Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hugo Ballot reviews: Novella

My ballot for the 2017 Hugo for Best Novella

The shortlist is as follows:

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle ( publishing)
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson ( publishing)
Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire ( publishing)
Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)
A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson ( publishing)
This Census-Taker, by China MiƩville (Del Rey / Picador)

As has been and should be noted, this was an exceptional year for And indeed their program of slim chapbooks, mostly novellas (with the occasional long novelette such as another Hugo nomineed, Fran Wilde's The Jewel and Her Lapidary, and I suppose possibly some short novels) has been very refreshing. Novellas sometimes have a hard time finding a home, and is doing a great job rectifying that situation.

It has also been noted that the print magazines were completely shut out of the Hugos this year. Perhaps the simplest explanation of that is that you have to pay for them, and much online fiction is free. But that doesn't really apply to the novellas -- most of's offerings are only available for sale (there may be some exceptions posted on the website). I do think it is a shame, however. I nominated a couple of print novellas for the Hugo -- "Lazy Dog Out" by Suzanne Palmer from Asimov's, and "The Vanishing Kind" by Lavie Tidhar from F&SF. I think Tidhar's novella, at least, was clearly among the top three of the year -- I obviously liked Palmer's as well, but it isn't as clearly better than some of these, to my taste. But, as I often say -- that always happens. Chacun a son gout and all that. At any rate, this is a pretty strong category (I have more serious complaints at the shorter lengths).

One other notable point is that only one of the stories is Science Fiction, and that only ambiguously so (A Taste of Honey). I don't dispute at all that Fantasy is eligible for the Hugo (and always has been), but I will say that I think there should be SF as well. (And I'll note that the two omissions I mention above, "The Vanishing Kind" and "Lazy Dog Out", are each pure quill SF.)

My ballot, then, will look like this:

1) The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

This has been #1 on my list ever since I read it last summer, and I see no reason to change. I think this is very clearly the best novella of 2016. It is the best written of the stories (though Kai Ashante Wilson's story is also quite beautifully done), and well-plotted, imaginative, involving. As I wrote in my Locus review: "This is evidently in dialogue with H. P. Lovecraft’s "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" (which I confess I have not read), though I was more reminded of Lord Dunsany: and after all Lovecraft’s story (unpublished in his lifetime) was written quite overtly under the influence of Dunsany. Johnson, as well, writes of a Lovecraftian world with, well, actual recognizable women! Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college in the Dreamlands. One of her students has run away with a dreamer -- a man from our world. This is a problem, because her father is influential -- and, as it happens, her grandfather even more so, in scary way. So Vellitt, who has experience wandering, must set off after her, through very dangerous places, and even an encounter with her old lover, Randolph Carter, in search of a way to the waking world, to persuade her student to return. This story is just beautifully written -- way more Dunsany than Lovecraft! -- and exciting, and well imagined, using the good stuff from Lovecraft and new good stuff, and honest about consequences. Unquestionably one of the stories of the year."

2) A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson

I missed this until it was nominated for the Nebula, and on reading it at last, I was delighted. It is a beautifully written and rather bittersweet -- with perhaps more sweet than bitter -- story of an aristocratic young man, Aqib, heir to the Master of Beasts of Olorum. He has a short, swift, forbidden romance with a soldier from the Dalucan Embassy; but when this man leaves, Aqib continues to his arranged marriage with a royal woman, a mathematical genius. The story interleaves scenes from his affair with the soldier with the story of his long and mostly fairly happy life with his wife and their daughter -- happy despite his wife living much of her life apart, as a sort of mathematical assistant to godlike beings (who seem science-fictionally rather than fantastically godlike). The conclusion is a bit of an inversion, and I'm not sure it works fully, though it's OK -- it reveals another future for Aqib, perhaps the true future. The strengths of this story lie in the prose -- Wilson is really an exceptional stylist -- and in the dizzying SFnal/Fantastical imagined world.

3) The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

Like The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, this is a Lovecraft-influenced story, even more directly, in that it retells the events of "The Horror at Red Hook" from the point of view of a sidekick to that story's villain -- a black man, a gambler, named Black Tom, who becomes Thomas Suydam's main associate, and who proves to have different aims than his boss. The story surely needed this alternate viewpoint -- and it's quite effective. The writing is at times excellent, at other times a bit careless. I liked it, but it doesn't rate with the two stories above for me.

4) Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is my least favorite of the three Penric novellas I've read to date. I wrote in Locus: "Penric and the Shaman [is] set a few years later, with Penric much more confident in his role as a divine of the Bastard, [and] he is assigned to assist Oswyl, who is investigating a murder. Soon they are on the track of the apparent killer, Inglis, who has run away to an obscure mountain community. We see things from Penric’s viewpoint, but also [those of] Oswyl, and Inglis, and we learn that Inglis is something of a victim, of Beast magic gone wrong. Penric insists on talk, and understanding, instead of rash action -- and the story, a bit meanderingly, leads us (and Oswyl) to an understanding of what brought Inglis to his terrible situation -- at the same time helping to resolving a problem with a ghost in the mountain community they’ve come to. This is engaging work, and I’ll be glad to see more about Penric, but I wasn’t as pleased as I was with Penric’s Demon -- for one thing, there wasn’t enough Desdemona in this story, and for another, I thought Penric too idealized, too, in a word, competent. Still, it’s enjoyable.

5) This Census-Taker, by China Mieville

(For those who care, this was the Rabid Puppy choice this year.) I'm not sure I shouldn't move this up a spot or two on my ballot. The thing is, I didn't really get it. But I got the sense there was something really cool going on in the backstory, the world-building, etc., that I wasn't thinking subtly enough to understand. Or, perhaps, Mieville is just teasing us with those hints. The story is told by a man about his childhood. He was brought up by his mother and father in an isolated house on a mountainside above a remote town. One day, his father kills his mother, or so he thinks, but most people in the town don't believe him. His father says his mother just left. The boy tries running away, and spends some time with homeless kids in the town, but is brought back, and life continues, with his sometimes terrifying violent father, and his mysterious job as "keymaker", until a census taker comes -- with, it turns out, a special agenda concerning the boy's father's history in another country, during a war. It's hard to ferret out what is really going on -- perhaps the father was a war criminal? -- and it's hard too to be sure how the boy ended up where he is as a man, for some reason writing this memoir while still apparently working as a census taker himself. Strange stuff, precisely written, intriguing but for me not quite cohering.

6) Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

I really expected to like this story -- I approached it with great anticipation. But it just did not work for me. It's about a girl, Nancy, who is sent to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, which turns out to be a home for people -- usually teenagers, more often than not girls -- who had gone through a portal to another world, and who have come back, and desperately want to return to that world, and cannot find the way. Nancy's world was the Halls of the Dead, where she could be silent and still, and emulate the dead as best she could. In the Home she meets a number of other people who went to different worlds, some rational, some nonsense, some very scary. The story turns on a series of murders, and indeed it's a sort of mystery, which comes to a plausible solution. I thought the story was too long, and it really dragged at times. The murders were shocking, and quite bothered me. (My fault, I know!) And I just couldn't find Nancy an interesting character. I feel sure that many people will feel differently, for very good reasons, but this seemed to me a story with some interesting ideas and potential that just never quite worked.

Further posts on at least novelette and short story, and probably novel, will follow in the next few weeks.


  1. I think one advantage the Tor novellas have over novellas published in the print magazines is that they're longer. The print magazines published nothing over 24,000 words and averaged 20,200 in 2016. Whereas Tor has a ceiling of 38,800 and averaged 28,300 words. The actual Hugo finalists range from 27,800 to 38,800 words for an average of 35,000 words.

    When it comes to novellas, apparently size matters a great deal.

    1. I think that's a good point, though I'll note that one of my problems with "Every Heart a Doorway" was that I thought it too long! (Do you have an easy way to count words in Kindle (or, I suppose, mobi) files? I tried to guesstimate "Every Heart a Doorway" and came up with 35,000 words.)

    2. All the novellas come without DRM, so they can be loaded into Calibre, converted to DOCX format, and then counted by MS Word. "Every Heart a Doorway" is 38,800 words.

      This will also work for anyone who's willing to break the DRM on other works, although that means installing software from very shady people and giving them (in theory) total access to your computer.

      The method of counting words on a Kindle page and then counting pages (equivalently, counting Kindle "locations") also works, but it's much more tedious and can have an error of up to 20%. (I tested it on a couple of DRM-free anthologies.) This may be where the Hugo Awards got their idea of a 20% margin for word-counting to determine category.)

      It's also possible to automate the desktop Kindle App. That means writing a program that opens the Kindle App, scrapes the screen, and then counts the words programmatically.

    3. I think the 20% margin goes back to manual counting methods for magazine stories, actually. I've counted them that way forever -- that was always the source of my word counts when I used to do summaries of each magazine and what they published. I count number of characters (including spaces) in a few lines, and divide by 6, to come up with an average word count per line, then I count lines per page, and number of pages. (Trying to account for white space.)

      That method is reasonably accurate but certainly 10% errors happen.

      I think the Nebulas are crazy not to have a "deadband" on their word count limits, and I bet they've had stories in the past that were as far off as "Red in Tooth and Cog" was this year go through to the final ballot. I don't think a 10 or 20% deadband is necessary, but say +/- 500 words would make a lot of sense to me.

      By the way, in the SFWA sponsored Best Novella volume of the SF Hall of Fame, "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" is, if memory serves, about 7500 words. But in the Hall of Fame volume for Best Short Story, the same author's "Scanners Live in Vain" is some 13,000 words.

  2. Greg (or Rich, or ?) --what length were the thinner of the old 35c - 50c pabacks? Something like Merchanter's Luck*, or many of the slimmer Vances?

    *which was really $1.25

    1. Many of those were 60,000 or 70,000 words (with smaller print than we'd see these days). Even a really slim vance like SPACE OPERA was probably 50,000. Ace Double halves, on the other hand, were as short as just over 20,000 words, and often were in the high 30s.

    2. I just did an estimate on Merchanter's Luck and I figure it to be about 80,000 words. That's from counting words, lines, and pages and making allowances for partial lines and pages.

    3. And I figure Earthlight, by Arthur C. Clarke, at about 55,000 words.

  3. Heh. Actually, $2.95, for my 1982 first ed pb:

    Cover art by Barclay Shaw, who'd clearly read the book.

  4. Inspired by this, I went ahead and wrote an article about the relationship between story lengths and award nominations titled "Story Lengths and Awards: When Does Size Matter?."

    1. Thanks for that, Greg. I've always assumed there was some tendency for readers to prefer longer stories.

      I had been planning on writing something about length categories -- the way the awards have changed over time in that respect -- the way magazines have categorized stories by length (and often exaggerated things) -- etc. I'll probably get around to it sometime.

  5. If it helps, I was bemused by This Census Taker. I can admire the skill necessary to cut out almost all information about what is going on while leaving just enough to tantalise you, but I don't have to enjoy it.

    My magazine choices were The Vanishing Kind and The Cowards Option, while Lazy Dog Out was on my tentative list, so I agree that there was goodness to be found in the magazines. Unfortunately it's a lot easier and cheaper to acquire a tor novella published six months ago than it is a magazine backcopy, so someone doing Hugo reading in (say) January will have found it easier to follow recommendations for tor novellas than magazine ones. That won't be the only factor (Greg makes a good argument re lengths) but could well have had an effect.