Archive for Hugo Awards

a journal of the plague year [confined reviews]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2020 by xi'an

Watched TV series His Dark Materials produced for the BBC, which is much much better than the earlier film, as the actors are all fabulous—first and foremost Lyra, but also Ma Costa, the Gyptian Muter Courage—, the gypsy community is given a much stronger role, the characters are deep and complex, as eg Mrs and Mr Coulter, both ready to sacrifice kids for the greater “good” without appearing as absolute monsters! The special effects are a wee bit deficient as often with BBC productions but not enough to make a case. Although I sort of cringed each time a bear moved!

Read The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy by Terry Brooks, which I noticed standing on my son’s bookshelves. The original Shannara Trilogy was one of the very first fantasy books I read in English in my undergrad years (after Lord of the Rings of course and possibly The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), which did not leave me with an everlasting feeling of superlative literature, to say the least. This avatar of the original Sword of Shannara trilogy did nothing to improve my feelings as the plot is lazy at best, with super-powered villains suddenly acting, last second deus ex machina rescues, endless internal debates, heavy hints at treacheries and double-treacheries, and, worst of all!, intrusion of 20th century technology, e.g., computers, AIs and robots, that the far future characters make sense of. Only suitable for a time of lockdown and even then… I should have left it on the bookshelf! Incidentally, one fight scene against a cyborg was highly reminiscent of the black knight scene in Holy Grail!

Watched by chance Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. For the first time. And was totally un-impressed. Highly pretentious construction falling flat from being a modern reconstruction of antique dramas, endless dialogues (which could have been cut by half if removing all the occurrences of fucking from them), boring and threadbare story, and artificial characters that essentially make no sense. I cannot fathom why this film is so highly ranked..! (And even less to witness it being compared with Rashomon!)

Read [part] of Jin Yong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes (射鵰英雄傳) but, lockdown or not, I simply could not finish it. Despite its fantasy approach to Chinese martial arts, which I usually enjoy (at least in planes!), and some proximity with the Judge Dee stories by van Gulik, the story felt very contrived and somewhat out of reach, plus [not yet] Genghis Khan being depicted in a fairly positive way [at least in the part I read]. Too irrealist for my reading buds, I presume…

Cooked plenty of new dishes, thanks to the delivery of weekly farmer boxes, from radish stems & buckwheat pancakes to celery roots purées, to fregola sarda (leftovers from ISBA 2016!) con acciughe, to chard gratins, to pea pod and cauliflower core soups, to flaxseed bread and buckwheat naans (as we ran out of wheat flour). We also managed to use and survive most of the out-of-date cans and bags that had stood forgotten in the back of our cupboard… Not visiting a supermarket for two months was actually most pleasant, living very nicely from the above mentioned farmer boxes and the occasional delivery from a cheesemonger, and supplementing weekly visits to the baker with attempts at home made bread.

Read Matha Well’s Murderbot diaries, my first read on a Kindle!, for free courtesy of Tor. Starting with All Systems Red, which won the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella, the 2018 Locus Award, and the American Library Association‘s Alex Award. Very good if somewhat classical (Blade Runner anyone?!) trope of the rogue robot turned autonomous and human, so human! This is a sequence of novellas which means a fast-paced story and an efficient style. (Including a less exciting third novella, due to a lazy scenario.) More mind-candy à la John Scalzi than profound literature but quite enjoyable for a quick read during lunch or tea break! But which induced me to buy the first and incoming novel in the series,  Network Effect. (To be commented in a subsequent entry…)

Leading to (re)read the Interdependency trilogy by John Scalzi, the last volume in the series being just out. Very lazy buildup, in the traditional spirit of a few people driving the future of the entire Universe, with unlimited resources and unrestricted hacking abilities, but with funny dialogues, as usual with Scalzi. In this binge (re)read, I actually realised the frustrating intricacies of Kindle ordering as (i) I could not use my amazon.com account and hence none of my associate gains (ii) I could not merge several amazon.fr accounts and (iii) prices varied a lot between using directly the Kindle and ordering from amazon.fr…

And even growing some salads and radishes over the two months and eating them before the end of the lockdown, as the weather in Paris was quite mild most of the time. Although it meant a daily-basis fight with slugs. The arugula did not resist that well, though…

Reading Tade Thompson’s Rosewater for more than a month, having trouble keeping my concentration as the story goes in loops and not a particularly well settled plot. With a central idea of an alien race taking over humanity a few cells at a time. Which reminded me of Greg Bear’s Blood Music I read during the first year of my PhD. The book has some appeal, from being located in Nigeria 30 years from now to America having completely vanished from the map after Trump pulled the ultimate drawbridge. It won the 2019 Arthur Clarke Award after all! But I found it too hard to complete to even consider embarking upon the next two volumes on the trilogy…

Gideon the Ninth [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2020 by xi'an

After much hesitation and pondering, I eventually gave in and started reading Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, and then rushed through it over the first of May extended weekend! Hesitation and pondering, because I am not particularly excited in zombie novels and animate skeletons literature and living dead books. However, since the book was getting a lot of praise from reading groups and ended up a Hugo Awards 2020 Nominee, I ordered the 2€ Kindle version and got to read it, being immediately caught by the irreverent tone of the main character and the punk style of the story, which mixes necromancy, death cults, living gods, space travel, chivalrous quest, sword mystique, AIs, deadly puzzles à la Hunger Games, and a whodunit à la Agatha Christie, Then There Were None on an island planet… (Although I have never been a fan of Christie’s novels either, reading some eons ago as an unsuccessful way to improve my appalling English skills in secondary school). The book gets addictive because of this highly unusual combination, plus the compelling story and relation of the two central teenage girls, turning away from murderous to loving, once all skeletons are out of the closet (literally). There are enough complex and un-charicatur-esque characters to make the structure and the whodunit puzzle very enjoyable, with unexpected twists and a massively enjoyable ending. To think that this is a first novel is staggering, with highly funny dialogues for Death believers. Definitely worth the read (and the vote for the Hugo Award!) And the second volume is coming out next August. (But the first Act is available for free on kindles.)

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.