Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Novel


Adri: Time for the second installment in our Hugo chats: and this time we’re moving on to novel. This year we’ve got books from a very all-star author list - five out of six already have at least one Hugo in the silverware cupboard - and an even split of sequels and new adventures. What are your thoughts?

Joe: And the one writer who doesn’t have a Hugo (Tamsyn Muir) was a Best Novel finalist last year for her debut novel, which isn’t too shabby either.

Similar to how I feel about Novella, this year’s Novel ballot is a fairly strong one and a reasonably varied list in terms of what sort of novel is nominated.

I listen to too many Academy Award focused podcasts (Oscar Season is almost as eternal as Hugo Season), so let’s blame that for what’s coming next, but I kind of want to talk about the narratives around the Best Novel Hugo Award finalists.

The City We Became
is N.K. Jemisin’s first novel after winning three Hugo Awards in as many years for her Broken Earth trilogy. One more win ties her with Robert A. Heinlein and Lois McMaster Bujold, and breaks her tie with Connie Willis and Vernor Vinge. That’s heady company to be in. Network Effect brings Murderbot to the Best Novel ballot for the first time and it’s really difficult to overlook the power of Murderbot (two wins for Novella, a finalist for Series this year). We also have Susanna Clarke’s first novel since winning a Hugo for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and that’s not something we can discount. Then again, don’t discount Mary Robinette Kowal for her follow up Lady Astronaut novel. The first book in that series won two years ago. That’s not to dismiss Tamsyn Muir and Rebecca Roanhorse because you absolutely cannot and should not dismiss Tamsyn Muir and Rebecca Roanhorse.

I know we don’t talk about books and the Hugos like we do movies, but given how good of a ballot we have this year and you noted that five of the six finalists are previous Hugo Winners and three of them have won this category before - a little Oscar talk is kind of fun.

Adri: It’s fun to mix up the punditry sometimes! As long as nobody thinks we’re taking ourselves TOO seriously. Also, compared to last year, which was quite a debut heavy ballot, it’s fun to see a field of returning champions and consistent favourites. I’m making a big effort to keep this sort of year-by-year fluctuation in mind, because I’m sure I said something melodramatic and overblown last year about debuts dominating the Hugo awards forever. I should not say things like that if I want people to believe I am in touch with reality.

: Hey, we all like the new and shiny books but I’m with you in wanting a solid mix depending on the makeup of a given year’s publishing.

Okay. I’d like to kick this off by talking about Network Effect, the first novel from Martha Wells to make the Hugo ballot. It’s Murderbot, and Murderbot seems to be everywhere these days, having twice won the Hugo Award for Best Novella and is now on the ballot for Best Series where I’m a little afraid it’ll steamroll the rest of the finalists there, though that’s a conversation for another day.

Adri: Murderbot! As a series, it’s lovely to see how it’s captured the hearts of the SFF community, and I think those novella wins were both well deserved. But Network Effect occupies an odd place in my heart right now: I loved it, I gave it 8/10 in review (Paul gave it a 9), I’m really excited for the way it changes Murderbot’s terms of engagement with humans and potentially takes the series into new territory (not that Fugitive Telemetry, the latest novella, does anything with that...) but when it came to pinning down my favourites for the year, it didn’t really come into the equation for me. As you say, we’ll have the series conversation later, but I’m more comfortable discussing Murderbot as an outstanding ongoing series than holding up any individual volume as a pinnacle of achievement at this point.

Joe: I’m notoriously inconsistent with my goodreads ratings, especially since it doesn’t let us give half stars. We both gave it 5 stars, but I’d say my star rating probably would come out to around 85% and then I rounded up. Not that it matters or you can gleam anything about how I use goodreads to do anything more than incessantly log everything I read.

The point is that I thought Network Effect was really good. It’s Murderbot. It’s fun, it’s delightful, and like you I didn’t have it on my nominating ballot. Network Effect is among the best of the year, it’s just not among the best of the best of my year. I think we’re talking about the same thing - despite the Nebula win and the potential Hugo steamroll that it may well do in this category, it’s just not as individually special as some of the other novels here.

Another novel I thought was excellent but not as much of a standout in this category is The Relentless Moon. I reviewed it last year, gave it an 8/10 (and a meaningless 5 stars on Goodreads). I noted, and please excuse me for quoting myself, that “this novel, like the two Lady Astronaut novels before it, is about striving towards excellence and truly building a better tomorrow even in the face of a devastating future. The Relentless Moon is hopeful science fiction, and that's something worth celebrating - especially when it's this good.”

Because we’ve talked around this for a while, I know you don’t agree.

Adri: Yeah, sadly I didn’t get on with The Relentless Moon at all (after actually liking The Calculating Stars quite a lot! And then The Fated Sky... much less), and I stopped reading halfway through. Like its predecessors, this book revolves around a nice white lady who battles sexism and is totally Aware of Systemic Injustice but still prone to using her extensive privilege to put herself over the top wherever she can. I know that’s certainly not the intended takeaway, and other people get very different things out of these books and I don’t want to diminish that, but they just don’t deliver what I want from a science fiction story like this. Even as a white woman reader, I can get wish fulfilment competence porn that works better for me elsewhere. Sorry, Nicole and Elma!

Joe: That’s a fair criticism which I can absolutely see, though that’s obviously not the way I read The Relentless Moon. It’s not my favorite of the three Lady Astronaut novels, but I thought it was delightful.

How I’m reading the novel (and granting my position of a relatively privileged white man) is that, given the timeframe in which it is set, a generally nice while lady who battles sexism but is aware of systemic injustice is a good thing. Yes, Elma and now Nicole, are relatively privileged to get into the American space program. It’s one of the foundational what ifs of the Lady Astronaut series. On the one hand the recognition of the systemic injustice can be a little heavy handed. On the other hand, there *is* a recognition of systemic injustice. That’s not something we get in every novel even one with the basic what ifs of Lady Astronaut and The Relentless Moon.

I’ll absolutely grant that the three Lady Astronaut series would fall more into the category of entry level science fiction - something which John Scalzi has made no bones about writing himself and being proud of. I’m not at all being dismissive - I think Mary Robinette Kowal is writing excellent science fiction and while The Relentless Moon doesn’t quite live up to The Calculating Stars and all of the wonder of that novel, I still find it generally delightful.

Adri: And, you know, here’s the other thing I need to recognise: I’m being very hard on The Relentless Moon, a book which tries to incorporate racial injustice but (for me) falls short. But two of my favourite books here don’t even try, and yet I still consider them favourites for what they DO focus on. So… I don’t know what I’m trying to say here, but I think it is that “opinions are hard”.

Joe: Moving on, I really don’t have anything to say about Piranesi. It’s not a book for me. I’m just happy it wasn’t 1000 pages long.

Adri: Funnily enough, Piranesi is one of my favourites (and, at the time of writing, it’s just won the Women’s Prize for Fiction). It’s so delightfully bizarre, with a really strong character voice, and I really appreciated both what it ended up explaining and what remained a weird mystery. I know other readers who didn’t enjoy the extent to which it pulled back the curtain on its own premise - there’s quite an extended epilogue - but I just thought it was really cool. Also, a very different book from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and definitely not one that could sustain 1,000 pages - which is fine!

The other book I have less to say on for now - although I really, really enjoyed it and am anticipating the sequel with delight - is Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun. Epic fantasy doesn’t often make the ballot and I’m glad this one has, but at the same time it feels like we’ve only just started to scratch the surface of Roanhorse’s world - not to mention that ending cliffhanger! - and I hope I’m going to be more equipped to talk about this in a couple of years time when, hopefully, we get to see it on a Best Series ballot

Joe: I’m with you on Black Sun. It was quite good, gave us something new in epic fantasy. I love new perspectives, especially as well written as Black Sun was. But, perhaps moreso than some other first novels in a series, Black Sun feels less complete on its own - which would be a weird thing to say, except, as you noted, the cliffhanger ending.

But - if I contrast Black Sun with The City We Became, another novel that is setting up a series to come, Jemisin’s novel feels more complete while opening up the wider conflict than Black Sun does. The City We Became is more a “now what?” than a “oh shit what the hell?” - both are valid ways to end a novel and build anticipation but, for me, the way The City We Became ended is more satisfying.

It’s also solidly at the top of my ballot. I’ve read N.K. Jemisin’s short fiction since before she published her first novel, but The Fifth Season was the first novel length work I had read of hers. I do plan to go back and read her Dreamblood Duology and Inheritance Trilogy, just to get that out of the way. I have the omnibus editions taunting me. But, with that said, her Broken Earth novels were truly special and exceptional, which makes The City We Became all the more impressive because it’s something very different from that triple Hugo Award winning trilogy and there is no let down.

Adri: I love The Inheritance Cycle and really enjoyed the Dreamblood Duology as well, but Broken Earth was undoubtedly a level up for Jemisin and I think The City We Became maintains that level of quality. At the same time, it’s a book that gives me a bit of trouble, rankings-wise, because while I think it’s objectively an amazing concept and I loved the take on cosmic horror and urban fantasy (in the most literal possible sense), some of the core elements didn’t “click” with me as much, and I was left feeling more out of the loop on some of the worldbuilding elements than I wanted. I know Paul, as a New Yorker, had quite a different reading experience to me, so I think it's my Britishness (and my whiteness) standing in the way here. Anyway, objectively I think The City We Became is the start of another amazing series for Jemisin and it’d be a more than worthy winner. Plus, as you say, it feels much more like a whole thing in itself, even as there certainly is set-up for more books.

Joe: I wonder if that’s part of it for me as well. Pour one out for me with this admission in light of the novel, but I grew up on Staten Island until 8th Grade so there is a certain amount of familiarity with New York that doesn’t quite go away while still granting that I didn’t know the city as an adult or even as a teenager so my experience is necessarily different. But those elements that didn’t click for you? They very much worked for me.

We’ll get into discussing the top of our ballots in a moment, I think, but since I’ve already noted The City We Became as at the top of mine, we should probably move on to my number two - which is the final novel on the ballot and it’s an absolute stunner: Harrow the Ninth.

For all that Gideon the Ninth was filled with spit and elbows to the face and a seething sarcastic anger - Harrow the Ninth was an adjustment of a second novel. Tamsyn Muir flipped every expectation we might have had, subverted a few of them, and then continued to deliver a beautifully told story that was unlike anything we would have expected from her debut novel (as happens when expectations are flipped). It was brave as hell and it worked so, so well.

: I couldn’t agree more. Harrow the Ninth quite literally rewrites the rules that Gideon the Ninth established, and the fact that Muir pulls it off so well while also managing to put full-on Dad jokes in some of the tensest moments of the story is just so impressive. It also manages to be an outstanding book while largely doing without the biggest selling point of Gideon the Ninth: Gideon herself. I know that it’s quite a divisive book (if you didn’t like Gideon, you won’t like Harrow, and even if you did like Gideon it might not be what you want), but for me it was exactly my jam.

Joe: That is an excellent way to describe Harrow. I loved Gideon, but I was expecting Harrow to be Gideon x 2 and, well, spoilers, but Harrow was mostly Gideon x 0. The first few pages / chapters I was wondering what the heck was going on. I am amazed Tamsyn Muir pulled it off, but she absolutely did. Harrow the Ninth is the only novel that could conceivably overtake The City We Became at the top of my ballot.

Since I refuse to not talk about the top of my ballot, should we move on to talking about the tops of our ballots?

Adri: Totally. My top three this year are very hard to pick between: Harrow the Ninth, Piranesi and The City We Became all did very different things to me as a reader, and they're all right up there as the best of this year. The dilemma I have is, I think, a common one: do I go for the book I objectively think is the best, or do I go for the book I enjoyed the most (and I use the word "enjoy" very broadly here)? Most of the time, it's the thing that hit me hardest personally that goes on top of my ballot, and then everything else goes in what I feel is the best "objective" order. If I do that this year, Harrow the Ninth is the immediate winner. It's my first and so far only 10/10 rated book on Nerds of a Feather, it's a book of my heart, it's full of exactly the kind of nonsense shenanigans that I am a sucker for, and it has some great fanart on Twitter.

This year, though, I'm feeling more strongly than usual about my runners-up. Piranesi is just such a cool book, and I'd love to see Susanna Clarke come in after her long hiatus and walk off with another Hugo. And The City We Became... well, it's not a book that spoke to me as much personally, but it's N.K. Jemisin continuing at the top of her game after Broken Earth, and that needs to be recognised. With that in mind, I think I’m going to be switching up my voting criteria this year and going for an actual “best novel” rather than an “Adri’s favourite novel”. Which I’m sure people will tell me I should have been doing all along, but objectivity is a silly concept anyway.

Joe: I’m somewhere between “fuck objectivity” and “what is the best, anyway?”, but it’s a little bit more nuanced in my head than that might come across in an explanation so let’s see if I can work with that a bit.

There are novels that I dearly love (and I’m not going to name names) that I can comfortably say are among my favorites of the year but aren’t among the best. But once we get to the point that we’re thinking about the best of the year and we can recognize some sort of excellence beyond the pure joy a book brought us, I’m not sure there is such a thing as objectivity.

When I’m looking at the top of an awards ballot, or my completely subjective “best of the year” list, I’m trying to find the intersection of what I loved with what I think is best. I can admire the technical skill of Piranesi all I want and I recognize that you thought it was great, but I can’t say it’s “best” because, for me, it’s not.

The Hugo Awards are about celebrating the “best”, right? But it’s the best as voted on by a group of people pooling their opinions, ranking their choices, and coming up with what is closer to a consensus best. There is no consensus best. In my mind, The Fifth Season is the closest thing we have to what *I* think is a consensus best novel. The Fifth Season is an all time great novel and I think will hold up to the history of science fiction and fantasy. Even for that book, there’s not enough of a consensus that it is best. There are folks who ranked it 5 or 6 in 2016.

I’m sorry. I’m monologuing. The larger point I had is that there’s no wrong way to do this and if you shoot for the best + your favorite you’ll find a really nice balance between the two.

Adri: Agreed! And on that note, let’s salute this novel ballot one more time and then move on to our next category. Join us next time for a look at the Short Story finalists.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 5x 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