Wrap up of the 2018 Hugo Reviews

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Now that I’ve reviewed all the works, it’s time to take a look at the Hugo finalists, and how they fell out this year. Most notable is the absence of Vox Day’s Rabid Puppy inputs, which in the past couple or three award cycles has provided the male diversity. That means ordinary cis men were totally shut out of three of the four Hugo fiction categories for 2018, with Best Short Story, Best Novelette and Best Novella featuring only women, trans and non-binary authors. The Best Novel category also featured two finalists who are possibly political appointees meant as a slap-in-the-face to Vox Day, these being his nemeses N.K. Jemisin and John Scalzi. That leaves the white-male-masterful-crusader Kim Stanley Robinson as the really big wild card in the whole thing.

The next notable feature was the high rate of correspondence between the finalists for the Hugo and the Nebula Award. For the Best Short Story category the only difference was that two men nominated for the Nebula were replaced by women or trans writers. In the Best Novelette category, the same thing happened, but one additional woman was nominated. The most significant difference was in the Best Novel category, where only two of the finalists were the same. This strongly suggests how the same limited system produces both sets of nominees.

Next, the Hugo Awards drew from the same restricted number of publishers as the Nebula. In the novel category, this included: 4 from Orbit, 1 from Tor and 1 from Solaris. In the novella category: 5 from Tor.com and 1 from Uncanny. The novelette and short story categories showed slightly more diversity, drawing from Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Apex. Looking at these results, it’s clear why Rocket Stack Rank only reviews particular magazines. This is pretty much the list of shorter-than-novel publishers with inputs into the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Print magazines are doing so poorly, RSR can probably leave Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF off pretty soon without missing anything important.

Looking at what’s normally counted for diversity, the Hugo has done reasonably well. Best Novel includes 3 women, 2 men, 1 trans, 1 Asian and 1 African American writer. Best Novella includes 5 women, 0 men, 1 non-binary, 1 Asian and 1 African American writer. Best Novelette category includes 4 women, 0 men, 2 trans and 3 Asian writers. Best Short Story includes 6 women, 0 men, 3 Asian and 1 Native American writer. Those who recall my comments from last year will know I’m glad to see a Native American writer appear in the finalists, but we’re still short of Hispanics. These figures work out to be 75% women, 12.5% trans, 8% men and 4% non-binary. Looking at the counted racial categories, it works out to be 55% whites, 33% Asian, 8% African American and 4% Native American. Clearly the preferred finalists are young white and Asian women, while men, African Americans and Hispanics are all hugely underrepresented based on their population demographics. The one finalist works out okay for Native Americans, who are about 2% of the US population.

A couple of things stood out in the themes. First, the list included several repeat appearances from previous years, and also followed the Nebula tendency to nominate the same author in multiple categories. These included Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker and Yoon Ha Lee. The list of Hugo finalists avoided the tendency the Nebula finalists showed for editors, publishers and other industry insiders, but included at least a couple of short works written by popular novelists within the universe of their novels. I took this as unduly promotional. Like the Nebulas, there seemed to be a strong preference for stories with non-binary or trans characters.

This list leans heavily to fantasy and soft science fiction, with a serious lack of ideas and/or hard science fiction. I don’t think Nagata’s work qualifies, regardless that it’s set on Mars. The real stand-out, different work here, again, was Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, which actually attempted to deal with hard science, real politics and real threats to humanity’s future. This is the kind of important work I’d prefer to see appear on the awards ballots.

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Review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction, is published by Orbit and runs 613 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The lower end of Manhattan is now intertidal, flooded by two major pulses of sea-level rise. However, people still live and work there, assisted by new waterproofing technologies to keep basements dry, plus sky bridges and boat docks to assist in getting around. The intertidal economy has been stable for some time, but it’s becoming obvious to residents of the Met Tower that the structures not grounded on bedrock will eventually fall—they need a better housing solution. Hurricane Fyodor appears on their horizon, certain to leave destruction in its wake. Can they take advantage of the disaster to establish a new world order?

This is a fairly complex book. First, there is a broad cast of main characters, all of whom live in the Met. This includes coders Mutt and Jeff, market trader Franklin, cloud star Amelia, building manager Vlade, police inspector Gen, Householders Union rep Charlotte and two kids who live under the docks, Stefan and Roberto. Everybody has their own busy life, but their activities start to overlap as they fend off a hostile takeover of their building, find lost treasure for financing and come up with a workable scheme to remake the world. The book includes a lot of history, economics, finance and science, which weaves through the text, but this is actually character driven. The characters offer each other acceptance and support, and conflict and failure are minimal, which means it comes off as fairly warm and fuzzy. The amount of knowledge and research that must have gone into this is highly impressive, as it covers all of the above, plus the various occupations of the characters, all with detail and authority.

I have to assume the scheme they come up with is the author’s recommendation, as well, which might actually be workable with enough grassroots support. It challenges the way we view politics and business, and suggests the central conflict of our time is between democracy and capitalism. Although many of the elements point to liberal, anarchist, communist or libertarian ideology, events tend to send up these interest groups, as well. Cloud star Amelia is a prime example, the bleeding heart that slept through all the ecology classes in school and thinks it’s a great idea to drop polar bears off in the Antarctic with all those unsuspecting penguins. Other elements make better sense. Europe is pretty well ahead of the US in the ecologically based housing, wind and solar changes recommended here, and we should take note. Robinson has a history of this kind of activism and it looks like he’s reviewing actual theories. I’m suspecting he might be a dedicated revolutionary. As a result, this is the kind of serious, important text that should win awards.

On the not so great side, this moves slowly and is highly idealized. In real life, there would be more conflict and failure. For example, I don’t believe that everyone in the Met tower is a wonderful, caring person, or that the Met can continue to take in and keep refugees without fairly serious plant breakdowns. It’s also hard to believe that the adaptations people have made in the novel (solar, wind, local farms) will have been enough to counter the enormous climate change that the author describes. As a result, this is politically and intellectually provocative, but lacks the kind of emotional impact that would really drive the message home.

Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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Review of The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction, published by Tor, and is part of a two novel series. The second book will be The Consuming Fire, to be released in October 2018. This review contains spoilers.

The Flow is a space-time anomaly that allows interstellar travel in a universe where faster-than-light travel remains impossible. This allows the Interdependency Empire to flourish along its length, but restricts the environments suitable for humans. The people of the Interdependency have gotten around this problem by building space and underground habitats, and the rich economy of the trade empire makes this a worthwhile expenditure, but the habitats are very dependent on the Flow for goods and services to make them workable. Emperox Attavio VI dies and leaves the Empire to his illegitimate daughter Cardenia. She is poorly suited for the position, quickly promoted after the death of her half-brother, and suffers an assassination attempt immediately after her coronation as Emperox Grayland II. Meanwhile, the Flow appears to be drying up. On End, the only habitable planet in the Empire, all the way at the end of the Flow, physicist Jamies Claremont has just finished up a study commissioned by Attavio VI that indicates all the Flow trade routes will fail in the next decade. End is currently consumed by a civil war, financed by the Nohamapetan family to bring down the reigning duke. Can Cardenia figure out what’s going on? Can Jamies’ son Marce convince the emperox, the parliament and the church on Hub that his father’s research is accurate? What are they going to do then?

Good points: This is very well-developed, creative, tightly plotted and character driven. It has a pretty solid basis both in economics and in projections of how space colonization and habitats might go. The spaceship in the novel sounds like NASA’s prototype for a starship. Scalzi has done his homework. Besides that, he has an excellent grasp of dominance and intimidation. The major characters here are all strong women. This includes the emperox Cardenia, foul-mouthed trading guild heir Kiva Lagos (plus her mom) and Nadashe, cold-blooded conniver for the Nohamapetans. Marce Claremont’s sister the Lady Vrenna also puts in a notable appearance. This turned out to be mildly gripping. For the first time in a long time, I read until late at night and then picked up again as soon as I got up in the morning. It’s not often that I find things to read like that anymore.

Not so good points: This concept of the Flow is very original, but it also reminds me strongly of Liu Cixin’s shrinking dimensional reality. The strong women characters are just a bit overdone, resembling men almost to the point of caricature. Regardless of their political power and acumen, women do have a different psychology, and Scalzi might want to run his manuscripts past some female beta readers to clear up the differences. The characters also tended to be very decisive in their opinions, which reduced the possibility of internal conflict, growth in relationships and best choice scenarios. Because of this decisive, black and white plotting, I’m thinking I can predict how book 2 is going to go.

Four and a half stars.

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Review of Provenance by Ann Leckie

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This novel is a finalist in the 2018 Hugo Awards. It is science fiction and falls into the same universe as the Imperial Radch novels, presumably beginning a new series. It’s published by Orbit. This review contains spoilers.

Ingray’s aristocratic mother has set her adoptive children into competition to become her heir. Ingray comes up with a plan to retrieve Pahlad Budrakim out of “Compassionate Removal,” hoping e will offer to return artifacts e was supposed to have stolen. The retrieval takes all Ingray’s financial resources, but goes off as planned. However, Captain Uisine of the ship where she booked passage won’t take Pahlad as a passenger without eir assent. Meanwhile the Geck ambassador arrives in pursuit of Tic Uisine, posing the danger of treaty breaches. Things go from bad to worse, there’s a murder, and Ingray ends up offering herself as a hostage in exchange for her mother in an Omkem attack gone wrong. Can she deal with the politics and get out of the situation alive?

Although Leckie hit the big time with space opera and this novel falls into the same universe, I’m not sure it qualifies as the same. Instead, it’s more of a political intrigue, or maybe a cozy mystery. It’s a smooth, easy read with quaint world-building, weird mechanical puppets, mild humor and budding romances. Ingray’s hardworking translation app is a total hoot. There was also something of a twist ending when Ingray decides on a private life of activism instead of a political career.

On the not so great side, this is really dull and plodding as a political intrigue. The characters seem childish and naïve, events are simplistic and Ingray is wildly untalented as a schemer. It is absolutely unexplained why she would spend her entire net-worth on a half-baked scheme to convince Pahlad to give her the artifacts e supposedly stole. She takes huge risks and then sits and cries when thing turn out scary. Her brother Danach is an idiot, too, and mom is seriously in trouble for a workable heir. Also, given the treaty, I don’t understand why the Geck ambassador is allowed to run rampant through the human spaces.

Three stars.

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Review of Down among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and a second book in the authors Wayward Children series, a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. Beneath the Sugar Sky was also published this year. This runs 190 pages and was published by Tor.com.

Jack and Jill are twin girls born to indifferent parents that only want children for their prestige value. The two of them are forced into obedience and limited roles, Jack a princess and Jill an athlete, but they sometimes yearn to be something else. One day they open their grandmother’s old trunk in the attic and find steps inside that run down through darkness into another world. Taking the stairs, they emerge onto a moor with a red moon and find there’s a castle, its vampire master and a village protected by a palisade. The other power in this place is Dr. Bleak, a mad scientist who lives in a windmill out on the moor. The girls are given a choice of which to serve and how to live. How will they choose? Is there any way they can get home?

Good points: This book falls into the young adult category because of the age of the protagonists, who grow from 12 to 17 during their time in the alternate world. It’s presented as a fairy tale about Jack and Jill, with chapter headings that refer back to the nursery rhyme. McGuire uses a narrator to tell the story, who addresses the reader directly and makes comments on how the tale relates to real life choices as it unfolds. There’s an artful contrast between the vampire master, obsessed with death, and Dr. Bleak, obsessed with life. This is inclusive, touching on the different roles women can choose, including STEM. Jack’s lover Alexis allows the author to comment on the question of weight and body image. The rest of the world is adequately sketched in for the scope of the story. Although it starts out with a magical feel, this descends into a faintly horrific vibe as the story moves forward.

Not so good points: This moves very slowly and nothing much happens. It’s another one of those expansions that could have been written as a short story with about as much impact—although in that case it would have likely reached a much more limited audience than the novella. It’s clear this is written as instructional material for 12-year old girls. However, I thought the choices were too black and white–the development doesn’t account for the insidiousness of evil. Although I notice other reviewers have called this magical, I didn’t think it was uplifting or empowering. I was left with something of a depressed feel. You have to enjoy McGuire’s writing style to get the most out of it.

Four stars.

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Review of Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s appears to be science fantasy and was published by Tor.com. It’s also the sequel to the Nebula and Hugo Award winning Binti.

Binti is finishing her first year at Oomza University where she has had problems adjusting to her new situation and the changes the Meduse made to her DNA during the eventful voyage from home. She suffers from flashbacks, mood swings and anger management issues that she doesn’t understand. She decides to return home for a break, during which she can go on the traditional pilgrimage for young women in her tribe. The Meduse Okwu plans to accompany her to Earth as an ambassador to her people. At home, her family holds a feast to welcome her, but then family members express their anger at her decision to leave home for university, considering it a betrayal. Instead of completing the pilgrimage, Binti has a vision and meets her grandmother, a member of the Desert People, which she learns to accept as a civilized people.

This installment of the story continues to investigate the challenges of leaving family to forge a new personal path in life, where Binti leaves behind the safety and tradition of her Himba kin group to attend a multicultural university. Her interactions with her family outline the difficulties of trying to maintain traditions after she is tainted by change. Also, this book exposes the racism that her lighter-skinned tribe practices against the darker desert people, and shows the desert people to be an advanced culture, after all. This parallels the opinion the Khoush people have of the Himba, and worse, the Meduse. It suggests they are likewise worthy.

Not so good points: The first quarter of the novella is basically a rehash of the previous book, as Binti experiences flashbacks, and the story only picks up with new material when she arrives home. There’s not much in the way of plotting or world-building either one here, and I’m left without much vision of what the university is like, what it teaches or why Binti has to cross the galaxy to get to it. (Is this just a symbol of cultural distance?) The astrolabes Binti and her father manufacture look to be a sort of tablet; her use of mental math equations to generate a “current” is unexplained, and the desert people’s communications system looks like nanotech. This suggests advanced civilization and a far-future scenario, but I’ve got no idea. I’m left wondering if African tribespeople are all that have survived some cataclysm on Earth. If so, what happened to everybody else?

The result is pretty confusing, but I’ll have to give the author some credit for different themes and calling out racism in people of color.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy, based on the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and apparently falls between the novels The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. The novelette was published in 2017 in Uncanny Magazine.
This review contains spoilers.

The House of Hawthorne is running its annual test for the Houseless where successful candidates will be taken in and escape the dangers of the streets. Thuan and Kim Cuc are dragons from the underwater Seine kingdom and charged with infiltrating the House. They join the candidates and are placed on a team with a Maghrebi girl named Leila. The test supervisor Sere gives them a hodgepodge of materials and instructions to produce something, so they decide to cook pastry. Part way through the recipe, the house’s wards fail and it’s invaded by the Children of Thorns. The candidates are evacuated, but Kim Cuc goes missing. Can Thuan rescue her, save himself and Leila and cement a position with the house?

This read like the tip of a really big iceberg, which would be the series where these characters live. I was impressed with the creativity and apparent structure of the universe, where the kingdoms of dragons and fallen angels juxtapose in the ruined city of Paris. The imagery and otherworldly feel of the house are very well done.

On the not so good side, this doesn’t really provide enough information for me to understand the world and how these characters fit into it. Despite the rich promise of the universe, this turned out to be more action than character driven. There was little background on the angels or the master of the house. Also, the characters didn’t quite seem to match what they’re supposed to be. Sere acts more like a company employee than a magical being, and Thuan and Kim Cuc didn’t come off very dragonish, either. Instead, they seem comfortable as humans, joking around in a competitive way without much depth. If Thuan is 300 years old, then he must be developmentally delayed—he comes off as very young and inexperienced. The description of the test said the team performance would be weighed as a whole, so I thought everyone on the team would be accepted; then I was surprised when Kim Cuc wasn’t.

This is a good introduction to the book series, where readers get a taste of what the novels are like. I expect some will be go on to try out the books.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld, September 2017. This review may contain spoilers.

Multi Bot 9 is wakened from storage to remove a “biological infestation” on the ship. It sets to work pursuing the vermin, which is highly destructive, something like a rat and something like a bug. Bot 9 is obsolete, and notices its job is 944 in the maintenance queue. This suggests the ship needs a lot of work. There are lots of newer bots working on the maintenance and Bot 9 makes their acquaintance, as well as chatting with the ship’s AI. Soon it realizes that the ship is a junker, has a minimal human crew and is on a final suicide mission to save humanity from an alien invasion. Can Bot 9 fix that problem, too?

Bot 9 is endearing because of its totally positive attitude, regardless of how nasty the vermin. Its abilities might be limited compared to later models and Captain Baraye calls the model “unstable,” but its primitive manufacture also allows for reconfiguration and improvisation. When you transfer this theme to the real world, the story demonstrates the kind of gung-ho spirit and creativity that solves even the toughest problems. The narrative switches back and forth between the desperate humans trying to carry out their mission on a crippled ship and the bots trying to fix it well enough to carry out the planned suicide. The bot interactions add humor, and of course the humans are totally flabbergasted when 9’s activities are revealed. The plotting and execution here are both creative and entertaining.

On the not so great side, this has the fairly standard failing of making the bots and the ship’s AI too human in their interactions. That means it fails on suspension of disbelief. The ship’s AI, especially, comes across as an indulgent parent figure that makes good-hearted threats to the bots and lies to the human crew. At the end of the story, we get the impression that 9 plans to ignore its orders like a willful child. Besides that, I didn’t think there was enough of a rising action line to support the story’s length. Nine’s pursuit of the ratbug gets routine fairly quickly and seeing the incident from its perspective insulates the reader from the drama of the human’s situation.

Four stars.

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Review of “Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Tor.com. This is a stand-alone story that falls into Lee’s Machineries of Empire series. Novels in this universe include Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, both from Solaris, and Revenant Gun, coming soon.

The young Shuos Jedao is promised a promotion to moth commander if he can successfully carry out a special ops mission to rescue a crew captured by the Gwa-an and held at Du Station. Incidentally, Jedao went to space academy with the crew leader, Shuos Meng. Jedeo joins a merchant group which provides a cover, but apparent pirates turn out to be Gwa-an military. He allows himself to be arrested in order to infiltrate the station. Can he rescue Meng and the crew? And what should he do about that lusty fellow Techet?

This is more humorous than serious, starting with the shipment of goose fat from his mom that Jedeo takes for a bomb at the beginning, and ending with a final joke about the use Techet finds for the goose fat. The plotting is decent if not dramatic, including a twist ending. Lee drops the reader right into the universe without any explanation, so this becomes an experience in creative world-building. Since I’ve read a couple of Lee’s novels set in the universe at this point, it’s no longer new to me, but fresh readers are likely to be entertained by the complexity of the culture and the gender roles. The running joke about the goose fat and other lubricants is also amusing.

Not so good points: The complexity and lack of explanation will be hurdles for some readers. Also, I understand this is supposed to be humorous, but the particulars of the execution really stretched my suspension of disbelief—it’s just not convincing and actually comes off a bit slap-stick. Plus, the story didn’t generate much in the way of drama or investigation of the human condition, either one.

Presumably it’s just for fun.

Three stars.

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Review of “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine.

Allpa dying grandmother gives him a magic sword that contains three warrior spirits: Sun, Moon and Dust. When Allpa draws the sword the three of them appear and try to carry out their mission of turning him into a heroic warrior. Allpa is a potato farmer and there is no current threat to the kingdom, so Allpa isn’t really interested in this, but he goes along just to make them happy. How can he deal with the three of them and tend to his crop at the same time?

This isn’t quite Vernon’s standard fare, but it does contain something of the same philosophy, which is the value of everyday people and everyday ways of making a living. In this case, she has turned the usual heroic fantasy story on its head, where the lowly farmer rejects the opportunity to become a heroic warrior, bored with the difficult training and worrying about his potato crop. There’s also something of an investigation of the opportunity cost involved, as Moon comments on what he’s given up to become a warrior and the two of them form a bond.

On the not so good side, there are some reality check issues here. First, I’m wondering why Allpa isn’t taking care of his own grandmother. It’s a very recent innovation that the elderly are farmed out to caregivers, and the traditional family puts anybody to work who can help with the chores. In a farming community, it takes a lot of labor to bring in the crop, so I’m expecting Allpa’s grandmother would have dropped dead in the potato field instead of dying in bed. How was she wealthy enough to pay a caregiver anyway? Next, Allpa rushes home from her funeral to water his wilted plants at mid-day. This is not advisable—at mid-day water evaporates instead of sinking in. Also, potatoes are a tuber crop, so they won’t normally wilt unless they’re diseased. If his crops need irrigation, then Allpa ought to do better than carry water in a bucket. In other words, he doesn’t know squat about farming.

What the story had to say was interesting, but the reality check issues detracted from the substance of the story. It came off a bit thin.

Three and a half stars.

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