Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Reading the Hugos: Series

Welcome to the first article in the 2020 Edition of Reading the Hugos, where I try to cram as much Hugo related content into my brain in as short a time as possible so I can talk about what's on the ballot and share some thoughts.

I often joke that the Hugo Award Season is eternal and that is only half of a joke because there is only a small breath between the announcement of the winners in August and the end of the year when we start thinking about what the best books of the year may have been, and that leads directly into submitting our nominating ballots and the cycle begins anew.

Today we are going to look at the six finalists for Best Series. Frankly, it's a little weird for me to begin with Series rather than Best Novel or one of the shorter fiction categories, but things work out as they do and here we are thinking about Best Series as a category.

This is the fourth year of having a Best Series category and while each year has had its own flavor based on the works that were eligible that year, I particularly appreciate this year's flavor. This year's finalists represent some of the breadth of science fiction and fantasy, from urban fantasy to space opera and just about everything in between. Even more so, this year's Best Series finalists represent excellence in the genre AND represent series work that is less likely to make the Best Novel ballot - and if that's the case, this is Best Series at it's best. These are works where the encapsulation of the whole is more notable than any single volume - where a single volume is raised up by its association with the rest of the series.

This is not to say that any of the qualifying novels (or stories) that made these series eligible are not worthy of recognition on their own, because they are, but if we pay attention to the shape of the genre and what sort of work is being recognized for Best Novel and other awards and if we're being honest we'll acknowledge that few of these works are likely to make the ballot.

THAT is the truest value of Best Series.

On to the finalists.

The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey (Orbit)
InCryptid, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)
Luna, by Ian McDonald (Tor)
Planetfall, by Emma Newman (Ace)
Winternight, by Katherine Arden (Del Rey)
Wormwood, by Tade Thompson (Orbit)

Luna: I first tried to read Luna: New Moon when it was published in 2015 and at that time I read maybe twenty or thirty pages before I completely lost interest and decided that not only was this series not for me, but perhaps Ian McDonald was not for me. I had tried and failed to get into some of his earlier novels and this was likely the last chance at novel length I was willing to give him. Then came this year's Hugo ballot and my incessant need to read everything on each year's Hugo ballot.

So, I tried again. Perhaps I was in a better place in my life, perhaps Luna: New Moon hit me at a better time of day, but I read the whole thing! That's not necessarily a real accomplishment, but given my previous failure to read this novel I'll take it as a win.

The only problem is that for most of Luna: New Moon, I was disinterested in what happened to any of the characters and the political machinations fell flat. By the end, I was curious what happened next after a fairly explosive conclusion - but more in the sense that I'd rather read a summary of Wolf Moon and Moon Rising than actually read those novels.

Given how many people adore Ian McDonald's work, I do recognize that this is a case of the wrong reader for the wrong book than it is about McDonald's work itself. I may never be an Ian McDonald reader. There's something about his storytelling that does not work for me, and as such, Luna: New Moon is as far as I plan to go with this series.

Wormwood: Rosewater was a novel I figured I would get to eventually, but I had no sense of urgency to read it anytime soon. Until, of course, the series as a whole was up for a Hugo Award.

Like the Winternight and Luna trilogies, Wormwood is one that I am considering solely off of one novel. I've read Rosewater but I am unlikely to read The Rosewater Insurrection in the next month before voting for the Hugo Awards closes. Like Katherine Arden's Winternight novels but unlike Luna, I am inclined to someday read The Rosewater Insurrection. I'm far more curious as to how Tade Thompson will develop this series than I am Ian McDonald - but and this is where we are comparing series, I am far more excited to read more of Katherine Arden. I engaged more with the storytelling of Tade Thompson than Ian McDonald. At no time was I disinterested, though I was mostly confused as to where Thompson was going. But, also at no time was I fully enraptured wtih the storytelling as I was with The Bear and the Nightingale.

It's a fool's errand to rank and compare novels and it is even moreso to compare a series, but when voting for an award requires one to do so, that's how I have to start thinking about. Sometimes it's not what the work is on its own, it is how I do I think about it in relation to another - and in relation to this category's ballot, Wormwood slots in very neatly between Luna and Winternight, but does not excite me as much as the top of the ballot.

Winternight: When I wrote about the John W. Campbell Award (now Astounding Award) for Best New Writer in 2018, I noted that after reading The Bear and the Nightingale that I was as excited to read the second book in the Winternight trilogy as I was to see what she is writing ten years in the future. The Bear and the Nightingale was the announcement of a major new talent. The novel touched on Russian folklore and was a tight family story mostly set in remote regions of Russia.

Now that Katherine Arden's trilogy is complete we can see what an accomplishment the series truly is. I would love to be at least two novels into the series at this point, if not having completed it. Perhaps by the time Hugo voting has closed in the middle of July I will have read The Girl in the Tower, but if not - I can still say with full assurance that Winternight is beautifully written excellence.

Planetfall: At this point I have read Planetfall, After Atlas, and Atlas Alone - only missing the third book, Before Mars. At a very high level, the first novel deals with the colonization of another world and the religious cult / organization which founded the colony. The second novel deals with some of the fallout back on Earth, though each book is far more complex than such a basic description. Planetfall, the series, is a fully realized universe with machinations and deft characterization.

I've thoroughly enjoyed each of the three Planetfall novels I've read, but despite that I never have the urge to go right out and read the next. These are very good science fiction novels and the series is richer because of Emma Newman's excellent worldbuilding - but as good as they are (and they are very good) they've never become essential reading for me.

The Expanse: It is somewhat weird to be disappointed when a favorite series makes the Hugo ballot, but voters had the opportunity here to hold off just this year and wait for the final volume of The Expanse to recognize a completed series. Maybe that's not realistic, and you never know what the future holds so perhaps it is best to recognize excellence when you get the chance - but if The Expanse doesn't win this year it is unlikely to have another chance at Hugo.

At the absolute worst, The Expanse will go down as a two time Hugo Award finalist for Best Series (not to mention the Best Novel nomination for Leviathan Wakes) and one of the most notable and wildly popular science fiction series in some time. The Expanse is alternatingly a heck of a lot of fun and deadly serious with heart rending moments. The most impressive thing about The Expanse is that when James S.A. Corey reset the series with a significant time jump, the series got even better.

InCryptid: When I first wrote about the Incryptid series in 2018 I was only just discovering Seanan McGuire. I had intended that year to read more of the October Daye novels, but was distracted by InCryptid on the Hugo Award ballot. Readers, I was hooked. There was a time I would have said my favorite Seanan McGuire novels were the ones she wrote as Mira Grant. While my esteem for Mira Grant remains high, my love for Seanan McGuire's novels - both October Daye as well as Incryptid - has a special place in my heart. I adore these novels.

There are now nine published Incryptid novels (eight are eligible for consideration for this award), plus a number of novellas and short stories. I made the point earlier that Best Series has the opportunity to recognize long running series where any individual novel will almost certainly never make the Hugo ballot but the series as a whole is absolute excellence and perhaps even where the whole is more significant than any single part.

That is Incryptid, and though I adore each novel with all my heart, it is as part of the larger series where Incryptid shines. It's not just the story of Verity, Alexander, and Antimony Price - it's the story of their family and their life's mission to protect (and study) the supernatural creatures of our world from The Covenant. Each novel is excellent on its own, but Incryptid is so much richer for how our understanding and appreciation builds as the series progresses. If that is not the definition of a Best Series, I don't know what is.

My Vote
1. Incryptid
2. The Expanse
3. Planetfall
4. Winternight
5. Wormwood
6. Luna

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.