Wrap Up of the 2018 Hugo Reviews

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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%).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Review of “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog in November 2018. (Maybe a bit of competition for Tor.com?) Zen Cho is Malaysian and lives in England. She is also the author of the short story collection Spirits Abroad and the novel Sorcerer to the Crown. This review contains major spoilers.

Byam is an imugi. That means he’s an ugly, earthbound worm with the potential to be a glorious dragon if he could only become elevated enough. He spends his first thousand years in a cave, studying the Way and trying to improve himself. Finally he feels ready and begins his ascent to Heaven. However, he’s been distracted by an empty belly just recently and dined on some livestock, so the farmers curse at him, which drags him back down to earth. Byam comes up with a strategy for his second attempt at ascension. Hoping to win the acclaim of humans, he creates a beautiful dragon of cloud and light in the sky. However, the sailors below fail to recognize it as a dragon, and when he’s identified as only a worm, Byam falls to earth again. On the third attempt he’s interrupted by a female hiker taking a selfie, who catches him on her phone’s camera. Angered, he disguises himself as a human female and goes to her office, where he finds she is Dr. Leslie Han, an astrophysicist. He is charmed by her research, and they strike up an acquaintance that soon becomes a serious relationship on human terms. Byam manages to learn about human ways, and supports Leslie when she fails to get tenure, encouraging her to go to work for industry instead. Finally, she confesses she knows what he really is. The end of Leslie’s life comes too soon. Can Byam fulfill her final request?

Aww. This is a really sweet story about how the way others see us either pulls us down or elevates us to reach wonderful accomplishments. It’s full of love and humor and includes a hissy cat. What else can I say?

The only complaint I can come up with is that the lead-in to the relationship with Leslie seems long. I can see the reason for this, though—it’s to clearly establish how the anger and contempt of others pulls Byam down to earth at the moments he’s ready to become something exalted. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

Review of “The Thing about Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine, November-December 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Leah is working on her dissertation in folklore, and her mom helps her by critiquing and editing the manuscript. Although Leah experienced a ghost herself when she was five, she is now more interested in how people attach meaning and purpose to their ghost stories. Leah’s mom is diagnosed with dementia. She urges Leah to go on and publish the manuscript as a book, but she doesn’t live to see its publication. After successfully getting her doctorate, Leah takes a job in academia and continues with research for another book, interviewing people about ghost’s they have seen and experienced. A couple of these interviewees tell Leah her mom is sitting right there next to her. Is there’s something unresolved in her mother’s death?

On the positive side, this is well-written, warm and slightly humorous. The characters are very engaging, and you’re pretty well hooked by the third paragraph when mom puts in an appearance. This is a poignant glimpse of what it’s like to lose a family member to dementia, as mom goes from being reliable to an unreliable editor and confidant, and finally Leah starts giving her fake documents to edit and then throws them away at the end of the day. She labors to finish her doctorate, trying to balance the demands of school with neurologist appointments, and then carries on with a career after her mother dies. The situation unfolds gradually, as we find her mother is trying to communicate from beyond the grave, and then ends gently as the situation is finally resolved.

On the not so positive side, I thought the tone was offensive and disrespectful to sufferers of dementia. This condition isn’t anything at all humorous. It’s a huge tragedy, both to the victims who feel their mental capacity and independence slipping away, and to family members who have to support them and deal with often challenging mental symptoms. Phrases like, “…figured that if she wrapped herself around my ankle early, it would be that much harder for me to shake her loose later on,” and “Mom really started to lose her marbles,” show us Leah’s exasperation, but completely ignore the pain and fear that her mother must be experiencing as her mental faculties start to fail. It’s no wonder she comes back to haunt her daughter. Kritzer soft-pedals Leah’s burden, too. It’s not going to be as simple as just taking Mom to adult day-care while you continue on with your studies–this condition is a nightmare for caregivers.

Dementia seems to run a close second to endangered children as a device to create emotion in a story, but if we’re going to do that, let’s have a hard, clear look at it, please.

Four stars.

Review of “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld in October 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

Mink is an advance scout for her tribe and a ghost killer. The land is sere, dotted by ruins here and there where the ghosts congregate. The tribe is reptilian and nomadic, hunted by acid-spitting centipedes and wild dogs, and relies on a herd of weavers that takes raw materials and creates artifacts that the tribe needs for defense and survival in their harsh world. The tribe camps near an old dome, and the scavenger Asper sees strange lights inside. Warden Renke sends Mink out to investigate. She enters the dome, and after dropping her camouflage, encounters a ghost that turns out to be exceptionally friendly. Mink looks for its heart to kill it, but can’t find where it’s stored. Meanwhile, the ghost offers to show Mink various exhibits around the dome, and finally the stars. This is only a legend, as even the moon is now veiled. Mink flees, but later returns to talk to the ghost again, which she calls Orion. She is discovered in the dome by tribe members, who try to attack the ghost and then find their weavers have turned against them to defend it. Captured by her tribe, Mink is dispirited, but Asper releases her, sends her back to the dome to retrieve his weaver. She is negotiating with the ghost when a colony of centipedes attacks the camp. Can she find a way to save her people and rescue the weavers?

On the positive side, this is a very touching story. Mink has vision and aspirations beyond the tribe’s meager existence, and Orion inspires her, leaves behind an important legacy with its passing. It’s unclear whether this setting is the Earth or somewhere else, but the tribes-people end up on a path to knowledge, learning and creation of a better world. The characters are very engaging, and the world-building very suggestive of past catastrophe. The alien nature of the characters is creative, and the effect is uplifting.

On the not-so positive side, this was a little hard to get into, as the first paragraph repeats the ending, and then transitions into Mink’s story none too clearly. I also ended up without much of an idea of what these tribes-people look like or what they would consider a better world. They have tails, scales, weak forearms, and sense with their tongues. Mink seems to change color and design at will, though maybe the others can’t. She seems to be a foundling. Last, given the narrative, action and dialog, these creatures are too human. Definitely they’re not alien enough to be reptiles. Uplifted, maybe? We need more explanation for this.

It’s a good story, worth expanding into a novel that might clear up some of these questions.

Four stars.

Review of “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine November-December 2018. For anyone who doesn’t know, T. Kingfisher is a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon that she uses for adult works. This review contains spoilers.

Rose MacGregor has a problem keeping up with her sheep. She continually meets handsome faery men and uses the sheep as a pretext for striking up an uh-hum…relationship. However, Rose is not about to pine away over anybody. Instead, she’s married the blacksmith. The faery men discuss this around their campfire, and how hard it is to keep up with her in a physical way. They trade stories, the selkie and the pooka relating how Rose used them and tossed them away. Meanwhile one of the men weaves a bouquet of foxglove. Rose is at home with her granddaughter, carrying an iron nail in her pocket to remember her husband by. There’s frost in the air, and her granddaughter reports there are flowers on the step. “Ah… that time of year already, is it?” comments Rose with a smile.

This is a sly little story that turns the issue of pining after faery men backward and has them pining after Rose instead. It’s lightweight and fun, and the granddaughter turns out to look a lot like the selkie. On the not so great side, this hasn’t much in the way of substance other than the statement about pining. There’s room for some darkness, as dealing with the faery is supposedly full of pitfalls, but maybe Rose’s nail protects her from all that. This also has a definite sexist feel, which I’m sure is the author’s whole point.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “STET” by Sarah Gailey

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Award. It was published by Fireside Magazine on October 2018. This review may contain spoilers.

This story is written in an experimental format, apparently entries for a legal brief about the decision algorithms of autonomous cars and how one has made a decision between striking an endangered woodpecker and a three-year-old child. The brief entries are followed by editorial comments which become increasingly more concerned about the writer’s well-being, and then the response of the writer, Anna. We gather that Anna was the mother of the little girl who was killed.

On the positive side, the format is interesting, and the story line assembles gradually as we read through the brief entries. It’s also an interesting inquiry into what might happen in a case where an autonomous car had to make a choice like this, and of course, it’s very touching, as we realize Anna has lost her little girl.

On the not so positive side, this is a little disjointed, and we have to assemble the story from the clues given in different places and comments. It’s not as easy as just reading a traditional story. Plus, I think the format detracts from the emotion. If this were a fully developed story in standard format, it would have more impact. On the question of interpretation: I doubt very much that autonomous cars are programmed to identify endangered species, and it’s questionable whether they ever would prioritize an animal over a child in the future. So, how are we to take this? Is Gailey asking whether we should always choose human population expansion over endangered species because it’s making a choice in favor of children? Or is it about reality checks and the need for better field testing for autonomous robots? A question about programming morality? Last comment: the trigger warning at the top of this story pretty much gives it away.

Three and a half stars.

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