Sunday, January 19, 2014

Exploring the Nebulas: 2013 winner Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312

Welcome to the first edition of Exploring the Nebulas, a new ongoing series from WGTB. In this series we will briefly review novels that have won the Nebula Award, the prize awarded by the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as the best novel of that genre each year. The scale used to rate each book is one of three: Good, Great or Legendary and the first winner to be reviewed is also the most recent; 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson.

2312, Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, 2012, pp. 576, C$ 29.00
2312 is Kim Stanley Robinson’s second Nebula win for Best Novel (his previous being Red Mars in 1993) and continues in a similar vein as a more 'high' or even literary science-fictional work. The book is set in the eponymous year and envisions the Solar System as a place where humans have moved to almost every major planet or planetoid available including Mercury, the home of our protagonist Swan Er Hong. Space travel is achieved through massive hollowed-out asteroid-ships called Terrariums that also serve as giant nature reservations or specialised theme parks. Other technological and societal advancements include space elevators on Earth and Mars; a moving city on Mercury; a free and independent Martian republic; a massive Venetian blind-like heat shield above Venus; the insertion of animal genetic material into human beings; as well as changes to human sexual organs. Despite all these amazing achievements, perhaps the most significant advancement is artificial intelligence that has both augmented the human brain and is on the verge of becoming its own political force. The Earth of 2312 is much less amazing and has become the "sad planet" with years of abuse and environmental degradation having left it a poverty stricken mess. Indeed, the damage caused by humanity has led to near extinction for many of its species and this is a major theme of the story. 

For the most part this Nebula winner is good, but is not without its problems. The book is interspersed with quasi-scientific "Excerpts” and “Lists” that provide insight into our future and at times are very interesting. But I also found that they could be distracting and towards the end of the story found them to disrupt the flow of the story which made the book feel longer than it needed to be. In 2312 Robinson also doesn't hide his politics and heartfelt belief that the prevailing economic system that we know, namely "capitalism", needs to be eliminated and the story has an economy of 2312 effectively extinquishing it by use of powerful computers. Personally, I'm highly skeptical that the future will confine capitalism to the domain of hobbyists and collectors as Robinson has, but the author is entitled to his opinion and while having a significant political aspect to it 2312 can be enjoyed by someone who doesn't agree with the author's politics.

The biggest problem I have with the book is that while it was very long, the ending was too Deus ex machina for my taste and appeared (paradoxically) rushed. I don't want to spoil the story for those who have not read it, but it's essentially a "who did it" caper, yet ends so abruptly and easily that it gnaws away at the suspension of disbelief every reader carries. Of course, it's likely that the intention of the book was that the journey was to be its own reward, and to this end it was speculative science-fiction done well. Not great, and by the final hundred pages I was ready to move on, but good. As such, it gets that exact rating: 2312 is a Good Nebula winner.   

*At the time of posting 2312 was the most recent recent Nebula Award winner for best novel. The ceremonies for the 2013 books take place in San Jose, at the San Jose Marriott, May 15-18, 2014.  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Exploring the Nebulas: A New Series from WGTB

This year I’m starting a new blog series called: “Exploring the Nebulas”. Being a sci-fi fan, I’ve long understood the importance the Nebula Awards have to readers and writers of science-fiction and fantasy. Yet, while I’ve read a lot of these books, I haven’t yet read them all and have wanted to do so for many years. So to start 2014, I'm setting out to accomplish this goal and will write a short review for this blog after each book.  

Logo of the Nebula Awards.
As I'm not a particularly fast reader, this is a significant time commitment and I may not get it accomplished before the natural life of this blog comes to an end. But I’m going to give it my best and may even cheat by posting reviews of winners I've read within recent memory. I've also decided not to keep any specific time commitment (a book per week for example) or to read them in chronological order, so this should make things a little more manageable. Also, reviews will not be long, and given that each book has already been well received, I will won’t pick them apart. I will however point out where I think they might have been better and note how the genre has evolved from the first winner Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) to its most recent, 2312 (2012) by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ll also note any sequels, prequels, comics, television shows, films, etc. that are related and of interest to readers of this blog.

As well as documenting winners, I’ll also read and review significant runners-up or books that with 20/20 hindsight might have won the prize instead. The best example of these would be George R.R. Martin’s, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords which were nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1996, 1997 and 2001 respectively but did not win. These novels are now (arguably) more famous than any other winner or nominee thanks in large part to the popular HBO television series Game of Thrones

Title card of HBO's popular television show Game of Thrones. This led to a resurgence of George R.R. Martin's books with A Game of Thrones reaching #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List in July 2011, 15 years after its initial release.  
What are the Nebula Awards? 

The Nebula Awards stand at the pinnacle of American science-fiction and fantasy writing. They are voted on each year by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), a professional association that works to advance the interests of its members. To qualify for membership, one must have sold one novel or script or three short stories and membership is not exclusive to Americans. The SFWA's Nebula Awards are – along with their International cousins the Hugo Awards presented each year to the winner. The five categories for the Nebulas include: Best Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story and Script. Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the first Nebula for Best Novel was awarded in 1966 and the first Hugo in 1954, there has since been considerable overlap, with the winner of the Nebula Award having won the corresponding Hugo on 22 occasions. 

The Nebula Awards for 2013 will be awarded In San Jose, California in May 2014 and I'll certainly follow that contest closely. In the meanwhile, I hope you enjoy Exploring the Nebulas and when the reviews are up, please feel free to voice any opinions you have about the reviewed book. And as always, thanks for reading WGTB  

Friday, January 3, 2014

Celebrating J.R.R. Tolkien

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State in what is now the Republic of South Africa. The son of an English banker and homemaker, Ronald's (as he was called by his family) father passed away when he was three years old on an extended visit to England. The sudden loss of a livelihood for the family meant Ronald's family would not return to Africa, and soon found themselves living with maternal grandparents in the Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath. 

The Tolkien monogram
As a boy, Tolkien would often venture off and explore the hills and valleys of the Midlands of England, with these childhood adventures undoubtedly leaving a lasting and indelible impact on his imagination. When a monetary gift enabled young Ronald to attend the King Edward's School in Birmingham, his mother relocated the family to that city and gave the young student an important opportunity to learn at a very prestigious school. Already attending a Roman Catholic church (mother Mabel had been received into the Catholic faith in 1900) Tolkien soon came under the guidance of one of the priests of the Birmingham Oratory and a Catholic education would always have considerable weight on the thinking of Tolkien. He remained a devout Roman Catholic until the end of his days.

J.R.R. Tolkien in a Great War uniform of the British Army.
When he was just 16 years old, Ronald met Edith Mary Bratt, the 19 year old daughter of a Handsworth shoemaker. Shortly before his 21st birthday, Ronald wrote her a letter and proposed marriage. Already betrothed to another, Edith never-the-less returned the ring to her previous suitor and the couple were married on the 22nd of March 1916. Although there had already been two years of the "War To End All Wars", Tolkien elected to finish his degree before taking a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, a local infantry regiment. He was later transferred to the 11th Service Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in 1916 and after arriving in France was moved again, this time to the front where he participated in the massive Somme Offensive.

He would not be there long though. In late October 1916 Tolkien contracted trench fever, a lice-borne illness that was endemic to those horrible conditions. This may have been a blessing in disguise because it was at the Somme and specifically Beaumont Hamel that Tolkien would lose many of the friends with whom he had joined the army. It was also during his recovery that he started work on stories that would later become the First Age of Middle-Earth, which included many massive and catastrophic battles between the forces of good and evil.

After the war and his recovery, Tolkien took a job with the Oxford English Dictionary before finding an academic position as a Reader (Lecturer) at the University of Leeds in 1920. Five years later he moved south to Oxford and was named the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and a Fellow of Pembroke College. It was at Oxford that he would encounter that less-than-exciting student paper on which he wrote: "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." The finished manuscript of The Hobbit would eventually find its way into the hands of publisher Stanley Unwin (with the help of a favourable review by Stanley's son, Rayner) and onto book shelves by September 1937. 

Tolkien in Oxford during his later years
The Hobbit would go on to significant acclaim and when Mr. Unwin asked for a sequel, Tolkien set about completing the manuscripts for what would eventually become the darker and more mature The Lord of the Rings. This volume used one of the minor items found in The Hobbit as its key plot device and ended with the dark lord Sauron overthrown by the combined forces of good led by the wizard Gandalf, Frodo Baggins of the Shire (another Hobbit) and the rightful claimant to the throne of two ancient kingdoms. Originally intended as a one volume book, it was subsequently divided into three separate volumes with the final volume The Return of the King released in October 1955. In subsequent years The Lord of the Rings would garner astonishing levels of popularity and is currently the second best-selling single volume book of all time, behind only Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. It has also been subsequently transformed into films (both live-action and animated), comic books, theatre shows and other media.
The Eagle and Child in Oxford was the pub where the Inklings would often meet to talk about their books. Photo by Author.
In 1977, four years after his death on September 2nd 1973, The Silmarillion, a collection of the tales of Tolkien's First Age of Middle-Earth, was edited by his son Christopher and Canadian Guy Gavriel Kay, and released for readers. This volume, much more dense and historical than The Lord of the Rings never-the-less remains my favourite book. In late 2011 while visiting Oxford, I had the good fortune of having a pint in one of the pubs where Tolkien's group of friends, the "Inklings", met regularly to discuss literature and religion among other things. It was a highlight of my time living in England and I'll be certainly be raising a pint of Ale for him again tonight, as I celebrate what would be J.R.R. Tolkien's 122nd birthday. 
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king