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.

Why are all these potential Nebula nominees so sappy?

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There’s one more story with between five and ten recommendations on the Nebula Reading List. This is “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet” by James Van Pelt, published in Analog. I gather from other reviews that this is an entertaining read, but it’s not available online so I’ll have to defer comments. That’s means I’m done with this set of reviews and ready to sum up some thoughts.

As I expected, the message fiction thinly disguised as SFF dropped off as I got deeper into the list, to be replaced with the usual highly sentimental stuff that all the pro magazines publish these days. There’s heavy emotional content in every one of these stories. Limited themes. Four of the eight are about abused children, and one more is about elderly dementia. That suggests the Nebula is a competition to see who can provide the biggest emotional whallop.

Other than that, science fiction in general is clearly in trouble here. The two stories that might be SF only use that as a framework to present the story—it’s not at all necessary to the plot. There are no serious questions or ideas offered up, no real predictions of where we might be going in the future. I have to conclude that science fiction, what Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas” is dying. Instead, people want to cry about something.

So why is this happening? Some of it is social trends, of course. People may be just less interested in questions and ideas these days and more interested in emotional chills. But there’s something else, too, which is that this is how people are now taught to write. Last year I meant to comment on this, and I located this quote about teaching methods for children: “…an emphasis on emotions and feelings and ‘expressing’ them. This pressures children to produce work that is cathartic and trite—a very bad combination—and puts the teacher, to say nothing of the classmates, in the position of acting as an untrained, ersatz therapist…”

Unfortunately the link I have for this now seems to be bad, meaning it may have been taken down. More fortunately, there are other sources available. For example, Advanced Writing: Fiction and Film by Wells Earl Draughon offers advice on how to get started on a successful story. Draughon suggests that opening with a character is dull and boring unless some kind of suffering is also attached. This hook attracts the reader and produced sympathy for the character that will lead into the story. By definition, this emotional hook has to be trite or “stock” in order for the reader to quickly understand it. Everyone now expects this. So, in order to get your story published, you have to sift through all the trite trigger situations out there and try to find a creative way to incorporate some overused theme, i.e. child abuse, into your story. If you’re really good at it, then you can be a star writer.

But where does this leave SFF as a genre? As a potential reader, I end up with a choice of the same stock situations used repeatedly as themes because they’ve got great emotional hooks. As a writer, I’m limited in what I can present because I have to stick to these strict requirements to capture an editor’s attention. Add to this the apparent trend to progressive message fiction in the pro magazines that the top of the Nebula list indicates, and you’ve got content that’s restricted to emotional, hot-button issues with no new ideas, and heaven forbid that there be any actual science in there. It’s too cold and clinical for a story to actually ask questions about space travel or the future of the human race.

Is there any hope for change on this?

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?

Rocket Stack Rank’s analysis of editors

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FeatherPenClipArtOne of the toughest jobs in voting for the Hugo Awards last summer turned out to be how to evaluate the editor category. I’m sure most voters were scratching their heads about what to do. A couple of the nominees seemed to have political affiliations in the Puppy scandal, which made on the spot decisions even more fraught. Who really follows editors’ accomplishments during the year, anyway?

Fear not, voting public. This year those clever guys at Rocket Stack Rank have come up with a scheme to rate short form editors based on the reviews of stories that appear in their magazines/anthologies. For those who aren’t currently following the site, RSR normally collects reviews and ranks science fiction stories published in major pro magazines and anthologies during the year. This means they’re a prime resource for the time-challenged awards nominator who really doesn’t have time to weed through all those possibilities at the last minute. But, given their collection of reviews and story rankings, they‘ve now analyzed the data by editor, providing a breakdown of who published the best stories over the course of 2015.

For their analysis of who was the best editor, check out their results here. RSR also features a number of other interesting analyses, such as what effect the Locus Reading List has on the Hugo Awards. Have a look at the site—it’s interesting reading.

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.

Why is it hard?

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Edward Lear
Linda Nagata, writing in io9 magazine, calls the term “hard SF” a marketing disaster. Like Stanley Schmidt who thinks the term has accumulated negative associations, Nagata complains that the term “hard SF” suggests that it’s going to be hard to read, or that it’s going to be dull and boring. At least she doesn’t think, like Schmidt, that readers immediately visualize clanking hardware. However, she does wonder about the sexual connotations. Hm. The less said about that, the better, I guess.

Nagata also complains about the term mundane SF, which is science fiction set on earth or within the solar system, without any star-faring aliens. If it’s that mundane, she wonders, why read it?

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