Wrap Up of the 2018 Hugo Reviews

45 Comments

I’ve already reviewed the remaining Hugo stories as part of the Nebula series, so I’ll move on to a discussion of what patterns emerge from looking at the finalists. As usual, I’m just looking at the four main fiction categories: short story, novelette, novella and novel. I’ve not read/seen most of the rest, at least not well enough to comment. These numbers are as best I can figure from online biographies.

First, the Hugo finalists feature “diversity” as the WorldCon members like to define it. That includes a huge slant to female and lesbian writers with only 2 cis men: Daryl Gregory and P. Djèlí Clark (who appears twice). Seventy-five percent of the finalists were female and nearly 38% of the finalists were LGBTQ, with the trans Yoon Ha Lee as the only male gay author and Brooke Bolander the single non-binary (appearing twice). Sex/gender breakdown of the finalists: 18 women (75%), 3 men (13%), 1 trans (4%), 2 non-binary (8%), 9 LGBTQ (37.5%).

Chart1

Looking at the racial/ethnic composition of the list, it leaned very heavily to white this year. Including Jewish writers, this contingent amounted to a whopping 71%, leaving only 29% of the list for other ethnic/racial groups. The voters made maximum use of the African American writers they did nominate, with P. Djèlí Clark appearing in the list twice and Rebecca Roanhorse representing both African and Native Americans (for this breakdown, I’ve listed her as Native America). As usual, Hispanics are very poorly represented at 0%, although I see Malka Older gets a nod in the Best Series nominations. This year’s total of 3 is a big drop in the number of Asians nominated, down from 8 last year (or 30%), but the African American and Native American groups remained flat. Racial/ethnic breakdown: 12 ordinary white (50%), 5 Jewish (21%), 3 Asian (12.5%), 3 African American (12.5%), 1 Native American (4%), 0 Hispanic.

Chart2

One pattern that repeats from last year is the dominance of Tor as the favored publisher. Nine of the finalists were published by Tor (37.5%), Uncanny magazine showed up well with three finalists (12.5%), and Fireside with two (8%). The big-name print magazines were totally frozen out of the Hugo this year; Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF didn’t feature among the finalists at all. An interesting new addition to the field was Zen Cho’s story from the B&N website, apparently getting into the game against Tor.

Another interesting pattern is the repetitive nature of the authors nominated. Ten of these same finalists appeared on the list last year (42%); five of the same names (20%) appeared in 2017, and four of the same names (17%) appeared in 2016, even with heavy interference from Vox Day and the Rabid Pups in both these years. This suggests the WorldCon voters have a very limited reading list, leaning to publications from Tor and from a small group of mostly female authors that they nominate year after year.

This year the stories leaned to fantasy, with 13 of the finalists falling into that category (54%), leaving 11 that could be classified as some type of science fiction. At least 3 of the science fiction stories also included heavily fantastical elements, and only Martha Wells’ Artificial Condition could be classified as anything remotely like hard SF. Twelve of these stories (50%) were also Nebula finalists.

Last, these stories tended to feature political messages, including a 3rd wave feminist slant. Five of the finalists (21%) went so far as to include a troubling quality of misandry, featuring men in stupid and/or sexist character roles. There were a high number of lesbian couples in the finalists’ stories, too, but I thought the number of non-binary characters was down a little from last year. Male gay characters remained poorly represented, featuring in about 8% of the stories.

Advertisements

Review of Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

23 Comments

This is a sort-of science fiction novel and a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga in April 2018 and runs about 304 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Has-been glam rocker Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet, the only musician left of the Absolute Zeros, are approached to perform in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a song contest that’s open to any alien race—with a little catch. Species that come in last at their first contest are pronounced non-sentient “meat” and eradicated from existence. Can Dess and Oort overcome self-doubt and competitor sabotage to rescue humankind from extermination?

This seems to be satirical absurdist humor. It rocks along at a reasonably fast pace with a lead in that gives us the history of the Sentience Wars, with the competition, like the Eurovision Contest, launched as a way to move forward in a more civilized fashion. The satirical part seems to be about racism. Or maybe the music business. Or maybe both? High points: Aliens decide against evaluating Earth’s house cats as a sentient species. Dess’ lost love Mira Wonderful Star asks him to marry her. The immigrant Oort works hard at being normal to escape police interest and eventually rescues humanity with a Christmas carol. Also on the positive side, Valente gets a lot of credit for keeping a narrative like this going for 300 plus pages.

On the not so positive side, this won’t be everyone’s piece of cake. It has minimal plot and most of it is complete nonsense about non-existent, not-especially-believable alien species doing weird things and making weird music. Because of the absurdist quality, I didn’t connect with the characters well. The ending was clearly foreshadowed, so didn’t surprise me.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

32 Comments

This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is published by Solaris, and is third in the Machineries of Empire series, following Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, also awards finalists. It’s published by Solaris and runs 400 pages. There’s an accompanying collection of stories from this universe called Conservation of Shadows, plus a few singletons about on Amazon. This review contains major spoilers.

This book picks up roughly ten years after Raven Stratagem leaves off, though we have flashbacks that fill in some events since then. A new Shuos Jedao wakes, resurrected by the ancient and powerful Hexarch Kujen. Jedao finds himself in an alien, chimera body that reflects the scars and traumas of an older man, but he only remembers being a seventeen-year-old cadet at military school. He finds Kujen wants him to be his general and lead the forces of the hexarch against the upstart Protectorate formed when the rogue general Cheris-Jedeo took over the Kel forces and Hexarch Mikodez staged a coup. Plus, it quickly becomes clear that Kujen is a cruel tyrant, and that the young and inexperienced Jedeo has no free will in the matter. Can he find a way to victory?

On the positive side, this installment is a great setup to continue the investigation of consensual reality and free will that runs through this series. The Kel on board Kujen’s command ship Revenant hate and fear the new Jedeo, both because of what he is now and what his predecessors did in the past, but they have to follow him because of the Kel formation instinct. In turn, Jedeo quickly finds he is a captive, meant only to be Kujen’s tool and that he has no free will, either. Even his aide is forced to submission through psych surgery. Besides this, the mothships are also slaves, an alien lifeform harnessed to serve in the human wars. As usual, the characters are well-developed, and there’s a light strain of humor that runs through the whole thing, despite the horrors and decadence of the empire. Some of the asides are very touching. The pacing and plot run better in this installment than in the last, with plenty of action, suspense and conflict to keep the reader interested. Last, Kujen’s physical attraction and sexual manipulations bring a strain of S&M to this installment of the series that I didn’t pick up in the predecessors.

On the less positive side, I was disappointed by Cheris-Jedeo’s character in this installment. When the young Jedeo woke, I thought, “Oh, goody! It’s going to be a contest between the two Jedeos,” but it didn’t turn out that way. The young Jedeo is brilliant, of course, but Cheris-Jedeo seriously under-performs, is suddenly incompetent as an assassin, fails to communicate where they should and falls into knee-jerk reactions where they ought to know better—although they do finally come through with some helpful insight that wins the final battle. Besides this, I ended up with some questions about events and motivations. These may suggest this is all getting too complex to manage and/or that Lee has forced his characters into particular roles to send social messages. First, it looks like physical mods are widespread in this universe. People make themselves younger and more beautiful and apparently change genders at will. So, why is Brezen still worrying about sex prejudice and wearing something as uncomfortable as breast bindings to look like a man? Second, if the Protectorate is going to ditch the old order and bring a new freedom, why are the Kell still programmed and enslaved to formation instinct? Next, how is it that, in a universe where math is so basic to reality, the young Jedeo makes a simple sign error in his battle calculations? Doesn’t he check his work? With all those servitors around, doesn’t he have a friendly AI to help out? Or is he keeping these in his head because they’re such a dark secret? The issue seems simplistic and contrived (maybe a message to young readers about math?), and I think it would have been better to leave his error undefined. Next, after it’s clear the Revenant has rebelled, why doesn’t Jedeo give the order to abandon ship? I know it’s questionable whether anyone could have gotten off, but it looks really unethical for the brass to clear out like that and leave the crew to die onboard. And why didn’t all the other mothships rebel at the same time? They could have killed all the humans and escaped. Wouldn’t the sudden calendrical spike have affected their crews’ control of them? Last, if Kujen maintains the black cradle, how is it that he only seems to have had one copy of Jedeo’s consciousness? Apparently he let a big part of this get away from him when Cheris claimed Jedeo as her weapon of choice, and now he’s only left with Jedeo’s cadet memories? Of course, it’s possible that he just wants a Jedeo too young to have formed subversive opinions, but statements seem to indicate this is all he has left to work with. Still, maybe he has multiple copies now, as he’s made previous, unsuccessful constructs with other clones. I’m left scratching my head about this one.

Final verdict: Negatives are inconsequential. This is an entertaining conclusion to the trilogy. Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

12 Comments

This novella is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s published by Tor.com and runs 202 pages. It follows the previous award-winning novellas Binti and Binti: Home and finishes out the Binti trilogy. This review contains spoilers.

This book takes up where Binti: Home leaves off. After finishing her first year at Oomza Uni, Binti has returned home to go on the traditional pilgrimage for young women in her tribe, and brought the Meduse Okwu as an ambassador of peace to her people. However, instead of completing the pilgrimage, she has a vision and travels into the desert with a boy named Mwinyi, where she is inoculated in the ways of her father’s people the Enyi Zinariya. On the way home, she experiences frightening visions of her home the Root burning. While she was gone into the desert, the Khoush people have used Okwu’s presence as an excuse to attack the Root. Once home, Binti finds her family is gone, along with many of the Khoush, but Okwu has survived. Now the Meduse are massing for an attack on the Khoush forces. Her people the Himba are angry with her for bringing this conflict on them. Can she harmonize the situation? Or will she lose her own life instead?

On the positive side, this continues the progressive themes from Binti: Home about trying to harmonize relations between different races and calling out racial prejudice. Binti takes on responsibility for bringing multiculturalism and different ways to her people, even though she is reviled and distrusted for it. At the end of the book, she is not only half Himba and half Enyi Zinariya, but she has also absorbed Meduse DNA and microbes from the living ship New Fish. Some of the juxtapositions here struck me as quite charming: for example, while Binti weeps in the smoldering ruins of the Root, Mwinyi’s camel Rakumi eats her brother’s vegetable garden.

On the not so positive side, the first part of this novella is messy and hard to follow, as it involves Binti’s nightmare visions of her family dying in the flames of the Root. Once we’re back home, the horrific nightmare continues as conflict plays out between the Khoush and the Meduse on the Himba lands. Questions about the tech carry over from earlier installments of the series. Binti’s use of treeing, or running math equations to generate a “current” remain unexplained, as is the question of whether the desert people’s communications system is some kind of nanotech. This also gets into Disneyesque territory, where instead of using her training, Binti loses it and screams at the elders of her village. It appears they understand that she’s right and will do what she wants, but in this case the council stands her up and leaves her to deal with the war on her own. Then Binti’s visions turn out to be false. She brings conflict to her tribe’s lands, fails to stop the war, barely escapes with her life, and finally retreats to the safety of Oomza Uni to be with her friends. This suggests that trying to bring multiculturalism to entrenched tribes isn’t that rewarding.

As usual, the author’s theme and symbolism are strongly developed, but the writing is a bit messy. This has a more negative feel than previous installments.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander

16 Comments

This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine July-August 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Once upon a time, there were three raptor sisters named Allie, Betty and Ceecee. They are happy, but one day a fair but stupid prince totally ignores all the signs in the surrounding lands and rides into their forest, whereupon Ceecee eats the prince’s stallion. He seems unconcerned. Suspecting treachery, the three sisters confer and Ceecee volunteers to accompany the prince to his nest to find out what is going on. At the castle, she is greeted by the prince’s fiancé (who is also a witch), and lodged in the stable. At first there seems to be no treachery, but eventually Ceecee is drugged and trapped by iron shackles to become the prince’s personal plaything. Meanwhile, her two sisters set out to look for her. The princess witch comes to their rescue, casting a glamour to make two raptor sisters look like humans and unlocking the shackles so Ceecee can escape. The sisters take the witch away with them to live in their forest, and all goes well for a while. Then the four of them have occasion to ride through the prince’s lands again and encounter him on the road. The hunt is sweet.

On the positive side, the narrative here reflects the sisters’ point-of-view and unfolds like a fairy tale that a raptor parent is telling her brood. The narrator’s tone is warm and entertaining, and the humans are generally characterized as terrified and inferior; except the princess witch, of course, who is a huntress and one of their own; and the prince, who is exceptionally stupid and obnoxious besides. One interesting detail here seems taken from tiger lore: the farm workers wear masks on the back of their heads to discourage the raptors from attacking. The picture of the witch living in the forest with the raptor sisters also evokes some fairly strong archetypes.

On the not so positive side, this feels long and is easy to predict. Although the raptor sisters are an interesting take on dragons, they still end up lacking depth, and the human characters tend to be totally flat stereotypes. It’s a fairly long story, and most of the words are used in creating effect rather than revealing what this world is like. Of course, the story is quite sexist, too. The ending where they all go back to the prince’s lands seems pasted on, as if Bolander thought the story wasn’t strong enough when the women just went off and did their own thing. Instead, it has to go on to demonstrate how stupid the prince’s assumption of authority over them is. And of course, they eat him up in the end.

Three and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2019 Hugo Finalists

37 Comments

Here they are. I’ll start reviews right away.

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
“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)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

Best Series
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)
Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)

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
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)
Monstress, Volume 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda (Image Comics)
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
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)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman (Sony)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
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: “Janet(s),” written by Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan, directed by Morgan Sackett (NBC)
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
Neil Clarke
Gardner Dozois
Lee Harris
Julia Rios
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
E. Catherine Tobler

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

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

Best Semiprozine
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
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

Best Fanzine
Galactic Journey, founder Gideon Marcus, editor Janice Marcus
Journey Planet, edited by Team Journey Planet
Lady Business, editors Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay & Susan
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
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
Our Opinions Are Correct, hosted by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders
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
Sara Felix
Grace P. Fong
Meg Frank
Ariela Housman
Likhain (Mia Sereno)
Spring Schoenhuth

Best Art Book
Under the WSFS Constitution every Worldcon has the right to add one category to the Hugo Awards for that year only. Dublin 2019 has chosen to use this right to create an award for an 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
The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton (Freeform / Gollancz)
Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt / Macmillan Children’s Books)
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
Katherine Arden*
S.A. Chakraborty*
R.F. Kuang
Jeannette Ng*
Vina Jie-Min Prasad*
Rivers Solomon*

Comparing Polk’s Witchmark to Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy

45 Comments

I’ve just finished reading the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula. Interestingly, some of the authors have used the same plotline to write their books, but expressed completely different worldviews. I thought it would be helpful to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books. Here’s the second comparison of works from the Nebula ballot.

C.L. Polk and last year’s winner N.K. Jemisin have used basically the same plotline: Highly talented witches are enslaved and their power used to preserve and fuel the societies where others live in relative comfort and safety. Renegade witches manage to break the system and install a new order.

Jemisin’s three-part tale should be fairly familiar, as it’s a multi-award winner. A land called the Stillness is seismically active. Stills are ordinary people and orogenes are witch talents able to control the seismic activity. Orogenes are hated and feared, and Guardians capture the children and enslave them to work for the kingdom. Besides this, nodes in an earthquake suppression system contain children who have been mutilated and lobotomized. These slaves protect the land, but live in constant agony. The orogene Essun kills her firstborn son to keep him from this kind of slavery. Angered by the system, her lover Alabaster breaks the land, and refugees stream south away from the epicenter. Essun follows the flow, searching for her daughter Nassun. She finds Alabaster dying in the settlement of Castrima, and he asks her to complete the task of destroying the world, to recapture the moon and establish a new order. Essun finds her daughter and they struggle for control of the Obelisk Gate. Nassun wins, but convinced by her mother’s sacrifice, she goes on to capture the moon and reestablish seismic order in the world.

In Polk’s book, witches who are not storm-singers are enslaved as secondaries to supply power to the storm-singers that maintain the climate of Aeland. Witches who are not bonded this way are kept in prisons/asylums and used to process souls into the aether grid used for lights and power in Aeland. Miles Hensley (a.k.a. Miles Singer) is a member of a powerful family and a witch who has faked his own death to avoid slavery and establish a career as a military doctor. He is located by his sister Grace and forcibly bonded to her as a secondary. However, he has a friend and lover in Tristan Hunter, a fay Amaranthine investigating the loss of souls from Aeland. When Grace fails in her bid to take over the elite counsel of storm-singers, she travels to a witch’s asylum with Miles and Tristan, where they find the truth about the power grid in Aeland and combine forces to destroy it.

What do the writers mean to accomplish? The plot is basically LeGuin’s “Return to Omelas” plot about righting the wrongs of slavery used to support a society, so we have to assume this is the message. What do the writers mean to accomplish with their rendition of it? Jemisin’s work is an ugly tale about hate and anger. Her characters kill and torture their own children and they abhor and abuse each other, totally debased by the system. The powerful orogenes are slowly turning to stone. Those who are already reborn as stone-eaters could probably help with the plan to rescue the world, but they stand by and do pretty much nothing. No one is heroic here, and the angry abused child Nassun really means to destroy the world with the Obelisk Gate until her mother interferes. On the other hand, Polk presents warm, likable characters who are aware of the tip of the iceberg of witch slavery and how this supports the common good. They discuss methods of improving the system, but being young, they aren’t totally aware of what’s going on. When the time comes for them to take over from the previous generation, they discover the truth about how their society consumes souls. They act immediately to end the system, putting their lives on the line to force social change. I’d have to evaluate Jemisin’s work as an angry warning about a dying society, and Polk’s as encouragement to act immediately on the injustice we see.

Which is more fun to read? Again, that depends on your reading taste. Jemisin’s work is hard to read. She disguises her characters and it takes some digestion of the whole trilogy to understand the story. It is not fun to read, and the readability problems mean that her message is probably lost to many readers. On the other hand, Polk’s work is warm and character-oriented. The message may suffer from too much subtlety; that it’s complicated by a separate subplot, and the fact that it only comes into full focus at the end of the book. However, this one is definitely more entertaining to read.

Which provides the better role models for potential saviors of the world? I could do without all the hate and anger in Jemisin’s work—that provides for very poor role models—but is that necessary to call attention to inequalities in our society? Is Polk’s work too warm and sweet to capture the necessary attention?

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: