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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Congrats to the 2017 Nebula Finalists

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Interestingly, more than one of the names repeat this year. Vina Jie-Min Prasad and Sarah Pinsker both appear in more than one category. This year, the Nebula Recommended Reading List did pretty much accurately predict that the top recommended stories would end up as finalists.

As is usual recently, the list leans heavily female. Here’s a quick diversity count, as well as I can figure it:
Best novel – 6 women, 1 man, 1 African American, 1 Asian, 1 LGBT
Best novella – 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 1 Asian, 1 Jewish
Best novelette – 2 women, 2 men, 1 trans, 2 LGBT, 1 Asian
Best short story – 4 women, 2 men, 2 Asian, 1 Native American/African American, 2 Jewish

Four of 7 of the Best novel finalists come from Orbit, and 4 of 6 of the Best novella category come from Tor.com, plus one of the novelettes and one of the short stories.

For those who have been keeping up with my blog, you’ll know I’m happy to see a Native American writer represented this year. Many congrats to all! Reviews to follow soon.

Best Novel

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly (Tor)
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (Saga)
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (Knopf; riverrun)
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (Orbit US)
Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz (Tor; Orbit UK 2018)

Best Novella

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages (Tor.com Publishing)
And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen (NobleFusion Press)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novelette

“Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes (F&SF 5-6/17)
“Weaponized Math” by Jonathan P. Brazee (The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3)
“Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
“A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
“A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson (Tor.com 1/4/17)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)

Best Short Story

“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
“Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls (Strange Horizons 6/5/17)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel (Tor.com 3/15/17)
“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)

Review of A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

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This novel is a Hugo finalist published by Hodder & Stoughton/Harper Voyager US. It’s Chambers’ second novel and billed as space opera, a sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

Lovelace is a ship’s AI that tech genius Pepper has illegally downloaded from Wayfarer and installed in a synthetic humanoid “kit.” Lovelace struggles to adjust as the two of them travel to Pepper’s home on Coriol and meet Pepper’s partner Blue. Lovelace chooses a new name, Sidra, and goes to work in Pepper’s fix-it shop. In another thread that happens years before, the child-slave clone Jane 23 (later Pepper) escapes from a factory and takes refuge in an abandoned shuttle. She is mothered by the AI Owl and works to get the shuttle running again. The two threads converge as Pepper and her friends mount an expedition to rescue Owl.

This novel is very readable, suitable for young-adult, and seems to be about inclusion. Everyone is respected and appreciated on Coriol and worthy of hugs, regardless of disability, alien race or AI status. This is in contrast to the unseen Enhanced who run the slave factories. The AIs are generally warm, fuzzy and well-behaved, and the story is very character and friendship oriented.

On the con side, this vision of AI falls well on the fantasy side. It’s true the ship’s AIs could be sociable, but these two are just too sweet and lovable to be real. It’s also unbelievable that people would interact with any kind of affordable “kit” and not realize it’s synthetic. The novel is billed as space opera, but there are none of the battles or struggles for the soul of the universe that you’d expect from this sub-genre. Why doesn’t anyone here challenge the Enhanced and their slave-based factory system?

Three stars.

Review of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novel is a 2016 Nebula finalist published by Solaris. The 2016 Nebula Reading List is down, but the Waybackmachine suggests this one had 7 recommendations, and like Everfair, came from behind. The novel is also a Hugo finalist.

Kel Cheris is an infantry captain who is surprised to recognize heresy in a battle with the Eels. She disgraces herself by altering formation equations to match the heresies and finds this brings her to the attention of Kel Command. Calendrical rot threatens the hexarchate, and because of her mathematical and leadership abilities, she will be part of a force launched against the Fortress of Scattered Needles, center of the rot. When asked to choose a weapon, she chooses the dead traitor-general, Shuos Jedao. Attached to his ghost, she goes into battle against the heretics and finds all is not as she has been told.

Cons: Lee doesn’t cut the reader a lot of slack here. This is complex, and I ended up having to go back to read some of the set up again once I knew who the important characters were. It’s a space opera, of course, and fairly violent. Millions of people die. Because of the mass slaughter, I learned early on not to get really attached to any of these characters.

Pros: Lee doesn’t cut the reader a lot of slack here. I love complex stuff. There’s a philosophical question underneath all this, as the hexarchate seems based on consensual reality. The story is beautifully plotted, with a long, slow set up as the main characters play cat-and-mouse games with one another over a span of centuries. Besides having a strong plot, a strong action line and a twist ending, this also has excellent characterization and imagery. The descriptions of exotic effects and even quiet moments when the wind blows and the light shimmers are very well done. It’s not without humor, either. Lee makes even minor characters live with a snippet of internal dialog, and then kills them off in imaginative ways. I think I’m going to have to read the sequel, and maybe the related Tor.com novella, too.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

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This is one of the Hugo finalists in the Best Novel category. It was published by Roc.

In this universe, the Spires provide habitats for humanity in a world where mist shrouds the surface. The economy is controlled by aristocratic houses that operate fleets of airships for shipping. Captain Grimm of the airship Predator works for Spire Albion and is engaged in piracy against Spire Aurora. The Predator is damaged, and Grimm negotiates commission of a vital mission in return for expensive repairs. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn Lancaster of Spire Albion has faced down her mother and left home to take service in the Guard. She and two other young Guard trainees are assigned to the mission, along with an intelligent cat and two odd Etherealists. As the mission becomes more complex and dangerous, they find humanity’s ancient enemy has risen from the depths of the mist.

This is a good set up for a steampunk SF adventure, but it turns out the ships run on mysterious crystals, which means it really leans to fantasy. The plot is well thought out and the world building is adequate. The battle between the airships is a great visual. However, the characters come across as stiff and often annoying. The introduction of the intelligent cats is interesting, but soon they’re annoying, too. This story had good potential, but every time something interesting happens, it gets bogged down in Victorian, straight-laced prudery, or something. There’s just no romance or adventure in it. After the lush violence of the Dresden Files series, it ends up feeling sterile. Like some of the other novel finalists this year, this one runs long and slow, coming in at 640 pages.

Three stars.

Review of The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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This is a Hugo finalist in the Best Novel category, published by Orbit.

The story is about a land called the Stillness which is seismically active. The stills are ordinary people; orogenes are talents able to control the seismic activity; guardians can shut down the orogenes power, and stone eaters have the power to move through earth and stone like it’s air. The land is governed by an ineffectual leadership and consists of cities and communities that are struggling for survival. The Fifth Season is death, caused by cataclysmic seismic events. Orogenes are hated and feared, and the guardians try to capture the children and enslave them to work for an institution called the Fulcrum. Besides this, there are mysterious obelisks that float above the Earth’s surface, either alien artifacts or the product of ancient civilizations. There are four different time streams in the plot that converge. A woman sits by a dead child; a man breaks the land; an orogene child is taken and tortured by a guardian; two orogenes are commissioned to clear a harbor of coral, and as the effort dramatically fails, they escape and take refuge with pirates. As the broken land begins to die, a stream of refugees heads south, away from the epicenter of the event.

This is the first work I’ve read from Jemisin, and I was impressed with her imagination. The setup is brilliant, the imagery, the setting, the talents and the air of mystery about the forgotten artifacts are first rate. I’m not surprised that she’s nominated for a lot of awards. However, she doesn’t win that much. There are issues here, so I’ll pick at this a little more than I normally do.

The first issue is readability. There’s not much that really happens in the story, but it moves at a glacial pace, ending up at about 450 pages. I was 25 pages in before I had an idea of what might be going on, and 100 pages in before I connected in any way with the characters. It’s written in a sort of folksy, storytelling style. This softens the horrors going on, but that, the shift between time streams and a shift between second and third person for the narration tends to make it over-complex and inserts too much of the author. Second issue: this is described as The Broken Earth, Book 1, so I expect it will continue. That’s good, because it doesn’t really wrap anything up. It just stops. The last (and worst) issue is that I don’t really like any of these characters. They hate each other and live miserable lives. Nobody gets to be a hero—they just struggle and die, or else they survive.

Three and a half stars.

Discrimination in the Nebula Awards?

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I’ve already got some discussion in the comments section on the Nebula results, so I’ll write a few thoughts here. The comment is to the effect that 15 of 16 winners in the fiction writing categories in the last three years have been women. I do agree that this seems to be an unusual result. It’s not like men suddenly quit writing, or even that men didn’t make it into the list of finalist.

Why were the winners all women? There are a few possibilities for this result. First, keep in mind that the Nebulas are a “closed shop” with the winners chosen by the approximately 50/50 male/female membership of professionals that belong to the SFWA organization. As I understand the process, members recommend stories over a reading period, and the Nebula jury takes the top few from the list. There’s an opportunity to make adjustments to the list if the jury thinks anything deserving has been passed over. Then the finalists are presented to the membership for vote, producing winners.

So what are the possibilities? 1) Women are just writing better stories than men these days. 2) There’s a perception among industry professionals (both male and female) that women are writing better stories. 3) There is affirmative action going on. 4) Men are uninvolved in the awards process so aren’t recommending or voting for stories that men are writing.

Taking a quick look at this year’s list-in-the-making, it appears that women are making way more recommendations than men. Is this the key? Checking the 2015 novella recommendations (easiest to count), it looks like the number of recommended stories ended up about 50/50 men/women. The top ten on the list were still 5/5. For Best Short Story the top ten on the list were 6/4 women/men. For Best Novel the top ten were again 6/4 women/men. The novelette list is currently down, so I can’t check that one.

So this looks reasonably fair. However, men lost out in the final vote. To me, that suggests that either the men in the SFWA aren’t voting in the numbers women members are, or else they’re voting for the women’s stories. That means we shouldn’t hear any grousing from guys about the results—they had their opportunity to check in and vote.

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