top 5 science fiction novels:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula LeGuin, 1969)– A human envoy visits an alien world, hoping to convince them to join an alliance. The aliens have no set gender, but phase in and out of male, female, and neuter. The book explores the culture of this planet, both due to the unusual gender of its people, and the extremely cold climate. For whatever reason, men tend to be unimpressed with this book, but women I’ve recommended it to like it. The book explores gender and cultural topics without getting heavy-handed or obvious. The two main characters are amazingly drawn. The book is filled with little amazing legends and folklore from the culture.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, 1960)– A post-apocalyptic story with a very different twist. Broken into three parts at very different times, the first part opens in a Catholic abbey in Nevada several centuries after a devastating nuclear war. The novel has a charming humor and levity despite the settings. It explores religious themes (not very common in scifi).
  • The Forever War (Joe Haldeman 1974)– A story about a man involved in a space war. As the battles are waged, centuries pass, and the man is isolated from his own life by a questionable war. Haldeman was a vietnam vet, and it shows. I have read at least a dozen novels by Haldeman, and I would recommend every single one. He writes science fiction with a focus on heart. “The Forever War” is one of the best science fiction love stories I’ve read.
  • The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester 1956)– discussed above.
  • Camp Concentration (Thomas Disch 1968)– a dark and twisted “Flowers for Algernon”. A conscientious objector is sentenced to prison. He is then subjected to experiments that greatly increase his intellect, along with a number of other prisoners. This book is very literary to the point of sometimes being maddening. I skipped through some of the literary aspects that I didn’t relate to. But the story and the science fiction and the humor are spot on and excellent.

You may notice the heavy slant to the 50s and 60s. This is no accident. These books are old enough to be reprinted and therefore available, but old enough for the reprints to be available used (used books are so wonderfully inexpensive!). Some more modern very awesome scifi books are “Snow Crash“, “Mathematicians in Love“, “A Fire Upon the Deep“, and “The Windup Girl“.

If you are looking for more reading suggestions, check out my top 20 science fiction novels.

I could talk all day about science fiction, so drop a comment!