Hugo Novel Review (Partial): Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

written by David Steffen

Neptune'sBroodThis is the first year that I’ve actually managed to read all of the nominees in the Hugo novel category, at least a portion of each. Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood is the last of the batch, and I only got my hands on it mid-July when I borrowed it from a friend–the publishers decided not to put it in the Hugo packet, and neither Stross nor Penguin were interested in providing a review copy so I had been intending to just skip the book until the opportunity to borrow it came up. I haven’t finished reading the whole book yet. I’m at about page 150 of 340. But the Hugo deadline is tomorrow and this is the last posting slot I have before the deadline, so if I want to share my review before the deadline it’s got to be a partial. You can consider this part 1 of the review; I’ll write up the rest when I’ve finished the book.

Neptune’s Brood takes place in the universe of Stross’s book Saturn’s Children, but can easily be read as a standalone. I’ve not read Saturn’s Children, but from what I gather, Neptune’s Brood is not a sequel and the time lapsed between the two is so long that there aren’t any narrative lines from one to the other in any case. If you like one, I’d guess you’d like the other, but they can be enjoyed independently.

In the universe of Neptune’s Brood, human life as we would recognize it (known in that time and place as “Fragile”) has gone extinct more than once, only to be revived. That kind of body is just generally not suitable for the rigors of space travel, the radiation and longevity problems inherent in the medium. A person’s mind is backed up on soul chips, electronic wafers that contain the essence of their mind. Without a brain a soul chip is just an inert data card, but any body is eminently replaceable. A new body can be grown for a soul chip, and the soul-chip will then decompress the mind it stores into the body. Humanity as it exists is spread across a large number of interstellar colonies. Colonization is far from easy; it is both extremely expensive and prone to failure, and also a very very slow process. Once a colony has been established, a communications beacon can be established and can import the minds of colonists that can be printed on soul chips and grown new bodies, so it is only the first colonists who have to travel by starship. Stross has clearly put a lot of thought and planning into the economy and technology that supports the spread of humanity through the stars. The explanations of them are very interesting, and I expect they would be even more so to someone whose academic focused centered around economics or space travel. And in particular, the problem of how to deal with interstellar economics without dodging around the problem of communications limited by lightspeed. There are no ansibles or wormholes or anything like that to work around the problems. It deals with them with the limitations as we understand them now. From my point of view, at least, it all seems very plausible.

Krina Alizond-114 is a historian of accountancy practices on a lengthy academic pilgrimage who learns that her sister Ana has disappeared from where she had been living on the water-world of Shin-Tethys, so Krina sets out to Shin-Tethys to find her. Eager to book the fastest passage possible on short notice, she takes a job doing unskilled labor for a Church of the Fragile. The Church is literally built in the shape of a church building as it would exist on a planetary surface, an ungainly and unfunctional shape for a starcraft to be sure. On the previous journey, a deadly accident killed several members of the crew, and several more deserted upon landing, so the Deacon is looking for help to keep the ship functional until new bodies can be grown for the dead crew members. Krina can tell early on that something fishy is going on with the crew, but soon she has to deal with the inhuman assassin stowaway intent on killing her, as well as on the insurance-underwriting pirates that capture the Church vessel and demand that Krina tell them how to find Ana so that the pirates don’t bankrupt themselves paying for Ana’s life insurance policy.

The worldbuilding of Neptune’s brood is dense. There’s a lot of meat there. Interesting stuff, and he’s taken it all into account with the history and plotting in the book. But it does take some heavy chewing to get through it all. I think that this is a large part of why I didn’t feel that the plot had much tension before about page 70. Up until that point I was considering whether I wanted to keep reading, and I could’ve gone either way, but was interested in the worldbuilding as it was rolling out so decided to keep going. I’m glad that I did because at about page 70 all the tension hits from about three directions at once and is still keeping me interested at page 140. So, if you’re like me and you really want some action, some plot to keep you going, just stick through the beginning stretch and there’s plenty of action after that to get you going. Just stick with it. It’s worth it.

Beyond that, I haven’t made it far enough in the book to say I’d recommend it for sure, but between the very interesting and complex worldbuilding and the action and plot that are now in full swing, I’m sure that enough of my interest has been captured that I will read to the end of the book. I think the odds are pretty good I’ll recommend the book as a whole–it’s a rare book that loses me once I’m halfway through, mostly just if the ending is so terrible that it ruins what came before it in retrospect. Once I finish the book (probably in a few weeks), I’ll report back on what I thought of the rest of it.

 

My Hugo Ballot 2014

The voting deadline for the Hugo Awards is tomorrow, July 31st, and I’ve read as much of the Hugo content as I’m going to have time for. So, the time has come for me to cast my ballot and put awards aside until next year. As I’ve done the last couple years, I’ve publicly shared what my ballot is going to look like, as kind of a final section of my Hugo review that is kind of an overarching look at what I thought of the categories. I didn’t read work in all the categories, so I’ve abstained from voting in those that I had no familiarity with and left them off the ballot.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with how the voting system works, it used an instant runoff scheme which allows you to rank all of your choices. First, they count everyone’s first choice. If no one gets more than half the votes, then the lowest ranked one in that scheme is eliminated, and anyone who chose that one as their first choice then has their 2nd choice tallied instead. And so on until there is a clear winner. It is possible to vote for “No Award” which you do if you would rather no one win at all than for the remaining ones to win, and in the end if too many ranked No Award above the eventual vote-winner, then no award is given.

 

Best Novel

  1. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books / Orbit UK) (I reviewed it here)
  2. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US/Orbit UK) (I reviewed it here)
  3. Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross (Ace / Orbit UK) (will post review on July 30)
  4. Parasite, Mira Grant (Orbit US/Orbit UK) (I reviewed it here)
  5. No Award

I also reviewed Larry Correia’s Warbound here but ranked it below No Award. I didn’t get a copy of Neptune’s Brood until quite late in the game. I won’t finish it before the deadline but I’ve read far enough to get an overall impression to rank it here. I originally planned to post this ballot on July 30, but decided to post my partial review of Neptune’s Brood on that day to give me a couple more days of reading.

 

Best Novella

  1. “Equoid”, Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013)
  2. “The Chaplain’s Legacy”, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
  3. No Award

I reviewed this year’s Novella category here for more details.

 

Best Novelette

  1. “The Waiting Stars”, Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam)
  2. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013)
  3. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com/Tor.com, 09-2013)
  4. No Award

I reviewed this year’s nominees here for more details.

 

Best Short Story

  1. “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013)
  2. No Award

I reviewed this year’s nominees here for more details.

 

Best Related Work

  1. “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative”, Kameron Hurley (A Dribble of Ink)

 

Best Graphic Story

  1. The Meathouse Man, adapted from the story by George R.R. Martin and illustrated by Raya Golden (Jet City Comics)
  2. Girl Genius, Volume 13: Agatha Heterodyne & The Sleeping City, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
  3. No Award

I reviewed this year’s nominees here for more details.

 

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Iron Man 3, screenplay by Drew Pearce & Shane Black, directed by Shane Black (Marvel Studios; DMG Entertainment; Paramount Pictures)
  2. Gravity, written by Alfonso CuarÃ’ n & JonÃ’ s CuarÃ’ n, directed by Alfonso CuarÃ’ n (Esperanto Filmoj; Heyday Films; Warner Bros.)
  3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, screenplay by Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt, directed by Francis Lawrence (Color Force; Lionsgate)
  4. Frozen,screenplay by Jennifer Lee, directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee (Walt Disney Studios)
  5. Pacific Rim, screenplay by Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro, directed by Guillermo del Toro (Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros., Disney Double Dare You)

I reviewed this year’s nominees here for more details.

 

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere”, written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter (HBO Entertainment in association with Bighead, Littlehead; Television 360; Startling Television and Generator Productions)
  2. No Award

Game of Thrones is awesome, and that was one of the best episodes in the series so far. I haven’t seen the rest of the category, but I am tired of episodes of Dr. Who dominating the ballot. There ARE other worthwhile things being published in SF, people. I’d rather Dr. Who would not be on the ballot or win anymore, so I’m voting accordingly. I haven’t seen Orphan Black, don’t know anything about it–so I don’t want to vote for it with no knowledge, but to vote No Award above Dr. Who episodes there’s nothing to do but lump Orphan Black in with them.

 

Best Editor, Short Form

  1. John Joseph Adams
  2. Neil Clarke
  3. Sheila Williams

 

Best Professional Artist

  1. Dan Dos Santos
  2. Julie Dillon
  3. John Picacio
  4. John Harris
  5. Galen Dara

I based these entirely on the portfolio included in the Hugo packet. Though I do have a soft spot for Dos Santos–I have an autographed print of his portrait of Moiraine Damodred hanging in my office at home. They’re all good but I tend to like the styles that make the people seem very real, and convince me that everything unrealistic is just as real.

 

Best Semiprozine

  1. Lightspeed Magazine
  2. Beneath Ceaseless Skies

 

Best Fanzine

  1. Dribble of Ink

 

Best Fancast

  1. No Award

It’s not that I hate the nominees. It’s just that, with all the amazing fiction podcasts out there, I find it extremely disappointing that only nonfiction podcasts are on the ballot, and that the only fiction podcast that’s ever been on the ballot had to heavily pander to get there. If fiction podcasts aren’t going to be recognized in this category, then I hope this trial category is short-lived.

 

Best Fan Writer

  1. Kameron Hurley

 

Best Fan Artist

  1. Sarah Webb

I based these entirely on the portfolio included in the Hugo packet, which only included work from three of the five nominees for some reason.

 

Hugo Novella Review 2014

written by David Steffen

And the last of the shorter categories for the Hugo this year, covering stories from 17,500 to 40,000 words. The longer categories are often misses for me because I feel they have a lot of word bloat, but when I do like one of them they have so much space to grow.

 

1. “Equoid”, Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013)
This story is part of Stross’s Laundry series, wherein Bob Howard works as an agent for the secret British government organization for known only as “The Laundry” which serves the purpose of investigating and handling invasions of Lovecraftian monsters. This particular story involves an outbreak of outbreak of unicorns which are not the lovely pure animals we’ve been led to believe and even most of the people in the Laundry aren’t aware that they’re real.

This story is awesome, scary like few stories are, and simultaneously hilarious. Cosmic horror from the POV of a cynical career buraeaucrat. Even the smallest details are filtered through the funny point of view, so that even the recurring descriptions of a character’s beard had me rolling. I also loved how the story made HP Lovecraft part of the story, but not as the prophet you might think they’d make him considering their role, but rather of a crackpot who occasionally stumbled across something real, and knew just enough truth to be a dangerous idiot. I highly recommend this story and now I want to read more of the Laundry series.

 

2. “The Chaplain’s Legacy”, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
In the previous story “The Chaplain’s Assistant” the eponymous chaplain’s assistant forestalled the annihilation of humanity at the hands of the technologically superior mantis race by provoking in them an interest in religion. The mantises have no religion of their own and they decided to study this strange phenomenon before destroying their opportunity to do so. Now it appears that the mantes may be growing impatient, feeling they’ve learned everything they can learn, and hostilities may recommence. Humans have now had time to prepare defenses against mantis attacks and the war might begin anew, but perhaps not as one-sided as before. Now the chaplain’s assistant is meeting with the Queen of the mantes and desperately needs to prove to the mantes that humans still have something to offer.

I thought this was a solid story. I appreciated it giving a fair shake to religion which traditionally SF doesn’t do. I admit I found the particular form of the mantes a little hard to take seriously (tiny flying saucers fused with giant praying mantises) but the story was good enough to overcome that as the chaplain’s assistant did everything he could to prolong the peace, and maybe even form a permanent truce. Good action, good characters, well told. This and the previous story are going to be repackaged as a novel published by Baen so I imagine that will be a solid offering as a package deal as well.

 

3. “Six-Gun Snow White”, Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)
A wild west retelling of the Snow White story, in which Snow White is the daughter of a wealthy landowner Mr. H in the Montana Territory and his Crow wife. Snow White is the name given to her by the second Mrs. H, her cruel stepmother to mock her native heritage. Snow White is a crack shot with a gun but is otherwise naive to the ways of the world, but she runs away to make her own way.

I liked the character of Snow White. You’ve got to admire the guts it would take to be a woman gunman in a world that doesn’t exactly reward that and makes you fight for it every step of the way. I really liked the early chapters of the story where all of it was told by Snow White in first person. I found her character voice as interesting or more interesting as the stuff that was actually happening, so I was disappointed when it dropped into a distant third person partway through the story. I’m not sure if the only difference was the voice itself or if the story itself was just weaker but after that point I didn’t feel like I was emotionally invested in the character anymore.

 

4. “Wakulla Springs, Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Tor.com, 10-2013)
This story spans most of a century, mostly taking place at Wakulla Springs a beautiful natural wonder in Florida, a real life place that was used as a jungle-like setting for some twentieth century movies like Tarzan and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This story follows a series of colored characters from a time when Jim Crow laws were the norm to the present day.

I reviewed this story in greater detail as a followup to my usual Nebula award reviews. To sum up, I thought that the characters felt very real, and it certainly had plenty going for it in terms of theme, but I didn’t rank it higher among the novellas because I didn’t feel that it had enough of a cohesive plot arc or character arc to really hold it together for me.

 

5. “The Butcher of Khardov”, Dan Wells (Privateer Press)
Orsus Zoktavir is a warcaster for the Khador army, one of those rare few who can control the powerful mechanical warjacks by his mind alone. As if this weren’t enough, he is a giant of a man wielding a deadly axe so that he is almost as deadly as a warjack itself. This story follows Orsus (in time-jumping fashion) from when he is a young boy through the events of his life that gave him the name “The Butcher of Khardov” where he is sentenced for slaughtering an entire village, and what happens after.

It’s no surprise that this story didn’t really enthuse me. It is the second book in a series based on Warmachine, a model-based tabletop roleplaying game that’s been around for ten years but which I haven’t played nor followed. Presumably the target audience of this story are players of that game who want to know more backstory for the characters they’re moving around the battlefield.

I decided to give the story a try anyway, on the chance that it might stand on its own. I didn’t have any trouble understanding the story. The concept of warjacks is simple enough and the story explained other concepts to my satisfaction. I didn’t think the time jumping did the story any favors, whiplashing constantly from past to future and back again with no apparent design. I didn’t feel convinced that the events in the story would actually transform a violent but basically sane young man into the psychotic war machine that he becomes in his more recent years. He kind of struck me as a rabid Perrin Aybara from the Wheel of Time series. In his older incarnation I didn’t care for him at all, and frankly thought the world would be a better place if someone did execute this rabid wolf before he turns on those he claims fealty to.