2014 Hugos Versus 2015 Sad Puppies: Novels

Detail from the cover of Skin Game by Jim Butcher.

Throughout this series I have been comparing the 2014 Hugo nominees with the 2015 Sad Puppies slate that was, in part, drawn up in response. Out of the five categories that I decided to cover, I have so far looked at Short Story, Novelette, Novella and Related Work. Now it is time for the last of the five, the Hugo Award for Best Novel…

Best Novel: 2014 Hugo Nominees

Ancillary JusticeAncillary Justice, Ann Leckie, Orbit, 2013, by Ann Leckie (Hugo winner)

In writing this series, I found rebellion by artificially intelligent vehicles to be surprisingly common theme. Tom Kratman’s Sad Puppy-slated Big Boys Don’t Cry used the idea, as did Steve Rzasa’s Rabid Puppy-slated “Turncoat.” Now we come to the Best Novel winner of 2015, Ancillary Justice, which also plays with the concept.

This time around the AIs are hive-minds centred in spaceships, controlling bodies of humans whose own personalities have been sacrificed against their will: these bodies are the ancillaries of the title. One such ship is the Justice of Toren, which goes missing after a conflict while its sole surviving ancillary, Breq, escapes to a planet. The novel follows Breq’s voyage of discovery and adjoining transition from collective to individual.

Breq is the creation of the Radch civilisation, an elitist and expansionist regime. This society subscribes to the totalitarian philosophy that justifies forcing civilians to lose their individual minds and become ancillaries. But most of the story takes place when the Radch civilisation is in decline, its assumptions now being questioned. This process is personified by Breq, an ancillary who now exists as an individual, wandering the planet and looking at the decaying empire that created him/her/hir. While the subjects of the totalitarian regime are regaining their individuality, Breq is assembling a sense of personhood for the first time.

Leckie’s space opera setting is developed through frequent infodumps: Ancillary Justice is certainly a novel that prefers to tell rather than to show. But this is defensible, considering Leckie’s choice of narrator. By handing so much of the descriptive work to Breq, Leckie allows the reader all the more time to get to know the character and to see through their eyes; a vital storytelling decision, considering that Breq spends much of the novel in a crisis of identity that could otherwise render the character distant and unrelatable.

A similar defence can be made of the novel’s rather vague structure. The plot will often meander, but then, it is written from the point of view of a meandering character. As Breq assembles a sense of identity, the reader is encouraged to piece together their own idea of this unusual protagonist.

Leckie’s novel is often derided in Sad Puppy circles. Alongside Rachel Swirsky’s “If You were a Dinosaur, My Love,” John Chu’s “The Water that Falls from Nowhere,” and John Scalzi’s 2013 Best Novel winner Redshirts, Ancillary Justice is one of the go-to choices when it comes to criticism of the Hugos. One of the main charges is based on Leckie’s usage of non-binary gender concepts.

The argument is that this aspect of the story somehow compromises the narrative, or that the novel won accolades only due to politically correct trends in gender issues. I do not agree with this complaint. It is part of Breq’s character that they do not understand gender, and almost exclusively use female pronouns while acting as narrator (”She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt”). This strikes me as an entirely legitimate way of portraying an artificial intelligence struggling to grasp humanity, rather than an intrusive attempt to push an ideology.

Ancillary Justice has a number of obvious themes. Imperialism is one of them, the nature of individuality another; parts of the story can be read as a comedy of manners, with Breq observing the absurd social structures of the setting. But the theme of non-standard gender identity, while present, can hardly be called dominant.

I have no objection to Ancillary Justice winning the Hugo; out of the five nominees, it would certainly have been my choice.

Cover of Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross (UK edition); published by Orbit, 2013Neptune’s Brood, by Charles Stross

In Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross returns to the far-future setting that he explored in his earlier Hugo nominee, Saturn’s Children. Homo sapiens as we know it has gone extinct, replaced with a race of nanotech-enhanced cyborgs. About all that is left of early twenty-first century culture is financial bureaucracy, which forms the basis of the dominant religion: this is a universe that includes a Chapel of Our Lady of the Holy Restriction Endonuclease, and the main character Krina works as a nun-accountant.

People have developed the ability to upload their minds to computer chips, but this has been reduced to a mere economic transaction – it is now possible to literally sell one’s soul. Krina’s quest to find her missing sister eventually takes her to a centuries-old financial scam that apparently resulted in untold numbers of human souls being lost forever: genocide by fraud.

Stross’ fondness for playing with genre iconography, evident in his Best Novella winner “Equoid,” shows up once again here. While Saturn’s Children drew heavily on anime imagery, Neptune’s Brood starts by putting new spins on the motifs of gothic horror: one character is reduced to a blood-drinking zombie as she is kept in stasis, attended to by a group of mechanised skeletons. Later on, the story heads into Hans Christian Andersen territory as Krina is reconfigured into a mermaid.

In terms of general tone, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an obvious comparison point. But whereas Douglas Adams couched his philosophical musings in an anything-goes absurdity, Stross has fully worked out the economic and physical underpinnings of his story. Most of all, he considers the immense time and money that would go into constructing and maintaining an interstellar spacecraft; the mechanics of this universe involve a distinction between fast money and slow money, the latter being a separate financial system that applies to the long-haul process of space flight.

The actual narrative underpinning all of this is something of a shaggy-dog story, giving every impression that Stross’s priorities are worldbuilding first, plot second, and characterisation third. Like her ancestor Arthur Dent, Krina is shuffled from one outlandish scenario to the next, with Stross’ economic satire occasionally furnishing her with a MacGuffin or two. Neptune’s Brood is primarily a vehicle for Stross to exercise his imagination and his humour, and he succeeds on both counts.

Parasite, Mira Grant, Orbit, 2013Parasite, by Mira Grant

A decade into the future, the genetics company SymboGen has developed, patented and successfully marketed the Intestinal Bodyguard: a modified tapeworm that acts as a beneficial parasite. Almost everyone on the planet now has a genetically engineered tapeworm inside them. However, it eventually turns out that the tapeworms do not always stay put in their hosts’ intestines – some will go astray, and may even end up in the brain.

Thrown amongst this intrigue is Sally Mitchell, a young woman who was involved in a car accident six years beforehand. The incident left her with severe memory loss, and she has been piecing her life back together ever since. Meanwhile, for its own inscrutable reasons, SymboGen has taken an interest in her…

Parasite is first and foremost a thriller. A thriller will require a serious danger to drive its narrative, and so Mira Grant follows what could be seen as the Michael Crichton formula: the central science fiction concept, the genetic engineering of beneficial parasites, serves primarily as a hazard for the protagonists.

In depicting the ill effects of SymboGen’s creation, Grant invokes the conventions of monster movies. Victims of tapeworm-induced brain damage become mindless brutes, committing random acts of violence and, in one case, eating human flesh. The characters may describe these unfortunates as “sleepwalkers,” but the reader will recognise them as zombies.

Its treatment of science is largely on the level of a B-movie, but in its defence, Parasite is not really a novel about genetic engineering. If anything, it is a novel about childhood.

In recovering from her amnesia, Sally is living what could be seen as a second childhood; this observation is made by more than one character during the course of the novel. Nathan, Sally’s boyfriend, repeatedly talks about a Where the Wild Things Are-like picture book that he read as a child. Two side characters, Adam and Tansy, have had their minds “rebooted” by parasites, essentially leaving them as children in the bodies of adults. “Science doesn’t always play nicely with the other children,” says Nathan in a telling choice of metaphor.

More than just a motif, this preoccupation with childhood permeates the narrative. Although Sally is (physically) a grown woman, the conflict she faces has the flavour of adolescent angst: at one point she is grounded by her father, at another she is forced to withhold information from him in a moment of distinctly teenage transgression. Nathan is similarly involved in child-adult strife, confronting his mad scientist mother.

But although the novel ultimately deals with the separation between the adult protagonists and their parents, the general effect of the story’s emphasis on their relationships is a kind of hand-holding safeness – a curious quality for a thriller based around a potentially apocalyptic scenario.

Parasite’s deviation from genre norms is not necessarily a bad thing. As noted above, the book clearly draws upon zombie films, but it offers an unusually humane treatment of this genre. Grant never uses the sleepwalkers’ victims simply as bodycount-upping gut-bags, and instead portrays each death as a tragedy. At one point Sally even tries to work out a way in which the zombies can live in peace with the unaffected population, a concern that is usually far from the minds of protagonists in this genre.

Parasite is an often curious book, not because of its individual elements – which are largely familiar – but in the specific order that Grant combines them. I was initially skeptical, but by its end, the novel had won me over.

Cover of The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, Tor Books, 1990The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

It is refreshing to come across a Hugo nominee that was controversial for reasons completely unrelated to identity politics. The Wheel of Time is a series of fourteen novels, written primarily by Robert Jordan and completed after Jordan’s death by Brandon Sanderson.

Classifying a fourteen-volume series as a “novel” is a stretch of the term, but one that is entirely within Hugo regulations: a series is eligible for Best Novel so long as none of its individual entries had been nominated beforehand.

I had not previously read any of Jordan’s novels, and it would obviously be impractical for me to read the entire series for the purposes of writing this article. I settled instead for reading the first volume, The Eye of the World.

I was greeted with what could fairly be called a by-the-book work of post-Lord of the Rings fantasy. By the time of the novel’s publication in 1990, the likes of Michael Moorcock and Ursula K. Le Guin had given epic fantasy a considerable makeover; Jordan, on the other hand, was content to take us on a return visit to Middle Earth with surroundings that are immediately recognisable, even if the names are changed. Orcs become Trollocks, Ringwraiths are now Fades, and Sauron can be spotted operating under the quasi-Biblical names of Shai’tan and Ba’alzamon.

That said, there are notable differences in worldbuilding between the two works. Jordan spends much less time in conjuring up a cast sweep of history; there are no generations-old kerfuffles between dwarfs and elves here, with the internal states of the characters instead being prioritised. The hero, Rand, is repeatedly visited by Ba’alzamon in his dreams, a concept that suggests the influence of Jungian psychoanalytical theory (Or possibly The Empire Strikes Back).

I could go on, but reading The Eye of the World made it clear that the Hugo nomination was not based on this novel. I found the book to be an solid if undemanding chunk of genre fantasy, but not an award-worthy one; the nomination is evidently for the later novels, and possibly also as a sort of lifetime achievement recognition for Robert Jordan.

There is little point in going into further detail about The Wheel of Time in this article, as its nomination is an oddity of circumstances: it does not represent the general make-up of the Hugos’ Best Novel category, and is consequently not a target of the Sad Puppies’ complaints.

Cover of Warbound by Larry Correia, Baen, 2013Warbound, by Larry Correia (Sad Puppies 2)

Warbound is the third book in Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles, and the only one of the two 2014 Sad Puppy novels – the other being Sarah Hoyt’s A Few Good Men – to make the ballot. Correia’s series takes place in an alternate version of the 1930s, where it is an accepted fact of life that some people have supernatural powers such as teleportation, spontaneous combustion and even the ability to summon demons.

Like prohibition-era X-Men, these “actives” use their powers for either good or evil, but all are mistrusted by the general public. The central characters are the Grimnoir Knights, an elite group of actives who defend the world from the forces of Imperial Japan (but not Nazi Germany – the previous books established that Hitler is already dead in this timeline).

Warbound is derivative novel, and it is easy to spot parallels from across the superhero genre. One plot thread, in which superpowered folks face government registration at the hands of Franklin D. Roosevelt, recalls Marvel’s Civil War. The chapter involving a pulp illustrator whose art predicts the future is strongly reminiscent of Heroes. The character arc of clean-cut heroine Fay, whose incredible powers leave her open to moral corruption, whiffs of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” from X-Men.

This is not necessarily a criticism, as Correia is a self-proclaimed pulp writer. By its nature, pulp borrows parts from existing popular fiction to use as building blocks; success is measured on whether the author succeeds in using these elements in new and engaging ways to create a well-structured narrative.

The period setting of the novel does, to an extent, add a new lease of life to familiar superhero tropes. The Roosevelt subplot comes across primarily as an analogy to the gun control debate – with Correia very much taking the cold-dead-hands stance – but it can also be read as a comment on the real Roosevelt’s establishment of internment camps for Japanese-Americans.

Where the novel is less successful is in terms of structure, a key aspect of of pulp. A good piece of pulp fiction needs to have a constant energy running through it, but Correia often lets his narrative sag: a battle with superpowers will all too frequently give way to repetitive discussions of how the powers work. The general feeling is that Correia has a little too much on his plate, introducing a number of concepts that he does not have time to properly utilise.

This is particularly evident when we look at the characterisation. Correia has a knack for coming up with good characters, but lets them get lost amongst the action. Take the mind-reading sociopath Wells, for example, who is given a strong introductory scene only to end up on the sidelines once he joins the main cast. Given that Warbound is an enthusiastically libertarian tale, in which freedom-loving heroes from multiple nations band together against the twin collectivist threats of socialism and fascism, it is ironic that so many striking individuals are ultimately allowed to blur into a similar shade of grey.

The best-realised character in the ensemble is Toru, whose father – the Imperial Japanese chairman – served as the first novel’s main antagonist. A born-and-bred warrior, Toru has spent his life seeing his military duty as something that should never be questioned. Now fighting alongside the Grimnoir, Toru must face up to the harsh fact that his beloved regime was responsible for such atrocities as the Rape of Nanking. His disillusionment with the Imperium is neatly symbolised by the fact that the deceased Chairman – his father, mentor and master – is now replaced by a shapeshifting imposter, the rest of the government pretending that the real Chairman was never killed.

The character arc of Toru shows what the rest of the characters in Warbound could have been, had they not been swept away by a somewhat jumbled plot. As it is, the novel suffers from a problem all too familiar in the superhero genre: once we lose track of which dude in spandex is which, we lose any reason to care about them.

Best Novel: 2015 Sad and Rabid Puppies

Skin Game, Jim Butcher, Roc, 2014Skin Game, by Jim Butcher (Sad and Rabid Puppies; Hugo-nominated)

Once again I will have to admit to unfamiliarity with a popular series – in this case Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, of which Skin Game is the fifteenth volume. I read the first book, Storm Front, but for reasons of time had to skip the intervening thirteen.

The main character of the series is Harry Dresden, a private investigator who is also a wizard; he inhabits a version of Chicago where noir crime sits alongside assorted magical creatures. In Skin Game, Dresden is forced to repay past debts by helping his archenemy, the devilish Nicodemus Archleone, to steal the Holy Grail – even if it means robbing a vault that belongs to Hades himself.

Skin Game is structured like a monster-of-the-week TV series on fast forward. Harry Dresden, a hero who is capable but not quite unflappable (“The voice inside my head was screaming a high-pitched, girly scream of terror, and for a second I thought I was going to wet my pants”) is confronted by a seemingly endless queue of supernatural entities: archangels, animated statues, Greek gods, and even Santa Claus.

Although Butcher is working with familiar elements from both genre fiction and ancient myth, he succeeds in making them fresh. From an archangel lending his grace to a mortal, to the silver coins of Judas Iscariot being used to create Ringwraith-like servants, to the portrayal of Hades as an ambiguous figure simultaneously affable and intimidating, Butcher never introduces a fantasy concept unless he can put a new spin on it.

That said, I found that the fantasy elements of the story never really showed coherent meaning. The most successful urban fantasies of this stripe are generally about something: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about growing up, Dogma is about religion, the original Hellblazer is about Thatcher’s Britain – but what is Skin Game about?

The novel has subtext, of course. While having the potential to live for centuries, Dresden has faced death one too many times and is contemplating his mortality in a kind of mid-life crisis; one touching scene has him contemplating what his life would have been like had he settled down for a quieter existence of paying bills and raising children.

But this aspect of the story seems entirely separate from the parade of supernatural battles. Butcher uses the fantasy elements as a hefty dollop of sauce, rather than as the real thematic meat of the novel.

As a newcomer to the series, I found that Skin Game works reasonably well as a stand-alone novel – in contrast to some of the Sad Puppy picks for Best Novelette. That said, there are definitely moments in which the narrative relies upon prior investment in the characters and their relationships, and which lack impact if the reader has not been following Dresden’s past exploits.

The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J Anderson, Tor Books, 2014The Dark Between the Stars, by Kevin J. Anderson (Sad and Rabid Puppies; Hugo-nominated)

The second of two Sad Puppy picks to make the final Best Novel ballot in 2015, The Dark Between the Stars is the opening volume in a trilogy – a trilogy that, itself, follows on from Anderson’s earlier series The Saga of Seven Suns. I must confess to never having read any of the author’s previous books.

Set in a space opera world of magic and swordfights aboard starships, the structure of The Dark Between the Stars has distinctly soapy quality about it. It follows a group of characters from various walks of life – scientists, explorers, students – who generally inhabit their own individual plot threads, with relatively little crossover occurring until the space-battle climax.

The unfortunate consequence of Anderson attempting such a broad sweep is that he has little room to fully flesh things out. Much of his worldbuilding and character development is achieved by telling, rather than showing – and unlike Ann Leckie, with her justifiably confused narrator, Anderson would have been better off avoiding this approach.

He also has the tendency to fall back on symbolism that is simplistic to the point of being cartoonish. This is a novel where good is represented by a benign, vaguely new-agey tree-based religion, while evil is represented by a race of evil aliens formed from inky blackness, an unscrupulous businessman who kills space-whales for fuel, and a character called Exxos who leads a gang of “black robots”.

Out of all the series novels I read for this post, The Dark Between the Stars is the only one where I felt somewhat lost. Not because the story is particularly complicated, but because – as with Skin Game – it was clearly written with the assumption that the reader would approach the story with an emotional investment in the characters and their universe. But unlike Skin Game, I found that I simply did not care enough about the narrative to pick up as I went along.

Trial by Fire by Charles E. Gannon, Baen, 2014Trial by Fire, by Charles E. Gannon (Sad Puppies; not nominated)

In his earlier novel Fire with Fire, Charles E. Gannon introduced the protagonist Caine Riordan and placed him in the middle of humanity’s first contact with intelligent alien life. Now, in the sequel Trial by Fire, Caine Riordan is once again front and centre – this time in the aliens’ attack on Earth.

Fire with Fire was a spaceborne spy novel, drawing on conventions that date back at least as far as the days of James Bond; it benefitted from Gannon’s ability to write scenes of interspecies intrigue with the same of tension that Ian Fleming could describe a game of baccarat.

Trial by Fire is much more of a war story, playing down subterfuge in favour of large-scale combat. In both books, however, political and strategic machinations are key. Much of the novel takes place during a civil war in Indonesia – the aliens having decided to start their invasion in an already destabilised region, rather than the better-equipped superpowers. The ongoing domino effect from this attack allows for a more convincing alien apocalypse than we generally see in Hollywood films.

Gannon plots out the course of the war with great care; he packs a sizeable amount of writing about both the strategy and ethics of warfare into the novel, allowing neither side to make a move without the characters fully discussing it beforehand. The science fiction elements are put to good use: the battle is emphatically a clash of previously unfamiliar cultures, with both humans and aliens taking the opportunity to learn about each other.

While all of this chin-stroking is occurring, Gannon avoids losing sight of the bloodshed going on in the ground. Trial by Fire’s depictions of warfare are frequently harrowing, as an honest war story should be. Above all, the reader is asked to contemplate the fundamentally degrading effects of the battle – if the aliens use brutal techniques, they are techniques learnt from Earthlings.

It is worth noting that Trial by Fire was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel, a jury-judged award that is frequently criticised by the Sad Puppies as “SJW”. Perhaps this is a novel that both the Puppies and Worldcon could agree upon…

Lines of Departure, Marko Kloos, 47North, 2014Lines of Departure, by Marko Kloos (Sad and Rabid Puppies; nomination declined by author)

Aliens are invading Earth – but is Earth really worth saving? This is the main question asked by Lines of Departure, the sequel to Marko Kloos’ earlier Terms of Enlistment. The story is set in a future where humanity is under attack from an extraterrestrial force, and yet the political powers of the world are still unable to refrain from picking fights with each other.

Terms of Enlistment followed protagonist Andrew Grayson’s enlistment into the armed forces and first active duty; Lines of Departure picks up with him experienced but jaded, willing to do dirty work even if he knows that there is no real sense in it. The ratio of resources to population density is at an all-time low: slum-dwellers are reduced to eating recycled faecal matter, and have little choice but to riot against those in power. Grayson is forced against the wishes of his better self to battle the very civilians whom he is trying to save from the aliens.

There is plenty of material here for a work of brooding dystopian fiction, which makes it curious that the novel keeps being tugged in the direction of whizz-bang action.

For the climax of the novel, Kloos largely abandons his previous worldbuilding to pit Grayson against the aliens; but while the action scenes are well-written, the extra-terrestrials are simply too loosely-defined for the change in focus to be justifiable. They are targets to be blown up, no more, and while Grayson is battling them it is easy to be left wondering what is going on back on the dystopian Earth. This is in stark contrast to Charles E. Gannon’s down-and-dirty approach to futuristic warfare, where every civilian matters.

Kloos appears to have set out with the intention of writing a novel that worked primarily as an action-driven adventure, while also offering a thick vein of subtext rather than simplistic good-versus-evil. The end result demonstrates why this is a hard trick to pull off. What we are left with is a real moody teenager of a novel: full of angst about social issues, but too distracted by a shoot-em-up to actually engage with any of them.

Lines of Departure was nominated for the 2015 Hugo, but Kloos withdrew his acceptance; he cited the involvement of Vox Day and the Rabid Puppies campaign as his reason for doing so. “I want to be nominated for awards because of the work, not because of the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ politics,” wrote Kloos.

Cover of Monster Hunter: Nemesis, by Larry Correia; published by Baen Books. Cover art by Alan Pollack, 2014Monster Hunter: Nemesis
, by Larry Correia (Sad and Rabid Puppies; nomination declined by author)

Monster Hunter: Nemesis reinvents Frankenstein’s Monster as Agent Franks, a government assassin who has served the United States since the days of George Washington. Armed with brute strength and incredible fortitude, Franks has been tasked with all manner of dirty jobs over the centuries – such as picking off any innocent bystanders deemed “soft, weak, easily swayed” enough to fall into the cult of Cthulhu. Unbeknownst to his allies, meanwhile, Agent Franks’ body has actually been inhabited since its creation by a demonic spirit…

Eager to get its hands on an equivalent to Franks, a rival black ops faction called Special Task Force Unicorn (STFU) sets about creating a few man-made monsters of its own. These beings likewise end up possessed by demons, and Franks is forced to clear his name when one of them frames him for an attack on the government.

I read the first book in Correia’s Monster Hunter series – Nemesis being the fifth – and my general impression is that Monster Hunter is more even and coherent than the same author’s Grimnoir Chronicles, but noticeably less ambitious. While Grimnoir assembled an alternate timeline for its fantastic vision of the 1930s, Monster Hunter’s worldbuilding consists of throwing together bits and bobs from monster movies and superhero comics.

Again, I stress that, when it comes to pulp, usage of derivative elements is not necessarily a bad thing – indeed, it is largely inevitable. The primary aim of pulp is to be fun, and Nemesis succeeds in this modest goal. But could it have achieved more?

Correia’s mix-and-match approach occasionally turns up something inventive – Agent Franks’ demonic identity is a neat twist on the “criminal brain” that ended up inside Boris Karloff’s flat noggin – but the urban fantasy of Nemesis remains considerably less inventive and sophisticated than that of its Sad Puppy bedfellow, Jim Butcher’s Skin Game. Correia’s gangsta gnomes are amusing, but they are not as striking or as memorable as Butcher’s ambiguously sinister Hades.

Another flaw in Nemesis, when we consider its status as a Hugo nominee, is that once again we have a series novel that does not work particularly well as a standalone. A swathe of the cast is given next to no development, and included on the assumption that the reader will already be familiar with them.

As with Lines of Departure, Monster Hunter: Nemesis made the finalists for the award but was pulled by its author. “I felt that ultimately my presence would be a distraction from the overall mission [of Sad Puppies],” wrote Correia, “as long as the guy who started Sad Puppies stayed in, the more our opposition would try to dismiss the whole campaign as being all about my ego, or some selfish personal desire to get award recognition. Nope. I really meant it when I said I don’t care about winning anything for myself. I hope this proves that once and for all.”

Cover of The Chaplain's War, by Brad R. Torgersen; published by Baen Books. Illustration by David Seeley, 2014The Chaplain’s War
, by Brad R. Torgersen (Rabid Puppies; not nominated)

With The Chaplain’s War, Brad R. Torgersen combines his shorter pieces “The Chaplain’s Assistant” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy” into a novel-length work. In the process, the latter story is greatly expanded. As well as extending the story of agnostic chaplain Harry Barlow’s embroilment in a war against genocidal mantis-like aliens, Torgersen uses flashbacks to introduce an entirely new plot thread detailing the protagonist’s backstory.

When I covered “The Chaplain’s Legacy” in my previous post, I found one of its main failings to be Torgersen’s habit of introducing good ideas but never managing to engage with them. Regrettably, he has failed to address this issue with The Chaplain’s War. The flashback chapters add little to the plot, and can even be said to damage it: the flawed science fiction story now alternates with an unremarkable military story, with a lot of plot momentum being lost in the process.

While he outlines Barlow’s slog through army training at length, Torgersen overlooks the potential of certain other plot elements. The loosely sketched-in backstory of Captain Adanaho, who has combatted religious prejudice and addiction to virtual reality, is more interesting than much of what happens to Barlow – and yet, the novel does not expand on what was already established in the novella.

I have not read “The Chaplain’s Assistant” as originally published, so I do not know if the version included in this book has been altered, but it is an awkward beginning to the narrative. All the sequence does is summarise the thematic arc of the novel as a whole: mantes attack humanity, mantes are persuaded to spare humanity after discovering religion. The rest of the book consequently comes across as a long-winded repeat of its opening chapters.

To be fair, Torgersen has made some improvements while expanding “The Chaplain’s Legacy”.

One complaint I had about the novella was that the culture and viewpoint of the aliens were underdeveloped. Torgersen has done a good deal to fix this problem in this novel: as Barlow lives amongst the mantes, they compare and contrast their experiences with a number of subjects including politics, reproduction, and even food.

This time around, when the aliens are persuaded to spare humanity, their change of heart actually means something. It stands as a signifier of their alien nature: Barlow wishes that the mantis queen’s human counterparts, such as Hitler and Stalin, had been as easy to redeem.

While not sophisticated, the reconciliation between the two species – brought about by a “loser” character who only became a chaplain’s assistant because he was deemed unfit for active duty – carries genuine warmth. The novel certainly has its flaws, but its heart is in the right place.

My thoughts

Out of the five categories I have looked at in this series, Best Novel had the least Puppy influence in 2015. Only two of the Sad Puppies novels made the final ballot, with the award going to Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem.

One issue that cropped up again and again as I read these novels was the question of how an instalment in a series should be viewed as a standalone work. All five of the Sad Puppy novels were sequels, compared to only one of the non-Puppy nominees in 2014. An unintended upshot of the Sad Puppies campaign is that a number of people have suggested a category reform of some kind, to separate series novels and standalone works.

Meanwhile, as I was working on this post, the Sad Puppies 2016 list went live. Significantly, the new list contains ten picks for each of the main categories in an attempt to avoid the block-voting that occurred in 2015; it also contains a few goodwill nods to authors who had been previously criticised by the Puppies, such as John Scalzi and Ann Leckie. I was disappointed to see the jar of crocodile tears that is Daniel Eness’ “Safe Space as Rape Room” make the cut for Best Related Work, but other than that, the list showed signs of the culture war coming to an end.

Alas, it was not to be. Multiple authors on the list asked to be removed, prompting a rather rude response from current Sad Puppies co-runner Sarah A. Hoyt. On goes the culture war, it seems.

One other thing I would like the comment on is how the campaign has drifted from its original intentions. Ostensibly, its initial aim was to give neglected works (neglected, like sad puppies) a fighting chance at the Hugos. But yet, the latest list includes candidates who are clearly not neglected at all – to extend the metaphor, the likes of Scalzi and Leckie would be pampered puppies.

The makeup of the 2016 Sad Puppies slate seems like an acknowledgement that the campaign overachieved last year, requiring the once-sad pups to throw a few bones to the previously-pampered pooches.

I am reminded of a cartoon I once saw as a child.

Robin Hood hands a bag of money to a poor man. “You look familiar,” remarks the outlaw.

“Yeah,” replies the peasant. “I’m the rich guy you robbed last year.”

Coming soon…

I will be finishing my look back on the 2015 Sad Puppies by examining the works that may have been nominated that year, were it not for the campaign. Watch this space…

Series Navigation<< 2014 Hugos Versus 2015 Sad Puppies: Related Works2014 Hugos Versus 2015 Sad Puppies: What Could Have Been, Part 1 >>
Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

2 thoughts on “2014 Hugos Versus 2015 Sad Puppies: Novels

  1. Thorough, thoughtful criticism, as usual. 🙂 Looking forward to the next piece (and I know you said you likely wouldn’t invest the energy in a 2016 set of reviews, and given the time these must take, I wholly understand, but goodness, would your take on these works be welcome). If EPH passes and there’s a little justice in the world, I’m hoping your work here might find a place on the ballot for Helsinki. Certainly science fiction, and the Hugos in particular, need criticism like yours – fair minded, unflinching when necessary, always addressing the works and not the flurry of noise that attends them. Vox Day has execrable taste, maybe by design, but you’re the only critic I’m reading who has the patience and determination needed to help clarify what’s wrong with the alternative vision of science fiction on offer by the Puppies (mostly the Rabids, as of 2016) and what their triumph would do to the genre.

    1. Thank you for your kind words!

      Well, I’ve seen the latest nominees, and they’re clearly dominated by Rabid choices, with the Sad Puppies barely getting a look-in. Whatever their faults, the Sad Puppies were at least making an honest attempt to choose work that they felt was genuinely deserving (excepting perhaps Wisdom form My Internet). The Rabid Puppies campaign is different – it’s just one guy screwing around, end of. I think any kind of in-depth analysis of Vox Day’s choices is giving him undue credence, to be honest.

      That said, once the longlists are available, I might review the non-Rabid Puppy works that would have been in the running. I’m also kind of interested in checking out the Graphic Story nominees; this is, after all, Women Write About Comics 🙂

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