There You Are, Creativity

If my creativity were a creature, it would be that fickle cat that decides to leave and set up a new home somewhere else for a while only to eventually come back home. I caught glimpses of it over the last few years, sauntering down a distant alleyway, but it’s finally come back home.

Over the last number of weeks, I’ve had a short story idea, written it fairly painlessly, been excited about the process and the end-product, have revised it and sent it out to a publisher. I enjoyed the process, none of it felt like pulling teeth, and I’m feeling energized to start another one or keep working on other writing-related projects.

This post will likely be more personal than previous ones because the topic and experiences are so fundamental to my identity. I finally feel (I don’t think I’ve used the word ‘feel’ this often in any previous entries) able to explore this a little more fully. My writing-related creativity left me for almost three years and I’ve only now been able to process that loss.

The pandemic affected people differently, and in the grand scheme, I had it pretty good. My wife and I get along really well (and enjoy spending lots of time together) and so lockdowns weren’t onerous. I didn’t lose my job like so many did and was able to continue working throughout, despite the difficulties of adjusting to online and hybrid teaching. No country had a flawless response, but over and over I’ve thought about how lucky I was to go through this in Penang, as Malaysia, by and large, did a solid job in their response, especially how they handled the vaccination drive. So many other people lost their livelihood, their health, their loved ones, and had the trajectory of their lives altered significantly.

I just lost my creativity for a while. But it was still a loss.

I’ve been writing for decades. I’ve known that it is something I need to work at consistently, and have diligently invested time and effort into my creative writing endeavors. There are some people for whom it almost seems to come naturally and flow from an endless well of literary outpouring. But it has always been difficult, from my first ill-fated novel to the fumbling short stories. What has sustained my years of writing improvement was that I always had new ideas, knew that each failed story could be followed by another—hopefully more successful—one. The actual process of writing was a joy, even if some of my end products didn’t meet my expectations. So when my creativity ran away from home, I was at a loss.

I suspect it was a combination of the changing life-pace, the sudden need to adapt my teaching to new formats (which in itself took a lot of creativity and narrowed my daily capacity), and the influx of an ever-changing worldscape. At first, I tried to stick to my usual patterns for writing. I internalized many years ago that I need to write regularly, whether I feel like it or not and for the most part, this has worked for me. But during much of the pandemic, even that felt untenable. Forcing myself to sit down and write wasn’t working and for months at a time, it was healthier for me to simply not do any writing at all. And that saddened me because it took away something that I loved doing.

It wasn’t all barren spells though. I did write two short stories, though it was very laborious and took far longer than either story should have. They’re still in their rough drafts, but I anticipate revising them this year and ending up fairly happy with them. I wrote a rough draft of a novel that turned out nowhere near what I’d hoped for and will likely join the discard heap. And I finally managed to finish a major overhaul of my main novel project (I’d hoped to have that done by the summer of 2020 and didn’t finish it until July of last year). So it wasn’t that I did no writing, but that it all felt harder, took more energy, lacked the joy I was used to, and didn’t infuse me with a desire to do more.

I knew all along it was going to be temporary; I never felt as though my lack of creativity was a permanent state. I’d occasionally get glimmers of story ideas, find a moment of inspiration, or catch myself thinking about an old story I’d written. I didn’t know how long it would take, but eventually, the cat would come back home.

Thankfully, that fruitless season seems to be over. I hope to make the most of my rediscovered creativity and I won’t take its presence for granted in the future.


Dear students learning to write

Dear students learning to write,

You live in a world full of wonderful technology. Your devices, apps, programs, and entertainments are more useful, more engaging, and more distracting than ever before. Technology is a tool that we can harness to enhance our lives as humans; yet, too often, we let the technology dictate how it directs our lives.

Recently, OpenAI unveiled its newest prototype: ChatGPT-3. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend going and playing around with it. You can ask it questions, you can get it to give full responses, you can get it to explain or summarize something, and you can get it to write essays. I spent quite a bit of time getting to know ChatGPT and it is seriously impressive in what it can do. I think it is a potentially useful resource and a very powerful tool.

However, as with all technology, I see some downsides and I’d like to explore those with you for a moment.

1. The basic output answers that ChatGPT provides are not very good. They may sound knowledgeable to someone uninformed on a particular topic, but anyone with expertise can tell that the content does not go far beyond demonstrating basic comprehension. That’s primarily because the AI does not actually know what any of it means; it is using multiple tools and strategies to string together words into patterns that seem to make sense. Now, it’s very good at doing that, but will not catch its own errors. That’s why it sometimes returns sentences that may sound good but are actually gibberish.

2. Because it does not actually understand any of the content it is producing, errors creep in quite frequently. When asked to write about something well-known, it does well but as soon as something becomes more obscure, it really struggles. I asked it to trace the faith journey of a character in Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai, a text that the AI could not find a digital version of. Pretty much everything it came up with was incorrect and anyone who had read the book would instantly see that.

3. By nature, what it comes up with is formulaic. Some of those structures and formulas are rather well hidden, but the patterns start to become quite repetitive. A lot of teachers of writing have been playing around with this over the last weeks and months and the general consensus is that the writing itself is not very good. It’s wooden, often clunky, and lacking in style. While it is possible to get ChatGPT to write in a particular style, that sometimes backfires like when I asked it to rewrite something in the style of author Cormac McCarthy and it just reorganized some of the wording. To date, it cannot really understand or replicate style, leading to soulless prose.

4. It also can’t really do quotations accurately. It cannot integrate thoughts from others well, often taken things out of context, or misattributing them, or not working them in cleanly. Similarly, it can do generalizations, but in-depth, nuanced commentary or analysis is beyond what ChatGPT can currently do.

5. Finally, a common issue with a new technology: what makes something more efficient, or allows us to be more productive, can also make us lazy. To turn what ChatGPT puts out into actually good writing takes a lot of work; to get it to introduce new ideas, to streamline thoughts, to better integrate something or illustrate it requires both knowledge of the topic and of the conventions of writing. Students hoping to use this as a short-cut to not have to write assignments or understand the process and craft of writing are falling into a trap where efficiency and convenience lead to simplicity and an apathetic laziness.

But, what it does produce under the tutelage of a knowledgeable and already competent writer is quite impressive. So, some students, and even some teachers of writing, are essentially throwing up their hands asking “Why do we even need to learn/teach writing anymore?” As a teacher of writing, my answers all boil down to: it’s the process, not just the product, that matters.

1. Writing is thinking. While you, your parents, and even some of your teachers may not think of it this way, I view my classroom not just as a place to learn reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but as a crucial place to develop critical thinking. It is difficult to teach and even harder to measure, but learning to write well is one of the best ways to learn critical thinking. Our words are a reflection of the patterns of our minds and while speaking can be spontaneous, and much of our digital communication is similarly immediate, it is through extended and purposeful writing that we can shape the pathways of our thinking. When we write for a specific audience, when we play with the order of thoughts, when we discover and implement connections and transitions between ideas, our minds start to apply that elsewhere as well.

2. Writing is expression. In my classroom, a primary focus is on clear communication, being able to express ourselves well in all arenas of life, being able to understand others and their ideas, and being able to synthesize disparate viewpoints. Some of you express yourselves through art, dance, music, or sport. Humans want to take what’s inside them and bring it out into the world and writing is a primary and accessible way of doing that. The value of a text is not just in what it achieves in the readers, but also in the person composing it. I’ve often found that I have a much better idea of what I think, of how I feel about something, of how to live with something difficult after I’ve taken the time to write about it.

3. Writing is nuance. The world is a marvelously complex place. Our minds are in a constant tension between trying to order and make sensible patterns of an overwhelmingly complex world and exploring with curiosity that same beauty and mystery. We need to simplify and generalize some things in order to function, but we also need to appreciate depth and the intricate workings of our surroundings. Pretty much every topic you can imagine is more complex and nuanced than it at first appears. The process of learning to write is a way of exploring that complexity and developing nuanced and thoughtful ways of processing the world. Writing—whether poetry, a short story, a research paper, or a diary entry—help us to take the jumbled, muddled, often inconsistent elements in our minds and bring them into some form of coherence. And we can learn to do this without needlessly generalizing, by maintaining and capturing some of the beauty of the complicated world around us.

So, where does that leave us with regards to ChatGPT and the purposes of learning to write? For one, I suspect the expectations of originality in schools and universities and by many employers will remain intact. This means that using ChatGPT as a shortcut in school will be viewed as plagiarism and there are already ways to determine with decent accuracy whether something was written by AI or a human (these processes also use AI to detect the patterns, such as

But I can think of a few more important reasons to continue to invest our time in the writing process. If we let our minds be replaced by convenient technology now, then we’re putting ourselves in a situation to be replaced by technology later. If you the student make the choice to take the easy way out and never learn to do anything that an AI can sort-of also do, then you’re not learning the crucial skills that may help you be successful in life. If the AI can replace you and your work in the classroom today, it will likely replace you at your job someday. That’s not meant to be a scare-tactic; we live in a world that requires us to be flexible and adapt, especially given new technologies. Gone are the days when we can apprentice as a teenager and then do the same job, unchanged, for the rest of our lives. Most of us will have multiple jobs, careers, and will have to adjust what and how we do those.

In education, we continue to see seismic shifts and it’s very easy to get stuck in an old way of thinking that then does not leaves us equipped to live well in our surroundings. Adaptability is a key skill we all must learn, and we do it by keeping our minds agile and open to new things, by remaining curious, by always being willing to learn and adjust.

And that’s not something you can be forced to do. Some of what you’ll be required to do in life will be jumping through senseless hoops. Sometimes, you’ll perceive a task to be senseless only to later realize its infinite value to the development of who you have become. Writing can be one of those tasks. But, you’re in charge of your own learning. No matter the external environment, the competence of your teachers, the disadvantages or privileges you bring with you into the classroom, only you can really determine what you will internalize.

From a person who does not want to consider who he would be if he had not chosen to spend time and effort on becoming a proficient writer, reader, and thinker, I encourage you to invest in the process of writing. Use the tools at your disposal; hone and guide the shape of your mind. Your learning, growth, and the continued adaptability of your mind is one of the primary things that makes you a human. Remember that you are an individual who matters and that what’s going on inside of you is important and your abilities and desire to communicate those things make the world a richer place.


Jens Hieber, an English Teacher
January 2023

National Identity, Choosing Home, and Football

Every four years, when the world cup comes around, I find myself thinking more about national identity. It’s one of the few times I feel myself connected closely to my German-ness, brings lots of opportunities to talk with people of other nationalities about a shared passion, and shows interesting patterns for how differently people can hold and value their national identity.

As a person who has lived in so many countries across four continents, my understanding of nationality, boarders, patriotism, and immigration tend to be fairly complex and often conflicted. I’m blessed to have been born in Germany and have a German passport, as that lets me travel and fairly easily gain access to most of the world. Many do not have this privilege. Yet I don’t feel myself to be particularly German.

This year, these thoughts crystallized around two unrelated BBC articles that I read on the same day–December 1st. One on an occurrence that caused quite a commotion in England while the other was a fairly small, innocuous article about the Ghanaian football team.

In the first one (article here), Ngozi Fulani, a black woman who runs a charity to assist domestic abuse victims, was invited to a Buckingham Palace royal reception and repeatedly asked by Lady Susan Hussey, Prince William’s godmother and a lady-in-waiting to the late queen, where she was “really from”. The transcript of the conversation is at the end of the article and it’s rough reading. Lady Susan Hussey has since stepped down, she has apologized, and Ngozi Fulani has accepted the apology. But it brings up that tricky topic of how closely we related ethnicity and nationality, often without consciously considering it.

Clearly, Fulani is British. She was born there, has lived her life there, and feels herself to be British. In this case, her ancestry, ethnicity, and race have little to do with her citizenship. An approach to understanding citizenship as being tied solely to race or ethnicity is not only deeply troubling now but was so last century, let alone in the 21st. Modern travel and immigration patterns mean that nationality and citizenship cannot be simplified and any misguided attempts to try and pin someone to a single, definitive origin are signs of a simplistic view of the world that doesn’t correspond with reality.

In the second article, Elizabeth Ohene (article here) discusses why it is easier to play for the Ghanaian national team than to stand as a member of parliament, despite some of the players having not been born in the country, never visited, and not speaking any of the languages. The article makes it clear that she values these ancestral ties and believes these players of the Ghanaian diaspora should be playing for Ghana. Where it becomes tricky is when she questions those players (she names Cody Gakpo who plays for Netherlands, Richie Laryea – Canada, Ethan Ampadu – Wales, and Mohammed Muntari – Qatar) who play for another country, despite their Ghanaian roots.

Now, we clearly don’t want wealthy countries simply offering citizenship to talented players from other, less wealthy, countries to boost their own chances, and there is a long history of that. Rightly, Ohene disparages this approach to fair sporting. A country must have some claim to a player, and I approve of Fifa’s rules around having players not be able to simply switch countries once they’ve played for the senior team. This also allows younger players (like Germany’s Jamal Musiala) time to determine the trajectory of their careers and they may have multiple allegiances and homes.

But now there is a contradiction, or at least an unresolved tension.

Ohene brings up Otto Addo, the current Ghanaian coach. He was born in Germany, holds a German passport, played his club football in Germany, but his international football in Ghana. She also mentions the instances of brothers playing for different countries (currently Inaki and Nico Williams playing for Ghana and Spain respectively, and Kevin Prince and Jerome Boateng, who famously played against each other at a 2014 World Cup game between Ghana and Germany). Previously, Ghanaian-born footballer Gerald Asamoah played for Germany and so would likely fall into the same list of players that Ohene would want to call back to play for Ghana instead.

But if those players are making their choice, it needs to be a free choice. Simply being born somewhere, or having family from somewhere, or holding a passport from that country does not and should not determine football allegiance. And just because FIFA only allows a player to choose one country to play for, does not mean that this player has turned their back on other countries that can also hold a place in their heart. If someone from the German DFB had told Jerome Boateng that he could not play for Germany but must play for Ghana, the ensuing outrage would have been similar to the Ngozi Fulani situation. And when a country with a diverse population puts forth an unrepresentative team (as was some of the conversation about the English women’s team this year), there is rightly a cause for concern. But clearly, Jerome felt he wanted to play for Germany, while Kevin Prince desired to play for Ghana, and that’s a difficult, personal decision.

Many football players face this dilemma and to pretend that there is a simple solution would make light of this complexity. Whether they were born in a country, moved there with their parents, hold ancestral or ethnic ties to a country, or have simply lived most of their life somewhere and gained citizenship can all factor into this decision.

For football, it makes sense that players have to decide to play for one country or another (that they reasonably have ties to), even if that is a conflicted decision. But in other areas, there should not need to be a push to declare unequivocal allegiance. Perhaps multiple citizenship should be a more widely accepted practice between countries; rather than renouncing one country in favor of another, those with conflicted national identities might better be able to reconcile their sense of belonging by finding a balance and holding on to multiple allegiances. Maybe, rather than seeking to simplify national identity, we can allow those with many ties to find their own balance that honors where they and their parents come from, where they are, where they call home, and where their future might take them. In this globalized world of increased travel, immigration, intermarriage and beautiful fusion, we need more complex understandings of identity and belonging.

Appreciating Film/TV Adaptations

I love teaching Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express because many students enjoy the departure from texts they’re used to studying and they really get into the mystery genre. Many will have already seen the 2017 Kenneth Branagh film adaptation and ask whether we’ll be watching that in class. I tell them I’ve got a better adaptation: the 1974 version. Even though it is older, most students enjoy it quite a bit and while I don’t spend class time comparing the versions, those I have conversations with can see how it is a more faithful adaptation than the 2017 edition.

But faithful does not have to mean literal. Any time a story is taken from one form of media and translated into another, there will be changes. A director always has to make decisions, just as the original writer did. Some details, sequences, and visuals work in text but would be ill-suited to a screen. There are also conventions in writing, film, and television that change over the course of decades: the long opening sequence, the wordy prologue, the extended dialogue scenes don’t really hold viewer attention in the 21st century. And that doesn’t even take costuming, hairstyle, or scene transitions into account. Often, my students have a hard time with older films not due to the content, because the style is not what they’re used to.

One of the biggest difference between text and film consists of what happens in our heads. No matter how detailed an author’s description, each reader of a book will fill in their own gaps and envision scenes, characters, and interactions in their own way. But in film or TV, the viewing angle is set, the image is transmitted to every viewer in the same way. Unfortunately, many viewers go into watching an adaptation hoping that it will match exactly to the images they have in their heads from reading the text, and that’s an unrealistic expectation.

Sometimes, a literal translation of what’s on the page is unsuccessful. The 1984 David Lynch adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, while having a cult following, is widely considered a failure. And yet, it was fairly faithful to the story line, the characters, the major scenes, and even some of the dialogue. Admittedly, Dune is difficult to adapt, but a literal approach was never likely to be successful. Earlier, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky had gotten quite far with an adaptation of his own before studios pulled the plug. A 2013 documentary called Jodorowsky’s Dune shows through still images, storyboards, and interviews that the vision would have been anything but literal. The film would not have satisfied story-purists, but would likely have been a work of art in its own right. So when Denis Villeneuve’s version (of the first half of the book) came out a few years ago, I was very curious to see which approach he would take. And I was satisfied to find that he stayed true to the source material, but not rigidly so. More than taking individual scenes, characters, and images, Villeneuve took the Frank Herbert’s ideas as the source and felt free to play with a few of the specifics in order to keep the ideas and character arcs central.

I believe it is the centrality of idea that can makes or breaks an adaptation. Of course it needs to focus on the visual aspects: that’s a requirement of the medium. But in keeping the idea central, readers and viewers can adjust to discrepancies between their expectations and viewing experiences. It is for this reason that I have yet to find a satisfactory adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. The first half of the 2002 version is quite good, despite some significant changes, but the remainder is an unconscionable distortion of Alexandre Dumas’ story. Admittedly, condensing a 1200 page novel into a 2+ hour film is close to impossible, but in attempting it, they removed Edmond Dante’s incredible story arc and simplified the ending into a sword fight with a happy ending. I have high hopes that in this age of streaming television, one of the big giants will take on Dumas’ masterpiece in a limited series and do it justice. They can feel free to make changes to the original, but that can only be successful if they maintain the essence of the text.

But, of course, not everyone will agree on whether an adaptation is successful or not. And it’s not necessary to come to a consensus. What works for one viewer may not for another. I’m saddened by the seeming current need to either universally acclaim or bash an adaptation. Often, it just ends with an acrimonious standoff between heated sets of fans. I always appreciate discussions about adaptations in which ardent fans can admit what didn’t work for them and critics can nevertheless see some merit and both sides can let each other enjoy or dislike an adaptation. I’m a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations but felt his Hobbit films didn’t quite work (I’ll recommend here the Tolkien Edit—see link below). Yet as much as I love the original trilogy, some scenes don’t work for me, such as Gandalf getting knocked off his horse by the witch king or some of the portrayals of Faramir. I have not yet seen the Amazon Prime series Rings of Power, but that’s a recent example of the type of feuding that doesn’t seem like a genuine discussion about the successes of an adaptation. When I finally get around to watching it, I’m fairly certain I’ll find some things I really appreciate, some things that bother me, and I will likely enjoy it quite a bit anyway.

I often tell my students that when an adaptation has changes from the text (and they all do), there’s always a reason. It may be technical, it may be stylistic, or it may have to do with an artistic choice. Often, when we look at the changes, we can determine where a creator is placing their emphasis. Differences in adaptations can be a good thing, or they can be poorly handled. But rather than condemning an adaptation for not meeting our expectations of a text, perhaps we should engage with the adaptation in its own right and appreciate and evaluate it for what it is alongside the original text, rather than feeling the need to automatically merge them.

A 4-hour spliced together version of all three Hobbit movies into one mostly coherent film that stays closer to the original feel of Tolkien’s text.

A Tricky (But Important) Lesson

I decided to take a risk in one of my classes a few weeks ago. I’ve taught Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for many years to my Honors 10 English students and it generally gets a good response. Students appreciate the storytelling, note the patterns with other dystopian stories they’re familiar with, and generally connect quite well with the major ideas.

But helping them draw the connections between a book published in the 50s through to how those issues may look somewhat different today has been a bit of a struggle. In past years, I’d had them do some research on contemporary technologies and the possible dangers they may pose. I’d also had them write a short essay on a particular instance of book banning (they usually picked some older book, or something to do with fascism, etc.). This was all fine, the students did well, then they moved on.

I also began noticing at other times in the school year, that my students were having a lot of conversations about canceling. Some would joke about canceling each other, some would talk about a musician they wouldn’t listen to anymore, or debate a recent instance on social media or the film industry. This cropped up enough times that I determined I’d have to incorporate this topic more intentionally at some point in the future.

With my principal’s permission, I decided to have an in-depth discussion in my class about censorship, book banning, and cancel culture. The rise of canceling over the last decade, the swathe of book bans in US schools and communities in recent years, and the evolving discussion about free speech on internet forums meant I wanted to engage with Bradbury’s ideas but in the 21st century. My principal encouraged my efforts but said I should let the parents know ahead of time, explaining my purpose and rationale.

I laid out the guiding questions for our discussion after making sure we had clear and workable definitions for ‘censorship’, ‘canceling’, and ‘banning’:

1. In what ways are the motivations behind recent book bans and the increase of ‘canceling’ similar? In what ways are they different?
2. How are the motivations behind each addressing legitimate fears and concerns?
3. What are the dangers of banning and canceling on a society and its ability to discuss difficult topics?
4. How can we engage with others who hold radically different worldviews from our own in a respectful and engaged way?

I’m pleased to say that my students had an extended, productive, two-day discussion about these topics, bringing in some specific examples they had encountered, coming up with hypothetical scenarios, occasionally disagreeing with each other, but always being kind and respectful. What happened in my classroom over those two days both reaffirmed the already high value I place on teaching difficult topics and also that we need to teach our students how to engage respectfully and in nuanced ways with those topics.

Their assignment was to write an essay in which they chose any recent instance that involved censorship of any sort (I got movie bans, book bans, twitter cancelings, news censorship in Russia, and so many more), a direct connection to Bradbury’s text, and their own personal position on how we should navigate these tricky, inter-related topics. And their papers blew me away. These 15-16 year olds presented careful, nuanced, wise, and thought-provoking positions and I only wish more adults would do the same.

This exercise has reaffirmed in me the value of teaching complexity and difficulty. I believe we as teachers (especially English teachers) need to allay any fears that we’re trying to tell students what to think. In my initial conversation with my principal, in my explanation to the parents, and in the lead-up to the discussion, I made it very clear that I in no way wanted to get the students to think what I think. My goal is always to get them to grapple with something difficult and determine what they think about it. How else do we teach critical thinking but to give them the fodder, tools, and space to practice?

Which is why the classroom is exactly the right place for controversial topics. We should be teaching books with difficult, challenging, even provocative content, because this is how we educate our students to grapple with the beautiful complexity of the world around them. We can’t just teach stuff we agree with, but need to also teach texts we as teachers don’t like, or by authors that lived deeply problematic lives (and boy are there a lot of those around). We don’t need to shield our students from the ugly dangers of the world—we need to guide them in the steps of dealing with those things, allow them to take ownership of their own thinking, and give them the agency to make their own choices.

I’m really proud of how well my students handled this. This coming generation care a whole lot about their world and are hungry to make their mark on it. We just need to make sure we provide them with the tools to do so. I’m so curious to see what their responses to Ayn Rand’s Anthem will be in a few weeks time.

Hugo Nominee Review: A Desolation Called Peace – Arkady Martine

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine from the back of the book: “An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options. In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for an envoy. Now Mahit Dzamare and Three Seagrass – still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire – face an impossible task. For how can they communicate with a hostile alien entity? Their failure would guarantee millions of deaths and an endless war. Their success might prevent Teixcalaan’s destruction – and allow the Empire to continue its rapacious expansion. Or success might lead to something far stranger.”

World-building: 5/5
I adored the first book in this duology; probably the best thing I read last year. Much of the world-building is a continuation of that, so it’s difficult to judge this one on its own merit. I found the descriptions a bit less awe-inspiring than A Memory Called Empire, but much of that is the difference between a city-scape and a lot of ship-board scenes. However, the almost effortless space opera atmosphere, with the jumpgates, the relentless presence of the Teixcalaan empire, and the overwhelming otherness of the aliens was spectacular. While the first book felt more poetic, the emphasis on language, communication, and how to establish true dialogue was no less genius.

Characters: 5/5
Mahit and Three Seagrass are just as wonderful as in the first book. I’m glad we get the overlap but I’m most excited about the addition of Eight Antidote (what a great name) and the two new main characters in the Fleet. Arkady has a way of getting us into their thoughts, even when they’re not POV characters, that highlights the intrigue and cultural exchange of the text. I was particularly glad for the addition of Twenty Cicada, who represents the breadth of the Empire, both with his personality and religion, but also with how he interacts with those around him and the aliens.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 5/5
On a second read, this one is much faster than the first book. Perhaps it was because Memory had to establish the world/city/empire and so the entire narrative took a ways longer to get going, but somehow the pace worked better here. I’m not sure I quite buy how easily Eight Antidote was able to convince a Shard pilot and a messenger of what he needed from them, but I’m willing to gloss over that for how well Arkady manages to intertwine all of her story-lines without them even being in the same sectors of space.

Overall: 5/5
The first time I read this duology, I liked this book but didn’t think it quite stacked up to the first one. Now, I think this one is just as good. To distinguish between minds and memory, to hold in tension the sheer desire to belong to an alien place while attempting to maintain some sense of identity, and to play so subtly with the ideas of collective vs individual is the work of a master storyteller. I’m in awe of what Arkady has done here and if it were up to me, I’d hand this book the Hugo right now, just like the first one won it two years ago.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

Hugo Nominee Review: the galaxy, and the ground within – Becky Chambers

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of the galaxy, and the ground within by Becky Chambers from the back of the book: “When a freak technological failure halts traffic to and from the planet Gora, three strangers are thrown together unexpectedly, with nothing to do but wait. Pei is a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, torn between her duty to her people, and her duty to herself. Roveg is an exiled artist, with a deeply urgent, and longed for, family appointment to keep. Speaker has never been far from her twin but now must endure the unendurable: separation. Under the care of Ouloo, an enterprising alien, and Tupo, her occasionally helpful child, the trio are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they might be to one another. Together they will discover that even in the vastness of space, they’re not alone.”

World-building: 5/5
While this is book 4 in a series (all of which has previously won the Hugo award for best series), it can stand mostly entirely on its own. Only one character of those present appeared in one of the previous books, and then only for a few scenes. Having read the previous three, it is difficult to gauge how accessible this one would be as a stand-alone, though I found that Chambers’ descriptions and explanations would likely allow entrance to anyone that wanted to only read this installment.

I’ve read a lot of space opera, so I’m fairly picky. What Chambers has accomplished is a plausible universe, grounded in—but not focused on—science. She presents a well-fleshed out history, has slopped humans and earth into a dynamic relationship with alien races, and uses the resulting worlds to situate her characters. Gora is nothing special, which actually works well since none of the characters are originally from there, letting Chambers explore them and their origins within their current context.

Characters: 5/5
I don’t know that I’ve ever come across such character-centric story telling in speculative fiction. Chambers is an expert in creating unique, individual, and dynamic characters that all take on a life of their own. Her characters grow, reflect, interact with hardships, and rub against each other, but never lose their unique voices. The journey each character is on is far more important than the plot of the story.

What I’ve also never encountered before is a book with no human protagonists. It’s been a long quibble of mine how much science fiction ends up being human-centric. The rest of this series still was, but in this book, every single character (bar the appearance of one human in one scene) is from an alien race. They are still fairly anthropomorphized, though Chambers has distinguished ways of thinking, anatomical details, and cultures so that they are quite believably alien.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 3/5
And yet there’s almost no plot. I knew going in this would be the case, because that’s Chambers’ trademark style. The hyper-focus on characters and their development essentially comes at the expense of plot. In the first book, the balance just about worked, and in the second, Chambers crossed a very tricky tightrope really well. Book three already was tenuous at best with how the characters’ developments were held together, but this one had almost nothing. The inciting even feels fitting, but insignificant, and the only other event of note is pure happenstance.

This meant that the flow of this particular novel was not as immediate as the other three. Despite my connection to all of the characters, the beauty of Chambers’ writing, and my love of the ideas and themes of this series, I didn’t feel compelled to pick the book up between chapters. This needed more tension and more external motivators.

Overall: 4/5
Very entertaining, super well written, a joy with regards to characters, and a deft exploration of diversity, acceptance, learning about difference, and choosing to set aside prejudices. And it’s mostly just really sweet. But I needed a little more to be happening. If books 1 or 2 in the series were up for the Hugo, I’d give it to them, but not this one.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

Hugo Nominee Review: Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir from the back of the book: “Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission – and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it. All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company. His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realises that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it’s up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery – and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species. And with the clock ticking down and the nearest human being light-years away, he has to do it all along. Or does he?”

World-building: 4/5
I knew what I was getting into with Andy Weir, having previously read The Martian, so the setting and the type of world-building was familiar. With his first novel, I almost struggled to call it science fiction as it was set so close to our time and was mostly plausible. This is definitely science fiction, not because it isn’t technically plausible, but just because it’s set a bit further out and Weir has taken a few liberties to simplify his storytelling.

The science is the cool bit. Weir really has a knack for making complex science and calculations accessible and from what I can tell and have read, it seems accurate. I liked that the ‘Hail Mary’ never felt like an SF spaceship but always remained something that we might recognize from our current space programs (even if more advanced) and the SF liberties Weir took were always scientifically plausible.

I have one major world-building issue, but it’s related to a character, so I’ll mention that there.

Characters: 4/5
Ryland Grace is a great narrator for the most part, because we get all of his second-guessing and in-the-moment reactions. It works particularly well to see not only his perspective but to follow his thoughts and reasoning as he solves the many complex issues surrounding him throughout the story.

Rocky, without giving too many spoilers, is my favorite. The interactions between Ryland and Rocky are pretty adorable and I like how Weir has characterized the little guy. They must both be linguistic geniuses though, otherwise I’m not sure how the communication sequence works.

Stratt is a problem, however. Her character makes sense from the perspective of needing someone to be in charge of a critical, world-important project that can pull all the strings. Temporarily setting aside the plausibility of that ever happening (Stratt acknowledges that humans don’t tend to work together when she discusses the food crisis), her approach is very dangerous. She seemingly realizes that her methods aren’t always good but justifies them because she’s ‘saving the world’. I get that through Ryland’s perspective, Weir is not entirely promoting an ‘ends justify the means’ approach to the world, but since it doesn’t really find a resolution, that’s in essence what the book ends up meaning. I think we’ve seen enough times in our history when someone decides that this approach is justifiable and the dangerous ramifications.

As to the world-building aspect, Stratt’s character doesn’t make sense. I get that it’s necessary for the story to get the mission off the ground in such a short time-frame, but it makes her character rather unrealistic—not her personality, but the fact that she has this almost absolute power to requisition trillions of dollars worth of materials, divert whole industries, get Russian and Chinese militaries to do whatever she wants, etc. That’s a bit of wand-waving from Weir and it’s because otherwise this story doesn’t work. That’s a bid heavy-handed for my taste.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 4/5
The story moves along at great speed most of the time. The opening is moving from one question to the next, each problem seamlessly leading to a whole host of others, and before we know it, we’re a third of the way into the book. In part, that’s due to Ryland’s amnesia so we discover things as he does, but also his narration makes it work well. The final third of the book was excellent from a tension perspective, though I felt the middle third lacked the tension of the beginning and end. I can see why it was necessary and I did enjoy that part of the book very much as well (because of Rocky) but it didn’t have quite the relentless pace or tension as the rest.

My major quibble has to do with the flashbacks. Weir chose to include flashbacks as his way of providing information about what went on before the moment that Ryland wakes up. That’s a great method of telling a story. However, these flashbacks are also Ryland regaining his memory, so they’re still in first person (good) and in each flashback we read, we gain more information about what happened previously, as does Ryland who can then use that in the present time-line. And yet, it’s far too neat. The mind doesn’t work like that—there are way too many crystal clear details in these flashbacks for them to be memories returning and they certainly wouldn’t return in chronological order like they did, almost always skipping over the mundane stuff and revealing crucial information at just the right time. It makes the whole story-telling structure feel very contrived. Weir is great on the hard sciences like biology, chemistry and physics, but squiffy on the psychology and neuroscience aspects.

Overall: 4/5
The near-plausibility of the scenario, the narrative voice, Rocky, and the pace are what make this story work. It’s an entertaining read, at times nerve-wracking, at times adorable. I enjoyed this despite what I felt were story-telling unsubtleties. I think Weir is very good at some parts of telling these types of stories but the writing often feels functional and so doesn’t really reveal itself as anything remarkable. In that sense, I find this less a work of speculative fiction, than a fun story set in the future. Worth the read, but probably not the Hugo.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

Hugo Nominee Review: Light From Uncommon Stars – Ryka Aoki

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki from the back of the book: “Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six. When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate. But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline. As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.”

World-building: 4.5/5
The eclectic mix of a transgender girl who just seeks acceptance and love, a space-traveling family looking for a new place to call home, and a powerful violin teacher who’s made a deal with a demon works far better than it at first glance might appear. I like books that fall between categories and genres and this one definitely does, merging the various elements, characters, and motivations quite well.

I felt that at times the boundaries where the supernatural elements came up against the interstellar ones didn’t quite mesh smoothly. Lan and Shizuka accept each other’s ‘secrets’ way too quickly, even considering they’re both fairly open-minded and accepting characters. A sequence towards the end that involved both the demon and a starship just didn’t quite sit right—the boundaries between soft SF and murky fantasy not quite well enough defined.

But I did really like that this was set primarily in the mundane, normal world, and that the supernatural/sf elements were an integrated part of the story but didn’t steal the show. The regular world, with its donut-eating ducks, violin music, fresh produce, and caring humans is the real highlight. Which is amazing for a fantasy/sf novel.

Characters: 5/5
The strength of this book was in the characters. It was highly readable, and each main character had a distinct arc, even while the similarities between them allowed for clear resonances. Katrina, Shizuka, and Lan (and Lucia to a lesser degree) are out of place, seeking for belonging and purpose, and trying to protect something important. While I don’t normally relate to angsty teenage protagonists, Katrina’s character, situation, experiences, and choices worked really well and I didn’t find her becoming annoying (which I often experience with similar protagonists). Lan isn’t quite alien enough for my taste, but maybe that’s because I’m used to reading weirder SF. My favorite character is Shizuka, because her internal struggle is primarily a moral one and so watching her wrestle with self-worth, past actions, and the bind she finds herself in, were quite rewarding.

Most remarkable was the characterization of the secondary characters, from Astrid who is just delightful, to Lan’s children. I really appreciate that in order for each character to find purpose, they had to think outside themselves and work for the good of those around them.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 4.5/5
The pace of this book was excellent. There was no drag, nothing extraneous, and despite the many details (particularly about food) it never got bogged down in them. Each chapter brought a new turn, an added complication, or heightened confrontation. I didn’t find the ending to be very climactic, but it was satisfying and fit the story as a whole.

What didn’t work quite as well for me is how each chapter was chopped into little chunks, with numerous scenes, sometimes from different character’s perspectives. By itself, that would be fine, but then each scene was split by numerous page-breaks, often making scenes and chapters feel a bit choppy. While it didn’t detract from the characters or the story, it felt a bit like poor planning rather than intentional meshing.

Overall: 4.5/5
This book was very sweet and endearing, while simultaneously dealing with some very horrid and disturbing topics (particularly around how Katrina is treated by some strangers, society, and online after she begins to become famous). I felt a few scenes early on were needlessly explicit; I don’t get squeamish when I can see the purpose of a scene, and while I see the importance, I think it ended up being more than necessary, considering the role it plays in Katrina’s character arc.

I’m also a bit baffled by Tor. This needed another pass by a senior editor, because there were a number of typos, missing words, grammatical issues, and even a short scene where a character shows up and speaks another’s lines erroneously. From a publisher the caliber of Tor, I’d expect better.

And yet, this is probably my favorite of the three I’ve read so far.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

Hugo Nominee Review: She Who Became the Sun – Shelley Parker-Chan

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan from the back of the book: “In a famine-stricken village, a seer shows two children their futures. For the boy, greatness. For the girl, nothingness. But China in 1345 is under harsh Mongol rule—and for the peasants, greatness only appears in stories. The Zhu family is mystified as to how their son, Zhu Chongba, will achieve such success. In contrast, an early death for a mere daughter is only to be expected. Yet when a bandit attack orphans the two children, it’s Zhu Chongba who dies. Desperate to survive, his sister steals his identity to enter a monastery. There, disguised as a male novice, Zhu learns she can be ruthless to avoid her fate. But when her sanctuary is destroyed, Zhu is cast back into the war-torn world. To change her ending, there’s only one thing she can do: claim her brother’s great destiny as her own.”

World-building: 5/5
The map in the front was crucial in helping maintain a sense of place, and Parker-Chan’s descriptions brought clear images to mind. I liked the subtle infusion of the fantastical, evidenced primarily in Zhu’s ability to see ghost and how both she and Ouyang have a ‘sense’ of their fate and how certain moments crystallize for them. In some ways, this felt similar to R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, though with the more subtle magical elements and less time spent journeying, the world felt richer.

I appreciated how well Parker-Chan was able to convey the clashing of cultures, especially since we get characters from both sides. This also plays out well in the political intrigue in both factions which helps to set this story within the confines of a larger history. The explanation at the beginning of the novel of the real-world events that make up the backdrop of this story allow for a feeling of grandness.

Characters: 5/5
Zhu makes for a compelling protagonist, especially since we get to know her as a young child. It’s fascinating to watch her journey, development, and how the moments and people she encounters alter the trajectory of her path. Ouyang is similarly interesting, though it took me a while longer to warm up to his perspective.

The strength of this book lies in the different portrayals and performances of masculinity throughout, with Zhu taking on her brother’s name and hiding her female body, Ouyang the eunuch, Esen who seems incapable of producing a son/heir, and Wang who chooses to eschew the masculine forms that his father would praise. Ma’s presence as the compassionate woman stands in parallel to all the rest of the characters, which allows Parker-Chan to so well explore the gender dynamics of her created world.

The respective relationships between Zhu/Ma and Ouyang/Esen are probably the highlight of this book. There is a subtle dance to their interchanges, and the tension between their respective desires and motivations adds the interpersonal tension that lifts this work above just another fantasy epic.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 4/5
While I see why it was necessary, the first chunk of chapters felt jumpy, a bit aimless, and were not as gripping. By starting out with Zhu as a young girl, we’re drawn into her story, but short of characterization, it does little for the rest of the story apart from establishing her poor, peasant roots. While her crucial decision to take her brother’s name happens during these initial chapters, the story doesn’t really feel like it has begun until she is admitted to the monastery.

Otherwise, the pace and structure worked really well. Once the other point of views are established, Parker-Chan is able to weave them well, showing the multiple perspectives while never getting bogged down in scenes (such as long journeys) that hold little significance. The ending was resolved enough to leave the reader feeling satisfied, but this is clearly set up to be the first in a series.

Overall: 4.5/5
I highly enjoyed this, will definitely be reading more as they are published, and can easily see why this was nominated for the Hugo. I’ve tried to read more Asian-inspired fantasy in recent years, and this is definitely near the top. It’s got a clearer structure than Neon Yang’s Tensorate series, more intricate characterization and subtle storytelling than R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy, and feels more thematically purposeful than what I’ve read of Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty (though I’ll admit I’ve only read book one). Would highly recommend.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace