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Nebunovels I (The Nebulation Begins to End)

Thursday, March 26th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

I haven’t actually read all the novels on the Nebula list yet, so this can only be Part One of the Final Nebulation (which began forty two billion subjective years ago with a look at the Nebula nominees for short stories, continuing with the novelettes and the novellas). But I should be able to post on the rest of them in a couple of days (assuming John and Howard and you don’t mind me making an extra post this week).

Not having read them all, I probably shouldn’t make any global comments about the group. But it does seem to me that the novels are by far the most impressive set of nominees this year. Maybe this just means I like novels better than short fiction (though I don’t think that’s the case). Maybe it’s just a so-so year for shorter fiction, or maybe it’s all due to AIG.

Anyway, here are my thoughts (if that’s not too strong a word) about three of this year’s Nebula-nominated novels: Schwartz’s Superpowers, Doctorow’s Little Brother, and Le Guin’s Powers.


David J. Schwartz, Superpowers

I was prepared to come before you and say that this novel sucked. Of all the books on the list, this is the odd man out in many ways: it’s a first novel by a newish writer, and it involves a group of young people who acquire superpowers. I was not enthused about the combination of an unknown (to me) writer and the sensation of doom I get whenever I think of how Heroes turned so sharply and irredeemably to dreck.

Then I actually read the book and… Well, my concerns were misplaced. This may not be the best novel of the year but it is worth reading and much of it is very good reading. The reaction of the new superheroes to their powers is pretty well done: we don’t get the superhero-emo that seems to be SOP in most stories of this type: the woman who can fly loves to fly; the guy with superspeed loves to move fast. If the guy who reads minds has a few issues with his powers, it’s quite understandable. The book gives a very good sense of a particular place and time: a college town (Madison, specifically) in the summer of 2001. The narrative style is uncluttered, direct, sometimes witty or moving.

By no means do I think it all worked. The novel is interrupted by officious bulletins from the “editor,” a minor character in the narrative itself. They didn’t seem to add anything to the story except irritation. I felt that the genesis of the super-team was weakly justified as well. Why dress in spandex and fight crime? There are other things they might have done. In the end, they become a team of superheroes because the author makes them; the artifice of the novel becomes painfully evident in some scenes. The worldbuilding was a tad weak, also: someone moving faster than the speed of sound would make more of an impact on his surroundings than the Flash/Dash character does, for instance. The powers seem weightless and implausible because their causes and effects are largely not shown.

The novel turns darker toward the end in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Some reviewers have objected to this, but I actually thought it was the best part of the book: finally the narrative had some weight; actions started to have consequences. The story doesn’t conclude as much as stop, but the arcs of some of the individual heroes have definite and significant resolutions. Not a best-of-the-year, perhaps, but a promising debut.

Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

There is some interesting neo-MacGyver sort of tech-detail in this book, but in the end it is advocacy fiction and it fails (in my view) due to the weaknesses advocacy fiction tends to have. The characters are cartoony and shallow, their actions and reactions too arbitrary. Everything is depicted with the broadness of satire without the wit of satire.

Doctorow’s general point–that encroachments on civil liberties must be resisted–is valid and worth making. But it is a point for an essay, not a novel.

Ursula Le Guin, Powers

This is the third of a set of books collectively titled “Annals of the Western Shore” but it can be read independently of the others.

For my money, Le Guin is the greatest stylist in science fiction and fantasy, and this book is as well-written as anything she has done.

To look back on that summer and the summers after it is like looking across the sea to an island, remote and golden over the water, hardly believing that one lived there once. Yet it’s still here within me, sweet and intense: the smell of dry hay, the endless shrill chant of crickets on the hills, the taste of a ripe, sunwarmed, stolen apricot, the weight of a rough stone in my hands, the track of a falling star through the great summer constellations.

If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like. Le Guin establishes her world and the people who move through it with effortless authority: she knows exactly the right detail to fix an emotion, to create a memory, and exactly what luminous words will vividly embody it in the reader’s mind.

This is the story of a young slave named Gav, growing up in a patriarchal household in a city state that strongly resembles early Rome. Though a slave, he is being groomed to succeed the family tutor and he grows up in an atmosphere of learning and culture alongside (though never equal to) the freeborn children of the household. He comes to understand, through a series of terrible losses, the violence and oppression that sustains the household he thought of (wrongly) as his. He runs away, living first with a crazy man in the woods, then with a couple different bands of robbers and woodsmen, finally setting out on a quest for the family and people from whom he was abducted as a baby. He finds them, but can’t remain with them: his travels have unfitted him for their society. In the end he travels with a young girl, who is also a refugee, to a university town where he is welcomed into the household of a writer he has long admired.

This summary leaves out a lot–a war or two, a death or two, a bitter rivalry that almost costs Gav his life a number of times. But the most significant thing it leaves out is any explicitly fantastic content. Gav has a gift of foresight which is frequently referred to, but it’s not obviously necessary for the plot. (A book is not just a plot, I know.) The real claim this book has to being a fantasy is that it is set in an imaginary world: like the Gormenghast books of Peake, like Kushner’s Swordspoint and its sequels.

I enjoyed every page of this book, and often wanted to read it slower than my schedule permitted. It has two qualities that may be deal-breakers for some readers: it meanders a good deal, especially after Gav walks away from Omelas Etar; and it is light on fantasy. But it is dense with imagination: an intensely realized and convincing world, populated with painfully real people whose struggles matter.

3 Comments »

  1. As a member of the Nebula novel jury, I’m very glad you enjoyed Superpowers more than you expected to.

    Comment by shsilver - March 26, 2009 7:21 am

  2. […] I’m glad to say that my preliminary generalization in the first installment of this post holds up: these books are not all created equal, but they are, in their way, all worthwhile reads. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Nebunovels II: The Final Nebulation - March 28, 2009 10:39 pm

  3. Hey Steven: Thanks to you and the other jurors. Superpowers was indeed a find, and I suspect Schwartz’s career will be one to follow.

    Comment by James Enge - March 28, 2009 10:53 pm


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