Saturday, June 8, 2024

Hugo Nominees for Best Novel, 2024: review summary

Hugo Nominees for Best Novel, 2024: review summary 

by Rich Horton

Over the past few weeks (with one exception that I read last year) I have read and reviewed all six novels on the 2024 Hugo ballot. Those reviews are linked below, in alphabetical order by author:

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

The Saint of Bright Doors, by Vajra Chandrasekera

Translation State, by Ann Leckie

Starter Villain, by John Scalzi

Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh

Witch King, by Martha Wells

As I think my reviews make clear, none of these books are terrible -- they all have redeeming values, and I'm glad I read them all. Having said that much, it also might be clear that I'm having a hard time enthusiastically supporting any of them for the Hugo. Is that a statement about the state of SF today, or the state of me as a reader of SF today? Probably both, in all honesty.

In my reviews, I identified one even split between the novels: there are three nominees who are all a bit older than the other three, and who have all won Hugos for Best Novel. These are Leckie, Scalzi, and Wells. The other three nominees are actually not terribly young, but they are younger than the others and I believe the only Hugo nomination among them, before this year, is Chakraborty's for Best Series. (And Chakraborty's nominee is her fourth novel -- Chandrasekera and Tesh's books are first novels.)

There is another even split: three are Fantasy (The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, The Saint of Bright Doors, and Witch King), the other three are Science Fiction. In my view there is a third split -- this may be a more controversial statement, but it's what I think -- three of them are more ambitious, while three strike me as, let's say, "entertainment first" (which doesn't preclude ambition, to be sure.) The more ambitious books, I claim, are Translation State, The Saint of Bright Doors, and Some Desperate Glory. By ambitious, I mean to suggest that these three books tackle knottier themes, and introduce more intriguing and original SFnal or Fantastical ideas. 

Two of the books are the first books in series (The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi and Witch King), while Translation State is an entry in a long set of books set in the same universe, but it is essentially a standalone (thought there are definite references to events in other books.)

One other link to note -- and this has nothing to do with the quality of any of the books -- is that only one of them (Translation State) has a love story, or romance plot, of any real significance. That doesn't mean there aren't romantic relationships depicted in the other books (though there really isn't one in Starter Villain) but that those aren't central to the novels, and indeed are mostly quite backgrounded. Mind you, this isn't a complaint -- it's a well-motivated artistic choice in each case, I think. (For example, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is noticeably about a group of middle-aged people, a couple of whom are married, and a couple more do have love interests but those are just a small part of their depiction.)

So -- in summary, what do I think of these books -- how do I rank them? I'll state my prejudices first. As hinted above, I do prize ambition -- both literary ambition (I definitely give extra points for good prose) and thematic ambition -- asking difficult questions, and presenting intriguing and original ideas. Especially science fictional ideas: cool extrapolation, and the treatment of technologies or scientific ideas that raise interesting question or that throw light on broader ideas, such as, say,  what does it mean to be intelligent. I also concede that, for the Hugo, I will tend to favor Science Fiction over Fantasy. This isn't an absolute rule: a great enough Fantasy (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, say) will get my vote over even very good SF, but it is my prejudice. Partly this is simply that I personally am more of an SF fan, and partly it is a feeling that there is a very prestigious award for Fantasy (the World Fantasy Award) and I think it would be OK if the Hugos took (or took back?) a similar role for SF. Having said that, I concede that Fantasy absolutely is eligible for Hugos, and I'm happy for anyone or everyone else to disagree with me and vote for all the Fantasy they want to! (And, too, I concede the difficulty of drawing a bright line between the two genres.)

So, here's my current ballot:

1. Translation State

2. The Saint of Bright Doors

3. The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi

4. Witch King

5. Some Desperate Glory

6. Starter Villain

An SF novel comes first, but then somehow the three Fantasies! I am already inconsistent. Though, frankly, it was Translation State's SFnal virtues that broke a tie between it and The Saint of Bright Doors. I simply felt that the flaws of the last two novels on the list were sufficient that I couldn't vote for them any higher -- Some Desperate Glory's artificiality, weak worldbuilding, and arbitrary (and manipulative) characterization hurt it, and Starter Villain's insubstantiality, basically, hurt it.

I thought the best written book was The Saint of Bright Doors. All three "veteran" writers do solid professional work, but in no case did their prose stand out for me; and honestly I thought the other two books would have benefitted from another pretty strict pass of line editing. Both the Chakraborty book and the Wells book were, for me, quite fun reads, really solid adventure fantasy, but not much beyond that. (They are also both first books in series, and while they do each conclude their central stories quite fairly -- the reader isn't cheated -- there are unanswered questions that won't be treated with until later volumes -- this isn't a fatal flaw but can serve as another tiebreaker.)

(I'll also caution that I might grade a bit harder for Hugo nominees -- I think that's fair, really.)

What was my nomination ballot? Here it is, again with links to my reviews:

1. Orbital, by Samantha Harvey

2. Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter

3. The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz

4. Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, by Wole Talabi

5. The Scarab Mission, by James L. Cambias (actually not on my nomination ballot because I read it too late)

Three SF novels, one odd borderline case (the Leichter) and one Fantasy. Talabi's novel is the only first novel on my list. The first three are very ambitious books, and the last two are more on the "entertainment" side but also do engage with interesting and important ideas. I will say that the Talabi and Cambias novels could have been replaced on my nomination list with the Leckie and Chandrasekera books -- I may well have ended up ranking them third and fourth if they'd been on the ballot but it would be close. As far as prose goes, Orbital is one of the most beautifully written books I've read in some time. Leichter's writing is quite different but also very effective. Newitz and Cambias fit in the "solid professional prose" category, and so too does Talabi though I think there are some first novel flaws in his book. 

1 comment:

  1. Isn't the Hugo usually awarded first based on the author's past reputation, and then (if there's no one obvious choice by that criterion), based on a work that does what's perceived to be the Next Big Thing? I haven't read very many of the nominees for best novel or best novella (the two categories I might care about) for quite a long time now. Of the novels you mention, I've only read Witch King and Orbital. The Wells is good Wells but still made me feel distanced from the characters, unlike best Wells (The Element of Fire, Wheel of the Infinite, and the Murderbot stories). I like Orbital a lot more, but I can see how that doesn't fit the prototypical Hugo nominee slot the way Witch King does (given the rep that Wells has built up). As a lifelong SF reader who has now gotten old, I find much of what's published now sounds unappealing, often prefab or predesigned to be adapted for video. Which may be just bad marketing, but I don't have enough days left to test that given the truly huge numbers of new books released every year now.