Reviews: Cat Pictures Please & Folding Beijing

Warning, this review has spoilers. I’ve grouped these two “in-depth” reviews together because there really isn’t much to say about them beyond what I’ve already said.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer would have been a quirky, weak winner in another year, but with the puppies, she is by far the best choice this year. The basic premise is that an AI becomes sentient and tries to help people in between viewing cat pictures. The actual plot is episodic, detailing her various attempts to help people, focusing on three. It doesn’t always work out, but no matter what happens, the story never becomes thrilling. The episodic set up prevents real tension from ever building.

Beyond the cute, crowd-pleasing premise (cat pictures have been a big thing on the internet since I first got into it), there isn’t too much here. I can see why this was nominated for the Nebula, but I can also see why it didn’t win.

A worthy winner? I’ve read worse that won Hugos during average years, but it’s not one of the stronger pieces.

As for Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, there isn’t too much else to say because the whole story hinges on the idea of a folding city. Beijing here is split up into three different sections. City 1 is populated by the rich, and they also get the most time awake. City 2 is a step below that, and city 3 is filled with manual workers. Each night, as one city goes to sleep, the city folds up and another (temporarily) takes its place.

There is a story here: a worker from city 3 sneaks into city 2 and then city 1 to deliver a love letter between a bureaucrat and a woman. Capture means at best jail, but if he succeeds he gets the money he needs to send his daughter to a good school. But like I said before, since his daughter hardly ever appears, the plot feels less like a vehicle for excitement than a way to show off this concept.

The disappointing thing is that this concept is indeed a great one: more stories set in this world to flesh it out more would be awesome. I could see this winning or coming in a close second place in a normal year. It’s not perfect, but it is thought-provoking, intriguing, and although the plot has problems, it never truly drags.

2016 Hugo Awards

I will post about these in more comprehensive posts later on, but here’s a few basic thoughts on the 2016 Hugo winners (I’m proud I was able to read all of the winners before the ceremony).

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin for best novel. This was one of the best fantasy books in a while. It’s set in a world with a giant continent that is wracked by natural disasters. Every hundred years or two, a big enough disaster occurs to set off decade-long storms, known as fifth seasons. Magicians have some power over stone but are feared for it. They are kept in check by a society as they learn to control their magical powers. There are three plot lines: a woman mourns the death of her son who her husband killed because he exhibited some magical powers. His wife never revealed to him that she also has control over magic. She sets out to get revenge and runs into some colorful companions. In another, a young girl with magic is found by a member of that society and taken to a school to train. In the last, and imo best, a young woman at the school is taken on a quest with a high level magic user to fix the stone in a city’s harbor. And while there, they find something completely unexpected…

I thought for sure Uprooted was going to win, but I’m really happy it didn’t. The characters there are flat, the magic system makes no sense (and the book hinges on it), and despite setting out to subvert cliches, it has tons of YA ones. And it already won the Nebula…ugh. The Fifth Season was definitely something special (and as an added bonus, Vox Day was kicked out of the SWFA for calling her a subhuman).

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor for best novella. This one was meh. A girl named Binti runs away from her home in order to attend a university on another planet. While in transit, they’re attacked by an alien race and she is left as the only human still alive. What starts as a survival story then quickly becomes a tale about differences in culture. The ending, though, is awful, to the point of ruining what came before it. Not surprised this won, as it was the only non-puppy choice here, but still.

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu. Surprisingly, this one was a rabid puppies pick, but it probably would’ve been nominated anyway. Looking at it from a political standpoint, I’m not really sure why they picked it. It’s set in a dystopian future. To avoid overpopulation issues in Beijing, the government has set up a folding system: for 24 hours, city 1, populated by the elite, goes about their days and then sleeps. During that period, the city literally folds up to reveal city 2, and then city 3. Lao Dao is a menial worker in city 3 who dreams of sending his daughter to a better school, but he doesn’t have the money. To finance this, he undertakes a quest to deliver a love letter from a man in city 2 to a woman in city 3. The punishment for being caught would be jail, or worse. The idea here was pretty interesting, but it would’ve been nice to get the characters more fleshed out. His daughter barely makes any appearances, and some of the city 1 characters feel tacked on. Over all, though, it deserves the win.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer for best short story. I already covered this in my post yesterday, but for those moaning about Chuck Tingle, he wound up placing third below no award.

For the full list of winners, see here: http://www.thehugoawards.org/

The 2016 Hugo Award Short Story Nominees

The Hugo awards are tonight and I’ve been reading some of the nominees. I’ve gone through 4 of the nominated short stories and don’t plan on reading the 5th, so here’s my thoughts on those. All of them are Rabid Puppies picks except for Cat Pictures.

Asymmetrical Warfare by S.R. Algernon- A flash fiction piece about a starfish-like race of aliens attacking Earth. They’re surprised that humans don’t regenerate body parts. Although not necessarily bad, there’s little tension throughout the story. It almost seemed like the author was going for some type of twist with the way the aliens learn about people, but…we’re people. We already know what we’re like.

If You Were an Award, My Love by Juan Tabo and S. Harris- Oh god. For those that don’t know, a few years ago a story called If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love won the Nebula award for best short story and was nominated for the Hugo. It’s literally what it sounds like: a lover dreaming up what their man would be like if they were a dinosaur. At the end it turns out the man was beaten into a coma by some intolerant people. Though not exactly science fiction, it worked as a story and, imo, deserved its accolades. For whatever reason, the puppies chose this story to latch on to as “message fiction,” that is, fiction that simply wins awards because of its message. And then there’s this present story. What I just explained is the tip of the iceberg. This story literally won’t make sense unless you’re up on your print genre fiction fandom. Authors are lampooned in ways which won’t make sense if you don’t know them and the “plot” itself reads like an incoherent alt-right rant if you haven’t read the original story. This literally might be the worst thing I have ever read that was professionally published.

Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle- Yes, I read it. And after the two above, I was pleasantly surprised. The level of writing isn’t amazing, but I wouldn’t complain if an author with similar prose was nominated for real and not by brigading. And Tingle manages to keep some tension present throughout the story (although in the later parts it is sexual tension…). And with his real world antics, there’s been some rumblings that this might actually take it. As for the gay sex scene…well, I’d rather read that again than If You Were an Award.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer- An actual nominee that was not the result of the puppies! And what’s more, it tells an actual story! An AI becomes sentient and decides that when not looking at cat pictures, it will try to improve the lives of people, an endeavor that turns out harder than it thought. It’s not exactly thrilling but the light tone and somewhat short length (3429 words, Clarkesworld, the site that published it, says at the bottom) ensure that it’s a fun read at all points. Not quite my thing, but at least I could see this definitely being nominated and maybe even taking home the award in a normal year.

The one I didn’t read is Seven Kill Tiger by Charles W. Shao because it seems like it can only be found in an anthology published by Vox Day (the less you know about that asshole, the better. He’s behind the Rabid Puppies.) and I’m not wasting money on that crap. A summary online makes it look like the focus is on a racist Chinese man who goes to Africa. Will he learn the errors of his ways? Considering Vox Day literally called African-American writer N.K. Jemisin (a nominee in the novel category who I’ll get to later) a subhuman, I doubt it!

Book Review: Story of Your Life and Other Stories by Ted Chiang

There is almost no one writing like Ted Chiang today. He is famously unprolific, and yet almost every story he publishes receives accolades. Rather than sing vague exultations of him, though, let’s dive into his short story collection.

Tower of Babylon- This was his first published story (the stories here are in order of publication). It went on to win a Nebula award (not that I’m jealous or anything…). It follows a group of miners who ascend the Tower of Babylon. The reason miners are needed high in the sky? This world follows the Babylonian view of the world, so in addition to other bizarre sights, at the top of the tower they run into a stone barrier they need to break through. Probably one of my favorite stories here.

Understand- After a near-fatal drowning, a man is brought back through the use of a drug that makes him super smart. Smarter than the government…although the premise is cliché, Chiang pulls this off by making it less of a thriller and more of a thoughtful piece.

Division by Zero- A woman checks into a mental facility after she disproves a fundamental aspect of mathematics. As a professor, until then, mathematics had been her life. Her husband, meanwhile, has a change of opinion about something… Although it’s not speculative fiction as most people think of the genre, it provides something that had been missing in “Understand,” humanity. The relationship between husband and wife is more compelling than a supercomputer lying in his apartment.

Story of Your Life- The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a largely discredited theory in linguistics that a language shapes the speaker’s perceptions of the world. It still makes for compelling reading, though. Other examples of it in fiction include Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany and The Dispossessed by Ursula K. le Guin. I won’t spoil how Chiang handles it, but it’s an original way. The story itself is about a race of aliens who communicate with Earth. Linguists try to learn their language to understand what they’re doing, but the aliens’ motives remain elusive. Peppered throughout are the linguist’s reminisces about her daughter. One of the best here.

The Evolution of Human Sciences- A flash fiction piece. It concerns the idea that one day science might get too technical for anyone untrained to understand–taken to the extreme, of course. This one’s a little rough because beyond there’s little plot, little conflict. It’s just describing a possible future.

Seventy-Two Letters- This takes a myth and a discredited scientific theory and welds them together beautifully. This takes place around the early 1800s in an alternate version of England. Here, golems (like in Jewish lore) work is you discover the right permutation of letters to power them, and that humans have a fixed number of generations during which they can reproduce. In this is a scientist who wishes to improve the lives of the lower class. He quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a guild who does not want him to impinge upon their livelihood and a shadowy organization made up of high society members.

Hell is the Absence of God- What if angels were real and every time they appeared, explosions and miracles occurred, killing some but saving others? That’s the premise here. When a man loses his wife to an angel, he tries to forgive God and love Him so that he can follow her up into heaven, but he hates Him too much for taking away his love. Two other characters going through their own trials fill out this tale. Everyone seems to love this one (it won a number of awards, too) but I was not overly impressed. Sometimes when a writer has a very economical style, they can write a story using too few words, like there should have been more to fill it out. I had that problem here. The idea was thought provoking, but not enough time was spent developing the characters for me to be satisfied.

Liking What You See: A Documentary- It’s a documentary because the story is narrated through a ton of different voices, each one getting their own scenes. The premise is that a college wants to install a device in their students that filters out beauty, that is, they no longer recognize what faces are beautiful and which are ugly. Chiang was nominated for a Hugo award for this story but declined, saying that editorial pressure made him rush the story and it didn’t turn out how he wanted it, and this one did feel a little rougher. Although Chiang tries to give both sides of the issue proper arguments, in my eyes, he failed for the “against” side, the people who want to continue to see beauty and ugliness. Their arguments often come across as manipulative and one-dimensional, and when a story relies on being provoking new ideas rather than being gripping, that sort of thing just doesn’t work. A disappointing way to end the collection.

Over all, this is an amazing collection. Even the “missteps” are just average, not bad. Anyone with even a slight interest in science fiction needs to check out Chiang.

Book Review: The Last Lover by Can Xue

Can Xue is becoming one of my favorite writers. She’s a surreal writer from China, and when I say surreal, I mean, if you imagine Haruki Murakami being a 3/10 in terms of otherworldly content, she’s a 10. Her stories quickly lose sight of reality and enter their own horrific dream worlds. In English, her best-known work is her novel Five Spice Street, but I prefer The Last Lover, winner of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.

It starts out simple enough: Joe, a sales manager at a clothing store, who wants to mentally link all the books he’s ever read in his head so that he can always be reading. His wife, Maria, is has mystical problems of her own, and both Joe’s boss and a customer of his are having issues with spouses and lovers.

Locations repeat, people become animals, ghosts appear, and characters visit cities that are entirely underground. Though most of the characters have overarching stories, most chapters are episodic. Present throughout (and linking everything together) is the theme of love and what it means to these people.

There’s not too much else to say. Can Xue’s writing is like a kaleidoscopic dream. And much like dreams, describing it to other people is just boring. You have to read it yourself to experience it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s now one of my favorites.

A Young Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway needs no introduction. His minimalistic stylistic innovations won him the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and are still influential almost a hundred years later. Not only that, but his first full-length novel, The Sun Also Rises, established him as a major force in literature and some consider it his best work today. I recently read two volumes of a Hemingway biography, The Young Hemingway and The Paris Years by Michael S. Reynolds, and was struck by just how motivational a figure Hemingway was. Even if you dislike his social views or his larger than life persona, there’s a lot to learn from his discipline and early failures.

After serving in World War 1 as an ambulance, driver falling in love with a nurse, he returned to his family in Illinois and tried to piece back his shell-shocked life. Overseas, he had mentioned to the nurse that he was a writer, and he was determined to professionally publish something so that his lie would become reality.

But as their relationship fell apart, he continued writing and sending off his stories to places like the Saturday Evening Post. Although he wrote voluminously, all were rejected. They were, for the most part, non-autobiographical tales written in imitation of the popular writers of the day like Kipling and Sherwood Anderson and bad poems. He also started a novel based on his life in the war and with the nurse and worked on it intermittently. At the same time, he found work as a journalist, honing his skills for papers, but he considered this hackwork.

Eventually, he found another girl, Hadley, married her, and soon after attracted the attention of Sherwood Anderson. He advised the young writer to go to Paris, where the cost of living was a lot less, and where many artists were shacking up. He gave them a couple of letters of introduction to people like Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach, and then the couple was off in 1922.

Hadley had a trust fund that would have enabled them to live, albeit just above the poverty line, with no work, but Hemingway refused and kept doing journalism, and traveled to Germany and Turkey and Greece to cover stories. All the while he kept writing–until tragedy struck.

While traveling, Hadley was supposed to meet him, bringing with her a valise filled with his stories, but somehow, somewhere in the crowded train and station, she lost it. Hemingway was heartbroken: other than on story (Up in Michigan) and some juvenilia he had outgrown, every story he had written along with his novel had vanished. He revised Up in Michigan a bit, but due its sexual content, it took a while for it to see print.

But the good news was soon after he finally got a book deal. It was not a glamorous publishing house, in fact, it was practically a vanity press printing, and the book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, sold less than ten copies in Paris. His next book, in our time, received similar press. And although he was starting to make a name for himself in literary circles in Paris, few magazines would take his work. His first big story publication, Indian Camp, was published in The Transatlantic Review, where he sat on the editorial board. Another short story collection followed, entitled In Our Time (with capital letters this time), and while it won praise from critics, the day when Hemingway would be able to earn decent money from his writing was still a few years away.

His break out novel came out in 1926, 8 years after 1918 when he had returned to Illinois and begun toiling away almost everyday. Although he is falling from critical favor now, he still provides a good lesson on staying motivated. If you don’t quit writing, one day you’ll see publication. Just don’t get discouraged when it takes you multiple years.

Book Review: Zoo Story and The Sandbox by Edward Albee

These are technically two plays, not one, but Zoo Story is a one act and The Sandbox is super short, so they get put together for this write up. They were both written by the amazing author Edward Albee, best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Whenever people complain about how Philip Roth has never won the Nobel I always roll my eyes–because of Albee. He truly is an amazing writer.

Zoo Story was his first published play. In it, a well-to-do businessman sits on a park bench in Central Park when an alienated odd ball walks by and insists he talks to him because he’s just been to the zoo. From there, their conversation gets philosophical, personal, and, towards the end, tragic. It’s on the surface its reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, but deeper down it’s its own singular piece.

The Sandbox is a bit more out there. A young man is performing calisthenics in the corner of the stage as three people–a married couple and one of their mothers, who’s approaching senility–come on and relax at the “sandbox.” Eventually, the couple leaves behind the mother–and things only get stranger from there.

Both of these are excellent examples of the “theater of the absurd,” but The Sandbox can be a too much for some people (it was critically panned when it first came out). Zoo Story may not be the classic that Virginia Woolf is, but it’s still one in the “Albee canon.” Albee is not to be missed.

Book Review: The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Those of you who have never read Camus’ The Stranger, go read that now. Those of you who have already done that, consider reading this book.

It’s a post-colonial tale of what happened in The Stranger, with the senseless murder of an Arab (“because the sun’s light was too bright”) operating at its fulcrum. That Arab, unnamed and of little consequence in the Camus beyond being a plot device, is the protagonist’s older brother here.

The book opens with an old man narrating his story to a journalist at a bar. He tells of his brother’s murder, how his mother and he dealt with it, what they did when they found out the murderer was a celebrity (in this universe, The Stranger was published as a work of nonfiction), and how the investigation never offers them any relief. There is a loose plot, which creeps dangerously close to the story of The Stranger, but for the most part it reads as a rant. For anyone who’s read any Antonio Lobo-Antunes, the same caustic anger can be found throughout here. But not the wild, Faulknerian prose. Although this book has a bit more poeticism to it than Camus, this book is told in language simple enough to be reminiscent of Camus’ writing.

This set up could get old very quickly, but luckily Daoud wrote a book that also mirrors The Stanger in terms of length: it clocked in at about 150 pages with large print in my copy.

While I don’t think it’s likely this will go on to be the world classic The Stranger is, it is definitely a must read for fans of Camus and those interested in post colonialism. Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest work, The Buried Giant, is an odd book. It has a fantasy setting, but it’s more literary and slow than any other novel in the genre I’ve read. It has an interesting plot, but it takes a while to puzzle out what’s really going on.

The basic premise is that a fog of forgetfulness has fallen over the land of England–not England as it is now, but rather the England of Arthurian legend. Axl and Beatrice are an old couple living on the outskirts of a town. They are treated poorly by the residents, but no one seems to remember what could have brought this on. They decide to leave in order to go see their son, who they vaguely remember and think is nearby. Along the way, they encounter ogres, knights, and Saxons (who despise the Britons), and gain some companions.

All of this is told in Ishiguro’s typical artful prose, which is neither too purple not too minimal.

But while it does feature some excellent meditations on death and love, the plot itself is a bit lacking. The main story turns out not to revolve around the old couple but rather some of their new friends, and by spending more time with Axl and Beatrice, the plot ends up a lot slower and more underdeveloped than necessary. There’s definitely a good story with them, but it would have been more fit for a short piece or novella than the better part of a novel.

If you haven’t already, definitely read The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, his two masterpieces. If you like them, move on to this. Even if you are a big fan of fantasy and want to get acquainted with Ishiguro through this one, I would say hold off and check out his others. This is neither an amazing Ishiguro or fantasy book (although it certainly is worth a read).

Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

A few months ago I reviewed “Redshirts” by John Scalzi and disliked it so much I said it would be quite a while before I got convinced to approach his work again. Well, I lied. I picked up “Old Man’s War,” read it all, and…actually liked it. It was a good, fun book.

In the future, old people can register for a draft to fight against alien species all vying for habitable colony planets. These people are given new superhuman bodies allowing them to do a lot more than just relive their old glory days.

The first half, describing one man’s registration and subsequent experiences in training, are surprisingly more riveting than the actual war sections. The problem with these parts is that it they start to blend together: introduce an alien species and their odd quirks, describe problems fighting them, people die, then they figure out how to defeat them for the time being. It often felt like Scalzi was spending the majority of these portions just setting up sequels. It takes quite a while for the actual plot to reveal itself, and when it does, the book picks up again, but still.

As for the characters, the main character is a bit of a Mary Sue. Survives things that literally kill everyone else. After one scene in the training camp I had to put the book down and roll my eyes. He also does something oddly out of character towards the beginning of the book. I won’t spoil it here, but given the main plot of the book, you’d think he would be more conflicted doing a certain act after receiving his new body.

But it’s an interesting book. Does it deserve all the fame? Well, it is a new take on the old military scifi cliché and offers a lot of thrills. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s absolutely worth a read, especially as we approach beach season and people look for a book to read as the waves crash around them.