Sunday, July 7, 2013

Reading Notes: The Stars Do Not Lie

This post is part of my commitment to read and review as many nominated works in the Hugo Awards (Science Fiction Awards) as possible before the prize announcements in early September.   Today I am looking at the last of the five nominated novellas: Jay Lake's The Stars Do Not Lie.

The first thing to be said about this novella, for me, is a warning: if steampunk isn't your thing, I don't think you'll like this. It's not a classic steampunk formulation, although it does have the obligatory airships; this novella isn't set (necessarily) on earth and isn't tied to any real historical period. However, the whole - for want of a better word - mouthfeel of the text is very steampunkish. Technology and repression, bizarrities and futurism, the red-gold antiquarianism of it; it's all very Alan Campbell to me.

I am neither a booster nor a hater when it comes to steampunk. I have loved some notable works in the genre (Perdido Street Station, The Difference Engine, and recently, Jean-Christophe Valtat's Aurorarama) but I have also disliked or been bored by quite a few others. For me, it's a chancy genre - do it well and it's awesome, but stuff it up and the fall is very far.

I've not read anything else by Lake, although my friend Professor Google tells me he is prolific (I may have some catching up to do!) One thing this novella immediately makes clear, though, is that he is a practised and clever practitioner of steampunk. This story is smooth as glass in the way it integrates technology and machinery into the plot, and the aesthetic it achieves. I found Lake's style engrossing and mellifluous, which made the story enjoyable to read.

The plot of this novella hinges on a theme that could fairly be described as An Oldie But a Goodie in speculative fiction - the conflict between science and religion. The discovery by a scientist of what appears to be an orbital spaceship, and the implications he draws for the belief system of the world, leads to the kind of frantic religious flailing that would have been quite familiar to, say, Galileo. Indeed, although Lake makes up a religion (based around worship of the Increate) for his story, it is an extremely thinly veiled fictionalisation of the Renaissance Roman Catholic church. So fine is the distinction that when I mentally substituted clerical ranks from the Catholic church for the names in Lake's story, it made even better sense.

The story is well executed, but I thought ultimately non compelling. I have read many, many other versions of this theme in speculative fiction, a lot of them more engagingly rendered than this one. I also thought the novella came to a very vague and unsatisfying ending - it almost felt like it stopped halfway, which is a risk of course with novella but one that the best works avoid.

All in all, it's worth a look if you like steampunk, but to me it's not the category winner.

So now I have read all five novellas, which one should win, in my very irrelevant opinion?

I'd give it to either On a Red Station, Drifting or The Emperor's New Soul. Both of them are excellent works that show brilliantly the virtues of the novella form rather than its shortcomings. Both are original, engaging, moving and vivid. If I had to pick one, I'd go with On a Red Station by a nose, only because I love the world creation so much in that story. But the Sanderson would be a good winner too.

There is a free copy of The Stars Do Not Lie available for download at


So - that's a wrap for the novellas. Four novels to go, plus all the novelettes! Next up will be the novelettes as a set - all 5 if I can get hold of the last one, or the 4 I have found if the elusive "Rat-Catcher" remains unobtainable.

Then on to the novels. I'm almost finished 2312, so it'll be next - hopefully next week sometime. I may not do a full review of Throne of the Crescent Moon because I'm not enjoying it enough to finish it, and I think reviewing a book you haven't finished is a bit dubious. I'm halfway through Blackout, which I will review, but haven't found either an ebook to buy or a library copy to loan of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance yet.

Other Hugo reviews can be found here:
Short stories (all)
On a Red Station, Drifting (novella)
After the Fall, During the Fall, Before the Fall (novella)
The Emperor's New Soul (novella)
Redshirts: A Novel and Three Codas (novel)  

San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats (novella)


  1. I got Captain Vorpatril's Alliance from Amazon for my Kindle. Baen is Bujold's publisher so you might be able to access it from their website (

    I'm not sure what you'll think of it. I'm sort of wondering if she was nominated for it almost in recognition of the entire series as I don't think it's the strongest one (although it's a fun romp with the main protagonist being one of the minor-ish characters from the series).

    My favourites in the series are a sort of trilogy (although I'm not sure others would see them as such) of 'Memory', 'Komar' and 'A Civil Campaign'. The last in that group of three is fantastic with nods to Jane Austen, Dorothy Sayers and Georgette Heyer. It contains the best love letter that ever there was but it all makes no sense unless you've read the previous ones.

  2. Also, The Stars Do Not Lie sounds like it might be interesting (*adds to list of things to read*)