Archive for Nebula Awards

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.

ancillaries [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2016 by xi'an

“When you’re doing something like this (…) the odds are irrelevant. You don’t need to know the odds. ”

After completing the first volume of Anne Lecke’s Ancilary books, I bought both following volumes in the trilogy. Alas these two books were quite disappointing when compared with the first one. Even though there still was some action present in those volumes, the scope was awfully limited, mostly filled with dialogues between the ship AI and characters on the spaceship and on a local planet. And endless cups of tea that bored even the tea addict in me. The space opera somewhat turned into a closet opera with about the same level of action as when brooms fall out of the said closet! The last book ends up (small spoiler) with the creation of a local republic and the move to more autonomy of the AIs involved in spaceships and space stations. There are a few interesting digs into this direction of what constitutes intelligence and sentience, but the pace is way too sluggish and I had trouble completing the books, as the excitement of the initial book was lost. I think this is another trilogy that would have truly benefited from a global editing, rather than (apparently) building from the first volume…

ancillaries [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2016 by xi'an

“A Radchaai would have tossed that coin. Or, more accurately, a handful of them, a dozen disks, each with its meaning and import, the pattern of their fall a map of the universe.”

How good must a novel be to win five major awards the same year?! Among which the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards. Pretty good, I would bet, and this is clearly the case with Ann Lecke’s Ancillary Justice. Which I picked in Oxford two weeks ago mostly because of this tag. And of an unusual cover. And even because it involved the word ancillary. Actually the cover looks less unusual and artsy when put together with the next two volumes, as shown above. An obviously deeper, more literary, and all inclusive review of the whole trilogy can be found in Slate, but I have only completed the first volume. (I realised only when writing this post that some controversy comes with the Hugo Award given to this very book, raised by some conservative or worse sci’ fi’ writers, who complained that it was selected for political rather than literary reasons. Read the book before reading the arguments, and they then just fall apart as grossly political!)

“Information is security. Plans made with imperfect information are fatally flawed, will fail or succeed on the toss of a coin. “

At a first come first serve level, the story is a traditional space opera where a galactic empire methodically conquers new planets and turn the lucky survivors into new citizens, while the others are turned into brainless warriors controlled by an AI that doubles as a spaceship. The major ship in this story is called Justice of Toren and the soldiers are called ancillaries. All this very connected to the history of the Roman empire. Although this approach has presumably been tried in many other sci’fi’ novels, this feature means that the ancillaries are aware of all other connected to the AI, while retaining some degree of autonomy. And it brings very interesting interrogations on the nature of self in such a hive civilisation. Interrogations that quickly get unexpected answers [warning!, spoilers ahoy!] since one of those auxiliaries, Breq, develops an independent line of thought and eventually reaches complete libre-arbitre. While keeping his or her elite soldier abilities, which turns him or her into a ruthless avenger. I write him or her because the novel and this auxiliary are constantly unclear about the sex of the other characters, which seems to have become such a private matter that it cannot be directly mentioned in the conversation… A fairly interesting concept, once you get around this missing degree of freedom in interpreting the relations between the characters. The empire is of course governed by an emperor, called Anaander Mianaai, which has a massive schizophrenic issue in that by creating many copies of himself or herself over thousands of years, they have drifted in their personalities and now partly escape the control of the associated AI… The final chapters of the first novel see Breq fighting and killing several of those copies. (There are spaceoperaous moments in the novel, which even matter in the grand plot, but they are dealt with very lightly so that the psychological bits are the true flotsam of the novel. I am most obviously looking forward the second volume [procured thanks to ‘Og readers’ links to amazon associate!].)

Non-zero probabilities

Posted in Books with tags , , , , on July 23, 2010 by xi'an

On Tor website, I noticed that this short story was nominated for the Hugo Awards 2010 Best Short Story. (And also for the 2009 Nebula Awards but it did not win.) And of course its title, “Non-zero probabilities”, caught my eyes! Written by J.K. Jesimin in Clarkesworld Magazine, it is about bad luck or what people perceive as bad luck, and as such is of interest for statisticians. and also about the multiple realities and fantasies of New York City… I first read the short story thinking there was an awkward change of pace between the first and the second part, from clear occurrences of bad luck to more relaxed feelings about good luck returning and then, after a second reading, I came to realise this was simply a sequence of perceptions from the character, not necessarily the real thing. In the end, I thus liked it very much!