Whitney Speculative Finalists 2012

As it happened, I wound up sneaking one more category in under the deadline. Here’s my (somewhat belated) writeup.

City of the Saints, by D. J. Butler. Self-published. Also released as 4 ebooks, subtitled Liahona, Deseret, Timpanogos, and Teancum.  

Alternate history Mormon steampunk. It’s kind of inevitable, you know? With espionage, politics, and frontier-style assassinations thrown into the mix. And the Deseret alphabet! With an all-star cast of Gentile and Mormon legends such as Samuel Clemens, Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Burton, John D. Lee, Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, Captain Dan Jones, and the inevitable Orrin Porter Rockwell. Not to mention a version of Eliza R. Snow that you won’t believe, even after you’ve seen her in action. And a bevy of Brigham Young’s gun-toting daughters in nightgowns, showing up at the last minute to save the day.

A certain amount of bombast seems to naturally accompany steampunk, and you get that here. “Burton laughed again at the pusillanimity of the other man. “˜I’ll put them in the one place where Clemens and his goon won’t be able to find them in the morning!’ he cried over his shoulder.” (p. 6). I admit that I’d dearly love to see this story in graphic novel format; like most steampunk, it seems made for the medium.

It’s a bit difficult keeping track of all the characters: all the more so, in some ways, since so many of them have real-life historical namesakes. Which, of course, is part of the fun. It’s also not always easy to keep track of what’s going on, and only partly because of the large cast of characters. And I have to admit that for my tastes, the ongoing fight scenes get rather tedious toward the end of the book. One more good editorial pass might have helped in this regard — though the book is well proofed, especially for a self-published novel.

One caution: Some of the characters we’re used to considering good guys aren’t necessarily, in this story. That doesn’t bother me; any good story needs villains, and the early history of the Church has enough examples of leaders going rotten that I wasn’t bothered by a few new inventions along that line. Knowing what I do about Mormon audiences, though, I suspect some readers might be offended by this: mostly the type who wouldn’t enjoy a story like this anyway, at a guess.

Overall, I have to say that if this description makes you think that you might like this story, you probably will.

Flight from Blithmore, by Jacob Gowans. The Storyteller’s Tale, volume 1. Self-published.  

This is a historical romance set in an imaginary country, which I suppose is the reason why this wound up in the speculative fiction category. It’s unfortunate that this was the case, because I think a fairer comparison of this novel would be to other historical novels. I also think that such a comparison would make the weaknesses of this novel in the areas of style, characterization, story logic, and historical/worldbuilding research more evident.

Some writers of fiction set in pre-modern times seem to view this as an excuse to use an outdated writing style. Sometimes this comes off well, as in this year’s City of the Saints and last year’s A Night of Blacker Darkness. More often, it comes across as clumsy. Sadly, that’s the case this time. A good editor would have put passages like the following on a diet, as an old friend from my college writing group used to put it: “They listened to Henry tell Isabelle over and over again that he would not let her die. These statements were both pleas and commands that rose in urgency until Henry’s anguish was so great that he overwhelmed the others with his tone of voice.” (p. 169). A good editor — or a more stringent critique group — might also have forced the writing to a higher level of historical accuracy, preventing gaffes such as the description of a silversmith’s shop as a place where the metal is purified and a town’s main street as being lined with houses rather than shops and commerce.

I point this out partly because I think some people are more inclined to excuse problems such as these in writing that takes place in an invented setting. But if anything, accuracy in the small details (both stylistic and background) is more important for speculative fiction. Because the setting is an invented one, you need to draw in the reader with as much realism and smoothness of craft as you can. This was something Tolkien understood very well, and discusses in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Beginning writers who have fallen in love with the atmosphere of a particular genre often are blind to the need to do more than conjure that atmosphere, since this is the main thing they’re consciously aware of as readers. But when you’re the craftsman, you have to attend to the hidden seams as well. In order to improve, a writer must learn to flog himself to trim ruthlessly, look at (and listen to) his or her sentences with a cold and critical eye/ear, and check the picky details.

All of which can be balanced somewhat by truly interesting speculative worldbuilding. But in Flight from Blithmore, I don’t find this. For the most part, nothing prevents this story from happening in a particular historical setting, except for the fact that it didn’t. Whether as fantasy or as historical fiction, the story fails to create its setting with the vividness and realistic detail that readers have a right to expect.

It’s a shame, because in some ways, this story has a lot of potential. The plot is exciting, the main characters sympathetic, and the author does a good job of raising and maintaining suspense. There’s also some good character development in the later part of the story, as the realities of grating personalities and longtime pursuit take their toll. A lot could have been done with this. As things are, however, that potential is largely undeveloped. Readers who look for high quality are unlikely to stick with the story long enough to appreciate its positive elements — nor should they be expected to. The story as it currently exists is both implausible and poorly written: undeserving a place on the Whitney ballot.

Earthbound, by Theresa Sneed. Published by Walnut Springs Press.  

It’s sad to read a book set in the Pre-Existence that makes me long for the deft style and complex characterization of Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon. It’s even sadder for a book like that to be a 2012 Whitney finalist.

It’s my sense that you have to really like the author’s imaginative re-creations of the Pre-Existence in order to enjoy this story, which has many of the elements of a poorly written YA romance. A lot of thought has clearly gone into some of these speculative elements. For example, there are the “classes” on mortality, where spirits view simulations to show them about aging and injuries. Unfortunately, for the most part I found these speculative elements clumsy and without insight.

Overall, I found little to recommend or enjoy in this book, which combines speculation that is more cute than insightful with cliched characterization and almost unforgivably poor prose.

The Hollow City, by Dan Wells. Published by Tor Books.

There’s something remarkably scary about being inside the head of a crazy person, for me at least. Maybe that’s why it comes as something of a relief to discover, partway through this story, that there’s more a real enemy in this story, apart from the main character Michael’s hallucinations.

Except I’m not sure. Is there? I’m embarrassed to admit that by the end of this story, I just don’t know.

This is a well written book, as one would expect from Dan Wells. Clean writing, solid plotting, impeccable characterization — and even an ultimate theme of love and mutual tolerance. But it’s not a book I’d recommend giving to anyone who’s overly troubled by reading about mental illness. Which maybe includes me.

The Penitent, by C. David Belt. Published by Parables Press. Volume II of The Children of Lilith.  

So what would it be like to be a Mormon vampire? That is to say, a more or less traditional vampire — you know, the blood-draining, sun-shunning, immortal-unless-killed kind — who has converted to Mormonism?

The style is jarring, with bits of Scots dialect (“dinnae,” “ach,” and the like) thrown into first-person narration that my brain refuses to interpret as anything but mainstream American English. It feels inconsistent. Since I’m the sort of reader who mentally “hears” the words I read, I found this vastly distracting. I also find the capitalization of terms with specific vampiric meaning (“Sleep,” “Persuasion”) distracting.

There are some nice bits. I found it amusing when, having put a victim into thrall, three vampires were nearly stymied in giving him orders by their ignorance of Spanish. And a vampire teaching European history in the Joseph F. Smith building as a visiting professor at BYU! Not to mention the climactic sword fight between two flying vampires over Temple Square. Fun stuff.

This story has two fundamental elements: the plot — a series of unlikely but nonetheless exciting events more or less coherently strung together — and explicitly Mormon doctrine/sermonizing, in which repentance, the gospel, false prophets versus true, and parallels to the conversion of King Lamoni figure prominently. Parts of it are kind of fun, if you’re a Mormon. Indeed, this is one of those stories that I can only imagine Mormons liking. Unfortunately, the storyteller’s skills aren’t strong enough to carry the story on its own. You have to be willing to forgive some frankly amateurish writing, characterization, and plotting, presumably out of enjoyment of the sheer Mormon context. But part of the point of the Whitneys (in my view) is that stories by Mormon writers, even those dealing with Mormon content, shouldn’t need to have excuses made for them.

Could this tale have been fixed, with more experience, better attention to craft, a more rigorous critique group, and stricter editing? I don’t know. Part of the off-and-on charm of this novel is its sheer campiness. Additional polish might have resulted in a story that was smoother but also thoroughly uninteresting. So I’m kind of conflicted on this one. I’m glad it exists, and I can easily think of members of my ward who might enjoy it — the type of people who wouldn’t care for the sf&f I usually read. And I admit that I find myself wanting to know what happens in the next book (title not given), which presumably will complete the set. But I really, really don’t think it should stand as a representative of the best that Mormon writers can produce in speculative fiction.

General Comments and Observations

  • Three of the novels (City of the Saints, Earthbound, and The Penitent) are explicitly Mormon in focus and content. Of these, City of the Saints could be read by anyone with an enjoyment of rollicking steampunk historical (Mormon or not). The other two I can imagine being read with interest only by believing Mormons. Earthbound and The Penitent were published by relatively small Mormon presses; City of the Saints and Flight from Blithmore were self-published; and The Hollow City was published by a national sf&f publisher.
  • Earthbound and The Penitent are each the second book in a series of three (I think). Flight from Blithmore is the first book in a projected series (number of volumes unknown). The other two books seem to be stand-alones.
  • The Penitent and The Hollow City are first person point of view. The others are third person point of view, with City of the Saints and Flight from Blithmore employing multiple points of view.
  • There’s a strong romance element in Earthbound and Flight from Blithmore, to the point where it represents one of the major plot threads. The other three books also feature romance elements to some extent, though they are important more as character motivations than plot elements.

General Assessment

Comparing this year’s speculative fiction Whitney finalists versus last year’s, the differences could hardly be greater. Last year, we had four novels from well-established professional sf&f writers with a national reputation, three of them from a national press, and none with any Mormon content — plus one kind of oddball theological commentary in narrative form from a small Mormon press. This year, we two self-published novels, two novels from small Mormon presses, three novels with explicit Mormon content (making this the most “Mormon” of the categories this year, rivaled I think only by historical fiction) — and only one novel from a mainstream sf&f writer or publisher.

Most notably, none of these novels is really what I’d call mainstream science fiction or fantasy. Closest are The Hollow City, which is a suspense/horror novel with sf&f elements, and City of the Saints, which as I mentioned earlier is steampunk historical fiction. The others are frankly oddball stories which could never have been picked up by large mainstream publishers.

Unfortunately, there’s a reason for this. Despite the charms that the other stories will undoubtedly have for their own own specific audiences, none of them represents a high quality of professional writing and publishing. None (speaking now of Flight from Blithmore, Earthbound, and The Penitent) deserves a Whitney Award.

Which frankly makes me wonder what this year’s committee were thinking. Were there no novels published this year by Orson Scott Card, David Farland, Tracy Hickman, or Brandon Sanderson (to name only a few) that might have been in contention? (I counted 10 novels authored or coauthored by these writers in 2012 at Marny Parkin’s Bibliography of Mormon Speculative Fiction.) Or were the judges more enamored by novelty and Mormon content than quality of writing/storytelling? Or did more standard sf&f works simply not get the minimum needed number of nominations? Put bluntly: there’s something needing adjustment in the Whitney process if it can produce this slate of finalists.

7 thoughts on “Whitney Speculative Finalists 2012”

  1. Amen and amen! I agree with assessment of the category–after finishing the books I thought “really, this is the best we’ve got?” I had a very hard time finishing both Earthbound and The Penitent. Earthbound felt strongly like a Twilight ripoff, right down to the ball game. Plus the protagonist was just so flighty and her motives were incomprehensible. The narration in The Penitent drove me a little batty too–I had the hardest time parsing it and couldn’t understand why a narrator who has lived in the US for 100 years wouldn’t have picked up a bit of an American accent. I couldn’t help comparing it to Justin Cronin’s books (The Passage and The Twelve), which aren’t an exact match but include some parallels, but are much better written without any campiness. It’s hard to write a story about vampires without campiness, and it’s even worse when you aren’t trying to be campy but it happens anyway,

  2. A very strange list. I had not heard much about the three poorer books you had mentioned, and I was surprised to see them in there. I was hoping maybe they were diamonds in the rough, but that appears not to be so. Other possibilities they could have done: Steven Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell, but it may have been disqualified for being too short, and first being self-published a couple of years ago. Brandon Sanderson’s Legion was probably too short as a novella, but his novel The Emperor’s Soul was 175 pages, it should have been considered. Luisa Perkins’ Dispirited could have been in there, as well as Orson Scott Card’s Shadows in Flight and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter Legion. Hey, I am all for awarding new, less established authors, but the quality needs to be there.

  3. “It’s sad to read a book set in the Pre-Existence that makes me long for the deft style and complex characterization of Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon.”

    Ouch. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Anderson’s style in Added Upon described as “deft” or his characterization as “complex.” That says a lot against Earthbound.

    I tried nominating A Short Stay in Hell, but was told that it was too short to make the cut.

  4. Scott:

    I think I remember you asking once if there was any Mormon steampunk. Have you had a chance to read City of the Saints, and if so, what do you think of it?

  5. Jonathan: I started “Liahona,” but I didn’t make it very far before I got sidetracked. The concept really intrigues me, so I intend to finish it. I do remember finding its “bombastic” style a bit much.

    The presence of Poe also put me off–not because its woefully anachronistic to have him around in the 1850s (I get that it’s fantasy and steampunk, so anachronisms don’t bother me), but because bringing Poe back has been done so many times before. Why does the book need Poe? I ask. Why not bring in a five-year old Oscar Wilde?

  6. Scott,

    If you found the first part bombastic, it’s highly possible that you’ll find the later part even more over-the-top. On the other hand, there’s a lot of fun stuff, and Poe’s presence gets explained (more or less).

    I’ll be interested to know your opinion once you’re done. I’m only a sometime consumer of steampunk myself, but enough to enjoy City of the Saints.

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