Sunday, July 12, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Best Novel Shortlist, Part 1

I have a shocking confession to make: I did not read all of the best novel Hugo nominees before the July 3rd voting deadline. I have an even more shocking confession to make: this was not because I didn't have the time to read these novels, but because of a lack of inclination. I'd read the two nominated novels I was actually interested in--Neal Stephenson's Anathem and Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book--long before the nominations were announced, but whether because of previous experiences with their author, or because of reactions from people whose opinion I trust, or because of the impression I'd formed of their topic and tone, none of the remaining three nominees--Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi, Saturn's Children by Charles Stross, and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow--appealed to me. I'm used to grumbling through Hugo reading when it comes to the short fiction categories, but committing myself to three novels I had not the least expectation of enjoying was a bit more than I could stomach, and if it weren't for this blog and the commitment I'd made on it to write about the best novel nominees, I probably wouldn't have made it through.

I wish I could say that at least some of these novels surprised me, if only because I'd come to them with such low expectations, but though one or two turned out to be not nearly as bad as I'd feared, on the whole this year's best novel shortlist is really, really disappointing. I'd happily trade at least three, if not four, of the nominees, and even the remaining novel--the only one I consider remotely worthy of the award--is deeply flawed. Perhaps the most notable attribute of this year's best novel ballot is how thoroughly dominated it is by YA genre fiction. Zoe's Tale, Little Brother, and The Graveyard Book were written and marketed for the YA audience, and Anathem, though ostensibly an adult novel, is also written in the YA mode, centering around a teenage protagonist who finds himself at the epicenter of a world-altering event, and ends up becoming a hero. In general, this seems to me like a reasonable reflection of the state of the genre. The shift towards YA-oriented writing has been several years in the making, and a sizable portion of the most talked-about genre books of the last few years have been geared, at least in theory, towards young readers. It follows, therefore, that the Hugo would also be dominated by these novels.

Though it might be tempting to conclude that the shoddy state of this year's shortlist is the result of the infantilization of the genre, to my mind the problem isn't that YA books are being nominated, but that the wrong YA books have been. How much stronger would this year's best novel shortlist have been if Terry Pratchett's Nation, Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, or even Allegra Goodman's The Other Side of the Island had been on it? (This is not even to mention books that have received a great deal of critical attention, but which I haven't yet read myself, such as Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, Kristin Cashore's Graceling, or Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.) In adult publishing, we have Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia, Iain M. Banks's Matter, David Anthony Durham's Acacia, and Felix Gilman's Thunderer. Understand, there isn't a single one of these novels that I consider exceptional, and I have serious problems with most of them--for all that I think that the Hugo voters were asleep at the switch, there's no denying that 2008 was simply not a very strong year for genre novels--but each and every one of them would have made this year's best novel ballot stronger, and, quite frankly, less embarrassing.

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi is a companion volume to The Last Colony, itself the third volume in Scalzi's series of novels about John Perry, and preceded by Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. Coming to Zoe's Tale cold, as I did, makes for an odd reading experience not only because I haven't read the previous novels but because Zoe's Tale itself is a story that takes place in the interstices of another story, with which I'm unfamiliar. Though Scalzi goes to some lengths to clue newbie readers into the events of The Last Colony (one assumes that the novel was intended, at least in part, as a introduction to the Old Man's War universe for young readers), it's easy to guess where he's eliding over scenes which in the adult novel were fleshed out, and where he's relying on the reader's familiarity with The Last Colony. The result, though nominally self-contained, feels very much like half a story, but what's more, it creates the impression that The Last Colony was itself an incomplete story. As Scalzi notes in his afterword, he was inspired to write Zoe's Tale because of complaints from readers of The Last Colony who felt that that novel ended with an unearned last minute save--Zoe turning up in the nick of time with just the right alien technology to save the colony. Zoe's Tale does tell the story of how Zoe was able to achieve this, but it's hard not to feel that we're reading Scalzi's make-up work, his retroactive justification for a piece of lousy plotting that ought not to have made it out of the editing stage, for which he's been rewarded with a Hugo nomination.

Zoe is Zoe Boutin-Perry, the fifteen year old adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, who in The Last Colony are asked to lead the colonization effort of an uninhabited planet. On their arrival, the colonists discover that the planet is in a zone disputed by an alien alliance which has made--and made good on--the threat to violently uproot any human colonies. The colonists are therefore not only living under the threat of imminent death, but have to maintain strict radio silence and do without any EM-generating technology for fear of giving away their location. This is a dubious premise to begin with (why, despite knowing about the EM restrictions before dispatching the colony ship, and despite the existence among the colonists of a contingent of space-Amish whose equipment is purely mechanical, is the majority of the colony's material computer-controlled?), and it only becomes more so when it turns out that the colonial government is not simply stupid but actually evil, attempting to orchestrate the destruction of the colony as a means of starting a war (this, however, may be a complaint best laid at The Last Colony's feet). Zoe's Tale only becomes closely involved with this story towards its end, when it gets to work plugging the hole in The Last Colony's resolution, and most of its action is concerned with describing Zoe's acclimation to her new home and her coming of age under extremely unusual circumstances. Far from being an average colonist, Zoe is a messianic figure to an alien race, whose peace treaty with humanity stipulates that she be accompanied constantly by two alien bodyguards, who also report on her every move to their entire race (which means that the colonial government's decision to place Zoe on a colony they plan to sacrifice to an invading alien horde makes perfect sense). The crux of Zoe's Tale is Zoe's struggle to decide just to what degree she's justified in taking advantage of the aliens' devotion to her, and whether she's willing to continue in her role as their goddess despite having done nothing to earn it.

Zoe's Tale is, therefore, a novel driven by its narrator's interiority and her personal growth, and though Scalzi is to be commended for stretching himself beyond the space-adventure format of the Old Man's War books, in trying to write a character-driven novel he's bitten off a bit more than he can chew. Zoe is entirely unbelievable as a teenager--too self-possessed, and all too apt to spout platitudes about teenage behavior that make her sound like nothing so much as an adult talking about teenagers from a vast distance of years. Actually, what Zoe really sounds like is Scalzi himself--but for its events, her narrative reads like your average Whatever entry, and her voice and sense of humor are all but indistinguishable from his. This is not entirely a bad thing--Scalzi's sardonic humor is a big part of his blog's appeal, and in Zoe's Tale it translates into several extremely funny sequences. As unrealistic as Zoe is, she is more often amusingly unrealistic than annoyingly so, and the novel moves at a fast enough clip that her, and Scalzi's, tendency to become too pleased with their own cleverness is rarely given time to grate. The novel's emotional climaxes are blatantly telegraphed and arrive with all the subtlety of a meteor impact, but they never fail to hit their mark, and despite there never being any real doubt on this count, by the end of the novel you do find yourself rooting for Zoe to take charge of her own life. Zoe's Tale is an enjoyable novel, and so unassuming that to stress its flaws--the silly premise, the unbelievable narrative voice, the predictable and manipulative plot--feels a little like kicking a puppy. If I were discussing it in any other context but its having been nominated as one of the five best genre novels published in the last year I'd probably be happy to cut it some slack. But it has been nominated for the Hugo, which is to say that someone took that puppy and entered it in the Kentucky Derby. Whether or not that's fair to the puppy, it sure as hell isn't fair to the people who came to see a race.

Saturn's Children by Charles Stross is the only novel on the shortlist written for and about adults (though one might argue that its central character arc, which sees the narrator from a meek, unquestioning acceptance of her fate to self-directing kickassness, has something of the YA about it). So wouldn't you know, the main character is a sexbot. Freya is one of a line of robots whose emotional template was designed for sex and, in the right circumstances, for complete, slavish infatuation. She's doomed, however, to spend her life in unfulfilled loneliness, as it's been more than a hundred years since the humanity died out. Freya and her fellow sexbots and servants are a society of slaves, still hard-wired to serve an extinct master race and struggling to cope with freedom. The premise, of course, borrows a lot from Asimov and makes several overt references to Heinlein, most particularly Friday, but Stross's emphasis on agency and free will is all his own.

If Zoe Boutin is an unbelievable teenager, Freya is an unbelievable person. Her narrative voice amounts to little more than a litany of the events she experiences--mostly crisscrossing journeys across the solar system, as she first becomes the employee of a shadowy cabal attempting to smuggle biological organisms into the inner planets, and then the target of several factions who want control of a fabled reconstituted human--with no sense of a personality underlying them. This is partly in keeping with the novel's depiction of Freya as an unformed person, who still defines herself through her model's purpose and her inability to fulfill it, but Stross's method of infusing Freya with personality is for her to absorb the memories of an older and more experienced model, who was employed as a spy and an assassin. So that not only does Freya lose what little self she once had, the person she becomes is spy thriller cliché, indistinguishable from the hundreds of timid girls turned tough who came before her. Other characters in the novel suffer from a similar flatness, which is compounded by the presence of different yet psychologically identical iterations of the same model. Again, this is clearly an extension of Stross's premise, but it amounts to an emotional deadness in the novel's heart, with no characters emerging as fully-formed people for us to care about or even take an interest in.

It's not simply the characters' sameness that breeds a deadness in Saturn's Children. Stross's tendency to simply fling Stuff at the readers--sociology, physics, fashion, eroticism, philosophy, architecture, a couple of daring escapes and fight scenes--all viewed through Freya's undiscerning, unfiltered gaze, leaves the novel all but shapeless. For a novel that is clearly informed by the thriller, Saturn's Children is too flabby, too weighted down by all this Stuff, to work. The thread of plot is almost impossible to discern, and with Freya such a passive protagonist for most of the story the novel feels like nothing more than a lot of events strung together. Between Freya's flatness and the novel's flabbiness, it's hard to tell where the twists are supposed to come, the emotional climaxes, the funny bits. I think, for example, that Stross expected me to be surprised when Freya, a couple hundred pages into the novel, copped to being a robot. I wasn't, of course, because I'd known the novel's premise going in, but in most novels you can tell where a revelation was supposed to be even if you see it coming. In Saturn's Children I'm just not sure. There's no shift in the novel's tone, in Freya's voice, in the things she says or doesn't say--beyond actually saying the word robot--to signal that this was supposed to be a major turning point in the story, or if there are they have been so thoroughly snowed under by Stross's beloved Stuff that I can't make them out. And yet the word itself is so heavily signposted that I can't help but wonder if I was supposed to be shocked by it. Similarly, I think that Saturn's Children was intended as a raunchy sex comedy, and there are a few lines and scenes that drew a chuckle out of me, but there's so little sense of the narrative's ups and downs that in most cases I couldn't pick up on the laugh cues until they'd sailed past.

Saturn's Children is littered with moments like these, in which you stare at the text and wonder 'was I supposed to feel something here?' It's a novel that turns its readers into robots. It concludes with a climax so anticlimactic that I was shocked to turn the page and find myself confronted with an epilogue, but even worse than that, I have no idea what Stross was trying to accomplish with it. There's clearly a dialogue here with Asimov and Heinlein's ideas about personhood and the feasibility and morality of intelligent, mechanical servants, but beyond the obvious point that slavery is wrong and free will is good (and what I assume is a corollary point about religion, as Freya's devotion to humans is frequently described in terms that recall religious ecstasy), I'm really not sure what Stross was trying to say.

[to be continued]

15 comments:

Ronaldo Ferraz said...

Thanks for the nice look into the Hugo's shortlist this year.

It seems to me that, unfortunely, the shortlist is becoming more and more a reflection of blogging fame than of real writing. As much as I like Stross and Doctorow's writing, I can only wish the Hugo would once again recognize writers of Herbert, Niven and Le Guin's stature.

Jonathan M said...

Those are both quite weak Hugo nominees.

Scalzi's book is not just about recycling old stories, it's recycling old techniques for recycling old stories. If Ender's Shadow didn't get a Hugo nod I can't imagine why a book making all the same moves should.

As for Saturn's Children, I think it's hands down the weakest novel that Stross has ever written (I did originally write "worst thing he's ever written" but that would be overlooking the Neverwinter Nights and Jeeves and Wooster short stories, which are utterly terrifying).

It's a book that isn't merely bad, it's like a character assassination of its own author. All of Stross' weaknesses as a writer are not just present, they are major defining characteristics of the novel.

Good call on the attempts at sex comedy. I still can't get over the bit where Freya is shipped to another planet and the ship effectively has sex with her. It's played for laughs but in reality it's this hideous tableau of Geigerian mechanical rape.

Matt said...

To desperately try to pull any positives from this post, do you think this YA emphasis we've been seeing is evidence that written SF will still be popular in fifteen or twenty years? I remember seeing some hand-wringing a couple years ago about the fanbase getting older, kids these days don't read any more, etc. etc.

Also I think calling Anathem quasi-YA is a bit of a stretch. The basic plot may be straight out of boys' adventure but while I don't read a lot of YA somehow I doubt it usually includes as its main concern long debates regarding the merits of platonic realism versus nominalism. I liked it but I wouldn't blame any adult for finding it rough going.

Rich Horton said...

This year I have managed to completely miss the Hugo novel shortlist, first time for me since 1997. I agree that from the outside it looks weakish. But just to nitpick, ACACIA wasn't eligible for nomination, as it appeared in 2007. (I'm about 1/5 through it so far, enjoying it, though with a couple minor reservations about the prose.)

Nicholas Tam said...

I haven't read any of the five shortlisted works, so I can't speak of them directly, but even at a cursory glance what Ronaldo called "a reflection of blogging fame" sticks out like a sore thumb. It's hardly strange for prominent awards to fall into the trap of hermetic back-patting of established names, but for those of us who look to literary awards to introduce ourselves to new and daring voices, the Hugo's seen better days.

Kit said...

Scalzi's inability to write any character voice that doesn't sound exactly like his own is a chronic problem with his writing- it's not just Zoe, it's John Perry and every other character in the books. They all sound exactly alike and they all sound like Scalzi. This is especially vexing when several of them have a conversation and any of the comments could be made by any of the six people in the room. It drives me absolutely crazy to the point where I had to stop reading him, and that was back before he started trying to write character novels. You're more forgiving than I.

do you think this YA emphasis we've been seeing is evidence that written SF will still be popular in fifteen or twenty years? I remember seeing some hand-wringing a couple years ago about the fanbase getting older, kids these days don't read any more, etc. etc.

This is nonsense, though, because clearly the kids are reading, and they're reading SFF- Harry Potter and Twilight. It's fantasy, and it's not very well written, but they are reading. They're not buying magazines, which means the short story market has dried up, and they're not reading so much hard SF. But they are reading. It's just that the new fanbases seem to be remaining discrete from the old SFF community; they're hanging out with the media fans instead. The lack of integration is odd and I don't have a ready explanation for it, but I don't think there's been a major change in kids' interest in SFF.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Ronaldo, Nicholas:

The allegations that this year's best novel shortlist is a reflection of blogging fame have been bouncing around the net for basically as long as the nominations have been out, and though I agree that there's clearly a connection I suspect that it's a subtler, more complicated one than people simply voting for their favorite bloggers. For one thing, these are four very different kinds of bloggers - Scalzi and Doctorow arguably owe their writing careers to their blogs, Stross was writing before he was blogging, though he didn't shoot to fame until later (and anyway he's nowhere near the superstar blogger status of the other three), and Gaiman started blogging as a promotional stunt for American Gods. That's not even to mention the difference in their styles and favorite topics, and the degree to which their fictional work resembles their nonfiction. It would be interesting to see some serious study of Hugo voting patterns - how many voters vote every year? How many vote only in a single category or for only one work in a category? - but I doubt the answer you'd come up with is that people vote for their favorite bloggers, if only because voting costs money. There's no question that popularity, and maybe not just popularity as an author, has had an effect on this year's shortlist (as it has in the past), but that doesn't strike me as being too far outside the Hugo's purview as a popular award.

Jonathan:

I've been avoiding Stross's novels for some time now, having had at best lukewarm experiences with his short fiction. It's somewhat reassuring to know that I picked the absolute worst place to start with him, but I can't say that I feel motivated to go any further.

On the sex comedy aspect of the book, I have, once again, the sneaking suspicion that Stross was going somewhere with this - that the revelation of how the sexbots' conditioning is achieved was meant to curdle the laughter in our throats. But again, it's all too muddled for me even to be sure that such an effect was intended, much less for it to be successful.

Matt:

As Kit says, kids are reading SF. It's just that the stuff they're reading isn't the stuff that gets nominated for the Hugo (with rare exceptions like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). I doubt that this year's Hugo nominees are a reflection of young people's engagement with the genre because young people aren't the ones voting for the Hugo. YA books are on the shortlist because the mostly adult Worldcon membership voted for them, and their presence reflects a shift in authors' focus and the readership following them there. In fact, I'd argue that at least some of the YA novels published by authors of adult fiction are intended primarily for adults, and for the growing taste for children's fiction among adults (Anathem is a good example. It's clearly a book for adults - as you say, it's too long and too abstruse for a child's attention span - but its mode and trappings are those of a children's book).

Rich:

Good catch on Acacia - it was in the Hugo voter packet because Durham is a Campbell nominee, and I forgot to check its publication date. I agree that it has its problems - Niall's review is a little more generous that I would tend to be. But it's a more interesting, more ambitious, and ultimately more enjoyable novel than most of this year's shortlist.

Kit:

I've pretty much suspected that about Scalzi since he announced the publication of Old Man's War, which is one of the reasons I've been in no hurry to read his novels. His short story in METAtropolis also suffers from this problem.

Kate Nepveu said...

I nominated _Nation_.

I didn't even vote on the novel category this year. I only made it three screens into _Little Brother_ and one and a half chapters into _Anathem_, didn't read either of the books mentioned here, and while I liked _Graveyard Book_ I couldn't call it the best book of the year with a straight face, even with the problem of only having read one of five.

Daniel E. Harper said...

I read _Anathem_ but didn't get around to any of the other Hugo nominees. Anathem is flawed, but good absorbing SF, and speaks of considerable ambition -- I wouldn't necessarily feel bad about it being called the best SF novel of the year.

Anyway. Scalzi's writing is meant to be lighthearted and fun -- his audience keeps coming back for that sarcastic voice that he's so good at producing. I don't think he's written a great SF novel (yet), but he has a gift for entertaining. That said, I was disappointed the TLC (haven't read ZT yet) for reasons similar to those you elucidate for ZT -- the book is glib and really only tells half of the story. The worldbuilding of the OMW universe shows its seams more and more as the series wears on, which is a definite minus for me.

It's also abundantly clear to me that the main characters of TLC are very much Mary Sue stand-ins for Scalzi's own family. He explicitly connects Jane Sagan and his own wife, and anyone who doesn't see more than a trace of his daughter Athena in Zoe's general attitudes towards her life needs to go back and read again. Scalzi sees himself primarily as an entertainer, someone writing fun books to while away a couple of hours, which helps to make me forgive some of his excesses, but I really don't think TLC is a Hugo-worthy novel at all.

Scalzi's actually a better writer when he uses third person perspective, at least in my opinion. _The Ghost Brigades_ is a better book and gets at deeper issues than the book on either side of it chronologically, and _The Android's Dream_ is just a roaring adventure tale in the Tom Clancy vein, but with aliens. Without the snarkiness afforded by the first-person POV, Scalzi is better able to get to the real meat of his talents as a fiction writer, which is the headlong velocity of his plotting.

Karen Burnham said...

Good call on the attempts at sex comedy. I still can't get over the bit where Freya is shipped to another planet and the ship effectively has sex with her. It's played for laughs but in reality it's this hideous tableau of Geigerian mechanical rape.

Coincidentally, that's exactly where I stopped reading.

Anonymous said...

"I nominated _Nation_. "

Yeah... shame that Pterry routinely turns down Hugo nominations when he makes the cut, though, thus making a nomination for one of his works a wasted nomination.

andrew osmond said...

Just a quick point about one of Nussbaum's complaints about Zoe's Tale. IIRC, the colonisation (also depicted in Last Colony, of course) is an elaborate smoke and mirrors operation. The colonists themselves think they're going to another planet entirely; the presence of EM machinery on the ship is part of the authorities' bluff. (If the ship didn't have lots of EM equipment on board, then the venture would draw attention before it began, as well as objection from the colonists.)

Please correct me if I'm misremembering (or not seeing the real hole). I quite liked Zoe's Tale, but I very much doubt it deserved a Hugo nomination.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yes, the argument Scalzi makes is that the useless equipment was necessary to preserve the illusion that the colony is a perfectly normal, above-board one, but that's a pretty flimsy excuse for a measure that leaves the colonists with only 10% of the material they need to eke out an existence on a planet where the soil itself needs to be remade before they can even grow crops. Scalzi only gets around this flimsiness by pretending that the result wouldn't be mass starvation.

As I say, by the end of the novel it turns out that the colony was never supposed to survive, but for most of the story you're expected to believe in a government so ham-fisted that it can't even organize a clandestine switching of equipment to make sure its citizens don't starve.

Chuk said...

Acacia isn't anywhere near as good as any of the shortlisted novels. It's fairly well done extruded fantasy product -- decently crafted, but follows the standard hero's journey type storyline that we've seen thousands of times before. I had forgotten parts of it a week after reading it and won't be picking up the sequels unless I hear some darn good word of mouth.

Personally, I liked most of the short list. I wonder if the YA-ness of the list is colouring the perception of quality here? Zoe's Tale is good, but it's also basically a retelling of another book...seems a little weird to put something like that up for a Hugo.

The Graveyard Book should be a classic. (It got the Newbery medal -- anyone have any stats on how often that goes to popular bloggers?) Maybe you have to like The Jungle Book to appreciate it? Neat concept and well executed...definitely moving in parts.

Little Brother, maybe. It is kind of more like a polemic/textbook than a novel, but it was really fun to read. As for YA, my kid didn't really like it but he's more of a fantasy fan. I'd have to call it a pretty week candidate.

Do the Hugos ever go like the Oscars? That is, a maybe-not-so-great novel gets nominated if the author has had a generally good career? That might explain Saturn's Children. I liked it, but I am a fan of both Stross' voice and the kinds of subjects he usually writes about and Heinlein pastiche in general. It kind of reminded me of a John Varley book, actually, and that's a good thing.

I liked Anathem myself, but I may have just been happy to see new Stephenson. Certainly more of a fun read than the Baroque Cycle, and set in a more different world than any of his previous stuff. If I were voting, I'd probably put it first.

Gareth Rees said...

I think, for example, that Stross expected me to be surprised when Freya, a couple hundred pages into the novel, copped to being a robot

I disagree with your interpretation of this passage, but I agree that there's a general problem with the narration. See my review of Saturn's Children for the details.

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