Monday, November 18, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: The Novels of 1999: A Retrospective: A Preview of My Genre Future (2000, Best Novel)

1999 was a banner year for me. A couple of years (at the age of 28) into starting to read “seriously” in science fiction, I had been subscribed to Locus for a couple of years now, I was reading past and current Hugo nominees and Nebula nominees and winners for a couple of years, and I had decided, in that fateful year, to do something I had not done previously: Vote in the Hugo Awards. I was pretty disconnected from any sort of organized fandom, I had only been to one con, but I dutifully became a member of the 2000 Worldcon (held in Chicago, but I didn’t have the temerity to actually attend), and proceeded to vote in the Hugo awards for books in 1999.

The Hugo nominees for the 2000 Worldcon were as follows:

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge [Tor, 1999]
A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold [Baen, 1999]
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson [Avon, 1999]
Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear [HarperCollins UK, 1999; Ballantine Del Rey, 1999]
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling [Bloomsbury, 1999; Scholastic, 1999]

At the time that Hugo voting had ended, I had read four of them, and voted on that basis. (I had not yet read any Harry Potter and did not feel inclined to read through the series, I would feel different several years later) 2000 was about the first time I started to dip my toes into getting review copies, but it would be many more years before I got my “break” in that regard. I fondly remember getting an ARC of Darwin’s Radio, it was quite the surprise and delight.

So without further ado, let’s look at the Hugo Finalists (called Hugo Nominees then) for the year 1999.

A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

At the time I was just so delighted to have another novel in the “zones” verse of A Fire Upon the Deep, even if it was a very loose prequel, just having Pham as the only link between the two novels. Still, the ideas of the Zones from an outside perspective, thanks to the conceit of a solar system right on the edge of the boundary, and the idea of  a three way first contact situation, this was the kind of SF I ate up with a spoon. A Deepness in the Sky was exactly what I thought that modern science fiction should be about, this was fueled by at the time of a renaissance of space opera after a fallow period for the subgenre.

Now, looking back, like its predecessor , some of the technology and assumptions feel a bit dated. There are some interesting conceits here, and the weird high concept of Unix versus Windows except expressed as polities and their operating parameters was something I just didn’t get, then, but I sure see now. Those frameworks do not hold up quite as well for me in 2019 as they did in 1999. Technology and the modes of computers are a very different beast in this day and age. The computing world was a smaller place, then, and now, for many people, operating systems and their fundamental principles just aren’t relevant. I also think, now, in this day and age, the Spiders could have been handled a bit better. Perhaps I have been spoiled by writers like Adrian Tchaikovsky, but Vinge’s spiders do not seem alien *enough*, and the revelation that they have been secretly in on a lot of the communications and spying on both sides could have been foreshadowed or flagged earlier in the narrative for best effect.

A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold

Deep within the Vorkosigan series, A Civil Campaign is the “Romance novel” of the set, as the plot revolves around Miles Vorkosigan trying to win the heart of Ekaterin, who met Miles, and  in the course of events became widowed, in the previous novel, Komarr. Miles fell head over heels for Ekaterin, and while Barrayaran customs mean that she should not be openly courted so soon after her husband’s death. And since Ekaterin’s husband’s death is tied to Miles’ investigation, there are all sorts of political and social landmines in Miles way. Meantime, Barrayar is a changing, with a sex change to make a woman eligible to inherit an estate, and another putative heir to another estate may have Cetagandan ancestry.

And then there are the butterbugs, the most fun part of the plot. So this novel is relatively light on the sciences, and strong on the manners and courtship. There was a movement in novels back there, particularly in fantasy, called “mannerpunk”, where works by writers like Sherwood Smith were a noticeable theme in Fantasy. At the time, I saw ACC being an SFnal version of the same. So, I didn’t think too much of the novel at the time. I wanted more Miles as Lord Auditor, not Miles as moonstruck young man (disclaimer, I was in a rough place, relationship speaking, at the time)

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

By this point, I had read Stephenson’s Snow Crash, because it seemed to be the thing to do. I had really really liked The Diamond Age, because I felt I kinda understood the basics of computing thanks to the primer within the novel. At the time of Cryptonomicon, I was also somewhat interested in codes and cyphers and always have been, really. So when Cryptonomicon dropped into my lap in 1999, it was very much a dive into delight. Paralleling time frames, lots of historical characters, a ton of detail and research that comes out onto the page, I think then and now, it’s clear to me that the novel is the first “modern” Stephenson--a big sprawling book that reflects the author’s desire to go down deep deep rabbit holes and take willing readers with him. At the time, I definitely was a willing reader.

Today? I’ve cooled quite a bit on Stephenson’s work and it doesn’t quite excite me to the level it once did. Oftentimes thee days, I want something more than the rabbit hole, and frankly, reading Stephenson these days is a big investment in time and effort that for me doesn’t always pay off as it once did. The digressions sometimes are “get to the POINT” rather than “oh nice, here we go down a mini rabbit hole within the rabbit hole. In Cryptonomicon itself, I am thinking particularly of the erotica side story within the novel.

Sometimes you need an stronger hand from the editor.

Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear

Back in the 80’s the Eon sequence brought Greg Bear to my attention (Blood Music came later). Novels like that sequence, Songs of Earth and Power, Moving Mars, Slant...I didn’t get a good sense of his real range until a couple of years before Darwin’s Radio, when he popped up with an alternate history YA novel, Dinosaur Summer. I began to see that Bear had a wide range indeed to his pen.

 But even so, when I dived into Darwin’s Radio, I read it with the wrong protocols, at the time. I kept expecting this to be a science fiction novel, or a hard science fiction novel, in any event. I was underprepared at the time and kept waiting for the hard SF to kick in. I didn’t quite realize until relatively late in the novel’s narrative (which involves “junk DNA” turning out to be not so much junk and instead a mechanism for speciation of Humans into a new species) is really a technothriller with a lot of biology, rather than a science fiction novel. I was expecting something far more akin to Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain and didn’t get it in the book, which was confusing to me at the time.

These days, having read more technothrillers and understanding and grokking the form and style, I can see what Darwin’s Radio is and what it’s trying to do much better now. It is a technothriller with an extra dollop of SFNal setting and backmatter, something that I have decided since is not usually to my taste. Bear’s writing, and Darwin’s Radio are an exemplar of the form, however. If you were an SF fan who wanted to step into Technothriller waters, The book would be a good choice. (Coincidentally, the more recent and unrelated The Darwin Elevator by Jason Hough also would qualify in that regard).. Whether a novel that is mostly Technothriller something that should be nominated, or win the Hugo award--I am in favor of a big, broad tent. But I can see how some people might demur.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

At the time of the 2000 Hugos,as  mentioned above, I had not read any of the Harry Potter series. I had seen the first three movies, and enjoyed them, but my feelings about MG and YA novels had not evolved to the point that I had felt inclined to pick up the books for myself. (This would eventually change with the release of Half Blood Prince, whereupon I decided I would dive into the series). I did find Prisoner as a movie to be intriguing because of Cuaron’s directorial style.

As far as the novel, when I did read the book, I felt that the movie was the first where they really started to have to excise whole rafts of the novel in order to fit the plot into a 2 hour movie. When I read the book, and then rewatched the movie after, I was impressed how much the movie captured the overall spirit of the book, even as I realized how rich the book was. I began to see how much young teenage readers were in having the series at hand, Books of Gold for readers to try genre fiction. I may not see it as the best book of 2000 but I can see why it broke through the nomination list and became a finalist.

In the end, A Deepness in the Sky won the 2000 Hugo. Did Hugo voters get it right? Did I get it right for myself? I think that it really did. Even with the nits above, its head and shoulders better than the other nominees.

What I voted then:
1. A Deepness in the Sky
2. Darwin’s Radio
3. Cryptonomicon
4. A Civil Campaign
5. Left Blank

(I didn’t understand the real nuances of No Award, I just stopped my list at four. What I probably meant at the time was to put No Award as my fifth.)

What I would vote today:
1. A Deepness in the Sky
2. A Civil Campaign
3. Darwin’s Radio
4. Cryptonomicon
5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 

What other books in 1999 did the Hugo voters miss? That I missed?

Walter Jon Williams’ catastrophe novel, The Rift, came out in 1999 and sank without a trace. Pat Murphy’s retelling of The Hobbit in space, There and Back Again, also came out, and I missed that one for years, too. Judith Tarr teamed up with Harry Turtledove for their novel Household Gods, a time travel novel in the tradition of Lest Darkness Fall, but with a female protagonist. I read that one at the time and liked it. I think it’s even stronger today. Dragonshadow, by Barbara Hambly, was also a strong novel. But in that day and age, fantasy was rarely on the Hugo ballot, Harry Potter being an outlier in that regard.

Did I keep voting and nominating in the Hugo Awards? Well, reader, sadly life sort of got in the way. I voted in 2001, but then 9/11 and its aftermath led me to a path that caused me to leave New York, forestall my nascent reviewing chops for a while, and I would not get myself settled in that regard and begin reviewing, or voting in the Hugos, for several more years. But in retrospect, the 2000 Awards, and the year 1999, was a preview of my genre future.

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.