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 Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

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Orion,_battle_spaceship
This is a 2016 Hugo Finalist in the Best Novella category. It was published by Tor.com.

Binti is of the Himba people, and a mathematician. Her father manufactures electronic astrolabes and Binti has learned to be a harmonizer through working with him in his workshop. Without telling her family, she has applied to Oomza Uni, a school in another part of the galaxy and has been accepted. She slips away during the night and takes passage on a living starship. Everyone on the ship but Binti and the pilot die when the ship is overrun by Meduse, aliens that look like jellyfish. Binti seems to be protected by her edan, an ancient artifact that she found in the desert. She hides in her quarters and the edan translates for her. She finds the Meduse are making war on Oomza Uni because scholars have stolen their chief’s stinger. They also want Binti’s otjize, a cosmetic made from oil and clay, which they realize from touching her has healing power on their flesh. They negotiate, and she offers to harmonize the situation with Oozma Uni. The Meduse agree to let her try. Can she make this work?

On the surface the tale looks like science fiction, but none of this is at all supportable in SF terms. In other words, it’s about magic. The main theme seems to be cultural appropriation. The Meduse are making war because they want the stolen stinger back, and Binti is offended by the Meduse’s demand for her otjize. There are also strong themes about leaving family behind to follow your dreams, and about respecting alien races. On the negative side, this moves slowly and repeats a lot. Okorafor could have easily made the same points in a short story. It was an interesting look at Himba culture, but more sentimental than thought provoking. Still, I’m going to bump it up half a point for its optimism.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Builders by Daniel Polansky

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Warrior
This is a 2016 Hugo Finalist in the Best Novella category. It was published by Tor.com.

The Captain is a mouse with a mission. He searches out members of his old gang, getting them together for one last effort ten years after the War of the Brothers. These characters include Boudica the opossum, Bonsoir the stoat, Cinnabar the salamander, Elf the owl, Gertrude the mole and Barley the badger, all retired desperados. The team cuts a swath of violent mayhem through the Gardens and into the Capitol where the Captain means to take his revenge on the Younger. There they meet his minions in the final battle.

Well, this is different. I’m not generally one for anthropomorphic characters, but this tale is so over-the-top that it just adds brilliance. If they weren’t animals, this would pass for a Sam Peckinpah Western. Minions are slaughtered right and left, though most of them seem to be rats. There are elements of humor and satire. It’s fun to read.

Four stars.

Review of Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a Hugo finalist for Best Novella. It’s published by Dragonsteel Entertainment, which is Sanderson’s own small press.

Kairominas is God-Emperor of Alornia. He is also a brain in a box under a system administered by the Wode, where there are liveborn folk and machineborn folk, a.k.a. simulated entities. Since Kai has achieved the pinnacle of power in his particular state, the Wode have been after him to reproduce. Grudgingly he accepts the need to move into another reality to meet a liveborn woman. He chooses one from the bottom of the recommended list and sets off. He meets Sophie at a restaurant and finds she’s a subversive with the idea the liveborn are coddled by the Wode and actually achieve very little. He counters that heroism is real, regardless of the simulated realities. They start to have sex, but the simulation is hacked by Melhi, Kai’s liveborn nemesis. Kai defeats him, but then finds things with Sophie aren’t what he thought they were.

This is an entertaining thought-piece where Sanderson has set up a situation and looks at the philosophical issues. Great imagery, characterization and plot. On the negative side, the fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek fantasy style detracts a little from his message. This also crashes down to reality a bit suddenly.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

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The Hugo packet is delayed, apparently for the committee to decide about the legality of providing copies of some of the finalists. Until it’s distributed, I’ll have to make do with what I can find in the library. That means I’ll be skipping around. This work is a finalist in the Best Novella category, published by Tachyon.

Scur is a conscripted soldier in an interstellar war. As the war ends, she is captured by a group of renegades and tortured. She wakes later from sleep storage in a prison ship that has gotten lost in time somehow. It has arrived at its destination, but the passengers find their interstellar civilization has fallen after a visit from unfathomable aliens. This means the crew, war criminals and miscellaneous passengers on the ship are the last of humanity to hold a store of history and technology. However, the ship’s memory is failing. Can they overcome their differences and find a way to lift humanity out of the new dark age?

Reynolds tells a pretty good tale here, with an emotionally satisfying conclusion. It’s about pulling together and overcoming differences, even old grudges, to solve problems and deal with a crisis. However, the plot seems a little simplistic. The work is also low on imagery, description and characterization. I only know what two of the men look like, and ended up with no idea what Scur looks like at all. There’s very little description of the ship, and I can’t figure out how the gravity system is working while it’s parked in orbit. Is it spinning? Hm. Three 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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