Thursday, March 16, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Best Novel and Campbell Award

Well, here we are at last.  With a little more than a day left in the Hugo nominating period, it's time for the last two categories.  These are, in many ways, the big two (though possibly I'm giving the Campbell more cachet than it has for most voters--I just find it very interesting), but also the ones where it's tough to gather enough momentum to get interesting work on the ballot.  This year, for example, I'm taking it as a given that the Best Novel trophy belongs to Connie Willis, which, if you know my tastes, you can probably guess doesn't thrill me.  But though I wouldn't call 2016 a standout year for novel-length genre fiction, there were several very interesting and worthwhile works published this year, not to mention new authors that I'm sure will go to great things.

(I don't plan to nominate in the special category of Best Series, both because I find it poorly defined, and because I haven't read a lot of work that qualifies.  I suppose I could have nominated Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence, but I didn't get around to reading Europe in Winter before the nominating deadline.)

(As usual, I relied for my Campbell nominations on the invaluable resource that is Writertopia's Campbell eligibility page.)

Previous posts in this series:


Best Novel:

Most years I complain about not reading enough recent books to nominate in this category, but I actually read quite a lot of 2016 genre novels.  Nevertheless, there are several books I wish I'd managed to finish before the nominating deadline--chiefly Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning, but also Emma Newman's After Atlas and Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Winter.

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman (review) - As I've said, this feels more like a Clarke award book than a Hugo award one, but nevertheless Alderman's chilling, Handmaid's Tale-esque story about a world in which women suddenly develop the ability to shoot bolts of electricity from their bodies, upending the world's balance of violent potential, is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking works of science fiction I've read in some time.  What's most interesting about The Power is that while it is undeniably a book about gender and the role that violence plays in maintaining gender roles, that's not its main interest.  What Alderman is doing with her premise is using it to discuss the role that violence and the use of force play in organizing our society, even when we pretend to be beyond them.  That feels like a vital issue at this point in time.

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee - I wasn't as blown away by Lee's debut novel as some--under all its bells and whistles, the plot struck me as quite conventional, and the book feels hampered by being the first volume in a trilogy.  But none of that changes the fact that this is one of the most distinctive and fascinating space operas to emerge from a period that was already testing that genre's limits and capabilities.  Lee has been doing tremendous work in short fiction for years, but with Ninefox Gambit he synthesizes many of the ideas in those stories--most especially, the notion that math, and the basic axioms of your mathematical system, can be used as a weapon of war--into an effective and involving story of space battles and sieges.

  • The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (review) - One of the best books I read in 2016, Samatar's sequel/companion to A Stranger in Olondria got less attention than that earlier book, but quite undeservedly.  It is, in many ways, a more conventional work than Olondria, one that plops the reader in the middle of a fantasy-world civil war.  But it's also, like the previous volume, an examination of its own genre, of the effect that writing and storifying can have on history and our understanding of it, of the uses to which empire puts those effects, and of the roles that women are allowed in such stories.  And, like so much of Samatar's work, it is beautifully written, set in an instantly winning world, and people with indelible characters.

  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (review) - It actually took me a little while to realize that Whitehead's exceptional, heart-wrenching novel about slavery was eligible for the Hugo, perhaps because of the gloss of respectability that attends a novel that has been so widely lauded.  But The Underground Railroad, which uses a fantasy premise to decouple American racism from any one period in time and sends its heroine on a journey through the different forms that it has taken over the centuries, is a genre work in almost exactly the same way as previous Hugo winner The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and like that novel it reveals the ways that genre can be used to make necessary observations about the state of the world today.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer:

  • Joseph Allen Hill - Hill wowed me with his novelette "The Venus Effect", which cannily examines genre tropes and which kind of people can end up being excluded from them.  He's also published other stories--"We'll Be Together Forever" from 2015 and "You Can't See It 'Til It's Finished" from 2016--which reveal an intriguing and unique voice, combining surrealist and metafictional elements with a quirky sense of humor.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Malka Older - Older's 2015 story "Tear Tracks" was an unexpected surprise that has lingered with me, and her debut novel Infomocracy more than lives up to the promise of that early work.  Nearly alone among writers imagining the near-future, Older focuses on the changing face of democracy, and on the role that information technology plays in those changes.  She writes about these topics with a clarity that is obviously rooted in a keen observation of the state of the world around--there is scarcely a bit of Infomocracy's worldbuilding that doesn't feel achingly relevant to our present moment.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Laurie Penny - Penny has been an outspoken and incisive feminist activist and non-fiction author for several years now, so it's kind of unfair for her to reveal that she's also a pretty good fiction writer.  Her novella Everything Belongs to the Future, and short story "Your Orisons May Be Recorded", reveal a good eye for details, a winning sense of humor, and a deft hand at combining politics with good fiction.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Tade Thompson - Thompson's novel Rosewater--a fungus-based work of cyberpunk in the vein of Lauren Beukes's Moxyland--is a little more interesting for its worldbuilding than its story.  But the worldbuilding is indeed very interesting, describing a world in which aliens invaded several decades ago, and physically altered a portion of humanity, but no one really knows what to do about that.  Set in Nigeria and focusing on a ne'er-do-well "sensitive" who can access the "xenosphere" created by the presence of alien fungus on Earth, Rosewater combines politics and technology, imagining how the irretrievable alteration of the world looks from the parts of it that have come last in the old order.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Tamara Vardomskaya - Vardomskaya caught my attention this year with the novelette "Polyglossia", but when I went back to look I realized that I'd read and liked several other stories by her, including "Acrobatic Duality" from 2015, and "The Three Dancers of Gizari" from 2016.  In all of her work, she constructs fascinating fantasy worlds in which the focus is on art and creativity--and in which those forces are nevertheless vectors for politics, oppression, and conflict.  Second year of eligibility.

5 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

Good stuff. I agree absolutely on The Power: if it's not on the Clarke shortlist then I'll eat my hat. I think I liked Ninefox Gambit more than you did, though I'd agree that there is quite a straightforward story under all the maths-y mindbendiness. I haven't read the Samatar: clearly I need to. The only place where I hesitate is the Whitehead. I read it around the same time I read David Means's Hystopia, two as it were 'literary' genre titles, and at the time my reaction was that Hystopia is a bit of a mess, although an interesting one, where The Underground Railway is powerful and direct. But if I'm honest Whitehead's book has slipped, rather, out of my mind; where the Means one keeps coming back to me. I don't know: maybe the way it literalises the metaphorical railway, although it enables the story, doesn't quite resonate for me (maybe that's because I'm a White Englishman, of course; so maybe I'm not tuning into the broader historical-cultural current), where the frazzled form of Means's novel tangles with its alt-historical 1970s in all sorts of suggesting and memorable ways. Whitehead's characters are a bit underwritten don't you think? I appreciate that's because the book is in part about the way slavery means human beings aren't read as human beings, but still.

It'll be interesting to see how many of these books make the actual Hugo shortlists.

Mondy said...

I sort of agree with Adam in that the Means is a mess of a book, but one that's interesting in a genre way that you don't see much of in actual genre work. It's unique play on alternative history is wonderful, though the story does ramble. It is a novel though whereas the Whitehead (which I loved) felt like a series of thought experiments (smartly realised) that are strung together by the thin thread of the main character's escape from slavery. Still... it was one of my favourite books of the year.

And very happy to see Tade Thompson mentioned. I loved Rosewater, but also his earlier novel Making Wolf. Deserves the attention (I like the story of Rosewater more than you apparently did).

I should read the Alderman. Just got longlisted for the Baileys and I'd also be shocked if it wasn't nominated for the Clarke.

Aoede said...

I've been trying to do a bit of last-minute 2016-fiction catchup myself, but wasn't able to get quite as much as I'd wanted -- and out of what I did read, "The Winged Histories" is still my only nom. (A strong and unhesitant one, but no comrades to join the ranks.) Maybe I have a weakness for such multipartition, but I also thought it was structured/paced better than TSiO.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Adam:

Characterization is definitely The Underground Railroad's weak spot - as I wrote in my review, the book seems to lose sight of Cora after that first, masterful chapter in the plantation where she was born and raised. She becomes more of a viewpoint than a character, though certain aspects of her - in particular, I thought, her anger at her mother - continued to feel real and human all the way to the end. I'm not sure that's a point against the book as a Hugo nominee, though, since using characters as viewpoints onto fantastic or SFnal invention is one of the genre's favorite tricks.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Aoede:

Olondria has some structural issues - the first half is a bit hard to get through, and then the second half just races along. That Histories does so much better, though, strikes me as one of the main reasons to call it a more conventional book. As you say, this is a common fantasy structure, whereas Olondria feels a lot more experimental, like a travelogue or a memoir written for private consumption.

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