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Excellent Novellas and Fantasy with a Sense of History - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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February 24th, 2011

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03:24 am - Excellent Novellas and Fantasy with a Sense of History
The nominees for the Nebula Award have been announced. The nominees for best novel don't interest me much. I read and enjoyed The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin, but while good, I didn't find it all that impressive, and the rest look rather less interesting to me – with the possible exception of The Native Star, by M.K. Hobson, which looks mildly interesting.

However, I found the category of best Novella to be very impressive indeed. Before I saw the nominations, I had read The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang. It's an utterly brilliant and deeply humane story. The fact that I like it and it's about doing something vaguely analogous to raising a child should make anyone who knows me at all will realize that it's exceptional. I loved how the author made clear analogies of intelligent software to children, but also did not stretch the point too far. In any case, its excellent writing and well done and I expected that it would be my favorite.

Then I read The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window by rachel_swirsky. I met Rachel a few months ago and quite liked her, and at the time I remember our mutual friend hereville recommending the above story to me as one of Rachel's best, but I didn't get around to reading it. I finished it yesterday and was completely blown away. In addition to absolutely first-rate writing, it was a fantasy story that had something that I essentially never see in fantasy – a clear and vivid sense of history.

At absolute best, some fantasy contains the old Robert E. Howard chesnut of the cycle of vigorous barbarism and decadent civilization, but the vast majority of fantasy is essentially static – the names of the rulers change, and maybe you have a darklord ruling instead of a just ruler, but nothing really changes that doesn't go back to exactly how it was before when evil is defeated. Occasionally, you get fantasy about the "passing of an age", but there's rarely any sense of history or actual change, merely overdone romanticism (and I'm definitely including Tolkien in this). History, real history, isn't cyclical ( foolish 19th century historical theories aside ). Instead, history is complex, messy, exceptionally diverse, and nothing ever goes back to being the way it was before. This story has that sense of history, and it's glorious. If more fantasy was like this, I'd read a heck of a lot more fantasy. I hope it wins, it certainly deserves the award.
Current Mood: impressedimpressed

(6 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2011 03:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I enjoyed reading the stories.
Date:February 24th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
Oh wow, you're an excellent reviewer. *makes a note of these*

(I'm a girl who surfed here.)
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2011 09:53 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the Lifecycle recommendation - I'm reading it now, and finding it quite enjoyable.

(Though I do have to say that I find it unethical that the company gave the digients the ability to feel pain. Of course, it could be that they simply didn't know how not to, but the mention of "pain circuit breakers" implies otherwise.)
[User Picture]
Date:February 25th, 2011 06:57 am (UTC)
Perhaps there was a difficulty early on with reward/punishment/incentive, or even keeping the AI safe from hurting itself, if they didn't include pain? After all, biological organisms have pain in order to keep them safe. The point of it is to strongly dislike it. So perhaps it could turn out that pain is necessary in order to start up a creature with the same sense of self-value that we expect in a sentient creature. I mean, I don't know, but I'm not willing to condemn it unless it outright turns out that it wasn't necessary.
[User Picture]
Date:February 25th, 2011 06:52 am (UTC)
I read The Lifecycle of Software Objects because the title intrigued me and the opening did as well. I like AI and I like animals and I like reading about chimp studies, so it was right up my alley.

Though it was definitely fun and interesting, some of the assumptions about what Data Earth would and wouldn't have included for a long time felt off to me, since I spend a lot of time in virtual environments and I keep imagining that any competing one wouldn't have a smaller feature set. So I just can't imagine that it'd take them so long to give any decent AI a craft program, or that there wouldn't be lots of text, because those things are so common and basic in Second Life. It's a little like reading about space colonisation coming before the internet. =D
[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2011 05:48 am (UTC)
I disagree mildly on Tolkien. It's true that between the Hobbit and LOTR history seems fairly static for a few decades, but that's explicitly part of the setup for the showdown. The Silmarillion sets out a mythic age with a different different feel from the Third Age. After LOTR, the shire becomes more integrated into the wider world, the elves pass to the West, the Gondorian crown rests on its king's brow in peace for the first time, and with Sauron banished, Morgoth is reduced to more subtle ends. By implication, the Fourth Age gives way to our own history or something much like it.

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