Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: Nebula Award Finalists and Hugo Award Predictions

Joe: We may not be the first to talk about the Nebula Award finalists, but surely this is the best Nebula analysis anywhere. Right? Okay, maybe the second best.

Adri: Certainly somewhere in the top ten!

The Nebulas are always a really exciting moment in the calendar, especially when, as this year, the shortlist is announced before Hugo voting has closed. It’s not really long enough to do that much extra reading from, but it’s exciting to see what has made it and to start to think about where the surprises might be for other awards down the line.

Joe: I completely agree!

At first glance, this is a really good list and I’ve only read three of the nominated novels, though I own copies of two others.

Adri: I had read everything except Piranesi when the announcement came out, and 3 out of the 5 were on my Hugo nominations ballot, with the other two as pretty near misses, so I’m very excited by the talent there. I then went ahead and read Piranesi in between the announcement and our conversation, so I’m able to give my seal of approval to the whole ballot!

: I have Black Sun taunting me from my night stand, Mexican Gothic on my Kobo, and I’m sure I’ll read The Midnight Bargain in the next few months. I’m a bit less enthusiastic about Piranesi, but I’m not at all surprised to see it on the ballot.

I’m not going to bother predicting how the Nebula voters are going to go because I’m seldom correct on that, but I LOVED The City We Became. So good. It is the only novel also on my Hugo ballot, though Network Effect was a near miss.

Farther down, I had Ring Shout on my Hugo ballot as well as Elatsoe on my Lodestar (to match up with the Norton Award). I’ve been reading through the Dystopia Triptych anthologies and the first of Caroline Yoachim’s Shadow Prison stories is a really interesting concept that I’m excited to see how it develops across the three stories.

: I haven’t actually read Ring Shout yet but I’ve never met a P. Djeli Clark story I didn’t like, so I’m really looking forward to it. One that I hadn’t heard of was “Tower of Mud and Straw” by Yaroslav Barsukov. It got good reviews from several people I know in the community, all of whom described it as a sort of different genre to me when I asked about it. That suggests to me that there’s something really interesting going on there, and I’m intrigued to check it out.

Joe: I meant to read Meg Elison’s “The Pill” - it was briefly available online, but I’m not if it still is. Being well behind on my short fiction reading, I know I need to read Sarah Pinsker’s story. You can’t go wrong with Sarah Pinsker.

Adri: Two Truths and a Lie is a really strange, bleak story - I’m not sure it’s my favourite Pinsker work but I can certainly see why it’s on this ballot. Likewise, I really need to catch up on my Meg Elison. I think there is an audio version of it out there read by the author? Unfortunately, every time I think about the story, I think about getting Big Girl, the collection it’s published in, and then I think about how I’d quite like to read every single PM Press Outspoken Authors volume and the resulting mental TBR explosion sends me into a state of reading paralysis. Which is a terrible reason to not read a story, but you know how it is.

: In Game Writing, I know you were a fan of both Hades and Spiritfarer. I’m only ten runs into Hades right now, so I have a long way to go in getting to that story.

Adri: Hades is simply the kind of game that a “game writing” award was made for. Spiritfarer too, although with a little more distance from that game, I can think of more things I’d like it to have dealt with better. My other gripe with Spiritfarer is knowing that there’s a “companion” guide to the game itself which completely recontextualises the characters in the game and gives information about their background which there’s absolutely no way of knowing just from the game itself - from what I know of this information, I don’t like it, and I also don’t like the whole concept of it. But, you know, the game is still amazing if you ignore that.

The discovery here for me is Kentucky Route Zero. I had heard of it but in my head somehow the title got linked up with some sort of triple A generic fighty game. In fact it’s a point and click adventure game by Annapurna which sounds like something I should definitely be playing.

Joe: I really want to play Kentucky Route Zero.

But - let’s use that as a launching pad to other rockets - what do you think this Nebula ballot implies for the Hugo Awards? We’ve described particular novels in the past as being more of a Nebula book than a Hugo book and I’m not sure if Hades will be considered eligible for the Hugo, but I’m really curious as to what sort of overlap we’re likely to get.

Adri: Hades should definitely be eligible for the Hugo, as it was substantially updated in 2020 - there wasn’t an ending until it came out of Early Access last year, so it’s a completely different narrative experience in 1.0 to the earlier builds. Early Access processes being what they are, there’s tons of documentation that the developers can provide to demonstrate that too, so I’m pretty hopeful that won’t be a hurdle for seeing it on the final ballot. (And I’m 95% sure we will see it there.)

My feelings about Nebula novels vs Hugo books this year are kind of caught up in my personal preferences - I don’t want there to be books on the Nebula ballot that aren’t on the Hugo ballot, to be honest (which is a different feeling to not having a lot more things I want to see on a Hugo ballot, which is why all ballots should be fifteen books long). Further down, though, I think the Hugo awards will end up with a higher proportion of Tordotcom and Uncanny works in shorter categories than the relatively broad spread of venues here. I also think the Lodestar Award is likely to recognise more of the excellent speculative YA by Black authors last year, especially A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow.

Joe: I completely agree with you on the shorter fiction categories. I don’t expect to see the breadth of publishers for the finalists on the Hugo ballot that we do here.

Okay - do we want to get into my Hugo predictions? Last year was a little bit gross when I somehow managed to call the entire Best Novel ballot in our e-mails (and I will absolutely collect that beer you owe me one day) so I figure this year I could embarrass myself in public with predictions as a fun game.

: Absolutely! And to show willing, I’m happy to make my predictions first. As a disclaimer, before I do this, this is purely based on my gut speculation about “buzzy” books, and shouldn’t be read as any comment on my ballot, my favourites or on authors I think “should” get recognition. Now that’s out of the way, my general prediction is that, after last year’s debut-heavy list, we’re going to see a number of returning authors from previous years’ favourites. My prediction list below makes for a pretty conservative Best Novel ballot - although it does leave off other “returning Hugo favourite” alternatives like Kim Stanley Robinson, or even perhaps City Under the Stars by Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick:

Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse
The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin
Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
Network Effect, by Martha Wells
The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow
The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal

It physically hurts me to leave Mexican Gothic and The Midnight Bargain off that list - both Silvia Moreno-Garcia and C.L. Polk write such amazing books! - but given the lower voting numbers this year, yeah. I suspect there’s going to be a convergence on returning authors, and Hugo voters Liking What They Like.

Joe: I like what you’re saying about returning authors this year and I think you’re right about that. What’s scary is that our predictions are very, very close. I'll also reiterate your disclaimer. This isn't my ballot and it's not about what is and is not worthy, this is about what I (and we) think is likely to make the Hugo ballot based on our very non-scientific methods.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Network Effect by Martha Wells
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

We only differ by one potential finalist. My thought is that Mary Robinette Kowal will miss the ballot this
year on the assumption that The Relentless Moon was less buzzy and that Kim Stanley Robinson will make it for The Ministry for the Future as the returning Hugo favorite (and for a novel that I’ve seen talked about within the genre and outside. I don’t see much chance for the Gardner Dozois / Michael Swanwick to make the ballot. I’d be absolutely shocked.

I built my ballot from my annual build-a-ballot chart, as one does when one does that sort of thing. I did have some debuts on that list but they were farther down. I don’t see that any of the buzzier debuts (The Bone Shard Daughter, Architects of Memory, Axiom’s End, Beneath the Rising) really broke through in the same way that Gideon the Ninth, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, or A Memory Called Empire did. Last year was such a weird year, though, that I do wonder if any of the 2020 debuts would have had a different reception or build if there were conventions and readings and in person appearances. Or maybe nothing would be different. It’s not like the Hugos are consistently debut heavy every year.

: I definitely agree, and it also feels like 2019 disproportionately lacked buzzy books from established authors, which made it easier for debuts to punch through on the 2020 ballot. I can definitely see some of those books getting recognised elsewhere - I think Beneath the Rising and The Bone Shard Daughter will be in WFA contention and Beneath the Rising is also likely to do well both with the BFAs and the Aurora awards - and there are other debuts, like The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood and Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, which I hope land their authors on the Astounding Award shortlist but. Yeah. 2020 has particularly sucked for debut authors and unfortunately I think that will be reflected in the awards.

Joe: Where I feel least confident on my ballot (and yours) is The Once and Future Witches. I’m two thirds of the way through it and I like it a lot, but I wonder how it is landing with Hugo voters. Harrow is a three time Hugo finalist over the last two years (and one time winner) so maybe that’ll pull, but despite not being on the Nebula ballot The Once and Future Witches is feeling more like a Nebula and World Fantasy book than a Hugo book, despite how much I like it and am still predicting it to make the ballot.

And what do we do with Piranesi?

Adri: If I made any substitution on my ballot it would be Relentless Moon for Piranesi. It’s such a weird, good book and I’d like to see it on there! At the same time, though, it feels like a title that’s paradoxically got too much literary attention to really attract Hugo voting.

: I feel so strongly about The Ministry for the Future, that I can’t trade that slot - but because of the phenomenon of Jonathan Strange I can’t discount Piranesi’s chances. It 100% does NOT seem like a novel that would be considered for a Hugo - but it’s Susanna Clarke’s follow up to the Hugo Award winning Jonathan Strange.

Speaking of - have you read Jonathan Strange? I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that. I haven’t, but my outside perception is that Jonathan Strange isn’t a Hugo novel either - except that it obviously was.

Adri: I have read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, on the back of a bus driving around Sichuan Province in 2008 (well, several buses, because it’s a long book), when I was quite a different reader than I am now. I absolutely loved it and had tons of time for that sort of thing, though I think I’d be a harder sell on it now. Also, I make allowances for the fact that the definition of a “Hugo Book” in 2005 is likely quite different to now - but yeah, it is a long, dense, unapologetically epic-historical-fantasy and that’s not common among Hugo winning books.

What that means for Piranesi, I still don’t know. Guess we’ll find out on the 13th!

Joe: Aaaah, that’s a good point. That’s around the time Ian McDonald was getting Hugo nominations and looking at finalists on either side of 2005 and that’s not the lineup that would make the ballot today.

Piranesi is my spoiler. I think it’ll be close if it doesn’t make the ballot. I think I’ll leave my prediction as is.

Final thoughts on the Nebulas and the potential Hugo ballots? We’re only a few days out from the Hugo announcement.

Adri: I have no closing thoughts except to say that I’m excited! Especially for this year’s Video Game category, which is going to be amazing to engage with (though as I haven’t owned a Playstation or XBox in 20 years, I’m waiting to see how the accessibility is going to pan out). It’s been such a bizarre year and even though I’m a bit pessimistic about some aspects of the awards, it’s still a wonderful moment to appreciate how much good stuff came out despite the trash fire pandemic and its effect on all our lives.

: I bought a Switch in November, which is the first time I’ve owned a Nintendo console since the N64, so I’m enjoying playing through stuff that I missed AND having access to games like Hades and Spiritfarer. I’m otherwise skeptical of the future of the video games category within this particular institution, but I’m glad it’s there.

I don’t think it’s going to make the ballot, but I would love for my predictions to be wrong and for Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun to be a Hugo finalist. That would be so lovely for such a great book.

Adri: I talked in our previous conversations about having four “locked” slots for my own Best Novel ballot, and in the end it was Unconquerable Sun that took the fifth - I’d love to see Elliott get a wider audience based on this. I have my fingers crossed for SO MANY BOOKS, it’s a seriously good year.

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

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