Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: 2018 Locus Recommended Reading List

Joe: The Locus Recommended Reading List is out, which is always something of an annual event. I don’t think this is an original idea, but I’ve long considered the Locus Recommended list to be one of the best snapshots of what is going on in the genre in a given year. It’s certainly not exhaustive, and there’s always going to be favorites left off the list, but from a high level - these are most of the important and noteworthy SFF books and stories from the previous year.

What are your initial impressions of the list?

Adri: At this stage, I think I’ve read over 50 novels (and a sizeable number of novellas) published in 2018, but I have to say that every time the Locus list comes out I have a moment of screaming into the void over what a drop in the ocean that is compared to the number of fantastic books that come out. This year is no exception and for every book I’ve read and am excited to see here, there’s another one I want to catch up on or want to find out more about! That is, of course, a brilliant problem to have compared to the alternative of having read everything...

Joe: I’d give myself around 60 books from 2018 (a down year), including novellas, and I think I have much the same reaction. I quickly scan the list thinking “that was good, that was good, damn it I haven’t read that one yet, that was good, what the heck is Theory of Bastards, that was good”, and so on. Besides the fleeting joy of seeing stuff that I like get recognized, it’s the combination of discovery and reminders that I like.

For example, I’m pretty sure I first heard about this on the Coode Street podcast, but there’s a science fiction novel titled Condomnauts and it’s about galactic sexual ambassadors from Earth, because sex is diplomacy. I’m just so glad this novel exists and that it made the Locus Recommended list.

I am reminded that I need to read Sam Miller’s Blackfish City. I fully expect it to end up on one of the awards ballots, probably the Nebula.

Adri: Yes to both those things! Blackfish City is great but having read it, it definitely “feels” like a Nebula book - although, saying that without qualification feels a bit obnoxious...

Joe: No, I agree. Without being able to really put my finger on it (and without having read it), Blackfish City *feels* much more like a Nebula book in that same way that I’m not surprised Autonomous made the Nebula ballot last year and not the Hugo (while fully noting that Autonomous placed 8th in the nomination tally - but if you asked me if Autonomous would get a Hugo or a Nebula nomination, I’d have said Nebula).

Of course, I hated The Three-Body Problem and wouldn’t have called it for either award, so what do I know?

Adri: I mean, there’s nothing on this year's list that I would be as annoyed to have to read for awards purposes as I was with Death’s End, so that’s definitely a good starting point.

Joe: Ignoring for a moment the lack of recognition for our own Feminist Futures project in Non-Fiction since it wasn’t actually published in book form, are there any other glaring omissions that jumped out at you?

Adri: So, apparently I’m being contrary this year, because two of my novel nominees and four of my favourite novellas didn’t make the cut. Of those, I’m most disappointed not to see Before Mars, by Emma Newman - I caught up on both of the more recent Planetfall novels last year and they both completely blew me away, especially this. I also think it’s a shame not to see any Book Smugglers stories here, especially as this is the last year for their publishing wing; they came out with some really interesting novellas last year, including Accelerants by Lena Wilson and Between the Firmaments by JY Yang.

Overall, it’s quite interesting to see where sequels are being recommended and where they aren’t. I like that Tim Pratt’s The Dreaming Stars is here, as that’s shaping up to be a great series, and it’s nice to see Vivian Shaw’s irreverent horror-based urban fantasy, Dreadful Company, in the mix too, even if I’m still waiting for that series to capitalise on the potential of its female characters. Salvation’s Fire by Justina Robson - the second in a shared universe series kicked off by Adrian Tchaikovsky earlier in 2018 - is a bit of a surprise to me as the sole entrant for that series, but I do see the appeal even if I liked its predecessor better.

On the other hand, there’s no threequel love for Binti or the Wayward Children (in a much shorter overall novella list), and neither of John Scalzi’s novels - Head On and The Consuming Fire - get a mention. They’re my top contenders for the unusual “not on the Locus but made the Hugo ballot anyway” spot this year.

What did you expect, or want, to see here that isn’t?

Joe: The first thing I specifically looked for was Matt Wallace’s final Sin du Jour novella Taste of Wrath. I’m not entirely surprised it didn’t make the list simply because I’m not sure it’s received a fraction of the attention and love that the series deserved. I passionately and sometimes aggressively love those stories and it has been a perpetual disappointment to me that they haven’t been nominated for everything they are eligible for and even for some things they aren’t. I’m holding out for a Best Series Hugo nod, but maybe I shouldn’t hold my breath.

The second thing i looked for, and this was mostly out of curiosity, was whether anything from Serial Box made the cut. Nothing did. Because I’m that sort of wonk, I did a super quick check of previous years and the first season Tremontaine made the list. I’m not surprised by that either, because Tremontaine is an expansion of the Swordspoint world and I would expect to see Locus recognize Ellen Kushner. I do wonder if next year we’ll see recognition for The Vela or Ninth Step Station. Both seem like something that might get some extra attention, eyeballs, and acclaim.

Adri: Bookburners, helmed by Max Gladstone, also made in 2017 but I take the point about next year's list.

Joe: I didn’t notice it until you mentioned it, but the lack of Beneath the Sugar Sky from novella really does seem glaring. It’s perhaps my second favorite of the four (behind Every Heart a Doorway), and I have to think it’ll make the Hugo ballot.

Adri: Yes, it's on my novella ballot, and it's my runaway favourite of the Wayward Children series so far, although I freely admit there's a heavy dose of personal taste in there...

On the other hand, is there anything other than Blackfish City that’s jumped to the top of your TBR after seeing it here?

Joe: Sue Burke’s Semiosis. Would you believe I’ve had that on my Nook for pretty much all of 2018 and I still haven’t read it? Any mention of it has practically glowed with praise and I just never got around to it.

I do also want to read Chercher La Femme, the latest from L. Timmel Duchamp published by Aqueduct. Those two, along with Empire of Sand and perhaps Dread Nation are the ones to really catch my eye.

Adri: Conveniently for me, Semiosis just went on sale on Kindle UK! It’s been on my radar for a while and I’m really keen to check it out. The other one I’m very interested in is Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, a very intriguing looking fantasy set in a Mughal Empire-inspired world.

I’d actually had Chandler Klang Smith’s The Sky is Yours on my radar and then forgotten about it until now. I think in my mind, the neon cover got confused with the cover of Blackfish City, because apparently I can keep eighty different spaceship covers straight in my head but not two actually very different-looking city-based science fiction novels. Back on the list it goes!

Joe: From what I can tell, Locus tends to do a good job mentioning UK publishers, but just out of curiosity, how US-centric does the list feel to you?

Adri: Well, nothing jumps out as a glaring US-centric text, and I don't think there are any buzzy books that I've struggled to gain access to in the UK. One thing I did note is that there are a couple of things on my Hugo radar (although not my ballot) that are in “second wave” eligibility i.e. first publication in the US in 2018, which I don’t think the Locus list counts? Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time was a 2015 UK release that won the Clarke, my heart, and a 2018 US edition (in that order), but I don’t think that counts for this list, and the lack of Tchaikovsky overall makes me a bit sad. Terra Nullius, by Claire G. Coleman, was released by Small Beer Press in 2018, a year after originally being published in Australia, and it’s an absolutely searing take on colonialism that deserves a wider audience. I also noticed only one translation among the novels - Yoss - and surely there must be more worth noting? Jin Yong’s A Hero Born came out in English for the first time in 2018.

Joe: I expect Rachel Cordasco will have something to say about the lack of translation. I counted two (Frankenstein in Baghdad and the aforementioned Condomnauts).

The thing that jumped out at me with the UK publication is the Adam Roberts novel only with a UK publisher listed. I think Dave Hutchinson has had greater success in the UK than in the US. I just didn’t know if all of the books I was aware of was because they were more prominent in the US than in the UK, and if you’re more aware of them because of how they are positioned here versus books you’d actually see in the shops or discussed where you live.

Adri: Yes, I think the UK is pretty well represented in this list, at least based on the novel sections? Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series has definitely been bigger in the UK (although I can’t quite bring myself to finish it despite owning Europe at Dawn, for a couple of reasons). Ben Aaronovitch is also huge, and Lies Sleeping was a really great entry to the Rivers of London series (probably the best since the fourth), so I’m happy to see that get some love! Jasper Fforde’s new standalone (Early Riser) isn’t here, and a new novel from him is always a big deal, but I’m not sure it’s at the level of quality where I’d expect it to appear. From a publishing standpoint, only The Dreaming Stars makes it for Angry Robot but there’s a fair bit of love for Solaris, which is based in the UK.

But yes, an increase in translation is something I’d love to see on this list from a selfish standpoint - I don’t read nearly enough of it to know what I’d like to see here (and I bounced pretty hard off the misogyny in the Yoss book I previously tried), but I’d love it if Locus could solve that problem for me. Of course, there already are people out there doing that work, and not all lists can do all things, so I guess I'll cope.

Joe: To the point that we can look at the Locus Recommended list and extrapolate out to the Hugo and Nebula Awards (I believe there’s something like a 75-80% hit rate on novels and novellas), what would you expect to see make the final ballots? Or, at least, what would you not be surprised to see make the final ballot?

Adri: My money is on The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal making both lists: it’s been a huge hit (including with you!) and while I have somewhat mixed feelings about the duology as a whole, I think it deserves to be recognised. I think The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang is also going places, although it will be interesting (and frustrating) to see if the first half of the plot, which takes place in a school with a teen protagonist, leads to people nominating it for the YA awards when it so clearly isn’t. And if Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning doesn’t make one or the other I’d be super surprised, given her short story wins last year. Finally, Catherynne M. Valente seems to fly under the radar of awards notice a lot of the time but there’s been a lot of buzz around Space Opera. While it’s not at the top of my personal list, as a fan of Eurovision I would not be sorry to see a book that takes its chapter titles from the contest’s greatest hits and its section names from the Captain Planet elements get some best novel love.

Joe: I agree that The Calculating Stars seems like as much of a lock as a book can reasonably be. I think it was a major hit in both nominating audiences and Kowal has been generally popular with both the Hugo and the Nebula crowds (she’s a two time Hugo winner for her short fiction and once more for Writing Excuses), plus the original Lady Astronaut novelette won a Hugo.

Space Opera seems likely. Like we discussed, Blackfish City seems reasonable for the Nebula. I won’t be surprised by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon getting a Hugo nod. Robinson’s novels tend to get nominated (Shaman did not, but I expect Aurora would have had it been published in a normal Hugo year). Revenant Gun? Record of a Spaceborn Few? I will be surprised if Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside makes the list. I just haven’t seen the conversation around it, and if his Divine Cities didn’t make it as individual novels, I don’t think this is the awards breakout. I won’t be surprised if Scalzi makes the Hugo ballot with one of his two novels.

The one I think you’re right about is Trail of Lightning. Traditionally, no. It’s not the sort of novel that gets recognized, but Roanhorse was so popular with “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” and Trail of Lightning was so well received, that I’d also be surprised if it doesn’t make at least one of the ballots.

I expect to be disappointed by The Poppy War missing out.

I also won’t be mad if something like The Red Clocks sneaks onto the Nebula ballot. Or Madeline Miller’s Circe, but I think that’s a stretch.

Oh! I forgot the obvious one: Spinning Silver. I can’t imagine an awards season where Naomi Novik’s novel isn’t nominated for one award, if not both the Nebula and the Hugo.

Adri: I agree with you for Foundryside, unfortunately, although its on my ballot and I think it’s just as worthy as the Divine Cities (which were robbed last year). And yes, Spinning Silver feels like a near certainty - insofar as anything is - too.

I think Revenant Gun is the thing on my personal novel ballot that is most likely to make the final list (because apparently I’m rooting for some serious underdogs this year - though I’m also cross-pollinating with Tess of the Road, my hands-down favourite book of 2018, which I refuse to contemplate not being up for the Lodestar). However, it doesn’t feel as certain as the previous two novels - which would be a shame, because I think it’s a much stronger book than Raven Stratagem and did some unexpected but quite satisfying things with its final-act character arcs.

Joe: The one book not mentioned so far that I do have on my Hugo ballot is Nicky Drayden’s Temper. I liked Prey of Gods, but Temper was Drayden leveling up. I’d expect it more on the Nebula than the Hugo, if it gets anywhere.

Adri: Yes - Temper is another one that narrowly missed out for me, but between that and Prey of Gods, Drayden is basically on my autobuy list for future novels. I do also have to note that I think she’s the only Black novel author not on here for YA (this is not to disparage YA at all, but the barriers to entry in that field are different to those in adult SFF), which feels frustrating after the glow surrounding Jemisin’s three-Hugo streak. There are people and publications out there doing great things when it comes to increasing representation of marginalised voices in the genre; we’ve not touched on the short fiction categories but I was really pleased to see FIYAH Literary Magazine represented with 6 stories, 5 more than last year, among lots of other good venues. But it’s frustrating to see PoC representation continue to fall on so few shoulders in the novel lists. I hope there will be more detailed analysis of this (Natalie Luhrs has done a great breakdown for the last few years) because it's something worth keeping in mind when using these lists.


Joe: Hey - I really enjoyed this. We should do another one, maybe when the Nebula ballot is announced.

Adri: Absolutely! Thanks for putting this together and I look forward to seeing what this year’s awards reading has in store...

Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.

Joe Sherry is a co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.