Wrap up of the 2018 World Fantasy Reviews

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That’s all the World Fantasy reviews, so now I’ll attempt an analysis of the list. When you look through these, a few interesting patterns emerge.

First, the diversity breakdown. Apologies if I miss anybody here:
BEST NOVEL: 1 man, 4 women, 1 Asian, 1 African American and 1 Native/African American. 1 LGBTQ
BEST NOVELLA: 1 non-binary, 1 man, 3 women, 1 African American, 1 Asian, 2 LGBTQ
SHORT FICTION: 1 man, 4 women, 3 Jewish, 1 Hispanic, 2 LGBTQ.
The totals add up to: 3/15 men (20%), 11/15 women (73%), 1/15 non-binary (7%), 2/15 Asian (13%), 1/15 Native American (7%), 1/15 Hispanic (7%), 3/15 Jewish (20%), 2/15 African American (13%), 5/15 LGBTQ (33%). Roanhorse complicates this calculation, but I’ve listed her as only Native America.

This year’s ballot continues the apparently universal trend toward mostly female writers, with only one token male nominated in each category. The system for nomination has done well in featuring at least one non-binary, Hispanic and Native American writer. Asian writers are, as usual, over-represented considering their 5% US population demographic, as are Jewish writers with a 1.5% US population demographic. The overrepresentation of Jewish writers this year follows the same pattern I found in the Nebula and Hugo Awards. The LGBTQ component here is also overrepresented, as the self-identifying gay and lesbian US population demographic for 2018 was 4.5%. Hispanic writers, as usual, remain hugely underrepresented with a US population demographic of 18%.

After reviewing the Nebula and Hugo Award finalists, I only had to read three short stories, one novella and two novels to finish out the set. There are a couple of possible implications to this. First, it suggests the Nebula and Hugo Awards might be trending to fantasy, and second, it indicates a convergence in the US fiction awards to particular works in any given year. The three awards work differently: the Nebula is awarded by the professional membership of the SFWA; the Hugo is awarded by members of WorldCon: and the World Fantasy Award is partially juried. Members of the current WFA convention and the previous two vote two nominations onto the final ballot, and the other three are named by a panel of judges. For the 2018 awards, the judges are Nancy Holder, Kathleen Jennings, Stephen Graham Jones, Garry Douglas Kilworth, and Tod McCoy.

Of course, there is the argument that particular works are elected by all three awards because they really are the best, or the more circular argument that these become the best because they’re elected. However, this kind of convergence in the major US awards remains troubling. It suggests a lack of diversity in either the marketplace or in the US awards systems. If more Native Americans were published, for example, all three awards might not elect the same writer, or if more African Americans were published, all three awards might not elect the same work.

Plus, there are also other possible explanations for convergence, such as a preference for certain content within the awards system. Of the three major US awards, the World Fantasy Award has the reputation for being the most literary, which suggests a definite preference in that direction. There is also evidence that the WFA system rewards creativity and artistic effect over standard story structures. Some of these works had little or nothing in the way of plot, and some might have qualified for a creative essay category instead. Others had serious suspension of disbelief issues. I notice there are some differences of opinion on quality out there in the readership audience. In checking out the authors, I encountered a few blogs that actually challenged the suitability of some works based on their content or execution. I personally think the Locus List has a big effect on convergence in the US awards, but interestingly, 4/15 writers (27%) of shorter works beat the odds and made it to the WFA ballot with entries that did not appear this year’s Locus List (although three of the four did appear for other works).

There was a reasonable diversity of publishers. Print magazines are clearly a failing paradigm where the awards are concerned—all the shorter finalists came from online magazines. As usual, Tor.com stood out, mostly because of the novella category, with 4/15 entries or 27%.

“Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published in Uncanny Magazine, in the March-April 2018 issue. This review contains spoilers.

Adrianna’s best friend and housemate NPW is a taxidermist who picks up roadkill for subjects and works in the basement. Lately, he’s working on some kind of new technique that involves chanting and incense. Adrianna has no siblings and works for an estate sales firm that empties houses after someone dies. Her father is dead and her mother is in a nursing home with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Adrianna and NPW have been friends since they were kids, when NPW was a girl, and now NPW never hears from his parents except for regular prayer cards. NPW is moving up North to live with his girlfriend Robby, and Adrianna is sad. She has dreams that leave real artifacts behind, like blades of grass and wet clothes. When NPW leaves, the house seems filled with ghosts.

The most noticeable feature of this story is the imagery. The description, the sensory elements, and especially the narrative of the dreams, is exceptional. The characters are also strongly developed through both description and dialog, and the text is full of understated emotion related to Adrianna and NPW’s relationship and the hardship that is life and death. The dream artifacts are an evocative mystery that remains unexplained. The story ends with a final gift from NPW.

On the not so positive side, this is another story with a lot of decorative elements and no real plot. Adrianna and NPW talk and she dreams. NPW takes her to see her mom, and on the way back home they pick up another dead dog. They say good-bye and NPW leaves. That’s about it. The dead animals are sort of a gross-out, and adding horrific elements like this is starting to seem like a marketing gimmick to me. For anyone OCD, the loose ends here are also likely to be annoying. NPW’s new technique remains a compete mystery, and the dreams seem to have no function in the story, except to increase the artistic and fantasy feel of the narrative.

Regardless of the negatives, this is a highly artistic and well-developed short story, a glimpse into the life of a lonely girl with strange dreams who is losing her best friend. The artistic elements push up the rating.

Four and half stars.

“Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published in Lightspeed, October 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Despite warnings, the narrator is fourteen when she makes her first deal with the indigo snake. The cost is to find the snake’s true name. The second deal is a few days later when the narrator trades her hair twice yearly in perpetuity for an A in chemistry. Years pass before she makes another deal, and then the costs begin to add up for success, for love, for escape from gambling debts. Will a support group help?

The basis for this story seems to be Eve’s transaction with the serpent in Eden, which provides an extra level of meaning and a certain universality. There’s also something about addiction in there. The snake can’t say no, and can only name a price. Unfortunately, it can also make deals with other people, which leads to complication when things start to get tight. The story has a pretty good hook and a rising action line as the costs start to pile up, then resolves when the narrator decides to seek help for her deal addiction.

On the less positive side, nothing quite catches fire here. The snake is pretty wholesome, and not Satanic at all. A darker, more sinister serpent would have raised the suspense level quite a bit, especially if it started to play one supplicant against another. Instead, we’re only left wondering how the narrator will mess up the next time, and whether or not she can find a solution that solves her problems without losing her left arm in the process. Since the author references the Biblical story of Eve, I was expecting this snake thing would be an affliction that affects only women, but it turns out that men suffer from it, too. That seems a little counter to subtext, but then maybe Eve passed the problem along to her kids. Also, a solution involving turtles here was kind of non-politically correct gross out. I know they’re reptiles, but still…

Three and a half stars.

“The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation” by Adam-Troy Castro

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Nightmare Magazine in July of 2019. This review contains major spoilers.

Dr. Emmanuel Eggard, a brilliant scientist with personal hygiene problems, has been working on a matter transmission device, but while testing it, he accidently opens a portal into another plane. A demonic creature emerges from below his lung, splattering Eggard on the walls and fatally injuring Robyn Howlett, the clerical employee he has been pressuring for sex. The demonic creature waits to hear what Howlett has to say before making a decision on whether to offer her a deal for salvation.

This is written from the demon’s point of view and the annotations reveal its interpretation of Robyn’s words. She is understandably in desperate straits, but her situation, her personality and her character are revealed in the annotations. This isn’t very long, but it is fairly riveting, as the demon gives us plenty of information about itself, its reality and how limited humans really are in the grand scheme of things. The people who need to get a comeuppance then get it.

On the more negative side, this is definitely limited by its length. I think the idea could have easily been extended to novella length. This would give us some more extensive world-building and greater character development for everybody—something that’s just sketched in at this point. Castro has done just the minimum and depended on the comeuppance to carry the story.

Three and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2019 Hugo Winners!

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Best Novel
The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan)
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Best Novella
Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells (Tor.com publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com publishing)
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson (Tor.com publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)

Best Novelette
“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com, 11 July 2018)
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (Tor.com, 19 September 2018)
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com publishing)
“The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)

Best Short Story
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
“The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
“STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)

Best Series
Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
The Centenal Cycle, by Malka Older (Tor.com publishing)
The Laundry Files, by Charles Stross (most recently Tor.com publishing/Orbit)
Machineries of Empire, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
The October Daye Series, by Seanan McGuire (most recently DAW)
The Universe of Xuya, by Aliette de Bodard (most recently Subterranean Press)

Best Related Work
Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works
Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee (Dey Street Books)

The Hobbit Duology (documentary in three parts), written and edited by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan (YouTube)
An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, by Jo Walton (Tor)
http://www.mexicanxinitiative.com: The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76 (Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, John Picacio)
Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon (Tin House Books)

Best Graphic Story
Monstress, Volume 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda (Image Comics)
Abbott, written by Saladin Ahmed, art by Sami Kivelä, colours by Jason Wordie, letters by Jim Campbell (BOOM! Studios)
Black Panther: Long Live the King, written by Nnedi Okorafor and Aaron Covington, art by André Lima Araújo, Mario Del Pennino and Tana Ford (Marvel)
On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden (First Second)
Paper Girls, Volume 4, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Cliff Chiang, colours by Matt Wilson, letters by Jared K. Fletcher (Image Comics)
Saga, Volume 9, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples (Image Comics)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman (Sony)
Annihilation, directed and written for the screen by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (Paramount Pictures / Skydance)
Avengers: Infinity War, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Marvel Studios)
Black Panther, written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, directed by Ryan Coogler (Marvel Studios)
A Quiet Place, screenplay by Scott Beck, John Krasinski and Bryan Woods, directed by John Krasinski (Platinum Dunes / Sunday Night)
Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley (Annapurna Pictures)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
The Good Place: “Janet(s),” written by Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan, directed by Morgan Sackett (NBC)
The Expanse: “Abaddon’s Gate,” written by Daniel Abraham, Ty Franck and Naren Shankar, directed by Simon Cellan Jones (Penguin in a Parka / Alcon Entertainment)
Doctor Who: “Demons of the Punjab,” written by Vinay Patel, directed by Jamie Childs (BBC)
Dirty Computer, written by Janelle Monáe and Chuck Lightning, directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning (Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boy Records / Atlantic Records)
The Good Place: “Jeremy Bearimy,” written by Megan Amram, directed by Trent O’Donnell (NBC)
Doctor Who: “Rosa,” written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, directed by Mark Tonderai (BBC)

Best Editor, Short Form
Gardner Dozois
Neil Clarke
Lee Harris
Julia Rios
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
E. Catherine Tobler

Best Editor, Long Form
Navah Wolfe
Sheila E. Gilbert
Anne Lesley Groell
Beth Meacham
Diana Pho
Gillian Redfearn

Best Professional Artist
Charles Vess
Galen Dara
Jaime Jones
Victo Ngai
John Picacio
Yuko Shimizu

Best Semiprozine
Uncanny Magazine, publishers/editors-in-chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, managing editor Michi Trota, podcast producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky, Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue editors-in-chief Elsa Sjunneson-Henry and Dominik Parisien
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, editor-in-chief and publisher Scott H. Andrews
Fireside Magazine, edited by Julia Rios, managing editor Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, copyeditor Chelle Parker, social coordinator Meg Frank, special features editor Tanya DePass, founding editor Brian White, publisher and art director Pablo Defendini
FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, executive editors Troy L. Wiggins and DaVaun Sanders, editors L.D. Lewis, Brandon O’Brien, Kaleb Russell, Danny Lore, and Brent Lambert
Shimmer, publisher Beth Wodzinski, senior editor E. Catherine Tobler
Strange Horizons, edited by Jane Crowley, Kate Dollarhyde, Vanessa Rose Phin, Vajra Chandrasekera, Romie Stott, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and the Strange Horizons Staff

Best Fanzine
Lady Business, editors Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay & Susan
Galactic Journey, founder Gideon Marcus, editor Janice Marcus
Journey Planet, edited by Team Journey Planet
nerds of a feather, flock together, editors Joe Sherry, Vance Kotrla and The G
Quick Sip Reviews, editor Charles Payseur
Rocket Stack Rank, editors Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

Best Fancast
Our Opinions Are Correct, hosted by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders
Be the Serpent, presented by Alexandra Rowland, Freya Marske and Jennifer Mace
The Coode Street Podcast, presented by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe
Fangirl Happy Hour, hosted by Ana Grilo and Renay Williams
Galactic Suburbia, hosted by Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts, produced by Andrew Finch
The Skiffy and Fanty Show, produced by Jen Zink and Shaun Duke, hosted by the Skiffy and Fanty Crew

Best Fan Writer
Foz Meadows
James Davis Nicoll
Charles Payseur
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry
Alasdair Stuart
Bogi Takács

Best Fan Artist
Likhain (Mia Sereno)
Sara Felix
Grace P. Fong
Meg Frank
Ariela Housman
Spring Schoenhuth

Best Art Book
The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga Press /Gollancz)
Daydreamer’s Journey: The Art of Julie Dillon, by Julie Dillon (self-published)
Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer (Ten Speed Press)
Spectrum 25: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, ed. John Fleskes (Flesk Publications)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – The Art of the Movie, by Ramin Zahed (Titan Books)
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, ed. Catherine McIlwaine (Bodleian Library)
There are two other Awards administered by Worldcon 76 that are not Hugo Awards:

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book
Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt / Macmillan Children’s Books)
The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton (Freeform / Gollancz)
The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black (Little, Brown / Hot Key Books)
Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray)
The Invasion, by Peadar O’Guilin (David Fickling Books / Scholastic)
Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman (Random House / Penguin Teen)

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
Jeannette Ng
Katherine Arden
S.A. Chakraborty
R.F. Kuang
Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Rivers Solomon

And the 1944 retro Hugos:

Best Novel
Conjure Wife, by Fritz Leiber, Jr. (Unknown Worlds, April 1943)
Earth’s Last Citadel, by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner (Argosy, April 1943)
Gather, Darkness!, by Fritz Leiber, Jr. (Astounding Science-Fiction, May-July 1943)
Das Glasperlenspiel [The Glass Bead Game], by Hermann Hesse (Fretz & Wasmuth)
Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis (John Lane, The Bodley Head)
The Weapon Makers, by A.E. van Vogt (Astounding Science-Fiction, February-April 1943)

Best Novella
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Reynal & Hitchcock)
“Attitude,” by Hal Clement (Astounding Science-Fiction, September 1943)
“Clash by Night,” by Lawrence O’Donnell (Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore) (Astounding Science-Fiction, March 1943)
“The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” by H.P. Lovecraft, (Beyond the Wall of Sleep, Arkham House)
The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons, by Mary Norton (Hyperion Press)
“We Print the Truth,” by Anthony Boucher (Astounding Science-Fiction, December 1943)

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

Best Short Story
“King of the Gray Spaces” (“R is for Rocket”), by Ray Bradbury (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, December 1943)
“Death Sentence,” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1943)
“Doorway into Time,” by C.L. Moore (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, September 1943)
“Exile,” by Edmond Hamilton (Super Science Stories, May 1943)
“Q.U.R.,” by H.H. Holmes (Anthony Boucher) (Astounding Science-Fiction, March 1943)
“Yours Truly – Jack the Ripper,” by Robert Bloch (Weird Tales, July 1943)

Best Graphic Story
Wonder Woman #5: Battle for Womanhood, written by William Moulton Marsden, art by Harry G. Peter (DC Comics)
Buck Rogers: Martians Invade Jupiter, by Philip Nowlan and Dick Calkins (National Newspaper Service)
Flash Gordon: Fiery Desert of Mongo, by Alex Raymond (King Features Syndicate)
Garth, by Steve Dowling (Daily Mirror)
Plastic Man #1: The Game of Death, by Jack Cole (Vital Publications)
Le Secret de la Licorne [The Secret of the Unicorn], by Hergé (Le Soir)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Heaven Can Wait, written by Samson Raphaelson, directed by Ernst Lubitsch (20th Century Fox)
Batman, written by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker and Harry L. Fraser, directed by Lambert Hillyer (Columbia Pictures)
Cabin in the Sky, written by Joseph Schrank, directed by Vincente Minnelli and Busby Berkeley (uncredited) (MGM)
A Guy Named Joe, written by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and Dalton Trumbo, directed by Victor Fleming (MGM)
Münchhausen, written by Erich Kästner and Rudolph Erich Raspe, directed by Josef von Báky (UFA)
Phantom of the Opera, written by Eric Taylor, Samuel Hoffenstein and Hans Jacoby, directed by Arthur Lubin (Universal Pictures)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, written by Curt Siodmak, directed by Roy William Neill (Universal Pictures)
The Ape Man, written by Barney A. Sarecky, directed by William Beaudine (Banner Productions)
Der Fuehrer’s Face, story by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, directed by Jack Kinney (Disney)
I Walked With a Zombie, written by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, directed by Jacques Tourneur (RKO Radio Pictures)
The Seventh Victim, written by Charles O’Neal and DeWitt Bodeen, directed by Mark Robson (RKO Radio Pictures)
Super-Rabbit, written by Tedd Pierce, directed by Charles M. Jones (Warner Bros)

Best Editor, Short Form
John W. Campbell
Oscar J. Friend
Mary Gnaedinger
Dorothy McIlwraith
Raymond A. Palmer
Donald A. Wollheim

Best Professional Artist
Virgil Finlay
Hannes Bok
Margaret Brundage
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
J. Allen St. John
William Timmins

Best Fanzine
Le Zombie, editor Wilson “Bob” Tucker
Fantasy News, editor William S. Sykora (striken from ballot July 21)
Futurian War Digest, editor J. Michael Rosenblum
Guteto, editor Morojo (Myrtle R. Douglas) (added to ballot July 21)
The Phantagraph, editor Donald A. Wollheim
Voice of the Imagi-Nation, editors Jack Erman (Forrest J Ackerman) & Morojo (Myrtle Douglas)
YHOS, editor Art Widner

Congrats to the 2018 Nebula Award Winners!

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Novel: The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal

Novella: The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard

Novelette: “The Only Harmless Great Thing,” Brooke Bolander

Short Story: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, Phenderson Djèlí Clark

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Screenplay by: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Review of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is science fiction and was published by Hodder & Stoughton/Harper Voyager. The story falls into Chambers’ Wayfarer series, following The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. It runs around 358 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After trashing Earth, a group of humans left several centuries ago for interstellar space in an Exodus Fleet of generation ships. They eventually encountered other species and settled planets in the Galactic Commons free market, but some humans still stayed resident in the Fleet, allotted an orbit around a small star. This narrative (including an archive history written by the Harmagian Ghuh’loloan) follows the personal stories of a group of characters on the ship Asteria: Kip, a boy from the Fleet who wants something more; Sawyer, a young man from a planet who wants the security of his family’s roots on the Fleet; Eyas, the ship’s caretaker and composter of human remains; Isabel, the archivist; and Tessa, a young mother and salvage supervisor. Humans are integrating into the Galactic Commons, and these people are all faced with change in the culture that has maintained them for generations aboard the Fleet.

This is what is called a slow burner, as there’s no action line, very little conflict and not even much in the way of events in the first three-quarters of the book. The Fleet community seems to be a Utopian communist co-op, where everyone is guaranteed a home, air, an education and enough to eat, while expected to spend time in working for the common good. Money is not used aboard the ships, and trade is handled through a barter system. This is that safe space everyone is looking for, and the community is warm and welcoming. Asteria does seem to be experiencing a certain amount of stagnation, which is a real issue for societies that fail to balance capitalism and socialism well enough, and everyone has to deal with the austerity. Of course, now they’re now threatened by innovation and the Commons free market, and the question is rising about they can or really need to maintain the insular security of the Fleet any longer. I couldn’t identify anything much of a theme; maybe just the continuance of the human race? Purpose? There are statements, however: 1) All sapients are respected and valued; 2) death is a positive opportunity to recycle people into resources for others; 3) everybody needs to find their purpose; 4) there are givers and takers in the universe; and 5) it’s easy to accidentally destroy a species.

On the not so positive side: This is hard to get into, mainly because of the lack of action and conflict in most of the book; plus, I wasn’t immediately engaged by the characters. The story does offer comments on the human condition, and it gets emotional suddenly in the last quarter. However, I’m suspicious about the Utopian quality of the Fleet culture. The book doesn’t say what they do about mental illness, irresponsible layabouts and criminals in this society, or why there isn’t a huge crush of planetary immigrants seeking welfare—the kind of problems that plague real socialist economies on Earth. Also, I’m wondering how the same people who destroyed Earth would come together to create this utopia within the Fleet, with everybody suddenly cooperating and doing their part and not trashing the ship’s environment.

Four stars.

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