Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Novella

Joe: It both feels both weird and a relief not to be writing up another edition of Reading the Hugos, a series that I had been doing under various names for more than ten years, longer than I’ve been at Nerds of a Feather - but I am so very happy to join you for the first of our Hugo chats this year.

Adri: I feel weird because Hugo season doesn’t even feel like it’s started up yet, but we’re practically in the middle of September and the Nebulas have already been announced AND awarded. I have a bunch of fiction to read and I’ve still only watched one movie - and I’ve got several games to go too.

Joe: If this was a “normal” year, we’d be arguing about the winners and crunching the numbers! It’s refreshing, in a way, to not feel stressed about trying to get everything in before voting closes - but also weirdly for me I’ve read a LOT of the finalists - like, I don’t have work to do in Series because I’m pretty much done with the category. I just finished Novel when I got to Black Sun after letting it taunt my from the bedside table for months - and I have thoughts about the Nebulas. But we’re not here to talk about Series or Novel today (or the fact that I’m mainlining She-Ra right now) - let’s talk about the first category we both finished: Novella.

Adri: Novella! A nice category. A friendly category. A topical category, seeing as how we’re doing a Novella Initiative right now. And this year: a Tor.com category.

Joe: It’s a very Tor.com category. That’s been a rapidly growing trend since 2016 when Binti and The Builders were on the ballot after the imprint’s first year and they’ve dominated the category ever since, though this is the first year they’ve taken all six slots on the ballot.

: Given the imprint’s track record, an all-Tor.com category has felt like a possibility for a while, but it is interesting to see it actually play out. I feel a bit bad for the fact that the publisher is getting attention over the works, and of course we will be getting on to the MAIN EVENT very soon, but I do think it’s worth digging into a bit before we start.

There's this oft-repeated comment about the trajectory of shorter fiction categories, that people aren't reading the good work in print magazines any more and that they therefore can't compete with free online work. There's supporting evidence for this in shorter categories (although whether that's really what's happening is a question I don't really want to dive into) but it completely falls apart when you look at novella, especially the strength of Tor.com not just this year but in previous years as well.

Four of the six novellas on this ballot are only physically available in hardback - with both their physical and ebook price points set accordingly - while Finna and
The Empress of Salt and Fortune
were paperback releases. That's a pretty significant financial investment if you're buying all six, especially if you prefer not to read on an e-reader. Luckily, Macmillan have stopped their awful policies restricting ebooks for libraries, but not everyone has access to a library that sees SFF novellas as a worthy investment. And, sure, there's a pretty solid overlap between Hugo voters and the kind of people that get ARCs, that also only goes so far in explaining why they are dominant here. In short: Tor.com is getting fans to buy their novellas, at comparable (sometimes higher) prices than one would pay for a novel.

I'm not raising this to suggest that Tor.com is pricing its novellas too high - we don't pay for books by the word, after all. But it does demonstrate that the makeup of the ballot isn't really based on financial accessibility, or people being unwilling to pay for shorter fiction. Tor.com is successfully picking up recognition for novellas it has put its marketing budget and resources behind (and the ratio of hardcovers here suggests the ones getting nominated are the ones getting more of that budget), and while they have never been the only game in town for standalone novella publishing, they're the ones with the most publicity.

Joe: You know, I’ve never quite thought about it like that - though I’ve also bought into the online accessibility argument and you’re right, it doesn’t play with Novella. Now, I’m fortunate, my library system is awesome and they get everything from Tor.com Publishing and there are benefits of accessibility just by the nature of what we do here - but yeah, Novella belies that whole argument.

So - likely, it’s an issue of promotion combined with who is actually nominating and those nominators are not reading Asimov’s and Analog and F&SF as much as they are reading Tor.com and Uncanny. There’s a shift.

And even though we could go on a bit, let’s talk about the actual finalists because they’re pretty great!

I haven’t quite put together my ballot order yet, but I’d like to start by talking about Finna because I did *not* see that story coming and I really liked this one.

: An excellent place to start! Finna can be summarised as “what if Ikea really did have extra dimensions” (a feeling that anyone who has actually walked around an Ikea store will relate to) and it’s got an excellent blend of things going on: adventure, a giant middle finger towards capitalism and the treatment of shop workers within it, and a core relationship between two people who used to be romantically involved and are now right in the middle of breaking-up emotions.

Joe: Frankly, Ikea scares me. They’ve got some good stuff, but I feel an immense pressure and stress every time I go in one. I feel trapped. And there is a sense of being trapped in Finna, what with those extra dimensions - but reading it is absolutely refreshing.

Despite their in-universe breakup, the relationship is great and the writing is just so clean and on point and it’s a damned delight. It’s just a delight wrapped in an Ikea-esque hellscape.

My favorite novella on the ballot, or maybe the one that impressed me the most - if that’s a distinction that matters - is Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune.

Adri: This is one that I also adored and which gave me really strong emotions, although my memory of reading it for the first time is less strong than others on this ballot. It’s a story of empire and political struggle, but it’s told from the margins, by an aging handmaid recounting the challenges of her mistress and lover as she attempts to secure power rather than being dismissed and forgotten in a patriarchal structure.

Shorter fiction is a fantastic way for telling stories from “quieter” perspectives in a way that novel-length stories rarely seem to capture (with exceptions, like Laurie J. Marks’ Elemental Logic series) and this is a really fantastic example of that kind of story working at exactly the length intended.

Let’s move on to some of the distinctly-not-quiet works on here. Both Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi and Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark take on racial injustice and Black experience in the USA, though in quite different ways: Ring Shout as an alternate history that puts the Klu Klux Klan at the centre of a sorcerous plot to destroy humanity, and Riot Baby as a contemporary/near future take on injustice with a use of magic that really heightens the tension.

: Riot Baby was excellent, but I felt absolutely inadequate to discuss it (though Sean Dowie was more than ably up to the task in his review) and I believe that’s tied to how Onyebuchi is examining race in America and the underlying anger seething through the story. It’s tough. It’s tough to deal with. It’s supposed to be tough to deal with, especially for upper middle class white folks who seldom have to deal with or engage with things that other people have no choice but to live with every moment of their lives.

Ring Shout isn’t necessarily any less angry, but it’s somewhat more accessible. There’s more “action” and “adventure” even while the women are fighting off the Ku Kluxes, demons made manifest.

Adri: I agree with this. Riot Baby is a challenge of a book, one that I really appreciated reading and that I think does exactly what it sets out to do, but I find it harder to unpack how it achieves what it does than I do with other works. I’m aware that that’s mostly about the limitations of my experience, not the book's quality, but still. There it is.

I find Ring Shout’s historical adventure setting really compelling (even if it’s grim as fuck and nowhere near as speculative as we might want it to be - real Klu Klux Klan members aren’t literal possessed demons but… well) and while it doesn’t pull its punches, there’s also something quite satisfying about the way the action plays out, even with the human cost.

Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey, is a future dystopia rather than a historical but I want to draw the parallel because I think they share a bit of DNA in how they take a very American setting and bring out the worst elements of prejudice and discrimination within it. In Gailey’s novella, the pain point is gender and sexuality, rather than race, in a Western setting where respectable women are allowed to be travelling librarians, and it turns out that actually they aren’t respectable in the way society expects them to be at all.

Joe: I read Upright Women Wanted so long ago that even knowing that it’s on this ballot I keep forgetting it was a 2020 publication. With that said, Upright Women Wanted was a pretty rad book - to the point that my wife (not a big SFF reader) recommended it to a number of people. Solid recommendation.

: I also like Upright Women Wanted a lot, although it gets a bit lost among the competition for me. I also know people with mixed feelings about its portrayal of gender: there’s a character who goes by they/them pronouns but appears to pass in civilisation with “she/her”, and there’s not much exploration of dysphoria or even a concrete explanation that it is about passing and not just someone who uses both pronouns (side note, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a character who properly uses multiple pronouns and I think it’s overdue!) Still, Upright Women Wanted is now the book I think about when I consider whether SFF still has room for gender dystopias, and the answer is yes.

Joe: The last novella we haven’t talked about was Come Tumbling Down and listen, it’s Seanan McGuire and she doesn’t miss. If you’re in on this series, you’re going to love revisiting Jack and Jill and you know what’s up. If you’re not, there is a barrier to entry. McGuire generally does a good job setting the stage for new readers but even so, this is NOT for new readers and that’s fine but you really need to have read somewhere between one and three of the previous novellas for this one to really land - which is fine, we do series work with the Hugos but how Come Tumbling Down holds up really depends on your experience with the series. I was all in from the first page of Every Heart a Doorway (a previous Hugo winner in this category) so this is a book for me.

Adri: Alas, here’s where we come into conflict, because after a solid-to-strong four books in the Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down frustrated the heck out of me. The lessons felt contrived, the characters didn’t land at all (even the returning ones) and for a novella set in a world of gothic peril, everyone sure did get away without any significant (i.e. permadeath) consequences. I know that some of those consequences are set to play out in later books, as next year's release is about one of the characters who has an Encounter in Come Tumbling Down, where the fallout isn't dealt with. But as an individual story, this was a serious letdown for me - especially because, as you say, Seanan McGuire is not normally an author to miss the mark.

Now we’ve been through the list, we have to get to that all important but all-painful ratings. What’s up there on your list?

: My top three are The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Ring Shout, and Finna - in that order. Notwithstanding our slight disagreement on the McGuire, there’s not really a weak novella on this ballot - but I *really* like the top of my ballot. Those three novellas are something special. What do you have?

Adri: My top three are the same as yours! In another excellent year for novellas, Finna, Ring Shout and The Empress of Salt and Fortune all stand out as exemplars of the genre, and it’s Nghi Vo’s quiet but powerful storytelling that wins the day. Still, I’d cheer loudly for a win for any of these three, and I wouldn’t be truly unhappy with any of the others (even Come Tumbling Down) either.

Joe: Excellent! I think we both have great taste!

I think that’s a wrap for novellas. Next Time: Novels!

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