Solidity and the Hugos
Each and every year, I promise that this spring will be different. This will finally be the spring that my lawn isn’t covered in mud, dirty snow and dog poop until April, that the switch from normal time to the unholy daylight savings sort won’t turn my children into frothing zombies, that I will finally get exactly what I want for my birthday, which is to stop feeling so fucking old. If I don’t actually get any of these things, I will at least practice my zen breathing and let all of it not bother me.
I was so very, very close this year. With age comes wisdom (and gray hair and cellulite, frankly, but I’m letting that go.) Then those bastards who are organizing this year’s WorldCon in Yokohama, Japan announced the Hugo nominees. Now I just want to bite someone. Take a minute to look it over. I’ll continue to stew in my own rising bile until you return.
Back? Great. Did you notice anything about the ballot? About how very penis-heavy the fiction categories are? Again? I have no doubts that Naomi Novik is a wonderful writer and stand-up gal but asking her to represent for 50 percent of the population is akin to asking a fern to represent all green things that grow in soil.
Don’t get me wrong -- ferns are great. Love them. There is more to the plant kingdom than ferns, however, and our lives would be poorer if we didn’t also note the hostas and daylilies and hydrangeas. After all (to further abuse the metaphor), the animal kingdom gets a thorough representation on the ballot, with lions and tigers and Pratts all turning up. And, yet, plants just get the one fern. Sad.
Which isn’t to say that the animals on the ballot are unworthy. Vinge and Stross always turn in solid works that scratch that hard to reach hard SF itch. Peter Watts’s Blindsight has been receiving blogosphere raves and can be read online. I can’t speak from personal experience on these titles simply because I’ve spent more of my reading time this year reading books like Farthing and The Privilege of the Sword, both of which turned up on the Nebula final ballot. (And if you are looking for an awards list that better captures the genre’s flora and fauna, that ballot would be a good place to start.)
But to extrapolate from the book on the overwhelmingly white, male Hugo ballot that I have read, which is Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim, this year’s contenders are a solid herd of novels. “Solid” is a tricky word and one that I’ve carefully chosen. Without enough context, the connotation is hard to tease out -- and it’s hard to tell if it’s meant as a compliment or a slap. With Eifelheim, almost every permutation can apply.
As proof of his bona fides, Flynn was the first winner of the Robert A. Heinlein Award, which is presented to a writer of “outstanding published work in hard science fiction or technical writings inspiring the human exploration of space.” Flynn’s prose is as cleanly professional as words could be. There is neither flash nor great rococo exercise in floridity. Solid stuff, Flynn’s words are.
The problem is that there are just so flipping many of them -- so many, in fact, that they create a solid wall of information that, at times, reads like a technical report or master’s thesis. Eifelheim largely tells the story of a 14th century priest, Dietrich, who discovers something otherworldly in a small German town’s forest. It is abundantly clear that Flynn has done all of the research one could ever hope to do. His ability to scrounge through libraries is to be admired. The problem, however, is that Eifelheim feels like he couldn’t bear to not include every last speck of information he turned up. An example, picked at random:
[Dietrich says,] “Astronomers calculate the positions of the heavenly spheres. And William of Heytesbury, a Merton calculator, applied numbers to the study of local motion and showed that, commencing from zero degree, every latitude, so long as it terminates finitely, and so long as it is acquired or lost uniformly, will correspond to its mean degree of velocity.”
There are dense nuggets of fact like this on most of the pages. If Flynn isn’t tucking in tidbits about the nature of astronomical thought during the 1300s, he’s describing in great detail all that he has learned about the feudal system or the Catholic Church or metalworking. These info dumps distract from the narrative force of Flynn’s story. I commend Flynn’s attention to all of the history, but it makes for dense (and, at times, dull) reading.
Which is too bad, because Flynn has spun a wonderful tale about his Germans and has a knack for creating solid characters. From the first few pages, Dietrich feels like a three-dimensional person. By the end of the book, it’s hard to let him go. Flynn works the same magic with the villagers. Each is as unique as fingerprints -- and when bad things start to happen to each of them, it is a blow. Towards the end of the story, it’s fair to say that the very pages of the book feel sodden with sorrow, which is a testament to Flynn’s storytelling.
“Dietrich shook his head. ‘All men die when God calls them back to Himself.’
"And Gottfried answered, 'Could he not have called her more softly?'"
It’s a delicate, heartbreaking moment; despite the solid wall of information you have to scale to get to there.
Would that Flynn had been so gentle with the other two tales -- call them a frame and a frame-within-the-frame -- that live in his book. As dense as the research is to wade through in the historic bits of Eifelheim, it’s twice as gravel-like in the modern day sections. Even though they only take up one quarter of the text, these talky downloads about physics and history feel endless.
And, frankly, pointless. Without them, Eifelheim would still pack a wallop, even if it didn’t reach the same contrived and eye-rollingly coincidental conclusions that the frames lead you to. Perhaps Flynn’s greatest sin is to try to make this one book do more than his story could support and, instead of making all of his threads tie a solid knot, let two of them hang too loosely while winding the other too tightly. Eifelheim comes close to brilliance but, ultimately, achieves only solidity. Solidness is what gets you a Hugo nomination, at least this year.