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The Hugos 2019, novellas

I attended the Worldcon in Helsinki in 2017 – and had a great time – which meant I was eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugos that year and the year following. I did neither. In either year. I’ll be attending the Worldcon this year in Dublin. Which means I’m once again eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards. Again, I’ll be doing neither. The Hugos have never really aligned with my tastes, and I refuse to vote for people on shortlists that comprise works. However, as an eligible voter, I have access to the Hugo Voter Pack. Which is pretty much everything on the various shortlists. This year, I decided to actually have a go at reading the shortlisted works. I doubt I’ll finish the novels before the con itself – and, to be honest, I’ve not even started them – but the novellas, novelettes and short stories… those I can do. The other categories I don’t care about.

First up are the novellas. Because it’s a length of fiction I like, both to read and to write. Of the six works on the shortlist, four were by authors whose names I’d heard of before and, in some cases, even read previously. One was vaguely familiar and one was completely unknown to me. In the order in which I read them…

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Robson previously, but her name sounded vaguely familiar– Ah, she won a Nebula for Best Novelette last year, and is another of the Clarkesworld/Tor.com stable, members of which have appeared on many shortlists in the last couple of years. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach was published by Tor.com. In fact, five of the six novellas on this year’s shortlist were published by Tor.com. Which is a problem. Anyway, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is set on a post-climate crash Earth, in which a much-reduced population live in small high-tech communities. There are people who work on fixing the damage caused by the climate crash, in an effort to create a world that can be repopulated to former levels. The protagonist of this story is one of them. She also has eight prosthetic legs, like an octopus. And she is part of a team, if not its leader, which submits a proposal for an environmental impact study which involves time travel back to Sumeria. It sounds messy as fuck, but Robson manages to make it all hang together. There are problems: it’s not entirely clear what the team from the future are trying to achieve, the personal politics are confused with the wider political situation, and the POV is peculiarly narrow given the world-building. It actually reads like part of a series where much of the world-building was handled in earlier works, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s a reasonably well-handled piece, and the prose itself neither stands out nor is an obstacle – and the latter is certainly something that could be said of other nominees. I’m not sure if it deserves to be on the shortlist… but on balance, I’d say its presence is not embarrassing.

Artificial Condition, Martha Wells. Another problem with the novella category – indeed, with the Hugo Awards over the last few years as a whole – is the preponderance of sequels. Martha Wells, previously better-known for mid-list fantasy series, published three of her Murderbot novellas in 2018. (The first was published in 2017.) That’s a series. Artificial Condition is the second instalment. None of them stand alone. There are indeed cases where the second instalment in a series is better than the first, but in this case the first instalment, All Systems Red… won the Hugo Award for Best Novella last year. Come on, people, read a little more fucking widely. It would be understandable if the Murderbot series were astounding, the best sf published for many years… But they’re not. They’re entertaining, and even a little bit clever in places. But fun as they may be, they’re not award-worthy. And if you’re nominating fiction because it was “fun”, you appear to have misunderstood the meaning of the word “best”. The thing about “best” is that you have to recognise something as being of high quality, higher quality in fact than pretty much everything else you read, you don’t necessarily have to have enjoyed it or thought it was fun. The two are quite different. Any old wine will get you pissed, but the good ones won’t have you gagging every time you take a sip. At least not for the first half-dozen glasses. What we have here is a novella that gets you pissed without you actually noticing the flavour of the vintage – and I’d submit that’s not what awards are about, at least not awards that have the word “best” in their title. I enjoyed Artificial Condition. I might even read the rest of the series. But I really can’t see this as award-worthy and its nomination says more about the award than it does the genre.

The Black God’s Drums, P Djèli Clark. Clark won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story this year (the story is also nominated for the Hugo), but appears to have come pretty much from nowhere. True, The Black God’s Drums was published by Tor.com, but his short story was published in a magazine I’ve not come across before. Also true, there seems to be a great love for debuts in recent years’ popular vote genre awards (seriously? why?), but that doesn’t mean the nominated works are necessarily bad. The Black God’s Drums is a bit busy, but it’s an interesting melding of ideas – alternate history, steampunk, voodoo magic and gods – and if it suffers it’s because its ideas makes its plot all a bit too obvious. Streetwise urchin protagonist has connection to powerful goddess; said goddess makes unexpected appearance at story climax to save the day. It’s not quite that simplistic, but the telegraphing here is as blatant as it comes. Obvious foreshadowing is better than none, but a little subtlety goes a long way. The plot is pretty much a staple of, well, fiction in general: nutter steals superweapon to wreak vengeance on city, random people come together to foil the plot (because there’s no organised government response to these sorts of things, ever). Does The Black God’s Drums belong on the shortlist? About as much as the Robson, I think. Its presence is hardly embarrassing, but if this and the Robson are the best the genre can produce in a given year then there’s still a long way to go…

Binti: The Night Masquerade, Nnedi Okorafor. Like Clark, Okorafor also appears twice in this year’s Hugo nominations – for this novella and for the Black Panther comic she scripted. I have to admit I don’t understand the acclaim her fiction receives. She’s a fascinating person and is an excellent role model, but what little fiction by her I’ve read has struck me as simplistic and badly-written. It doesn’t help that Binti: The Night Masquerade is the third and, I think, final part in the Binti series. I read the first, and thought it interesting, if not particularly well put-together. But it was much better than this one, in which this happens and then that happens and then something else happens and then Binti is killed and then she comes back to life and then it all abruptly ends. It doesn’t help that the title refers to a nightmarish figure who appears to Binti, and yet the name of it – the Night Masquerade – clearly indicates it’s a fucking fake but everyone is too fucking stupid to realise. Anyway, Binti returns home but her family are dead, except they’re not really, and there are two races at war with each other but it’s almost impossible to keep straight because Okrafor is more interested in Binti’s feels than she is setting the scene. I’m no fan of exposition, and I disagree entirely with Kim Stanley Robinson’s statement “it’s just another form of narrative”, and “streamlining exposition into the narrative” is another piece of writing advice that gets my back up… Which is not to say there’s zero info-dumping in Binti: the Night Masquerade. There’s plenty. But it’s all about Binti and her culture, or that of her male companion. The rest of the world is so sketchy it might as well have been made-up on the spot by Binti herself. I really do not rate these novellas, and I’m mystified by the love shown to them.

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire. Yet another sequel. This is the third instalment in the Wayward Children series, about which I know nothing… but can pretty much guess what it’s about from this novella alone. Think Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Sort of. But less clever. McGuire’s prose is so bland it rivals Gaiman’s. Except, that is, for the occasional flight of fancy, none of which actually work. The story is all “poor fat girl who is actually a princess in another reality” tagging along with some friends who try to help a fellow “wayward child” at a school for children who have spent time in other worlds and can’t cope in the real one. The central conceit is, I admit, quite neat, and McGuire clearly has a great deal of fun with it. But it all reads like poor-me fiction and a single idea stretched well past breaking point. The first volume in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2017, and I’m told it’s better than this one. And the second instalment, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, was nominated last year. But Beneath the Sugar Sky‘s presence on the shortlist says more about the power of McGuire’s fanbase than it does the quality of her fiction.

The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard. I’ve been and on-and-off fan of de Bodard’s fiction since first reading one of her stories in an issue of Interzone just over ten years ago. I say “on-and-off” because her science fiction appeals to me much more than her fantasy. And while I remember a number of sf stories set in an Aztec-dominated world, she is best-known these days for her Xuya universe stories, a Vietnam-based far future. (The universe itself is shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award, which is not how I thought the Best Series Hugo Award worked, and I’m surprised there’s more than 250,000 words in the short stories and novellas, but no novels, set in the Xuya universe.) Anyway, the “tea master” is a ship mind (more McCaffrey than Banks, if I’ve interpreted the text correctly) and the detective is a woman with a chequered past who hires the ship mind for a simple task. During which they discover a body that clearly did not die of natural causes. The mystery of the victim’s death is intertwined with the mystery of the detective’s past, although one is not a consequence of, or reflects on, the other. But both have satisfying conclusions, and the novella makes good use of its setting. The Tea Master and the Detective is not, as a friend said to me, the best Xuya story de Bodard has written, but it’s a good one. and to my mind, it’s easily the best on this year’s Hugo shortlist.

So there you have it. I’m not going to vote on any of the above, but if I had to choose a winner it would be The Tea Master and the Detective. If I were in a good mood, I’d vote de Bodard, then Robson, then Clark, and everything else below no award. If I were in a bad mood – which is more likely, I suppose – then it’d be de Bodard and everything else below no award.

I had thought this might prove a fun exercise. In fact, I’m discovering why I no longer follow the Hugo Awards. Ah well. Next up, the novelettes…