Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Book Review: The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman: A NovelThe Last Policeman: A Novel by Ben H. Winters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, I think I've found a novel I'm willing to nominate for a Hugo. I took a break from novel reading for a few days to read the novella Barry's Tale, which was nominated for a Nebula. I finished it thinking, "Wow, if this is one of the best novellas of the year, maybe I should just admit that there's not a lot of good science fiction out there." The Last Policeman helped restore my faith in sf.

I finished this book very quickly, and even when I wasn't reading it, I spent a lot of my time thinking about it -- both are evidence of how compelling the book is.

The short-hand version of the story is that a police detective tries to solve a possible murder case while an asteroid is bearing down on the Earth.

Why is this book so compelling? I really like the way it explored all of the ramifications of the impending planetary doom. Many of the characters wonder why it's so important to solve a murder (or do anything else) when we're all going to die. But we're all going to die anyway, asteroid or no, so the question is not just an asteroid-scenario hypothetical. Like the best of science fiction, The Last Policeman connects an interesting hypothetical future with meaningful thoughts about humanity.

The book mostly does not explicitly tackle the "big questions", which is probably for the best, but here are two quotes I particularly liked that come close.
"You know what I'm doing right now?" I say, watching the muddy liquid rush toward the edge of the table. "I'm thinking: Oh no! The coffee’s going to spill onto the floor! I'm so worried! Let's keep talking about it!" And then the coffee waterfalls over the side of the desk, splashing on Andreas's shoes and pooling on the ground beneath the desk. "Oh, look at that," I say. "It happened anyway."
"Can I tell you something? You can follow this case forever, and you can discover all its secrets, you can build this man’s timeline all the way back to his birth, and the birth of his father and his father’s father. The world is still going to end."

The one part of this book I didn't feel worked so well involved the narrator's interactions with his sister, Nico. Part of the problem is probably that the character seems meant to appear later in the trilogy, but she also seemed more like a collection of characteristics -- good-at-math, chain-smoker, etc. -- that I had trouble fitting into a larger whole.

I think if Goodreads let me give half-stars, I'd give it 4.5 stars. Then again, I would probably give 90% of the books I read 2.5, 3.5 or 4.5 stars, so maybe it's better than I'm forced not to be wishy-washy and give it five stars.

A couple of notes. First, I ended up reading this book because it was on Locus' 2012 recommended reading list, and available for download from my public library (I have started to have difficulty making myself read books on paper lately). So yay for Locus and libraries.

Second, I've complained about other books that are "not really sf/fantasy" but instead mainstream fiction with a small sf/fantasy element. I suppose you could see this as a detective novel set in the present day with an asteroid headed towards Earth. Because it is. But I think that the "what if" element places it fairly strongly in the sf camp. I have the same feeling about alternate histories such as Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which won both the Nebula and the Hugo for 2007. I don't think The Last Policeman is as good as Chabon's work, but I think it's much better than the winners of either award in many recent years.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Nebula Update: The Healer's War, and some Hugo stuff

Last fall, I finished reading The Healer's War, which won the 1989 Nebula for Best Novel. Just now, I started to write a review. Here it is in its entirety:
This book is a cross between a Vietnam War novel and a fantasy. As a Vietnam War novel, I enjoyed it. As a fantasy, well, it was a Vietnam War novel.
Basically, I'm getting sick of Nebula winners (like last year's), where the SF or fantasy element is minimal. I'm happy that this book exists, but I think that having one "magical" element doesn't put a book in the SF/fantasy genre.

So now I've read 39 out of 48 books, leaving 9. (It looks like my running count got messed up somewhere in 2011.)

The 2012 nominees were announced yesterday. Of the six Best Novel nominees, 2312 is the only one I've read. Ordinarily at this point, I would start digging into the other five. This year, however, I'm trying something new -- being a Hugo voter.

I decided in 2004 to read the Nebula winners rather than the Hugos, since I believed the writers would do a better job than the fans selecting good books. Thirty-nine books in, I'm less certain of that, but more importantly, I am a fan, but not an author. So while I will never be part of the Nebula process, the Christmas gift of a supporting membership in Worldcon makes me eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugos. Since I have begun to enjoy reading each year's nominees and picking my favorite more than reading old winners, participating in actual awards voting seemed like fun.

The Hugo voting process is delayed somewhat from the Nebula process, so I considered using the Nebula nominees as a list of books I might consider nominating for Hugos. I decided not to, however, since most years the Hugo nominees are available to voters after the close of the nomination process. Since the two sets of nominees will likely overlap, why pay for a book now that I might be getting free in April? Then I can read the ones in the overlap before picking up the others, hopefully by the time the Nebula nominees are announced in late May.

I will miss out on the chance to nominate Nebula nominees for the Hugos, but I figure those books will be well-known enough not too need the extra boost. I am mostly looking to nominate books by favorite authors. So far, the Hugo-eligible ones from 2012 that I've read are 2312, The Cassandra Project and Crucible of Gold, none of which I think I'll end up nominating. Although I enjoyed all of them, I would hate to think any of them was the best book of 2012. Put another way, I wouldn't want my vote to bump another interesting novel out of the Hugo list, because I want to see what else it out there.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Book Review: The Cassandra Project

The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this because I'm a big McDevitt fan. I don't think I've read anything by Resnick. I wasn't disappointed, but I wasn't bowled over, either.

The entire book is basically about the idea that NASA may have landed on the far side of the moon before Apollo 11 and then covered it up for 50 years. The book is set in 2019. I think one of the disadvantages of setting a book that close to the present is that it's easier for the reader to feel uneasy when the details are off. (I remember laughing when a government worker in Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain uses a paper Metro farecard.) The ubiquity of paper newspapers makes the authors seem "behind the times", while someone sending a "video e-mail" made me think, "That isn't a thing, and it isn't going to be one in six years."

While in some ways, the book was interesting for being "traditional SF" -- just a good, near-future, hard-SF novel, in other ways it felt dated. The African-American characters were noticeable because they were described as such during their introductions; otherwise, everybody felt like they came from the same backgrounds. I didn't love the eccentric billionaire character either, partially because, as is so often the case, he became a deus-ex-machina and partially because he seemed to serve as a conduit for the authors' (fairly pedestrian) political views. I usually find McDevitt's characterization to have more depth.

But ultimately, in a novel with a central mystery ("Were there secret moon landings? If so, why?"), the question is whether the answer to the mystery is enough of a payoff to make it worth getting there. Minor spoilers follow -- skip the next paragraph if that bothers you.

That's particularly true when the reason for the cover-up is held back until the end of the book, as it is here. First of all, I was grateful that the secret didn't have anything to do with the collision of two astronomical bodies, something I find fairly repetitive in McDevitt's work. But ultimately, the answer was creative enough -- including the way it managed to tie in another famous cover-up of days gone by -- that I am happy to give it four stars.

Don't expect greatness, but it's an enjoyable read.