Thursday, September 08, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Semifinal :: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz vs. The Just City by Jo Walton

Our second semifinal match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz going against The Just City by Jo Walton. In the semifinal round, the books are judged after reading 100 pages. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

Flex:  Angry Robot, March 2015, 423 pages, cover art by Stephen Meyer-Rassow. Flex is the first book in the 'Mancer trilogy. The second book, The Flux, appeared last October, and the third book, Fix, is just out this month. Steinmetz was a Nebula Award nominee for his novelette "Sauerkraut Station."

Flex overpowered Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson in the first round, then Flex edged by Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson in the second round to reach here, the semifinals.

In Flex, it seems the key to doing magic is to be sufficiently obsessive about something. Our protagonist Paul Tsabo is that weird guy in the office who actually enjoys doing paperwork. In the first 50 pages of Flex, Paul discovered that he could do bureaucromancy, magic performed with paper. Unfortunately, when a 'mancer does magic, there is always a dangerous backlash called "the Flux." So Paul's first experiments with bureaucromancy led to a fire that severely injured his six-year-old daughter. The insurance company Paul works for has declined coverage for her reconstructive surgery, because they can tell the injuries resulted from magic, which is excluded. Paul realizes he will need to use magic to help his daughter obtain the treatment she needs. So in the second 50 pages, he tracks down another 'mancer operating illegally, in hopes that she can help him learn how to do magic while deflecting the Flux. The other 'mancer is Valentine, who performs magic by compulsively playing video games. She has been using her magic to destructive ends, but now seems suspiciously willing to help Paul.

The Just City:   Tor, January 2015, 364 pages, cover art by Raphael. Jo Walton won a Hugo and Nebula for her novel Among Others, and has also won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and a Tiptree Award. The Just City is the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings was published in June 2015. The third book, Necessity, is just out.

The Just City overpowered Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith in the first round, then The Just City got by Letters to Zell by Camille Griep in the second round to reach here, the semifinals.

In the opening 50 pages of The Just City, the goddess Pallas Athene decided to create a city modeled on Plato's Republic, apparently just to see if it could be done. A group of 300 scholars were designated to run the place, including Maia, a young woman who felt limited by her options in 19th Century England and prayed to Athene for a way out. Maia's viewpoint chapters take place as the city is first founded. Unfortunately, in the second 50 pages, Maia discovers that applying platonic ideals is easier said than done, a point made very clear when one of the other scholars rapes her. The other chapters take place later on, from the viewpoints of Simmea, a young woman rescued from slavery, and a dynamic young man named Pytheas. Simmea and Pytheas are among the 10,000 young people brought in by Maia and the other leaders to be educated Plato-fashion. Simmea befriends Pytheas, unaware that he is actually an incarnation of the god Apollo.

The Battle:  We have an urban fantasy and a mythical historical fantasy battling it out to make it into the finals. As in the previous semifinal, it's a difficult contest to call, because both books are nicely written and display obvious strengths.

Flex begins with a sympathetic protagonist, wracked with concerns about his daughter, concerns that understandably make him feel compelled to step outside the bounds of the law. (Although why he initially started using magic is less understandable, since he knew very well the nature of the Flux.) Steinmetz set himself a fun writing challenge in the 'Mancer series by creating a form of magic based on bureaucracy and a central conflict that turns on obtaining insurance coverage. These are not the usual tools of genre fantasy, but Steinmetz makes them work quite nicely.

The Just City offers two very sympathetic young female protagonists and a third protagonist, the god Apollo, who seems to mean well but is liable to mess things up for those around him, as gods do. The concept of setting up a city based on Plato's Republic is an interesting philosophical challenge, but was not necessarily making for a compelling storyline through the opening 50 pages. But the second 50 pages successfully tied the larger issues about how to create and run the city with the personal aspects of the story for Maia and Simmea.

So how to choose which of two well-written, original, interesting novels to keep reading? I suspect if these books had met in the second round after only 50 pages (which they didn't, because I was especially looking forward to both of them and so designated them as seeds in the bracket), Flex would have won, because The Just City was a bit slow to get going. But after 100 pages, I feel fully engaged in both stories.

The deciding factor in this battle: ambition. The characters in The Just City are engaged in a great, ambitious project, the outcome of which I am very interested to see. While the protagonist of Flex is just trying to dig his way out of a hole, which he himself foolishly dug. It's okay to tell a story of a guy trying to redeem a dumb mistake, but to me it's a bit less compelling than the characters' goals in The Just City. Similarly, I admire Jo Walton's ambition in trying to tell a utopian story in The Just City, at a time when the concept of utopia is generally regarded as passé. Another urban fantasy series isn't quite as distinctive in the present market, although I give Ferrett Steinmetz credit for putting some interesting twists on the subgenre in Flex.

I also respect Walton having the nerve to include a disturbing scene where one of her two primary protagonists is raped. The scene is key to her development while simultaneously demonstrating the potential flaws in creating a utopia—how do you deal with a member of the society who genuinely does not understand why what he's doing is wrong? Rape scenes are overused in media SF/F, but this book illustrates why it's wrong-headed to tell authors in the written genre never to write such a scene.

The Just City is broad concept fantasy, something Samuel Delany or Joanna Russ might have written during the New Wave, the kind of thing we don't see often enough any longer. I want to know where Jo Walton is going with the concept. While I'm enjoying Flex very much, The Just City is the novel I can't bring myself to put down.

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City advances to the championship round to face The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu.

To see the whole bracket, click here.