The Hugo Nominee Ballot, Part 2

The Hugo Nominee Ballot, Part 2

This is a follow-up to my previous post about the Hugo nominees in various categories of fiction. Last time I discussed the short story, novelette, and John W. Campbell shortlists. Today, I’ll discuss the novella and novel shortlists.

Best Novella

My choices: Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente and The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson

The Best Novella shortlist was easily the hardest one to vote for on the entire ballot, as both of the novellas listed above were extraordinary.

Silently and Very Fast is the story of Elefsis, an artificial intelligence that has interacted with the bodies and minds of one family over generations – they inherit it and merge with it in dreams. But it’s also about much more than that. It’s about the freedom that dreams afford us to imagine the beautiful and fantastical. It’s about the layers of resentment that build up when families have predicated their identities so thoroughly on one thing that to try to live a life outside of that thing is nearly impossible. It’s about the fear we have for the machines that will eventually replace us. It’s about fairy tales. Above all, though, it’s about Elefsis’ bone-deep need to be recognized as a being with needs and wants as complex as any human’s.

The Man Who Bridged the Mist is about Kit Meinem, an engineer from the capital coming to a small riverside town to build a bridge. This is not just any river, though – the current is made not of water, but of a roiling, caustic mist with no riverbed beneath it. Giant creatures writhe in its depths and the only method of crossing it is by ferry. However, the ferry is sporadic at best, as the ferrymen and women can sense the river’s moods and cross only when they feel it is safe to do so. The bridge could transform the sleepy little town into a vital trading centre, but it would also mean the loss of the ferrypeople’s livelihoods. Of course, the bridge is not just a symbol for the town, but for the engineer himself, a distant man who slowly but surely – and to his own surprise – becomes an integral part of the community.

Both novellas display assured pacing and characterization. I especially appreciated the “rightness” of the ending for Bridged the Mist, and was happy that Kij Johnson didn’t break the ruminative, contemplative tone of her story by inserting needless  drama into it. However, I ended up making Silently and Very Fast my first choice in this category because its ambitions were so outsized, and it was working on a much broader canvas.

The others: (in no particular order)

  • Kiss Me Twice by Mary Robinette Kowal -This was a fun police procedural set in the future, where cops solve cases with the assistance of AIs that they interact with through VR glasses. Metta, the Portland police department’s AI, has been stolen, and it’s up to detective Scott Huang, working in tandem with a backup of Metta, to understand the case. It’s an interesting concept with a great workaround for mashing up Hollywood glamour with sci-fi tropes – Metta’s avatar when she works with Detective Huang spouts Mae West quotes – but ultimately, the central mystery left too many questions unanswered for me to enjoy it.
  • Countdown by Mira Grant – This novella is a prequel to Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, and explains the genesis of the trilogy’s zombie plague. However, the novella itself was plagued by flat, dead writing. I felt no spark when I read this – the text felt like a lifeless series of “this happened, and then that happened” occurrences. It brought to mind all of the other zombie/plague stories I’ve read – The Stand, World War Z, etc – and suffered immeasurably by comparison.
  • The Ice Owl by Carolyn Ives Gilman – This was a science fiction story with faster-than-light travel and hypersleep that also incorporated elements of the Holocaust into the plot. Its biggest flaw was the relationship between the main character, Thorn, and her mother, Maya. In the end, Thorn decided to run away from her mother, because she was sick of Maya’s bohemian, peripatetic ways – Maya’s carelessness resulted in the death of the title animal, the last of its species, which was given as a gift to Thorn by a friend. However, when Thorn arrived at her destination after years of hypersleep, her first independent taste of hostility had her running back into her mother’s conveniently nearby arms. The characters were unvinvolving, the references to the Holocaust were ham-fisted, and the setting was unmemorable. This was easily the weakest nominee on the novella shortlist.
  • The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary by Ken Liu – What if time travel actually worked, but time travellers could revisit the same time and place only once? The Man Who Ended History is the story of how one man’s idealistic use of time travel – to unearth the truth surrounding Unit 731 – ended up causing an international diplomatic crisis. Most intriguing was the formatting of the story as the transcript of a real documentary, complete with descriptions of camera movements. I appreciated Liu’s skill in telling this story, but it was depressing, to say the least.

Best Novel

My choice: None.

This may sound harsh, but it really isn’t. On the ballot, you can list your votes in order of rank. you can state that none of the nominees deserve to win, or – as I did – you can abstain from voting altogether. I abstained because I didn’t feel informed enough to make a choice. Here’s what happened with each of the nominees:

  • A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin – I didn’t read this book. I haven’t read a single book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and I didn’t want (or have the time) to read the 4 gargantuan novels that preceded it in order to determine ADwD‘s own merits. My guess is that this one will win the Hugo anyway – HBO has allowed Martin’s books to reach critical mass with the public, and the fact that the TV show is now so popular/recognizable will definitely affect its vote count. Think, for example, of the 2001 Hugo award given to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – you can bet that it won not because of a large slate of informed fantasy afficionadoes, but because it had a huge fan base. In a nice bit of irony, Harry Potter won out over A Storm of Swords, another book in Martin’s series.
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey – I reviewed this one previously. It was a fun story, and I am definitely considering reading the sequels, one of which is already out. But as I said in my review, I don’t think that this book was groundbreaking or ambitious enough for it to be considered award-worthy.
  • Deadline by Mira Grant – I didn’t read this one either. In general, I decided I didn’t want to bother with catching up to the latest books in series that I wasn’t familiar with. Anyways, if the calibre of writing in Deadline matched that found in Countdown – mentioned above – I’m probably better off for skipping it.
  • Among Others by Jo Walton – I just posted my review for this one a few days ago. I appreciated the depth of effort that went into making Mor a living, breathing person, but the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying. Also, as I mentioned in my review, I’m worried that the book’s built-in references to and praise for various genre books from the late 1970s was a calculated attempt to win voters/judges over.
  • Embassytown by China Mieville – Alas, we come to the odd book of the bunch – the one I started to read, but could not finish. I am aware of Mieville’s critical reputation, and I am aware that he’s a very acquired taste. However, I just could not get through this book. I bailed about 10% of the way in. The book’s world-building was thorough, but too immersive in the sense that Mieville just expected you to accept the realities of his world without any context. Does this speak to an intellectual laziness on my part? Perhaps. But at the very least, I’d like to understand what I’m reading.

What does this mean in the long run?

This was the first time I’ve ever voted on the Hugo ballot. Overall, I was very pleased with the experience, as I got to read the work of a number of writers that were previously unknown to me, like Karen Lord’s wondrous Redemption in Indigo. It cost only $50 to get the support membership package, which meant that I got the entire collection of fiction on the ballot – all of the Short Story, Novelette, Novella, Novel, and John W. Campbell Award nominees – for a ludicrously good price. And it was all in electronic format, meaning I could upload the whole thing to my Kobo! Pure bliss.

Paying the membership fee also means I can nominate good works for next year’s ballot. Given the choice, I would gladly do this all over again in 2013.

On a related note, the World Fantasy Convention just released their shortlist for this year’s World Fantasy Awards. This is a set of juried prizes, but it’s pleasant to see some overlap between the WFA and Hugo ballots.