Hugo Awards

SF Book Review – Part 33: Hugo Nominees and Moar

I started this post a few weeks ago, but I had wanted to at least acknowledge what was happening in the world in the intro and that ended up becoming its own post. All of which is to say, stay Safe and Constructive out there everyone! A surprising amount of progress has been made in a short time, but now we’re in for more opportunism and potential backlash, not to mention wave two of the pandemic. Wallowing in social media probably won’t be very productive for a while and maybe losing yourself in a novel is a good way to reset. Here’s a few that I’ve read recently…

  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – January Scaller is the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, an enterprising collector of mysterious trinkets and curious treasures. Set in the beginning of the 20th century, the story follows January and her talent for finding portals to other worlds. She has discovered a book amongst Mr. Locke’s belongings, a book of adventure and doors that features elements eerily familiar to January’s experiences. It’s an interesting enough premise, and it hits on two popular tropes that could make for an interesting combination: the portal story and the book-within-a-book. The former is merely a tease. There are portals to other worlds in this novel, but if you think this is going to be a story about actually traveling to new and interesting places and having adventures there, well, you’d be wrong. There are tantalizing mentions of these other worlds, some of which sound like they could be really exciting, but that’s all we get. We’re mostly just stuck in turn of the 20th century world, which is fine I guess, but doesn’t really deliver on the promise of a portal story. As a result, the world building feels a bit incomplete. The whole book-within-a-book conceit doesn’t really do much for me either, other than wreak havoc with the pacing of the novel. As previously mentioned, it’s not exactly a rollercoaster to start with, so this addition was not especially appreciated. Furthermore, both of these narrative threads (i.e. January’s and the book’s) are told in first person as a retrospective, which also has an impact on the stakes of the story. The characters came off as a bit flat to me. The heroine is fine, if not especially special (which is weird, because we’re often informed about how unique she is, even as she resembles a million other similar characters). The villains are obvious mustache-twirly types whose motivations don’t make much sense. Frankly my favorite character was Bad, the good doggo that January takes on early in the story. The prose doesn’t help things along either, as it’s overly flowery and at times, preachy (yes, this novel shares the politics of every other Hugo nominee from the past few years and it sometimes comes off as a leaden lecture). Ultimately, with the pacing issues and overbaked prose, it feels like not a lot happens in the book, which is one of those things that just bothers me. I’m obviously in the distinct minority on this one, so I’ll leave it at that. I clearly didn’t enjoy this and as of now it’s at the bottom of my Hugo Awards ballot. If you’re going to open a bunch of doors, you should probably go through them at some point.
  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Gideon is a swordswoman attempting to escape a life of servitude for the Ninth House. Harrow is the heir to the Ninth House and a necromancer. When the Emperor summons the heirs to each house to find a leader so that he can defeat some threat on the horizon, Harrow enlists Gideon as her Cavalier. As the heirs to each house gather for their trials, dead bodies start to pile up, and mysterious bone creatures rear their ugly heads. I really ought to like this more than I do. It’s got a lot of winning elements. A Gothic whodunnit with bone witches and swordfights? What’s not to like? It’s got all the elements, and it comes together in the end fairly well, but there’s just a bunch of nagging complaints I can’t quite get over. A lot of people complain about the dense fog of jargon that is just sorta dropped on your head at the start, but that sort of thing usually doesn’t bother me. Some of the worldbuilding is unclear though, and that does lead to some confusion. The characters are a bit too snarky for my tastes. Gideon, in particular, seems awfully insubordinate for someone who’s supposed to be an indentured servant, and her relationship with Harrow is kinda weird. The whole odd-couple, enemies-to-friends thing is a time honored trope, but it only barely works here because the relationship is just so fraught with mistrust and pain that when things shift later in the story, it comes off as abrupt and perhaps unearned. The rest of the characters are a bit less defined and harder to care that much about, perhaps because there are so many of them (and they drop like flies as the story progresses). The story does seem to lapse into a repetitive state in the middle, but the conclusion is rousing enough. And along the way there are plenty of swordfights and necromantic creatures to keep things interesting. Ultimately, well, this isn’t really my preferred genre, but it comported itself just fine. It’s perhaps a bit too long and while it’s got all the right elements, there’s some tweaking needed to make it really sing. As with A Memory Called Empire and perhaps even The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I feel like this would be better served as a nomination under the Asounding Award (formerly the Campbell) for best new writer (all three of these novels are debuts, and thus it’s perhaps not so surprising that I have similar complaints). As a Hugo finalist, this can’t quite compete with the more developed storytelling that you get from Middlegame (which is still at the top of my ballot, even as I didn’t love that novel either…)
  • The Last Emperox by John Scalzi – The conclusion to Scalzi’s Interdependency novels (The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire) is, well, more of the same. Which, considering that I enjoyed the first two novels, is a good thing. I won’t call this Scalzi’s best work or anything, but it’s solid stuff and very entertaining. I don’t need to go into the plot much here because it’s kinda right there in the titles. The empire’s transportation network is collapsing and the Emporox must find a way to restore independence to each system before the become isolated while also fending off various assassination/coup attempts. Look, it’s getting a bit repetitive by this point and maybe it’s something that didn’t require a trilogy of novels to cover, but in general, I enjoyed spending time with these characters and while the scheming and intrigue are repetitive, Scalzi is actually pretty good at this sort of thing. Indeed, reading this not long after other Hugo nominees (particularly A Memory Called Empire, which has similar Empire-in-crisis vibes), put Scalzi’s talent for clever machinations and storytelling in stark relief. There were several surprises throughout, and even though some of them were fakeouts that some might find cheap, I rather enjoyed them. I won’t claim this should be nominated for a Hugo Award, but I do really enjoy Scalzi’s style. This isn’t his best work, but it’s highly enjoyable, and in these dark times, that’s laudible.
  • Randomize by Andy Weir – This is actually a short story, but I thought I’d give it a crack because I like Weir and while this has some interesting elements, it doesn’t fully gel for me. It basically tells the story of how quantum computing could wreak havoc on our world, though he focuses the story on a particular Casino. It’s a good idea and the Casino world is a good microcosm, but some of the machinations, particularly towards the end of the story, are strained and not quite believable. Still, I’m always curious to see where Weir goes. Nothing he’s written recently has been as great as The Martian, but I like his approach.
  • Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge – Towards the beginning of lockdown, I read two books that… start with plots about disease. This was not planned at all and felt a bit weird, but in this one, the disease was really just a delivery vector for something else. Once the story proper starts, the disease bit becomes background. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Robert Gu receives a series of medical treatments that basically cures him of Alzheimer’s disease. He was a world-renowned poet before the disease, but now he awakens to find a world that has dramatically changed. Also, he was apparently a prick before the disease, so he’s got a lot of baggage to wade through with his family and friends. Then he gets caught up in some sort of conspiracy involving that disease vector thing. Once again, reading this in comparison to recent Hugo nominees puts things in stark relief. The sheer idea content of this book is so much higher than anything nominated in the past few years that I’m wondering where this type of science fiction went (incidentally, this won the Hugo back in the aughts). The storytelling is a bit less successful. It’s overlong and some of the characters aren’t entirely likable at first, but it still functions well enough. It sorta meanders a bit at times though, which doesn’t help with the pacing, and while the conclusion pulls all the threads together well enough, it just wasn’t as satisfying as it should have been. That said, the aforementioned idea content is high and so even when it’s going off on tangents, it’s interesting. I really enjoyed this book, even if it isn’t Vinge’s best work.
  • Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear – Ah, and this is the other disease novel that I inadvertently started reading during a global pandemic. I mean, I guess I should have read the description more, but I like Bear and this has long been on my book queue to catch up with, so I just took a chance and started reading it. Fortunately, it’s a pretty darned good book! Molecular biologist Kaye Lang believes that ancient diseases encoded in human DNA could awaken and start infecting people. Christopher Dicken is a “virus hunter” for the CDC who is hot on the trail of an elusive flu-like disease that only infects expectant mothers and their offspring. Mitch Rafelson is a disgraced paleontologist who stumbles upon the preserved bodies of a prehistoric family in the Alps. Of course, all three plotlines are completely independent with no overlap whatsoever. Oh, wait, no, the opposite of that. To be perfectly honest, much of the details of Bear’s exploration of DNA and disease are way over my head. That said, it all sounds impressive and isn’t obviously wrong, so he’s got that going for him. The broad strokes of the story seem plausible enough and are easy to discern, and it’s an entertaining yarn. It’s the longest book covered in this post, but it earned its length I think. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for Bear’s dense style though, so maybe take that with a grain of salt. The ending perhaps leaves too much room for a sequel (which is out there) and thus isn’t as satisfying as it could have been, but it works well enough.

That’s all for now. I’ve actually got quite a backlog of books to cover, so we’ll probably have another of these posts sooner rather than later.

Hugo Awards: Middlegame

Middlegame is the fifth novel by Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) to be nominated for a best novel Hugo Award. She’s been nominated in and won the award in several other categories, but the best novel win has eluded her. Will this one do the trick?

Roger and Dodger are twins bred for a specific (but secret) purpose by rogue alchemist James Reed (himself an alchemical creation, reminiscent of Frankenstein, that’s been scheming for over a century on said secret purpose). Rodger is skilled in all things words and language. Dodger is a math whiz. Separated at birth and placed in foster homes, they somehow managed to connect via some sort of handwavey quantum entanglement; they can speak to one another and even see through each other’s eyes. Their parents and teachers generally attribute this to imaginary friends, but Reed knows it’s the pair’s latent powers beginning to manifest and he doesn’t want them to do so too early. He and his merry band of alchemical minions stop at nothing to keep the two separated until their powers can be fruitfully harnessed for whatever dreadful purpose they have in mind. Will Roger and Dodger manage to discover and subsequently foil Reed’s nefarious plans? Spoiler alert: yes.

Middlegame

While this novel is a bit too long and overly cryptic for its own good, McGuire is a good yarn-spinner and has developed two core protagonists that are likable enough such that the pages turn quickly, which certainly mitigates the issues I have with the novel. Roger and Dodger have a great chemistry together and McGuire is able to generate a lot of empathy for their various plights. The story requires them to be separated, sometimes forcibly, and McGuire is able to harness this conflict to induce a certain longing and desire to seem them connect.

The story suffers a bit when Roger and Dodger aren’t around, but those are thankfully brief little episodes and only make the connections they make more sweet. The overarching secret purpose at the core of the story does fall a bit flat in the end, but since we’re so invested in Roger and Dodger, it still works. Along the way, we get some nice surface explorations of mathematics and language and the interplay between both. It’s still firmly rooted in the fantasy genre, but it does incorporate some SF window dressing well enough. Dodger uses mathematics in some interesting ways and there’s even a bit of time travel (or, at least, an ability to reset a timeline); none of this is explored in a particularly SFnal way, but it works well enough in a fantasy story like this. Some of the story choices and various sub-plots might not entirely fit together, but the page turning nature of the novel and the likable protagonists mitigate that.

McGuire is a good storyteller and her craft is evident here, especially viewed in contrast to the other Hugo nominees I’ve read (both of the other two novels I’ve read are by debut authors, and while they pull off their stories in fine style, it’s clear that McGuire’s experience gives her an advantage). I enjoyed the novel and expect it to fall near the top of my ballot, though who knows, maybe one of the remaining three novels will really knock my socks off. All that said, I’m still not entirely sure this novel is award worthy. I haven’t read a ton of Seanan McGuire, but I get the impression that she’s capable of more, and while her talent is undeniable, I’m not sure it’s the best Fantasy novel of the year. But what do I know? It’s not like I’ve read a ton of this year’s fantasy offerings…

A few words, if I may, on the audiobook, which is at best functional and at worst awful. It’s read by Amber Benson of Buffy fame and while she’s got plenty of geek cred (and she’s an author in her own right), some of the choices she made in her reading of this book are just baffling. In particular, the exaggerated, emphatic verbal tics she employs for the alchemist Reed and his murderous minion Leigh are weirdly out of step with the tone those scenes should be generating. Just completely over the top. Like, sure, they’re kinda mustache twirling villains, but they aren’t straight up cartoons. Likewise, I’m not sure what she’s doing with Roger’s voice, but it ain’t a New England accent. The one character she is able to nail, though, is Dodger, so credit where credit is due. She’s suffused with nervous energy and Benson carries that off well. I got a very Jordan from Real Genius vibe from her reading of Dodger (this is also due to McGuire’s overall conception of the character, but Benson does add something of her own here.) It’s a testament to McGuire’s skill as an author that I came away with an overall good opinion of the work.

Hugo Awards: A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire is the debut novel from Arkady Martine and is a finalist for this year’s Hugo Awards. Mahit Dzmare, an ambassador from a small, independent mining colony is sent to the heart of the Teixcalaan empire, only to find that her predecessor has died. Under mysterious circumstances that no one wants to talk about. Fortunately, with the help of an Imago memory device, Mahit has an old copy of the former ambassador living inside her head. Unfortunately, that copy is far too old and doesn’t explain why her predecessor had such an outsized influence on Teixcalaan imperial court, up to and including a personal relationship with the emperor. This being a story that involves an empire, there is naturally political instability, uprising, succession woes, a potential coup, and so on. Naturally, the emperor has his own plans, and our little fish out of water must carefully navigate her way through an alien society, solve the murder of her predecessor, prevent the empire from annexing her mining colony, and deal with promises made to the emperor. Oh yeah, and apparently there’s some alien threat out there somewhere that’s been swallowing up ships.

There’s a lot to like in this novel. The worldbuilding is solid and I like the way the Teixcalaan empire isn’t inherently evil, even if it’s large and unwieldy and suffuse with all the baggage that goes along with imperialism and colonialism. It might not be a good thing and it’s not like the folks involved in the uprising don’t have a point, but the empire, even at high echelons, isn’t entirely filled with cartoonish, mustache-twirling supervillains. It’s an empire whose culture is at least partly based on poetry, for crying out loud. It’s just nice to see that not everyone in the empire is the absolute worst. For instance, when Mahit arrives in the Teixcalaan system, she’s assigned an attaché by the empire. In most stories, this attaché would be shifty at minimum and probably outright betray our protagonist at some point, but here the character Three Seagrass becomes an invaluable resource and cultural guide, loyal to both Mahit and the empire. Ditto for Twelve Azalea, another Teixcalaan character who lesser novels would have betray Mahit. As a result, I generally liked the characters and spending time with them wasn’t a chore, even if their are better examples of this sort of thing out there.

The Imago device at the core of the story is something we’ve seen a lot of in the past few years. Whether it’s Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire stories or even Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series, other stories of two people inhabiting a single brain have been surprisingly common of late (even amongst Hugo-nominated works). The one interesting thing that Martine does with this story is that she has the device malfunction, such that we don’t actually deal with the two characters/one head situation very much. On the other hand, the device becomes an important part of the plot in an obvious way that undercuts what should be revelations later in the story. This exemplifies the true issue with this book, which is that it drags rather heavily in the middle.

As I was sorta hinting at towards the beginning of this post, anyone who’s read a science fiction story about a galactic empire has seen what’s going on here a million times before. I won’t spoil it, but it takes far too long for our characters to suss out what’s really happening. Too much of the story takes place with characters just sitting around talking, and while this is a common convention of science fiction that I’m usually happy to put up with, it doesn’t help when these discussions seem repetitive and redundant. Martine does try to inject some action into the proceedings at times, but it all felt a bit muddled or underbaked. There’s this alien threat that’s hinted at all throughout the story, but we only get small snippits of what’s happening there, and are instead obliged to follow some obscure thread of court intrigue to its completely expected conclusion.

This is perhaps a bit harsh. There’s something to be said for a well executed version of a story we’ve seen before, and I did quite enjoy this novel and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in this sub-genre… but that doesn’t make it the best SF of the year, for which the bar should be higher. Fans of Anne Leckie and Lois McMaster Bujold will probably like this, which probably explains why this has gained so much traction with the Hugo set. This is an excellent debut novel and I’d love to see how Arkady Martine evolves as a writer, but this is only the start. I suspect this would be a better match for the Astounding award (formerly the Campbell) for best new writer. It’s also worth noting that I probably enjoyed this more than a lot of the nominees from the past decade or so, so there is also that to contend with (it would probably fall somewhere in the upper-middle tier). Its the first of the Hugo shortlist I’ve read this year, so it’s officially number one on my ballot and despite my misgivings, it might hold on to that spot for a while. Next up, we’ve got Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame (I’m about two thirds of the way through that one, and it’s pretty solid fantasy stuff…)

Hugo Awards 2020: Initial Thoughts

The 2020 Hugo Award Finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite whinging:

  • Best Novel has some interesting meta-characteristics. In terms of genre, we’ve got half science fiction, half fantasy (though at least one of the ones I’m counting as SF appears to be more of a mixture of SF and fantasy, and in looking further, one of the fantasy seems to have SF elements). Only two novels are part of a series, and they’re both the first in the series (and, one hopes, could operate well enough as a standalone read). Fully half of the nominees are first novels, though at least one of those authors has previously won a Hugo in a short fiction category… All of the nominees are written by women and this is, to my knowledge, the first time this has ever happened (though it was inevitable given the past few years; by my count women authors have outnumbered men 21-8 in the past 5 years, even if men have historically taken the cake). This is also the first time in a decade that I haven’t read any of the finalists before they were announced.
  • Of the nominated novels, I have already started Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and am enjoying it so far (I’m only about a third of the way through). Of the nominees, this was the one that was on my radar but for some reason I never caught up with it. I’ve not read a ton of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant), but I’ve generally enjoyed her work, which has been nominated quite a bit over the last decade or so, and Middlegame sounds fun. Alix E. Harrow won last year’s Hugo for Short Story (and it was my favorite of the nominees), so I’m curious to see if she can translate that success to novel size with The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Gideon the Ninth appears to be Tamsyn Muir’s debut, and it sounds like a fun fantasy in space. I’ve been mixed on Charlie Jane Anders in the past. On the one hand, I nominated her short story a few years back. On the other hand, I was more mixed on All the Birds in the Sky, which has a nice whimsical tone, but the mixture of SF and fantasy didn’t quite work for me. Her new novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, sounds similar to that. Finally, The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley appears to be military SF, but I haven’t particularly loved Hurley’s work in the past. Every year, I wonder if I should keep participating. This shortlist looks decent in comparison to last year, but it’s pretty heavily focused on fantasy, and even the SF seems less like my particular cup of tea. Then again, current circumstances have conspired to give me extra reading time and I’m actually looking forward to a couple of the fantasy stories, so perhaps I’ll soldier on.
  • In the shorter fiction categories, I see that two Ted Chiang stories from Exhalation made the list. I foolishly saw the publication history page of that book and didn’t realize that not all the stories were listed (i.e. I thought all the stories in that collection were previously published, but a couple were new and thus eligible). Of the two nominated stories, I really liked the novella “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”. I actually recognize a couple of the other novellas, but the rest of the pack is new to me, though most of the authors have been nominated before.
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form continues to befuddle me. On the one hand, I like the nomination of Us. On the on the other hand, how on earth does Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker make the list? Marvel movies always make the cut, but even this crop seems a bit weak. Also? Two different tv seasons were nominated? What’s going on here? Anyway, pour one out for Prospect and The Kid Who Would Be King, both worthy of your attention (and better and far more interesting than the likes of The Rise of Skywalker).
  • In an unusual twist, I’ve already seen 4 of the 6 nominees for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. But the question remains: if Watchmen was good enough to garner two nominations in the short form category, why weren’t people nominating it for long form? What criteria are people using to determine when a series should be rewarded in short form vs long form?
  • The 1945 Retro Hugo Award finalists were also announced last week. The thing that jumped out at me the most was Theodore Sturgeon’s novella “Killdozer!” which is about exactly what you think it’s about. Best Dramatic Presentation has the usual smattering of Universal monsters and RKO horror, but a couple other interesting nominees that I might have to check out…

I’ll probably make my way through at least some of this stuff, but then again, I’ve got the new Scalzi coming next week and the new Murderbot novel coming a few weeks later so… we’ll just have to see.

Hugo Award Season 2020

The nomination period for the 2020 Hugo Awards closed yesterday, so I figured it was time to take a gander at what’s coming. I didn’t read a ton of eligible works this year, or, at least, a bunch of stuff I read didn’t feel nomination-worthy. I did manage to nominate two novels and a novella though:

I estimate an approximate 1% chance that either of the novels will actually make the ballot, but I really enjoyed both of them and think they’re worth checking out. Bujold has secured nominations for the Penric novellas before (not to mention being in the running for most nominated author of all time, maybe?), so there’s actually a pretty good chance this one will be nominated (let’s say 75% chance).

I read plenty of other eligible works, but nothing that really rose to nomination quality. Longtime readers know I’m totally in the bag for Neal Stephenson, but while half of Fall; or Dodge in Hell was fantastic, the other half was a bit murky, even for me. My anecdotal assessment is that most eligible voters will feel the same way. Michael Mammay’s Spaceside was on the bubble and I enjoyed it just fine, but I didn’t feel like it did enough to warrant the nomination. I really loved Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, but it’s a short story (or novelette/novella) collection and… all of the components were already published before 2019 and thus not really eligible.

In accordance with tradition, my Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form will avoid the most mainstream options, but I fully expect the category to be dominated by Marvel/Star Wars anyway.

All three nominees did well in my year-end movie awards and Top 10/Honorable Mentions, but the only one that seems to have a real chance at making the ballot is Us. There are two other quasi-indie darlings out thre, Ad Astra and High Life, but I didn’t particularly enjoy either, so I left them off my ballot. Midsommar and The Lighthouse are more borderline cases, but I didn’t really go out on a limb for them because I don’t really love them either. I fully expect stuff like Avengers: Endgame (which, to be fair, I really enjoyed) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (which I did not love) to make the ballot, along with some other mainstream stuff.

There’s also a Retro Hugo Awards this year for 1945 (covering stuff made in 1944), but I sadly did not dedicate a lot of time to this stuff. I really should have sought out Theodore Sturgeon’s Killdozer! because it’s something I’d always heard about, but it can’t possibly be as good as the title implies, can it? There are a some Clifford D. Simak and Leigh Brackett stories that I’d probably be into reading too, but I never got to them. I only really nominated for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, with two pretty obvious entries:

There are a bunch of other Universal monster movies that could qualify that I never sought out, so I’m the worst. Also, there’s a movie called The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks that looks promising, but again, I never really got there. The Scarlet Claw seems like it could work too. Man, I should have spent more time on this (in fairness, I’ve been busy with the 1978 project).

No need for recommendations at this point, since nominations have actually closed, but I’m pretty curious to see how things play out. I’m actually on the fence as to whether or not I’ll participate this year. I don’t mind stretching myself or getting out of my comfort zone, but the last several years (i.e. almost the entire time I’ve formally participated) have been pretty rough, so… we’ll see what the nominations hold…

Hugo Awards 2019: The Results

The 2019 Hugo Award winners were announced just a few hours ago, so now it’s time for the requisite jubilant celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I participated this year, but my enthusiasm has been waning over the past several years. 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 Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal won best novel, which isn’t exactly surprising (it’s already won the Nebula and Locus awards), but I must confess, wasn’t really my thing. This makes four years in a row where my least favorite novel wins the award. Perhaps more of a statement of preferences and taste than anything else. My preferred pick, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver came in a relatively close second place, so there is that. As expected, Space Opera came in dead last but clearly had some ardent defenders (this seems like the sort of novel that performs poorly in instant-runoff votes).
  • Martha Wells’ Murderbot takes home the novella award for the second year in a row with Artificial Condition winning. Of note in the nomination stats is that the other two Murderbot Novellas released last year could also have made the ballot, but Wells must have declined nominations for those. This speaks to the popularity of this series, which is very much my jam. I did not have time to read all the novella finalists, but I suspect this would have been at or near the top of my ballot. Alas, we’ll have to wait for 2020 for the next Murderbot story, which will be a novel that seems like a shoe-in for another nomination.
  • “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow wins the short story award, and was also my choice.
  • Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series wins for Best Series, further cementing how weird this particular award is. I think there’s a place for rewarding longrunning series, but the devil is in the details and the results thusfar have been rather strange. This, for example, is a series consisting of three novels, two of which have been nominated for Best Novel already. I thought the point was the recognize stuff like The Wheel of Time – something immensely popular, but which never made it onto the Novel ballot. Weirdly, Wayfarers doesn’t seem particularly popular, though obviously popular enough that it could beat out The Laundry Files and October Daye, amongst others. I still remain opposed to this award due to the logistical complications around the award, most notably the near impossibility of reading all the nominated work in the time allotted.
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse wins for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. It was also my pick and certainly the best of the nominated works, but I remain vexed by this award, which almost always gravitates towards the most mainstream choices possible, while interesting stuff like Upgrade and The Endless don’t even make the longlist (though the latter may be disqualified due to potentially being viewed as a 2017 release). That being said, if you’re in the market for interesting SF movies, you should check those out. They’re great, and more worthy of recognition than, say, The Avengers.
  • Of the other awards, one winner stands out, which is “Archive of Our Own” for Best Related Work. I haven’t kept up with this category or the debate around this particular nomination, but I gather some controversy surrounds this site, which is essentially a Fan Fiction portal. Again, I don’t especially have any thoughts either way, but I’m expecting some bonkers takes on this award win.
  • The 1944 Retro Hugo Winners were also announced recently. I didn’t read extensively, but I was happy to see “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” by Lewis Padgett take the rocket, and Heaven Can Wait is the clear winner of Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. The Short Form award went to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which I do find surprising. I was expecting Bugs Bunny to run away with that one, but I guess not. I don’t think they’ve released the detailed stats yet, but hey, at least Batman didn’t win…

So there you have it. Congrats to all the winners. Not a bad year, but I do find my interest in the Hugos waning. I will probably submit a nominating ballot next year (since I already have the ability), but I haven’t been too enthused by the last few ballots, so who knows if I’ll continue to play along.

2019 Hugo Awards: Final Ballot

The voting deadline for this year’s Hugo Awards was last week, so I figured I’d post my final ballot. It’s mostly fiction awards, with a couple others thrown in for good measure, including some of the 1944 retro Hugo categories.

Best Novel

  1. Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik [My Review]
  2. Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee [My Review]
  3. Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse [My Review]
  4. Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers [My Review]
  5. Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente [My Review]
  6. The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal [My Review]

This is a modest year for the Hugo novels. I enjoyed my top two ranked entries, but neither were as good as other offerings from the same authors in the past few years. The next two are fine, but I’m not sure they quite hit the “best of the year” levels required by an award. And the bottom two really just didn’t work for me, even if they’ve got some redeeming qualities overall (no need to deploy No Award here). Of course, I’m the worst, so I haven’t read a ton of other stuff from 2018 that would qualify, and while I really enjoyed, for example, Scalzi’s The Consuming Fire, I don’t think it reaches Hugo levels either.

Best Novella and Novelette

I skipped both categories this year, mostly just because I ran out of time and would rather spend my time reading Stephenson’s new novel (which starts great, but appears to be trailing off…) than Shawshanking my way through these categories. Of what I read, I did enjoy The Murderbot Diaries stuff (looking forward to the upcoming novel) and The Tea Master and the Detective, so make of that what you will.

Best Short Story

  1. A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow
  2. The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker
  3. The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher
  4. The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander
  5. STET” by Sarah Gailey
  6. The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark

See My Reviews for more info. A mixed bag, as per usual for short stories, but I really enjoyed the first two ranked stories here. In an unlikely turn of events, I feel like both of those stories are frontrunners for the actual award as well, so obviously this will end up with one of the stories I didn’t love.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  2. Sorry to Bother You
  3. Annihilation
  4. Black Panther
  5. Avengers: Infinity War
  6. A Quiet Place

As per usual, this award gets filled up with the most mainstream stuff, but a couple of smaller things snuck their way onto the list, which is good enough, I guess. Of course, my number one is pretty mainstream, but it’s so great.

1944 Retro Hugos: Best Novelette

  1. “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” by Lewis Padgett (C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner) (Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943)
  2. “The Halfling,” by Leigh Brackett (Astonishing Stories, February 1943)
  3. “Citadel of Lost Ships,” by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, March 1943)
  4. “The Proud Robot,” by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner) (Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943)
  5. “Symbiotica,” by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding Science-Fiction, October 1943)
  6. “Thieves’ House,” by Fritz Leiber, Jr (Unknown Worlds, February 1943)

Not much to say here, I really enjoy the first two stories, the rest are a bit mixed.

1944 Retro Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Heaven Can Wait
  2. Phantom of the Opera
  3. Cabin in the Sky
  4. A Guy Named Joe
  5. Münchhausen
  6. No Award

No Award deployed because the 1943 Batman is hot garbage. Heaven Can Wait is the pretty clear winner here though, and it’s not especially close.

1944 Retro Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

  1. I Walked with a Zombie
  2. Super-Rabbit
  3. The Seventh Victim
  4. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
  5. Der Fuehrer’s Face
  6. No Award

No Award deployed because The Ape Man is awful. It’s funny that all the Val Lewton/RKO and Universal Horror movies are technically Short Form (because they’re all 70-75 minutes or so), but here we are. The Looney Tunes stuff is great too.

So that just about does it for the Hugos this year. The ceremony is in a few weeks, so stay tuned to see who actually wins…

Hugo Awards: Space Opera

Comedian Martin Mull famously quipped “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” This is something of a problem for Catherine Valente’s Hugo-nominated novel, Space Opera, seeing as though the story is about a Eurovision-style Galactic Grand Prix music contest. Earth is home to one of the latest discovered species and must thus prove their sentience by competing in the Grand Prix. Of course, if they come in last place, they face sudden and complete extermination. The Galaxy helpfully provides a list of Earth musicians who could perhaps stand a chance, but the only living musician on the list is one Decibel Jones, a washed-up David Bowie wannabe glam rock act.

If this all sounds rather stupid, well, that’s because it is. Valente herself proclaims it to be so during the opening of the novel while unceremoniously doing away with the Fermi Paradox by claiming that “…life is the opposite of rare and precious. It’s everywhere; it’s wet and sticky; it has all the restraint of a toddler left too long at day care without a juice box. And life, it all its infinite and tender intergalactic variety, would have gravely disappointed poor gentle-eyed Enrico Fermi had he lived only a little longer, for it is deeply, profoundly, execrably stupid.” The refrain that “Life is beautiful. And life is stupid.” is frequently bandied about, and I suppose its meant to inoculate the novel from its mostly dumb premises (Narrator: It does not.) This is the sort of thing best used with restraint, and tends to collapse when used to prop up an entire novel. The prose is written with an unearned confidence and contempt that gets old real fast, and ultimately makes no sense (she takes lots of potshots and what I’m sure she deems easy targets, and it comes off smarmy at best). Of course, it’s all meant to be comedy, and there are some nice turns of phrase and I maybe chuckled a few times, but this comes nowhere near the heights of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett (while being indebted to both authors).

The plot isn’t even particularly original. In particular, the same basic premise was used in a Rick and Morty episode from a few years ago… and it didn’t even particularly work well in that case. You could thus say that it’s a ripe premise to steal and do it right this time, I guess, but that didn’t particularly happen here either. The plot is paper thin, besotted with nonsensical and uninteresting tangents, and the characters are childish and unlikable. Unoriginality isn’t necessarily a death blow; look no further than this year’s nominated Spinning Silver, which is clearly based on well-known European folklore, but manages to spin and add to its influences in original ways. Space Opera has no such redeeming qualities when it comes to its derivative ideas.

So no, I did not like this book. But! I can kinda see why it’s nominated. The plot and the characters are uninspired, to be sure, but the prose does sometimes, er, sing. To be sure, there’s a fine line between interminable run-on sentences and Pynchon-esque panache, and for me it was much more the former than the latter, but I can see how some would cotton to the style and think it worthy of a nomination. Take, for instance, this quick digression:

You might think that Musmar the Night Manager could not possibly have known about the regional human holiday known as Halloween, but by one of those many curious coincidences that comprise the only real evidence for a divine and wobbling hand in the design of the universe, some variant of Halloween is celebrated by every sentient species in the galaxy. There is, it would appear, something about the achievement of sentience that immediately fills the afflicted with the longing to become something else, something brighter, something wilder and more fearsome and morbid and covered in felt and glue and glitter, to escape into the mask of some other impossible life, and to afterward consume vast quantities of sweets.

As a big fan of Halloween, I rather liked that bit… but as mentioned earlier, this sort of thing gets old fast. Your mileage may vary, but this does seem like the sort of thing where a small but devoted coterie of readers loved this so much that they got it onto the ballot, while the masses aren’t really willing to put up with this sort of style over substance. I can see and respect the stylistic flair here, but only on an intellectual level. Mostly I just don’t get it. It’s all just dancing about architecture.

As you can no doubt tell, this will be at or near the bottom of my ballot. Interestingly, I suspect that this will do well in the first round of voting (the Hugos use an Instant Runoff Voting system), but drop off a cliff once the second round commences. Spinning Silver will be getting my number one vote at this point, with Revenant Gun and Trail of Lightning taking the number two and three spots respectively (I go back and forth on ranking these two though), followed by Record of a Spaceborn Few, and finally Space Opera and The Calculating Stars bringing up the rear. This wraps up the Hugo Best Novel finalists. I may find some time to do novellas and/or novelettes, but I’ve got plenty of other stuff to read at this point, so who knows?

Hugo Awards: The Calculating Stars

In 1952, a huge meteorite lands off the eastern coast of the U.S.A., obliterating Washington D.C. and the surrounding environs. This initial destruction is only the start, however, as the strike boils enough water to initially result in dramatic cooling on a global scale. But water vapor is a greenhouse gas, so after this initial cooldown, the earth will experience an accelerated greenhouse effect, potentially to the point where the oceans will boil and the earth will become uninhabitable. Elma York and her husband Nathaniel are scientists and mathematicians who managed to survive the initial impact, and quickly become embroiled in a new space race, but instead of the soviets, we’re racing global warming to establish a colony on Mars. So goes the initial setup of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo nominated novel The Calculating Stars.

It’s a cool premise with lots of potential… and if it sounds a little familiar, that’s because it’s rather similar to the idea behind Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. Kowal attempts to differentiate this by shifting the timeline back to the 1950s, drawing out the timeline to get out to space, and narrowly focusing on characters and woke social issues. After the initial burst of action from the meteorite hit, the novel slows considerably as Kowal focuses on Elma’s battles against the sexist, racist, anti-semitic forces aligned against her, not to mention a crippling anxiety problem. It’s never boring and Kowal’s style is crisp and clear, mostly free from hooptedoodle, but my mind kept wandering. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but most of my questions about the worldbuilding or technology or even some of the characters basically went unanswered.

The frustrating part about this story is that it’s clear that Kowal knows her space-race era stuff, but is primarily content to leave that in the background. Tidbits and tantalizing hints of fascinating engineering challenges and space travel problems are dropped here and there (showing that Kowal probably spent a lot of time researching and thinking about these things) and they keep the story just interesting enough, but they are clearly not the focus of the novel. Maybe she just assumes most of the people reading her book are already quite familiar with early NASA technology and practices (a fair assumption), but this is supposed to be a science fiction book, and we get precious little of that sort of geeking out. Alright fine, so it’s more a novel about how Elma and friends combat bigotry in an effort to save the human race, right? Well, sure, but even that gets pretty short shrift. There’s a lot of prose devoted to that, to be sure, but Kowal tries to be so inclusive that a lot of it comes off as only being a cursory examination of a particular issue. A huge, diverse cast of characters is introduced, but are rarely fleshed out beyond their differentiating characteristics, ironically leaving many of the portrayals feeling rather stereotypical.

Indeed, the biggest thing holding Elma back from achieving her goal is not sexism or anti-semitism, but rather her crippling anxiety when confronted with reporters and TV interviews (she’s fine under pressure as a pilot or doing complex equations in her head, but she gets severe stage fright whenever she has to give an interview). This struggle with anxiety is actually the best portrayed issue in the book and the only one that really stands out effectively (it is rare to see this sort of topic tackled well), but that only serves to undercut the other issues she frequently brings up. Even that issue is solved rather easily by taking a medication that doesn’t result in complications, other than the fact that she tries to hide it from the space program (which the main villain of the piece tries unsuccessfully to use against her – spoilers, I guess, but it’s not hard to see where this is going).

As a result of the narrow focus on characters, the rest of the worldbuilding also left me wanting. Washington D.C. is destroyed, but we don’t see much of the fallout of that (much more time is spent on our protagonist’s relatives, who lived in the region). There’s a brief mention that the Soviets were hit hardest by the miniature ice-age and that the union dissolved or somesuch. China is briefly addressed. There’s some food riots that happen at one point (after all, the meteorite hit in Spring, meaning that summer crops were probably not very successful), but only peripherally. The space program is better covered, but never really takes full shape because we’re so laser focused on a small group of characters. Ditto for the sense of urgency, which seems awfully vague considering the planet is supposed to be rendered uninhabitable in the near future. As with the whole space program details above, it seems like Kowal thought about all this and developed a realistic alternate history, but consigned it to the background.

After I finished the book, I went on a mini-binge of space-race stuff. Apollo 11 is a recently released documentary with restored, high-definition footage from the moon landing mission. It’s spectacular, featuring never-seen-before footage that looks amazing and while I’m not exactly a scholar of the era, there were a few tidbits that I’d never seen portrayed before. Highly recommended! From the Earth to the Moon is an HBO mini-series from the late 90s (a sorta precursor to prestige TV) that covers a lot of ground in the Apollo program (I’m about halfway through this rewatch, and it’s about is good as I remember – I particularly love the episode titled Spider, which is about the design of the lunar module). Then I watched Capricorn One, a schlocky conspiracy thriller about faking a Mars mission. Certainly not high-art, but better and more fun than I’d have expected.

Kowal covers a lot of ground in The Calculating Stars, but the issue is that it’s already well tread ground. So well tread that I kept thinking of other things that did it better, even in non-fiction. From Seveneves to Hidden Figures to diving down a rabbit whole wondering who the woman in the control room was in the aforementioned Apollo 11 documentary (her name was JoAnn Morgan and she has an interesting story), I got more out of all this supplementary stuff than out of the book itself. Maybe that’s unfair? But we don’t read in a vacuum, all these things are connected and I can’t help but wonder about the premise here. The idea of establishing colonies in space using 50s era technology is great, but it’s a shame that this book only skims the surface of so many fascinating parts of that. Even the areas focused on don’t feel entirely baked. There is a sequel to this novel called The Fated Sky, which seems like maybe it would cover more dorky space stuff or get at some of the other things I was interested in, but I can’t really gin up any enthusiasm to proceed (and it’s not nominated either, which it easily could have been given the way the Hugos work).

I’m clearly in the minority here when it comes to this book though. It’s been well received and most readers seem to get a lot more out of it than I do, which is great. Not everything has to be for me, and I can respect a well constructed novel (which this is), even if I didn’t entirely connect with it. That being said, it will end up somewhere near the bottom of my Hugo ballot.

Hugo Awards: Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver is a standalone fantasy novel by Naomi Novik and it’s been nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards. A previous novel, Uprooted, was also nominated a few years ago, and I quite enjoyed it (I was one of the ones nominating it). Alas, it lost out to the Jemison juggernaut. This year’s entry seems like it could fare better.

In a small village, a young Jewish girl named Miryem lives with her father, a particularly ineffectual money-lender who is barely able to keep the family afloat. When her mother falls ill, Miryem takes up the mantle and starts collecting debts from their neighbors, who had clearly been taking advantage of her father’s incompetence. It turns out that she has quite a knack for it. She’s so adept that she gains a reputation of being able to turn silver into gold, which draws the attention of the Staryks, wintery fae folk who live in the forest and torment the locals. The icy Staryk king leaves a bag of silver for Miryem, insisting that she turn the silver into gold. She takes the silver to a jeweler who fashions it into a ring, which they sell to the duke for gold. Unphased, the Staryk king continues to ask Miryem to convert silver into even more gold two more times, which results in a necklace and crown, both sold to the same duke. The duke hopes the fancy jewelry will attract the Tsar to marry his daughter Irina, which he does (though not apparently because of the jewelry).

Having converted ever increasing amounts of silver into gold, the Staryk king reluctantly pledges to marry Miryem, making her the queen of his ice kingdom. For her part, Miryem finds that in the Staryk realm, she is actually able to magically transform silver into gold, but she’s obviously not happy being married to a monster, and seeks escape. Meanwhile, Irina has married the Tsar, but found him oddly disinterested. Her jewelry, made from Staryk silver, has magical powers that let her walk through mirrors into a snowy landscape. She quickly realizes that the Tsar is possessed by some sort of fiery demon that wants to literally consume her, so she uses her jewelry to hide in the mirror, thus foiling the fire demon.

So Miryem and Irina are both stuck in unwanted marriages to minor deities, and must find a way to extricate themselves from the situation, all while protecting the common folk from the dangerous conflict that’s brewing. It’s a song of ice and fire, if you will, but much more compact (and less grim).

If some of the plot details sound a bit familiar, that’s because Novik has based a fair amount of this story on European folklore, particularly the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but with other legends like the Chernobog weaved in for flavor and depth. And of course, this is obviously a much expanded and more detailed story than Rumpelstiltskin (which is probably shorter than this review).

As with Novik’s previous Hugo nominee, Uprooted, this is a standalone novel, which is a breath of fresh air in the series-laden fantasy genre. I think I may like that earlier book a bit better, but this one will clearly do well on my Hugo Novel ballot this year. It’s a good story, told well.

I was quite pleased with the novel, but I do have a few minor complaints. One is that the grand majority of the novel is told in first-person, but switches viewpoints seamlessly, meaning that it takes a minute before you realize which character you’re with. Also, while this is a standalone, the pacing does flag a bit in the middle, especially once you glean the general direction of the various plotlines. The two main threads, with Miryem and Irina, fare pretty well, but there is a third thread featuring a woman named Wanda, who Miryem had hired as an assistant (Wanda’s labor is basically paying off her drunken father’s debts). Wanda’s story generally drags a bit, and doesn’t quite have the heft of Miryem and Irina’s predicament (it shares thematic similarities, but those events end up feeling a bit redundant). It takes a bit too long for Novik to pull the various plot threads into a cohesive whole. But tighten those threads she does, and in pretty satisfying and sometimes unexpected ways. The ending left me fully satisfied, though there is one odd grace note, a romantic pairing that seemed like it was a bit too abrupt (and probably could have been seeded better earlier in the story). All in all, these flaws are easily overlooked, especially in a genre known for expansive bloat.

The story carries with it much in the way of thematic heft, touching on economics, the power dynamics of marriage, climate-change, and anti-semitism (amongst other ideas), but doing so in a largely organic way that emerges from the story. Nothing feels bolted-on or out of place. Likewise, there’s no hectoring lectures here. But the themes are present and allow for thought and exploration.

So it’s a fun little fantasy story, well written and satisfying, and as such, I’m expecting it to be near or at the top of my Hugo ballot. I still have to finish two additional nominees, but from what I’ve read of those so far, I don’t see anything overtaking this one.