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Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest Review Round-Up

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem was something of a surprise Hugo winner last year: a Chinese language SF novel that came out very late in the year (November), and then rapidly grabbed a Nebulas nom and a Hugo win. There are a lot of things going on in the case of The Three-Body Problem. Ken Liu translated the book, and he brought with him his Hugo/Nebula credibility (3 prior Hugo nominations, 2 wins; 8 prior Nebula nominations, 1 win). That brought eyes to The Three Body-Problem, and once people starting reading Liu’s book, they found a highly original novel ranging from Cultural Revolution to an alien invasion to a massive human computer to a ship being cut apart by microfilaments to the unfolding of an elementary particle. Three Body-Problem also benefitted from the great 2015 Hugo controversy—it was the book most acceptable to all parties, and enjoyed the support of the Rabid/Sad Puppies in beating out The Goblin Emperor.

In many ways, though, it wasn’t a fair fight. Cixin Liu is a sensation in China, and these books are considered some of the best Chinese SF of all time. It’s no surprise that the best Chinese novel of the decade is better than the American/British novels of any given year. Perhaps the Hugo is truly becoming a world SFF award, and that would certainly change the face of future nominations.

All that aside, let me state this: if Three Body-Problem could win last year, its sequel The Dark Forest could win this year. The same circumstances (and even voters) that created last year’s Hugos are still in place: could Liu be the compromise choice two years in a row?

The Dark Forest picks up where The Three Body-Problem left off. Mild spoilers follow. The Tri-solarians are on their way to Earth, and the humans now have a several hundred year period to prepare. In many ways, The Dark Forest is a more conventional novel than Three-Body, insofar as it has more of a main character and a more unified plot. Many readers will like that, although I missed the sheer exuberance of the giant set-pieces. Liu doesn’t do away with those entirely, and by the time you’ve finished The Dark Forest, you’ve seen some truly memorable SF moments, including the idea of the Wallfacers, the concept of the Dark Forest, and a murderous teardrop. I won’t say more for fear of giving away too much.

Sequels are always at a disadvantage on the awards circuit. Since not everyone has read the first novel, your potential audience is cut down. There’s also a sense of “This author just won, let’s give someone else a chance.” Liu’s biggest competition might be Ann Leckie this year, so the sequel-disadvantage is in play for both of these books. That’s why Uprooted or Seveneves has a chance to sneak in.

In terms of nominations, I think Hugo and Nebula nominations for The Dark Forest are likely. Cixin Liu was one of the most talked about SF authors last year, and more and more readers are checking out his work. More readers = more award chances, and we know that the Hugo and Nebula voters tend to be repetitive. It’s hard to fill out a 5 spot ballot; most SFF voters just don’t read 5 new novels a year.

In terms of metrics, The Dark Forest is doing pretty well. In late October, Goodreads is at 1,617 ratings and a 4.48 score. On Amazon, we’re at 116 ratings and an outstanding 4.7 score. Those score are very high, showing that those who read The Dark Forest have really liked it. That’s inflated because it’s a sequel (if you hated the first novel, why read the second?), but high scores are always better.

The Dark Forest
Published August 11, 2015

About the Book:
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page

Cixin Liu doesn’t have much presence in English-language social media. Rather than hurting his chances, I think this might help in the charged 2015-2016 awards environment: Cixin Liu seems totally removed from the various controversies of the Hugo awards.

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly
Kirkus (starred review)
Denver Post

Not great mainstream coverage—no articles in NPR, NY Times, etc. That might be because The Dark Forest is a sequel. Liu does get a variety of pieces on why you should read him in general. For instance, The Washington Post ran an article on “Why you should be reading Liu Cixin, China’s hottest SF writer”; NPR has a similar piece on “Cultural Revolution-Meets-Aliens: Chinese Writer Takes on Sci-Fi.” Chaos Horizon is still trying to parse through how much this kind of mainstream coverage helps your Nebula/Hugo chances: it seemed to help VanderMeer win the Nebula last year. I’m less certain if it helps in the Hugos.

SFF Reviews:
Tor.com
Barnes and Noble SF Blog
SF Signal (5 out of 5 stars)

That’s actually pretty thin: no online review at Locus yet, no Book Smugglers review (they gave Three-Body Problem a 10 out of 10), no Strange Horizons, etc. Maybe these venues are just a little bit behind on reviewing the book—that happens often when sequels. When people know they’re going to read a book, they might wait until later in the year, or even after the Hugo/Nebula noms, to read something. In fact, I’m afraid that’s happening more and more with the Hugo packet. A reader may say, “Cixin Liu is sure to make it, I’ll just wait for my free copy.” At some point, that attitude will cost someone a Hugo nomination.

WordPress Reviews:
Relentless Reading (4.5 out of 5 stars)
For Winter Nights
Novel Gazing Redux
Simon McNeil

Finding WordPress reviews of The Dark Forest was surprisingly hard. It doesn’t look like a lot of my fellow WordPress bloggers have read The Dark Forest yet. The book came out in August, so it’s been a few months. Maybe this one is in the pile of “too read”–sometimes reading a sequel isn’t as pressing as reading a new book. However, if everyone takes this “wait to read it attitude,” that would hurt Liu’s chances. Readers seem to have liked the book, some more than The Three-Body Problem, some less.

Overall, I feel worse about The Dark Forest‘s chances now, after seeing how few people have reviewed his book. I’ll keep checking in to see if this picks up.

My Take: I didn’t like The Dark Forest as much as The Three-Body Problem, which was my favorite SFF novel of 2015. Maybe my expectations were too high. Don’t get me wrong, The Dark Forest is still a good novel, with some very memorable set pieces and ideas in it. It just has less going on than the first novel, and lacks the constantly frantic, over-the-top energy of Liu’s initial vision. If it makes any sense, The Dark Forest is a better novel but a worse book. It may have better characters, a smoother plot, and a more accessible feel, but it lacks the monumental vision of The Three-Body Problem. Still, I think many readers will prefer The Dark Forest to The Three-Body Problem for exactly those reasons. I’ve long since made peace with the idea that my reading tastes are eclectic. 8 out of 10.

So, will The Dark Forest make it back to back Hugo wins for Liu? Will the Nebula voters want to play catch up and give Liu the award? Will too many people put off reading the sequel?

Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix Review Round-Up

Part of the work I do here at Chaos Horizon includes eliminating novels from my Hugo and Nebula predictions. I do this for a variety of reasons: the novel is the wrong genre, the novel is too late in a series, the novel has no buzz, the novel has no discernible sales. We can learn as much about the Hugos and Nebulas by what novels aren’t included in those awards as the ones that are.

Sometimes, a novel seems to be a possible contender but then fades away after it comes out. Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix seems to fall into this category. While there is still plenty of time left in 2015 for a book to rise from the ashes—placement on year end lists would really help—I’m not seeing the broad support the book would need to be a 2015 awards contender, at least in the Hugo and Nebula.

Okorafor was in an interesting position going into 2015. Her novel Lagoon came out in the UK in 2014 and got some good awards traction: it was nominated for the BSFA and Tiptree, took 7th in the Locus SF poll, and even finished 16th in the Hugo voting—all without a US publication. The Book of Phoenix seemed poised to follow up on this success. It was a prequel to the Nebula nominated and World Fantasy Award winning Who Fears Death, returning to the origins of that well-liked novel. Book of Phoenix is a short, violent narrative about an artificially designed woman with wings who flees a dystopic America to Africa, and who comes backs an avenging angel to rip down the institutions that created her. This has many of the same themes about personhood and autonomy that Ancillary Mercy, Aurora, and The Just City do. So you’ve got a prequel to an award-winning novel by an author who has just come off a good amount of awards buzz who seems on trend: that has been a past formula for awards success.

But, five months after The Book of Phoenix was published, it doesn’t seem to have connected with audiences. I don’t see much online discussion, and the metrics are very low. On Goodreads in late October, this has 351 ratings and 4.00 score; on Amazon, 40 ratings and 4.1. Compare that to the other major contenders of 2015, most of which are at least 4 or 5 times that number. In a competitive year, you need a certain critical mass of readers to drive you to a nomination.

Part of this stems from Lagoon itself. Book of Phoenix came out in May, and the US edition of Lagoon in July. Did that divide Okorafor’s reading audience? Not a lot of readers are going to by two hardcovers by the same author in a three month span. The US Lagoon publication actually makes Lagoon eligible for both the 2016 Hugo and Nebula, so there’s an outside chance of a nomination there. Book readers don’t have the longest memories, though—will Lagoon be a distant memory by time the 2016 nominating period begins? Will the Okorafor vote be divided between that and Book of Phoenix?

This is a good case study of how Nebula/Hugo history and even pre-release buzz might not translate into award nominations. Your book has come to out and audiences have to embrace it; without word-of-mouth, a book won’t reach the threshold it needs to grab a nomination. Dinosaur Lords is another good example of that: fierce pre-release buzz, then silence. Okorafor’s chances can still change, but I think splitting the audience between Lagoon and Book of Phoenix dooms both. If you’ve got arguments to the contrary, I’d love to hear them.

The Book of Phoenix
Published May 5, 2015

About the Book:
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page
Nnedi Okorafor’s Web Page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly
NY Times

The book got killed by Publisher’s Weekly: it was called “haphazard” and “This tale of oppression is brimming with anger, but without a compelling reason to care about the characters, Okorafor’s vital larger messages are lost.” It did get a few paragraphs in the NY Times in their “SF and F” roundup article, but otherwise coverage was very light.

SFF Reviews:
Tor
Locus Online
Book Smugglers (8 out of 10)
SFF World (7 out of 10)

We’re thin on the ground here as well, and reviews are definitely tempered in their enthusiasm. Reviewers didn’t find the same, accessible narrative that Who Fears Death provided, and that seems to have scared away potential readers.

WordPress Reviews:
Alternative Worlds II
Minimalistic Eric

There’s the problem—five months after release, and I wasn’t able to find more than a few WordPress reviews. Normally, I have my choice of 15-20 WordPressers to feature. The more people who read your novel, the more can fall in love with it—and those passionate fans are the one that drive awards nominations. Lagoon did far better on the WordPress review circuit than this; if you had to predict one Okorafor book for 2015, it would definitely be Lagoon.

My Take: I enjoyed The Book of Phoenix; I read both it and Lagoon this year, and I preferred it to Lagoon. It was short, disjointed, and violent. I can see why readers would have a problem with it; Who Fears Death featured a young female protagonist that was very easy to relate to. The Book of Phoenix gives as a main character who is barely human, and the books rapid pace (less than 200 pages) doesn’t give her much space to develop. I thought the novel’s herky-jerky style reflected its themes well, and it had a kind of angry intensity to it. 7.5 out of 10.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora Review Round-Up

Now we’re in the thick of it—Aurora could be a heavy-hitter on the 2016 awards circuit. Robinson has a staggering number of past Hugo (14!) and Nebula (12!) nominations, and he’s won the Hugo Best Novel twice (Green Mars, Blue Mars) and the Nebula Best Novel another two times (Red Mars, 2312). That’s as a good a Hugo/Nebula profile as any living author with the exception of Connie Willis, who has an insane 24 Hugo noms/11 Hugo wins and 15 Nebula noms/7 Nebula wins. The conclusion: don’t bet against Willis.

Back to Robinson. Aurora is also the big prototypical SF novel that voters have gravitated towards in the past: a multi-generational ship launches towards a distant star, trying to colonize a new planet in the wake of Earth’s overpopulation. When they arrive, they face unforeseen circumstances . . .

It’s hard to say much more without spoiling the novel, but Robinson takes us on a profound journey through ideas of space colonization, individual and group decision making, the value of the individual life, ship design, A.I., and all the kind of BIG IDEAS you’d expect in a novel like this. Robinson gives these familiar ideas a new and effective spin, and I think almost anyone interested in classic SF is going to find something of value in Aurora. It’s a surprising and provocative novel, forcing us to think about space colonization in new ways.

It’s easy to read Aurora as Robinson looking back on his own 1990s defining Mars series, which had an optimistic spin on grand-scale terraforming. Aurora is far more measured with those ideas, and this book makes a great companion piece to his earlier work or even to a novel like Seveneves, which has surprisingly similar themes. To be fair, Robinson and Stephenson go in almost completely opposite directions in these two books, but I think the cross-talk between the novels enhances both.

What does this mean for the awards in 2016? The last time KSR published a true SF novel (2312), he grabbed a Hugo nom and won the Nebula in 2013. How much has changed since then? In the Nebula, not a lot—the same core of SFWA voters are still voting, so I expect this to show up on the Nebula ballot. Given that he just won three years ago, I don’t think he’ll win again, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The Hugo is a murkier award in 2016, given the turbulence surrounding it. 2312 took third place in 2013, and was also third in the nominations. Given the campaigns that are sure to take place in 2016, 3rd place is probably vulnerable to being pushed out. Add in that 2016 is a strong Hugo year (former Best Novel winners Robinson, Stephenson, Leckie, Walton, Bacigalupi, Scalzi, and Liu are all fighting for 5 spots, and that’s not even factoring in Puppy campaigns or buzzy authors like Novik). As a result, I think Robinson will miss the ballot, but a strong year-end push could definitely grab Robinson a spot.

As for metrics, as of mid-October 2015, Aurora has 2,535 Goodreads ratings with a 3.79 score and 264 Amazon ratings with a score of 3.7. Those aren’t great but they aren’t terrible. It’s a rare thing to see the Goodreads score higher than Amazon, but I couldn’t tell you what that means. I think around 1500 Goodreads / 100 Amazon is the cut off to be competitive, so KSR is well above that. Score doesn’t seem to matter for either the Hugos or Nebulas; VanderMeer won a Nebula last year with a 3.62 Goodreads score.

Aurora
First published July 17, 2015.

About the Book:
Amazon Page
Goodreads page

I couldn’t find a blog for KSR; he doesn’t seem to do much social media. Instead, here’s a list of his 10 favorite SF novels.

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The Guardian
NPR
LA Times
Scientific American

Words like “top of his game” show up in these reviews; Adam Roberts calls it “the best generation starship novel I have ever read” in The Guardian. High praise from the mainstream for this book, and a good range of coverage to boot.

SFF Reviews
Tor
Locus Online
Book Smugglers (10 out of 10)
SF Signal (4.5 out of 5)
Strange Horizons
SFF World

That’s as positive a group of reviews as you’re likely to see from the SFF world. All identified the book as “vintage” KSR, speaking very highly of the ideas and execution of the novel. It was interesting to see how he was positioned as a “literary” SF author. I expect these glowing reviews to translate to a strong position on year-end lists, which can definitely drive awards.

WordPress Reviews:

Little Red Reviewer
Robert McGrath’s Blog
Frequently Arsed Questions
For Winter Nights
From Couch to Moon
Relentless Reading (5 out of 5)
Xeno Swarm
Bree’s Book Blog

It’s always interesting to see what happens when actual readers get their hands on the book. Aurora is full of some very unusual philosophical and political twists, and a couple reviewers took issue with these politics, and I expect—once people finally get deeper into the ideas of Aurora—-that it will prove a little divisive. That won’t matter in terms of nominations, which are driven by passionate fans. Plenty of my fellow WordPress bloggers were overwhelmingly positive.

My Take: I greatly enjoyed Aurora even if I found myself disagreeing with much of it. Some of the philosophical stances KSR takes (or seems to take) are unexpected, and by the time we reach the final sequence of the novel, an ecological sublime with a character swimming in the ocean, he’s made a powerful argument about the absolute value of the self. Don’t know if I buy it, but the fun of this novel is in thinking about the ideas. In that way, Aurora does much the same work as Seveneves, using a SF canvas to probe complex ideas of the relationship between identity and scientific knowledge. Reading Stephenson’s novel and then reading Robinson’s was the best new SFF reading experience I’ve had so far this year, even if I liked Stephenson more. 9.0.

So, what’s your take? Will we see Aurora on the ballots next year?

Jo Walton’s The Just City Review Round-Up

Note: This is part of a series of Review Round-Ups investigating potential Hugo/Nebula Best Novel contenders for 2016. I use the information I gather to help my Hugo and Nebula predictions. See my Review Round-Up Strategy for 2015 post for more info.

What if Athena and Apollo tried to set up Plato’s Republic? And what if they travelled through time and body-snatched Plato’s greatest supporters to run the city as masters? Throw in 10,000 young kids that need to be raised the perfect way . . .

With that bold speculation, Jo Walton’s The Just City is off to the races. Walton shows us as a wide assortment of characters, both historical (i.e. Cicero, Socrates, etc.) and imagined, who try to put Plato’s grand dream into reality. Add in some robots—an ideal city needs servants, after all—and you’ve got a broad canvas for Walton to write about justice, societies, childhood, and what a perfect city might be. For anyone who has read The Republic, or been forced to read excerpts in class, this is a fun variation on Plato’s timeless vision.

As you might expect, everything begins to go wrong. In fact, the book can get quite violent at times, particularly around the issues of sexual assault. Walton is exploring the ways even the most ideal city crumbles under the weight of human imperfection. The Just City ends abruptly, but Walton has already published the sequel The Philosopher Kings in 2015, and there’s a concluding volume to the trilogy in the offing.

My initial thoughts about The Just City were that it was “too Greek” for the Hugos or the Nebulas, but I’ve tempered that position. This is more of a thought experiment than a traditional science fiction or fantasy novel, but audiences seem to be embracing Walton’s writing. Since sweeping the 2012 Hugo and Nebulas with her extraordinarily well-liked Among Others, Walton’s profile as an author has greatly increased. If not for the Puppy campaigns, she likely would have won a second Hugo in 2015 for her book of criticism What Makes This Book So Great. Her last novel My Real Children did well on the 2015 awards circuit, winning the Tiptree and scoring a World Fantasy nomination. If you exclude the Puppy nominations from 2015, My Real Children placed 8th in the 2015 Hugos, and I think The Just City is the more appealing of those two books.

I still don’t think it’s likely Walton will grab a Nebula or Hugo nomination in 2016, but I wouldn’t be if surprised she did. The Nebula is more open this year, since the Hugos are going to be an absolute mess in 2016 with huge turnout, voting campaigns, and other assorted kerfuffles. Walton’s book is posting middle-of-the-road numbers on Goodreads and Amazon. As of mid-October, she had around 2000 Goodreads ratings with a score of 3.78 and 51 Amazon ratings with a score of 4.00. What hurts The Just City is that, if you haven’t read Plato, it’s not very accessible. I don’t want to underestimate the SFF audience, though. I think a lot of those readers do know their Plato, and, if you do, this is an easy novel to like.

Ultimately, I have this down in the 8-12 range for the Hugos and Nebulas: a fighting chance, but by no means a sure thing. On to other opinions about the book:

The Just City
Published January 13, 2015.

About the Book:
Jo Walton’s Web Page
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
NPR
Los Angeles Review of Books

The mainstream venues were a little tempered. Publisher’s Weekly noted the sexual violence of the novel, and Kirkus was somewhat cutting with their claim “This is novel as study guide: Mary Renault meets undergraduate Philosophy 101.” The bigger mainstream venues (NY Times, etc.) ignored the book, as you’d expect for a pretty niche SFF title.

SFF Reviews:
Tor / Second Tor Review
Boing Boing
Barnes and Noble SF Blog
Strange Horizons (interview with Walton, not a review)
Skiffy and Fanty
SF Signal
SFF World

That’s broad coverage, and solid but not glowing reviews for The Just City. A lot of the reviewers identified it as idea-driven rather than character or plot-driven; words like “interesting” or “eclectic” were more often applied than “must-read.” Still, it was widely discussed, and that helps drive readers—and possible fans—to the book.

WordPress Reviews:
Violin in a Void (8 out of 10)
Intellectus Speculativus
Robin’s Books
Antonio Urias
Far Beyond Reality
Bibliotropic (5 out of 5)
Relentless Reading (5 out of 5)
The Dinglehopper
Mermaid Vision Books

A wide range of reactions and opinions. I think my fellow WordPress bloggers found the book interesting to argue with—and against—rather than a book they loved, although some certainly thought highly of it. Others disliked the book. I’m not surprised to see reviews polarized: you either willingly embraced the “though experiment” idea of the book or you didn’t.

My Take: I liked The Just City a great deal. I’m the core audience for this novel: I took three years of Greek in college as well as multiple philosophy courses. I thought Walton did an excellent job of throwing Plato’s ideas against the wall. It was good fun to see the historical and mythological figures interact. If you like the idea of seeing Socrates talk to Apollo and then a robot, this is the book for you. The Just City gives you a great space to think about Plato in a new light, and it’s the kind of novel that makes you want to pull The Republic off your shelf again. Now, we do have to give Plato at least some of the credit, and that’s what keeps The Just City from being truly great: it’s a novel about Plato rather than a novel standing entirely on it’s own merits. 8.5 out of 10.

Naomi Novik’s Uprooted Review Round-Up

I’ll cut right to the chase: I’m bullish on Uprooted‘s chances in the 2016 awards season. A lot factors point to this being the break-out novel of 2015: Ellen DeGeneres snapped up movie rights. The book has been doing absolutely gangbusters on Amazon and Goodreads; as of late September, this has 620 reviews on Amazon, with a 4.5 score. On Goodreads, this has 16,133 ratings (!), with a 4.21 score. Those are very high numbers for a Hugo and Nebula contender. Compare those to last years Hugo winner, The Three-Body Problem. Cixin Liu’s book is still sitting (after wining the Hugo) at 467/4.4 at Amazon, and 7041/4.0 at Goodreads.

Part of the reason Uprooted has been a break-out book is its unusual approach. This novel, from cover to content, has a “fairy-tale” feel without imitating any specific fairy tale. This novel tells the story of a young woman named Agnieszka. She’s taken to a wizard’s tower, where she at first seems to prisoner and then becomes a witch-in-training. We’ve got shades of Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, etc. Then the novel shifts gears, and we end up having a confrontation with the corrupted Wood, a kind of moving forest of evil that threatens the land. Uprooted is a wide-ranging book, bringing in plots that involve magic education, romance, and even war.

Since fairy-tales are one of the obvious roots of fantasy literature, this book has plenty of appeal for a broad fantasy audience. More than that, the fairy-tale approach make this seem original and important book. It’s very different than your typical epic fantasy, and I think this will follow in the footsteps of something like The Goblin Emperor. If anything, I think this book is stronger, more original, and more appealing than the Addison. Add in that this book seems to be about 10x as popular as Addison’s book . . .

Novik has been writing her well-regarded Temeraire series for years, a kind of Napoleonic wars with dragons series, and this is her first step outside that familiar territory. Hugo and Nebula voters tend to reward authors when they begin new series. Since this is an accessible starting point for new readers, it makes more sense to nominate Uprooted than volume #7 or #8 of Temeraire. Novik does have one prior Hugo nomination, back in 2007 for Her Majesty’s Dragon.

A lot of the question for 2016 will revolve around the Hugo controversies swirling in the field. Those uncertainties might substantially change voting patterns. If such changes were out of the equation, I think Novik would be a shoo-in for the Hugo and Nebula. I wouldn’t even be shocked to see Novik win some major awards next year, although we’re probably too early to predict that.

Even with various campaigns, expanded Hugo electorates, and other kerfuffles, I think Uprooted has an excellent chance. It’s widely read, original, positively reviewed, and written by an author with a prior Hugo nomination. That’s pretty much the Hugo profile in a nutshell.

Uprooted
Published May 19, 2015.

About the Book:
Naomi Novik’s website
Amazon page
Goodreads page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
NY Times
NPR
Slate

Good but not great mainstream coverage. The mainstream only tends to push books if they’re by super well-known writers (William Gibson, Neil Gaiman); I think Uprooted was more of a surprise word-of-mouth success.

SFF Reviews:

Locus Online
Tor.com
Book Smugglers (10 out of 10, 9 out of 10)
Barnes and Noble SF BlogStrange Horizons
Fantasy Book Critic

This is as positive a slate of reviews from the SFF world as you’ll see. It’s already being hailed as a “great book,” an “enchanted forest,” as one of the best of the year, as a new and exciting step forward for Novik. I think these reviews are more influential in the Hugo/Nebula process than the mainstream. What’s more important is that is early reviews seem to have led to word-of-mouth success. There will be times a book gets positive SFF coverage but doesn’t break out of the core; Uprooted seems to have a very broad reach.

WordPress Reviews:
Bree’s Book Blog
SF Bluestocking
Bookish and Awesome (3.5 out of 5)
SFF Book Reviews (9 out of 10)
Woven Magic (10 out of 10)
Bibliodaze (5 out of 5)
Bibliosanctum (4.5 out of 5)
Intellectus Speculativus
Relentless Reading (4 out of 5)
Bibliotropic (4 out of 5)
Love is not a Triangle

I could have added another dozen links if I wanted to—this book has been broadly reviewed and discussed amongst my fellow WordPress bloggers. As you’d expect, we’re a feisty bunch, and no one agrees on everything. Overall, though, the reviews are highly positive, singling this out as a unique, original, and unexpected 2015 read. Broad reception really helps in the Hugos: the more people read a novel, the more people can fall in love with it. Remember, you get a nomination based on having a highly passionate group of readers, not necessarily across the board consensus. It looks to me that Uprooted has exactly that.

My Take: I’ve been trying to add short microreviews of my own to these Review Round-Ups; I think readers need to be able to see my own biases and tastes so they can decide whether or not to trust me. My reading experience with Uprooted split neatly in half: I greatly enjoyed the first part of the book. I thought it’s ability to weave the familiar with the unfamiliar was striking, and drawing on fairy tales without reproducing classic fairy tales was original and exhilarating. I liked Novik’s prose style, and she has some well-crafted sentences and scenes, and the Wood certainly comes across as frightening and sufficiently mysterious.

Then the book shifts gears in the second half, and settles into Novik’s more familiar territory, being a kind of war novel between the Wood and the main characters. This part didn’t work for me; I never felt I fully grasped the “rules” of what the Wood or the wizards/witches could do. This made the battle sequences feel incoherent—instead of being involved in the war, I was taken out by the new powers that were constantly being introduced. I imagine that other readers might feel differently; there’s enough romance to keep driving the plot forward, and others might found those battles fun. Individual taste is individual taste; if the book would have ended on page 200, I probably would have given it an 8.5 or a 9, and it would have been my third or fourth favorite book so far this year (the one-two punch of Sevenves and Aurora are currently at the top of my list). I found the second half boring, and that drags my score down to a 7.5.

So, what do you think of Uprooted‘s chances? 9 months from now will Novik be celebrating a Hugo/Nebula sweep? I think it’s a strong possibility, but this year is going to be so chaotic that it’s too early to say.

Happy reading!

Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves Review Round-Up

With Seveneves, Neal Stephenson has lived his dream of creating the three most awkwardly titled novels in SF history. Has there ever been a run of tongue-twisters as profound as Anathem, Reamde, and Seveneves?

Snark aside, Seveneves is one of the biggest SF novels of the year in every way: length, ambition, execution, and sales. Seveneves is going to make plenty of noise when the 2016 awards season rolls around. Stephenson has been a major SF writer for more than 20 years (Snow Crash hit in 1992; that makes me feel old), and Seveneves continues his investigations into the nature of knowledge, the future of humanity, and the ways that technological and social systems interact.

Seveneves begins with a bang: the moon is blown up on the first page. This sets off a chain of occurrences disastrous to humanity, and we’re launched into an 800+ plus journey about the survival of the species. A large cast of characters has to take to space, facing off with problems both practical (dwindling supplies), interstellar (cosmic radiation), and self-inflicted (divisive internal politics). Stephenson’s novel mixes a lot of discussion about orbital mechanics with the mechanics of group conflict. While I don’t want to give away all the twists, Stephenson launches us far into the future so that we can see the end-results of the choices made by human groups. We also eventually learn what Seveneves means and how to pronounce it.

This is the kind big, meaty, philosophical SF that Stephenson has perfected since Cryptonomicon. While you aren’t going to fall in love with Stephenson’s characters (we have an stand-in for Neil deGrasse Tyson, for instance) and you may object to the meandering plot, no one delves into the connections between science and social systems more deeply than Stephenson. You’ll either love the depth here or be turned relatively quickly. While I’ll have some later posts that get more deeply into the “meaning” of the novel—this books makes a great companion piece to Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, by the way—let’s focus now on his award chances.

For all of Stephenson’s fame, he hasn’t done particularly well with the Nebulas and Hugos. Stephenson has 3 Hugo nominations and 1 Best Hugo win, all in the Best Novel category: The Diamond Age won in 1996, and Cryptonomicon and Anathem scored nominations in 2000 and 2009. I think Seveneves is of similar length, ambition, and SF-ness to Cryptonomicon and Anathem, so I expect another Hugo nomination. The Nebula awards have largely ignored Stephenson: only 1 nomination back in 1996 for Snow Crash. That’s an impressive 20 year record ignoring Stephenson; I don’t think it will be any different this year.

A lot depends on how people talk about Stephenson. I think a real argument could be made that it’s Stephenson’s time to win another Hugo, as a sort of “way to go” for the past decade of writing. Alternatively, Seveneves could be written off as not as good as Cryptonomicon or Anathem, and thus not as worthy to win. Keep an eye on how people start blogging and writing about Seveneves.

To be fair to the Hugos and Nebulas, Stephenson is pretty much a novel only writer, which gives him less chances for awards nominations than an author publishing both novels and short stories. His novels are also formidably long, which I think helps and hurts his chances. If you commit to reading Seveneves, you’ll probably remember it, but the bar of entry is pretty high.

Or is it? When we turn to sales metrics, Seveneves does extraordinarily well for a SF novel. Seveneves reached the #5 spot on Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list, the second best as SF novel has done this year (Armada hit #3), and PW reported 30,000+ sales before it dropped off their list. On Goodreads as of 8/6/15, Seveneves has 9,280 ratings and a 4.03 score. As a contrast, Ancillary Sword only has 8,398 ratings and that came out 8 months earlier and already scored Hugo and Nebula noms. Amazon rings in at 1,066 ratings and a 4.0. There won’t be many SF novels this year that put up better numbers than Stephenson.

So what does this all mean? I think Seveneves is primed to follow Anathem to a Hugo nomination in 2016, and I think the Nebulas will ignore Stephenson just like they have for the past 20 years. This is a big, substantial novel that will attract the core SF audience, and Stephenson’s fame and positive reviews will break this novel past that core audience to other SF fans. The length is going to turn some readers off, and the more experimental (and at times pessimistic) nature of the book will also alienate some. Still, Stephenson is going to get enough readers, and enough positive readers, to be a strong player in 2015.

On to reviews:

Sevenves

Published May 19, 2015.

About the Book:
Neal Stephenson’s web page
Amazon page
Goodreads page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
Kirkus Reviews
The New York Times
The Guardian
Entertainment Weekly (A-)
NPR
LA Times

Pretty much everyone in the mainstream reviewed Seveneves. This is extraordinary coverage for a SF novel, and the reviews are pretty uniformly positive as well. I could have gone on and added another dozen mainstream reviews, but the point is to compare this books using the same 7 venues. For an 800 page SF tome to get an A- from a venue like Entertainment Weekly says all you need to know about the mainstream embrace of this book. Basically, the mainstream is saying, “If you read one SF book this year, it should be Seveneves.”

SFF Reviews:

Tor.com
Barnes and Nobel SF Blog
Fantasy Book Critic
Boing Boing

Some of the SFF reviews have been slower to get out. Locus is usually here, but they haven’t put an online review up yet. It was definitely reviewed in the print magazine, but who reads print anymore? Reviews here are positive but actually less enthusiastic than the mainstream. Interesting.

WordPress Reviewers:
Bill’s Book Reviews (5 out of 5)
Relentless Reading (2.5 out of 5)
Rhapsody in Books (4 out of 5)
More Notes from Aboveground
Sharp and Pointed
Yet There Are Statues (3 out of 5)
The Dilettante’s Dilemma

Now we really get into it. I could have included more reviews—the book is very broadly discussed on WordPress—but this slice gives you a good representative sample. Seveneves was very divisive: some loved it, some hated it. You expect that with a book that’s so long and takes so many chances. For those readers who disliked it, it was often a question of engagement. Seveneves is a very dry read, and, in some ways, very philosophical/political. I think as the online discussion evolves, more people will engage with those politics, and anything political has a real chance to alienate some readers. Stephenson’s view of humanity is highly critical, and the books conclusions about scientific versus social knowledge cut against some 21st century political trends. As more readers have read the book and we don’t have to worry about spoilers, I expect Stephenson’s highly unusual take on knowledge, race, genetics, etc., to become even more divisive.

My take: For me, Seveneves has been the best SFF novel I’ve read in 2015 (although Cixin Liu’s Dark Forest is coming out soon). While it can be slow-moving and awkward at times, this novel had such a depth of philosophical and scientific discussion that it overwhelmed any character/plot shortcomings. I appreciate the ambition and scope of Seveneves—as well as a surprisingly detailed amount of hard science about orbital mechanics—and that ambition and scope carried me easily through the 800+ page length. I don’t necessarily agree with Stephenson’s observation about humanity, but they were well enough made to be highly interesting. I find more value in a book I can argue and debate with than one that I simply agree with, and Seveneves gave me plenty to think about. Highly recommended, 9 out of 10.

So, what do you think? Is Seveneves a Hugo frontrunner for 2016?

Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory Review Round-Up

Note: This is part of a series of Review Round-Ups investigating potential Hugo/Nebula Best Novel contenders for 2016. I use the information I gather to help my Hugo and Nebula predictions. See my Review Round-Up Strategy for 2015 post for more info.

Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory was one of the first SFF novels of 2015 to gain traction with critics and fans. A steampunk Western set in a fictionalized 19th century Seattle, the book tells the story of a group of prostitutes that have to fight back against a power-mad mind-ray wielding villain. Featuring a large cast of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities, our rag-tag group of heroes pulls together to lead Seattle to a brighter, more democratic future.

Karen Memory is an interesting combination of genres. The SF/alternative history elements are fairly light; there is some advanced technology, but the driving force behind the book is Karen’s narrative voice. Told in the first person, this is a vivid account of her struggle against the evil Peter Bantle and her development as a person. She falls in love with another woman, learns that she has strength she did not expect, and generally matures into a more powerful person. You’re going to like or dislike Karen Memory largely based on how you feel about Karen and her narrative voice.

Bear has never been nominated for a Nebula before. She is a four-time winner of the Hugo award (as well as the winner of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer). She has two wins for short fiction (“Shoggoths in Bloom” in 2009 and “Tideline” in 2008), and two more shared wins for SF Squeecast podcast (2013 and 2012). Interestingly, Bear has won every time she’s been nominated—that has to be the best win percentage of all time (4 for 4). What you don’t see in that history are any nominations for Best Novel, and Bear has written a ton of them. In 2012, Bear placed 15th in the nominations for Range of Ghosts 56 votes. To get into the mix, she’ll have to at least triple that for 2016 (and, given the rise in Hugo voters, probably even more than that). Does Bear have enough fans? Will Karen Memory be her leap into this category?

On the sales/metrics front, Karen Memory shows some weakness. As of 7/30/15, she has 57 Amazon rankings and 1,117 Goodreads ratings, with scores of 4.4 on Amazon and 3.82 on Goodreads. For a book published in early February, those are on the low side. In contrast, Uprooted by Naomi Novik has 395 Amazon ratings and 9,5000 Goodreads ratings. Karen Memory never made the Publisher’s Weekly Top 25 list. Karen Memory still has plenty of time to sell, but these numbers indicate that the book hasn’t broken out of the SFF core, and I also worry about that relatively low 3.82 Goodreads rating (Uprooted is 4.24 and Sevenes 4.03 for contrast).

What does all of this mean? I think Karen Memory has an outside shot but isn’t a frontrunner for the Hugo. Since Bear has never received a Nebula nomination, I don’t think Karen Memory has much of a chance there. Steampunk is not a sub-genre that has ever done well in the Hugos or Nebulas; looking back over the lists, only Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson strike me as a steampunk works with Hugo Best Novel noms. Throw in the Western motif, and you have a chance to turn off fans who don’t like Westerns or steampunk books.

2015 is also shaping up to be a very competitive Hugo and Nebula year. Many recent winners and nominees are publishing new novels this year: Leckie, Scalzi, Walton, Bacigalupi, and Robinson for recent winners, and then multiple nominees like Stephenson, Jemisin, and Stross. We also have breakout books like Uprooted, and I’m not yet factoring in things like possible Hugo campaigns for what is sure to be the most hotly contested Hugos ever. To receive a nomination in 2015 is going to take huge support; I don’t know if Bear has that. While popular with a segment of progressive SFF fans, does she have enough reach to break out of that bubble? Time will tell.

On to some reviews and info about the book:

Karen Memory
Published February 3, 2015

About the Book:
Elizabeth Bear’s Web Page
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
NPR

This was fairly lightly reviewed in the mainstream. Reviews were generally positive, but no stars for either Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus; I think that indicates that both outlets saw the audience as limited for this book.

SFF Reviews:
Locus Online
Tor.com
Barnes and Noble SFF Blog
Book Smugglers (8 out of 10)
A Dribble of Ink
SFF World
Far Beyond Reality

Broadly and positively reviewed by the more mainstream SFF blogs, Karen Memory was praised for its vibrant world and Karen’s unique voice. These blogs liked what the novel did with the steampunk genre, and generally regarded it as an excellent “rollicking” book. A couple called it lighter than some of the more serious SFF books of the year, and that might damage Karen Memory‘s award chances.

WordPress Reviews:
Space and Sorcery (8 out of 10)
Songs in Squee Minor
Intellectus Speculativus
Relentless Reading (4 out of 5)
Bibliosanctum (4.5 out of 5)
Civilian Reader

Now for the most important people: my fellow WordPress reviewers! That’s a fair number of reviews, but for a book that came out in February (I’m writing this in July), that’s not an overwhelming number. People were largely positive but didn’t necessarily give the book 10 out of 10 or 5 out of 5. That jibes with my sense of Karen Memory: people like it, but they don’t absolutely love it. To score a Hugo or Nebula nomination, you need some truly driven fans.

My sense is that Karen Memory did well with a certain core of the SFF fanbase but that it didn’t break out to the larger circles of SFF readers. That’s due in part to the steampunk/Western nature of the work. Lots of writers are writing those: Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, the Alloy of Law and sequels by Brandon Sanderson, Boneshaker and sequels by Cherie Priest. I’ve read most of those, and they’re interesting but they don’t seem essential.

My Take: A new debut in the Review Round-Ups is my microreview of the book. I found Karen Memory perfectly readable but also fairly forgettable. Fun while it lasted, but the book had a rushed feel to it: too many characters who were only on stage for one or two scenes. Aside from Karen herself, no one received much development. I found both the villain and the love interest pretty one-dimensional. I was also expecting a book about prostitutes to be funnier and edgier, and the book was ultimately a pretty safe “heroes win” romp. That might be my fault; I was expecting Cannery Row, and I got something a lot tamer. I also wanted more about the world, including a deeper investigation of how steampunk technology might change the United States. Middle-of-the-pack for me, 6 out of 10.

So, what are Karen Memory‘s chances in 2016? Will people forget this novel when the nomination period finally rolls around, or will positive word-of-mouth drive it to new set of fans? I’ll likely have Karen Memory in the mid-teens for my Hugo and Nebula predictions.

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven Review Round-Up

Boom! Bang! Flutter! Whatever sound you think books make when they sell, that’s the sound Station Eleven is making right now. Mandel’s literary take on the post-apocalyptic novel has been roaring over in the mainstream world. Supported by venues like Amazon.com (where it was declared the “Best SF Novel of 2014”), Entertainment Weekly, and a 2014 nomination for the National Book Award, it has been a break-out hit, and has received so much attention it’s bound to make some noise in the SFF world. Since Chaos Horizon is a blog dedicated to predicting the Hugo and Nebula awards, what chance does Station Eleven have this award season?

A decent one, particularly for the Nebula. To put Mandel’s popularity in perspective: as of December 17, 2014, Goodreads.com is showing 13,500 reader ratings, and Station Eleven has already added 3,500+ new readers since December 1st. If we compare that to some of the other Nebula contenders, the results are stark. Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs currently clocks in at around 2,000 readers. Mandel is on pace to double that this month alone. Take last year’s Hugo and Nebula winner Ancillary Justice; despite that huge push from the SFF world, she’s still sitting at 11,500 ratings.

Thus is the power of the mainstream critical world. By tapping Mandel as the darling of the season, they’ve guaranteed she’s going to be broadly read. If it weren’t for The Martian, Mandel would likely wind up as 2014’s most popular science fiction novel. Popularity, though, is only one thing that impacts the Hugos and Nebulas: what is the SFF world going to think of Mandel’s book?

That’s a tougher question. The SFF world has been slow to review Mandel’s book: Tor.com doesn’t have a review up yet, and neither does Locus Magazine. There’s often some trepidation regarding books like this: is this a hit-and-run author, someone will write one SF-lite book before retreating back into the fortress of literary fiction? Is she just using SF to be “edgy” and “cool,” or does she have a meaningful relationship with the genre? Only time will answer those questions, but the SFF world can be very resistant to books branded “better than your typical SF novel.” Neither The Road nor Never Let You Go grabbed Hugo or Nebula nods. In contrast, sometimes these novels do break through: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union won both awards, and books like We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and The Golem and the Jinni grabbed Nebula noms just last years. Which path will Mandel follow?

Mandel’s novel charts the inter-connected fortunes of a group of characters both before and after a society-ending flu pandemic. The novel opens up during a performance of King Lear, where an aging actor dies of a heart attack. The flu breaks out almost immediately after, and Mandel traces a variety of characters and their relationship to this dead actor (who turns out to be a Brad Pitt style Hollywood celebrity). Divorced multiple times, we get long sections concerning his former wives and how those marriages collapse, including his strained relationship to his young son. We also learn about one of his paparazzi, who has coincidentally become a EM technician who tries to save him at that fateful King Lear performance. Station Eleven is laced with connections like that, as Mandel shows what she calls the “half life of marriage” and the way human interconnections and relationships spread forward and backward through history, even across the line of an apocalypse. The intense focus on the meaning of human connectivity gives Station Eleven a very different feel, and it has certainly opened up the book to a very mainstream audience.

Many of these characters survive the pandemic, and we get to hear about their wanderings some 20 years later in a decimated Canada/America (Mandel is Canadian, as are many of her main characters), largely as part of a travelling Shakespearian troupe. The Station Eleven is a comic book written by one of the actor’s wives, and it winds up in the hands of some of the children who survive the flu; you’ll either find that coincidence deep and meaningful or twee and manipulative.

For fans of literary fiction, Mandel reads like she’s brought together elements of The Road (but much less violent), A Visit from the Goon Squad (the focus on celebrity and character interconnection), and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (the comics stuff). That’s learning from three former Pulitzer Prize winners, so it’s no wonder this book is being gobbled up by the literary mainstream. From that perspective, it’s a great referendum on what’s been happening on the literary/genre boundary over the past decade.

Station Eleven might be a stronger contender for the Pulitzer than the Nebula. From a more speculative perspective, the book is more interested in character than it is in world-building, and the post-apocalyptic aspects of the book are probably its weakest. In many ways, Mandel treats the pandemic symbolically rather than realistically, and her ruined society of the future doesn’t seem particularly accurate or well-imagined. Her interest is in relationships, not the nuts-and-bolts of starting up generators and getting the electricity going once again.

Whether or not readers—and Nebula voters—find this a telling flaw is up in the air. Will SFWA voters embrace the emotional and character-driven aspects of the work, or will they see this as “not speculative enough” for the Nebula? Ultimately, I see Mandel as a viable Nebula candidate (I currently have her at #6), but I want to see more SF specific reviews to see just exactly what dedicated SFF critics are thinking of this book.

Station Eleven
Published September 9, 2014.

About the Book:
Emily St. John Mandel’s web page
I wasn’t able to find a blog, but here’s Emily St. John Mandel’s twitter
Amazon page
Goodreads page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The Guardian
NY Times
Entertainment Weekly (A)

The New Yorker also had a big article about genre and Station Eleven that is worth a read. Mandel’s biggest mainstream impact, though, has come from “Best of 2014” lists that have consistently put her book at or near the top.

WordPress Blog Reviews:
Intellectus Speculativus
Raging Biblio-Holism (4.5 out of 5)
Cold Read (B)
Reading as Fast as I Can
Necromancy Never Pays
So Many Books
Bookworm Tales (4 out of 5)
A Bibliophile’s Reverie (complete with a tea recipe: nice touch!)
Relentless Reading (4 out of 5)

A wide-range of reviews, and the best way to describe most of them is as “qualified enthusiasm.” The most common word that came up in these reviews was “beautiful,” high praise for Mandel’s prose and characters. The enthusiasm was a little tempered when it came to world-building, and several reviewers pointed out the relative weakness of her post-apocalyptic setting.

Once you step away from the SFF focused blogs, the enthusiasm for the book becomes far more unqualified, with plenty of praise being heaped on Mandel for her rich characters and emotional world. I thought the inevitable comparison to The Road worked well in some of these reviews, drawing a useful contrast between McCarthy’s nihilism and Mandel’s optimism.

So, that’s the basics on this year’s most-buzzed about literary SF novel. What are Mandel’s chances?

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem Review Round-Up

In many ways, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem was the most important SF novel published in English in 2014. Already a best-seller in China, The Three-Body Problem deals with the Cultural Revolution, the meaning of scientific knowledge, and the transforming/disruptive power of alien contact. On it’s surface, this is a book about Chinese scientists grappling with first contact, as they attempt to communicate with an advanced alien civilization and to prepare Earth for the coming of those aliens. More profoundly, it is a book about disruption (the third-body of the title), and how seemingly stable systems (East/West, science/faith, etc.) fall apart in the face of increased complexity.

Like the third-bodies of his title, Liu provides a powerful alternative to models of SF (and thought) currently popular in the United States and the United Kingdom. The American-British science fiction scene has been remarkably insular over the past few decades, largely ignoring what’s going on in SF in the rest of the world. While a few Japanese SF writers are beginning to creep in, largely via the Haikasorou imprint, The Three-Body Problem was published by Tor (one of the premier SFF presses), translated by a rising SFF star in Ken Liu, and had the kind of marketing push that only a major publisher can provide. As such, Liu has more of a chance of making an impact on the current SF scene.

The Three-Body Problem is probably too strange and too unusual to factor into the 2015 Hugo and Nebula awards, both of which have scrupulously avoided foreign-language authors over the past several decades. At some point, the American-British focus of those awards is going to snap, but I doubt it’s this year. The Three Body-Problem is also a difficult book, asking readers to leap from the Cultural Revolution to the political meaning of the Copenhagen interpretation, from nanomaterials to a video game, from first contact to political revolutions. Figures from Chinese history jostle against Western scientists like Newton and Einstein. While I enjoyed the demands this book placed on the reader, and found the flow of ideas fascinating, I can also understand how this might be off-putting to a casual or crossover science fiction fan. Liu is not particularly interested in characters or plot in a more conventional sense, and someone looking for those narrative aspects is likely to be disappointed by The Three-Body Problem.

Lastly, Liu freely moves from realism to allegory in ways that likely challenge his reading audience. While some of the scientific sections are sound, others are deliberately exaggerated. Near the end, there’s a bravura sequence where an alien civilization “unravels” a proton from 11 dimensions to 1, 2, and 3 dimensions, and then inscribes some sort of computer on that seemingly miniscule space. It’s one of the most fascinating pieces of bullshit I’ve read in years, but it is bullshit nonetheless. This is SF that isn’t afraid to break from realism, and I think Liu uses that break from reality to profound effect. While this echoes some of what Haruki Murakami is doing with his work in Japan, it’s a new concept for American and British SF writers, and I imagine it will take years for us to fully process how Liu is changing the rules of SF. I suspect the second part of this trilogy–coming out next year–will help us make more sense of this challenging work.

So, since Chaos Horizon is an awards website dedicated to predicting the Hugo and Nebula award, what are Liu’s chances? None? There’s no precedent in recent Hugo or Nebula history for a foreign-language book to break into those awards, no matter how deserving. Hopefully The Three-Body Problem will starts discussions about that insularity, but discussions aren’t enough to grab nominations. I think this was an important book—in fact, it’s been my favorite SF book of 2014, and probably the most interesting SF novel of the last 4 or 5 years—but that’s not necessarily reflected in the awards. The Hugo and Nebula provide a fascinating mix of the popular, the important, and the familiar, and The Three-Body Problem would need a huge push from the SF press to get into awards convention. Given some of the reviews linked below, it doesn’t quite look like it’s catching on. We’ll see.

Three-Body Problem

First published in English on November 11, 2014.

Originally published in Chinese in 2008.

About the Book:
Article by Cixin Liu on The Three-Body Problem
Goodreads page
Amazon page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
NPR
NY Times (not a review, but an article on Cixin Liu and Chinese SF)
A.V. Club (C)

An interesting mix of positive and negative. Three Body-Problem has gotten a good (not great) amount of coverage, but some of it has expressed reservations concerning Liu’s use of characters. Throw in a measured review at Tor.com (I don’t formally list Tor.com because I’m suspicious of Tor reviewing books it publishes), and we’re seeing a solid—but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic—mainstream reception.

WordPress Blog Reviewers:
Bree’s Book Blog (4 out of 5)
Bibliotropic (5 out of 5)
Mountain was Here
Intellectus Speculativus
The Dinglehopper
Violin in a Void (7 out of 10)
Michael Patrick Hicks
Avid Reviews (9 out of 10)

In general, a positive set of reviews, speaking highly of Cixin Liu’s mind-boggling ideas, with some reservations expressed due to lack of characterization and the complexity of some of the physics. I’d say that WordPress bloggers have actually done a better job of “getting” and “understanding” the novel than the mainstream reviewers have. Cixin Liu’s strengths as a writer make up for any weakness he might have in terms of structure, particularly if you allow yourself to be open to an entirely different model of SF.

Andy Weir’s The Martian Review Round-Up

The Martian was the runaway science fiction success story of 2014. Weir’s book began life as a self-published book (way back in 2012) and eventually rose to national and international stardom. It’s even being fast-tracked for a November 2015 movie: Ridely Scott directing, Matt Damon staring. Take that, Interstellar! If The Martian is eligible for the 2015 Hugo Award, it’s likely to be a major contender—but the eligibility questions are serious and substantial. I’ve addressed those in my Andy Weir’s Eligibility Post; I want to write about the novel in this post, and not get caught up in the “will it or won’t it be eligible” questions here.

The Martian is a fast-paced SF thriller about astronaut Mark Watney. Through Mark’s journals, we learn how he’s been left for dead on Mars, and how he has to utilize all his engineering and botany skills to survive in that harsh landscape. Chock-full of rich engineering detail (turning rocket fuel into water, growing potatoes, maintaining his Mars habitat, etc.), The Martian zips through Mark’s survival and NASA’s attempts to rescue him. Weir delivers a well-detailed and well-imagined Mars with lots of plausible detail. Engaging and very accessible, it’s easy to see why The Martian was a bestseller; it’s somewhat reminiscent of the movie Gravity, and totally out of step with almost everything else that’s being published in SF today.

The Martian feels like a throwback to old-school “engineering solves problems” SF: as challenges come up, our hero uses SCIENCE to solve them. There’s a golden-age style optimism of the ability of scientific knowledge and human ingenuity to overcome the most hostile landscapes. I found The Martian reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic A Fall of Moondust, although Weir isn’t as interested in character development as Clarke. That’s probably the major flaw of the book: Mark starts and ends the novel the same person, and none of the secondary characters are fleshed out in any substantial way. Still, if you’re looking for a quick and exciting SF adventure uncluttered by deeper philosophical concerns, The Martian is perfect for you.

I hope that doesn’t sound disparaging of The Martian, because it wasn’t meant to be. Weir is writing a different kind of SF novel; while an author like Ann Leckie is drawing on the complex, densely structured futures of Iain M. Banks, Weir is focused primarily on action and plot. I think the indie roots of The Martian are clearly visible here: it’s not trying to be “important” or “significant” in the way of some other SFF writers, but instead trying to be entertaining and accessible. While that can be wearing at times—Weir overuses exclamation points, for instance, and the sheer number of engineering crises Watney survives is improbable—it is also refreshingly different.

The Martian brings up all sorts of interesting questions about what exactly science fiction can and should be. I think there’s plenty of space in the SF landscape for novels like this, but it’s telling that this didn’t find a mainstream publisher until after it was successful on Amazon. The Hugo and Nebula awards have yet to come to terms with the indie publishing scene. Readers seem to be happier with The Martian and Wool than with Echopraxia or Ancillary Sword, and I imagine this will be a major issue of contention in the coming decade.

I have The Martian fourth on my current Hugo Prediction, but crossed out due to eligibility issues. This is the kind of novel that was so widely read that it would have a great chance of a nomination; even if it’s not people’s first choice, it was probably memorable enough to make a lot of ballots, particularly if you’re a fan of Hard SF. Weir is showing up on most Year-End Lists, and he’s supremely popular on places like Goodreads. Except him to be an essential part of this year’s conversation despite eligibility issues.

The Martian
Originally indie-published in 2012.
Hardcover released February 11, 2014

About the Book:
Andy Weir’s web page
Andy Weir’s Facebook (where he seems to be the most active blogging)
Amazon page
Goodreads page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly (Starred review)
Kirkus Reviews
Entertainment Weekly
(B)
A.V. Club (A)
Wall Street Journal
USA Today (3 out of 4)

The Martian was broadly and positively reviewed when it came out, with plenty of follow-up articles on Andy Weir’s self-publication journey after it became a bestseller. In terms of mainstream publicity, Weir certainly outstripped any other SF release of 2014.

WordPress Blog Reveiwers:
Book Reviews Forevermore (4 out of 5)
Rachel Robie
Attack of the Books
Rhapsody in Books (4 out of 5)
Overflowing Heart Reviews
Backlisted
Violin in a Void (7 out of 10)
Drunken Dragon Reviews
(4 out of 5)
Ristea’s Reads (5 out of 5)
BiblioSanctum (4.5 out of 5)
and on . . . and on . . .

I could have put up a ton more reviews, but this is a good representative sampling. The Martian was widely and positively received by WordPress bloggers, and, since the hardcover has been out since February (with the paperback out in November), there’s been plenty of time for people to read. Once again, if we go on sheer popularity alone, The Martian will be on a lot of ballots.

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The BiblioSanctum

A Book Blog for Speculative Fiction, Graphic Novels... and more!

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The Other Side of the Rain

Book reviews, speculative fiction, and wild miscellany.

Read & Survive

How- To Read Books

Mountain Was Here

writing like a drunken seismograph

The Grimdark Review

The very best of fantasy.

From couch to moon

Sci-fi and fantasy reviews, among other things