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]