Hugo 2017: The Highlights and Reviews

I threatened a few days ago to post reviews of the Hugo pieces that I found worthy, and here I am to deliver the goods.

NOVELS
Honestly, every novel in the Hugo nominee list this year is worth your time. I didn’t love each of them the same, but at least none of them wasted my time like a few have in the past (*coughs* Seveneves, I’m looking at you). I’m not here to write full reviews; you can find great ones everywhere.

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is a striking novel with a strong female lead, a far-future world with interesting social structures, mathematics-as-magic, and a galactic space war on a grand scale. This book really grabbed my attention. It doesn’t easily slip into any identifiable story category, though I’d say the two-person (protagonist/antagonist) relationship that drives the main character’s plot is critical to the book’s success. I’ve already ordered the sequel.
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer kept me turning pages, and I nearly listed it first on my Hugo ballot. (The honor went to Ninefox.) Palmer is a University of Chicago historian, and this book reads like an 18th century Alexander Pope was transported forward a few hundred years. She imagines a future world that isn’t shot to hell, and I found that refreshing considering the shitstorm that is 2017 after the hellfest of 2016. Her world offers us a view of what rapid transportation could do in helping humanity develop new “nations” not organized around geographical location. Imagine aligning yourself with people who pursue your same vocational goals — and even better, imagine reorganizing the central family unit into an extended collection of “relatives,” both blood-related and not, who come together to live in collectives centered around common interests. Sign me up, I’m ready to join a ‘bash!
  • The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin continues her fantastic series that earned her a Hugo Award for the first book, The Fifth Season, last year.  (One of my favorite reads of 2016.) The sophomore entry expanded the story yet stands tall in its own right, building more of the world and giving us even more characters who face difficult ethical choices. The overarching tale offers commentary on issues of race and climate without (to me) being preachy. The series continues to defy genre categorization – is it sci-fi? fantasy? does it matter? Speculative fiction it is, and a great example. Start with The Fifth Season if you’re jumping in.
  • All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, tells the story of a computer engineer and a witch in San Francisco. Another genre-bender, this novel goes down easy with snappy dialogue writing and a good examination of the conflict between science and the metaphysical. I can’t say this novel asks Big Questions, but it does offer a good view of the microcosm of conflict among people with different goals and values. Plus, she clearly lives in SanFran and peppers the book with lots of local details.
  • A Closed and Common Orbit is Becky Chambers’s second novel after her strong debut The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Not wanting to jump in on book two, I read both this spring. This series is like Firefly and Star Trek having a baby in John Scalzi’s trunk: There’s all the ensemble camaraderie of Firefly (down to the female engineer), the thrill of space and battle and Big Questions of AI vs human intelligence, and the snappy dialogue writing of Scalzi. At times it was almost annoying – like Chambers is trying so hard to emulate her hero Scalzi that we’re losing her voice at times. She’s a young writer, and you can feel that in the writing. But she shows much potential, and I look forward to reading more entries in this series. Chambers will come into her own rapidly and probably have a very successful career, drawing in many people who would walk straight by the piles of hard sci-fi in bookstores. My main criticism of both books is that she tends to be preachy. Hopefully she’ll relax about that.
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu wrapped up my ballot. I had such high hopes for this book, having enjoyed The Three Body Problem in 2015 and swept off my feet by last year’s The Dark Forest. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I loved or even liked Death’s End. I can appreciate some elements of the storytelling – the three fables in the center of this giant novel were a wonderful plot device – but I hated most of everything else. Liu is an ideas man; he doesn’t really write characters. That emerged as a major weakness as he tried to wrap up his idea-fest-turned-novel-series. I hated the ending too. When I get to the end of a 600 page book and feel like I wasted my time, it makes me angry.  All that aside, I’m glad Liu’s books were translated for an American audience, even if this one is at the bottom of the list for me.

SHORT STORIES
Finally the drama of the Puppies controversies is over, but the short story category was still a bit weak.  On the upside, I can link to a few of these since many are published digitally nowadays and publishers sometimes make them generally available since they were nominated. I’m listing my top picks here (in the order I voted for them).

  • My top short story pick ended up being NK Jemisin’s “The City Born Great,” posted at Tor.com (full story here). Jemisin lives in NYC and she infuses her love for the pulsing City into this story, but with her typical genre-bending twists. Is it sci-fi? Is it urban fantasy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar is available in full on the Uncanny Magazine right now. This is a fairy tale polished to a gleaming brightness, turning cliched plot points into a thoughtful look into a friendship between two women, each imprisoned in their own ways. I’d happy read this story in a lit class for the sake of the ensuing discussion.
  • Carrie Vaughn’s story “That Game We Played During the War” drew me in and held me from start to finish. Full text here. It’s not a complex story, and it’s not a stunner, but I really enjoyed the interpersonal nature of the tale. Also #chess.

The other three nominees in this category were very weak. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” seems to be trying too hard (IMO) to establish itself as a TIME MANIPULATION STORY.  *shrugs*  But it’s not a bad read.   Second, though I loved Brooke Bolander’s entry in last year’s Hugo (one of my favorite stories ever), this year’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” was a huge disappointment.  It just…. *sighs*…. too preachy; too little plot; too little of anything I want to read. A revenge story, barely.

Finally, I don’t even want to waste words on John C. Wright’s “An Unimaginable Light.”  Wright is the darling of the right-wing Rabid Puppies, and after shoving him down our throats for the past few years, a change in the Hugo nominations process served as a barrier to having to read much of him this year. Thank God. The man apparently can’t devise a plot worth more than two shits (this is my assessment after three years’ of nominations of his drivel).  Honestly. If you’re going to put someone forward as the poster boy for conservative man-centric science fiction, for the love of pete, could you at least pick someone who can write?  John C Wright is an embarrassment to writers everywhere.

NOVELETTES
Again, a few of these are worth pointing out, if you can find them to read them. Novelettes are just long short-stories; you can read them in a single sitting, though you might realize your butt is tired by the time you’re done. (Contrast this with Novellas, which kill your butt if you try to read them straight through without at least getting up to get more coffee.)

  • “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon shows what a master storyteller in folk tales and Native American culture can do in a science fiction/fantasy setting. It doesn’t matter if this tale is alt-reality or near-future; it’s a great example of the power of simple tales.  Read the novelette at Apex Magazine.
  • I really wanted to vote Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story “Touring with the Alien” #1. Man, it was so close. Maybe I should have. This could have been a pedestrian walk through a boring, tired sci-fi concept. Except it wasn’t. It was fantastic. Thoughtful. Provocative. One of the better “intelligence” and “alien” stories I’ve read in a long time. Clarkesworld Magazine has the full novelette available online.
  • “The Jewel and her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde is an example of fantasy writing that I can get behind. I really enjoyed this tale, mostly because Wilde built a world where some gems have power, and the way the people adapted to handle the risks and rewards of that power was genuinely fascinating.  If she has more stories in this world, I will read them.  Read the introduction at Tor.
  • Also in the category of “fantastical folk tales” is “You’ll Drown Here if you Stay,” by Alyssa Wong. Cool story.  I put it 4th, because I felt the others were stronger, but still a great read for those who enjoy the way traditional folk tales (and their structure) blend well with science fiction and fantasy. Read it at Uncanny magazine. 

The other two stories really aren’t on my recommended list. “The Art of Space Travel” is a people story; it has almost zero connection to speculative fiction; I’m not sure why it was nominated.  Memo to people: Just because your story includes an astronaut doesn’t make it science fiction. 

NOVELLAS
Still reading this category – I didn’t enter Hugo votes because I didn’t get a chance to finish these. Will return once I’m done and offer a couple thoughts, if I find something worthy.

GRAPHIC NOVELS
Man, some great writing here! I recommend reading each of the Hugo nominees. They were all good.  Monstress Vol 1 was my top pick, but it was genuinely hard to pick a favorite when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the story for the Black Panther tale, and so many others were interesting and beautifully drawn.

RELATED WORKS
This is the category for everything that isn’t fiction…. like Ursula LeGuin’s essays, Neil Gaiman’s essays, a personal memoir from Carrie Fisher, and more.  Dive in and read, especially Le Guin and Gaiman, if you get a chance.

I voted in other categories like Dramatic Presentation, Short Form and Long Form, and some of the editor categories, but I won’t bore you with those here.

Bottom line – this year’s Hugo nominees are worth your time!  Even the weaker categories (short stories) offer fiction worth reading. So if you’re out of beach books and want something good for August, hit your library or bookstore and help an author eat next month. 😉

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