The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

My last post from Arizona went up yesterday for Insiders, with notes on four prospects: Dylan Cease, Anderson Espinoza, Luis Almanzar, and Scott Blewett. My annual breakout players column goes up Thursday – but if you subscribe to my newsletter, you already knew that.

Also, some great boardgame apps from Asmodee are on sale till March 26th. Here are the ones I recommend, each of which is $2:
* Ticket to Ride (iOSandroid)
* Splendor (iOSandroid)
* Pandemic (iOSandroid)
* Small World (iOSandroid)

Just 34 more days till Smart Baseball is released. You can still preorder it now via Harper-Collins’ site.

Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 with his sprawling novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a story about comic books, magicians, Jewish mysticism, homophobia, fascism, and a few other themes, one that garnered universal praise but that I thought could have used some serious editing. That experience steered me away from Chabon, figuring if I couldn’t love his acknowledged masterwork then I probably just wasn’t a fan, until I picked up his Hugo Award winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union earlier this year in a used bookstore. It’s still very much Chabon’s voice, but the story here is so much more focused and the side characters more developed, which spurred my “hot take” tweet the other day that I preferred this novel to his magnum opus.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternate timeline where the real-life proposal to create a homeland in Alaska for displaced Jews went through, and where the state of Israel was overrun by Arab attackers, so that the city of Sitka – population in our timeline: about 9000 – is a bustling metropolis of over two million people, mostly Jewish refugees and their descendants. (For comparison’s sake, the entire state of Alaska has fewer than 750,000 people right now.) This protectorate comes with an expiration date, like the United Kingdom’s agreement in Hong Kong or our agreement in Panama, where the autonomy of the local Jewish population over their municipal affairs will end two months after the time in which the story takes place, with the fate of all of these Jews unknown. They may lose their citizenship, and will certainly lose their socioeconomic status, with federal agents lurking, ready to come in and throw the Jews out.

Set against this backdrop is an old-fashioned noir detective novel, one that begins with a dead junkie in the flophouse where alcoholic cop Meyer Landsman lives (and drinks). The junkie has been shot in the head, execution-style, but left behind some very strange clues, including a miniature chessboard left in the middle of a difficult problem and Jewish prayer strings (tzitzit) that the victim appears to have used to tie off when shooting heroin. The victim turns out to be someone fairly significant in the local underworld, which spins Landsman and his partner, the half-Jewish/half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, into a traditional hard-boiled detective storyline where they bounce in a sort of circle around the same handful of suspects and sources to try to unravel the core mystery. Of course, Landsman gets knocked out, kidnapped, nearly killled, and drunk over the course of the novel, because Chabon is at least true to the form to which he’s paying homage.

Chabon creates a fun cast of eccentrics to populate this novel – which was also true of Kavalier and Clay – even though he has to cut them all from the same basic cloth. They’re all exiles facing the potential end of their safe haven, all brought up in the same semi-closed community, all coping with the same existential doubts. Even those who’ve spent time outside of the enclave, such as Meyer’s ex-wife and now boss Bina, share the same core experiences and are facing the same sort of countdown-to-extinction questions. Chabon gives them surprising depth given the limitations he’s placed on himself with this setting.

He also wrote a cracking good plot; at the end of the day, detective fiction lives and dies by two things, the main character and the story, so while Chabon’s prose can be spectacular, it’s lipstick on a pig if the story isn’t good. I was drawn into the story fairly quickly, and he manages to peel back the layers in a way that feels realistic, while also infusing just enough of a conspiracy to keep the reader guessing – and to give some meaning to the general sense of the Sitka population that the world is really out to get the city’s Jews.

The characters in the book are all supposed to be speaking Yiddish, with a glossary at the end of the book for Yiddish terms that Chabon chose to keep or that lack an easy translation, a detail that makes sense for the setting but that gave the book the only real distraction, especially when Chabon would tell us that a certain character had switched to English or, on one or two occasions, Hebrew. It fits the setting – a refugee population moving en masse like that wouldn’t just adopt a new tongue – but detracted slightly from the flow of the story.

As for the ending … I don’t think Chabon intended to satisfy the reader here, because this isn’t a traditional hard-boiled detective novel, but an updated one that respects the tradition, and because the conclusion here has to mimic the fate of the Sitka population. They’re not getting the resolution they deserve, so the readers should at least be left with some ambiguity to reflect it. With the rest of the story as tightly woven and written as it is, that’s a compromise I can easily accept as a reader.

Next up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo winner Mirror Dance, part of the Vorkosigan series; I read and enjoyed The Vor Game in November but skipped the review because I was on vacation.

Doomsday Book.

Connie Willis is one of the most decorated science fiction writers ever, with eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards, as well as induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her 1998 novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, a Hugo winner, is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, a tight mash-up of a comedy of manners and a time travel story along with a send-up of a classic Brit Lit novel. That book was set in the same universe as her 1992 novel Doomsday Book, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for best sci-fi novel, and explores much darker subject matter: how we respond to unthinkable disaster and human suffering.

Willis has crafted rules around her fictional time travel that manage to give it sufficient plausibility so that suspending your disbelief isn’t really an issue. Her time travelers are historians heading into the past for research purposes (usually), and do so under tightly controlled conditions. Heading into the past to alter history isn’t permitted by spacetime itself; anyone heading through to create such a paradox simply won’t be allowed to enter the “net” of time travel. And there’s “slippage” in time, the difference between when you arrive and when you were trying to arrive, which the researchers attribute to spacetime’s attempts to avoid even minor incidents like having you appear out of nowhere in the middle of a crowd of people who’d think you were an alien or a witch.

In Doomsday Book, a young woman in Oxford’s history department named Kivrin is heading back to 1320 England to examine village life of the time and as a prelude to a future research trip back to the Black Death, which began in England in 1348. Unfortunately, as soon as she steps through the net into the past, the main technician who organized the drop, Badri, falls horribly ill with a new strain of influenza, touching off an epidemic in modern-day Oxford … with Kivrin unfortunately falling sick as she arrives in the past. Something has gone wrong with the drop, but Badri is near death and unable to tell anyone why or to explain how they will retrieve Kivrin at the scheduled rendezvous time and place. Kivrin, meanwhile, ends up involved in a separate epidemic, as the plague arrives in the village where she’s staying, and since she’s been vaccinated she is the only person there with immunity to the disease. Her response, as the only person in her time and place who understands the nature of the plague, and the responses of those in the modern time are the real focus of the book, from those thinking first and foremost about the victims to those stuck in the mindset of adhering to policy or those unable to give up their own goals even when it puts others at grave risk.

Willis is an outstanding writer in every aspect of the term, from plot to pacing to character development, but two things particularly stand out in Doomsday Book. One is her ability to still weave humor into a story that is incredibly dark and full of tragedy, with many deaths of named characters in both timelines. William Gaddson, an undergraduate who is rather successful with the young ladies but whose overbearing mother thinks he’s a fragile, innocent boy who studies too hard, provides regular comic relief and even plays a real role in the plot. The American bell choir stuck inside the quarantine zone is almost absurd in its zeal to put on a show regardless of conditions. The assistant Finch’s obsession with “lavatory paper” is similar in its “oh my God is he still on about that” nature.

One of the first symptoms of this influenza strain is mental confusion, and Willis manages to impart that to the reader without actually confusing the reader about what’s happening. That is, when the character at the center of the action gets sick and begins to suffer the confusion, Willis gets that across in ways that don’t cause the reader to lose understanding of what’s happening. I found I realized some things weren’t making sense, so the character’s confusion was tangible, but I also could follow what was happening as an observer (since it’s written entirely in the third person) rather than just getting lost myself. That balance is a neat trick and takes a skilled writer to pull off.

Doomsday Book touches on some significant themes, notably some of the characters’ difficulty in reconciling their belief in God with the horrors of the epidemics before them and the deaths of friends and family members. Some fall to disbelief, others to superstition or belief that it’s God’s vengeance. Those who remain after the epidemics have ended, however, seem to all have come to some appreciation of the kindness and mercy of others, even those facing their own deaths, in the face of unimaginable fear and difficulty. Kivrin’s final encounter with a dying plague victim provides the most moving, insightful scene of the book, even though both characters see the situation from almost perfectly opposed perspectives.

As with To Say Nothing of the Dog and Willis’ shorter novel Bellwether, which I read in June and loved but never had time to review, I couldn’t put Doomsday Book down, reading its nearly 600 pages in just over a week. I’ll have to get to her most recent novel in the Oxford universe, the 2010 two-part novel Blackout/All Clear, which also swept the major awards and runs over 1,000 pages in total.

Next up: I read Philip José Farmer’s Hugo winner To Your Scattered Bodies Go this week and hated just about everything about it. I’m about to start Laurent Binet’s World War II novel HHhH today, which has to be better.

The Forever War.

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, winner of the Nebula Award for best novel in 1975 and Hugo and Locus Awards in 1976, has the biggest disconnect between its value as a metaphorical take on a real-world event and its value as a straight work of fiction. While Haldeman manages to create a unique way of looking at the then-ongoing conflict in Vietnam, a war without apparent end, the story itself is dull and rote, enamored of its own technological descriptions of battles to the detriment of plot of character development.

The war in the book comes about because humanity has discovered “collapsars,” relativistic oddities in space (not that dissimilar to black holes) that allow for travel at speeds approaching that of light, leading to a brief period of exploration that hits a wall when one ship is attacked by an unknown alien species called the Taurans. The protagonist and narrator William Mandella is a physics student and conscript for one of the first strike forces asked to go out first to the fictional planet of Charon beyond Pluto (the book was written before the moon of Pluto given that name was discovered) and then to attack the Taurans in a suspected base on a hostile planet beyond one of the collapsars. Due to time dilation, Mandella and the other surviving soldiers have aged just two years but return to an earth vastly changed by several decades, a bombastic, unintentionally comic vision of an overpopulated planet under a one-world dictatorship that seized power in response to the Tauran threat. The novel then deals with Mandella’s difficulties handling the gaps in time between his returns to civilian life and the harsh reality of fighting an enemy for unknown reasons with no apparent goal or exit strategy.

Haldeman had served in Vietnam, and it’s only possible to read this book as a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel that serves to lampoon the military structure that sent American boys to die in a war without purpose while also displaying the effects the war had on the soldiers who survived. The war against the Taurans is a dull one, and Haldeman is not, here, much of a storyteller: the prose is dry and the descriptions technical, with lengthy explanations of futuristic weaponry and tactics that suck energy even out of the battle scenes, let alone the lengthy description of the soldiers’ training on the impossible world of Charon.

The sequence back on earth several decades after the soldiers have left reads like a short story inserted into a novel, bearing little resemblance to the story before or after, and on its own is just bad dystopian fiction by someone who read The Population Bomb. Haldeman drops in the usual food-shortage stuff along with the fear of authoritarian governments, but where he gets really bizarre is when he has “homosex” rising first as a natural consequence of the overpopulation and eventually something encouraged by government, becoming the new normal for humanity further into the future, with heterosexual urges treated as a mental illness. It seems to treat homosexuality as deviant and repulsive, using it as a tool to show the awful future of the human race.

Viewed as allegory, however, The Forever War seems to hit its mark. The war itself is as pointless as it gets: Humanity’s immediate response to the possible attack on one of our ships – which was somewhere else in the galaxy than our solar system – is all-out war, along with building up terrestrial defenses against an attack that isn’t threatened or even particularly likely. There is no attempt to communicate with the Taurans, or even any idea what they look like; soldiers are sent out to kill and destroy. The subsequent war becomes one of attrition, with battles waged over lifeless rocks that have no meaning to either side, and with neither side ever gaining anything like an advantage in the overall battle – with gauging advantage made especially difficult by the time dilation, so ships are sent off in one stage of the war and return in another entirely. (Haldeman obeys the laws of physics to the point of omitting faster-than-light communications.) Soldiers are given posthypnotic suggestions to make them want to kill the Taurans on sight, treating the aliens as enemies regardless of what actually happens on the field of battle.

One could make the historical argument that the Vietnam War was justified because the United States was trying to prevent a hostile dictatorship from taking over an entire country, subjecting millions of people to what turned out to be twenty-plus years of poverty and suppression. The U.S. justified it at the time by invoking the domino theory that each country that fell to communism further enabled the next revolution; perhaps showing the Soviet Union that funding additional insurgencies would cost them more because we were willing to spend to fight them. The war against the Taurans in The Forever War can’t even rise to those levels of reasoning, because the Taurans aren’t clearly threatening anyone; the metaphor works in the sense that neither the Taurans nor the Viet Cong were threatening “us,” so why were we trying so hard to kill them, putting our own men at risk by doing so? At best, the logic extended to protecting our ships if another should encounter the Taurans randomly beyond another collapsar, but without understanding what caused the first incident, even this – given the enormous expense involved – seems specious.

Books that seem to work strictly on that metaphorical or allegorical level generally leave me cold because of how much they miss, and The Forever War did just that, more than anything else because the characters are so one-dimensional. Mandella is intelligent but hardly wise or smart, and his return home after his first tour of duty – into the dystopian section of the book – is surprisingly emotionless. The closest thing the book has to another core character is his girlfriend Marygay, who has no personality to speak of, and of necessity disappears for a few chapters at a time. Without a compelling individual character at the heart of the book, the read becomes stolid and dull, even when we should be feeling the intensity of a battle scene. So for all its accolades – and the book’s cover has some very impressive quotes from other authors – The Forever War fell very short for me.

Next up: I’m currently reading Jeff Passan’s The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports.

Paladin of Souls.

Lois McMaster Bujold has won four Hugo Awards for Best Novel, matching Robert Heinlein for the most wins by any author, winning for both works of science fiction and of fantasy. Her most recent win was for her 2004 novel Paladin of Souls, a high fantasy work that seemed to me to have an extraordinarily strong religious or spiritual component, but one that was fully integrated into the story rather than one that beats you about the head like a certain large feline, sorceress, and armoire may have done.

Paladin of Souls starts about as slowly as any fantasy book I’ve read (disclaimer: I haven’t read that many) and appears to be another one of them ol’ “let’s take a long long time to get from one place to another” sort of books, which has to be the most overused plot device in fantasy or sci-fi. Ista, the dowager and former queen (royina, in the book’s vernacular) of Chalion, is bored with her fate as shut-in, having recovered from the curse that inflicted madness upon her for many years (apparently covered in the preceding book, The Curse of Chalion), and sets off on a journey with the requisite motley crew of associates, with no particular destination in mind. The group includes the portly and slightly fatuous divine dy Cabon, the courier turned lady’s maid Liss (who was the most interesting character by a mile), the warrior brothers Ferda and Foix, and a bunch of guards. The group first runs into a raiding party from the neighboring state of Jokona, then takes shelter in the town/castle of Porifors, only to find that entity fall under siege by an incredibly powerful Jokonian contingent. But there’s a mystery afoot in Porifors, and it turns out that the gods are not done with Ista – one god, the Bastard, in particular seems to have further plans to use her as the vessel to save Porifors and stop the Jokonians’ Hitlerian plans for expansion.

Ista’s madness does not return but she regains some of the powers she held during that earlier period, including her “second sight” that allows her to see souls as light and shadows on their possessors – including demons, who figure heavily in the plot, and souls damaged by the ill usage of others. Ista must learn how to utilize this ability and its related power to manipulate souls so that she can save Porifors, and Chalion by extension, while also granting salvation to several of the people around her, including those posssessed by the novel’s many demonic forces. While I know nothing of Bujold’s religious beliefs, I found it impossible to read this as anything other than a metaphor for the Christian notions of dualism, redemption, and salvation through Ista/Christ. Ista becomes the only means of saving one character whose soul is otherwise doomed to damnation because of a demon’s trick that has given him physical life beyond death – I’m being ambiguous on purpose here to avoid fully spoiling it – and also must find ways to save the various characters directly possessed by demons, a sort of absolution by exorcism that comes at the end of personal battles between man (or woman) and demon for ultimate control of that person’s soul. Whether you find that angle compelling may depend on your views of religion or of dualism; I think it works on two levels, one a spiritual one, but the other a compelling way to give a story a climactic battle scene with somewhat less bloodshed than normal and without relying on ill-defined “magic” the way so many fantasy stories do. And, unlike George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novel, there’s no gratuitous violence toward the women to try to up the plot ante or otherwise depict the world as brutal and dark.

Ista herself is a less than stellar protagonist, however, because she’s strong but plain: She wishes to fight her role as Chosen One, accepts it, and powers through the final showdown on her intelligence and her strength of will, but there’s little or nothing inherently interesting about her persona. Her handmaiden, Liss, appears less frequently on the page but has more depth to her character: A well-born courier who chose that career for its potential for adventure, she spends more time helping execute Ista’s plans for battle than helping her lady dress or fix her hair, and her generally badass nature reminded me of the character Medea from Atlantis, played by Amy Manson, who now portrays Merida (with a silly wig) in Once Upon a Time. Manson’s Medea was indeed badass in several ways, and gloriously conflicted between Pasiphäe and Jason while fighting like you’d expect a stock male warrior to fight. Bujold injected Liss with that fierceness, and with that anti-feminine nature, but then gave us far too little of the character while embroiling her in an out-of-character flirtation with Foix.

The weak characterization of Ista combined with the slow start to the apparent journey plotline meant that the first third or so of Paladin of Souls plodded along without much promise, made worse by my lack of familiarity with the backstory. Once Ista reaches Porifors and the mystery starts up, followed by the intense siege and subsequent battle, the pacing was much more satisfactory and in line with better genre works (which I always find read faster than more literary and/or hifalutin works), but it didn’t leave me with the same wonder as better Hugo winners like Hyperion or Among Others, or even novels that were more clever but a bit less successful in plot like The City and the City.

Next up: Graham Greene’s England Made Me.

Red Mars.

I have a scouting blog up with notes from three games I saw last week, covering Jeff Hoffman, Gleyber Torres, Matt Strahm, Spencer Adams, and Brad Markey.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy won a Nebula Award for the first book (Red Mars), Hugo Awards for the second (Green Mars) and third (Blue Mars), and Locus Awards for the second and third, as well as a passel of other awards and nominations. I just finished Red Mars, the dense 570-page opener, on Friday, and I can’t fathom why it won the Nebula or has spawned a cult following that appears to be leading toward a scripted series on Spike TV.

The Mars trilogy covers the first human attempt to colonize Mars, with a mission leaving Earth in 2026 (heh) with 100 colonizers chosen largely for their scientific and engineering skills. The goal is merely to establish a permanent settlement that may open the door for further research and potential economic activity like heavy-metal mining, but as conditions on Earth deteriorate due to war, pollution, and overpopulation, emigration to Mars becomes a reality and accelerates beyond the point that the red planet can handle it – especially since Mars is freezing and its thin atmosphere comprises mostly carbon dioxide. This in turn exacerbates the initial philosophical divide among the “first hundred” of whether humans should attempt to terraform Mars and make it suitable for long-term human settlement, or if humans have any responsibility to maintain the planet’s environment and, if present, any ecosystem that might exist at a microscopic level.

Red Mars is hard science fiction, very heavy on the technical aspects of its subject, with painstaking attempts to keep it as scientifically accurate as it can be. That means the book is about as dry as the Martian equator, as Robinson devotes paragraphs and even pages to details that contribute nothing to the plot and only serve to show that the author has indeed done his research. I can understand the desire to convince the reader that something like the space elevator transportation system is feasible, for example, but the point of including it in a work of fiction should be to show its effect on the characters within the story, not merely to say, “hey, cool, a space elevator!”

Robinson seems so caught up in demonstrating the technologies required for the mission and his mastery of their specifics that he spends very little time developing the book’s central characters, roughly a dozen of the first hundred who play significant roles in the novel’s multistranded story arc. Two of the most significant ones are dead before the book even ends, as are a few characters of less importance, and while many dramatic works benefit from the uncertainty around characters’ fates, Red Mars isn’t one of them. There’s no sense of impending jeopardy to raise tensions, and when the novel ends with a lengthy journey where several of the first hundred escape from Terran forces, I never doubted that they’d succeed in reaching their destination. And, most damning of all, I didn’t really care if they didn’t, so long as Robinson didn’t bore me to death first with details of how their little rovers worked or more about that bizarre flood that, even with all his descriptive text, I still could not for the life of me manage to picture in my head.

So my question to those of you who’ve braved this series is whether it’s worth it to continue, as I’ve been reading past Hugo winners, which would include both of the next two books in the series. My instinct is no, that the issue was Robinson’s writing style, and that seems unlikely to improve from book to book, at least not enough for me to plod through another 1200 pages.

Next up: I just finished A Bell for Adano, a wonderful satirical war novel by John Hersey (author of the famed New Yorker piece Hiroshima) and have begun Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.


My Futures Game recap is up for Insiders.

I read six books on my vacation – fortunately, my wife and I both subscribe to John Waters’ philosophy on lovers and books – including four of my favorite authors/series (Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Flavia de Luce, and a standalone P.G. Wodehouse novel), as well as two new authors, including Larry Niven’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel Ringworld. Like Arthur Clarke’s similarly-acclaimed Rendezvous with Rama, Ringworld is a work of hard science fiction, in this case playing off a popular concept in physics and speculative science (the Dyson Sphere) and turning it into a lengthy adventure story involving the discovery of a distant world. It’s also surprisingly dull for a story that has as much action as Ringworld does, perhaps because most of the plot elements are so hackneyed.

Set in a distant future where man has explored a wider corner of the galaxy, encountering at least three alien races, the story has four explorers setting off on a mission to reach the structure of the story’s title, an artificial planet of sorts shaped like a ring around a distant sun. The crew is assembled by a two-headed creature called a puppeteer, who has deliberately selected three specific members – two humans, and one giant feline creature called a kzinti – for this mission, itself a response to the discovery that the Milky Way’s core is going to break down in a massive chain reaction in about 20,000 years. The puppeteers have already begun a massive migration, but it becomes clear that they want to see if copying Ringworld would accommodate them in another system.

Niven has explicitly said that he modeled the world after the Dyson Sphere, a hypothetical structure built around a star capable of capturing all of that star’s energy to supply the needs of the species that built it. Dyson recognized that per capita energy usage rises as a civilization becomes more technologically advanced – how many devices are you charging at the moment? – and conceived this structure as a totally crazy, speculative solution as well as a theoretical maximum on the energy available to that civilization, given that solar energy would dwarf any energy from nonrenewable sources. Niven has the unfortunate tendency to give the reader too much of the physics, generally in awkward dialogue between these impossibly-educated crew members, which doesn’t do much to help keep the story moving. Where Niven has to deviate from known or even hypothetical physics – the familiar “hyperdrive” of most science fiction gets stretched even further than normal – he spares us the details, which works much better because you’re only reading this book if you’re already willing to suspend your disbelief in things like travel at or faster than the speed of light. (Niven actually has an amusing bit of handwaving about this that I won’t spoil.)

Science fiction that relies this heavily on the science portion for seizing and maintaining reader interest worked for me when I was a teenager, but now it leaves me cold; I want fiction that tells me a story, preferably one that examines some fundamental aspects of human nature. (Granted, that’s tricky with a kzinti who might eat his shipmates or a puppeteer who rolls into a ball when scared as part of the crew.) Niven could have used his plot device as a way to consider the eventuality that we will fill the planet, or reach a point where we can’t increase our per capita energy consumption, but he blows right past that to get his quartet on Ringworld, where they find … well, not very much. And what they find is bizarre, often inexplicable, and impossible to picture with Niven’s rather stolid prose.

Ringworld isn’t a slow or arduous read, however – the writing isn’t complex, the sentences are pretty short, and most chapters function as self-contained stories. It may have been more praiseworthy in its day, but given some of the recent Hugo winners that have put storycraft over the sci-fi or fantasy elements, it feels very dated.

Next up: I just finished Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and started Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours on the flight back from Humid City this morning.

Ancillary Justice.

My latest boardgame review for Paste magazine covers the 2014 engine-building game Evolution.

Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch) ran the table of major sci-fi awards, winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke Awards for Best Novel (among other prizes) in 2014 and spawning two upcoming sequels to complete the “space opera” trilogy. Leckie devised a clever twist to give Ancillary Justice a different flavor from any novel I’ve seen before, but that didn’t infuse the story with the narrative greed I’d expect from an award-winning science-fiction book.

The protagonist of Ancillary Justice is an “ancillary,” a human body with an AI cognitive function, one recently separated from the ship that previously ruled its actions. In the world Leckie has created, spaceships run on powerful, all-seeing systems with their own artificial intelligences, and they extend their reach and powers via ancillaries – various prisoners who’ve been placed in cryogenic suspension, reanimated, and fitted with various technical implants, from armor to the system that connects them to the ship’s central nervous system. That means that each ancillary functions as a small part of a larger whole – Breq, the protagonist, can recall seeing with dozens of pairs of eyes when she was still part of the ship Justice of Toren. These ships and ancillaries are all under the command of the Radch, a mysterious authority that rules a large swath of its galaxy, adding to its dominion via ruthless “annexations” that tend to involve a lot of killing of innocents.

Breq’s ship is gone, described in one of the book’s many flashbacks, essential to understanding why Breq is trying to obtain a rare weapon and go kill one of the many bodies of the Radch’s monarch, Anaander Mianaai, even though such a move won’t actually destroy the ruler herself. The novel itself begins with a long tangent where Breq, arriving on the snowbound planet of Hilt (why is there always a frigid, snow-covered planet in these books?), comes across a dying woman named Seivarden lying face-down in the snow. Recognizing the former lieutenant, Breq chooses to save the woman’s life, further complicating her own mission yet giving Leckie more room to explain the Radch’s history.

That lengthy introductory section lasts maybe a third of the book, and while there may be a payoff later in the trilogy, it contributed to the novel’s lack of plot interest. I understood why Breq wants to kill one of the many Anaander Mianaais running around the galaxy; I just couldn’t bring myself to care all that much, at least not to the point where I was reading because I wanted to know what happened next. The plot is antiseptic, fully functional yet without color or emotion – befitting a story that is ultimately about a battle between artificial intelligences, I suppose.

Leckie’s use of an atypical protagonist likely contributed to the slew of awards she won for Ancillary Justice, and it allowed her to touch on a pair of themes that resonate quite strongly today, perhaps also boosting her stock with judges. One such theme is the question of privacy in an increasingly wired, digital era. Every ship and space station is “alive” via AI, and sees and knows everything that’s going on within, to the point of monitoring individuals’ heart rates and facial expressions, analyzing them for potential threats. The Radch continues to annex more territories, giving the targets no choice in the matter, forcing them to cede their land and any individual freedom they may have had prior to the Radch’s arrival.

Leckie also explores the question, although I suppose it’s settled within the novel, of how much control we’re willing to surrender to our computers. AIs rule every ship, station, or planet we encounter in the book, and there’s very little thought given to whether this is optimal because it’s been that way for at least a thousand years. The Radch is ruled according to a quasi-mystical (rather Confucian) set of principles, including Justice, that considers the Greater Good without giving any visible weight to the individual. On the one hand, that means personal freedom gets trampled by the Radch whenever there’s a conflict. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure everyone in the Radchaai empire is vaccinated.

Leckie gets too cute by half with her forays into language and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, never committing to it enough for a real exploration of its relevance, choosing instead to toy with questions of gender or Arabic/Korean-style questions of declensions that vary based on the level of respect due to whoever you’re talking to. It reads like an idea she had early in the novel’s development, then gradually abandoned as she became more enmeshed in the broader AI-focused plot.

Ancillary Justice reads more like a novel you’d analyze and discuss than one you might read for pleasure. The lack of any emotional connection between the reader and Breq, or even to the specific incident that triggered her rebellion against Anaander Mianaai, makes it a desultory read, failing to generate enough interest in getting to the book’s conclusion – a strong one, easily the book’s best segment, but not enough to make up for what came before. If you’re more invested in the backstory of why Breq ended up severed from her ship, and why she’s engaging on a seemingly futile one-ancillary mutiny against a ruler who can’t be killed – and as I type that I think that sounds like a pretty good story – you’ll likely enjoy the book more than I did.

The Left Hand of Darkness.

I have three Insider posts up on recent moves, one on the Heyward/Miller swap, one on Toronto signing Russell Martin, and a third omnibus post covering Hellickson, Moncada, Burnett, and La Stella/Vizcaino. Also, if you missed my annual boardgames ranking, I posted that on Tuesday.

Ursula K. Le Guin won two Hugo Awards for novels, one for The Dispossessed, which I read earlier this year (and loved), and one for the book I just finished, The Left Hand of Darkness , a much stranger book in almost every respect. Set on a planet that suffers near-permanent winter, the novel manages to explore questions of political philosophy and economy while also delving into the still-current question of gender identity and whether gender is a biological or social construct, even though she wrote the book in the late 1960s.

On Gethen, the planet where the entire novel takes place, the still-human residents have evolved over tens of thousands of years to become hermaphroditic, mostly sexless until their mensual period of “kemmer,” a point in the hormonal cycle when that person’s male or female reproductive organs become capable of procreation for a few days. That means that a Gethenian can be a mother to one child and father to another, producing a different societal concept of families. The protagonist, Genly Ai, is an envoy sent from the Ekumen, the book’s united federation of planets (so to speak) that is hoping to invite Gethen into its alliance, which focuses primarily on the sharing of knowledge and limited trade. Ai is distrusted by two separate governments, one a loose, feudal monarchy, the latter a Soviet-style command structure, and finds he has just one Gethenian he can trust, the disgraced adviser Estraven. The second half of the book puts the two of them on a life-or-death journey across desolate, snowbound country, where Ai is forced to reconsider his own aloof, perhaps ignorant attitude toward the character of the Gethenians, including the influence of their mostly genderless existence on their development as humans.

While The Left Hand of Darkness is largely praised as an early feminist sci-fi novel, reading it today it came across as a broader exploration of gender identity questions and to what extent growing up in a two-gender society (that is still relatively intolerant of anyone with gender dysphoria, or even folks who aren’t strictly heterosexual) defines our characters as individual. In a society where roles are not defined by gender because gender doesn’t exist, many questions of equality go away, as do the narrow types of personalities considered acceptable for each gender. All Gethenians Ai encounters exhibit tendencies he considers “effeminate” – the use of the term itself even indicates the trouble he has defining people as “he” or “she” – and others he calls “masculine,” but those terms come from his own experience and have no meaning outside of the two-gender context. Increasing his understanding while suffering the privations of a trip across a glacier with Estraven – who, like most Gethenians, lacks the testerone-driven strength of a biologically male human – becomes essential to the success of his overall mission, if and when he survives.

The political aspects of Ai’s quest dominate the first half of the novel as he first fails to achieve his objectives in the monarchist nation of Karhide, then travels to the totalitarian Orgoreyn, only to get caught up in the infighting among that nation’s 33-member politburo. Much of his difficulty stems from widespread skepticism that he’s actually an alien – he looks similar to Gethenians, just taller, darker in complexsion, and of course of a single gender – and the rest comes from doubt over the peaceful nature of his mission. He spends two years in Karhide, but is hesitant to commit to bringing the ship with the rest of his trade mission (eleven others, all kept in stasis so they aren’t aging while waiting for the call) to Gethen, even though it would likely seal the agreement with the Karhidish monarch. Le Guin’s aim here is vague until Ai crosses the border, at which point she unloads on the Soviets, which I’m sure was a lot more powerful or shocking in 1969 when the book was first published than it is today. We’ve been too desensitized to the abuses of authoritarian regimes to be affected by Ai’s plight in a forced-labor camp.

My one complaint with Left Hand is Le Guin’s use of phony dialect and terminology, something a lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers do, presumably to make the whole setting seem more real to readers but instead just coming off as confusing and, to my eyes, a little juvenile. I don’t know why Le Guin needed to create a whole new calendar with names for months and days, all summarized in a appendix at the end of the book. I don’t know why she needed so many new terms for government officials; it seems like an imagination run wild, without the guiding hand of an editor to say, hey, you’re just going to make readers lose their focus on the plot. It’s too strong and thoughtful a novel to waste time on trivial word changes, and given how well the gender identity themes still hold up over 40 years later, a book that deserves a much wider audience than just the sci-fi crowd.

Next up: I’m reading two books at once now, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil as my main read while also trying to read Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz in the original Spanish.

The Dispossessed.

I answered questions from our fantasy baseball staff for a new Insider post today.

I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life, but often became burned out on reading when I was younger because I wanted to read something different from what was being forced on me in school. The drudgery of assigned reading in junior high school and my first two years of high school left me reading very little for pleasure, something exacerbated by a gift of a Commodore 64 around that same time that found me absorbed in games rather than pages. It was my chance discovery of a science fiction book that got me back on the reading track when I was 15, a spine that jumped off the shelf first because of the author’s name, Isaac Asimov*, and then because of the description of the book, which hooked me right away.

* I was familiar with Asimov’s name for a number of reasons, from the sci-fi rag that bore his name to the long out-of-print Realm of Algebra, which I used one weekend in sixth grade to learn the subject, because my school was switching me to a different math class. Any other famous sci-fi author’s name wouldn’t have had the same effect on me in the bookstore.

I wasn’t aware at the time that the book, Foundation, was an important work in the history of science fiction, or part of a long series. I saw what sounded like a cool story and bought the book, which prompted a stretch of reading for pleasure that ran right through college, through the entire Foundation series, then other Asimov titles, then the Dune series (pro tip: stop after book one), Lord of the Rings, the entire works of Kurt Vonnegut to that point, and even a dozen or so novels by Philip K. Dick, along with a handful of one-off works in the sci-fi and even fantasy genres.

There came a point in my early 20s, however, when that paroxysm of reading slowed to a near-halt. I gave up on fiction, for reasons I don’t even remember, and was only reading a book a month, if that. And when I gave up on fiction, I gave up on science fiction more or less for good. It wasn’t a conscious choice, nothing driven by disdain for the genre, but perhaps an association of science fiction with my own childhood that made me switch to more traditional, mainstream literature. There were exceptions, including the book that provoked my second wind as a reader, the first Harry Potter novel; I read that on a business trip to California in the fall of 2000 and have read over 600 novels since then because J.K. Rowling managed to reawaken in me the love of a great story, the desire to get lost in a dazzling plot with descriptions so vivid that I could be consumed by the words. (To this day, the only time I’ve ever had a dream that put me in a book was one where I was just a regular student at Hogwarts, witnessing the story as a classmate rather than a reader.) But even Rowling’s work didn’t push me to read more fantasy novels; I shifted to the classics, many of which appear to have been influences on the Harry Potter novels, and left science fiction almost completely behind me.

The closest I’ve come to sci-fi in the interim, aside from the two titles on the TIME 100 (Neuromancer and Snow Crash), are dystopian novels, those that depict an alternate society, sometimes set in the future, but nearly always incorporating some element of science into their visions of authoritarian regimes or personal struggles for identity and freedom. My interest in dystopian novels also dates back to that first fling with sci-fi in high school, when I read 1984 and Brave New World and Wells’ The Time Machine, but has never stopped even though the genre includes its fair share of solipsistic duds. (Its sister category, utopian novels, is even worse in that regard.) Reading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We earlier this year made me seek out other highly-regarded titles in the catgory, which led me back into sci-fi and to The Dispossessed, the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel by acclaimed sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Not only was it an excellent representative of what a good dystopian novel can accomplish, it balanced the fiction and the science beautifully, reminded me of what I once enjoyed so much about the genre.

Le Guin’s setup in The Dispossessed differs from those of all of the dystopian novels I’ve read previously. She’s set up two sibling worlds with antithetical societal structures, neither of them clearly utopian or dystopain. Shevek, the physicist and lead character, was born on Anarres, the large moon orbiting the planet Urras. Anarres was colonized by dissenters nearly 200 years before the events of the book, dissenters who called themselves “Odonians” and practice a form of true communism they refer to as “anarchy,” using the literal sense of the term (without government) than the colloquial one (chaos). Over several generations of isolation from Urras, the people of Anarres have organized into syndicates to allow for fundamental economic activities, but within those syndicates, there exist cliques and fiefdoms that stymie Shevek’s attempts to develop his science further (and his friend’s endeavors to develop his art), resembling authoritarian regimes in their denial of anything deemed subversive or unnecessary. Shevek chooses to become the first person from Anarres to visit Urras since the Odonians’ departure, hoping to expand on his research into “temporal physics” and to find the freedom the people of Anarres had lost.

Most dystopian novels focus on tyranny by a single, usually totalitarian government, but Le Guin doesn’t take sides between Anarres and the pseudodemocratic regime Shevek visits on Urras. (Urras also has a Soviet-style regime, Thu, and puppet states where the two superpowers fight proxy wars.) Anarres has a social safety net, no inequality, and a high degree of mobility. Urras has an actual government, with poverty, conspicuous consumption, disease, and waste, but offers a kind of liberty that Anarres lacks – until it becomes clear that Shevek’s ideas may challenge the government there, at which point he encounters the limits of Urrastian liberty and has to make a choice that will affect the histories of both worlds.

Le Guin succeeds so well here in crafting a philosophical treatise within a novel because she focuses more than anything else on the “fiction” part of science fiction, notably the plot. There are science aspects to the work, primarily the settings – and her imagining of an inhospitable world of Anarres is superb, to the point where you can feel the dust on the pages – and the many references to Shevek’s physics work and its importance for interstellar travel, but those details are superficial, laid on top of a very serious work about freedom, especially that of choice. What does it mean for a human being to be free? Is it intellectual freedom? Freedom from want, unless others are also wanting? Freedom from envy? Freedom to choose one’s work, one’s partner, one’s abode?How petty can one despot be and still despoil one man’s freedom?

The Dispossessed won both of the major awards for the year’s best science fiction novel, although the correlation between the Hugos and the Nebulas is so high as to render the two redundant. I did pull the list of Hugo winners and found a number of interesting titles, including the most recent winner, the comic novel Redshirts, which I’ve already picked up based just on the description. With only ten read out of 62 total winners, I imagine this will help keep me busy even as I’m winding down my sojourn through the classics.

Next up: I’ve only got about a thousand pages to go in Victor Hugo’s The Wretched (Les Misérables).