Since WorldCon is in San Jose this year, I’m going to WorldCon, which means I can vote in the Hugo Awards. For the last few months, most of the books I’ve been reading have been Hugo nominees. And now, well after I could possibly influence anyone’s vote, I’ll tell you which nominees I loved and which nominees I hated. (Since otherwise this post would be really unacceptably long, I’m skipping the ones I was meh on.)
Nominees I Loved
The Stone Sky: I have to say, when I began this series, I was skeptical. “It already won two Hugos, and now it’s nominated for a third?” I said to myself. “We can’t give every book in this series a Hugo. Are we sure none of these are spite-Hugos directed at Vox Day?”
After I finished it, I have to say: the Broken Earth series absolutely deserved both of its Hugos and, if N. K. Jemisin is not completely and unjustly robbed, will absolutely deserve its third Hugo as well. This is, without any exaggeration, absolutely one of the best science fiction series I have ever read: its sheer originality, its complex and well-thought-out worldbuilding, its deeply flawed and yet acutely sympathetic characters, and a climax that will leave you incoherent with wonder, its thematic exploration of trauma and suffering and apocalypse, on the level of people and the level of societies and the way that trauma and suffering can make you a worse person and make you traumatize others.
It is difficult to describe any of the plot without spoilers, so I won’t try. Be warned that it is very dark post-apocalyptic fiction and may not be suited to those of a delicate temperament.
Six Wakes: Locked-room mystery IN SPACE. In a world where people’s memories can be transferred into clone bodies, six clones wake up midway through a trip through space, with only memories of their first day on the ship, and have to solve the murders of their previous selves. The ending is a little bit of a deus ex machina, but otherwise it’s really clever, and I always enjoy a science fiction novel that has a relatively “small” story.
All Systems Red: A security robot hacks his own governor module, which allegedly is supposed to make him rampage around killing people. Instead, he just spends the entire time binging on TV shows. When the people he’s supposed to be guarding are threatened, he has to solve the mystery as quickly as possible, without revealing that he’s hacked his governor module, so that he can get back to watching TV. Unutterably charming.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones: Twin sisters– one forced into femininity, one into tomboyishness, by their abusive parents– walk through a portal into a Hammer Horror story. It really needed an extra chapter or two to tie up all the loose ends, but overall creepy and wonderful.
And Then There Were (N-One): A woman is invited to a convention of her alternate-universe selves, only to discover one of them is a victim of murder– and the only possible perpetrators are her other alternate universe selves. Lots of really cool details fleshing out the core concept; my one complaint is that it really could have stood to be twice as long as it was.
The Secret Life of Bots: A maintenance robot is just trying to fulfill task nine hundred forty four in the maintenance queue, but winds up accidentally saving the day. Very, very cute.
Wind Will Rove: A generation ship loses all its recordings of old media. While the older generation tries desperately to record as much as it can based on people’s memories, the newer generation questions why they need to keep any art from Earth at all.
Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience(tm): Philip K Dick meets cultural appropriation. I was like “meh” until I figured out the twist and then I was like “HOLY SHIT OMG THIS STORY IS AMAZING.”
The Martian Obelisk: The first half is very dull and cynical, but the second half is real triumph-of-the-human-spirit pump-fist-in-the-air awesomeness. I am actually reminded of The Martian when I try to explain the feeling this story gives me, but I’m not sure if it’s just the title.
Fandom for Robots: Exactly what it sounds like– a robot joins a fandom. Silly, funny, and intensely self-indulgent, I recommend saving this story for when you’ve had a horrible day.
The Deep: Afrofuturist Lovecraftian hiphop written by none other than Daveed Diggs. You know you want it.
Summer in Orcus: A YA novel by the author of Digger which shares Digger’s rich creativity and deeply sensible protagonists. If you’re read Digger, you’re probably already enthusiastic; Summer in Orcus is an excellent read-aloud book for a child you love (although be warned that it does have some scary content which might give nightmares to younger readers). If you haven’t read Digger, what are you doing, READ DIGGER. IT’S FREE AND HAS A WOMBAT. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR.
Nominees I Loathed
New York 2140: This seems like an incredibly interesting RPG sourcebook and I have no idea why Kim Stanley Robinson tried to turn it into a novel. His heart is clearly not in the process.
River of Teeth: The premise sounds like this book should be on the “nominees I loved” list: it’s a Western caper set in an alternate history in which someone introduced hippos to the Louisiana Bayou and now all the cowboys ride hippos. Unfortunately, the author felt the need to Represent People, and thus all the characters are like “he’s a [rolls dice] Korean-British [throws dart] bisexual who’s [draws card] dating a nonbinary person.” Marginalized identities do not actually substitute for giving a character a personality.
Marginalized identities should also affect the characters at some point. The nonbinary character is a particular offender about this. Why is someone in the nineteenth century using they/them pronouns? I mean, I’m not refusing to buy this, it’s just that I want some sort of explanation. Did the hippos advance trans acceptance? Did they hook up with some early queer community? What is the nonbinary character’s understanding of themselves? What do the people they encounter think about this? “Exactly the same as a nonbinary person in the 21st century on all counts and I’m not explaining why” is a bad answer.
Sleeping with Monsters: I hate that late-2000s snarky feminist style with the exclamation points and the “um, wow” and the sarcasm and the ALLCAPS. I admit that I write like that, which makes this negative review a bit hypocritical, but no one ever nominated me for a Hugo.
Also, the author’s feminist criticism could be replaced by a checklist like so:
 Is there a female character?
 Does this story pass the Bechdel test?
 Is the female character fridged?
 Are there LGBTQ characters?
 Do all LGBTQ characters end the story in happy, functional relationships in which all members are alive?
 Is there a character of color?
And so on and so forth.
I just really don’t want to read a book of literary criticism where I ever have to read a paragraph about all the characters’ marginalized identities before I get to the part where I find out what the book is about.
Crash Override: The obvious, plus this is in no way a Best Related Work. It is not related to science fiction or fantasy! Zoe Quinn does not write science fiction or fantasy, and Gamergate was about video games. Okay, sure, Sad Puppies, but I feel like this is a very tenuous connection.
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage: I was tentatively considering a His Dark Materials reread but… no. Nope. Not after reading this. I prefer my childhood memories unsullied, thank you.
I think the primary problem with La Belle Sauvage is that Pullman is trying to write Atheist Narnia instead of Humanist Narnia. There are lots of things he’s against (God, religion, the afterlife) but not a lot he’s for. It makes for dreary reading.
[content warning: eating disorders]
The Art of Starving: Do not write a young adult book about eating disorders that includes descriptions of the protagonist’s ways of hiding that he’s starving and also exact calorie counts. Why would you even do that? Some poor person might decide to give this to someone struggling with an eating disorder because They Can Relate To It and then you have a remission on your hands.
On an artistic level, while the premise was very cool (a boy with an eating disorder has superpowers that are powered by hunger), the protagonist didn’t actually do anything with his superpowers. Like, okay, you humiliate a bully, great, that’s Act 1, where’s the part where you save people? The boy’s decisions near the end of the book are particularly dubious, although I guess at that point you have the defense that he’s starving to death and therefore probably doesn’t have much spare brainpower for things like “does this plan advance my goals, like, remotely at all?” The ending was such a copout I wanted to throw it against the wall.