Wrap-up of the 2020 Hugo Reviews

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That finishes the reviews in the main fiction categories for the Hugo Awards this year, so here’s the wrap-up for anyone looking for patterns in the nominations. There was an approximate 60% overlap with the 2019 Nebula finalists, so I didn’t have to read that many stories to fill in the gaps. In addition to the Nebula correspondence, about 85% of the finalists appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List, issued in February of 2020.

There was fair diversity among the nominees, both in ethnicity and gender of the authors and in the variety of settings and themes. There were 24 works nominated, but two were co-written, resulting in 28 authors. In the case of The Deep, Rivers Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are credited for the previously Hugo-nominated song that inspired the novella. This Is How You Lose the Time War was co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. As usual, apologies if I’ve missed anybody. I’m sure I’ve way undercounted disabilities, for example, as most authors don’t post their health status.

Best Novel: 6 women, 0 men, 5 LGBTQ, 6 white, 0 ethnic minorities
Best Novella: 3 women, 6 men, 1 non-binary, 2 LGBTQ, 4 white, 1 Jewish, 3 black, 1 Arab American, 1 Asian
Best Novelette: 5 women, 1 man, 3 LGBTQ, 3 white, 1 Jewish, 1 black, 2 Asian, 1 disabled
Best Short Story: 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 4 LGBTQ, 2 white, 1 black, 3 Asian

Here are the percentages: 18/28 (64%) women, 8/29 (29%) men, 2/28 (7%) non-binary, 14/28 (50%) LGBTQ, 15/28 (54%) white, 2/28 (7%) Jewish, 5/28 (18%) black, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 6/28 (21%) Asian, and 1/28 (4%) disabled. The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. The results above follow the current trend toward white, LGBTQ women authors in the Hugo nominations, and the only way white men made it in at all was through co-written works. No Hispanics or Native Americans received nominations this year. White authors at 54% were below the US demographic of 61%. Black authors at 18% were somewhat above the US demographic of 13%. LGBTQ authors at 50% were well above the US demographic of 4.5%. Asian authors at 21% were above the US demographic of 5.6%, and Jewish at 7% and Arab-American authors at 4% were above the US demographics of and 2.6% and 1% respectively.

Looking at the lead characters in the works: 18/24 (75%) had female leads and 2/24 (8%) had equal male and female leads. Only 1/24 (4%) had a clearly male lead. The others were gender-indeterminate, cats, etc. 7/24 (29%) had non-white lead characters, and 7/24 (29%) had clearly lesbian characters. There was a noticeable shortage of male LGBTQ authors and/or characters in the nominations, which is is a recurring pattern from past years. This suggests there may be active discrimination against this particular group.

Looking at the genres: 11/24 (46%) had science fictional settings, and 13/24 (54%) had settings that look like mainly fantasy. The definitions have to be pretty loose, because a number of the works seem to mix science fictional and fantasy tropes. None of the works would qualify as hard SF, except maybe Chambers’ work about the dangers of space exploration. All the other SF stories had mysterious far future or alternate reality settings.

As far as publishers go, there were no finalists from print-only magazines this year. Tor dominated the list with 8/24 (33%} entries, and Uncanny Magazine came in next with 3/24 (12.5%). This suggests that the style and philosophy of Tor’s editors is popular with WorldCon members. Heavy promotion may also be a factor, as again, I could have almost predicted some of these results from the levels of advertising.

Themes were varied, but in style there was a clear trend toward surreal effects. The Hugo’s tendency for political commentary showed up in a number of cases, especially the short stories. Killing people to take their power appeared as a theme in three works, and revenge for past abuse appeared in four works. Interestingly, a couple of the novels this year frankly addressed socialist revolution. Hurley’s Light Brigade strives against authoritarian control and toward a panacea of living free in communism, but Anders’ novel has a more realistic and cynical view of how well this works. At least two pieces looked directly at the issue of power. Outside the fiction category, Ng’s acceptance speech from last year also made the list of finalists, an interesting choice, as it was denounced by some in the audience as both sexist and racist. All the finalist works had a strong emotional component.

Other observations: A few of these works came across as ordinary, but in general, the quality level ran fairly high, including both concepts and execution. The reading list seems to have been limited, as McGuire, Solomon, Harrow and Chiang were all nominated in more than one category. Also, some of the authors are perennials: Chambers, McGuire, Clark, Pinsker, Gailey and Harrow were also nominated last year. This repetition seems to be a developing standard for the Hugos. It’s a trend that can increase the minority count, but it also clearly reduces diversity. Surely there are plenty of qualified authors out there who could provide more diverse voices.

Review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor/Titan on 12 February 2019 and runs 348 pages. This review contains spoilers.

January is a tidally locked planet, in a synchronous rotational orbit around its sun. That means it’s divided into dark and light, a permanently frozen darkness on one side and deadly, scalding sunshine on the other. Human colonists have built two main settlements in the twilight zone in between. Xiosphant is authoritarian and highly regimented, a system that curtails individual freedoms but provides for all. Argelo is a free-wheeling party city, ruled by competing aristocratic families, and if you’re not well-connected, you starve. Sophie is a working-class student with a scholarship to the prestigious Gymnasium in the city of Xiosphant, sleepmates with her upper-class friend Bianca. Mouth is possibly the last survivor of the nomad group Citizens, who normally works as a smuggler between the two cities, and sleepmates with co-worker Alyssa. Bianca is a student subversive, working toward the overthrow of the authoritarian government of Xiosphant. When she casually steals food chits, Sophie steps in to take the fall for her and is exiled from the city. She is rescued by the Gelet, mysterious native creatures that are often hunted for meat. She sneaks back into the city and hides out, finding a job in a coffee house. Bianca, thinking her dead, moves further into subversive activities, and her group starts planning a revolution. Conditions outside the cities are worsening, and after a tough run, Mouth and Alyssa are in Xiosphant. Hearing about a Citizens artifact stored in the palace, Mouth joins the revolution to get in, but escapes as the rebellion goes bad. Her group flees and takes Bianca and Sophie with them to Argelo. Bianca establishes herself quickly in Argelo, aligning with the head of a powerful family. Still intent on overthrowing the government of Xiosphant, she plans an invasion. Meanwhile, Sophie’s contacts with the Gelet show that Mouth’s adored Citizens accidently undermined the Gelet’s climate controls that make the Twilight Zone livable, and that both cities are likely doomed as a result. If Bianca can take over the Xiosphanti government, will anything change?

So, this needs a trigger warning for anyone who suffers from depression. It’s a pretty dark work, and it was a hard slog for me to get through it. The sun never shines, and the climate is going from bad to worse. Poor Sophie starts off naive and does her best. She tries to love Bianca, and to mediate between humans and Gelet, all without much success. The theme is clearly stated: the failure of grand ideas. The students start off thinking they will change things for the better, but all their efforts are wasted. Bianca leaves a trail of death and destruction behind her, and when she takes over the government, she becomes just what they’ve hated all these years. There’s also an interesting symbolism set up with the dark and light, and the population living in the gray area in between. The City in the Middle of the Night is the Gelet city, mostly underground, where Sophie is transformed to something half Gelet and half human.

On the less positive side, this has readability issues because of the depressive atmosphere. Plus, it’s a little messy. The theme is supported very clearly through both action and pronouncements, but there are also a lot of other things going on that are less clear. One issue is Mouth’s devotion to the Citizens, who all died and left her, and how this turns to ash when she finds out more about them. Another is the presence of the Gelet, who have to represent another way of doing things, but this remains unclear. Another issue is the folk living outside the cities, the smugglers and salvage operators, and the horrific creatures that kill them off in the wastelands. And last, Sophie is transforming to an alien. Maybe this is actually about midlife crisis?

Anders is a little older than I thought, actually Gen X instead of Millennial, and if we’re going to pick out important works as part of the awards process, then this is it, a warning to all those idealistic young kids who think they can change the world and not become corrupted themselves. There’s also a message here about the results of party city versus working hard.

Five stars.

Review of The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga/Angry Robot on 19 March 2019 and runs 369 pages. The novel is an expansion of the author’s short story “The Light Brigade” published by Lightspeed in November 2015. This novel is not appropriate for children, and it gets a trigger warning for adults, too, as it includes graphic descriptions of death in a war. This review contains spoilers.

After São Paulo is depopulated by the Blink, Dietz wants to be a hero. She signs up for the Corporate Corps to fight against the Communist Martians that everybody knows are responsible. She goes through basic training and then is deployed on missions with a technology that breaks combat grunts down into particles of light and reassembled them somewhere else. However, for some soldiers this light-speed travel causes time glitches. Dietz experiences the war in a jumble of out-of-sync missions, but keeps her mouth shut about it because of rumors people who talk about things like that disappear. After a while, the jumble of missions starts to assemble into a picture that causes Dietz to question the very basis of the war. Is there anything she can do about it?

First the literary allusions: “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a narrative poem written by by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1854 about the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Here’s a short sample: “Not though the soldier knew, someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.” Besides this, the transport technology strongly suggests Star Trek.

This novel is another in the recent trend to surrealist writing, and the accomplishment is fairly impressive. The main theme seems to be how easy it is to believe in lies and never think for yourself, and the story also functions as an anti-war screed. There is a definite plot, but it’s jumbled because of the time glitches and has to be assembled by the reader (you might want to take notes). Next, it seems Hurley has read Marx, who predicts that the end game of Capitalism is a small number of huge, wealthy and powerful corporations that ruthlessly fight to eliminate the competition. Hence the corporate wars in this novel. The Big Six are pitted against one another, and will commit any atrocity to win. While the rich corporates get richer, the poor are dying in the ruins. The Martian resistance is the Marxist revolution. We don’t get a clear picture of how these rebels carry on their business, but they are presented as living free lives and are labeled by the corporate leaders as dangerous Communists who threaten an important way of life.

On the less positive side, the author’s tool for creating impact includes constant graphic descriptions of violent death and dismemberment. Just be warned—I flinched at the first few incidents, but after a while I got desensitized and just plowed through the carnage. Next, the book makes an excellent case against the dangers of uncontrolled Capitalism, but suggesting that Communism is a simple, easy answer to the problems is another lie. Economists know that neither system is a panacea, and the best solution is a middle ground that stimulates enterprise while still providing opportunity for all. The important issue becomes how to provide that, especially for vulnerable members of the population. And one last annoyance: this is written in first person, and Dietz remains ungendered through the whole book until a friend calls her by her first name on page 351. Please, either let us know about gender early on or else let the protagonist remain ungendered. This device is clearly meant to be a gotcha, and it is not a twist ending.

Four stars.

Review of “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang

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This fantasy/alternate reality short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 23 October 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nyma is ten years old and the chosen child. Her country is at war and Otto Han has just been elected president. The military has the seres missiles that will most certainly stop the war, but will also cause terrible destruction to the cities of the enemy. Nyma has the access codes for the missiles buried next to her heart, and the president has a ceremonial dagger that can be used to retrieve them. Nyma’s tutor Tej tells her to establish a relationship with Han, so she reads him poetry, and after a book of her poems is published, she becomes recognized nationally as a poet. However, their country is losing the war and pressure is mounting to use the missiles. Will Han sacrifice her to get the codes?

This is a highly creative mashup of atom bombs and access codes with human sacrifice. The Order, creators of the system, have put a human face on the codes, a child that the president has to kill with his own hands and that the people in the country know and love. Han has to complete this step before he can bring the missiles to bear on the enemy, a task that might otherwise be easy, callous and unfeeling. Stress builds, while we wonder if Han has the stomach to do it. As I was reading, I had visions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where people had no warning of the firestorm coming down on them.

On the less positive side, this is a little too pat. The characters carry out their roles and we get the message, but there’s really very little conflict other than the inevitability of the decision Han will have to make. Everybody remains obedient to the system, even though I expect military interests could come up with several ways to get around the issue of killing a child. We get to know Nyma through her poetry, but she remains mostly a cipher. The world and the situation also remain vague, and I ended up with very little in the way of solid images or details. Shouldn’t Nyma have had a security detail?

Three stars.

Review of “Blood Is another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 24 July 2019, and is available online and also for sale as an ebook. This review contains spoilers.

The Civil War is raging and word comes that Missus’ husband Albert is dead. The Missus’ fifteen-year-old slave girl Sully immediately drugs her, her two daughters, her mother and her sister with valerian and skullcap and slits their throats. This leaves Sully in charge of the farmstead. She buries the bodies and cleans up the mess, but finds no joy in her newfound freedom. Because the etherworld has been disturbed by the murders, Sully soon gives birth to the revenant Ziza, who has a much more assertive outlook on the future. The two discuss the question of papers to show ownership of the land, and agree this will be a problem. Ziza’s solution is to birth more revenants and take over the town where the deeds are registered. Can they make this work?

This is a powerful story that captures a bit of the flavor of the Old South in the framework of the Civil War. The murders are a variation on the popular recent theme of killing people and taking over their power, and the violence takes place early in the story, which gives it a strong initial impact. The style tends toward the symbolic and surreal, which reduces the space for imagery, characterization and world building, but Sully does come alive in a couple of flashes. Aside from the fantastical elements, the framework also suggests an alternate history of the US South, although there’s not quite enough development to carry this interpretation. Eventually Sully does manage a rebirth of sorts.

On the less positive side, a flavor of the South is all we get. This makes a powerful point in the beginning, but somehow Sully never steps up to take over her own life, even after her symbolic rebirth. She ends up with the revenant Ziza telling her what to do, and starts to read like a side character in her own story, only spawning avenging ghosts and not any kind of new Sully who will step up and achieve joy in her newfound freedom and opportunity. This leads to questions about the theme of the story. Is Solomon suggesting African Americans are too haunted by the ghosts of slavery to achieve anything positive? On the alternate history side, I’m also wondering why Sully waits until word of Albert’s death comes to carry out her revolt. His death may be only a metaphor for the South losing the war, of course, but this still leaves a question of why the slave Sully feels it is the (absent) man who somehow prevents her from murdering the women. Why is she afraid of him and not the women? About 1/3 of the population of the US South was enslaved during the Civil War years. Is Solomon wondering why the slaves didn’t rise in revolt as soon as the men left for the front?

Regardless of these (and a few other) questions, Solomon gets a lot of credit for grappling with the issues.

Four stars.

Congrats to the 2020 Hugo Finalists!

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As usual, there’s a pretty high correspondence between this list and the Nebulas. I’ve linked to the reviews I’ve already done, and I’ll review and link to the others in the fiction categories as soon as I can get organized. Okay really, pretty soon.

Best Novel
The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
Middlegame, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novella
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)
Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)
In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)

Best Novelette
“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)
“Omphalos”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
“Away with the Wolves”, Sarah Gailey (Uncanny 9-10/19)
“Emergency Skin”, N.K. Jemisin (Forward)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
“The Archronology of Love”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)

Best Short Story
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/31/19)
“As the Last I May Know”, S.L. Huang (Tor.com 10/23/19)
“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, Nibedita Sen (Nightmare 5/19)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com 7/24/19)
“A Catalog of Storms”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)

Best Series
Winternight, Katherine Arden (Del Rey; Del Rey UK)
The Expanse, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Luna, Ian McDonald (Tor; Gollancz)
InCryptid, Seanan McGuire (DAW)
Planetfall, Emma Newman (Ace; Gollancz)
The Wormwood Trilogy, Tade Thompson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

Best Related Work
Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (University of Illinois Press)
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (Unbound)
“2019 John W. Campbell Award Acceptance Speech”, Jeannette Ng (Dublin 2019 — An Irish Worldcon)
The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, Mallory O’Meara (Hanover Square)
Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood, J. Michael Straczynski (Harper Voyager US)
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

Best Graphic Story or Comic
Die, Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker, Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Stephanie Hans (Image)
The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 9: Okay, Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson (Image Comics)
Monstress, Volume 4: The Chosen, Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)
LaGuardia, Nnedi Okorafor, illustrated by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin (Berger Books/Dark Horse)
Paper Girls, Volume 6, Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang & Matt Wilson (Image)
Mooncakes, Wendy Xu & Suzanne Walker (Oni Press; Lion Forge)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Avengers: Endgame
Captain Marvel
Good Omens
Russian Doll, Season One
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Us

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Doctor Who: “Resolution”
The Expanse: “Cibola Burn”
The Good Place: “The Answer”
The Mandalorian: “Redemption”
Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”
Watchmen: “This Extraordinary Being”

Best Editor, Short Form
Neil Clarke
Ellen Datlow
C.C. Finlay
Jonathan Strahan
Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas
Sheila Williams

Best Editor, Long Form
Sheila Gilbert
Brit Hvide
Diana M. Pho
Devi Pillai
Miriam Weinberg
Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Artist
Tommy Arnold
Rovina Cai
Galen Dara
John Picacio
Yuko Shimizu
Alyssa Winans

Best Semiprozine

Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Escape Pod
Fireside
FIYAH
Strange Horizons
Uncanny

Best Fanzine
The Book Smugglers
Galactic Journey
Journey Planet
nerds of a feather, flock together
Quick Sip Reviews
The Rec Center

Best Fancast

Be the Serpent
The Coode Street Podcast
Galactic Suburbia
Our Opinions Are Correct
Claire Rousseau’s YouTube channel
The Skiffy and Fanty Show

Best Fan Writer
Cora Buhlert
James Davis Nicoll
Alasdair Stuart
Bogi Takács
Paul Weimer
Adam Whitehead

Best Fan Artist
Iain Clark
Sara Felix
Grace P. Fong
Meg Frank
Ariela Housman
Elise Matthesen

Lodestar for Best Young Adult Book (Not a Hugo)
The Wicked King, Holly Black (Little, Brown; Hot Key)
Deeplight, Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
Minor Mage, T. Kingfisher (Argyll)
Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)
Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee (Disney/Hyperion)
Riverland, Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Astounding Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo)
Sam Hawke
R.F. Kuang
Jenn Lyons
Nibedita Sen
Tasha Suri
Emily Tesh

Wrap Up of the 2019 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%).

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.

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.

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