Oh Hugo Awards, where have you gone?

I follow the Hugo awards closely, and 20 years ago published the 1993 Hugo and Nebula Anthology which was probably the largest anthology of currently released fiction ever published at the time.

The Hugo awards are voted by around 1,000 fans who attend the World SF Convention, so they have their biases, but over time almost all the greats have been recognized. In addition, until the year 2000, in the best novel Hugo, considered the most important, the winner was always science fiction, not fantasy even though both and more were eligible. That shifted, and from 2001 to 2012, there have been 6 Fantasy winners, one Alternate History, and 5+1 SF. (2010 featured a tie between bad-science SF in the Windup Girl and genre-bending political science fiction in The City & The City.)

That’s not the only change to concern me. A few times my own pick for the best has not even been nominated. While that obviously shows a shift between my taste and the rest of the fans, I think I can point to reasons why it’s not just that.

The 2013 nominees I find not particularly inspiring. And to me, that’s not a good sign. I believe that the Hugo award winning novel should say to history, “This is an example of the best that our era could produce.” If it’s not such an example, I think “No Award” should win. (No Award is a candidate on each ballot, but it never comes remotely close to winning, and hasn’t ever for novels. In the 70s, it deservedly won a few times for movies. SF movies in the mid and early 70s were largely dreck.)

What is great SF? I’ve written on it before, but here’s an improvement of my definition. Great SF should change how you see the future/science/technology. Indeed, perhaps all great literature should change how you view the thing that is the subject matter of the literature, be it love, suffering, politics or anything else. That’s one reason why I have the preference for SF over Fantasy in this award. Fantasy has a much harder time attaining that goal.

I should note that I consider these books below as worth reading. My criticism is around whether they meet the standard for greatness that a Hugo candidate should have.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

This is the best of the bunch, and it does an interesting exploration into the relationship of human and AI, and as in all of Stan’s fiction, the environment. His rolling city on Mercury is a wonder. The setup is great but the pace is as glacial as the slowly rolling city and the result is good, but not at the level of greatness I require here.

Blackout by Mira Grant

Mira Grant, also known as Seanan McGuire is a good writer and a huge fan favourite. So much so that she’s nominated 5 times this year, twice as Grant, thrice as McGuire — a rare accomplishment. Blackout is the 3rd book in a trilogy that began with Feed and Deadline, both of which were also nominated, another great accomplishment. Feed did not win in a year that it would have been a suitable winner — losing to yet-another-Connie-Willis-English-Time-Travel saga. However, the latter books are unfortunately only shadows of the first one in terms of quality and originality. This is not a great fault, in fact it is often the case with trilogies, and their presence on the ballot may mostly reflect fan love for the first book. However, Deadline came 4th last year so that does not bode well for Blackout.

I do recommend Feed to you — the zombie part is fun, well written horror, but what makes it special is the treatment of citizen media in a post-apocalypse future world.

Amusingly, Blackout by Connie Willis won the 2011 Hugo for best novel. In 2010 there were two nominees (in different categories) both titled “Palimpsest” (the Stross one won.)

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois Bujold

This is another series book, but in this case it’s the most award decorated series of all time, with 3 Hugos for best novel. But it’s now also an immensely long series, and while Bujold never fails to entertain in it, there is less and less that is truly new here. Vorpatril was hardly a favoured character, but we see his story. Bujold has managed to keep this series fresh by constantly moving to new PoV characters and even more importantly to new worlds, but here she stays on Barrayar largely, and the other characters are from planets we’ve seen before, the anarchic Jackson’s Whole and the stratified Cetaganda.

I also am frankly tired of Barrayar and its impossible benign absolute monarchy. Fans may like this because they get a story of such a society (normally found in Fantasy and Historical stories) with SF trappings. But 95% of the major characters in these stories are high-born and just naturally assumed to be superior. Only a few exceptions, like Miles’ mother and Simon (who is an artificial superman of sorts) are not part of that system. In reality, on a planet with advanced technology this monarchy would never survive, especially with its abuses in the past, but in this world it’s all jolly and there are not even any rebels who are sympathetic.

This series has run its course. Last year’s Cryoburn was also nominated but did not do well, nor did it deserve to. Winning 3 Hugos for the same series is remarkable because the voters have tended to insist that for a sequel to win, it must be fresh and new, better than the earlier work. This is not even remotely true here.

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Scalzi is one of our best new writers, and his first novel, Old Man’s War was a deserving nominee and resulted in a deserved Campbell-not-a-Hugo award for best new writer. That series has also run its course, and so I should be glad to see him do a completely different novel.

The problem with Redshirts is it’s a throw-away. A fun novel with a fun premise, well realized. But I don’t think it aspires to be much more than that — and that’s fine — but this does not mean you give it the Best Novel award. The premise (where fiction creates real worlds which can even break into our world) has also been done several times before and while he does more with it than has been seen before, it’s still largely to create entertainment, not change our view of the world.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I admit to not having read this yet. It’s Swords and Sorcery — or rather Scimitars and Sorcery, but in spite of that cross-cultural twist it’s not what I would normally pick up. I read its opening but wasn’t engaged. However, I refrain from judgement on a book I have not finished, of course.

So what else?

I found the year to be weak. Blue Remembered Earth was another good novel in the near-future solar-system genre. Existence by David Brin introduces some really good new SETI/Fermi’s Paradox material, but falls down by being way too preachy. I could not avoid hearing Brin’s personal voice in so many of the lines of his characters, rather than hearing the characters themselves.

Hydrogen Sonata was very good, classic Banks, and it’s a tragedy we will only get one more book from him before the cancer takes him. Caliban’s War is also very good, but not as good as Leviathan Wakes which was one of the best for 2012.

The superb first novel Nexus by my friend Ramez Naam came out just at the end of the year and escaped Hugo attention. This novel is great nearish-future SF, and should at least earn him a Campbell nomination next year if it gets fan attention.

And while I quite enjoyed The Fractal Prince, it again suffers from the sequel problem. The Quantum Thief was astounding, and should have been nominated for and won the Hugo. But The Fractal Prince is good, but not better. It also failed to receive a nomination, which is still a shame.

We’re seeing a lot of sequels and books in series. The field is becoming dominated by them. They are easier to sell to publishers these days with their built in fan-base, and it’s becoming more and more common for writers to sign a multi-book contract with publishers rather than a single book — less work for the publisher and it seems like a good idea for the writer. That’s a problem in a genre where, as I define it anyway, greatness requires novelty. “More in this universe” may be entertaining to fans but rarely changes our view of the world as I demand.

The trend to Fantasy is harder to understand. Last year’s winner, Among Others was a book about a young woman who loves books (particularly F&SF) with all her heart and lives in a magical world. In other words, a complete sop to the fans and not a winner without this. Neil Gaiman, in accepting his award for the fantasy work The Graveyard Book declared he was sure that Stephenson’s Anathem would win it. Anathem is a masterwork and Gaiman is right, but it only came 3rd.

Well, or perhaps I am getting jaded in my old age. :-) We’ll see as time passes.

Hugo has long been for fantasy as well

For at least as long as I can recall, the Hugos have officially been for both science fiction and fantasy. All four of the fiction category definitions start with "A science fiction or fantasy story...". Given that Robert Bloch won a Hugo in 1959 for the fantasy story That Hellbound Train, I'd guess that that's always been the case. While it might not be to your taste that fantasy is eligible, it is and it's not a recent development. I suspect one reason fantasy may be winning more often is that it's gotten increasingly difficult to write strong hard sf, as one has to account for advances in more and more fields affecting one's future universe.

That being written, I do agree that this wasn't that strong a year for novels.

(Also, based on the reaction I saw at signings, readings, etc. when Bujold announced she was working on an Ivan Vorpatril book, I think you underestimate the character's popularity among her readers)

Yes, in the rules

Yes, the rules always said it was F or SF (or anything else the readers cared to nominate if it came to that.)

However the reality was that until 2001, the Novel award, always the most prestigious, always went to SF, and suddenly that stopped and stopped hard. Fantasy got nominated from time to time but did not win. Even alternate history was rare (Man in High Castle is one example.) Now winners have included Fantasy and even Horror, as well as Alternate History and Alternate History/Fantasy. Tastes did a major shift.

Ivan's popularity

Also, please explain to me why Ivan is so popular. When I heard this was a book about him, I wasn’t even going to read it until it got the Hugo nomination. What makes Ivan so interesting? I didn’t find him more interesting even after a whole book about him.

While I would prefer Bujold retire this and create a new universe, I would rather have seen another book, perhaps one from the PoV of a non-highborn Barrayaran. Perhaps somebody who justifiably doesn’t like the dictatorship and the imperialism and the parochial attitudes of that planet and wants to change it rather than leave. One where Gregor and Miles are the villains, because in this case they’re truly in the wrong when seen from our 21st century democratic viewpoint.

His rolling city on Mercury

His rolling city on Mercury is a wonder.

And recycled from his 1985 novel, The Memory of Whiteness. Which part of my problem with the book: it could have been written in 1985. Or 1975. It's a very Whole Earth Catalog sort of SF novel.

And his Degenerate

And his Degenerate Earthicans - Especially Those Darn Africans - Dependent on the Largess From Space People could have come from a Jerry Pournelle novel circa 1974. Come to think of, so could the Space Heiress who gets handed a lot of power because she happens to be related to the late Lion of Mercury. And there's a bit in the book lifted from Cole and Cox's 1964 Islands in Space, possibly via Niven.

Fan awards

Pardon me if I'm being obtuse, but the Hugo awards are fan-based, no? That means they are nominated and voted for by fans, yes?

Which means they are a popularity contest and purely subjective, not a measure of how 'good' a book is in any objective manner.

So what you are seeing in the shift towards more Fantasy (or Alt-Hist, or Horror, etc.) winners is the changing tastes of the fan-base.

And that's the way it should be.

If you want an award that measures the 'worth' of a novel (film, TV, etc.) you need to look somewhere else besides the Hugos.

Just sayin'

Worth

Of course the Hugos are measuring a worth, as judged by the presumably more sophisticated (or at least dedicated) fans who go to the worldcon. It is an aggregate opinion, but in general works of greatness can and do impress those fans and win the award.

Rolling City neat but not new

"His rolling city on Mercury is a wonder."

And it's been done before, unfortunately. I think I recall it in an Elric book or something like that; and there's also the "star destroyer on the back of a hundred AT-AT" in Zahn's Star Wars books.

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