Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Adri and Joe talk about books: 2019 Locus Recommended Reading List

Joe: It’s not that I consider the publication of the Locus Recommended Reading List to be the start of any particular awards season (because, as we all know, Hugo Awards Season is eternal) - but perhaps moreso than any other publication releasing their Best of the Year list at the end of 2019 or even putting together my own list in January, the Locus Recommended list is really the impetus for a wider conversation about the shape of the genre. As such, I am very glad you are able to join me again this year for that wider conversation.

What are your initial impressions about this list?

Adri: it's long! Was it this long last year? And once again there are so many great things that I can confirm, and even more that I've been eyeing up and haven't made it to.

But yeah, it feels long. Particularly the number of novella choices. So many books!

Joe: The overall list feels about right compared to previous years, but novella is about twice as long as last year with perhaps a wider range than in recent years past.

My count might be slightly off, but I read a smidge more than 60 books published in 2019 - a number which does include novellas, nonfiction, and non-genre works - and I generally consider myself reasonably well read in the genre, but the Locus Recommended list reminds me just how much I haven’t read. I’ve owned the book since publication early in the year, but I still haven’t read Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night and Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a major gap in my reading.

Adri: Ancestral Night is excellent and will probably be on my Hugo ballot! My own likely-shocking-to-you omission is Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, which I’m very unlikely to read before nominations close. Storm of Locusts and The City in the Middle of the Night are on my physical TBR and I am going to do my best to make those happen.

This year I had some preparation for discovering how much brilliant stuff I haven’t read through my participation in developing a niche awards shortlist - but this is still the moment that really drives it home. I’m proud, though, that this year I can spot my occasional experiences and favourites through more of the list (aside from art books, non-fiction and reprint anthologies), instead of being concentrated in the longer fiction. All that short fiction I stuffed in my eyeballs in 2019 seems to have paid off! That said, paying more attention to those lists means looking at more things I want to read and haven’t, including Aliette de Bodard’s Of Wars, And Memories, and Starlight, and Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, as well as oversights in our own longlist picking process - i.e. how did I miss that Sarah Pinsker’s amazing novelette “The Narwhal” is a 2019 original?

Joe: There’s only so much time to read everything. I didn’t read The Future of Another Timeline until after our longlists went up and it absolutely would have made the list. I am, of course, naturally distressed that you have not read Middlegame. My love and appreciation for Seanan McGuire’s fiction is well established the last few years, but Middlegame is a major level up for McGuire. It’s impressive.

The Locus lists are fairly robust, I’m still a little surprised not to see The Dragon Republic from R.F. Kuang on the fantasy list. The Poppy War was a monster debut and The Dragon Republic is just as good. I haven’t read either of the next two, but The Rage of Dragons from Evan Winter was a very buzzy debut, as was Megan O’Keefe’s Velocity Weapon (buzzy, but not a debut). It’s hard to find real fault with the breadth of the list, but the omission of those three are somewhat surprising.

Adri: I agree that The Dragon Republic felt like a very strong continuation of Kuang’s series, so I’m also a bit surprised that it’s not included. The same goes for Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan, which is an absolutely delightful continuation of the Lady Trent universe with a great new protagonist. Frances Hardinge’s new novel Deeplight surprisingly doesn’t make the young adult list.

An omission that I’m perhaps less surprised about, but that maybe indicates the US bias of the list, is the lack of Jen Williams’ The Poison Song: this is the close of her Winnowing Flame Trilogy, which has already won British Fantasy Awards for books one and two despite the fact neither of those made it onto the list in their respective years either. I’ve only read the first in the series but it’s one a lot of UK people love (I know, because I’m being compelled to read it for SCKA), and given that the Hugo nominators are going to have a higher-than-usual Brit contingent thanks to Dublin I wouldn’t be surprised if it broke the Hugo Best Series longlist, at the very least.

Joe: I’m not sure I’ve heard of Jen Williams or her series. If I had, the books just rolled right past me. I’m not saying I’m representative, because Elizabeth Bear’s lack of Best Novel Hugo nominations proves that I’m not - but usually I think I’m at least aware of what’s out there. I found a blindspot.

Adri: It’s one that’s well worth checking out, international availability notwithstanding.

We did this last year but I’m almost afraid to ask this year, with so many amazing books out there. What do you see making the awards shortlists this year?

Joe: I’ve thought about this more than I’d like to admit, so I put together a Build-a-Ballot for the Hugo Awards this year.

Start with Gideon the Ninth, The City in the Middle of the Night, The Light Brigade, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Select between two and four of these novels. I would be shocked if only one of them hit the Hugo ballot.

Next, consider The Future of Another Timeline, A Memory Called Empire, Middlegame, A Song for a New Day, The Raven Tower, and Magic for Liars. Pick one to two of these, depending on how many you picked from the first category.

Then - look at the final list and if you still have an empty spot on your ballot, pick one: The Testaments, Ancestral Night, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, The Dragon Republic, The Empress of Forever, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Rage of Dragons, Storm of Locusts, Wanderers, and Velocity Weapon. I would consider these longer shots at the ballot, but they are reasonable long shots.

I don’t have a lot of opinions of the shorter fiction categories, but I fully expect The Deep and This is How You Lose the Time War to be on the ballot for Novella and something from Sarah Pinsker in a shorter category. A Song for a New Day might be a bit of a stretch in the second category above, but Pinsker has been so popular at shorter lengths with Hugo voters that I can’t discount the novel (also, I adored A Song for a New Day, but history tells me that appreciation is not enough to get my favorite on the ballot.)

Adri: I… can’t argue with much of this. I would rate A Memory Called Empire at a higher probability than The City in the Middle of the Night, but that may be me only paying attention to buzz from books that I’ve read.

Song for a New Day is a magnificent novel (and it’s so much fun to catch up with Luce Cannon in her younger days!) but I think it’s got a stronger chance at the Nebula ballot than the Hugo one, for nebulous (ha) “it just feels like a Nebula book” sorts of reasons. I feel similarly about The Future of Another Timeline, although since reading that last week it’s shot up my consideration. I haven’t read The Testaments in order to make sweeping comparative statements about the future of feminist SF, but I’ll make a sweeping objective one: The Future of Another Timeline is where I want it to be going.

In short fiction, I think To Be Taught, if Fortunate is also very likely to break into novella, and I’m also keeping a curious eye on two “tie-ins” whose respective series have been represented in short fiction before: “Glass Cannon” by Yoon Ha Lee (in Hexarchate Stories) and “Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness” by Aliette de Bodard (in Of War, and Memories, and Starlight). Both would have an uphill battle given the novella category is so dominated by standalone works these days - and the de Bodard collection is a Subterranean Press book with limited physical availability - but I’m interested in how it plays out nonetheless.

Joe: I could be wrong about The City in the Middle of the Night, but Charlie Jane Anders was on the ballot in 2017 for All the Birds in the Sky (an admittedly buzzier book, I think), but as good as that book was, I think The City in the Middle of the Night is better. It might even be more appealing across the board for nominators, but as mentioned before, what the heck do I know.

I completely agree with you on A Song for a New Day. It’s not the perfect Nebula book the way Blackfish City was last year, but it may well be far more of a Nebula book. And I also just checked Pinsker’s previous nominations and even though she’s been a three-time Hugo Award finalist, it was her Nebula nominations I was thinking about - she’s a seven-time Nebula finalist, including a win for “Our Lady of the Open Road”, the story Pinsker expanded into the novel. Well that’s interesting and if I had a do-over, I’d move it down into the long shot category.

The Future of Another Timeline is so good! It’s another novel I feel the author leveled up to write.

Adri: Yes, let’s pretend that there’s no way you can edit that prediction list now. It’s set in stone! Your future in genre punditry now hangs in the balance!

One thing I noted in last year’s list was that representation of Black authors was concentrated in YA (which is just as important but has different barriers to entry to adult SFF) and short fiction. This was not fully accurate on my part, as there were several Black authors in the first novel category for adult books who I didn’t pick up on (C.L. Polk, Bethany C. Morrow and Rebecca Roanhorse) - but I’m still happy to see progress this year with Black authors represented across the novel categories. Drayden is back in Science Fiction alongside Tade Thompson; Karen Lord and Helen Oyeyemi’s books are in fantasy; Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James is, somewhat bizarrely, in horror (I note that the horror list is otherwise all white, and hope that this book wasn’t moved in there just to prevent that from being the case); and Namwali Serpell, Cadwell Turnbull (whose debut, The Lesson, comes very highly recommended by the Skiffy and Fanty team and has been on my TBR for a while) and Ta-Nehisi Coates in First Novel. And, of course, there’s another very strong showing in YA, including LL McKinney, Akwaeke Emezi and Tochi Onyebuchi.

Of course, a skim through for one author demographic is no substitute for a full assessment of the diversity of a recommendation list, especially one as extensive and influential as the Locus List. But it is good to see.

Joe: YA does still seem to have the widest range of representation, but you’re right - there is a range of representation across all of the categories, to the point at least that we don’t have to say #LocusSoWhite - so that’s a good thing. It would be interesting to do a deeper dive in the numbers for each category of the Locus list, but that might be beyond the scope of this conversation though I’d love to see that report.

I am a bit surprised at the inclusion of Black Leopard, Red Wolf in Horror. That’s a straight up fantasy novel and while James is working with different traditions and it’s fairly bleak and you can make arguments about its literary merits compared to, say, Joe Abercrombie - it’s no more horror than any other grimdark fantasy (to the point that I care about *that* label). At least not that I was thinking about while I was reading it. Black Leopard, Red Wolf was certainly marketed as fantasy, which is really where we come up with most of these categories anyway.

I think we’ve come to the end of another episode of Adri and Joe Talk About Books. Do you have any final thoughts to wrap up this year’s Locus Recommended Reading List?

Adri: Well, as ever there’s a lot of reading to be done! My main takeaway from this year that we haven’t discussed yet is how wide a net this list casts: there’s a significant overlap between literary fiction with speculative elements and the “core” SFF scene and I’m glad this list offers a broad tent which incorporates the literary works whose SFF is worth celebrating (even as I smirk behind my hand at the non-inclusion of the likes of Ian McEwan). The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi and The Testaments are all sitting in my library pile right now and I’m grateful for the extra nudge to read them.

Likewise, there are a couple of really cool pieces in the short fiction section with unusual publication histories: “I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married” by Fonda Lee originally appeared in the MIT Technology Review, and Ted Chiang’s piece “It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids are Still Winning” from the New York Times’ series of editorials from the future. Alongside entries from Slate’s Future Tense series and the Ocean Stories anthology by sustainable technology foundation XPrize, I appreciate that speculative short fiction by excellent authors is out in these more “non traditional” sources, and that those who compile the Locus list make it easier for the likes of me to know a little more about what’s going on.

What are your takeaways from this year’s list?

Joe: I don’t read enough nonfiction within the genre, though to be fair I don’t read quite enough nonfiction in general, and to be even more even after reading more than 60 books published last year and 150 books overall I still don’t feel like I’ve read quite enough. I want to read all the books.

What was I talking about? Oh, right. Nonfiction books.Or, as we like to say when talking about the Hugo Awards: Related Work.

I had to double check the Locus list to see if there was another Ursula K. Le Guin book from last year to see if I can make an assumption about one of the slots on the Hugo ballot, but there is not.

What is on the Locus Recommended list for nonfiction is a number of very interesting works - Modern Masters of Science Fiction volumes on Joanna Russ and Kim Stanley Robinson, a Heinlein biography (reviewed by Paul here), Nnedi Okorafor has a short memoir, and a couple of books on the pioneering women of science fiction (Monster She Wrote, and The Lady of the Black Lagoon). I don’t know where I’ll find the time, but I want to read at least half of the nonfiction books on that list. It is also selfishly worth noting that we also recommended a number of those same works in our own Hugo Awards Recommended Reading List.

After all of that, if we’re still feeling the loss of Ursula K. Le Guin on the Hugo Awards ballot don’t worry, the Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin documentary is eligible for inclusion in Related Work (nonfiction films are generally considered Related Work rather than Dramatic Presentations). So there’s still hope that we won’t have a year without Le Guin being recognized at the Hugo Awards.

Adri: Stand by for the Ted Chiang sequel editorial: “It’s 2059, and Ursula K. Le Guin is still winning Hugos”...

That's all for this time! I look forward to talking again once the shortlists start dropping...

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.

Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.