Ever since I started a concerted effort to read all the Hugo nominated novels (check out the Incomparable episodes: 2011 and 2012) I've been disappointed with the awards in general for two reasons: my own misconceptions and Mira Grant. Oddly enough, they are related to one another.
In my mind the Hugo award nominees represent the finest, most creative and interesting writing done in science fiction novels during the previous year. While this is true for some nominees that's not what the Hugos are. The Hugos are voted on by the readers, which means that at the basest level the Hugos are a popularity contest.
Which explains why every novel in the Newsflesh series by Mira Grant has been nominated. I'm sure Ms. Grant is a lovely woman, and clearly there are people who enjoy her work. Kudos to her! But do her novels represent the best that science fiction has to offer? No, they do not. However, lots of people like her and her books are very easy to read and are fun if you don't mind overly repetitious prose, blunt force world building, borderline incest, cardboard villains, and rudimentary plotting.
I will be reading all of the nominated novels for the Incomparable yet again. Luckily I've already read 3 out of 5. Here's the list:
- 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit): One of two I haven't read yet. I was going to read it when it first came out but my good old pal Glenn Fleishman said it was crap, so I passed. Looks like I'll have a chance to form my own opinion.
- Blackout, Mira Grant (Orbit): Savvy readers might guess this is the other novel I haven't read yet. I'll go into it with an open mind, promise!
- Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen): Bujold is a great writer, though this isn't a great book. It is fun, but I don't think it is award winning. You don't have to take my word on it, listen to the Incomparable book club wherein we discuss the book in detail.
- Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi (Tor): Another fun book that isn't really a good book. Scalzi isn't shy about the fact that his aim isn't high literature but rather readable works that lots of people will buy. He did it in spades with this book, and I think his big old royalty checks are award enough. We also did an episode of the Incomparable on this book.
- Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW): I was surprised, in a good way, to see this book on the list. Out of the 3 I've read, this would be the one I would vote for. Sure, it reads like an awesome D&D adventure, but I really liked the setting and the characters.
Nine books that should have been nominated
It is all well and good to complain about the books that got nominated, but a real critic should provide some alternatives. Looking over what I read last year that were Hugo eligible, I've come up with nine books that should have been on the list:
- The Dog Stars, Peter Heller: I didn't declare this book the best book I read in January 2013 for nothing, folks! Sure, it isn't as good as the Road but is far better written than some of the nominated novels. "But, Scott," you say, "This isn't science fiction!" Umm, yes it is, dude. The post-apocalypse thing is totally science fiction. Word.
- Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson: I'm actually surprised this one wasn't nominated (though perhaps it wasn't in the running for some reason). Set in the immediate future, this story tells the tale of a hacker who gets into a mess of trouble. Wonderfully written, though I suppose some might argue the "science fiction" distinction here.
- The Islanders, Christopher Priest: I love me some unreliable narrators, and this book is like a delicate cloud of unreliability. Billed as a guide to a series of islands, this book is so much more. Inventive and, dare I say, brilliant? Also, it isn't obviously science fiction but come on people, the genre is flexible!
- Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone: A legal thriller with magic and dead gods? What's not to like?
- The Fractal Prince, Hannu Rajaniemi: When I think about people pushing the boundaries of science fiction I think of Rajaniemi. This book is fantastic, cerebral, and unlike anything I've read (well, other than the first book in the series).
- The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M. Banks: Banks can write space opera, and this is one of his best.
- Sharps, K.J. Parker: OK, so Parker will never be nominated for a Hugo for best novel (I'm willing to bet) which just makes me sad. Sure, he (or she) writes brutal stories with characters that you really don't like but they are so well done. Sharps isn't Parker's best but even at 75% of his/her best it is better than most of the nominated novels I've read.
- The Mirage Matt Ruff: An alternate reality book which imagines what would happen is the Middle East had developed into the world's dominant culture and western terrorists crashed into the Middle Eastern World Trade Center. Thought provoking, well written, and worthy of an award.
- Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal: I've read all three of the currently available Glamourist History books and I've really enjoyed them. The first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, was something of a small, quiet story. The second volume builds on that story and makes it much bigger and adds in a dash of action. Don't let the YA covers scare you off from these books, they are smart reads for discerning readers.
There you have it, add my voice to the chorus bellyaching about the Hugos. Of course, say what you will be the awards but at least they get people talking about, and writing about, science fiction. That can't be a bad thing, right?