The Results of the 2022 Hugo Awards were announced last night, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I jumped back on the participation bandwagon this year, though I didn’t really end up reading much beyond the novels (which, in my mind, were something of a mixed bag). In any case, congratulations are due to all the winners! For those who want to really nerd out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting stats for the 2022 Hugo Awards are also available (.pdf).
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine takes home the rocket, the second book in the series and the second Hugo win. Good for Arkady Martine, and I enjoyed this novel just fine (it was third in my ranking), but book series are difficult when it comes to awards. All things being equal, I tend to prefer standalone works (or maybe works that are starting a series, though I guess some series are comprised of basically standalone entries that are only loosely affiliated, like Becky Chambers Wayfarer’s books).
Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki is the runner up, which actually fits my ranking, but Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, came in dead last (it was my #1). More indication that I’m not exactly in lockstep with the rest of the Hugo voter community… Then again, it did reasonably well in the first pass of voting (#3), so there is that.
As mentioned above, I didn’t read much of this year’s short fiction (certainly not enough to vote), so I don’t have much to say here, other than that we do see a lot of familiar names. Typical for a populist award like the Hugo, but given that my tastes don’t run particularly close to other Hugo voters’, I think I’m entering a bit of a fallow period when it comes to participation.
Wayward Children, by Seanan McGuire wins best series, which is interesting because I feel like Seanan McGuire is the most nominated author over the last 15 years or so, but this is only her second fiction win. Congratulations! I have not read anything from this series, but I’ve always enjoyed McGuire’s work. Still, the thought of being able to read enough of each series nominated in order to make an informed vote is daunting, which has always been my biggest complaint about this category…
Best Dramatic Presentation
Often a strange category, but this year the answer was pretty obvious and the voting went pretty much as expected: Dune takes home the rocket, as it should. Naturally, the two finalists that are the most off the beaten path, The Green Knight and Space Sweepers, come in at the bottom of the voting. I suppose it’s reward enough that they got nominated at all. Anywho, pour one out for Werewolves Within, I’m Your Man, Finch, and Malignant, amongst others not nominated (even in the longlist of nominees, only I’m Your Man had any traction, and it was pretty low on that list).
Other Thoughts on the 2022 Hugo Awards
Cora Buhlert takes home the award for Best Fan Writer, which was nice (she was #1 on my ballot), and there’s a few other winners that I was pleased to see (Naomi Novik won the Lodestar YA award, and I’ve enjoyed several of her novels, so it’s nice to see some recognition for her). Congrats again to all the winners. Given the nature of the awards, I have access to nominate next year, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I will not want to participate much next year. As usual, I’ll probably keep an eye on things, but as mentioned above, I feel like my preferred style is not in fashion much these days, but I guess we’ll see what the future brings.
The voting deadline for the 2022 Hugo Awards is this week, so this is about as final as my Ballot will get. The categories I’m voting in are a bit on the slim side this year, but you only have time and motivation to do so much. Let’s take a gander:
Everything after #2 could shift around a bit depending on my mood, and a part of me thought about throwing a “No Award” at #3 and leaving it at that, but that’s unfair. These are all solid books, even if some are not especially my cup of tea. I have no idea what to expect when it comes to the winner. Project Hail Mary seems to be getting a lot of criticism because there’s too much science and math (in Science Fiction? No way!) and not enough character, but it’s always hard to tell how representative such sentiments are…
Harder to complain about voters’ tendency to favor bland blockbusters over anything artistic or weird when you’ve got The Green Knight as a finalist. Even Wandavision takes some pretty bold chances (even if the ending rubs me the wrong way). Still, pour one out for Werewolves Within, I’m Your Man, Finch, and Malignant, amongst others.
I took a look at some short fiction categories, but didn’t get anywhere close to having read enough to actually vote.
I might catch up with the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form episodes I haven’t seen yet (but I doubt any would surpass For All Mankind: The Grey.
I might also catch up with some of the fan awards (Fan Writer and Fanzine both have folks I already follow, so might as well make it official).
And that about covers the 2022 Hugo Awards Final Ballot… stay tuned in a few weeks for the results!
I’ve been playing along with the 2022 Hugo Awards and it’s time to take a look at the Fantasy novel finalists (the ballot is split evenly between fantasy and science fiction, and we’ve already covered the SF novel finalists in another post). For the record, I do tend to lean more towards science fiction than fantasy, so you’ll need to take what follows with the appropriate boulder of salt.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark – Set in an alternate Cairo in 1912, this novel tells the story of Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, as she investigates the murder of an entire secret brotherhood dedicated to a famous magician.
As a genre, fantasy has been focusing more and more on stories that eschew Tolkein’s vaguely medieval, Western European worldbuilding. There’s still tons of elves and orcs and wizards and whatnot out there, but this year’s Hugo nominees tend towards more diverse settings and magics. P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Cairo is an interesting place, but the format of the novel remains familiar. It’s a police procedural, complete with a fantastical mystery, some political intrigue, even a heroine who insists that she works alone forced to partner up with an enthusiastic rookie cop.
At its best, this novel sets up situations that are resolved with a duel of wits, as when Fatma makes deals with a djinn (who are famously tricky in their literal, punishingly ironic interpretations of requests). At its worst, you get a climactic battle with a Wild Wild West-style mechanical djinn. Spoilers, I guess, but while you probably won’t see that particular tidbit coming, the Scooby Doo-esque villain reveal was the least surprising thing in the book. In between, we’re left with a series of scattershot tangents and various character bits that don’t entirely land.
It doesn’t help that the mystery at the core of this novel isn’t particularly well done. Fatma is great at dealing with djinn, but she doesn’t seem to be much of an investigator. When the story awkwardly turns towards a more international intrigue angle, Fatma is even less impressive (this turn feels much more like an excuse for Clark to delve into the perils of colonialism, a favorite topic of the Hugos over the last decade, and boy do the British take a pounding here). As usual with this sort of thing, Clark tries to head off this complaint by explicitly calling it out in the story: when someone tells Fatma something she should have discovered herself, she thinks “what kind of investigator was this unaware of what was going on right in front of her eyes.” Indeed! Unfortunately, self-awareness of incompetence doesn’t make up for that incompetence (this is a particular pet peeve of mine; clearly others are fine with it.)
Another example: throughout the story, Fatma runs into an acolyte to one of the old Egyptian gods. Every time she sees him, she’s struck by his odd appearance, and it seems like he’s actually transforming into the god he worships. You’d think that an agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, living in a world with djinn, goblins, ghouls, and all manner of magical objects would at least consider the possibilities, but she simply writes it off as a crazy man disfiguring himself (spoiler alert: he’s not.)
It’s an interesting setting, but all too often, despite the ample cultural vocabulary and distinct locations, it’s only used as window dressing for a derivative story. That’s not inherently a bad thing, and I’m sympathetic to a familiar trope if it’s executed well. This isn’t a terrible novel, and there are times when it captures that X-Files-style procedural transported to a historical Cairo vibe that the premise calls to mind (a type of story that scratches an persistent itch for me), but there’s nothing here that makes me think this is the best genre novel of the year.
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan – In 1345 China, the starving peasant Zhu family is hanging by a thread. When a bandit attack orphans the two children, and the son quickly succumbs to grief and starvation, this leaves the daughter alone to fight for survival. She hatches a plan to use her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, she must hide her true identity as she learns what the monastery teaches. Once the monastery is destroyed, she joins the rebellion against Mongol rule, eventually becoming a general destined for greatness.
This is basically a fictionalized account of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. The key difference here, of course, is that he was not a woman in disguise. The premise of a woman taking on a man’s role is a classic trope, and while this obviously calls to mind Mulan, She Who Became the Sun is obviously a much more serious take on the idea.
The gender swap is clearly the driving force behind the story, and the implications are many. For instance, when Zhu joins the monastery, she must be careful to avoid feminine-gendered tasks:
Zhu felt a sickening lurch, as of the world reorienting itself. She’d assumed that everyone could braid, because to her it was as natural as breathing. It was something she’d done her whole life. But it was a female skill. In a flash of insight so painful she knew it must be true, she realized: she couldn’t do anything Chongba wouldn’t have done.
Later, as she rises through the ranks in the rebellion, she leverages these gendered roles to win battles in unexpected ways. The character of Zhu is well established and explored throughout the novel. Later, though, a secondary protagonist appears. The Mongol general Ouyang was the last surviving son of a Chinese family sentenced to death by the Mongols. To avoid death, Ouyang accepted castration and servitude to the Mongols, eventually rising through the ranks, in part thanks to his relationship with the prince’s heir, Esen. Unfortunately, Ouyang’s story feels a bit awkward and extraneous, especially as it gets encumbered by the court intrigue between Esen and his brother Wang. Still, the gendered nature of Ouyang, frequently described as having a feminine appearance, is a sorta mirror of Zhu’s experience. I can see why this secondary story exists, but it muddles the overall narrative a bit and impacts pacing as well.
The story is punctuated with various battles and political scheming that befits your typical epic fantasy, and some of these are well done, but it’s clear the focus here is on characterization and in particular, the sexuality and gender of our characters and how they subvert or queer gender for their own purposes. Another aspect of this story that I don’t see people talking about is how one’s expectations and seeking out of greatness and power can hollow out the soul. Zhu frequently laments that her actions have crossed a line that she will have to pay for dearly in the afterlife, and these actions get more and more troubling as the story goes on. While successful on these character building fronts, it’s another tick against the momentum of the story.
I can see why this novel is popular with Hugo voters, who have an obsession with gender and sexuality, but the biggest complaint I have here is that this is barely a fantasy. It reads much more like historical fiction than anything else. There are some scenes where Zhu sees ghosts, but they play no role in the story at all and are there purely as a symbolic or thematic note. I guess this is sorta alternate history, but there’s not really a sense of “what if” going on here (the result is ultimately the same as our history). I will fully admit that I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, but I’m glad I read it, and I do think it’s really well done. I’m just struggling with how to rank it within a genre that it doesn’t really represent very well…
Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki – Once upon a time, Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil. If she doesn’t deliver seven souls to hell, she will forfeit her own. A violinist by trade, Shizuka has already enticed six of her students to sell their souls for fame and success, and she is now searching for her seventh and final student. Katrina Nguyen is a transgender runaway with no prospects, but she catches Shizuka’s eye (or, er, ear) with her raw talent and obsession with violin. Oh, and there’s also an incognito alien refugee who owns a donut shop that Shizuka falls in love with, just to complicate matters further.
This might seem like an odd agglomeration of plot elements and it really shouldn’t work as well as it does, but color me surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel. Sure, it’s obsessed with sexuality and gender, just like the grand majority of Hugo nominees over the past several years, and the occasional passage feels more like a Twitter talking point than prose, but this novel does back that up with a deeper exploration of those surface level ideas.
The kindness that Shizuka shows towards Katrina is well established throughout the story, and the traumas of Katrina’s past mean that Shizuka has much to learn as well as teach. Of course Shizuka’s kindness is tempered by the ultimate fate she intends for her student, which is a source of tension that drives the story. Indeed, it almost feels even more cruel to show that sort of kindness only to condemn someone’s soul to eternal damnation. But without getting too into spoilers, this is ultimately a hopeful story.
While this is clearly an atypical fantasy novel, we’re treated to numerous procedural bits and details that would interest someone with a science fiction mindset. For instance, there’s several sequences involving a woman at a violin shop who repairs and restores violins, and it’s not just a passing reference. The book goes in depth on carpentry, wood, strings, bridges, famous historical violins, even cursed violins. Shizuka talks a lot about what makes music tick, and while the novel clearly doesn’t gloss over the transgender social elements, much of it is discussed in relation to music. There’s lots of things that Katrina does that are driven by her identity that are almost ironic compared to what Shizuka is used to from her students. Where A Master of Djinn used its Egyptian setting as window dressing for a conventional story, this book more thoroughly integrates its disparate elements.
For instance, at one point in the story, Katrina’s trans identity is revealed online (by a demon, naturally) and her Youtube videos, which previously had lots of comments about how inspiring the music was, start attracting vicious culture war comments and so on:
Furthermore, Shizuka immediately noticed something even more insidious than the hate. For not all the responses attacked Katrina’s womanhood. Some people where vehemently defending her right to gender representation. Some were calling out racism. Some messages were well wishes and hearts and “Your so inspiring,” and “Good luck.”
Some people were accusing others of being Nazis, while others said Katrina deserved justice.
But in all this, where were the comments about the music?
Culture war stuff can be exhausting in part because it reduces people’s identities to one simple axis, and everything else gets lost in the shuffle. Here, Aoki is able to maintain a more wholistic sense of character dynamics.
There are some things that didn’t quite work for me. I tended to appreciate the donut shop aliens more than most readers, but the “Endplague” that they are trying to escape from isn’t particularly well explained. Stylistically, Aoki has a tendency to shift perspectives frequency. Not just chapter to chapter, but mid-scene or mid-conversation. This can be a bit disorienting at times, and while some authors can get away with this (Pynchon comes to mind), I can see this stylistic tic rubbing some folks the wrong way. Ultimately, these are only minor issues for me.
One again, I’m probably not the target audience for this novel and it touches on lots of things that don’t especially interest me… Like, I enjoy the occasional donut and violins can make great music, but I’m not exactly intrigued by either subject (and I don’t mean to imply this is all that’s in the book, these are just two examples). But he way that Aoki weaves all of this together impressed me, and made me interested in things I normally wouldn’t seek out. It’s quirky and weird and doing something new with well worn tropes (it’s not as if Faustian bargains are an untapped sub-genre, you know) in a way that clearly isn’t for everyone, but which worked surprisingly well for me. It’s clearly my favorite of the fantasy nominees, and I’ll probably rank it higher than at least one of the SF nominees (even if this probably won’t take the top slot).
That about wraps up the 2022 Hugo Awards novel finalists. Top slots in my ballot will probably be Project Hail Mary and Light from Uncommon Stars.
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…
The 2022 Hugo Awards finalists were announced last week, so it’s time for the requisite congratulations and/or bitter recriminations. I fell off the Hugo bandwagon last year, but got back in this year and submitted some nominations, so let’s take a look at the finalists and see how I did:
I’ve only read one of the finalists for Best Novel, but it was one of the books I nominated. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir was probably my favorite SF of the past couple of years and it was naturally one of my nominations, so it’s clearly the book to beat on my ballot.
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, is the sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which won Best Novel in 2020 and which I enjoyed quite a bit. I’ve already started this one, and it seems to be stepping up a bit from the first, which is a good sign.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers, was on my radar and Chambers has been frequently nominated (this book is part of a series that won Best Series a couple years ago), but I never got around to it. I’m somewhat mixed on her Wayfarer’s books. I really loved one of them, thought another was solid, and didn’t particularly care for the last one. This sounds interesting enough, so we’ll see how it compares…
Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki, is completely new to me. The title makes it sound like SF, but the blurb is pretty definitively fantasy: featuring cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts. Those are some interesting ingredients, but it also sounds like the sort of thing that might not cohere for me.
A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark, sounds like a fun little fantasy mystery set in Egypt. Apparently part of a series that Clark established via novellas the past few years, he’s been a mainstay of the Hugos for a while now, though this is his first novel.
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan, sounds an awful lot like a more serious take on Mulan. It seems to be a solid story, but honestly, I’m not seeing much in the way of SF or fantasy elements, though I guess there could be some alternate history tropes going on here… I guess we’ll find out soon enough!
Overall, it’s an interesting ballot. In terms of genre, we’ve got 3 SF and 3 Fantasy. Interestingly, the three Fantasy novels are all debuts, while the SF are from established authors. Three finalists appear to be part of a series, though only one of those seems to require you to have read a previous book. A male author (2 male authors) shows up on the best novel ballot for the first time since 2018. As of right now, I’m still assuming that Project Hail Mary will top my ballot, but you never know.
A lot of common names show up on the Novella ballot, and actually all the shorter fiction categories have authors that are popular with Hugo voters. I’ll probably take a swing at Short Stories again this year, even though I’m inevitably disappointed by the category (though they are easy to read, since they’re so short)…
Best Dramatic Presentation
The big surprise here is that Hugo voters actually put some more thought into this ballot than usual. Oh sure, you’ve still got Marvel and Disney entries, and Dune was pretty much a lock, but the big surprise is that The Green Knight garnered a spot. Space Sweepers is also nominally interesting here as well, as Hugo voters don’t typically go for foreign flicks. I suspect Dune will still win it, but it’s a more varied ballot than usual. In terms of the Short Form award, it’s nice to see 5 nominees from shows that haven’t been nominated before. This is a far cry from when this category was generally referred to as “Which Dr Who episode should we give an award to?” (which, granted, has been a while, but still.)
Other Categories and Assorted Thoughts
Congrats to all the nominees, it seems like a fine set of finalists.
Best Series continues to be something of a popularity contest, but then, that’s generally what the Hugos are… At least none of these series are also nominated in the Best Novel category this year. I’m guessing it’s Seanan McGuire’s year, but you never know.
Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book has one novel I actually read in preparation of the Hugos this year, but didn’t particularly love. Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer, probably makes more sense as a YA book. Some interesting ideas about AI and the way apps/games/algorithms can impact privacy and security, but it felt a bit messy to me…
So there you have it, the 2022 Hugo Awards in a nutshell. I’ll definitely be reading the novels, and maybe some of the short stories too, so keep an eye out for reviews…
The nomination period for the 2022 Hugo Awards ends in a few weeks, so it’s worth thinking about the year in SF. After taking a year off from the awards, I decided to jump back into the fray this year due to a couple of really strong nominees (that will, hopefully, become finalists) that I wanted to support. As per usual, I didn’t actually read that much eligible stuff, so I’m scrambling a bit at this point to catch up with some things. Assorted thoughts below.
I’ve read 6 books that would be eligible for the best novel award, and these two are the best SF I’ve read in a while:
Both books are exceptional and highly recommended. My experience nominating novels is somewhat mixed, but I estimate that both of these have a good chance of garnering a finalist spot on the Hugo ballot, and they’re probably my favorite I’ve gotten to nominate in the approximately one decade in which I’ve been playing along.
I quite enjoyed Artifact Space by Miles Cameron, a fun little space opera that I’d probably nominate in a normal year, but pales in comparison to the above two. Similarly, I had a lot of fun with Master of the Revels by Nicole Galland, but I don’t think it necessarily stacks up. I might just plop these two on my nominating ballot if I have space, but I doubt either will garner a finalist slot. I want to catch up with Machinehood by S.B. Divya and Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky before the nomination period ends, but time is tight, so who knows if I’ll get to both?
I’m not particularly great at keeping up with short fiction, but I did read two of the best and yet most boring choices for nominees released last year:
I say these are boring choices because, well, the Murderbot stories that Wells writes have already won several Hugos, including Best Novel and Best Series just last year. Bujold might be the most awarded author in the history of the Hugos, and the above work is the tenth novella in a series that has been nominated before (and part of another Best Series). That being said? They’re both fantastic. What can I say, I’ll try to mix things up next year. I’ll try to catch up with some short stories before the nomination period ends, but I don’t really have much on my radar at the moment.
I still have reservations about this award from both a logistical (who can read all these series in time to vote?) and purpose (winners tend to have already won Hugos for the novels in the same series, sometimes in the same year) perspective. That being said, it is an award, and I think the spirit of the award is meant for something like this:
One good thing about this award is that a lot of the obvious choices are now ineligible this year (because they’ve already won or been nominated too much), but there’s still quite a large number of possibilities. I like the Bobiverse books a lot, even if an individual entry doesn’t quite rise to the level of a Hugo Best Novel. This is kinda what the award is all about though, so I’ll throw this a nom.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
The Hugo Voters tend to have strangely generic taste in movies, often nominating high budget superhero fare over smaller, more thoughtful independent stuff. I always try to nominate stuff that’s off the beaten path (with a nod towards some of the mainstream stuff, if it’s great), but they rarely make the cut with Hugo voters. A decent crop this year though:
I really wanted to throw some love to Malignant, but there’s an approximately 0% chance of it getting other votes. Horror tends to do poorly when it comes to the Hugos, and I’m already pushing it with Werewolves Within. Anyway, I fully expect the finalists to consist of things like Spider-Man and The Matrix, but I hold out hope that something like I’m Your Man could sneak onto the list.
Some assorted nominations in more obscure categories:
That about covers it for what I’m nominating for the 2022 Hugo Awards (for now). I have a busy few weeks coming up, so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to get to ahead of the nominations deadline, but this is a good start, I think.
The Results of the 2021 Hugo Awards were announced last night, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. At this point, I’ve fallen off of the Hugo bandwagon from a formal participation standpoint, but still like to keep an eye on things. Populist awards like this go in waves, so they tend to get repetitive, as we’ll see. In any case, congratulations are due to all the winners! For those who want to geek out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting stats for the 2021 Hugo Awards are also available (.pdf).
Network Effect, by Martha Wells wins! It’s the one novel of the nominees that I actually read last year and I’ve very much enjoyed the whole Murderbot series to date. For the uninitiated, you’ll want to start with the original novellas (beginning with All Systems Red) before getting to this novel, but it’s a fun, action packed series with a compelling protagonist, some interesting ideas, and a nice cast of regular side characters.
Of course, this is part of a long running series that has won before (although this is the first novel), which speaks to the repetition I was speaking of above. The other nominees didn’t hold much interest for me, seeing as though I’d either read previous novels in the series or enough work from the author that I wasn’t especially excited to read more of. The one exception might be Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, but I’m not in a rush there either.
I didn’t even dip my toes into the shorter fiction categories this year, but I do see a lot of familiar names here, even among the winners. However, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, by Nghi Vo did win the novella category and that’s a new name, so there is that. Sarah Pinsker and Ursula Vernon took home the other two fiction awards, and they’ve been mainstays of the past few years. Despite (or because of?) the controversy around Isabella Fall’s Helicopter Story, it did not do so well in the voting.
The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells wins here as well, proving once again that the original intentions of the series award aren’t really being served here. Don’t get me wrong, as previously mentioned, I love the Murderbot series and it’s eminently deserving of praise… but it’s already won multiple Hugo awards. This is just an also-ran for that series, while other series languish in obscurity (or, er, lack of recognition? They all seem pretty popular.)
I always thought the point was to recognize series that didn’t already get recognition in the other awards. The idea being that hey, maybe we can include more one-offs in the best novel ballot because entries in a series can be recognized here. Or series that people love that nonetheless don’t have standout individual entries can still be recognized. But in general, the award has gone to hugely popular series that had already been recognized, sometimes in the same ballot (like this year, with the novel and its series winning).
As I understand it, this award narrowly passed a vote considering its future, so it will continue to show up in future years. I remain a little skeptical of this one, not least of which because I don’t think it’s likely that most voters have read all the series nominated (not to mention the logistics of reading that many stories in the time allotted).
Best Dramatic Presentation
Always a weird award, and this year is no different. The long form award goes to… The Old Guard? A little surprising, as I didn’t realize that movie was particularly loved. I mean, I enjoyed it plenty and it was great pandemic watching, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly original or great SF. Of course, the other nominees aren’t especially accomplished either. I’m still quite baffled that Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga even made the ballot in the first place. It’s not especially surprising that Tenet didn’t do very well, though it would probably be my favorite of the nominees (at least, as SF it would – I think Tenet does have its flaws). For whatever reason, Hugo voters tend to go lower-brow when it comes to movies. Anyway, pour one out for The Invisible Man, Possessor, The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Archive, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow. There are always great works left off of a given awards ballot, but this year seems particularly egregious (I mean, come on, Eurovision?).
Short form goes to The Good Place. Again. I really enjoyed The Good Place, but it has won the award four times in a row, which seems silly. I would have probably gone more Mandalorian on this ballot, though perhaps the vote got split because there were two different episodes nominated (but then, the whole instant-runoff thing kinda mitigates some of that and looking at the actual numbers, The Good Place had a really strong win here – it wasn’t even close.) The Expanse ended up taking a distant second place. Now that The Good Place is over, it’ll be interesting to see where things fall next year. I suspect we’ll see a strong showing for Marvel TV shows…
Other Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Awards
It wouldn’t be Hugos without some sort of controversy, and this year had no shortage of questionable events. Personally, this stuff gives me the hives, but near as I can tell much of the controversy surrounded China’s bid to host Worldcon in 2023. Naturally, there were some concerns there because of, you know, the genocide, censorship, and high profile disappearings. But then a competing bid from Winnipeg pulled out a big ol bag of dirty tricks to try and win, which wasn’t great either. I mean, not genocide-level bad, but not great. Then of course you get the whataboutisms and how the US sucks (and I guess so does Canada?) and Raytheon sponsored a part of this year’s Hugos (which I can kinda see why someone would want to sideye and all, but still) and the whole thing is just a garbage fire at this point. I don’t really want to delve more into it.
Next year’s awards could be interesting though. I’m already curious to see if my two favorite novels from this year make next year’s ballot, and I actually think there’s a fair chance that both will. It might be enough to get me to dive in again. (Of course, one of these books comes from a popular author that’s been nominated several times and even won before, so there is that, but still.) I suppose time will tell. Anywho, congrats again to all the winners of the 2021 Hugo Awards!
The 2021 Hugo Awards finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite grumbles and bellyaches. I’ve largely fallen off the Hugo bandwagon and I’m probably not going to play along this year, but I still find the process interesting. Congrats to all the nominees!
The Best Novel ballot is a pretty good illustration of why I’m not reading/voting this year. This isn’t to say they’re bad novels or anything, but there’s this tendency in the Hugo awards where certain authors catch on and get nominated year after year. One of the reasons I followed along with the Hugos (even before actively participating) was that they introduced me to new or different work. They got me out of my comfort zone. But they go in waves, and if a set of authors you don’t care for gets hot, then interest fades.
This year’s nominees have mostly been nominated recently, if they haven’t won recently. Four have had finalists in the last few years. One of the others (Network Effect by Martha Wells) is new to the Best Novel ballot, but it’s a sequel to a series of novellas which have entries that have been nominated and won. For the record, that’s the only one I’ve already read, and I really enjoy that series, so it’s a well deserved nomination in my book. The other is the second novel by an author whose first novel won the award in 2005. That’s also one that I might actually get to someday, award or no award. If you expand name recognition to the other categories, it gets even worse.
I suspect in a couple years I’ll take a look and see a bunch of new folks, at which point I might join in again. The genre is much larger these days, with much more volume than in the earlier days of fandom, so you’d think that the tendency for repeat names would be more limited now, but I guess the awards are more representative of the voters than the genre itself. For now, I’ll continue to follow the news, but not read along…
Even here, I see a lot of familiar names, and it’s also kinda funny that every nominated novella is published by Tor.com. Is no one else publishing novellas? In theory, I like the idea of reading a bunch of short fiction – it’s could be like a sampler platter of what’s going on in SF. But I’m almost invariably disappointed in these categories. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but the bevy of familiar names don’t interest me that much.
This award continues to baffle. In theory, it could be used to recognize series that have built up a readership over time and become more than the sum of its parts. Or something like that. In practice, it seems to be dominated by authors and series that also get best novel nominations. For instance, two of this year’s best series nominees also have an entry on the best novel ballot. On the other hand, there are some series here that do seem to fit the bill. Of course, there’s also the logistical challenge of this award. How can anyone have enough time to read all these series? I know this year’s voting period is much longer than normal (thanks Pandemic!), but it’s still got to be impossible to vote for this, unless you’ve already read most of the nominees (or if you only give each series a cursory read).
I’m perhaps being overly grumpy in this post. Congrats to all the nominees. I would still encourage folks to play along with the Hugo Awards at some point (2021 or not), as I’ve always found it interesting, even when I don’t love the books. That said, I know enough about this year’s crop to know that I probably won’t enjoy a lot of them, so I’m opting out. I’ll still be curious to see who wins and what the awards look like next year though.
I’ve been reading a lot of MilSF (that’s “Military Science Fiction” for you normals) lately. I’m far from an expert in the sub-genre, but I enjoy dipping into it from time to time. It just so happens that I’ve been dunked further than normal in the past few months, so here goes:
On Basilisk Station by David Weber – The first in the long running series featuring Honor Harrington, an officer of the Royal Manticorian Navy and ice queen extraordinaire. Having pissed off a superior officer, she gets posted to a backwoods star system. Low on resources but high on tactical awareness, Harrington must deal with drug-addled alien aboriginals, smugglers, corruption and oh yeah, this out-of-the-way locale is about to become a flashpoint for interstellar war.
There’s nothing especially surprising about the story, but it’s competent and entertaining. Weber isn’t exactly a prose stylist, but he knows his physics and military tactics. While there are occasional info-dumps (par for the SF course), he’s able to employ all this well enough. You’ve seen the setup before, but it’s always fun to see someone beat the odds and succeed when they’re being (unfairly) set up to fail. Truth be told, I’m more likely to go back and read more Horatio Hornblower (to which the Honorverse and seemingly a dozen other SF franchises are deeply indebted) than I am to explore more of this series, but I’m not, like opposed to it either.
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley – In this Hugo finalist, Dietz joins the war against Mars as a member of the infantry. Since traveling to another planet to wage war is time-consuming and costly, scientists have figured out a way to convert soldiers to electromagnetic energy so they can be transmitted to the battlefield at the speed of light. But something goes wrong with Dietz, and she’s experiencing her combat drops out of order. Can she retain her sanity and figure out what’s really going on with the war?
With this novel, Hurley is clearly attempting to enter the conversation that started with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and continued in Haldeman’s The Forever War (amongst other classics of MilSF over the intervening decades), but I don’t find it entirely successful on that front. Granted, I’ve never been a big fan of Starship Troopers, but for all its faults, it did pretty much single-handedly invent the sub-genre. Unfortunately, what Hurley seems to have glommed onto are the lectures (from a structure standpoint; clearly not a content standpoint). This is pretty much everyone’s least favorite part of Starship Troopers. Basically, Hurley takes Starship Troopers, scribbles “Capitalism Bad!” over the lecture sequences, and then biffs the military stuff, because who cares about that?
Look, I’ve never served in the military and am far from an expert, but I found myself nitpicking almost everything having to do with the military in this book. There are so many things that are just outright wrong here (basic stuff like what marksmanship is or how ranks work) that it’s hard to believe that Hurley cares one whit about the subject, except insofar as she can use it to denounce capitalism. Blatantly, in long, lecturing speeches.
It’s implied that the Martians have become so technologically advanced because they’re communists, but we never really see them. If you’re going to insist that communism will finally be made workable in the future world you’ve built, you should probably give some indication of how that happened, seeing as though it doesn’t have a particularly great track record here in the present and recent past. For example, Ian M. Banks’ Marxist paradise, The Culture, at least has some justification in the form of hyper-advanced AI Minds (I’m not entirely sure I buy it, but hey, at least he’s trying!)
Look, I’m not saying the complaints about capitalism are necessarily wrong, and the book does capture timely political ideas in a compelling way. The notion of putting conditions on citizenship (a clear lift from Heinlein, but still quite relevant) or the corporatization of government or the way media and propaganda can be leveraged by the malicious are all subjects worth exploring, especially in this day and age. It’s good that the book tackles these subjects! But it would be nice if there was some sort of path out of the hell Hurley creates other than just whining about it all. I’m not asking for much here. Even some form of handwavey magic would do the trick, but this book can’t even be bothered to go that far. At best, this makes the book’s ideas a “preaching to the choir” situation.
Alright, I’m being hard on this novel and I think it’s clear that I didn’t love it, but I do actually think it does some things well. As bad as a lot of the military mistakes are, Hurley does nail the interpersonal interactions of military service. Again, not an expert, but the relationships between the characters feel realistic and authentic. Likewise, while the transportation method of “light” is basically nonsense, the non-linear narrative that emerges is actually quite well done (a good example of handwavey magic getting the job done). I’m a sucker for time travel stories and this puts a nice spin on well worn ideas. It’s not quite the mindfuck that some seem to believe and the “twists” that happen aren’t very surprising, but it lends some weight to the proceedings. I don’t know, if you’re part of the choir that Hurley is preaching to, this probably works like gangbusters. Alas, I’m not singing in that choir.
The Lost Fleet Series, by Jack Campbell – I actually read the first book of this series, Dauntless, around two years ago. In that short review, I mentioned that I would probably pick up the second book at some point, and I finally got around to it. Then I got hooked, and read the remaining four books. To recap:
Captain John “Black Jack” Geary is a legendary war hero presumed lost in the early days of a war between the Alliance and the Syndics. The war isn’t going particularly well for the Alliance when they miraculously discover Geary, who survived in hibernation. Geary is shocked to learn that he’s revered as a hero, but resolves to do his duty, whip his fleet into shape, and dodge the onslaught of Syndics coming his way.
The first five books or so of the series basically consist of a “Long Retreat” through Syndic space, with the last book being a sorta return offensive (being a little vague here, so as to not spoil anything). At the macro level, this can get a bit repetitive, but if you go in for this sort of thing, it’s well executed and entertaining. Each novel basically consists of a few large engagements with the enemy coupled with some interpersonal relationships and fleet politics.
The military engagements lean more towards the thrilling and entertaining side than, say, the aforementioned On Basilisk Station, but author Jack Campbell does a good job establishing the parameters of how the military operates in space, and then abiding by them. Campbell is basically taking naval warfare and adapting it to space with minimal concessions to physics. He does take full advantage of the three dimensional space and acknowledges the difficulties of fighting whilst moving at relativistic speeds, but I’m sure there are plenty of nits to be picked with the way Campbell portrays combat in these novels.
That being said, Campbell manages to make each battle interesting by switching up tactics or devising new wrinkles within the system he’s set up. Sometimes combat is shaped by devious Syndic tactics, other times it’s driven by the need to feed the fleet’s auxiliary ships (which refine fuel and manufacture parts and munitions), and then some battles are avoided entirely. At one point, there’s even a ground action with orbital support. Your mileage may vary, but the need for each fight is well established, the goals are often different from one engagement to another, and the progress of each battle is well portrayed and entertaining. At the macro level, this might seem repetitive, but there’s a lot of variety in the specifics of each engagement.
I’m not entirely sure how this war could possibly last for over a century, especially given the way people and equipment are so frequently destroyed, but the series is action packed and well executed enough that this becomes a minor complaint. Campbell gets enough stuff right that I didn’t find myself nitpicking or dwelling on things I didn’t love.
The interpersonal relationships are perhaps a little less successful. Here, the repetition does become a bit stilted. In particular, a sorta love triangle develops between three main characters that works well enough to start, but eventually just keeps spinning its wheels. It’s not strictly bad, it’s just not as well varied as the military side of things.
Similarly, the fleet politics bits are quite pronounced at first, and represent a true and interesting threat to Geary’s command. Geary’s whole strategy revolves around a return to more traditional tactics and practices, which a lot of officers in the fleet disagree with, at least initially. Even as he gradually wins over most of the fleet, there are those that are scheming behind his back, and just when this fleet politics stuff starts to get a little too redundant, Campbell turns the tables in an interesting way in the later books.
Along the way, we’re treated to some other SF staples. Naturally, there’s an alien presence that’s been manipulating the war for a century or so, but they can only really be inferred from the evidence on hand. As the series progresses, that inference becomes a little more solid.
There are a few interesting bits about how Geary’s style is so different that it actually impacts the way the military software works. Rudimentary AI has been trained over a century on tactics that Geary is now trying to upend. This has unintentional consequences that are well played by Campbell.
One of the funny things about reading this series in proximity to The Light Brigade is that Campbell actually touches on many of the same themes. The Syndics are a hyper-capitalist society. They don’t have presidents or admirals or generals, they have CEOs. And they are clearly the villains. But Campbell doesn’t lecture, he just shows the logical, rational end point of some more extreme business-like behavior. I won’t claim that these are “important” novels, but I found it ironic that this series made me think about the same ideas while also being entertaining and well constructed.
I don’t think that Campbell is breaking any new ground here, but it’s very well executed and competent stuff. Well worth checking out if you’re in the mood for some MilSF.
The Results of the 2020 Hugo Awards were announced a couple of days ago, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I read most of the novelnominees this year, but I didn’t finish. I never dipped my toes into the shorter fiction categories either, so I ultimately ended up not participating. This tracks with my generally waning enthusiasm for the awards over the past several years, but hope springs eternal. Maybe I’ll find next year more worthy of engagement. In the meantime, congratulations are due to all the winners, even the ones I don’t like. For those who want to geek out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting and nomination stats are also available (.pdf).
The Best Novel Award went to A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which was a pleasant surprise. I really enjoyed that novel. Indeed, this is the first time in several years that I actually liked the winner of this category. It has its flaws, but so did all the other nominees I’ve read (5 out of 6), and all things considered, I think it’s great that the award went to the debut author. Apparently the race for first place was very tight, with Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame coming in a close second place. They were clearly my favorite two nominees, so it’s nice to see. The Ten Thousand Doors of January came in last place, and that also fits with my ranking…
The only short fiction I had actually read that got nominated were a couple of stories from Ted Chiang’s collection, Exhalation. They were good, as per usual from Chiang, but I never got around to reading the others. In scanning the winners, the one I would be most interested in is This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. After years of being soundly disappointed by the Short Story category, I finally gave up this year.
The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey (the pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) wins Best Series. I read the first novel, Leviathan Wakes, a while back and came away unimpressed. However, I’ve also received recommendations from folks I trust, so maybe I’ll check it out again at some point. Perhaps it gets better as it goes.
That said, this award continues to baffle. Only one book from this series (the first) has actually garnered a Hugo nomination for Best Novel, so it’s better than the last few winners in that respect. But it’s still a logistically difficult category to judge. The Hugo Awards are always a popularity contest, but I suspect that’s so even more here than with the other categories. Plus, I have serious doubts that voters have actually read enough of each series to make a truly informed decision. Maybe I’m wrong about that! But the sheer quantity of work contained in just one ballot seems infeasible.
In addition, books from series keep getting nominated for Best Novel, so the Best Series category hasn’t curtailed that much either. Series are tricksy beasts. Clearly they sell, hence their proliferation. But when it comes to awards, they present a problem, because you’re often not judging a single work. I’ve never really participated in this award, mostly because of the aforementioned logistical problems.
Best Dramatic Presentations
The Good Place wins Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form for the third year in a row with: “The Answer”. A fine episode, to be sure, and I did quite enjoy the series, but it did sorta peter out. Personally, I would have much rather seen the award go to a new show/episode, like The Mandalorian: “Redemption” or Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”, but the voting wasn’t even close.
Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form went to another TV show, Good Omens. I never watched it because I read the book and had mixed thoughts. On the other hand, of the nominees, it’s certainly a defensible choice. This category has always been a weirdly mainstream, blockbuster dominated affair. I probably would have voted for Us, but I’m in the clear minority there. It did not do well in the voting. Weirdly, I’ve been finding a bunch of smaller, low-budget 2019 movies that would have been deserving of recognition. But I’ll save those for a later post. In the meantime, pour one out for Prospect and The Kid Who Would Be King, both worthy of your attention (and more interesting than the offerings from Marvel or Star Wars.)
There’s apparently quite a row brewing about the Retro Hugo Awards, presumably because the Cthulhu Mythos won Best Series. No matter how much you may dislike Lovecraft, it’s difficult to point to a more influential nominee. Indeed, the award is for the Mythos and explicitly includes other authors, which in theory include books like The Ballad of Black Tom. All of which is to say that I’m doubting that the (relatively few) people voting in the Retro Hugos are motivated by rewarding Lovecraft’s bigotry, but rather the enduring qualities of his work (which, to me at least, are not the racism). I don’t know, maybe I’m being naively optimistic here. I certainly can’t fault anyone for being turned off by Lovecraft’s racism. It’s telling, though, that all of the complaints about the Retro Hugos never refer to alternatives and also seek to minimize the other winners.
Take the perennially dismissed Leigh Brackett. She’s experienced something of a resurgence in recent years, but even then, her contributions to the genre are consistently downplayed or erased. The last few Retro Hugos have provided some spotlight on this underrated author, and I’m happy about that. I don’t understand why so many are so willing to dismiss or ignore her work.
I saw one comment that said the Retro Hugos were rewarding people that we’re trying to relegate to the dustbin of history. Well, the Retro Hugos are quite literally “the dustbin of history”. There were only 120 nominating ballots for the 1945 Retro Hugos, which is an order of magnitude lower than the 2020 Hugo Awards (approximately 1500 nominating ballots). What’s more, I find it hard to believe that the grand majority (if not all) of those 120 people weren’t also participating in the 2020 nomination process. My guess is that these people aren’t obsessed with the past to the exclusion of the present and future. Ultimately, I find value in exploring the history of Science Fiction, warts and all. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t read or like new science fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to track down a copy of Killdozer!