Hugo Encounters a Floating Pile of Garbage

The novellas nominated for this year's Hugo Award cover some interesting ground: robots, splinters and flaming tigers, not to mention a floating pile of garbage.

Issue #25, Sunday 3rd June 2022


Bookish News

Winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize Announced

We are over the moon to reveal that Ruth Ozeki has won the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction with her fourth novel The Book of Form and Emptiness.

More details

And here’s a part of the review on the Readings website:

After his father dies, Benny Oh finds he can hear objects talking: teapots, marbles and sharpened pencils, babbling in anger or distress. His mother, struggling to support their household alone, starts collecting things to give her comfort. Overwhelmed by the clamour of all the stuff, Benny seeks refuge in the beautiful silence of the public library. There, the objects speak only in whispers.

Sounds really interesting, I’ve put a hold on it at my library (but I’m about 43rd in the queue!)

Buy it at Readings.

New and Forthcoming Releases

Well, just a couple which look interesting to me, anyway.

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

This is a book about abandoned places: exclusion zones, no man’s lands, ghost towns and post-industrial hinterlands - and what nature does when we’re not there to see it.

Buy it at Readings.

Lying Beside You by Michael Robotham

Twenty years ago, Cyrus Haven’s family was murdered. Only he and his brother survived. Cyrus because he hid. Elias because he was the killer.
Now Elias is being released from a secure psychiatric hospital and Cyrus, a forensic psychologist, must decide if he can forgive the man who destroyed his childhood.

I really liked Robotham’s previous novels featuring Cyrus Haven and Evie Cormac: Good Girl, Bad Girl and When She Was Good. So this will be a must-read.

Buy it at Readings.

My Reading

Almost all of my reading over the last couple of weeks has been associated with reading the nominees for the fiction categories for this year’s Hugo Awards.

Hugo Award 2022: Novellas

Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This starts out as what seems to be a work of fantasy, but in fact it's a clever playing out of Arthur C. Clarke's dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

We're introduced to Lynesse, who is the fourth daughter of the Queen of a place called Lannesite. She's been climbing up a mountain with a companion to reach an ancient tower, the tower of Nyrgoth Elder. Here dwells or once dwelt a mighty wizard, and Lynesse is trying to recruit his aid to fight a demon or scourge afficting the land. When she and her companion Esha Free Mark arrive, Lynesse is told that the wizard is sleeping, and denied the right to wake him unless she's able to prove her descent from ancient queens. This is where we first suspect we're not dealing with fantasy but science fiction, as the automated guardian of the tower takes a blood sample and presumably does a DNA test. Nyrgoth Elder is awakened.

Now the story alternates between the viewpoints of Nyrgoth and Lynesse and we find out that Nyrgoth (Nyr for short) isn't really a wizard but a scientist, an anthropologist who came to this planet centuries ago to study the people and culture. He's been in a form of deep sleep from which he awakens periodically. The other scientists left the planet a long time ago, but he was supposed to have been contacted and relieved, which hasn't happened.

The story then becomes a clever playing out of these two different viewpoints: Nyr consumed with guilt that he's interfering with something he was only ever meant to study; Lynesse baffled by why he's not blasting people with magic bolts. The author has a light touch, and there are moments of humour in this.

No need to go into any more detail, but the story plays out well as these two characters struggle to understand each other while defeating the threat which caused Lynesse to travel to Nyr's tower.

I liked this a lot, will probably rank it number 2 in the Hugo ballot.

The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

Definitely the best of the bunch in my opinion. I really like this one and would gladly read it again.

I was taken immediately by this story's first paragraph:

My name is Tetley Abednego and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown. I am nineteen years old. I live alone in Candle Hole, where I was born, and have no friends except for a deformed gannet bird I’ve named Grape Crush and a motherless elephant seal cub I’ve named Big Bargains, and also the hibiscus flower that has recently decided to grow out of my roof, but I haven’t named it anything yet. I love encyclopedias, a cassette I found when I was eight... plays by Mr. Shakespeare or Mr. Webster or Mr. Beckett, lipstick, Garbagetown, and my twin brother, Maruchan.

To me, this is clearly a conscious homage to the first paragraph of Shirley Jackson's wonderful novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle ("My name is Mary Kathleen Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance..."). Regardless of that, we immediately have this interesting, quirky character Tetley, and we know she lives in a peculiar place. And that's she's hated by everyone in town. There are a lot of similarities to Merricat, the narrator of Shirley Jackson's novel.

The strange place called Garbagetown, we discover, is a huge floating mass of rubbish floating on the ocean, big enough and solid enough for people to live on. Climate change has flooded the entire world, it seems, and all of what remains of humanity lives on such floating masses.

At some point there's been the Great Sorting, in which the inhabitants have sorted out the mass of junk into logical groupings. Tetley, for example, lives in the region called Candle Hole, where all of the candles in the garbage were collected and massed together.

So then we have to find out why Tetley is the most hated person in Garbagetown, and how she deals with that. It seems that sometime in the past she has done something terrible, or at least that everyone but her thinks is terrible.

Look, I don't want to go into too much more detail. There's obviously a strong environmental message here: the survivors refer to the previous generations who wrecked the climate as simply "the Fuckwits"; not simply for their reckless burning of fossil fuels, but also because of the greed and wastefulness of the vast quantities of excessive stuff they manufactured.

Yet Garbagetown, where Tetley was born and which is the only place she has ever lived, is, she says, "the most wonderful place anybody has ever lived in the history of the world".

Tetley, like Merricat in Jackson's novel, is a fascinating character whose sad story you quickly become invested in and want to follow through her many sufferings and occasional joys. I suppose what makes her so interesting is that despite all the bad things that happen to her, she faces everything with courage and is able to remain positive and take pleasure in what she has left. It's really well written and there's plenty of wry humour and occasionally pathos such as with the sad AI device Tetley accidentally awakens, which at first thinks she is its previous owner, a teenage Korean girl, and is devastated when it finally learns better.

This will definitely get my vote for Best Novella this year.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

There are some similarities between this book and Across the Green Grass Fields in that in both a young female character has to deal with serious problems in their real life, and in both they pass through a kind of portal into a fantasy world where they dwell for a while before returning. But I can't help feeling that A Spindle Splintered does a far better job of storytelling and character development.

In this one, the first-person protagonist is Zinnia Gray, who is just turning 21. She's been sick all her life, it seems, and is unlikely to live to her next birthday. She's suffering from amyloidosis, a condition in which abnormal proteins build up in a person's organs and interferes with their operation. In Zinnia's case, it seems this resulted from environmental pollution caused by a rapacious corporation.

Zinnia has also always been obsessed with the Sleeping Beauty story, possibly because versions of this always depict a sleeping, apparently dead beautiful girl who can be magically brought back to life. But she's very cynical about all of this. The first words in the book are:

"Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it. It’s aimless and amoral and chauvinist as shit."

There's much more in the book in this amusing, sardonic vein. Anway, to help celebrate her 21st, Zinnia's friend Charm organises a party in an old tower (rare in Ohio, she tells us). It's Sleeping-Beauty-themed of course, and she's brought along an old spinning wheel as a prop. When Zinnia pricks her finger...

She whizzes through glimpses of a multiverse of Sleeping-Beauty-like characters and then ends up in a tower in a castle where there's a beautiful princess right out of the fairytale. But her story isn't quite so simple... It's amusing that Zinnia's phone still works and can receive and send texts (until it runs out of charge, of course) and her friend Charm is sending WTF? messages, to which Zinnia responds "sorry babe. got spider-verse-ed into a fairy tale". That's what I mean by the sardonic humour of the whole thing.

Quite a fun story unfolds which disrupts our ideas of the original story, in which Zinnia's arrival helps the princess regain agency and control over her life without having to sleep for a hundred years.

When Zinnia finally returns to our world, she still has her terminal illness, but her multiverse experiences have at least pushed it back for a while.

I liked this novella, which I hadn’t expected to do.

One other thing worth saying: the print version of this book makes really interesting use of Arthur Rackham’s original illustrations to Sleeping Beauty in a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales. These illustrations have been silhouetted and sometimes combined to create intriguing effects.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

I thought that this was a pleasant-enough story, but it takes a long time to go anywhere and there's an awful lot of talking which is just the two main characters exchanging platitudes.

It's all set on what we discover is the moon of a much larger planet, but it's really pretty much indistinguishable from Earth as this fact doesn't have any real influence on the story. Centuries ago, it appears, robots as well as any electronic devices with sufficient processing power became self-aware, and quickly decided to leave humanity behind and seek their own destiny in the wilderness. Humanity then had to change itself to survive without robotic assistance and became far more environmentally aware.

We follow the fortunes of a monk called Sibling Dex. They are gender-non-binary, you see, so we can't call them Brother or Sister Dex. Just Sibling Dex. Dex is disenchanted with their‡ monkish life in a monastery and leaves to take up the role of a "Tea Monk". These people are travelling monks who listen to people's woes and grumbles, give some advice and sympathy, and serve them herbal teas. Dex starts out doing a terrible job through over-confidence, but then sets to work to really learn the trade and becomes expert after a few years. But they are still dissatisfied and on a whim, Dex heads off into the wilderness where after a while they encounter a robot calling itself Mosscap. This is the first encounter between robot and human since the great departure. They spend a long time talking and exchanging observations of the world, with the robot generally having the wiser view.

And that's about it. They team up and travel together until Dex is finally convinced of their purpose in life. It was a pleasant, sometimes amusing story, but it felt lightweight.

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

I really didn't like this one. I thought it was tedious in the extreme, with too much about political machinations and a weird but unconvincing love story.

We're introduced to Thanh, a younger daughter of a ruling Queen in a country which seems to be based on a medieval version of Vietnam. Thanh has recently returned from living for a few years in a neighbouring country, Ephteria, theoretically an ally but in fact a serious threat. We presume she was sent there as a kind of hostage, or surety of goodwill. She returned home after the palace in the other country was mysteriously burned to the ground. She fled the flames hand in hand with Giang, a servant girl, who subsequently vanished.

That's all background, but the bulk of the story is about the tense negotiations between Thanh's country and their perilous neighbour. Thanh is supposed to have an important role in these negotiations, but she's compromised by the fact that she had an affair with the crown princess of Ephteria, and that princess has come with the delegation and re-ignites Thanh's passion. Another complication is that Thanh inadvertently seems to keep on setting things on fire at unexpected moments.

By the way, there don't seem to be any males in this world, at all, though at one point a character is described as "wearing men's clothes" so presumably they do exist, but are of no importance and kept out of sight. Regardless, all the characters in the story we encounter are female.

It turns out that Giang, the servant girl with whom Thanh fled the flames in Ephteria, isn't at all what she seemed, and the story takes a twist into fantasy.

I just couldn't get interested in all this, I'm afraid. The political manouverings left me cold, and I couldn't feel much empathy for the main character.

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

This is a stand-alone novella in McGuire’s series called Wayward Children. I’ve quite liked most of the books I’ve read in this series, though I continually wish that she would expand them into novels. They always leave me feeling unsatisfied.

This one, though, annoys me greatly, because it’s a seriously missed opportunity.

** Warning, spoilers! **

The book starts strongly, with a character called Regan. We first meet her as a seven-year old child, who is:

perfectly normal by every measurement she knew

She has a number of good friends, but when one of them, Heather, brings a garter snake to school, Regan’s other best friend, Laurel, reacts in disgust. This, according to Laurel, isn’t “normal”. That’s not what girls do. Laurel is the dominant one in the group and everything has to be the way Laurel sees it. Laurel determines what is “normal”. Laurel is a bully.

Heather is quickly pushed out of the circle of friends and literally de-friended, even by Regan. There’s a strong message here about how cruel children can be to other children, and how any sign of difference is seized upon to mock and exclude those who don’t fit. Regan desperately wants to fit in, so she goes along with Laurel’s bullying.

However, few years later, Regan starts to question her parents about why she isn’t starting to develop breasts or start menstruating like her other friends. Her parents tell her, while admitting they should have told her much earlier, that she is trans-gender. She has XY chromosomes, which would normally make her male, but she also has androgen insensitivity, which gives her female genitalia (as you may know, the female form is the standard human form, we males are the deviants). Her parents tell her that when she’s 16 she can start to have hormone treatments which will allow her to more fully develop female characteristics. By this stage, the reader has built up considerable empathy with Regan and her plight.

Unwisely, she tells her secret to Laurel, who of course (as you’d expect from her previous behaviour) rejects Regan with shock and horror and runs to tell everyone else that Regan is a boy pretending to be a girl. All this is very solid, interesting stuff, which I think could have been the basis for a strong novel developing Regan’s character as she deals with her situation, and exploring the themes of bullying, identity and transphobia.

Unfortunately that’s not what happens in the book.

Instead, after her disastrous conversation with Laurel, Regan runs away from the school grounds. While wandering through a wood, she stumbles through a magic portal into another world, the Hooflands. Regan has always been fond of horses, and the Hooflands is a world full of centaurs, unicorns and other mythical creatures. The story then degenerates into a lack-lustre girls-love-horses fantasy. Even the adventure she has in this world ends very limply, with no real tension built up at the crucial points.

At the very end of the book, several years after she passed through the portal, with Regan now having reached the age of 16, she finds herself pushed out of the Hooflands and back into her own world. In trepidation, she approaches the door of her parent’s house... And that’s where the book ends!

So there’s no attempt here to deal with what Regan’s life might be like now she is back in the real world, how she might deal with her ambiguous gender, what life might hold in store for her, what difficult decisions she might have to make. Or even anything about how her parents have managed to cope for more than five years, all the time presumably thinking their only child is dead, and what their reactions are when she returns. Nothing of that.

I can’t help thinking that Regan’s passage into the magical world of the Hooflands is a complete dodge by both the character and the author to avoid dealing with the difficult and important issues which are raised by the promising start to the book. It’s a badly missed opportunity, and it made me cross. Don’t raise these sensitive issues unless you’re going to deal with them honestly. Real transgender children don’t have the opportunity to escape into a fantasy world.

Other Reading

I’ve also now read five of the six books nominated for the Best Novel category of this year’s Hugos. But I’ll defer reviewing them here until after we’ve talked about them on the podcast. Just as a reminder, though, these are the novels nominated:

The only one of these I won’t have read by next time is the first, A Desolation Called Peace, and I don’t plan to read it, mainly because it’s a sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which I also haven’t read, and I don’t feel energised enough to read both books in the time I have remaining.

Currently Reading

Waiting on the Shelf


And that’s your lot for this issue!

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