Since I’m playing along with the 2022 Hugo Awards process and I’ve made good progress on the novels, I figured I’d split out the SF finalists in one post (look for another post covering the fantasy finalists coming soon).
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir has already been reviewed and remains at the top of my ballot. I’m not particularly sanguine about its chances, given the current Hugo voter’s obsession with social issues and character, as opposed to the science or ideas that drive Weir’s book. I suspect they’d see it as a bit of a throwback, but then, it did make the ballot in the first place, so who knows? I only have one book left, but I don’t see it budging this one from the top of my ranking.
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine – The sequel to the 2020 Hugo Best Novel, A Memory Called Empire, this one is essentially more of the same. Which is to say, it’s competent space opera fodder that I enjoyed quite a bit! Is it good enough to be the best SF of the year? That’s the rub.
One of my complaints about A Memory Called Empire was that while it hinted at an alien threat throughout the story, it mostly covered a predictable thread of court intrigue and political power struggle right up to its completely expected conclusion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and there’s something to be said for a well executed take on standard tropes.
This sequel shifts focus to that alien threat, and once again, it feels like Martine is playing with the standard playbook – this time for first contact stories. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that and it’s reasonably well executed, but Martine seems far more interested in exploring the galactic empire she’s set up, and all the baggage that goes along with imperialism and colonialism, especially as it relates to the relationship between our two main protagonists. Which is well drawn and I enjoy spending time with those characters, even if it feels like we’ve been down this road before. In general, this focus on character over action does muck with the pacing, and the more military SF aspects of the story get shorter shrift. There’s also a thread involving the emperor-to-be and imperial communications that feels a bit tacked on, though it is eventually tied back into the overall narrative well enough.
It’s ultimately a worthy sequel to the first novel, better in some ways, but ultimately there’s not much new here. It’s a totally cromulent experience for sure, but if you’ve read a bunch of first contact stories before, you won’t be particularly surprised, and if you have been following along with the Hugos for the past few years, similar social issues and character beats have been hit pretty hard by other nominees. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that and there’s something to be said about well executed versions of standard tropes, but I don’t know that this rises to the level of best SF of the year.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers – At this point, I’ve read all of the books in Chambers’ popular Wayfarers series and have come away with somewhat mixed impressions. As I summarized on Chambers’ most recent Hugo-nominated entry in the series:
I’ve generally enjoyed the books in this series, a space opera that focuses on nice people, rather than grim despair or dystopia (as a lot of modern takes go). The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a character-driven, episodic narrative about the crew of a hyperspace tunneling ship that had seen better days. Most of the events covered in the book were well done but underwhelming, though it ended on a relatively strong note and the characters were enjoyable. The next book, A Closed and Common Orbit, focused much closer on two of the characters from the first book, and was significantly better for it. Like the first book, the stakes and tension weren’t particularly high, but the two characters at the heart of the story were endearing and interesting and once again, the ending was strong.
Alas, the third entry in the series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, was my least favorite so far. A set of day-in-the-life character sketches almost completely devoid of tension or drama, it really didn’t work for me at all. At first glance, this most recent entry in the series has a similar tone.
The story takes place at the Five-Hop One-Stop, a sort of truck-stop in space, as three visitors and the proprietor get stuck together due to a freak accident in orbit around them that prevents any traffic from coming or going. All the characters are from different alien races, and none are human. As you might guess from Chambers’ generally positive attitude and optimistic vibes, this isn’t going to be a pressure-cooker situation where inter-species conflict threatens to explode, but there’s actually lots of interesting exploration going on here. Sure, most of it just comes down to various characters talking and attempting to understand one another’s cultures and perspectives, or even other races not present in the book, but it works a lot better than the previous book. Naturally these conversations hit on a lot of topics of interest to human readers, even if the characters aren’t human, and given the general politics of the Hugos the past few years, I think you know what you’re in for – though it’s nowhere near as ham-fisted or preachy as some other nominees have a tendency to be…
This lends itself to some mild tension and conflict, though it never really boils over into anything even remotely threatening. Perhaps the most memorable discussion involves us humans and our weird obsession with cheese and how it’s made, and how disgusting it is to the aliens, which is very funny. There’s one genuine argument between two of the characters, but that’s understandable enough, even to the characters themselves. One character has a bit of separation anxiety with their sibling stuck in orbit, but that’s not played up too hard. And there’s an incident involving a child in danger, but we all know it will work out fine in the end, and of course it does. I guess that’s a spoiler, but not really.
All in all, it’s another enjoyable entry into an enjoyable series, with likable characters and a nice positive attitude. I can see why it’s popular, especially with Hugo voters, and while I enjoyed it well enough, I don’t think it rises to the level of best SF of the year. Indeed, I’d put it about on par with A Desolation Called Peace with a similar notion of being a generally well executed version of something we’ve seen before. If Chambers is ever able to harness her storytelling powers to generate something more compelling, and populate it with these likable characters she’s so good at creating, that would be a true winner. These slice-of-life sketches are all well and good, but they don’t tend to stay with me…
So that covers the 2022 Hugo Awards SF finalists. Stay tuned for a look at the fantasy-oriented finalists. I only have one book left to go there, but it may be a few weeks. In the meantime, maybe I’ll give the Short Stories a whirl…