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Every year, I try to read at least some of the nominees for the Hugo award for Best Novel. When I'm attending the convention and thus am allowed to vote, as I am this year, I try to read them in time to vote. That was a struggle this year, because I forgot that, with the convention being early, the voting would be early as well. But I've finished them, five days before the deadline, and am now ready to vote.

Below are my reviews of the five books nominated this year. The cut is for length, not for spoilers. Do not worry; I will not spoil you. I will preface my remarks by saying that I am voting solely on how much I enjoyed the experience of reading each book, not on literary merit or any other quality. Furthermore, my taste tends toward hard science fiction; if a fantasy novel is nominated, I do not bother to read it, because I just don't usually like fantasy novels much or get much out of reading them. Fortunately, there were no fantasy novels nominated this year, but there was an alternate reality story.

I was almost considering giving up on the annual Hugos-reading project this year, because I really did not like one of the novels (the alternate reality story, naturally). Also, I had a couple of conversations with friends where we discussed authors we very much liked (Cory Doctorow and Greg Egan), and each friend told me that those authors never get nominated for the Hugo. Apparently Hugo nominees tend to be on the light side compared to those authors. Or something. But, while I've read a lot of Hugo nominees I didn't like, the annual project has also introduced me to some great authors, such as Robert Charles Wilson, John Scalzi and Jack McDevitt. And one of my friends was wrong -- Egan has two nominees for Best Novelette this year. So, I think I'll keep reading.

Before my reviews, I'd like to give a big shout out to John Scalzi, who made four of the five books available electronically to convention members. This enabled me to read the books at work without looking like I was reading novels at work. This was absolutely essential to my ability to finish reading the books in time to vote. Thank you, Scalzi! And I hope I'm doing exactly what you wanted here by getting the word out about the books.

No. 5: The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

I know this may be extreme, but I actually rated this book below "No Award." This is the alternate reality story. Yeah, yeah, Michael Chabon is supposed to be a great writer, very literary, yadda, yadda, but I did not like the book. I did not enjoy it at all. I would go so far as to say that I found it unpleasant. Remember how you learned about tone in English class? This book is very strong on tone, and the tone is, in a word, bleak. The alternate reality business is that, instead of Israel having been created in 1948, the Jews were isolated to just a few parts of the world. One of those places was a small part of Alaska. (Apparently this much is based on an actual proposal that was considered by the US Congress.) At the time the story is set, a few years in the future, the Jews are about to be thrown out of Alaska as well, because the land is being repatriated to the natives. So, all of the characters are about to lose their homes and don't know where to go. And if that isn't bad enough, there's a murder. The book really belongs on the mystery shelf rather than on the speculative fiction shelf; it's a murder mystery. It's told from the point of view of a cop (hence, the "Policemen's Union"). I will go so far as to say that the book does have a happy ending, but happiness of the ending actually makes it seem incongruous with the rest of the book. Unless you really like: (a) murder mysteries; (b) bleak books; and (note that I'm using a conjunction here, not a disjunction) (c) books about Jews, I would avoid this one.

Incidentally, this is the one book out of five that was not included in the package of free electronic versions of the books available to convention members, which makes me feel even less badly about panning it. The publisher is making free paperback copies available to members, but who knows how long the paperback copy will take to get to me? I actually had to go to the store and buy this damn book in order to read it in time.

No. 4: Halting State by Charles Stross

Halting State comes in fourth not because there was anything wrong with it, but because the other were three were just so good. This is a typical Charlie Stross book, and if you like Charlie Stross, you'll like it. You won't be disappointed by his zany prose style. The point of view switches between three characters, one a lesbian cop (although she's not investigating a murder here, but a theft), one a claims adjuster and martial arts expert working on the same theft case, and one, well, he's a lovable geek, hired to help the claims adjuster understand the situation. She needs a gamer to help her, because the theft takes place inside a game. The book makes fun of the differences between corporate and geek cultures, as well as the differences between the cultures of Great Britain -- it's set in Scotland. Some of the latter is probably funnier to Brits and lost on Americans. The cop's lesbianism is very well done; it's completely incidental to the story. She's a cop, and when she thinks about her partner, or eats meals with her partner, her partner just happens to be another woman. All told, the book is a jolly romp in and out of the game, where our characters battle corporate drones as well as orcs. I liked it.

No. 3: Brasyl by Ian McDonald

It was a very, very close tie between No. 3 and No. 2. Brasyl is a wonderful book. Lately, Ian McDonald seems to be doing quite a bit of field research, writing books set in exotic cultures. His last book, River of Gods was set in India. Brasyl, as you might guess from the title, is set in Brazil, but it's more complicated than that. This book is a confluence of three stories, one set in the Amazon in the 1730's, one set in Rio de Janeiro in 2006, and one set in Sao Paulo in the 2030's. Now, I haven't been to Sao Paulo (and certainly not to the Sao Paulo of the 2030's), but I have been to Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon. McDonald captures the essence of these places in a rare manner. I don't like lengthy and elaborate descriptions of scenery, and you won't find much of that here. And yet, without resorting to a lot of boring detail, McDonald draws these places in ways that make you see them and feel them. The writing is beautiful. It's all extremely Brazilian, down to the caipirinias and the futebol. Part of the way that McDonald creates his world so well is by throwing in quite a few Brazilian expressions, so the glossary at the end will be helpful. But the scenery, the culture, the liveliness of Brazil are there for you in a profound way. The main characters are a Jesuit priest (1730's), a capoeirista who makes her living doing reality TV -- such an insane reality TV that it could only happen in Rio (2006), and a bisexual, well, I'm not sure what to call him, other than an underworld figure. I found this plotline confusing in the beginning, because this character has several false identities. I can't say very much about the plot without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that each plotline is action-packed, and the book has some fascinating science about quantum effects, and the whole triptych gets pulled together in some clever ways. Definitely a good read.

No. 2: The Last Colony by John Scalzi

This is the third book in a series that started with Old Man's War (which was nominated for but did not win the Hugo a few years ago), and continued with The Ghost Brigades (which I have not read). I think I've been at least somewhat spoiled for The Ghost Brigades, so it might be a good idea to read the series in order, but this book does stand on its own as a complete novel with a contained story. Our hero is an earth man who, in Old Man's War, volunteered for a life extension treatment that he received free in exchange for a few years of combat service in a galactic army. In this book, he's 90 years old, but has a young wife and a teenage daughter. He and his wife are retired from the combat duty and are leading a relaxing life as administrators of a rural planet when they agree to lead a mission to colonize a new planet. The new colony is to be formed by representatives of each of a dozen galactic cultures, including some Mennonites who still farm using old-fashioned plows and other equipment. I can't say much except that this mission turns out to be far more complicated than it sounds. There are some interesting ideas in here about governance, war and peace, and how to get everyone to get along. This story is told in simple language, and the book certainly does not have the literary qualities of Brasyl or even Halting State. But I voted for it above Brasyl because I got more joy out of the experience of reading it. The characters are delightful, and the dialog is full of understated but hilarious back-and-forth banter. The story is well-told and the plot is action-packed and well-timed, with just enough information being revealed at each moment. I was highly entertained.

And No 1: Rollback, by Robert Sawyer

While I was deeply torn between Nos. 2 and 3, No. 1 was a clear choice. Robert Sawyer's Rollback was amazing. It was amazing even though I went to see him read from it (thus, I did actually buy the book so I could have him sign it), and he read a section about 100 pages in that included a fair number of spoilers. I can't complain, though, because he did a fantastic reading, and stayed for an entire hour after the reading to engage in a fascinating discussion with the audience about the publishing industry, other authors, the differences between the US and Canada, and even god. I don't attend very many programmed events at science fiction conventions, but of the ones I have attended, Sawyer's reading was one of the best. If you get a chance to see him read in person, I definitely recommend it. But I will not spoil you as much as he spoiled me.

At the beginning of the story, set in the late 2040's, we are introduced to a delightful elderly Canadian couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. The wife is a famous astronomer who deciphered an alien message in her middle age; the husband worked in television production. We can really feel the sweetness of the relationship and the depth of the love between these people. A return message has now been received from the aliens who sent the first message, in a different code, and a wealthy inventor would like to keep the wife around to decipher it. He offers to pay for her to have a radical new anti-aging procedure called a rollback. She insists that she will not have the procedure unless he will pay for it for her husband as well. The millionaire agrees, and they undergo the procedure. This is where things get complicated.

This book is packed with fascinating science fiction concepts like alien communication and life extension. But what really makes it special are the characters and the way they respond to their circumstances. They feel like real people (even the robot!), and I came to care about them deeply. This book made me cry. Like crazy. For pages. On the train. It doesn't have the gun-blasting action of the other books, but it's an incredibly moving story, with all sorts of high emotional drama. Like The Last Colony, it's not written in a high literary fashion. But it's so well-told and well-plotted that I can't recommend it enough. I've read and loved many of Sawyer's books, but this one really made me want to go back and read more of them. This is the kind of story that reminds us of why we read stories in the first place. This is a fantastic book that clearly deserves this year's prize!

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