Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Reading the Hugos: Series

There are a few Hugo Award categories for which I like to look up the actual category description in the WSFS Constitution. Best Series isn’t so much a weird category like Related Work, but it does have a particular set of requirements that cause it to operate differently than the other fiction categories. In general, a short story only has one shot at winning a Hugo – the year after it is published. The exception is when a shorter work is expanded into a longer work and is “substantially modified”. For example, “Beggars in Spain” (Nancy Kress) won a Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1992 and was a finalist for Best Novel in 1994. Best Series is a different animal altogether because long running series may have multiple opportunities at the ballot provided the new material meets the wordcount of an additional 240,000 words (and at least two new installments, but that part seems to be the easier to achieve).
3.3.5: A multi-Installment science fiction or fantasy story, unified by elements such as plot, characters, setting, and presentation, appearing in at least three (3) installments consisting in total of at least 240,000 words by the close of the previous calendar year, at least one (1) installment of which was published in the previous calendar year, and which has not previously won under 3.3.5. Previous losing finalists in the Best Series category shall be eligible only upon the publication of at least two (2) additional installments consisting in total of at least 240,000 words after they qualified for their last appearance on the final ballot and by the close of the previous calendar year.
This is worth mentioning now because 2019 is the third year of the Best Series category and the second appearance of Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series because McGuire has published two additional novels (The Brightest Fell, Night and Silence) as well as some short fiction set in that universe. I wouldn’t be shocked to see McGuire’s InCryptid make a second appearance next year, and I also expect to see The Expanse to have its own second crack at the ballot, though with The Expanse I hope readers wait one more year for the ninth (and final?) volume to be published so that The Expanse can be considered as a completed work.

I’m curious what this says about the long term future and health of the category if we see some of the same series make repeat appearances. Of course, we can (and do) say the same thing about a number of “down the ballot” categories like Fanzine (we do appreciate being on the ballot for the third year in a row!), Semiprozine, and the Editor categories.

This doesn’t speak against any particular finalist on this or any other year. As you’ll see when you read through my commentary, October Daye is my pick for Best Series this year and may well be my pick if it doesn’t win this year and makes another appearance in two or three years. What is interesting to me is that the rules for Best Series allow for a really solid cross section of the sort of series work being published each year. There are completed trilogies, a very loose series of shorter stories, and ongoing series for which the author may not have a fixed end point in mind. I am very interested to see how Best Series may evolve in the coming years.

Before that evolution happens, though, let’s take a look at this year’s finalists for Best Series.

The Centenal Cycle, by Malka Older ( publishing)
The Laundry Files, by Charles Stross (most recently publishing/Orbit)
Machineries of Empire, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
The October Daye Series, by Seanan McGuire (most recently DAW)
The Universe of Xuya, by Aliette de Bodard (most recently Subterranean Press)
Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)

The Laundry Files: I’m in an interesting position with The Laundry Files. I read the first two novels (The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue) as they were published and generally enjoyed them, as I did the novellas published around that time. I had a copy of the third volume, The Fuller Memorandum, for a number of years and I could never quite muster up the interest to actually pick the book up and read it. I’m curious about the progression of the series, the shifting viewpoint character moving off of Bob Howard.

Charles Stross is a writer I’ve long struggled with. The works for which he is most recognized for in regards to the Hugo Awards (Accelerando, Saturn’s Children, Halting State) are also the works I bounce the hardest off of. The Laundry Files bridges the gap between his Merchant Princes series which I generally enjoy and the harder science fiction which I generally do not. Though I can’t speak to how the series evolves over the course of the nine main sequence novels, those first two novels did feature some of those stylistic choices which grate on me. When discussing cases or things of a military nature with codenames, we get CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN in all caps, which on its own is fine, but when coming up in a conversation about multiple missions we get pages laced with phrases in all capital letters. It’s a small thing, but it’s a small thing that makes me cringe as a reader. As a whole, The Laundry Files has story beats and ideas that I think are fascinating, but they are laced with aspects of Stross’s writing that I just don’t appreciate.

It is worth noting that two of Stross’s three Hugo Award wins have come from Laundry Files novellas (“The Concrete Jungle” and “Equoid”).

The Universe of Xuya: There is nothing on the ballot quite like Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe, nor has there been in the relatively short three year existence of the Best Series category. The fiction of The Xuya Universe is an alternate history leading into an alternate future where Xuya (a significant Chinese colony in North America) and Dai Viet (Vietnam) are major players in interstellar colonization (what a gross simplification) and all of the Xuya stories are set within that Chinese and Vietnamese influenced universe. Xuya is comprised of a small number of novellas and a larger number of short stories, but unlike the other ongoing series on this year’s Hugo ballot, Xuya is telling discrete stories within a larger universe that doesn’t necessarily have any connections to each other than being part of that larger universe. Aliette de Bodard is building a past and future history of the world and the galaxy and these stories are the building blocks.

What that means is that there is much less of a sense of a unified story being told because this isn’t that sort of universe. The events of On a Red Station, Drifting have nothing to do with those of The Citadel of Weeping Pearls which have nothing to do with The Tea Master and the Detective, let alone the shorter stories. Some of those stories are available online for free, others are spread across magazines and anthologies – which does mean that a reader needs to be reading widely in the field (or actively following Aliette de Bodard) to have a chance at reading them all. A sampling of works were included in the Voter Packet. Individually, the stories have the high quality readers have come to expect from de Bodard. Taken together as the foundation for a wider universe alternate history / future, this is an impressive feat of worldbuilding. Taken as a “series” in comparison to the other “series” on the Hugo ballot, I’m not sure it stands up quite as well – but that may just be my personal bias for more tightly connected series speaking.

The Centenal Cycle: The idea of being hopeful about democracy and elections is refreshing and has only become more so since the publication of Infomocracy in 2016, but Malka Older presents a vision of a global “microdemocracy” with the world divided into “centenals”, groupings of approximately 100,000 people. Nations are (mostly) no longer a thing. There are still political parties, but many of them are global parties striving for the most centenals in order to gain a “super majority” for the world government. There is still corruption and shady dealings, but the idea of Information (think Google on steroids, and truly operating with “don’t be evil” as a core tenant) as a force for knowledge and election security is a welcome one. Of course, what Older introduces in Infomocracy gets subverted and suborned by the events of Null States and State Tectonics. As with anything presumably utopian, the question should always be “utopian for whom?” and it is worth interrogating if that utopia is built on the back of something else or what gets left out of that utopia, whether by choice or force.

Older plays with some of those ideas while still maintaining the hopeful aspect of microdemocracy and elections throughout the three volumes of the Centenal Cycle. Infomocracy was one of my favorite novels published in 2016, with the perfect melding of set up and execution. If all three novels hit me in just the same way as Infomocracy, this would be a nearly perfect trilogy. As it stands, I was disappointed with Null States. This may be more to do with my particular expectations going into Null States and Older told a much different story than I might have expected. Realistically, I should re-read the trilogy (and Null States in particular), but so much of what worked for me in Infomocracy was missing in Null States. Legitimately, the novel focuses on what happens in those regions which choose not to engage in microdemocracy and are left out of Information. State Tectonics brings the story back inside of Information, and considers whether Information and the current centenal system is perhaps only a step in a process towards a more equitable future and not the end goal itself. There are threats (both internal and external), conspiracies (likewise) and it is a thrilling look at one possible future of democracy.

Each volume of the Centenal Cycle is quite different from the others, but together they work to form a fairly coherent whole that in some ways is greater than the individual parts (as great as I found two of those parts). If nothing else, these novels offer hope in the echoes of a contemporary political arena that seems to offer none. Older offers a way forward, and that is something valuable and worth holding on to.

Machineries of Empire: Machineries of Empire is one of two completed series in this category (the other being The Centenal Cycle, of course) which both makes it easier and more difficult to consider in comparison to the other finalists because unlike previous years, the other four finalists are true ongoing / episodic series rather than a part of an unfinished whole (see The Expanse in 2017 and The Stormlight Archive in 2018). Also notable, each of the three novels comprising Machineries of Empire have been Hugo Award finalists for Best Novel.

What I find interesting is my reaction to Machineries of Empire in this category. Each of the three novels are superb, one of the best of their respective publications years. And yet…I don’t get the feeling that the novels truly coalesce into a whole series, though each novel is informed by the one before and it builds as does any series. It does build an overall story of Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedeo and the working against the calendrical system of the Hexarchate, but I wouldn’t recommend Machineries of Empire to someone as a series. I’d tell them to go read Ninefox Gambit right away because it’s awesome, though give it a bit of time to get your mind right reading it. All three novels are fantastic, and strangely it feels as loose of a series as Wayfarers.

Wayfarers:  One of the things I find interesting about the Wayfarers series is that, like Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe, Becky Chambers is building a universe rather than building a particular story arc for characters. Seanan McGuire’s October Daye novels are focused on the character of October Daye, and while McGuire expands our understanding of that setting and of various backstories and relationships, the series moves Toby Daye forward. Becky Chambers does not do that, though we’re comparing a series of three novels so far to Seanan McGuire’s twelve October Daye novels. Things could change down the line and Chambers may well elect to return to the crew of the Wayfarer. Until then, each of the three (so far) Wayfarers novels features a different set of characters in a different part of that universe, though A Closed and Common Orbit spins off one character from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Record of a Spaceborn Few, however, takes something only previously mentioned (The Exodus Fleet) and expands on that hint as a standalone story.

Chambers has been rightfully lauded for her positive science fiction. That’s not really a sub genre classification, but does get to the lighter tone of the novels and while Chambers is not attempting to tell a utopian story, the protagonists are generally good people trying to do their best and live decent lives. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has been described as reminiscent of Firefly with perhaps less dickishness in the crew. The novel does have the feel of the show, only with yet more optimism. The other two novels tell very different sorts of stories, but the overall light touch of Becky Chambers is welcome and refreshing. Two of the three published novels in this series have been finalists for the Hugo Award for Best Novel (and I suspect The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet would have been a finalist had it not been previously been self published and lost its eligibility window by the time it was published by Harper Voyager and gained wider visibility).

October Daye: When I read Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue in 2013 I was not impressed. It was fine, but something about it just wasn’t for me and I didn’t put anymore thought into the series except that McGuire was writing some really great books that I loved as Mira Grant (the Newsflesh novels) and under her own name (Every Heart a Doorway) and I thought maybe I should give October Daye another chance. The series was first a Hugo Award finalist for Best Series in 2017, the first year of the category, and that solidified my plan to make a serious push on the series (as did winning the first nine novels in a giveaway and having them sit on my shelf and taunt me). I was told that I needed to read at least the second, if not the third novel, because *then* the October Daye novels get really good and if I’m not hooked by that point, I might as well let them go. So, five years after reading the first book, I read A Local Habitation. Readers, I was hooked, though it took me *another* year to read An Artificial Night because I took a detour into McGuire’s excellent InCryptid novels when *they* made it onto the ballot for Best Series (and I love InCryptid dearly), but now I’m back, I’m in, and I’m going to read a lot of October Daye this year.

At this point, I’ve read through the first four novels of the series having recently finished Late Eclipses and I am here and I am ready. I find it interesting that Toby Daye is explicitly described as a “hero” in these novels, suggesting that it might almost be a formal role in faerie (her liege, Sylvester, noted that he was once a hero himself). Four novels into the series, McGuire seems to be exploring what it means to be a hero and what it costs. Toby’s job, her responsibility is to be a knight in Sylvester’s court, accomplishing tasks he sets for her. But “hero” is also a state of mind that has nothing to do with purity of body or necessarily being inherently special. Here, it is a driving desire to do the job, to save those who need saving no matter what the personal cost. October Daye isn’t a hero who rides in on a horse, and she seldom truly goes it alone to solve what needs solving, but she is a hero who almost recklessly risks herself. It’s what heroes do.

The October Daye novels are exactly the sort of thing the Best Series category can and should recognize. As good as they are, any individual novel in this series is extraordinarily unlikely to make the final ballot for Best Novel. The Hugo Awards tend not to recognize this sort of urban fantasy for Best Novel. The series as a whole, however, is where October Daye shines. The novels are fantastic and they build a world readers want to come back to time and time again without any slacking off on the part of Seanan McGuire. This is top notch fiction and I hope to see McGuire bring home the rocket for October Daye.

My Vote
1. October Daye
2. Wayfarers
3. Machineries of Empire
4. The Centenal Cycle
5. Universe of Xuya
6. The Laundry Files

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Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.