Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Draft 2014 Hugo Ballot

The Hugos suck! There, I said it. Well, not all the Hugo categories suck--the one for Best Short Story is often good. But, as Aidan Moher and Justin Landon have explained in detail, the marquee category--Best Novel--more often than not rewards insider status over things like "which book is the most profound/challenging/well-realized/etc." Best Fan Writer/Best Fanzine, meanwhile serve as the jealously guarded fiefdoms of traditional fanzines and their dwindling readerships. WorldCon voters are perceived, largely correctly, as being hostile to the new wave of blogs and bloggers--or at least averse to seeing blogs encroach on the traditional fanzine's turf. I don't mind people voting like that (it's their choice), but I can't really see the award as choosing the best fan writing out there when the choices are made on the basis of form, not content.

Last year felt like the last straw for me and the Hugos. Now, I love me some John Scalzi, but Best Novel winner Redshirts is the least impressive of the six Scalzi-authored novels I've read (four of which I hold in very high regard). It's clever, entertaining and very funny at times, but it's also essentially a 200+ page inside joke for Star Trek fans. Of course, I could deal if that was the only problem--after all, it is clever, entertaining and very funny at times. But, to my eternal frustration, the two best fantasy novels published in 2012, Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts and N.K. Jemisin's The Killing Moon, weren't even on the ballot.

The underlying problem with the Hugos is that fans tend to vote for their "favorite" entry, rather than one they've determined to be "the best" after careful consideration of a wide-array of available options. True, as categories, "favorite" and "best" are often highly correlated--after all, we like things because we think they are good. But fans, as a species, are often so heavily invested in specific brands or creators that they feel compelled to relentlessly advocate for it/them wherever and whenever possible. It's the same kind of thinking that leads fans of EA's Battlefield series to leave negative reviews of the latest Call of Duty game on Metacritic, even (and perhaps especially) if they have never even played it. Yes, that's an extreme example, but you can see how these things are linked. I feel like Nebula voters engage in more critical exegesis and less fan advocacy than Hugo voters. Is that unfair? Maybe. But I'm calling it like I see it.

In any event, there I was, all set to ignore, abstain and eventually complain in 2014. Until, that is, fellow blogger and Hugo critic Aidan Moher convinced me that it only gets worse if people with serious concerns with the institutional PoV opt-out of the process. This is an argument I'm very sympathetic to, so consider me chastened and ready to be a part of the solution.

With that in mind, I present to you my draft ballot, so you can know who I would nominate if I get around to nominating. Why? Because all the cool kids (Aidan, Justin, Jared Shurin, Aliette de Bodard) are doing it, and I want to be one of the cool kids. Kidding! Though it's true that those are all cool kids.

...of course I can't really comment on all the categories. Best Fan Artist? I have no idea. Best Dramatic Interpretation, Long Form? I didn't see one I'd bother nominating that was released in 2013. And, sadly, 2013 was the first year in a decade in which I did not read a single graphic novel, something I plan to correct in 2014.

One final note: I read a lot of blogs and other writing on SF/F. Choosing just 5 nominees for Best Fan Writer and another 5 for Best Fanzine doesn't do justice to the wide array of great people reviewing and commenting on SF/F. Suffice to say, there are a number of high-quality people who didn't make my list this year, but easily could have, and may very well in future years. In cases where I really can't decide, I've included a sixth entry as a "possible last-minute substitution."

Part I: Original Fiction and Related

Best Novel
Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski (REVIEW - BUY) - This wasn't written in 2013 (actually in 1995), but was published in English for the first time in 2013--which means it's eligible. And this is hands-down the best book I read in 2013. Not only that, it's arguably the best fantasy book I've ever read--a complex fusion of sword & sorcery, political epic, romance and critical deconstruction of the fantasy genre. I'm tempted to learn Polish just so I don't have to wait for the next volume to be translated.

Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear (REVIEW - BUY) - This is a bit of a make-up nomination for the sublime (and superior) Range of Ghosts--which was left off the 2012 ballot in the aforementioned horrifying travesty of fan justice. Shattered Pillars is an excellent book on its own, and a nice middle chapter in my other favorite on-going series.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (REVIEW - BUY) - Now, you may recall I didn't gush about one this like some others did. But I also noted that it's a challenging, rewarding bit of space opera. And it could *gasp* actually win! If I am nominating stuff, I'd like at least one to be seriously considered, so that the vote isn't completely in vain. Ancillary Justice has "award winner" written all over it, and not in the bad SMOF-y way I described above.

The Thousand Names by Django Wexler (REVIEW - BUY) - Wexler's flintlock fantasy is a true revelation--it's smart, meticulously constructed and incredibly interesting. Sure there are some flaws, but I love the way Wexler delves into the tactics and daily life of soldiers in this musket-era second world.

The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham (REVIEW - BUY) - I felt much the same way about this series' opener, The Dragon's Path, as I did about The Thousand Names. Though the follow-up was a bit of a disappointment, I unambiguously loved book #3, going to far as to call it "an unusually smart installment in an unusually likable fantasy series."

POSSIBLE LAST-MINUTE SUBSTITUTION: Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson (REVIEW - BUY) - Robinson probably should have won last year for 2312, but alas, it was not in the stars. Shaman seems a less likely candidate, as it stretches the definition of science fiction. (Is it "speculative historical fiction" or "biological-anthropological speculative fiction?" I'm not sure.) That said, it's a neat book--a plausible if imagined narrative of early homo sapiens sapiens after the migration into Europe.

Best Novella
"The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself" by Ian Sales (REVIEW - DOWNLOAD for Kindle) - The second installment of the Apollo Quartet is a lot of things: a compact novel masquerading as a novella, a throwback to 1950s SF that somehow feels totally fresh and, at the same time, a very human story about frayed relationships. Though this is technically the only novella I read in 2013 that was originally published in 2013, it is also definitely worthy of the award.

Best Novelette

“Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine” by Kate Elliot (Fearsome Journeys - REVIEW - BUY) - One of the standouts from the almost universally good anthology Fearsome Journeys, this story is a "characteristically elegant tale, the story of a peasant woman's quest to save a kingdom from a dark conspiracy." In the review I also note that, "though the narrative form may be familiar, Eliot's empathetic gaze and capacity for vivid, atmospheric description set it apart from the pack."

Best Short Story
"Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clarkesworld - READ) - I might not have read a lot of short fiction this year, but this gender-bending military SF prose poem really blew my mind. Sriduangkaew is an awfully talented writer, and like Ken Liu in 2011 and 2012, she was seemingly everywhere in 2013. I could have picked any one of her stories and felt comfortable with the choice, but this was my favorite.

“Camp Follower”by Trudi Canavan (Fearsome Journeys - REVIEW - BUY)  - In my review of the anthology, I described this story as a " turns, a meditation on power, oppression, loss and mortality" and boldly stated that it's "one of the best fantasy stories I've ever read." I can't really think of a better way to explain why this story deserves your attention.

“The High King Dreaming” by Daniel Abraham (Fearsome Journeys - REVIEW - BUY) - I know what you're thinking--OMG not another nomination from Fearsome Journeys! But this is a very, very good story--a mediation on parenthood and all its emotional complexities, not least of which is the particular bittersweetness that comes from watching your offspring grow into their own.

"Your Figure will Assume Beautiful Outlines" by Claire Humphrey (Beneath Ceaseless Skies - READ) - A smart and beautifully written story about boxing, of all things (as well as gender bias, romantic love and the base stupidity of doing things for no reason other than "because that's the way they've always been done").
“What Really Happened in Ficandula” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (We See a Different Frontier - BUY) - My review of this anthology is long overdue, and truth be told I haven't quite finished it yet, but thankfully I did read this gem by Loenen-Ruiz (one of my favorite short fiction authors). It is, in essence, an exploration of the aftereffects of massacre--a real one from the U.S. colonial period in the Philippines--in a science fictional context.  

Best Editor Short-Form

Jonathan Strahan (SITE) - Strahan could win on the strength of his annual The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series alone, but he also edited the anthology Fearsome Journeys (which as you have probably realized by this point, I kinda sorta liked a bit), co-edited a collections of Jack Vance and Joe Haldeman's and served as Reviews Editor for Locus.
John Joseph Adams (SITE) - Though I felt like Lightspeed took a step backwards this year, Adams did also launch its sister magazine, Nightmare, while editing quality anthologies like The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination

Best Semiprozine

Strange Horizons (SITE) - The fiction is great--what more can you ask for? Equally good essays, that's what. Check Renay's piece on author/critic/fan interaction and the debate it produced (there, elsewhere and, of course, here.)
Beneath Ceaseless Skies (SITE) - BCS fills a void in the market for upscale fantasy that's both literary and unashamed of being second world adventure stories. And though BCS has been good for years, I thought the content took a big step forward in 2013.

Best Related Work
Speculative Fiction '12 (BUY - DOWNLOAD for Kindle) - Justin and Jared did a great job gathering the best of writing on SF/F from 2012--even if my epic interview with Paul Kincaid wasn't included (*sniff sniff*, oh wait...that's my fault for not submitting it, and may not have made it anyways, as Paul's even more epic piece for LARB was included). I'd like to see this nominated and then win. 

Part II: Fans, Critics and Commentary

Best Fanzine
A Dribble of Ink - (SITE) - A Dribble of Ink is sort of a special place for me--not only is it one of my favorite stops on the daily internet tour, but it served (and continues to serve) as a direct inspiration for Nerds of a Feather. Everything about A Dribble of Ink is great, from the design to the incredible list of guest posters to Aidan's own reviews, which have an unquantifiable, epic quality to them.

The Book Smugglers - (SITE) - I like The Book Smugglers for most of the same reasons I like A Dribble of Ink: it looks fantastic and is chock full of must-read guest posts, while the book reviews Ana and Thea post are, as a rule, exceptional. Plus there's the yearly event Smugglivus, which I'd argue has turned into something unique and truly special within fandom.

Pornokitsch - (SITE) - Is this a fanzine or is it a semiprozine? I have neither the inclination nor the care to find out, so I'm nominating Pornokitsch for Fanzine. Needless to say, Jared and Anne run one of the smartest, savviest and justifiably influential sites in the universe of SF/F fandom.
SF Signal - (SITE) - I would love to ignore the big dog in favor of the smaller pups, but the content is just too good. I'm a big fan of Paul Weimer's writing, and was also very happy to see them bring Ria Bridges (of Bibliotropic) and Rob Bedford on board this year as well.

Bookworm Blues - (SITE) - I'm a relatively new reader, but I love what Sarah is doing with her site. It's mostly a one-woman show, but qualifies by my standards because of the number of guest posts and especially for the excellent running feature Special Needs in Strange Worlds.

Best Fan Writer
Jonathan McCalmont - (BLOG) - Jonathan is both one of the most incisive critics in SF/F and one of the most entertaining. Acerbic in the best possible way, his broadsides against the hypocrisies and absurdities of fandom often remind me of Marx skewering Louis Napoleon. And his essay for Interzone (12/13) on superheroes and the future of SF was a thing of beauty.

Liz Bourke - (BLOG) - More than once I've come up with what I thought was an original, provocative argument, only to find that Liz got there first. Consistently insightful, I've come to admire Liz both for the high quality of her reviews and the sharpness of her argumentation. What's more, she has that unique ability to make you rethink your assumptions; as such, several of her essays function as auto-citations for me.
Justin Landon - (BLOG) - My first exposure to Justin's writing came when Night Shade Books imploded. His account of its demise is fascinating, and, I think, the most comprehensive. Now, of course, I log on to Staffer's Book Review daily. He's fun to read, and certainly erudite, but thing that really stands out to me about Justin's writing is how much he can pack into a single essay or review. Most blog pieces don't need to be read twice, but in this case I often find subtexts or tangents I missed on the first reading.

Ian Sales - (BLOG) - Ian gets a second nomination here, and it's well-deserved. Though we often disagree, I can't think of anyone who I've learned more about science fiction from. Plus he runs the excellent and important SF Mistressworks site, which helps bring attention to the science fiction's rich (and often unrecognized) history of female-authored books.

Foz Meadows - (SITE) - Foz combines academic-style argumentation with liberally sprinkled swear-words--an approach that can be a little hit-or-miss for me. But Foz is undeniably brilliant, and her forays into the SFWA sexism debacle and gritty/grimdark debates are masterpieces--must-reads for anyone who cares about how things going on within the genre intersect with the world outside.

POSSIBLE LAST-MINUTE SUBSTITUTION: Stefan Raets (SITE) - Between his own blog, running the Beyond Reality reading group on Goodreads and writing for, Stefan has had an excellent 2013. He's also my go-to reviewer for anthologies and collections of short fiction.

Best Fancast
The Coode Street Podcast - Jonathan Strahan & Gary K. Wolfe (LISTEN) - This was the first SF/F podcast I listened to, but that's for good reason--Jonathan and Gary maintain a high level of discourse while being thoroughly entertaining. 
The Skiffy and Fanty Show - Shaun Duke & Jen Zink (LISTEN) - Another great podcast for high-level SF/F discussion, author interviews and more.