Monday, August 1, 2022

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Novel

Joe: Next up for our Hugo Award coverage is a chat about the six finalists for Best Novel and, in my opinion, it’s another strong ballot. Arkady Martine is a former winner in this category for A Memory Called Empire, the previous novel in this series. Becky Chambers has multiple Best Novel nominations and has won Best Series for The Wayfarers (of which her nominated novel is a part of). P. Djeli Clark’s novellas have thrice been nominated for Hugo Awards, as has one of his short stories (his novella Ring Shout won the Nebula, Locus, and British Fantasy Awards).

This is the first year on the Hugo ballot for Ryka Aoki, Shelley Parker-Chan, and Andy Weir and their three novels were some of the most talked about books of the year.

Adri: I’ve been pretty lukewarm on the categories we’ve gone through so far, but this ballot? This is a ballot I love. As you say, there’s a split between returning Hugo finalists and ballot newcomers, and an intriguing mix of genres, from historical fantasy to space opera to maths-heavy first contact, and the full-on genre bender that is Light From Uncommon Stars. There’s significantly more representation of authors of colour than in the shorter fiction categories too, and this is a better ballot for that.

That doesn’t mean I love every story here, but five out of six isn’t bad! Which is to say, shall we start by talking about Andy Weir?

Joe: So, I wouldn’t have nominated Project Hail Mary (and didn’t - my ballot included three finalists, as well as Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence and Sarah Pinsker’s We Are Satellites) but I absolutely see why a lot of people had it on their ballot.

My wife and I picked up Project Hail Mary when it was included as a Book of the Month selection. I viewed it as sort of a make or break novel for Andy Weir. I loved The Martian, thought it was one hell of a debut, but Artemis left me absolutely cold and couldn’t have been more disappointed with his second novel. So, this was the book that was going to tell me if Weir was likely to be a one hit wonder - or at least, I wasn’t going back if Project Hail Mary was another Artemis.

It’s been almost a full year since I read Project Hail Mary, so I really can’t say for sure if I loved it but I know I had a great time reading it. Project Hail Mary is a bit of a throwback science fiction novel with some of the exploration of the space science fiction of a few decades ago but the novel is an incredibly smooth read. I don’t put much stock in how I rate things on goodreads, but I’d say it was a solid 4 star novel.

With that said - it’s not really the sort of novel I’d think about nominating for a Hugo Award, or any other major award if I happened to have nominating rights to anything else, but I’m really glad I read it and talked about the book with my generally non-science fiction reading wife. Solid book, doesn’t really do anything to push or stretch the genre AND it doesn’t really reflect the breadth of what science fiction and fantasy is being written today (with the obvious caveat that Project Hail Mary is part of the breadth of the science fiction being written today).

It’s a heck of a good time, but this is a super strong ballot and Project Hail Mary just isn’t going to be at the top of mine.

Adri: I feel much the same: I enjoyed Project Hail Mary, and thought it was a return to the quality that made the Martian such a big hit, but this is pretty far away from being the kind of science fiction that interests me when it comes to boundary-pushing awards stuff.

In fact, I wondered if my experience reading it, as someone with a very politically-adjacent background career, was similar to the experience that natural scientists seeking more physics in their science fiction have with stuff like Ann Leckie or Arkady Martine. To me, Andy Weir’s self-proclaimed “apolitical” science fiction is like the written equivalent of that unfinished horse meme, where the butt is all beautifully supported with equations and chemistry experiments (all terribly clever and yet achievable by a smart high school science teacher, because we’re firmly in wish fulfilment territory), but then on the front end you have a plot that’s all about international cooperation yet can’t name a single country in Africa. There’s a deliberate choice here to gloss over everything that I find intellectually engaging, and I fully understand that it’s done because other people find the numbers and the “man vs. laws of physics” plot intellectually engaging - but it’s not for me. Sorry, unfinished horse book.

Credit: Ali Bati

Going up my ballot, then, there’s a big jump for me between Project Hail Mary and my fifth choice, which is The Galaxy and the Ground Within. This is the fourth and final book in Becky Chambers’ Best Series-winning Wayfarers series, and it’s about a group of aliens who get stranded at the interstellar equivalent of an airport B&B while the system they’re in fixes a big error with one of its gates. Like all the Wayfarers books, there’s some returning characters but the story stands alone, and it’s very much focused on a small, kind corner of a big, difficult galaxy.

Joe: It’s interesting that you have The Galaxy and the Ground Within so far down your ballot because I’ve felt like an outlier in my responses to the series as a whole, which is generally that I tend to enjoy each book but have very little overall passion for them as individual novels (A Long Way to A Small Lonely Planet notwithstanding.) I don’t know which book is going to be fifth or sixth on my ballot, but it was always going to be this and Project Hail Mary.

Of course, the top four on both of our ballots are also just so exceptional that there isn’t any shame on being lower on a really strong ballot.

Adri: Agreed. I like The Galaxy and the Ground Within a lot, just like I’ve really enjoyed all of the series (with Record of a Spaceborn Few being a bit of a low point for me). In my review I noted that it’s a book that’s also pretty clear about its assumptions and limitations, and like Project Hail Mary it sort of skips over the bits of this galaxy that I’d find most interesting - but I have a much bigger soft spot for sweet character interactions and pushing past cultural misunderstandings than I do for physics (Project Hail Mary also has cute character interactions and cultural misunderstandings and that’s why it’s still a good sixth place!) In short it’s just a book that I don’t have a lot to say about, and I can’t help but think about our feelings about Murderbot last year - Wayfarers has a best series win already, so a best novel here - even though this wasn’t part of the series at the time - feels like a less interesting result than having a new work win.

Joe: I’d be pretty surprised to see The Galaxy and the Ground Within take home the Hugo and I think I’m fairly in line with your thoughts here - though I’m not inherently against a novel from a series that has already won the Series category getting a Best Novel nomination, I just wouldn’t have given it to this particular book, which is perfectly lovely but in the ways that we talked about Project Hail Mary it doesn’t jump out at me as “holy crap, awesome SFF!”. But then, Wayfarers is a series that I like and appreciate, but they’re not novels of my heart.

On the other hand, in this, our Year of Continued Awfulness - maybe the generally hopeful and sweet (sweet?) novels of Becky Chambers resonate all the more, which is perhaps reflected more strongly and more appropriately in her nominated novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built.

Where I think we are far more likely to see a winner come from is the four novels we have not yet talked about: A Desolation Called Peace, Light From Uncommon Stars, A Master of Djinn, and She Who Became the Sun.

I’m not prepared to predict the winner of the category, though. My predictive skills only go so far, which is sussing out the actual finalists.

Any one of those four, though, would be a more than worthy winner.

Adri: Yeah, my prediction skills definitely don’t stretch that far either - and for me it’s a “but for one to win, three have to lose, ugh” sort of scenario because all of these are spectacular examples of SFF in their own right.

Joe: Since I really don’t have a feel for how this category will shake out, I think we should talk about A Desolation Called Peace next. It’s the second novel from Arkady Martine. Her first, A Memory Called Empire, won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2020 (beating out an intensely strong lineup of finalists) so I’m super interested in how this is going to shake out.

The category *does* have a history of repeat winners but N.K. Jemisin’s recent three Hugos in three years is a bit of an aberration. Connie Willis and Vernor Vinge both had a decade between their most recent wins. Kim Stanley Robinson and Lois McMaster Bujold are probably the closest comps for tighter groupings of Hugo wins but now we’re talking about the 1990’s. More often we have repeat finalists than repeat winners this close together.

Regardless, A Desolation Called Peace is not just Martine’s second novel but it is a sequel to A Memory Called Empire - though it is stylistically different from how the first novel dealt with diplomacy and political machinations and plots and colonization. A Desolation Called Peace does that, but rather than introducing us to the Teixcalaanli Empire through the lens of a much smaller station trying to maintain as much of its independence as possible, here the Empire itself is dealing with a potentially existential threat from the outside in the form of an alien invasion.

From that perspective, one thing that I appreciated about A Desolation Called Peace was that it wasn’t just A Memory Called Empire 2.0 - Martine is stretching here and while I absolutely loved Desolation, readers who were looking for more of the same didn’t quite get that.

Adri: Yeah, A Desolation Called Peace takes quite a few different turns to its predecessor, and at times it felt quite reminiscent of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire - which is a good thing, I adored those books. I really enjoyed the focus being more on Lsel, and on the Teixcalaanli Empire’s interactions with other cultures, although nothing grabbed me quite to the same extent as Mahit’s culture shocks in A Memory Called Empire, as she tries to join a culture she adored from afar but which is still completely alien, and not interested in tolerating her differences. Still, Mahit and Three Seagrass are still great together, and there’s a lot of other interesting dynamics here - including plenty of intrigue back in the empire (told through the eyes of the former emperor’s clone, Eight Antidote) and on the Teixcalaanli fleet. It’s fourth on my ballot, but that’s more of a reflection of how strong everything else is than any critique of this fantastic story.

Joe: I wonder if there will be a third Teixcalaanli novel and if so, where in the Empire will Martine play. Really, I just want to see what she’ll do next and I have no doubt that it will be excellent.

One of the most unexpected novels of the year is Light from Uncommon Stars, the second novel from Ryka Aoki and the first that is more traditionally SFF - though I have a difficult time describing Light from Uncommon Stars as “traditional” anything.

This is a novel that is a wild blend of science fiction and fantasy, featuring a deal with a devil and interstellar alien refugees running a donut shop. The result, which has nothing to do with those disparate elements and everything to do with the story Aoki is actually telling, is a novel that is nothing but heart and is so beautifully told that I just don’t know.

: Light from Uncommon Stars is, quite simply, something else. The concept of a pure genre mashup like this isn’t new, but Aoki’s particular blend of elements is wonderfully weird and fun while also telling a powerful, coherent story around human ambition and what makes a life worth living, even in challenging circumstances. While there are several strands here, the novel’s main protagonist is Katrina, an Asian trans woman runaway whose story contains a lot of the trauma which the world throws at trans women - but she is also a fully rounded, quirky, brilliant person and ultimately the narrative puts her with people who recognise that, creating a powerful narrative around her talents and growth.

I hesitate to describe Light From Uncommon Stars as “cozy” fiction, because its subject matter involves so much real trauma, but in a way I think Aoki’s story is the kind of speculative fiction that could only be here, published by Tor and on a Hugo ballot, because of the space created by authors like Becky Chambers. Aoki takes the idea that science fiction can be about a small group of people and the space they carve out for themselves and each other, and fills it out with so much powerful, complex stuff that it’s impossible to reduce down into “aww, how nice”. This is top of ballot stuff for me, and I’m so delighted to see it recognised by a Hugo audience.

Joe: Oh, absolutely. Katrina Nguyen is dealing with a whole lot of significant trauma and that does pervade her experience and narrative - and yet, Light From Uncommon Stars is borderline cozy, for lack of a better term. Charlie Jane Anders referred to the novel as “soothing and kind and sweet” and it felt like that for me, too.

I never thought about the comparison to Becky Chambers and how A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet helped popularize this sort of story with a wider (and Hugo nominating) audience. That’s a really good idea.

: Both of the other novels we haven’t spoken about yet deal with genderfeels to some extent too, and it’s a major part of the narrative in She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. This is a really interesting Hugo nominee because it’s only got a small fantasy element, but it sits very nicely on that genre border between historical fiction and epic fantasy where the amount of actual magical content doesn’t really change the vibes of what you’re reading. And She Who Became the Sun, with its queer protagonist who is hiding their female birth identity in order to literally assume the destiny of their older brother (who died in a famine before he could make use of any of the luck he was allegedly born with) feels very much at home in this 2022 Hugo ballot

Joe: I could absolutely see some voters knocking She Who Became the Sun down their ballots for “not being genre enough” and while on one hand it’s a fair criticism because I kept forgetting what the genre element was in the book, I also 100% don’t care because holy shit this is a spectacular novel. It’s a hard novel, maybe a brutal novel at times - but it is damned good.

I also think that it’s been marketed (or at least reviewed) in a wider variety of spaces than your average genre book because my wife read this before me and I’m not sure she knew it was technically a fantasy. It’s also one of a couple books she read recently that she didn’t realize was part of a series until she got late into the book and asked me if there was going to be more because she couldn’t see how the story would wrap up in the final however many pages.

She Who Became the Sun is a novel that midway through I knew I was reading something special and that was completely validated by the end.

What I do think is interesting about this ballot as a collection of novels is, as you alluded to, that the 2022 Best Novel ballot is dealing with a myriad of ways of representing queerness. It’s not something I talk about a lot because, well, it’s not my identity or that of my family and immediate friends, and as such, I don’t want my words to be hurtful when I’m talking about something I don’t know much about. From that perspective, I do think that the ways each of these novels represent queerness is absolutely beautiful (and painful in their places) and because of that variety no single novel needs to be the only voice of representation. The novels get to stand for what they are - which are absolutely killer representations of the genre.

Adri: I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s particularly important that both Light from Uncommon Stars and She Who Became the Sun are quite challenging in terms of the queer stories they tell. Light from Uncommon Stars is challenging because its protagonist is put through sexual assault and misgendering and threats to her safety and Aoki expects us to be able to deal with these as part of regular life for a trans teenager. She Who Became the Sun is challenging because its protagonist is figuring out her queerness - particularly her gender identity - as she goes along, and because she’s reaching for power during wartime with all the moral compromises that entails. And that’s not even going into the secondary plot, which is also very queer, very interested in how a character reconciles a very narrow view of martial masculinity with his personal reality (as a eunuch), and contains a showdown which I didn’t see coming but absolutely should have.

It’s such a good book, is what I’m saying here. So very, very good. A killer book, as you say.

Joe: Our final killer representation of the genre is P. Djeli Clark’s A Master of Djinn and is another novel that I just could not put down.

Adri: Yes! A Master of Djinn hit so many good notes for me: adventure, steampunk vibes, takedowns of colonialism, and at its heart a trio of very different, powerful, nuanced female characters. It’s probably the story here that I had the most pure fun with, and while some of its mystery elements are signposted quite early, I still enjoyed watching the whole thing unfold.

: I wanted to describe A Master of Djinn as an instance of P. Djeli Clark leveling up, but his last publication was 2020’s Ring Shout so I think Clark taking that next step has already occurred. But, at novel length, A Master of Djinn fulfills a lot of promise for Clark’s earlier Dead Djinn stories.

Reading A Master of Djinn was an absolute blast. I don’t pick up on most telegraphed mystery elements - either because I don’t want to actively do the work to figure things out or because I just don’t see them, so I just enjoy the ride. A Master of Djinn was a hell of a ride and it’s a super smart (without being overly heady). It’s just a *good story*.

Adri: It is - and that might be why I’m struggling to say too much more about it (although I did review it here last year, along with four of the other five finalists, because I’m just that much of a tastemaker, apparently). There’s such a perfect blend of fun and bite, with genteel but tense and unpleasant interactions between colonial forces and an Egyptian society with the resources to thwart their ambitions, and a nuanced take on what the different factions in that Egypt might look like. Plus, the presence of djinn themselves and the way they interact with broader society is great. “It’s just awesome and you should read it” doesn’t fill up the blog inches, but that’s what I’ve got for A Master of Djinn.

Joe: I do believe that wraps up our conversation about the six finalists for Best Novel. As we mentioned before, this is a fantastic lineup of novels representing a wide range of science fiction and fantasy. Good stuff.

Assuming I don’t make any changes to my Hugo ballot, this is what I have: A Master of Djinn, Light From Uncommon Stars, She Who Became the Sun, A Desolation Called Peace - and every one of those top four could be flipped without question to any other position and I’d feel really good about it. They are four outstanding novels and I’m so glad to have read every one of them.

Adri: As I said before, Light From Uncommon Stars is top of my ballot now, followed by She Who Became the Sun, A Master of Djinn and A Desolation Called Peace - but it’s really, really close, and I wouldn’t want to make any bets about what’s going to win come September. Time will tell!

Adri (she/her), 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, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him