Enter the Hugos
We Take On the Best of SF
by Michael Swanwick
Avon ($23, hard)
City on Fire
by Walter Jon Williams
HarperPrism ($6.99, paper)
by Robert J. Sawyer
Tor ($23.95, hard)
Rise of Endymion
by Dan Simmons
Bantam Spectra ($6.50, paper)
by Joe Haldeman
Ace Books ($21.95, hard)
I've finally figured out why speculative fiction is poo-poo'd by the literary powers-that-be: SF writers just can't manage to succinctly tell a gripping story. It takes them three books to get the job done, to contain a beginning, middle, and end. It's horrifically frustrating and, to be honest, I've stopped reading anything that contains the words "part (insert number here) of the ongoing saga/tale/bildungsroman."
Except, of course, when it comes to the Hugo nominees. "Ah," thinks I, "these books will be the cream of the crop, the top of the heap, the books that will both stand the test of time and mirror the times in which they were written." Then, I notice that three of the five 1998 nominees are sequels of some sort or another. It's enough to make a reviewer cry. These are the Hugos, the grand-daddy of all SF awards, which were first awarded in 1953 and honor the best of speculative fiction published in the preceding calendar year. The winner will be announced on August 8 and subsequently entered into the annals of history, to be read, remembered, and cherished for generations to come. And more than half of those tomes to be considered can't be appreciated without having read X number of books before this one. It's incredibly irritating, even for a die-hard speculative fiction fan.
It also drives away the SF-curious, those who would be open to some good speculative fiction and who want to approach it like any other genre; i.e., pick up a recommended novel and read it with no further commitment. Heaven forbid those exploring new reading matter should look to the list of nominees for a starter book. This hapless reader would be stuck without any author-provided bearings, lost in a world full of characters who were fleshed out in the last three books and who get only a glancing treatment in the actual book being read. Like I was in Walter Jon Williams' City on Fire. Nowhere on the cover, front or back, inner or outer, does it indicate that this novel is actually part of a larger series of novels.
Only when you begin to read the romance copy in the first few pages, you know, the quotes from previous reviewers, do you begin to realize that this book is heavily propped-up by those that preceded it. Publishers, at least Harper anyway, seem to be getting sneakier about this whole sequel thing. Perhaps they are becoming aware that there is a growing hatred for the endless, sequential dreck that is being churned out and, instead of slowing the flow of said dreck, they are simply trying to sneak it past the book consumer. And it almost worked. I was a quarter of the way into this espionage thriller/fantasy/love story before I realized that something was subtly not right. I chalked it off to lack of sleep and kept reading. The feeling grew stronger still. Who are these people? I kept wondering. And what is this plasm stuff they keep talking about? Finally, I flipped to the front and noticed that Kirkus Review called it a "direct, independently intelligible sequel to the intriguing Metropolitan..." Feh.
In a way, the Kirkus crew is correct. City on Fire is independently intelligible. You can follow the basic coming-of-age plot without having prior knowledge of the universe or its characters. Williams's Aiah, an outcast following her actions in Metropolitan (whatever they were), grows throughout the course of the novel, as she encounters treachery and subterfuge in a growing government. There is a great love story between Aiah and Constantine, the man who allegedly overthrew the government in the aforementioned prequel and is now working to establish a form of leadership in this post-coup country. All very intelligible, and Williams does provide just enough information to help you appreciate the situations that these characters are currently in, as well as brief glimpses of the back story to let you know where they came from.
City on Fire is a political science major's wet dream, as it deals with the inner workings of politics and power. It's also a great novel for those who love strong female characters, since Aiah's growth from a shy bureaucratic cog to a mighty wheel who may or may not be a prophet is the stuff to inspire any girl who thinks she can't. Plus, this book is a fine example of what modern fantasy can be. There are no dwarves, no quests, and no talking animals but there is magic, in the form of plasm - I never really did figure out its history and rules of use - and a coven, of sorts, of weird sisters as well as a golem who feeds on the energy of those around him. Despite all of these fine qualities, reading the book is like walking into an ongoing conversation. The participants continually refer to people you haven't met and places you've never been, which wouldn't be so bad if the plot didn't require a certain amount of knowledge about the political landscape and the personalities it contains. And, unlike interrupting a real-life conversation, there is no one to stop and ask for clarification of the referents.
Reading City on Fire, however, is nowhere near as frustrating as reading Robert J. Sawyer's Frameshift. While it is not a sequel, it is, in a word, crap. Not only crap, it is pompous crap. I don't get it. Sawyer was nominated last year for Starplex, a novel that read like a rejected Star Trek episode. His Terminal Experiment won a Nebula. I want the names and numbers of every person Sawyer's publicist bought off, so that I can call them and read bits of his spare prose and preposterous plots to them until they blanch at their greed and foolishness.
On its surface, Frameshift seems like it should work. Sawyer has clearly read his Strunk & White. Every needless word has been omitted, leaving the language clear and direct. The characters have succinct motivations. Pierre is a genetic researcher who also has Huntington's disease. Molly is his lover who knows that his lifespan will be short yet still stands by her man. She wants to have his baby but has blocked fallopian tubes. Pierre doesn't want to use his genetic material for fear of passing on his soon-to-be fatal condition. So, they take a rather unorthodox route and let a colleague, who is also a brilliant geneticist, open Molly up, snatch one of her eggs, and use his own sperm to knock her up. Then, as they say, all hell breaks loose.
The problem is that Sawyer can't break loose. You can tell that Frameshift was written from an outline and that the author will not deviate from it, even if it would make a more interesting story. You can see him pulling every string, setting up every twist and turn, like some first-year fiction writer who is afraid to play with the "rules" in any way, shape, or form. It's safe fiction that takes no chances and, when coupled with Sawyer's workmanlike prose, is deadly dull. But I do think I've finally figured out why he continually gets nominated. Sawyer writes about very smart people who routinely get the opportunity to make fun of those less smart than them. One scene in Frameshift shows Pierre unapologetically stealing from a not-so-bright woman simply because it will advance his scientific cause, after he has all but called her an idiot. Perhaps Sawyer represents all of those pocket-protector types who were scorned by the high school football captain. His writing represents some sort of sick revenge for those who have repeatedly had sand kicked in their face.
Michael Swanwick's Jack Faust is also, in some sense, the classic revenge novel, more for scientists in search of validation than the geeky intellectual set. The archetypal Faust, for those of you unfamiliar with Goethe's original tale, is a man who makes a deal with the devil in exchange for his soul. In Swanwick's version, Jack Faust is a medieval physicist who knows that the earth revolves around the sun, instead of the other way around. The clerics who run the town make a laughingstock of him. One night, Faust is visited by an invader from another dimension, whose name translates to Mephistopheles, who offers him ultimate knowledge in exchange for destroying the planet. Faust, like any neglected genius, agrees, invents all kinds of nifty gadgets, and slowly pushes the world closer and closer to the brink of blowing itself up. Swanwick's book does more, however, than retell Goethe's tale. Instead, he reinterprets the core ideas and applies them to a modern mindset, examining the root of war, the war of the sexes, and the nature of capitalism. It's a dark book that lacks any real good guy and that causes the reader to brew his or her own dark thoughts in return.
The days I spent working through Swanwick's effortless prose were days I also spent moping about my life, pondering the futility of it all, proving that the text and thoughts are engaging on more than an entertainment level. The drawback, however, is that this book has scenes that feel as if they were almost lifted from any number of other modern classics, from Brecht's Galileo to Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Dan Simmon's The Rise of Endymion is borrowed as well, from every epic ever written and every heart-breaking love story ever penned. But Simmons weaves his fleeced tropes into a startlingly original tale, one that is full of passion, intrigue, and humor while capturing all of the vivid creativity that is inherent in this genre. It is what you expect a Hugo winner to be, except for one small problem: You have to have read the three books previous to this one to even have the slightest clue what the heck is going on.
The Rise of Endymion is the conclusion to Simmons' magnum opus, which contains Hyperion, a book that I would highly recommend to anyone who loves a great tale well-told and that can be read without craving the sequel, Fall of Hyperion, and Endymion. The cast of characters does change from book to book, but there are commonalities. The Shrike, an evil machine that is like a futuristic Edward Scissorhands, Father Dure, an immortal priest, and Martin Silenus, a poet, remain constant. Rise finally ties up all of the loose ends, while incidentally saving the fictional world, and leaves you sobbing by the sheer beauty and scope of it all. But there is no way - none - that a Simmons novice could pick this incredible book up and have any hope of enjoying the story. No amount of explanation on the part of a well-meaning book reviewer could untangle all of the story lines in this gorgeous travelogue-esque series. Rise only resonates when you know what has come before.
Forever Peace is also a sequel, of sorts, to Haldeman's Forever War. There is not, however, a direct relationship. War was published in 1975, winning both a Hugo and Nebula. Peace is merely a continuation of War's theme, looking at the nature of combat and freedom from another perspective, one that has changed as the world has changed since Haldeman last tackled the subject over 20 years ago.
Hopefully, the world won't have to wait another 20 years before Haldeman can write another book that is this simple and powerful. Peace flip-flops from first-person narrative to third-person omnipotence in brilliant ways, which provide both necessary perspective and a sense of immediacy. Julian, the human voice, is a soldier in the modern 2043 army, a fighter who never leaves his barracks and instead remotely operates a "soldierboy," an almost indestructible killing machine. This hands-off violence begins to insinuate itself into Julian's psyche in unexpected ways, ways that his girlfriend will later exploit in order to change life as we know it. And Peace is that rare but valued creature, hard science fiction that uses plausible mechanics without ever sacrificing its characters for the sake of the gadgets. It is this book that I would press into the hands of a spec fic virgin, in the hope I can gain more converts.
Former Chronicle writer Adrienne Martini now works for the Knoxville Metro. She began her annual Hugos review in 1997.