Archive for the 'Books' Category

Harry Potter and the Invasion of the Fan-Fic

July 17th, 2007

Another feaure of Harry Potter is the tuly amazing volume of fan fiction (fanfic for short) that have been written.1 It’s getting close to overtaking Star Trek…

One site alone has over 42,000 stories, written by over 20,000 different authors. Some of it is very, very good. But that’s not any fun…

A few highlights (which, with one exception, I’ve not read any of):

  • Masquearade: Ginny Weasley and Draco Malfoy date.

  • Its Good to Have Friends: Dumbledore’s niece Avi joins the school, and promptly becomes best friends with Harry and the others. Funnily enough, written by someone called Avi…

  • The Year When Everything Changed: Harry’s parents are transported from the past into Harry’s final year at Hogwarts

  • Missing: Malfoy and Hermione are forced to tutor younger students together, but slowly they begin to see more.

  • And then there’s My Immortal: Quite possibly the worst piece of fan fiction ever written. Please don’t read it. You’ll scar your brain.

Although, for my money, if you still want brain melting-ly bad fanfic, you can’t go past Star Trek and Stephen Ratliff.

  1. Just to be perfectly clear, I think fanfic is a very valid form of writing. There are a lot of pro writers who write fanfic under pseudonyms. Writing is writing, and borrowing someone else’s settings or characters doesn’t make it less writing. 

Harry Potter and the Surfeit of Blog Posts

July 16th, 2007

The final book in the Harry Potter series will be released world wide this coming weekend.

In the leadup (and afterwards) I’d expect a few thousand million posts on Harry Potter and related issues.

Never let it be said that this blog is afraid of a bandwagon…

I’ll put up a few posts on various elements of Harry this week. To start, a few comments on why the people who think “Harry Potter is for children” are wrong to mock those who read them.

I enjoy reading the Harry Potter novels. They are not, objectively, very well written. Even the plots are threadbare, relying too often on recycling and the ‘idiot plot’1. Where I enjoy the novel is in the characters and the world building. JK Rowling has built a fascinating parallel world of wizards which, if not plausible, at least fires the imagination with potential. What child (or adult…) has not occasionally day dreamed about having mystical powers.

But the real strength is in the characters. While there are plenty of one-note characters in the series, most of the major characters have real depth. Malfoy can have his moments of doubt in between his normal villainy, Snape has depth and complexity that eludes the viewpoint characters, and even Harry is painted as being a far from ideal individual.

So while I’m keen to see how the plot is bought to a conclusion, I’m far more interested in seeing how the characters develop through the final book. That’s the real magic of Harry Potter.

  1. My term for the plot that relies on characters who are not normally idiots ignoring or failing to follow up on some critical development. For instance, Harry in book 5 forgetting that he has a means to contact Sirius before he runs off to try and rescue him. 

Hugo Best Novel Reviews 2007: The Final Chapter

July 13th, 2007

To finish the unofficial Hugo-week on this blog, a recap of my thoughts on the five nominees for Best Novel.

The five nominees (with a link to my review) are:

So, which should win the Hugo?

In fifth place is Temeraire. I really enjoyed this book a lot, but it has a couple of strikes against it in my mind. First, it’s not SF, which historically has been a big barrier to winning the Hugo. Secondly, it’s too slight for the more intellectually focussed crowd that votes. By way of consolation, though, Naomi Novik is sure to make a lot of money, and apparently Peter Jackon has already optioned the movie rights.

In fourth place is Eifelheim, which (as I mentioned in my review) is just over long and far toe obsessed with the minutiae of medieval life.

In third place is Rainbows End. A strong story, but it loses its way a bit towards the end. Besides, Vinge already has two Hugo’s to his name.

In second place (and a close finish) is Glasshouse. A great story, that would have been a worthy winner. But ultimately its intellectual lightness pushes it to second place.

So my pick for best novel in 2007 is Blindsight. I found this to be a stunningly good novel, and one of the few books that I’ve felt compelled to read almost without break. Strong philosophical themes, careful research, good action, balanced pacing, and good science should all help push this one to the top of the lsit.

Voting on the Hugo awards for 2007 closes on 31 July, and the prizes well be presented 6pm (Tokyo time) on 1 September. I’ll be trying my very best to get to the Novella and Novelette nominees sometime before then, and may even try and weigh in on the dramatic presentation awards too (if I can get around to seeing the three films and two episodes I haven’t seen, that is).

The best novels Hugo never liked

July 10th, 2007

The Hugo award has been around for 54 years now. In that time it’s generally been about the most reliable indicator of the best novels around. But there are still a few instances where everything fell over a little bit:

1959: A Case of Conscience (James Blish) beat Have Space Suit – Will Travel (Robert Heinlein). Probably not controversial to everyone, but having read both relatively recently it’s clear to me what the stronger work is. Conscience is an interesting examination of religion in the context of science fiction, but Space Suit has become one of the most loved SF books of all time.

1983: Foundation’s Edge (Isaac Asimov) beating 2010 (Arthur C. Clarke) and Friday (Robert Heinlein). Mainly notable for being the one occasion on which the three giants of SF were up against each other for the award. Sadly, all three were declining as authors, but Foundations Edge is a shallow, uninteresting work, while Friday, while flawed, at least provides some interesting food for thought.

2000: A Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge) beat Cryptonomicon. Deepness is a good book, but falls short of the greatness of A Fire Upon the Deep (which won the Hugo in 1993). Cryptonomicon is a magnificent book, although only arguably SF in small parts.

2001: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire beat anything (well, A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin in particular). Sorry, I love the Potter books deeply. But they’re just not that good.

In a bit under 2 months we’ll know if I need to add another item to this list or not. I’ll post my thoughts on the novel race this year later this week.

Hugo review: Blindsight

July 9th, 2007

The final entry in my Hugo best novel review series for this year is Blindsight by Peter Watts.

In the late 21st century humanity has reached almost incomprehensible levels of achievement. Those on the bleeding edge may be stable multiple personalities, or have mechanical prosthetics replacing almost their entire body. To help the majority of humanity understand the bleeding edge, a new speciality of jargonaut has arisen, who can interpret (almost subconsciously) what is going on. Siri Keeton is a psychonaut, and is part of the crew travelling to the far reaches of the Solar System to discover the source of a recent alien incursion of Earth.

This novel (the entire text of which is available online) is quite simply stunning. It takes some fairly conventional tropes in Science Fiction (the mysterious object first contact, as in Rendezvous with Rama, and the ideas of transformed humanity are in Neuromancer and Rainbows End, to name just a couple of examples), but what it does with those ideas is new, unique and interesting.

The plot and tone of the novel are very well paced. The subliminal sense of horror, so easy to achieve on film and so hard in words, is well created. There’s a perpetual feeling of unease and discomfort throughout. The author also admirably avoids the temptation to lay too much of his extensive world building out in the text, saving his efforts for a technical appendix.

Any novel with only a small handful of characters (less than 10) has to rely on characterisation strongly, and the book delivers. Each of the characters is well drawn, with all of them feeling real and developed. This is doubly important because the viewpoint character is supposed to be a superb observer, and if the other characters were ciphers this would diminish the credibility of that point.

I have to admit to having some serious problems with one element of the book for a long time, the introduction of a vampire human sub-species with a biological explanation for their aversion to crucifixes. But even that grew on me as the book went on, and by the end I was completely comfortable. If I’d skipped ahead and read the technical appendix bit (which dealt with a few of my scientific qualms) as soon as the vampires entered the plot I suspect I’d have been comfortable sooner.

Overall, this is a superb novel which I highly recommend.

Heinlein & 100 years

July 7th, 2007

One hundred years ago today (July 7 1907) the greatest science fiction writer of all time was born.

Robert A. Heinlein was a brilliant, controversial and innovative writer. But between 1939 and 1941 he wrote a set of twelve short stories that quickly established him as one of the masters of Science Fiction, with his Future History series (which eventually grew to 23 short stories). This idea, much mimiced since1 still resonates with fans today. To the point where there are still some who hope that some day some of the missing elements in the history will turn up.

Compared to the prolific Asimov, Heinlein’s output was fairly thin: 32 novels (11 of them aimed at young adults) and 59 short stories. This was probably mainly due to WW2, where he lost 5 years out of the most potentially productive part of his career to helping the war effort. But with four Hugo awards for best novel, the quality is clear.

In my opinion, the peak of his career was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966. This tale of lunar revolution is just about my favourite SF novel of all time, and I couldn’t begin to count the number of times that I’ve read it. Unfortunately, shortly after this novel was published Heinlein began to have serious health problems. This trend continued for the rest of his life, and the final two novels he wrote are sadly diminished compared to his peak.

But none of that can take away from the man first called the Grandmaster of Science Fiction. I’m lucky, because there are still a few stories and a couple of novels I’ve never been able to find a copy of (as they’re out of print), so I can still look forward to one or two new stories from Heinlein yet.2

Maybe I can find $US 3,500 for the Virginia Edition: 46 titles spanning the entire works of Heinlein.

  1. For instnace, Stephen Baxter’s Xelee sequence. 

  2. I’m not going to ever read the posthumously published For Us, The Living. I think that if an author puts something in a box and says ‘No’, the rest of us ought to respect it. 

Hugo Review: Eifelheim

July 2nd, 2007

Four hugo books down, one to go…

The penultimate Hugo review for this year is Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn.

This is a complex story, told in two time periods and with three main characters…

  • Sharon Nagy is a physicist, on the brink of fundamental breakthroughs that could revolutionise physics.

  • Tom Schwoerin is a historian (and partner of Sharon), searching for the reason why the medieval village of Eifelheim was never resettled, as his own theories suggest should have happened.

  • Father Dietrich is the village priest of Eifelheim in the 14th century, where a spaceship full of aliens has just crash landed.

The novel weaves the three themes together, although the vast bulk of the novel is spent in the 14th century. The greatest strength of the novel is the picture that it paints of medieval life in 14th century Germany. The novel is exhaustively researched, and the detail of everyday life shows through.

The greatest weakness of the novel is that, having done all this research, the author is determined to force it down our throats. There are digressions, among other things, on the politics of the pope in the 14th century, the legal arrangements of a village, and details on land ownership. These are integrated in some extent into the story (no Clancy or Stephenson style info-dumps), but they still slow down the progression of the plot.

Most of the characters remain ciphers throughout the book, and there is far too much pointless obfuscation about the details of the aliens and their technology. It’s interesting to see all this through the eyes of the 14th century, but only up to a point.

The novel was adapted from a short story that apparently focused on the ‘current day’ scenes, and it shows. Those scenes are much tighter, and the exposition monster has given them only a light beating.

Overall, I was not a fan. I can see how it got nominated – it’s complex, unique and reasonably well written at a technical level. But I found it plodding, dull and overladen with facts.

Book Review: The Last Colony, John Scalzi

May 18th, 2007

I took a quick break from my Hugo review series to read the latest from John Scalzi. The Last Colony

is a sequel to Old Man’s War and Ghost Brigades.

The plot follows on from the past two books. John Perry and Jane Sagan are now retired from the Colonial Military, and have become

colonists in their own right. When approached to lead a new colony drawing people from all across the Colonial Union they reluctantly

agree. But they soon find that there is a hidden agenda for their colony, and they must deal with a new threat from The Conclave,

which has decreed that humanity may not expand any further.

I don’t really have a lot to say about this one, actually. If you enjoyed the past two novels in the series, you’ll probably

enjoy this one. It’s not as strong, probably mainly because the scope of this one is much tighter. But it’s an enjoyable read,

quite a lot of fun.

My one complaint is the ending, which just felt a little bit too forced and ‘magic’. The solution at the end is not really one that’s

likely to work as smoothly as presented. It wasn’t a big problem for me at the time, but has bugged me a bit since.

Hugo review: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

May 16th, 2007

Here’s the third in my series of Hugo reviews for this year. I’m well on track to review them all before the

31 July deadline for voting. So here’s Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. I’ve read two other Vernor Vinge novels

before, A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Neither of them really gave me realistic expectations

about this book.

In the year 2025, Robert Gu has just awakened from the nightmare of Alzheimers. Thanks to new treatments

he looks like a teenager, and has (almost) all of his faculties back. But it’s a strange new world,

where libraries are under threat from those who want to shred the contents, and where ubiquitous

networking has transformed the way people think. The most highly prized talent is no longer the

ability to do something, because you can always find someone in the world who can do it better.

What’s valuable is the ability to search, to find the true information buried on the Internet, and

to draw it all together.

Robert begins to piece his life back together, learning the skills that are needed. But the big players

still play their game, and he is drawn into a net of intrigue involving intelligence agencies across

the world.

This is a pretty mixed book. Vinge draws a compelling picture of a possible future. But he spends entirely

too long building it up. One of the great dangers of world building in SF is that you want to use it all,

and not keep it down to the parts that are most vital. On the positive side, Vinge tries to personalise

all of the world detail he draws in through the main character. But there are still some long slabs

of expository dialog in a few places, and a few subplots that serve no purpose other than to display

some feature or other of this world.

This mess of distractions makes it difficult to follow the main plot at times, which is a pity because

it becomes quite complicated and a bit less going on would be welcome. Almost all the characters are

somewhat duplicitous in their motives, and at times I felt like making up a chart of what was going on,

and what the various protagonists thought was going on. It’s generally entertaining, albeit a bit

predictable overall. One nice thing was that Vinge doesn’t rest too much of the continuing novel on mysteries.

In places where other authors would sustain a minor mystery for chapters, he tends to throw the solution

in almost instantly. This is nice as it underlines one of the main themes of the novel, the changing cost

of information, and the increased importance of search.

The characters are generally well drawn and interesting, but seem to spend most of the book alone. Very

little of the book is driven by true character dynamics, with everyone pursuing their own path and agenda,

often without much reference to other people. This lends to an overall feeling of isolation.

Overall I found this a quite entertaining book, packed with a lot of good ideas about the future. But a bit

less futuristic detail and a bit more attention to character interaction would have improved it quite a bit.

But I don’t think it would get my Hugo vote other the other two reviewed so far.

One side note – this book had the absolute worst ‘back of book blurb’ that I have seen in a long time.

I’m pretty sure that not only had the person writing it not read the thing, but I’m pretty sure they

didn’t even read the 10 page synopsis that they were provided with. I suspect they may have had a brief

phone call about the book at some point, and maybe they wrote a couple of notes down during it. I kept

waiting for the book to become more like the plot described on the back, but it just never happened.

Hugo Review: Glasshouse

April 18th, 2007

The second in my series of Hugo nominated book reviews for this year, Glasshouse, by Charles Stross

Robin doesn’t know a lot about his past. That’s partly because he just had a lot of it erased, and partly because of the Curious Yellow virus that had infected the teleport gates and wiped a lot of memories from everyone. Now he’s in the Glasshouse, an experiment aimed at understanding the ancient history of the old dark ages, 1950-2050. But all is not what it seems – for a start, someone is trying to kill him. And now some of his memories are starting to come back.

This is a very strong novel. The ‘science fiction’ elements mainly take a back seat, and tend to not drive the plot particularly. In fact, you could probably transpose a very large part of the story into a contemporary setting (absent a MacGuffin or two) fairly easily. What you couldn’t do is transpose what was (for me) the most fascinating part of the book, the treatment of the mid-20th century society from a far future perspective. There have been a few versions of this in different stories over the years (Heinlein for instance), but normally in the context of time travel. It’s interesting to see a take on what elements of society might be thought of as normal, which will be misunderstood, and which will be understood but abhored.

The main character is a strong, interesting and well rounded person, and Stross paints their motivations and development well. There’s one section in particular (which I won’t spoil for those who want to read this) where the strength of this characterisation actually becomes an important point in understanding the novel.

However, the main character is fairly isolated for the majority of the novel, and this means that the secondary characters are not as well developed. The motivations of the villains, in particular, are never well explored.

One note that worked well for me, but I suspect may disappoint others, is the number of dangling plot threads. A few different things are hinted at in the background of the story as being important, but some of these never really go anywhere. There is a deeper mystery hinted at in the novel that is not really addressed, let alone solved, in the course of the story. For me, this added to the richness of the world-building, but your mileage may vary.

Immediately after I put this novel down I had thought it was a very strong contender for the Hugo, but after thinking about it for 24 hours or so I’m not as sure – while it’s strong and interesting, it’s a bit light in the philosophical issues that seem to help a lot in winning the Hugo. It would certainly be a worthy winner, and a lot depends on the other three novels yet to be read.