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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Rocket Stack Rank Site Predicts the 2018 Hugo Winners

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For anyone who’s somehow not noticed, Rocket Stack Rank is a fairly new short fiction review site established by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong. The site posts short reviews and rankings of long and short fiction from major pro magazines and anthologies (no novels) during the year, and also compilations of how other reviewers rated the stories. The wrap-up at the end of the year shows three clear leaders for the Hugo Award, based on this system:

Best Novella – Nexus by Michael Flynn from Analog
Best Novelette – “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad from Clarkesworld
Best Short Story – “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata from Tor.com

In comparison, here’s what the Nebula Reading List predicts, based on the number of recommendations from SFWA members:

Best Novella – And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker from Uncanny Magazine
Best Novelette – “Small Changes over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara from Uncanny Magazine
Best Short Story (tie) – “Carnival Nine” by Caroline Yoachim from Beneath Ceaseless Skies and “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM)” by Rebecca Roanhorse from Apex Magazine

Interestingly, Nexus rated right at the bottom of the Nebula Reading List, and “A Series of Steaks” rated fourth in its category. I don’t see “The Martian Obelisk” on the Nebula list at all. Does this suggest a bias toward hard SF among reviewers? A bias toward fantasy among SFWA members?

The Locus poll results will be available soon, so I’ll have a look at those when they come out. A quick skim of the ballot right now shows no sign of Nexus or “Small Changes over Long periods of Time.” I wouldn’t expect they’d rate as write-ins.

Comments on the Nebula Reading List top five short stories

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It takes 10 nominations to make a story a Nebula finalist, so these five stories I’ve just reviewed look to be the ones with the best likelihood to make it.

Since I’m reading down the list, there are a few trends sticking out. As far as I know, only SFWA members can make recommendations. Because the listing has been recommended by professionals in the genre, I’d expect to get good quality on the list. These stories I’ve just reviewed have recommendations in the double digits, but I’m just not finding a lot of what I’d call substance in the content. I’m thinking all those people are clicking the “recommend” button because they want to affirm the message. If I’m looking for quality stories to nominate, does that mean I can put any confidence in the number of recommendations the stories have gotten at all? Hm. Maybe not. Does this mean the trend to sentimental stories has shifted and this year message fiction is the in thing? Hm. Maybe so. Hopefully there’s more substance further down the list.

Next, I’m seeing a lot of repetition in the names. Caroline Yoachim, for example, has 5 stories on the list; A. Merc Rustad has three; José Pablo Iriarte has three, etc. I’m not sure what to make of this, except that these people must be very consistently high quality writers.

Third, I don’t see any real, serious hard SF in the top five. I commented on this trend a couple of years back after the awards cycle, the fact that hard SF is in trouble, being replaced (this year) with somewhat humorous message fiction dressed up in a thin veneer of SF or fantasy. I have to agree that the stories are entertaining and fun and that the messages are progressive, but there are no fully developed short stories in this group of five with, for example, strong character development, great world building, vivid imagery, thoughtful themes and universal questions about the human condition. What’s happened? Is this the influence of “Cat Pictures Please,” last year’s Hugo winner? Or has pressure from the Puppies encouraged the SFWA to promote progressive political messages at the expense of well-developed, serious science fiction and fantasy stories?

One last observation is that just a few magazines seem to be dominating the list. For example, Lightspeed has 20 entries in the current list, Daily Science Fiction has 12, Clarkesworld has 10, F&SF has 10 and Strange Horizons has 10. Glancing at the titles, I don’t think hard SF is the reigning paradigm. This isn’t a new trend, either. Analog did make a better showing this year than it sometimes does, with 5 entries. Where should I look for stronger substance? Is Asimov’s still the indicator there?

2015 results are in from Rocket Stack Rank

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779Greg Hullender and Eric Wong read and rate SF&F stories and publish the results on their site, Rocket Stack Rank. This year they’ve filled a niche for those looking for ways to locate stories suitable for nomination for the Hugo Awards, for one thing. The rankings might also be useful for other award nominations, or just for folks who want to read good fiction.

Hullender has also published some statistics based on this year’s rankings, including the breakdown of hard SF versus less hard. RSR’s criteria for rating hard SF is as follows:
• The science must be accurate enough that an educated layman does not have to suspend disbelief.
• Some aspect of science or technology is key to the plot. It cannot merely supply the setting.

Reading the stories from Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Lightspeed and Tor.com, they rated 12 % of the stories as hard SF. Based on this result, Hullender pronounces hard SF in better health than I’ve been thinking.

Other results of interest: Asimov’s rated better on hard SF than Analog, providing 7 stories to Analog’s 4 of highly rated hard SF stories this year. Also, Tor.com didn’t provide any stories that made the grade as both hard SF and highly rated.

Upcoming: Reviews of some of the stories.

The rate of obsolescence in SF

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Although I’ve not been selling SF stories for that long, compared to a veteran like Ben Bova, I have to admit that a couple of my stories that were published in the early 1990s have already become out of date. This was mainly because of the rate of social change, rather than advances in science. Because I’m a high diversity writer, I made some predictions about gay marriage back in 1992 that only took 23 years to become reality. For anyone interested in reading it, the story is “GP Venture,” which can be found in Competitive Fauna, currently available as a e-book on Amazon. The story does also predict in vitro gestation that hasn’t come to pass yet, as well as increasing infertility due to environmental and climate damage.

As Bova suggests, this kind of success is vindication for a science fiction writer. If you can correctly predict the future, then you’ve written not only a good science fiction story, but you’ve also correctly read the social, economic and cultural trends that lead to your scenario actually coming to pass.

History that hasn’t happened yet

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In his essay here, Bova comments on the role of hard SF writers in Futurology, which sits at 5.5 on TVTropes Mohs Scale for SF hardness. Bova seems to consider this the role of hard SF writers. He calls hard SF writers the “scouts who go on ahead of the main body and send back reports about what’s up there.” Or what could be up there, we gather, if we go down a particular path. In other words, hard SF could show us different scenarios for our future. What happens if we try to do something about climate change, for example? Or, what happens if we don’t?

Bova also notes how a writer’s hard SF stories can become obsolete within their own lifetime. He notes in his essay that several of his earlier novels have now become real science, for example: flight to the moon, space stations in orbit, virtual reality, digital books, stem cell therapy. He also thinks we’ve likely invented sex in zero gravity. Hm.

Ben Bova on hard SF

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Since I’ve been discussing the definition of hard SF, it’s interesting to look at what other writers think it is. Ben Bova, for example, seems to have a very free-wheeling definition. He’s written a very upbeat essay here where he says this: “The rule of thumb for a writer of “hard” science fiction is that the writer is free to use anything his or her imagination can invent and depict — so long as no one can show that it contradicts the tenets of known science.”

This is a sort of backward way to come at the definition. What I’ve discussed heretofore is more about hard SF having to have real, demonstrable science in it. Bova seems to be saying you’re free to make up science as long as nobody can contradict it. Of course this doesn’t completely open the floodgates to let in science that completely contradicts Newton’s Laws, for example. According to Bova’s definition, you have to have your ducks in a row well enough to argue with people who want to say what you’ve written isn’t science. Still, I’m wondering if this doesn’t let in a lot of fantasy science. His definition means that Bova falls somewhere in the low to mid-range of TVTropes’ scale, maybe 2.0-4.0.

For anyone who vague, Bova is a long-time, successful writer of both “traditional” science fiction and non-fiction who got started in the 1950s as a technical writer. He is also a one-time editor of Analog. During his career, he’s been especially interested in space colonization.

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