Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Hugo Ballot: Novella


The nominees are:

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells ( Publishing)
"And Then There Were (N-One)," by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, March/April 2017)
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor ( Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang ( Publishing)
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.Com Publishing)
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey ( Publishing)

My views here are fairly simple. It’s a decent shortlist, but a bifurcated one. There are three nominees that are neck and neck in my view, all first-rate stories and well worth a Hugo. And there are three that are OK, but not special – in my view not Hugo-worthy (but not so obviously unworthy that I will vote them below No Award.)

My ballot will look like this:

1.       Sarah Pinsker, “And Then There Were (N – One)” – A story about a convention of alternate Sarah Pinskers, complete with a murder. It is warmly told – funny at time, certainly the milieu is familiar to any SF con-goer. But it’s dark as well – after, there’s a murder – and it intelligently deals with issue of identity and contingency.

2.       Martha Wells, All Systems Red – a ripping good novella about a security android which calls itself a murderbot, guarding a group of researchers on an alien planet. The murderbot mainly wants peace to watch its favorite TV shows, but that becomes impossible when the team comes under threat. It soon becomes clear that there is an unexpected group on the planet that doesn’t want any rivals, and the murderbot has to work with its humans to find a way to safety. That part – the plotty part – is nicely done, but the depiction of the murderbot is the story’s heart: convincingly a real person but not a human, with emotions but not those that humans expect: very funny at times but also quite moving.

3.       Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones – I was rather disappointed by Every Heart a Doorway, the first novella in McGuire’s Wayward Children series. I thought its main character boring, and its murder mystery plot rather a mess, and I thought the story just too long. For that reason, I passed on Down Among the Sticks and Bones until it showed up on the Hugo shortlist. So I came to the story with low expectations – and I was completely delighted. This isn’t just better than Every Heart a Doorway – it’s LOTS better. This tells the backstory of Jack and Jill, very important characters from the first book. They are twins, born to a couple who aren’t really interested in children except for how they look to their colleagues, and who force them into their ideas of the perfect girls – Jacqueline is the pretty one (thought they look the same), intended to be the popular one; while Jillian is the tomboy, the soccer player, the adventurer. (The one weakness of the story is the characterization of the parents – they’re a cliché, their faults seem forced.) The things is, that’s not who the girls really are, and when they find a door into another world, they take it, ending up on the Moors, a very dangerous place, ruled by a vampire, and featuring other horrors like werewolves. Jack stays with a relatively good man, and exercises her interest in learning and scientific research. Jill stays with the vampire, wanting to become a vampire herself – his heir, indeed. But when Jack takes a local girl as her lover, Jill’s eventual reaction catalyzes the inevitable ending.

4.       Sarah Gailey, River of Teeth – a caper story (OK, not a caper – an operation!) about a mixed team of “hoppers” (hippopotamus wranglers, basically) assembled to clear the lower Mississippi of feral hippos. Their leader, Winslow Houndstooth, also wants revenge, against the man who burned down his hippo farm years before. There’s a lot of violence, a truly evil villain, and a fair amount of believable darkness. I mean, I enjoyed it. I just didn’t see it as special – in particular in a speculative sense – yes, there’s the fairly cool alternate history aspect involving the hippos in Louisiana, but nothing with real SFnal zing. Still – it’s pretty fun.

5.       JY Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven – The story concerns the twin children of the Protector, originally promised to the local Monastery. But one of them turns out to have precognitive powers, and the Protector claims them … the other strikes off on their own, ending up in a rebellion against their mother. The good – a decent magic system (alas, treated in a clichéd fashion on occasion), interesting if seemingly inconsistent and underdeveloped treatment of gender (to be fair, the supposed inconsistencies may well be eventually explained), and decent characters. The not-so-good: a fairly clichéd plot (which doesn’t really resolve, though to be sure its companion novella was released in parallel, and that may illuminate the story), rather ordinary prose, and some pacing issues, mainly in the opening section (about a fourth of the story), which really should have been almost entirely cut. Bottom line – an okay story that has been ridiculously overpraised.

6.       Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: Home – Much as with Every Heart a Doorway, I was puzzled by the extravagant praise Binti received – I thought it kind of a mess, really illogical, hard to believe. Alas, the sequel, unlike the McGuire story’s prequel, is not much better than the opening, in my view. (Also, it doesn’t come to a real conclusion.) Binti, after spending some time at Oomza Uni, comes home to her family for a visit, and a pilgrimage. She is accompanied by her friend Okwu, one of the murderous Meduse (who also altered Binti’s genetics, though they didn’t kill her, unlike all her innocent prospective classmates). The notion is apparently to make some repairs in the Meduse’s relationship with humans, especially the Koush, a rival people to Binti’s Himba. But little enough happens on that ground (presumably that’s left for the next installment) – instead, Binti’s pilgrimage becomes a trip to the home of the mysterious Desert People, who turn out to be part of her ancestry, and to have a relationship going far back in history with a group of aliens with special tech. I have to say, my main problem was that I just didn’t believe in the story, nor, really, in Binti. It’s obvious a lot of people love these stories, and so it’s clear they’re seeing something I’m missing. So be it – the fault may well lie with me. But I didn’t like this story much, to be honest.

My nominees were, in alphabetical order by author:

1.       Kathleen Ann Goonan, “The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse”
2.       Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Prime Meridian
3.       Sofia Samatar, “Fallow”
4.       Sarah Pinsker, “And Then There Were (N – One)”
5.       Martha Wells, All Systems Red

In reality, the three that weren’t nominated are easy to understand – they are the three least readily available. Goonan’s story is from an original anthology (and one that didn’t seem to get a ton of attention, Extrasolar, from PS Publishing in the UK). Samatar’s story is from her exceptional collection Tender, and story collections typically get less attention, especially for original stories, than either magazines or anthologies. Moreno-Garcia’s may be the most obscure – available only to supports of her Indiegogo campaign (and to lucky reviewers!) Indeed, I suspect it might be eligible for next year’s Hugo. But there were plenty of other worthy potential nominees; for instance Damien Broderick’s “Tao Zero”, Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie, and Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The Dragon of Dread Peak”.


  1. I'm in pretty close agreement on the ones I've read. 1) so clever! 2) great character 3) I liked the 1st one, but this is much better. 4&5) haven't read yet 6) I must be missing something too. And this is just a middle fragment of a story. Makes me wonder if at least some nominators already read the conclusion.

    ("The Dragon of Dread Peak" was one of my nominees.)

    1. I do wonder if some people are nominating stories like BINTI:HOME and even THE BLACK TIDES OF HEAVEN partly because of other stories in the same series. That's understandable in a way but not the way I'd do it.

      I think the first three on my ballot are a good example of three very different stories that could be ranked in any order -- they each do what they want to do very well, and there's no real way to say one is affirmatively "better" than the other, in my mind.

  2. Extrasolar wasn't available in the US until 2018, so I think the stories from Extrasolar are eligible for the 2019 Hugo Awards. (See WSFS Constitution section 3.4.2: "Works originally published outside the United States of America and first published in the United States of America in the previous calendar year shall also be eligible for Hugo Awards."

  3. Also, the Sarah Pinsker story is a fairly obvious homage to the classic Agatha Christie mystery "And Then There Were None", both in title and setting. It's a really clever variation on that theme.