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I am truly ahead of myself on the Hugos this year. I have prepared myself not only for the voting deadline, but for the nomination deadline. I've read six books that I think are likely to be nominated, so that I could do my part to make sure the right one gets nominated. I had the good fortune (or the planning fortitude) to see four of the authors read and/or discuss their books this year, which helped me get ahead. Once I was so close to being ready for the nominations, I picked up the books whose authors I hadn't seen. The six books were: The Devil's Eye by Jack McDevitt, Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi, Saturn's Children by Charlie Stross, Rolling Thunder by John Varley, Anathem by Neal Stephenson, and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.


Books That Are Continuations of Series


The Devil's Eye


This is the latest in McDevitt's excellent adventure series about antique dealer Alex Benedict and pilot Chase Kolpath. Apparently the publisher doesn't consider Chase to be anywhere near as important a character as Alex (even though she's the for-god's-sakes narrator), because the cover says on it "An Alex Benedict Book." Perhaps this is the work of some marketing genius and not reflective of McDevitt's own opinions of his characters. In any case, if you liked the previous three books in the series, you'll like this one. It's more of the same, a fascinating mystery to be solved, exciting and daring space adventures, etc. No deep science or philosophy, just fun. I enjoyed it and I recommend the series.

Zoe's Tale


This is the latest in what Scalzi calls the Old Man's War series, after the title of the first book. As Scalzi told us at LosCon, the first two books in this series are largely about war, and the second two are largely about peace. He definitely has some interesting ideas about how to bring about peace. This story is told from the point of view of an adolescent girl, and Scalzi described in detail how difficult it was for him to get into the head of an adolescent girl and make the character believable. She is quite believable, though, and also quite lovable. What bothered me about this book, however, is that it doesn't continue the story where the previous book, The Last Colony, left off. Instead, Scalzi retells the story of The Last Colony from Zoe's point of view. Now, I'm not saying that Zoe's part of the story, and her perspective on it, are unimportant. But things that were major developments in The Last Colony are pretty much glossed over in Zoe's Tale, while Zoe's Tale fills in story lines that were not fully developed in The Last Colony. I honestly think it would have been better as one longer book, with the viewpoint switching from chapter to chapter a la Ursula LeGuin. All the same, even though I knew the story, I cried again and again. Using an adolescent girl as narrator is a highly effective way of adding emotional drama to a story. Scalzi definitely succeeds here. But the entire time I was reading the book, I was mentally accusing Scalzi of being a lazy bastard, and was frustrated by his unwillingness to make up a new story for his audience. Then I got to the afterword. In it, Scalzi tells us that he specifically retold The Last Colony from Zoe's perspective at the request of his fans. Furthermore, he goes on to say, it was much more difficult to rewrite a story from a different perspective than it would have been to tell an entirely new story. Well. I would have enjoyed the book much more if Scalzi had put this in a foreword. But after reading that, I'm willing to forgive Scalzi for retelling the same story, especially because he tells it so well. It's a great book and a great series, and I am looking forward to The Ghost Brigades, which is still on my to-be-read shelf.

Books That Are Homages to Robert Heinlein


For some reason, 2008 seems to have been the year to write homages to Robert Heinlein. I'll be up front and admit that am not Heinlein's biggest fan. I was introduced to Heinlein's work during a phase of outraged and outrageous 1980's feminism, which pretty much blinded me to its positive aspects. But of course Heinlein was extremely influential, and I have often enjoyed books that were influenced by him more than I have enjoyed the works of Heinlein himself.

But I ask those of you who love Robert Heinlein, if you were going to write an homage, on which of his books would you base it? I'm betting the fans of his more action-oriented work are thinking Starship Troopers, or perhaps The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. And fans of his more philosophical work are thinking Stranger in a Strange Land, or maybe Time Enough for Love. I'm willing to bet that very few of you are jumping up and down and screaming, "Friday! Friday!" And I'll bet even fewer of you are waving your arms in the air and screaming, "Podkayne of Mars!"

And yet. In their homages to Robert Heinlein, Charlie Stross chose Friday, and John Varley chose Podkayne of Mars. I read their books, and, despite my problems with Heinlein, I enjoyed them. However, if this year someone writes a Heinlein homage based on I Will Fear No Evil, I don't care if it's Neal-friggin'-Stephenson, I am not reading the damn thing.

Saturn's Children


I read Friday before reading Saturn's Children, because Charlie told me I'd enjoy Saturn's Children more that way. This may have backfired though, because Charlie succeeds so well in imitating Heinlein that I could barely keep track of what happened in which book. Freya is such a well-done imitation of Friday that I can't remember particularly well what happened to Friday and what happened to Freya. The only part I'm sure about is the scene that I heard Charlie read. So, this homage is extremely well done. However, because it's such a great Heinlein imitation, it lacks a lot of the crazy stuff that makes us Charlie Stross fans. The story entirely makes sense. There are no bizarre VR battles or incomprehensible cell phones falling out of the sky. There is none of the surrealism that typically characterizes Charlie's work, nor any of the clever wordsmithing. It might as well have been a Heinlein book. If you liked Friday, you'll like Saturn's Children. I thought it was a good book, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I've enjoyed Charlie's other work.

Rolling Thunder


OK, technically this is a continuation of a series as well, but it fits better into the Heinlein homage category. After the Saturn's Children confusion, I took no chances of repeating that experience by actually reading Podkayne of Mars. After all, most of Heinlein's work upsets me, right? Now, John Varley is one of my favorite authors, and I think he is among the best writers in science fiction history. There are few authors whose work I have enjoyed more. Varley is fabulous, and truly deserves all of the awards that have been heaped upon him over the years. And I truly loved the first two books in this series, Red Thunder and Red Lightning. Although the latest installment, Rolling Thunder is very good, I did not enjoy it as much as the previous two. Varley doesn't manage to carry off the female perspective anywhere near as well as Scalzi does. Perhaps it's the influence of Podkayne of Mars; I don't know because I haven't read it. I found myself able to believe the ending, but it required a truly enormous pulley to suspend my disbelief sufficiently. A much larger pulley than the one required to believe the magical scientific inventions developed in the first two books. Without giving away too much, let's just say that the ending is entirely worthy of Robert Heinlein. But I loved the first half of the book, enjoyed it immensely, bawling my eyes out in the appropriate place. Altogether, the story is well told, but the ending is much too Heinlein for me.

Books That Are Truly Original


Little Brother


OK, OK, obviously Little Brother isn't truly original; it's an homage to George Orwell. But it's very different from Orwell's work, much more different than the Heinlein homages are from Heinlein's. Little Brother is a consummate post-9/11 science fiction novel, something which almost of necessity looks back to Orwell. (Varley's Red Lightning, by the way, is also a consummate post-9/11 novel, and very, very well done.) Little Brother is entirely modern in its style and attitude; could we expect anything less from Cory Doctorow? It's hip, it's badass, it's packed with extremely realistic technological wonders. There's none of Varley's magic technology here; it's all stuff that either already exists or that the government has been hoping to develop soon. And it's all described in excruciating detail; there is no black box. While Orwell's classic novel was exaggerated for effect, Doctorow's tale is all too true to life, reflecting on very specific Bush administration policies. Like Zoe's Tale, Little Brother is told from the perspective of a teenager, although Doctorow doesn't try to cross the gender line. This is the perfect perspective for this story, because the history of technology is often one of the old trying to control the young's use of technology, and of the young coming up with innovative ways of outwitting the old's increasingly clumsy attempts at limitation. Doctorow's characters boldly and cleverly use their own technology to organize secretly in spite of surveillance. Hopefully, in the new Obama era, Little Brother won't be quite as frightening as it was during the Bush reign. But there's plenty here to scare the pants off any self-respecting ACLU or EFF member. This book is informative, timely and extremely entertaining.

Anathem


It's almost not worth bothering to vote on the Hugos this year, because Neal is almost certain to walk away with the rocketship trophy. Although I enjoyed all of the books I've reviewed here, Anathem is clearly the best. It's even worth its ludicrous length. It's so good that it doesn't matter that nothing in particular happens in the first 200 pages. Those pages will be hard to get through, but the rest of the book is absolutely worth the struggle with the beginning. It's yet another coming-of-age novel, and Neal seems to think we need to understand deeply where our hero is coming from before we can understand where he's going. It's unfortunately difficult to explain exactly why you will love this book without spoiling the story. You'll just have to trust me that the action does pick up, the story intensifies, and incredibly cool and fascinating stuff happens. The suspense is nail-biting. After the overlong Baroque Cycle, Neal is clearly back and coming into his own again. His writing style has changed though, and Anathem lacks the drier-than-the-Mojave humor that characterized Neal's earlier work and earned him his enormous fan base. And yet, even though it's not the Neal we knew and loved, it's still fabulous. Anathem is no less imaginative than Snow Crash or The Diamond Age. This is clearly the best science fiction novel of 2008.

All the same, I'm going to nominate, and probably vote for, Little Brother. Enough other people will nominate and vote for Anathem that it will get the nod. But without the efforts a lot of us little people, Cory is unlikely to get the recognition he deserves. He obviously deserves to be nominated, and if he weren't up against Neal, I would say he deserved to win the award. And while Neal's book is definitely better, Neal's already received his share of awards, while Cory has only been recognized informally by his fans. It definitely would be nice to see him holding a lovely rocketship trophy at last. So I hope at least some of you will join me in nominating and voting for him.

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