Friday, March 16, 2018

The 2018 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Fiction Categories

With a little under 24 hours left in the Hugo nominating period, it's time for the big fiction categories.  As I wrote earlier this spring, I'm giving the short fiction categories a pass this year, but I have read enough interesting novellas to have a few nominations in that category.  In the novel categories, however, we've seen a bit of an explosion in the last few years, with the Best Series, and Best YA Novel (tentatively called the Lodestar) joining Best Novel.  I haven't read much that's eligible in either category (I'm tempted to nominate Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence for Best Series, but I was a little underwhelmed by Europe in Winter so I might not), but nevertheless, there's more to talk about in this post than in previous years.

Previous posts in this series:

Best Novel:

  • The Rift by Nina Allan (review at The New Scientist) - Allan's second novel sneaks up on you.  For most of its length, it's a well-crafted family drama about a woman whose sister disappears in her teens and reappears as an adult.  A long middle segment seems to chart the sister's experiences on an alien planet, but are we to take them literally, or as a metaphor for abduction and abuse, or a as a complete invention?  Despite the seeming simplicity of the story, there's a richness here that demands reexamination and thought, in the tradition of the best science fiction.  Shortlisted for the BSFA award for best novel.

  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid - It's a bit of a long shot, trying to get literary fantasy onto the Hugo ballot, but if there was a 2017 novel that combined a literary fiction sensibility with SFnal elements to greater and more devastating effect than Exit West, I haven't heard of it.  Set in a world much like our own, where civil war, economic instability, and climate change are sending waves of refugees in search of a better future, Hamid imagines that randomly appearing doors allow these refugees to immediately appear in richer, safer countries.  The result is sometimes tragic, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally utopian.  Shortlisted for the BSFA award for best novel.

  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru - If Exit West is a stretch, White Tears is even more so, since the Hugos don't tend to recognize horror and ghost stories.  But Kunzru's novel is masterful in how it combines the familiar tropes of a haunting with the history of how white culture appropriates black art and commodifies black pain.  Its fevered conclusion leaves us uncertain who to root for, and uncertain whether a full exorcism is even possibly until the total extent of complicity and guilt has been explored and expiated.

  • New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (review at The New Scientist) - Along with Exit West, this feels like the genre novel for 2017, encompassing politics, capitalism, and environmentalism as it tries to imagine how humanity might survive in the post-climate catastrophe world, and how the means of that survival could end up being turned into yet another commodity by the financial system that defines New York as much as its culture and community.  Told by a rotating cast of characters, New York 2140 is funny, erudite, and invigorating, offering hope for the future even as it identifies the infuriating flaws of the present.

  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (review at The New Scientist, subscribers only) - Offering a twist on the generation ship story that really shouldn't work, Solomon not only combines slavery and science fiction, but adds to them a neuroatypical, gender-nonconforming heroine to create a rich stew that nonetheless feels grounded and immediate.  An Unkindness of Ghosts touches on so many issues, and makes room for such harsh, heartbreaking emotion, that it's hard to believe that it also works so well as a space adventure and a tale of escape.  But at the heart of the story is a simple message--that science fiction is not antithetical to the prejudiced abuses of the past, and that enslaved people can still star in, and direct, a science fictional story.  Listed in the Tiptree Award honor roll.

Best Novella:

I have to admit that I don't actually know that any of these works belong in this category, wordcount-wise--the first two might be too long, the last too short.  But absent any information to the contrary, I'm nominating them here because that's where it feels that they belong.

  • Landscape With Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson (review in The New Scientist) - Anderson's short, devastating work is a dark comedy about love, art, and economic exploitation.  Or rather, it's a dark comedy about how economic exploitation can hollow out love and art until there's nothing left, and about people clinging to their notions of how the world works even in the face of the complete destruction of their system of values.  All that, and funny aliens too.

  • Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim - I'll have more to say about Lim's weird, experimental volume in the near future, but for now I'll just say that this is a deeply political work that forces the fantasies of agency that pop culture has been feeding us for decades--superheroes, secret agents, psychic powers--on a collision course with the realities of political and economic exploitation.  Dear Cyborgs asks, what is the value of disruption--through art, through protest, through defeating a supervillain's dastardly plot--when the system that envelopes you will always co-opt it?

  • "Fallow" by Sofia Samatar (from Tender) - After delivering two of the most astonishing fantasy novels of the last few years, Samatar dropped off the radar a bit in 2017, despite releasing a very fine short fiction collection.  As a result, there hasn't been as much talk about "Fallow" as it deserves, but this is a very fine portrait of a deeply conformist society and the individual that bucks against it.  The narrator--who isn't an iconoclast but loves people who are--is left wondering what's better, preserving the community or making space for those who are different.

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel:

  • A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge - Normally I'd feel a bit guilty for nominating in a category in which I've only read one eligible novel, but when that novel is by Frances Hardinge, and is as fine as A Skinful of Shadows, there's really nothing to apologize for.  Set in the early days of the English civil war, Skinful follows a heroine with a head full of ghosts, as she tries to survive, escape people who want to abuse her power, and form a family of her own.  It's a keen examination of the abuses of power and how it twists both the people it benefits and the people it hurts, as well as a utopian vision of disenfranchised people helping one another and creating a kinder, more equitable future.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer:

Most years, my nominees in this category are short story writers, but because I haven't read a lot of 2017 short fiction, this year they're all debut novelists, each with a very different, but also very exciting, start to their career.

  • Jeannette Ng - I had a lot of expectations when I heard that Ng's debut novel, Under the Pendulum Sun, was about Victorian missionaries in fairyland.  Ng exploded pretty much all of them, and delivered something much stranger--a Gothic romance full of musings about identity, morality, and theology.  It doesn't entire work for me--there's a certain bagginess, especially towards the end, and the book seems to expect an investment in the main characters' obsessions that I didn't quite feel--but despite these issues, Under the Pendulum Sun is so much its own thing, and Ng's work on it feels so assured, that it heralds the arrival of a major new writer.  First year of eligibility.

  • K. Arsenault Rivera - I wasn't entirely blown away by Rivera's debut novel, The Tiger's Daughter (I'll have more to say about it soon, probably next week).  But it is a gorgeously written epic fantasy that places as much focus on its heroines' interior life as it does on their battles with demons and wild animals.  And it builds a fascinating world rooted in Asian culture and mythology, and plants a complicated political system in the middle of it.  There are a lot of great writers challenging our assumptions about what epic fantasy can and should do these days, and with The Tiger's Daughter, Rivera has joined their ranks.  First years of eligibility.

  • Rivers Solomon - It should come as no surprise that the author of a debut novel on my Best Novel ballot will also end up on my Campbell ballot.  I've already written about why I think An Unkindness of Ghosts is special, and I can only hope that Solomon will follow it up with more work that is groundbreaking and challenging.  First year of eligibility.

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