Archive for Hugo Awards

record of a spaceborn few [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , on July 26, 2019 by xi'an

As in the previous two volumes, the cover of this Becky Chambers’ book is quite alluring. As is the title. The story is a medley of intermingled individual stories revolving (!) around the Exodus Fleet, the massive spaceship that humans boarded to escape a dying Earth. The universe of this third volume in the Wayfarer trilogy is both the same and not the same as in the earlier books, as it almost uniquely takes place on that ship and plays on the “us versus ’em” theme, unlike the other books, which were both tales of travel and of reaching a destination. Here the only (!) destination is finding one’s place in this finite and claustrophobic environment, with utopian dreams of a truly communist or anarchist society, although there are, as always, cracks in the system. The story is not “going anywhere”, in the sense that the natural order of things has not changed by the end of the book, which some readers may find disappointing, but the individuals therein have definitely moved to other planes of consciousness. In that sense, it is a more profound book than the previous two as the focus gets more and more psychological [and less space-operatic!]. Rereading my earlier book reviews, I was already noticing the first book as being homey (in that most of the long way to a small angry planet takes place in a confined tunneler ship)  and the second being more homey. Already revolving on a closed and common orbit indeed. I also find it quite significant that record of a spaceborn few stands as a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novel. As it indeed carries a deeper message than an action packed novel or a book overfilling with boundless evil. If there was such a thing as an Ursula Le Guin prize, it would definitely deserve it. There was something of an Hainish feeling to record of a spaceborn few

provenance [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on October 6, 2018 by xi'an

While looking for a book to read in a café of Courtenay, B.C., I came upon a nice bookstore called Laughing Oyster (!) and among other findings, Provenance, a novel taking place in the same universe as the Ancillary Justice trilogy of Ann Leckie that I appreciated very much (along with the voters of the three major science-fiction prizes!). I read Provenance in a single afternoon, as the book is not particularly long, especially when considering it uses rather large fonts! Given the depth and complexity of the said universe, the current book is captivating enough for a warm summer afternoon read, but not at the same level as the original trilogy, as it feels too homely, i.e. based on a tiny set of people that are or get interconnected and manage to save the confederation of worlds from a major crisis. Which is alas a common occurrence in science fiction (and fantasy) novels, but remains annoying! And the characters are less complex and more predictable than in Ancillary… The book is thus capitalising upon the earlier series, but nonetheless enjoyable on… a warm summer afternoon!

the Hainish novels [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2018 by xi'an


When Ursula le Guin passed away earlier this year, I realised I had not read anything for her except for the Earthsea series. I thus ordered the two volume collection of the Hainish novels and short stories beautifully published by The Library of America. This boxed set has been at my bedside for the past six months and I completed reading the first volume while on Vancouver Island. The short novels (Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions) and both novels (The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed) are not part of a coherent cycle but relate to the same Universe, run by the mysterious Hains. Ursula le Guin herself describes the collection as a forest rather than a tree. There is nonetheless a strong common theme of displacement and of confrontation of one character with another culture, this character being often turned into the representative of his native culture. While the stories involve faster-than-light interstellar travel and mind reading and genetic engineering, their major thread is more of sociology or anthropology fiction than of science fiction. I enjoyed all these novels, both for their underlying common thread and for the massive diversity in the stories reported in the novels. If I had to pick only one, it would be The Dispossessed, as it merges a deeply realistic description of an anarchy run planet with the moving story of a top physicist faced with the individual doubts of pursuing research and the societal constraints imposed by a harsh arid planet and the pressure of the entire society. Albeit anarchist in principle, it still produces power structures and pressures, while being nationalistic at the planetary level by refusing any entry from another planet. In particular, I found most interesting the realisation by a group of friends that the society was no longer revolutionary and mostly replicating traditions and patterns. The reflections about scientific creativity and bareness in this novel as well as the power structures within academia are also most meaningful and should appeal to most researchers (and beyond!). Before the end of the Canadian trip, I was further able to read The Word for World is Forest in the second volume,  which is about the threat of destruction for a planet and its native humanoids, by Terrans seeking wood as the new gold. This theme has been reproduced in the subsequent sci’ fi’ literature, as in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, but the short novel remains striking (and in line with the permanent theme in Le Guin’s books of conflicting cultures and the difficulty to apprehend the fullness of the other culture(s)… Le Guin notes in the introduction to the second volume of the box that strong similarities have been pointed out about “a high-budget, highly successful film [which] resembles the book in so mamny ways that people have often assumed that I had some part in making it.  Since the film completely reverses the book’s moral premise, presenting the central and unsolved problem of the book, mass violence, as a solution, I’m glad I have nothing at all to do with it”. The film is Avatar, James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster.

A Closed and Common Orbit

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on February 27, 2018 by xi'an

This book by Becky Chambers comes as a sequel of sorts to her first [science-fiction] book, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Book that I liked a lot for its construction of relationships between the highly different team members of a spaceship. In this new book, the author pursues a similar elaboration of unlikely friendships between human and alien species, and AIs. If the first book felt homey, this one is even more so, with essentially two principal characters followed alternatively throughout the book, until the stories predictably cross. It is fairly well-written, with again a beautiful cover, but I cannot say it is as magisterial as the first book. The book-long considerations on the nature of AI and of cloned humans are certainly interesting and deep enough, but the story tension ebbs at time, especially for the story in the past since we know from the beginning that the main character will reappear in the current time. Not reaching the superlatives of a Hugo or Clarke Award in my opinion (albeit nominated for these prizes). Still a most enjoyable read!

the fifth season [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on May 14, 2017 by xi'an

When in Oxford two months ago, I dropped by the original Blackwell bookstore on my way to the station and rather hurriedly grabbed a few books from the science-fiction and fantasy section! One of them was The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, which sounded exciting [enough] from the back cover and gave a sort of reassurance from the Hugo Award label on the front cover.

While I end up being rather disappointed with the whole book, there are redeeming features, from the universe conception, where massive earthquakes destroy civilisations now and then and where some races can locally control or unravel telluric forces, to the multifaceted conception of the story, with three women blessed or plagued with this ability, to the exposition of the exploitation of those women by the ruling class and the rejection by most of their society. This ends up however too much of a ping-pong game, when moving from one character to another character is more and more of a nuisance, with a predictable reunification of the three viewpoints at the end and just too many deus ex machina moments, even for people controlling earthquakes.

Coincidentally [not really!], the author, N.K. Jemisin, also happens to be the science-fiction and fantasy book editor for The New York Times, with a compilation of her favourite titles every trimester or so. And a tendency towards short stories, anthologies and graphic novels that makes the entries mildly appealing to me. But still managed to signal to me a recent publishing of some short stories by Ursula Le Guin.

a new John Scalzi

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , on February 26, 2017 by xi'an

A new series by John Scalzi is about to get printed, with the first chapters available on

the three-body problem [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on February 5, 2017 by xi'an

“Back then, I thought of one thing: Have you heard of the Monte Carlo method? Ah, it’s a computer algorithm often used for calculating the area of irregular shapes. Specifically, the software puts the figure of interest in a figure of known area, such as a circle, and randomly strikes it with many tiny balls, never targeting the same spot twice. After a large number of balls, the proportion of balls that fall within the irregular shape compared to the total number of balls used to hit the circle will yield the area of the shape. Of course, the smaller the balls used, the more accurate the result.

Although the method is simple, it shows how, mathematically, random brute force can overcome precise logic. It’s a numerical approach that uses quantity to derive quality. This is my strategy for solving the three-body problem. I study the system moment by moment. At each moment, the spheres’ motion vectors can combine in infinite ways. I treat each combination like a life form. The key is to set up some rules: which combinations of motion vectors are “healthy” and “beneficial,” and which combinations are “detrimental” and “harmful.” The former receive a survival advantage while the latter are disfavored. The computation proceeds by eliminating the disadvantaged and preserving the advantaged. The final combination that survives is the correct prediction for the system’s next configuration, the next moment in time.”

While I had read rather negative reviews of the Three-Body Problem, I still decided to buy the book from an Oxford bookstore and give it a try. Ìf only because this was Chinese science-fiction and I had never read any Chinese science-fiction. (Of course the same motivation would apply for most other countries!) While the historical (or pseudo-historical) part of the novel is most interesting, about the daughter of a university physicist killed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution and hence forever suspect, even after decades of exile, the science-fiction part about contacting another inhabited planet and embracing its alien values based on its sole existence is quite deficient and/or very old-fashioned. As is [old-fashioned] the call to more than three dimensions to manage anything, from space travel to instantaneous transfer of information, to ultimate weapons. And an alien civilization that is not dramatically alien. As for the three body problem itself, there is very little of interest in the book and the above quote on using Monte Carlo to “solve” the three-body problem is not of any novelty since it started in the early 1940’s.

I am thus very much surprised at the book getting a Hugo award. For a style that is more reminiscent of early Weird Tales than of current science-fiction… In addition, the characters are rather flat and often act in unnatural ways. (Some critics blame the translation, but I think it gets deeper than that.)