Last year I challenged myself to pick one year and one science fiction award and read all of the nominees. I wanted to decide for myself who should have won that year. My year was 2008 and my award was the Hugo Award. 2008 may not hold a special place in my heart, but the Hugo Award does. Despite recent controversies, winners are mostly good books picked from a list of five popular science fiction novels for any given year. That's not to say they're all classics, but there are a lot of classics represented. On top of that, I was lucky enough to WorldCon in 2013. This was the last Sad Puppy free year and it was an amazing experience. The people, the panels, everything was amazing. I can't wait to make it to another WorldCon someday. The people there, the people who vote for the Hugo Award, were genuinely enthused by and proud of science fiction literature.
The nominees were, in aphabetical order:
Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Halting State by Charles Stross
The Last Colony by John Scalzi
Rollback by Robert J Sawyer
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (winner)
I didn't think too much about my choice of 2008, but there were points where I regretted it. My least favorite was Rollback by Robert J Sawyer. I was not surprised by this. I am not a Sawyer fan. It started with Flashforward, which I liked. I'm afraid to go back and read it to find out if I still like it because it was one of my first scifi books as an adult and I don't know that I had the chops to evaluate its merit yet. I'm not saying that anyone has to be well read to judge a book, any book; I'm saying that as the breadth and depth of my genre reading has increased I find myself more easily annoyed by books with interesting premises but which fail to follow through on being interesting.
Rollback follows the story of an old man whose wife decoded the first alien communication to Earth. By the time the response is received, this time not just cryptic but encrypted. Of course, with the alien 18.8 light years away, time is ticking for our old woman. A kabillionaire offers to give her a life-extending treatment called a "rollback". She insists that her husband get the treatment too, but it works on him and not her. Instant drama and interesting premise.
The problem comes in when you realize that once again a Sawyer book is about something and not in a subtle way. This one is about abortion. Other Sawyer books are about god (Calculating God) and souls (The Terminal Experiment) and free will (Flashforward). I sense that he's working through his religious issues here. If he wasn't doing it in a way that gave the impression that he is trying to balance what he senses are the Opinions of other scifi writers I might care what he had to say about these things. If I never have to read (or listen to) another book by Robert J Sawyer it will be too soon. Alas, many completionist challenges I could set include his novels. For example, if I wanted to read all of the Hugo winners, he has one novel that's a winner that I haven't read yet.
Since I started with my least favorite, we might as well count down to my personal Reader's Choice winner. Number 4, disliked on its own merits and without my Sawyer baggage: The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon.
This won in 2008 and I can see why someone might like it, but I'm at the same time baffled that it beat so many other books that I enjoyed (well...the three other Hugo nominees at least). First, it's barely science fiction. Since this is my award (the "Reader's Choice Award" not the Hugo), I've decided that only books that capture my imagination are scifi enough to win. The premise, a detective story set in a Jewish state carved out of Alaska, is ok, but the writing bleeds purple prose and vomits noir.
I got so slogged down that I felt like Artax in the Swamps of Sadness. I came so close to giving up but my challenge kept tugging me along. Unlike Artax, I survived.
Now we're into the books I liked, starting with Halting State by Charles Stross. This was my first book by Stross though I've heard that his books can be a difficult read for someone unfamiliar with technical jargon. While I found that true, I was able to hobble along and enjoy this one.
Halting State is about what happens when infrastructure doesn't keep up with technology. It's a scary story if you're scared of things like hackers gaining access to your car via your car's cellphone connection. Particularly, when virtual worlds (like MMORPGs) have unexpected consequences in the real world. Neal Stephenson's Reamde has a similar theme though with a plot different enough from this one to not make reading both repetitive.
...and, yes, it's written in the 2nd person. Throughout the entire book "you" do everything. It takes some getting used to, but it was done very much with a purpose. Stross wants the reader to experience the book like augmented reality. He has crafted a story for you to play through. I am good at achieving immersion in books, so this trick worked perfectly on me. Your mileage may vary.
My biggest problem with the book was that a plot element would be set spinning and the reader was expected to keep that element spinning while the book went off and set other things spinning. I couldn't keep it all in my head at once. It's not enough to stop me from reading more Stross some day, but enough for me to place this one in the middle of my rankings.
The Last Colony by John Scalzi was a very close 2nd when I sat down to decide which book gets my gold star. This is the 3rd installment of Scalzi's Old Man's War series and continues the tradition of being enjoyable and book that is easy to melt into. Scalzi'a writing is uncomplicated in the best way; It's approachable. You don't need the patience of a saint to wade through dense prose or the knowledge of a software coder to understand what is going on.
Old characters John Perry and Jane Sagan have settled down to colonize, the promised reward to anyone willing to join the military, but trouble follows them and they are soon drawn into war again.
And the winner is...
...Brasyl by Ian McDonald. This book is beautiful and complex. If each theme and character were a dancer, Ian McDonald has choreographed a ballet. The three stories told are: the story of Marcelina, a reality television producer who chases a show idea until she's over head; the story of Edson, living in our future where everything is tagged with RFIDs and quantum computing is a reality; and the story of Father Luis Quinn, sent to bring a rogue priest back into line.
Each story not only explores the primary theme of multiple dimensions, but also, more subtly, the themes of the adaptability of language and the mutation of religion. All of these themes, combined with complicated characters and vivid descriptions, captured my imagination. I will be reading more Ian McDonald and choose this book as my winner.
When I think back over this challenge and the year so far, I'm not sure that I would do the challenge again. I like the idea of it, of looking back on a year and an award, even knowing the limitations of that award, and choosing for myself. If I had gone to WorldCon that year would my vote for Brasyl have swayed anything? Problably not. after all, in 2013 I voted for 2312 for the best novel but Red Shirts won. But I read every book for 2013 and made an educated vote. And now I have the same satisfaction for the group of books nominated in 2008. It's an experience that I recommend.