I usually post a review of each Hugo Award-nominated novel, and I forgot this year. Catching up here with a single post so I can capture some thoughts. Perhaps you’ll find a book worth reading along the way. (Links in this post are affiliated with Amazon or Apple; if you click through, I might get a fraction of a penny.)
I thought this year’s slate of novels was solid, though not as strong as in some recent years. There’s a definite tipping of the scales recently toward writing that appeals to a particular type of reader, one who seems younger, less male, and more interested in social issues.
The Galaxy and the Ground Within, Becky Chambers
I adore Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series, to which this book belongs and probably serves as the series’s endcap. Chambers has moved on to other narrative universes, she says, so it sounds like she’s written all she plans to add to this world. Each of the Wayfarers novels stands alone. You can read them in any order. I don’t know of any reason to skip around, but there’s also no reason you can’t just pick up this book and read it if you like what you hear.
In The Galaxy and the Ground Within (Amazon | Apple), Chambers processes 2020’s isolation through a story about intergalactic travelers caught at a small back-world rest stop. Although the inciting incident solidly lives in the world of tropes (travelers suddenly stuck together), the novel quietly explores a number of heartfelt themes about finding common ground despite differences.
I call Chambers’s books “quiet sci-fi”; “quiet” is the best adjective I have for how her books make me feel. They are thoughtful, sincere rather than cynical, cozy. Her themes remind me of the social science fiction of Ursula LeGuin (one of the best writers of the 20th century – you are welcome to fight me; you will lose) and how LeGuin led us to consider why we structure societies the way we do. If a book could be the equivalent of a cup of tea with a good friend, Chambers’s novels fill that role well.
I don’t want to spoil the story so I won’t dig into the details of the story. What appealed to me in the storytelling: the characters are interesting and alien. Obviously, all sci-fi aliens are human at the core; we humans struggle to imagine anything that’s truly alien to our experience. But the ….races? species?…. in Chambers’s world are truly different. They have complicated histories, and humans were late to the intergalactic party, arriving with some fanfare and very little might. Instead of a power fantasy, Chambers gives us a roundtable. Travelers enter her story with their own motives and needs, and they leave the novel as changed individuals due to their interactions.
Of the four primary novels in the Wayfarers series, this one will hold most people’s attention, even if they don’t know the surrounding world. (I’d argue that it’s still best to read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Amazon | Apple) first to get more of the world in mind, but it’s not required.) My only gripe with this story comes from her use of one of the novel pronouns (xe, xir) for a character who shows up a lot. (I have no problem with nonbinary pronouns, but reading the “uncommon” ones really breaks the flow of reading for me and removes me from the sentence — every single time. It’s tiring.)
That’s a very tiny gripe for what I think is a good book for people who want sci-fi to be more than space guns and explosions – and this is not just “women’s” sci-fi. Chambers writes with a clear voice and clean sentence-to-sentence construction. Her books are refreshing if you’ve been steeped in too much YA. (Not to pick on YA but as a genre, the writing grates my nerves.)
5/5 cozy slippers from me. Brew a cup of tea and snuggle into this entire series from Chambers.
Hail Mary, Andy Weir
I know Weir is a bit of a controversial figure in sci-fi, though I haven’t cared enough to dig into why. He writes hard sci-fi books where characterization is barely sufficient to cover the plot, but The Martian was a huge hit and a fun movie, so I’m also not sure why people are so mad about it. This year, Hail Mary (Amazon | Apple) landed on the Hugo nominees list.
I read Artemis, Weir’s sophomore novel, and didn’t love it (story was ok; characterization passable), so I wasn’t sure about having one of his books on my reading pile this summer. But Hail Mary turned out to be one of my favorites from this stack, if I’m rating for “couldn’t put it down / had to read as fast as possible.” And that’s a sign of a good book!
Weir fixes (IMO) his characterization problem by centering the story on the interactions between a human man and an alien. (There is a “strong woman” character in the book as well; she’s a bit flat as a character goes, but the story really does focus more on the space action.) The book also uses a narrative device which fails much of the time it’s used – amnesia – but here, Weir allows one character to slowly regain their memories, filling in the gaps for us readers at a pleasant pace.
Weir represents big-chain science fiction. It’s reliable. It’s the Texas Roadhouse of writing where the steak will be worth eating even if there’s nothing fancy about the experience and other people who are less famous make better steaks.
You can hand Hail Mary to nearly anyone and if they’re willing to read a book about a guy solving a Big Hard Problem™ in space, they will 100% enjoy the ride here. I’d argue that Weir’s latest book is far better than Scalzi’s recent trilogy (Collapsing Empire, etc), where honestly Scalzi is off his game, giving us one good character and a semi-interesting problem but nowhere near enough meat on the bones to make reading the books worth it, even as a “read it on the plane, throw it away” purchase.
Weir hands us a truly interesting problem, some genuinely good hard science fiction content, a character I truly cared about, a well-formed relationship, an interesting alien, and a stupendous reveal at the climax. I didn’t put Weir’s book #1 on my ballot, but I considered it. Good pop science fiction keeps the business going, and Weir really did his part in 2021.
Honestly, this was a 5/5 read for me. Strap into the cockpit and blast off into a great read – I’d recommend Weir’s novel as a stocking-stuffer for anyone this Christmas.
A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine
I have enjoyed the recent influx of authors from academic disciplines who start writing fiction. (Ada Palmer’s memorable Too Like the Lightning is one of the most striking novels to emerge from this peculiar demographic.)
Martine is the pen name of a Byzantine scholar and city planner, and her two-novel series (Desolation is the sequel to A Memory Called Empire which was also Hugo-nominated) puts her knowledge on display. That said, A Desolation Called Peace (Amazon | Apple) is not an easy read.
The first novel set up a nearly unpronounceable empire, the Teixcalaan, a hybrid of Aztec and Byzantine vibes, sprawling across the galaxy. In the first book, which I do recommend (and I recommend this one as well), Martine lays out a lot of history and culture in the background of a whodunnit with galaxy-wide implications. Here in book 2, Martine moves the action out of the great capital city (her Byzantium) to the outer reaches of space to consider a story more akin to Ted Chiang’s Arrival: a linguistic and socio-cultural exploration of first-contact.
I think Martine’s second book suffers a bit in the plotting, pacing, and overall writing. The Teixcalaan words are extremely cumbersome. Character names make use of English epithets (like “Three Seagrass”) but everyone also has a nickname (like “Petal” or “Swarm”). While I like the realism of it, there’s a reason the glossary of character names in the back is like 30 pages long. You really need to sign-on for the workload of reading Martine’s books.
That said, what I appreciate about both of her books, and focusing on this one in particular, is that Martine gives us a good view of how hard intercultural communication could be. She uses the framework of the Byzantine empire to explore power, oppression, satellite states, dependencies, linguistic violence, and the manipulation of “the other” as a key lever in politics.
It’s a heady book — unsurprising given the academic origins of its author. That intellectual demand is one of my favorite things about Martine’s works; she does not “dumb down” herself or her actual research and experience to make a “marketable” book; she trusts the reader to do what she, a historian, must do when reading about events so far removed from our own time.
You may need to put on your explorer’s hat to read this one, but if you are interested in first contact stories and xenolinguistics, you might give this a try.
3.99999/5 stars from me. I didn’t love it enough to give it a 4, but it doesn’t deserve a 3.5
*Arkady Martine’s novel won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in August 2022
Light from Uncommon Stars, Ryka Aoki
Not to bury the lede, but this is actually the book that got my #1 vote on the Hugo ballot this year. Light from Uncommon Stars (Amazon | Apple) is one of the most unusual books I’ve read in a long time, and that’s why it ranked at the top of my list.
How do I describe this book? What is it “about”? Try immigrant food in LA, the lived experience of a trans woman, and the pursuit of musical excellence? How about “identity” from the perspectives of aliens, demons, a trans kid, Asian families, and musical dynasties? Or I could point out power dynamics in the cut-throat world of violin competitions and the destructive nature of fame.
Although the line-by-line writing can be uneven, Aoki’s book topped so many lists in 2021-22 because she draws together these disparate threads – of trans identity, old vs new musical excellence, immigrant experiences, aliens and demons – into a story full of heart and honesty. Aoki, who is a trans woman herself, writes a story that isn’t “about” being trans but could not be written without that narrative thread. I would hand this book to anyone who hates trans people because stories can humanize people, pushing away the hyperbole that turns trans people into monsters for a culture war.
I picked up the book because it was Hugo-nominated; I stayed because it was quirky and weird; I loved it because I laughed and cried and cheered as the story unfolded. I also stayed for the musical drama (I’m serious about the cut-throat musical competition world!) and for the doughnuts. Read it and you’ll be making a list (as I have) of must-eat places in LA.
4/5 doughnuts from me. I have to give the writing 3.5/5, if I’m being honest, but I feel like the uniqueness of Aoki’s story carries this book quite far
Two other books I’m not going to review here, because I did not have time this summer to read all 6 Hugo novels. Coart read the first one (by Parker-Chan) so I was able to get his opinion; I’ve read other works by Clark so I focused on the other 4.
Any Hugo-nominated novel (except during the one or two seasons when the freaking “Puppies” misogynists were trying to control the ballot) is worth your time to read, so I’m not dissing these! I just didn’t have time for everything.
- She Who Became the Sun, by Shelly Parker-Chan. (Amazon | Apple) tells the (fictional) story of a female warrior in 14th C China. It reads a lot like historical fiction, which is one reason I didn’t prioritize this book in my Hugo reads. (I like historical fiction just fine, but the Hugo award should highlight books in the speculative fiction genre, and Coart said he saw nothing here that fit that designation.)
- A Master of Djinn, by P. Djeli Clark (Amazon | Apple). I will probably read this at some point. I like Clark’s work, especially his novellas set in an alt-history US South where African Americans have resisted slavery and there’s a lot of good “let’s beat up the racists” vibes. Clark is yet another academic who’s turned to a career in fiction, and I look forward to seeing more of his works. He’s mostly written short fiction and novellas, so you can find some shorter works by him to try on Tor.com
One final note: The real winner of this year’s Hugo’s is the publisher Tor, who published the lion’s share of winning short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels from this year’s ballot (which represents the 2021 publishing year).
Speculative fiction lives or dies based on the health of its publishers and magazines who continue to put new stories in front of readers month after month. If you enjoy science fiction or fantasy, I encourage you to check out the home pages of Tor.com, Uncanny magazine, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and others who are doing the work to make sure science fiction and fantasy have a home in our world. You can usually find 1-2 free stories each month on their home pages. If you find an outlet whose style fits your loves, consider subscribing (to magazines) or buying books in stores (for Tor) to keep the genre alive and strong.