The 2023 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot

The deadline for nominating work for the 2023 Hugo awards is a week away. If you're eligible to nominate, you should have received an email from the Chengdu Worldcon (if not, you can query them here). This year's nominations are likely to be unusual due to the high number of Chinese Worldcon members—it's entirely possible, and even likely, that the ballot will include Chinese-language work that hasn't received an English translation, which will render the voting phase somewhat tricky. Still, it's not as if I'm used to seeing my taste reflected perfectly by this award even in years when there is no language barrier, so I see no reason not to continue as I've always done, nominating the things I thought were excellent last year, and calling attention to them in the hopes that others, too, find them worthy. 

In compiling my nominations this year, I made great use of two tremendous resources, the Locus Recommended Reading List and the Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom. I also appreciated all the authors and critics who have posted their own award recommendations on their blogs and on twitter. The conversation about awards eligibility posts was settled long ago on the "pro" side, and I have no problem with people who try to promote their own work. But I always pay more attention to (and get more utility out of) the people who recommend the things they loved and would like to see nominated as well as the things they've published.

As always with these posts, I haven't tried to stick to the allotted number of nominations. In some categories, there are more things I'd like to nominate than I have nomination slots. In others, I've found fewer things to nominate than I could. And there are some categories—in particular, Best Related Work—where I don't feel like I've read nearly widely enough to be able to select anything worthwhile. I am, of course, happy to hear recommendations.

Best Novel:

  • The City Inside by Samit Basu - I raved about this novel several years ago when it was published in India under the title Chosen Spirits. It was a tremendous delight to learn that Tordotcom would be bringing it to US audiences, not least because that second publication makes it eligible for this year's Hugo. The City Inside is prime evidence for my theory that cyberpunk is back, but not being recognized as such because it's primarily being written by writers from the global south. This story of a future India in which surveillance is ubiquitous, reality stars live on camera 24/7, and people can enslave themselves by app describes itself as an anti-dystopia, because it refuses to wallow in the technological alienation that characterized the cyberpunk of the 80s. In this world, technology is also a tool for liberation and connection, however great the costs for the people who use it that way. (review)
  • The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings - The Handmaid's Tale meets Kelly Link in this story of a world where witchcraft is real, and where its existence is used to police and control the lives of all women. The heroine has learned to navigate the restrictions placed on her life, which she relates with a wry tone and no small amount of humor. But when she discovers a secret community of witches, she's forced to ask some tough questions. Is it better to live free but disconnected from the rest of the world? Can you make a good life in a world where you will always be suspected, and your options limited? Is love real when the society you live in gives the person you love complete power over you? For all the heaviness of its material, The Women Could Fly is told in a light, often quite funny tone, but it never loses sight of its monumental stakes.
  • The Moonday Letters by Emmi Itäranta - What if Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 was also the story of a marriage in trouble? In an inhabited solar system, shamanic healer Lumi searches for her missing spouse Sol. Her journey takes her to terraformed planets and moons, orbital cities, and the ecologically ravaged Earth, along the way examining the ways humans have found to make themselves new homes (including the bad habits of wastefulness and possessiveness we've carried with us into space) as well as the history of her and Sol's relationship. The two questions end up being inextricably bound up in one another: what does it take to make a home where everyone can feel safe and cared for? What does it take to make a marriage that accommodates both partners' distinct wishes and personalities? A smart, moving examination of setting and character that is one of the most exciting works of space-set science fiction I read last year. (review)
  • The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez - On the surface, this is a fairly simple fantasy tale, in which two young men set out to rescue their land from an evil emperor's magic. What's special about this novel isn't what it does but how it does it, weaving different layers of storytelling and performance into a single narrative, carrying the reader through different tellings of the same story, switching points of view on a dime in a way that is both disorienting and exhilarating. It's hard to talk about what makes The Spear Cuts Through Water special, because ultimately this is less a novel as it is a performance, a dance in which the world is saved by each character finding their specific place in the story. What's remarkable is how it makes you feel like the audience of that performance. (review)
  • Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi - If there's one thing that shocked me about this year's Nebula nominations, it's the absence of this book from the best novel shortlist. But then, maybe I also understand that absence. No 2022 science fiction novel I've read goes as hard as this one, or challenges its readers as much. What if humanity decamped the climate ravaged Earth for the stars, and left behind the people who always get left behind—the poor and racialized? What if the have-nots of these new space communities decided to come back for a bit of pioneering spirit, and started gentrifying the few spaces left for the have-nots of Earth? Goliath is imaginative and wide-ranging, its vision of the future is detailed and persuasive. But at its core it is making a bleak argument—that unless we do something about them, racism and the exploitation of the poor will always be with us. It's easy to see how the Nebula voters might have felt that this was too much to handle. I hope the Hugo voters do better. (review)

Bubbling Under:

  • Telluria by Vladimir Sorokin - Look, it's not that I think an NYRB Classics translation of a work by a noted literary Russian author is going to get much Hugo traction, but nevertheless, few novels I read in 2022 felt as quintessentially about the project of science fiction as Telluria. Set in a post-post-Soviet future in which people take a drug that allows them to imagine the world to their specifications, Telluria asks what happens when people try to make those visions a reality. The result is funny, shocking, lewd, and thought-provoking. (review)

Best Novella:

  • Arboreality by Rebecca Campbell (Stelliform Press) - Nominated for this year's Philip K. Dick award, this is a series of linked stories about the coming century in the Pacific Northwest, and about the relationships that people form with nature as they cope with the ravages of climate change. These characters are librarians trying to preserve a bit of knowledge in the face of civilization's looming collapse, illegal loggers dreaming of making a violin in a world that can no longer support concert halls, and young people dreaming of rewilding the world and building a community in balance with nature. It's a gentle, deeply-felt story about loss and reclamation.
  • The Two Doctors Górski by Isaac Fellman (Tordotcom) - Dark academia as it should be done, this novella by Fellman posits graduate students in magic and professors who have split themselves into their best and worst traits, but it recognizes that the scariest thing you can talk about in an academic context are the things that exist in the regular world: sexual harassment, abuse by academic advisors, and the indifference of the community to both. The fantastical and the mundane are expertly woven together, creating moments of profound disorientation, matched with sickening recognition. (review)
  • One Hand to Hold, One Hand to Carve by M. Shaw (Tenebrous Press) - Two halves of a single cadaver wake up in a morgue, not only alive but distinct individuals. They set about making a life for themselves, but the more time they spend in the world, the more different they become, threatening their domestic bliss. What's remarkable about this novella is how fully it commits to realizing its bonkers premise, imagining both the difficulties of going through life as a sentient half-body, and the challenges of extricating yourself from a relationship that has become stifling. The third-act twist in which the cause of the main characters' predicament is revealed ties the whole thing together beautifully.
  • January Fifteenth by Rachel Swirsky (Tordotcom) - Social science fiction at its best, this novella imagines how UBI would work and change people's lives through the eyes of four women on the day on which they receive their annual disbursement. Though Swirsky and her characters are clear that UBI has helped a lot of people, the thrust of this story is the ways in which it is insufficient, and in some cases even creates problems. There is, the story ultimately concludes, no magic bullet that solves all social problems in one fell swoop, and sometimes what's necessary to achieve justice and equality is human connection. (review)
  • Jackdaw by Tade Thompson (Cheerio Publishing) - After making his name with space opera, cyberpunk, and traditional horror, Thompson came out with this hard-to-pin-down novella, a (seeming) work of autofiction in which a novelist named Tade Thompson is hired to write a story about the modernist painter Francis Bacon, and begins losing his mind—or perhaps being possessed by Bacon's ghost. Less a horror story as an embarrassment story, Jackdaw is funny in ways that are shocking and more than a little hard to take, and is an exhilarating departure for an author who has already proven that he can wear many different hats. (review)

Best Novelette:

  • "If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You" by John Chu (Uncanny Magazine) - For years, pop culture commentators have been debating how one can write Superman as a paragon of goodness without making him boring. And then John Chu comes along and just does it like it's nothing, including finding new things to say about the character. A gay bodybuilder starts to realize that the guy he's been admiring at the gym must be the superhero who has been showing up on all those viral videos. What follows is both a sweet romance and a meditation on how a superhero would cope with today's world of systemic racism and police brutality.
  • "Patterns in Stone and Stars" by M V Melcer (Giganotosaurus) - A military scientist comes to an alien planet to determine whether the local fauna is intelligent. At stake is whether the planet will be colonized or traded to a neighboring empire, but also the main character's own career path, which is already precarious as someone who comes from a colonized territory. Fans of Arkady Martine's novels will enjoy this story, which is very good at capturing the imperial characters' inability to grasp the difficulties the main character has experienced in trying to prove herself "worthy", and which finds some interesting parallels to that with their attempts to grasp the (extremely interesting) aliens' culture.
  • "Timebox" by Janelle Monáe and Eve L. Ewing (The Memory Librarian) - Monáe expanded her "emotion picture" Dirty Computer into a science fiction anthology last year, but the story I most liked from it is the one that had the least to do with the album's setting. A young woman who is juggling work, school, and a challenging relationship discovers that a closet in her new apartment can stop time, giving her the ability to catch up on sleep or do homework in peace. But before long, she finds herself fighting for this luxury. The story is very good at conveying how merely having time to spare is a privilege, as well as capturing how a toxic relationship can cloak itself in the language of social justice.
  • "The Sadness Box" by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld) - We talk a lot these days about the hopelessness issue, the difficulty of going on, much less having children, in a world that seems guaranteed to only get worse. Palmer's story is the first I've seen to face this question head-on, and it does so in a very interesting way, by placing us in the head of a child who lives in a crapsack world which he takes for granted. When the protagonist's father builds an AI designed to feel hopelessness, the kid tries to cheer him up, along the way making a powerful argument for hope that feels earned rather than sentimental.

Best Short Story:

I feel a bit silly making a list in this category, because I think we all know that (again, barring impossible to predict behavior from Chinese-speaking voters) the Hugo in this category is going to Samantha Mills's "Rabbit Test". And not unjustifiably—it's a good and timely story, and its vision of a post-abortion-rights future is terrifyingly plausible. But as is always the case when a category has a foreordained winner, I try to put my nominations elsewhere, and hopefully give some less-heralded choices a chance to shine.

  • "Folk Hero Motifs in Tales Told by the Dead" by K T Bryski (Strange Horizons) - Fairy tale and myth retellings are a popular subgenre in SFF short fiction, but this story offers a novel twist by imagining the folktales of the dead, whose hero, for example, steals his love from the land of the living, and brings darkness to the world. The result is clever, well-executed, and ends with a thought-provoking meditation on death.
  • "You, Me, Her, You, Her, I" by Isabel J. Kim (Strange Horizons) - A young woman dies, and as her replacement brain is being grown and primed with her personality and memories, her replacement body is loaded with an AI and sent to live her life. This particular woman is an art student, which confronts the AI with an aspect of humanity they had never considered, and forces them to expand their own personhood. A gentle story about art and what it means to be alive.
  • "The Goldfish Man" by Maureen McHugh (Uncanny Magazine) - There were several good pandemic stories published in 2022, but I think this one by McHugh—in which a woman made homeless by the pandemic meets an alien—is the best at both capturing the strangeness and awfulness of those early months, and at interweaving them with an SFnal concept. Along the way, it also gets a good jab at disaster tourism.
  • "Ribbons" by Natalia Theodoridou (Uncanny Magazine) - Who would have thought you'd be able to write another riff on "The Green Ribbon" after Carmen Maria Machado's "The Husband Stitch"? And yet Theodoridou almost instantly makes that folktale her own with this story in which trans people obsess over whether they do or do not have a ribbon, in a world that is also riven by a seemingly endless war.
  • "Intimacies" by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko (Strange Horizons) - A clever twist on the mermaid romance in which a seahorse man and a human clash over their differing ideas about love, intimacy, and parenthood. Just when you think you know where the story is going, the second half takes in a completely different, and surprising, direction.

Bubbling Under:

  • "Four Glass Cubes (Item Description)" by Bogi Takács (Baffling Magazine) - A short-short about inexplicable art. The story presents itself as a gallery description of an artwork whose existence seems impossible, which is both done well in itself, and suggests the existence of a fascinating world outside the story's boundaries.

Best Series:

  • The Cemeteries of Amalo by Katherine Addison - I'm not sure how much farther Addison intends to go with this series about the heartbroken witness for the dead Thara Celehar, but given how evergreen the concept of "Judge Dee in fantasyland" is, I hope it's a while yet. I deeply enjoyed the series's qualifying entry, The Grief of Stones. (review)

Best Graphic Story:

I wasn't expecting to have much to nominate in this category—I've fallen a bit out of interest with it given how samey and underwhelming its shortlists tend to be—but, somewhat unexpectedly, I ended up reading a slew of interesting SFF graphic fiction at the end of last year and the beginning of this one. I hope at least some of it makes it onto the shortist.

  • Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow by Tom King and Bilquis Eveley (DC Comics) - It's easy to take King for granted, the way that once or twice a year he comes out with a brilliant, perfectly-formed twelve-issue series about a third-tier superhero that instantly makes them the most interesting character ever. But his take on Supergirl is truly wonderful, drawing from pulp serials for both its look and its storytelling, while also going deep into the last daughter of Krypton's difficulties with being a force for good, not only because of her immense strength and powers, but because unlike her more famous cousin, she witnessed the end of her world. Woman of Tomorrow is a rollicking adventure (with a wonderfully original narrator who gives her own cast to the proceedings), but it's also a brilliant meditation on the meaning of heroism.
  • Step by Bloody Step by Simon Spurrier, Mateus Lopes, and Mattias Bergara (Image Comics) - The team of Spurrier and Bergara already made their mark on epic fantasy comics with the utterly unique Coda, but their follow-up is no less brilliant. A wordless story about a warrior protecting a young girl on a long journey, it trusts the reader to figure out a story that is simple but also thrilling. Along the way, it constructs a fantasy world full of messy detail and horrifying creatures, creating a visual language that I hope will make its way to more comics and animation.
  • The Nice House on the Lake, Vol. 1 by James Tynion IV and Alvaro Martinez Bueno (DC Comics) - A group of relative strangers gather together for a getaway at the behest of a mutual friend. Once everyone is at the house, the host reveals that he is an alien, that his people have destroyed the world, and that the guests are to spend the rest of their lives in luxurious captivity. A sort of cross between Lost and Glass Onion (with strong lashings of The Wicked and the Divine), this first half of the story does a great job of both establishing its bizarre situation and introducing us to its cast of characters and their varying reactions to it. Along the way, it asks what lifelong friendships really are, and how well we know the people we call our friends.
  • The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Ram V and Felipe Andrade (BOOM! Studios) - In a year that gave us a lackluster Sandman TV adaptation, the true successor to the Sandman crown was this magnificent story by Ram V, in which the avatar of death possesses the body of a young woman and sets out to learn about human life—and, of course, its end. The gorgeous artwork expertly captures the varied locales of the story's Indian setting, and creates a perfect backdrop for this meditation on how humans give their life meaning in the face of its impermanence. (Note: there seems to be some debate about this comic's eligibility, but the collected edition was published in 2022 so to the best of my understanding it should be fine to nominate this year.)
  • Saga, Volume Ten by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image Comics) - Honestly, I did not think I would be nominating this comic. When Saga went on break five years ago after fifty-four issues that only ever seemed to disperse the story outward, I waved it farewell with no small amount of relief. But to my surprise, Vaughan's return to this story's world is a sharp reminder of what made it a blockbuster to begin with. This new volume has a perfect grasp on the story's established characters (as well as how they've changed in the intervening years, and in the wake of the terrible event that closed out the first half of the story) and introduces some new ones that feel instantly familiar and right for this world. It's possible that in future volumes, I will once again find myself fatigued by Saga's lack of forward momentum, but for the time being, I am newly invested in this story.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:

  • Andor, "One Way Out" - Andor was an absolute miracle, a genuinely thought-provoking, politically complex work set in the Star Wars universe and emerging from our current era of extruded IP product. And no episode better exemplifies that exhilarating unexpectedness than "One Way Out", with its pulse-pounding prison break, its instantly-iconic character moments, and its wrenching ending.
  • Ghosts (UK), "It's Behind You" - I've written in the past about the brilliance of this UK original of the US hit, about a couple who live in a haunted house, and no 2022 episode better captures that brilliance than the Christmas special. Using the framing of a traditional Christmas panto, it meditates on loss, on going on far from the people you love, and on the way that our loved ones stay with us after their deaths.
  • Harley Quinn, "Batman Begins Forever" - The third season of Harley Quinn did several unexpected things, but perhaps none so unexpected as incorporating Bruce Wayne into its story as not just an antagonist, but a misguided villain. This episode sees Harley taking a walk through Bruce's memories, which not only gives the show a chance to poke ribald fun at this oh-so-messed-up character, but reminds Harley of her background as a therapist, and allows the two characters to reach out to each other.
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, "Spock Amok" - There isn't a single hour of NuTrek that gives me more hope for the franchise than this one, a bodyswap sex comedy that not only riffs on a classic Star Trek episode but deepens the characters and relationships from it. This is what I'd like Star Trek to be going forward—respectful of its past, but willing to make fun of it and move forward from it.
  • Stranger Things, "Chapter Four: Dear Billy" - The unexpectedly excellent fourth season of Stranger Things is at its best in this episode, which gives season standout Max her best showcase while also establishing the capabilities of the season's terrifying villain. As if that were not enough, this is also the episode that introduced a whole new generation to Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill". (And yes, I've checked, and this comes in just under the 90 minute threshold for this category.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:

  • Everything Everywhere All at Once, dir. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert - I know I said that I prefer not to nominate things that are obviously destined to win their category, but sometimes you just have to stand up and give your props. This wildly inventive, always surprising, frequently rude and determinedly heartfelt multiverse comedy-drama was one of the most exciting and unexpected works of science fiction released last year. It fully deserved the Oscar, and will fully deserve the Hugo it's clearly going to win. (review)
  • Nope, dir. Jordan Peele - On the other hand, Nope is an opportunity for the Hugos to correct the Oscars' oversights, recognizing not only a brilliant piece of moviemaking but a genuinely great alien invasion story, featuring one of the most imaginative, surprising, and terrifying on-screen aliens in years. Of Peele's three movies, this is the one that operates most fully in the SFnal, rather than horror, mode, which I think is all the more reason for the Hugos to recognize it, where mainstream awards seem to have been too put off. (review)
  • Prey, dir. Dan Trachtenberg - An alien invasion on a much smaller scale, this movie proposes a brilliant premise—what if the Predator arrived on Earth in the 18th century and started attacking Native Americans—and executes it flawlessly. It's a reminder that more than we need new ideas in Hollywood, we need people who are willing to commit to the ideas they have, rather than trusting that the familiarity of an IP will carry them across the finish line.
  • Shining Girls, created by Silka Luisa - Apple's adaptation of Lauren Beukes's 2013 novel seems to have fallen a bit by the wayside. Which is shame, because this is not only a great show, it's a great adaptation of a rather tricky novel, about a serial killer who uses time travel to evade detection, and a victim-turned-journalist who starts piecing together his crimes. The series not only manages to convey these complex concepts and convoluted plot to the audience, but along the way has a lot to say about the prevalence of misogyny in our society, and the impact that violence has on its victims.
  • Station Eleven, created by Patrick Somerville - I'm cheating a little here, since only the last three episodes of this adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel's novel aired in 2022. But this is such a brilliant show, which so gorgeously realizes the novel's post-pandemic world, while confidently making changes to its story that take it in deeper, more benevolent directions, that it deserves another shot at a nomination. Also, since I'm sure we'll see a slew of nominations next year for the solid-but-unremarkable The Last of Us, I'd like to remind everyone what an actually groundbreaking, original post-apocalypse story looks like.

Best Fancast:

  • Going Rogue, hosted by Tansy Gardam - Published in perfect synchronicity with Andor, this podcast miniseries is an in-depth examination of Tony Gilroy's previous Star Wars project, Rogue One, in an attempt to figure out what went wrong with that promising but ultimately bizarre and lopsided movie. With painstaking attention to detail, and a lot of respect for the art and business of moviemaking, Gardam goes through every one of the film's production stages, and every version of its story, along the way providing tremendous insight into the history of Star Wars, the state of modern franchise moviemaking, and what happened when the two met last decade. (Gardam published a follow-up series, Going Solo, earlier this year, which is no less excellent and which I can promise you will be on my Hugo ballot next year.)
  • Just King Things, hosted by Michael Lutz and Cameron Kunzelman - Every month, this podcast's hosts offer an in-depth discussion of one of the works of Stephen King, in publication order. If, like me, you were a King fan in your teens and have drifted away from him in adulthood, this is a great way to remember both why he was such a gargantuan figure in the world of 80s and 90s commercial fiction, and where the limitations of his writing lie. The discussions come from a place of deep affection, but also a willingness to find fault where it exists, and the resulting conclusions may seem shocking—I don't think anyone would have expected a better reception for The Tommyknockers than Misery, for example. But Michael and Cameron are so convincing in both their praise and censure that they've actually gotten me to go back and rediscover some King books I've missed.
  • Octothorpe, hosted by Liz Batty, John Coxon, and Alison Scott - OK, so I'm doing the classic Hugo voter thing of nominating my friends' podcast, but if you're interested in science fiction and fantasy fandom, there's probably no better resource for news and discussion than Octothorpe. Liz, John, and Alison discuss recent and upcoming conventions, new publications, and fannish squabbles. It's a great news resource if you're interested in keeping up with what's going on in fandom (or just want to gawk at in-group nonsense), presented by three smart, informed, and opinionated people.

Astounding Award for Best New Writer:

  • Sunyi Dean - The Book Eaters, Dean's debut novel, is an extremely effective thriller about a woman on the run from her family, a clan of literary vampires. What seems like a cozy, harmless concept quickly reveals itself as meditation on restrictive gender roles and patriarchal power, and the cost of breaking away from them.
  • Isabel J. Kim - It's been a while since I nominated a short fiction writer in this category. Kim is the author of one of my Best Short Story choices, but she's also had several other interesting publications in 2022, such as "Termination Stories for the Cyberpunk Dystopia Protagonist" and "The Massage Lady at Munjeong Road Bathhouse" (both in Clarkesworld).
  • M. Shaw - I'm actually not 100% certain that Shaw is eligible in this category, but I'm taking a chance that they are, because the reason I found their novella One Hand to Hold, One Hand to Carve was having been sufficiently impressed by their story "The Cure for Loneliness" (Apex Magazine) to seek out more of their writing. If that's not a reason to nominate someone for an Astounding, I don't know what is.


Brett said…
I hope "Just King Things" wins that, because it really is excellent. I can't remember how I found it, but I'm glad I did - I was looking for a good Stephen King analysis podcast after unfollowing the rather dismal Kingcast a long while back.

It got me to go back and read "The Tommyknockers", and it was good. I'm looking forward to them getting into 2000s-era King and beyond, because I haven't read most of those and I'm genuinely curious as to how they receive them.
Justin said…
I always thoroughly appreciate your shortlists and reviews, and read nearly everything mentioned without regret. Thank you!

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