May 29th, 2014


The Berlin novels by Christopher Isherwood

May Books 8) Mr Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood
May Books 9) Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood

I've never seen the movie Cabaret, though I did see a stage production of the musical many years ago in Belfast - a local team putting it on at the Arts Theatre, directed by Peter Quigley who also played the EmCee (this was just before Sam Mendes's West End production). It is one of thse cultural things that everyone knows about even if they haven't actually seen it; I've been a little surprised while raving bout these books over the last few days by just how many people haven't heard of them but do know the film.

They are fascinating for a Berlinophile like me; these are familiar streets, distanced from the present by eight decades and the Third Reich. On the one hand, there is the depiction of young and somewhat irresponsible expats spending and shagging their way around an exciting city, a situation which, while not exactly universal, has none the less been replicated in many other places and times (as a glance around Place Luxembourg in Brussels most Thursday evenings will demonstrate); on the other hand, there is the fact that this amazing city was the centre of a society that was turning on itself and about to turn on the rest of Europe. Nobody sees the Nazis coming, and yet everyone does; they are like frogs in a heating saucepan.

The two books are actually very different from each other in structure. Mr Norris Changes Trains is the less polished work, a character study of Mr Norris whose pretensions of respectability are overshadowed by his history of dubious business dealings, his unorthodox sexuality and his activism with (but not quite in) the Communist Party. Goodbye to Berlin is a collection of several shorter stories which were never quite combined into a single novel, so that there are characters in common but less of a coherent thread. Yet Isherwood is more ready to let his sæva indignatio show, and it's a better read if more disjointed.

One last point: Mr Norris Changes Trains is dedicated to W.H. Auden. Goodbye to Berlin is dedicated to John and Beatrix Lehmann - that's the same Beatrix Lehmann who played Professor Amelia Rumford in The Stones of Blood shortly before she died, and her brother.

Best Novelette 2014 Hugos

1) “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang

This really blew me away. I wasn't sure at first; Chiang's trademark is to tell us of emotionally complex material with an apparent air of academic attachment, and that only works if there is an original idea to use it on. But, gosh, here Chiang takes the concept of being able to reconstruct accurately what you did and said at past times in your life, and shows that facts are not really always very helpful in getting to grips with feelings - either in traditional low-tech societies, or in contemporary families. For me, it sailed through the Philip K. Dick "My God! What if..?" test.

2) “The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard

I've sometimes found de Bodard's richly detailed Vietnamese spacefaring future a bit too different from my personal experience to properly appreciate, but I loved this story and was all set to vote for it (until I read the Chiang). It is a great tale of personal identity, artificial intelligence and family dynamics across the generations, mingling together tropes from cyberpunk and space opera and making them her own. Great stuff.

3) “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal 

This story somewhat controversially was not included on the list of finalists last year, despite having sufficient nominations; now that it has actually been published in written form, it deservedly is on the list. I liked very much the descriptions of a recently settled Mars, and a child survivor of disaster who grows up; I was less convinced by the nature of the narrator's key personal dilemma, or by the choice she made.

4) No Award

5) “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen

A story about a near future space conflict between a gender-balanced US military and the Chinese. I was startled to read of "the familiar hammer, sickle and stars of the People's Republic of China", and there were some other editing fluffs that I did not expect to see from Analog ("assuming the worse", several uses of "i" where "me" would be more usual). Leaving those niggles aside, basically this story could have been written in the 1950s, and I think the genre has moved on just a bit since then.

6) “Opera Vita Aeterna”, by "Vox Day"

I've already written about the deficiencies of the Latin in this story (and Stephanie Zvan has analysed its linguistic deficiencies more generally). A very clunky beginning settles into an elf doing undergraduate theology and an attempt at a sentimental ending. Not quite as bad as I had expected, but still not very good. Certainly by some way the worst story on the ballot.

Even if that were not the case, the fact that the author has unapologetically called a black writer a "half-savage" and defended throwing acid into the faces of feminists is something that I cannot ignore. You vote how you like, I am putting it last.

You can vote in this year's Hugos, and the 1939 Retro Hugos, by joining Loncon 3 at .

2014: Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Novelette | Best Short Story | Best Related Work | Best Graphic Story | Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) | Best Professional Artist | Best Fan Artist
1939: Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Novelette | Best Short Story | Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) | Best Professional Artist

Best Short Story 2014 Hugos

My first write-up for the 2014 Hugos, as opposed to the 1939 Retro Hugos. I found this ranking fairly easy, though I also confidently predict that fandom will disagree with me.

5) “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. I thought about this long and hard. It's a story about unexpectedly mystical happenings in a Thai village, written by a Dutch writer. It may be an unintended effect of translation, but I rather felt that the Asian culture was being played for laughs; perhaps we Irish are too sensitive about that, but it pushed one of my buttons and I can't vote for it.

4) No Award. The other three are all decent enough tales, though I personally think that it would be better to lower the eligibility threshold to 4% rather than 5%, which would have ensured that we had five or more stories to choose between in 2013 and 2011 (I have no information on how this would have worked out this year).

3) “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky. This will probably win the award. It is very short and very moving. I've marked it down because I don't think it is very sfnal, and I personally think that still does matter in the context of the Hugo awards: the whole point of the story is that in fact the narrator's lover is not a dinosaur. But I expect mine will prove to be a minority opinion.

2) “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar. I wrote about this before as it was nominated for the BSFA Award. Again, I think the sfnal credentials are a little questionable, but I also rather liked it.

1) “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu. Good heavens, a Hugo nominee that actually has entire sentences in untranslated Chinese!!!!! (The killer punchline from the narrator's mother - apologies for spoiling the story for those of you who can read it - is "你是研究生物科技的. 孫子能給我嗎? 有你們兩個的基因的.") On the one hand, it's a story of an increasingly widely-recorded human experience, of a gay man coming out to his family in a culture which is not naturally sympathetic to that sort of diversity; on the other, there's a Ted Chiang-like change to the natural order (though it reminds me also of The Primal Urge by Brian Aldiss) which forces everyone to reassess their experience of the world and the rest of humanity. It gets my vote, though as I said above I expect that Rachel Swirsky will actually win.

You can vote in this year's Hugos, and the 1939 Retro Hugos, by joining Loncon 3 at .

2014: Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Novelette | Best Short Story | Best Related Work | Best Graphic Story | Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) | Best Professional Artist | Best Fan Artist
1939: Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Novelette | Best Short Story | Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) | Best Professional Artist