One of the longstanding criticisms of the Hugo Awards is that the same names keep showing up on the shortlist every damn year. No name is necessarily permanent (though some have had tenures lasting 20 years or so, especially in the smaller, more obscure categories), but this is the sort of thing you'd expect for what is essentially a popularity contest. This year is no exception. Of the 6 nominees for Best Novel, 4 are written by an author who has already won the award and another that was also nominated last year. Mur Lafferty is the only author on the shortlist that hasn't had a book nominated before (though she has been nominated in ancillary categories and won the Campbell award a few years back, so not a completely new name). In all honesty, this immediately endears me to the book. Additionally, the book is quite enjoyable and *gasp* not part of a series, also big pluses.
Six Wakes tells the story of six clones who awake a few decades into their mission crewing the starship Dormire. They awake to chaos. Their previous bodies have been gruesomely murdered, the ship is off course, artifical gravity has malfunctioned, and the food printer is only able to make poison. All memory backups and logs have been deleted and the ship's AI is offline. No one has any memories of their journey so far, so we're basically left with a locked-room murder mystery.
There are some clear flaws in the story and worldbuilding here, but funnily enough, I found myself making excuses for them and giving a lot of slack while Lafferty eventually works out some of the issues. I often have a sorta reverse reaction (i.e. a bunch of nitpicks sinking an otherwise good story), so this was an interesting experience, and probably belies a deeper positive feeling about the story.
So this crew of six people are all criminals that have taken on the long and boring trek with the hopes of clearing their records. While this clearly raises the stakes and makes them all suspects, it also feels like a bit of a dumb cliche. This is the premise of a million dumber stories and SyFy movie schlock. Fortunately, Lafferty eventually posits a more plausible reason for these six specific people to be on this trip. Is it totally convincing? I was willing to go with it, but I could see it not working for a lot of folks.
The characters themselves are all reasonably well drawn and naturally, they all have something to hide. Sometimes these are important, sometimes not, which is a key component of the whole mystery genre, so this was well done.
The cloning technology is mature and seemingly ubiquitous, and Lafferty does a great job exploring the logical extensions and unexpected consequences of the technology. Some of the fictional laws surrounding the tech seem rather short-sighted or implausible, but since I was apparently being so charitable, I found it had the ring of political compromise (i.e. a process that often produces incredibly stupid laws). I won't spoil any of the surprises here, but it's definitely a good exploration of the idea (something a lot of the other nominees didn't particularly accomplish this year) and this, more than anything else, is what made me enjoy the book.
So it's a lot of fun and it tackles some interesting philosophical ideas with respect to cloning; flawed but highly enjoyable, I'm find it bubbling up towards the top half of this year's nominees. I don't quite think it will reach the top of my ballot, but it certainly has an advantage over several other works in that it's self-contained, interesting, and enjoyable.