Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: 2023 Hugo Award Finalists

Joe: Well, this has certainly been an adventure of a year and even taking the pandemic related delays of Discon III into account, this has been a long Hugo season filled with anticipation. No longer! 

The 2023 Hugo Award finalists have been announced and Hugo Season can begin in earnest! Finally, all the rumors and guesses about what the ballot might possibly look like can be put to rest. We have a ballot and in many ways it is a fairly traditional one with a number of reasonable contenders in most categories. At the same time, there is Chinese language representation across the ballot. I don’t believe you or I had any real understanding of what is popular in Chinese fandom, so I know I’m excited to read those works when translations are available. 

Adri: Yes, congratulations to all the finalists and especially to all of the finalists publishing in Chinese who are on the ballot for the first time this year! I'm particularly delighted to share the fanzine category with two Chinese language zines, both of which look extremely cool and which I understand are vital to the Chinese SF scene. I hope we'll see lots of translation both ways so that as many of us as possible can enjoy all the finalists in their respective glory.

Starting from the bottom and working our way up, then: neither of us did particularly well at our predictions for Best Novel this year, though our collective surmise that it might be a repeat-heavy ballot were well founded. Legends and Lattes and Nettle and Bone provide Nebula overlap, and perhaps Nettle and Bone should have been less of a surprise given what a Hugo darling Vernon/Kingfisher has been in other fiction categories. I've said what I need to say about Legends and Lattes in our Nebula conversation, so let's leave that one there.

Two surprises, then: Silvia Moreno-Garcia is overdue for Hugo recognition, but I didn't think The Daughter of Doctor Moreau had the level of buzz around it to make it her "breakthrough". It's on my shelf at home and I'm looking forward to reading it. It's also surprising that Babel isn't on this list given its profile, and frankly I think it's a less powerful shortlist for the absence. It's hard not to speculate (i.e. it's possible it reached the threshold of votes but was withdrawn by Kuang) but I've seen so much speculation at this point, some of it verging on sinophobic conspiracy theory. So, instead of feeding into that I'll just hope Kuang is doing well, staying off certain websites (like this one) and enjoying the constant stream of other nominations, wins and accolades coming to her.

Joe: Absolutely! Based on how Babel had been performing in other genre awards, the amount of discussion I’ve seen elsewhere in genre (that nebulous “buzz”), and just how wide it seems to have penetrated the wider literary conversation tells me that it was a real breakout novel. Its exclusion was probably the biggest surprise of the entire Hugo ballot and I guess we’ll find out how everything shook out when the nomination statistics are released after the awards are presented in October. It *seems* likely that Kuang recused, and if so she is more than within her rights to do so for any reasons she might have and those reasons are frankly none of our business. If she didn’t recuse, I can only assume Babel missed the ballot by 1 vote. It’s a staggering omission if Babel didn’t have the votes - but hey, each year’s electorate have their own tastes and preferences and it’s not like they ever traditionally match up with mine anyway.

The other major surprise across the entire ballot is, as you mentioned, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau wasn’t part of my predictions because you’re right, it hasn’t had the same level of buzz as some of the other finalists and Moreno-Garcia has not been truly on the Hugo Award radar. Honestly, I figured if Mexican Gothic didn’t break through then this wouldn’t either. With that said, I’m incredibly excited for her and I’m a little behind on some of her more recent novels so I’m ready to catch up with Silvia Moreno-Garcia. As of this conversation I have it on request from the library and it’s already on its way for me to pick up. 

Adri: She's also the only author of colour on what is otherwise a white dominated shortlist.

Joe: At this point, I don’t think we need to talk too much about Tordotcom’s Hugo Award dominance with novellas (4 out of 6 this year), but the thing is that they are generally all really good if generally predictable. We’ve seen Seanan McGuire, Nghi Vo, and Alix E. Harrow here in this category before. McGuire and Vo are both previous winners (for truly excellent novellas at that). I’m a fan of all three of their novellas this year, so that’s certainly not a complaint. Just a statement about a potential lack of nominating imagination. The only Tordotcom novella I have not read yet is Even Though I Knew the End, from C.L. Polk. 

Tor is also on the ballot with their Tor Nightfire line and a T. Kingfisher story, What Moves the Dead, which I am much less familiar with. This is a big year for Kingfisher / Ursula Vernon in the fiction categories. Finally, Adrian Tchaikovsky is on the ballot for Ogres, which at least certain of our friends have been banging the drum for very hard. 

Adri: I love some of the books here - Even Though I Knew The End in particular was wonderful - but novella continues to be one of the least fresh categories to me: 5 out of 6 Tor (even if one is a Nightfire) and all of the authors are repeat nominees. We'll hopefully talk about this more, but having novella dominated by series entries for the same few authors by the same publisher is doing the medium a disservice, in my never-very-humble opinion.

Joe: For sure, and that’s a later conversation that I think we will absolutely have.

I haven’t been keeping up with the short fiction scene, so what I can say about Novelette and Short Story is that I’ve heard good things about John Chu’s novelette “If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You”, John Wiswell’s short story “D.I.Y.”, and “Rabbit Test”, from Samantha Mills. “Rabbit Test”, specifically, was one of the most buzzed about stories that hit my radar. 

Adri: I'm absolutely delighted for Wole Talabi's "A Dream of Electric Mothers" in novelette (one of only a few works by Black authors which made the ballot this year) and I really enjoyed S.L Huang and Samantha Mills' stories too. I would have liked to see Ai Jiang and/or Filip Hajdar Drnovsek Zorko in short story, but I'm very excited for Lu Ban, Ren Qing, Jiang Bo and Regina Kanyu Wang for what I'm pretty sure are first Hugo nominations for each of them (I may be forgetting something that Regina Kanyu Wang has translated, apologies if so!)

Joe: Moving on to Best Series, I’m really excited about this category. This year there are two long running series, and while I know Seanan McGuire has been on the ballot every year of the category’s existence and her October Daye series has been on the ballot each year it has been eligible - it is also the exact sort of work this category should be celebrating. Long running urban fantasy are almost certainly never going to be recognized in Best Novel (Jim Butcher and extenuating circumstances aside) but this category can recognize the series as a whole in ways that the Hugo Awards never will do so anywhere else. 

That’s a long way to say that this is the right place to recognize October Daye as well as Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, another urban fantasy. Actually, had Rivers of London not been nominated this year it would be a very strong potential finalist in Scotland next year. October Daye is coming off of a very strong novel in Be the Serpent, which is a nice punctuation to the series as a whole. 

In trilogies, we have Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time which I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about but because he seems to publish a new book every time I turn around I find it daunting to get into his work. We have The Founders Trilogy from Robert Jackson Bennett, another work I haven’t read but I’m more familiar with Bennett’s other novels and he’s a fantastic writer and I’m excited to get into this one. Then we have Naomi Novik’s Scholomance, a series perpetually mis-shelved in the Lodestar but of which I did enjoy the first book. Finally, there’s the Locked Tomb not quite a trilogy now that Tamsyn Muir split Alecto the Ninth and gave us Nona last year. Honestly, being one book from the end I would have held off until the final book before nominating but most series have limited opportunities at a Hugo so I can’t fault the voters in putting Muir on the ballot now. 

Adri: By now, I think it’s clear that Hugo voters as a collective aren’t going to “hold off” and tactically vote for a series to be on the ballot at some technically optimum point of completion, and I’m fine with that for several reasons. First, there’s the weirdness of assuming Hugo voters do collective action at all, second, there’s the fact that the award has only gone to a completed series once in its history (with the Vorkosigan saga) so it clearly doesn’t disadvantage a series to be on the ballot before its author says it’s finished. Finally, as Nona’s publication history shows, a series can be a nebulous thing, whose shape can look very different to how an author plans, and with eligibility being as weird as it is in this category, I wouldn’t want to assume that another year is going to be better or worse for a given nominee unless it’s very much “completed trilogy, now’s your chance”. In theory, The Locked Tomb being on the ballot now means that if it doesn’t win this year, it won’t be re-eligible after the planned fourth-and-final volume comes out - but what if the fourth volume isn’t Alecto but a side novella or a second unexpected spin-off, and people leaving it off the ballot this year stopped it from having a hypothetical second chance at eligibility after Volume 5? We don’t know, and it quickly gets silly to speculate, and that’s why I think it’s a good idea for voters to put series on the ballot when they’re eligible and they think the series is award-worthy, regardless of its completion status. (It’s entirely possible I have said something different to this in the past, and I’ll no doubt be cranky when we get an incomplete Best Series winner that gets super bad in future volumes, but these are my current thoughts.)

Joe: No, you’re absolutely correct about that. And as we’ve discussed before, a Hugo window can be incredibly tight and in the case of series, what if for some freakish reason we get new volumes in The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire and something else pops off and suddenly The Locked Tomb doesn’t make the ballot with Alecto? Get your nominations when you can. 

Adri: Anyway, my reaction is that this list is good-to-excellent, unsurprising, and extremely white. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series feels like a particularly egregious omission. That said, I’m really very happy to see the Children of Time trilogy here: Adrian Tchaikovsky does indeed write a lot, but this is my favourite of his series by some margin and it’s nice to see him “break through” into more Hugo recognition having been a staple of the UK genre scene for a long time.

Joe: I could be off base, but The Dandelion Dynasty seems like it came back very quietly after five years between books 2 and 3 and it didn’t have the same buzz it did after The Grace of Kings debuted. That said, I would have liked to see Liu get that Hugo recognition but the number of writers who I want to have additional Hugo recognition is long and distinguished.

Adri: In Lodestar, the first thing I notice is Naomi Novik’s insistence, once again, in taking up space in a YA award that she should know damn well she isn’t eligible for and have the basic respect for the category to stand aside in. It’s unsurprising that she hasn’t suddenly changed her mind on this, having been here twice before, but nevertheless very disappointing. Otherwise, this is a cool ballot and my heart is very much behind Rachel Hartman’s In The Serpents’ Wake, for all I enjoyed everything else I read in the category too. Catherynne M Valente’s book here is new to me, and unfortunately I don’t think it’s available in the UK, but it’s not surprising to see her here and I did enjoy the Fairyland books so I’m intrigued by this one.

Joe: As a general rule and specifically in relation to this year’s Lodestar, I’m less familiar with the YA offerings outside Scholomance, which I briefly touched upon when talking about Series, at least in that I haven’t read anything on the ballot but I’ve read previous books from most of the writers. I’m excited to see Tracy Deonn back on the Lodestar ballot. I really enjoyed Legendborn and had planned to read Bloodmarked anyway. I’ve picked up Valente’s Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Wood, which is a book I haven’t even heard of though I’ve read a number of Valente’s adult novels. 

Adri: In the Astounding Award, I’m always absolutely delighted to see authors break through on the strength of short fiction and Isabel J. Kim is a fantastic writer and Subjective Chaos Award winner. Embarrassingly, I was not aware they had only been writing since 2021 and was eligible here, so I’m very pleased other voters were paying attention! It’s also great to see Naseem Jamnia, whose novella The Bruising of Qilwa is really powerful stuff and deserves all the recognition, on the list.

Joe: Most of the Astounding writers are new to me. Obviously, Travis Baldree had all the buzz for Legends and Lattes, and I had previously read Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit, which was an absolute delight. I’m excited to discover everyone else, especially Naseem Jamnia.

Adri: I don’t have strong feelings in the more visual-fictional-things categories. Based on the early release, I thought we would be having a year off from Marvel, but Wakanda Forever has made the Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form Category in place of the Andor season nomination, and She-Hulk is now in Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form in place of one episode of Severance. I’ll probably give Graphic Novel a miss this year, since I have zero interest in reading Cyberpunk 2077 or Dune.

Joe: I just finished the latest Monstress collection and I know I’m fully in the minority here but that is just not a series for me and every collected volume has been a Hugo Award finalist (with the first three winning). Not that I’m obligated to read every work on the ballot, and the other Hugo nominators obviously love Monstress but it’s a struggle.

For the rest of the category, I’m interested in Once and Future, Supergirl, and the return of Saga, Olav from the now three time finalist Unofficial Hugo Award Book Club Blog has been talking up Supergirl for the last year, so I’m excited for that one. Dune and Cyberpunk seem like slightly unusual choices, so okay. 

Adri: Once again, Best Related Work is heavily non-fiction this year, mostly of the book variety. I am delighted that S.L. Huang’s "The Ghosts of Workshops Past", a deep dive into the history and impact of writers’ workshops is here: it’s a fantastic piece, and one which sparked a lot of good and in some cases very overdue conversations about how the methodology of critique that dominates these spaces is disproportionately hostile and damaging to BIPOC writers.

The other work that’s interesting to me is the Buffalito World Outreach Project, which is an attempt by Lawrence M. Schoen to get his short story "Buffalo Dogs" translated into as many languages as possible. I’m fully down with the concept of translation being a best related work, especially after we saw Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf translation take the category in 2021. However, the nomination isn’t credited to any of the Buffalo Dogs translators (who, I infer from the website, are generally doing this as a personal favour and not being paid for their work), but to Schoen himself? The only way I can read this is that we’re supposed to be judging the author’s process of outreach, and the concept of “it’s one story but it’s in a lot of languages”, not the actual translations. That doesn’t really sit right with me, and I’d have far preferred to see the translators credited for this work alongside Schoen as coordinator, even if judging those translations as a whole would be practically impossible given all the languages involved.

Joe: That’s how I’m reading the title and even content of the Buffalito World Outreach Project. It’s the “outreach project” part that is key. Even in the light of Beowulf, the Buffalito World Outreach Project feels like a bit of a stretch for the category but it is a related work. I think we are certainly not intended to evaluate the story but more the concept of the outreach to translate the story. 

I’ve started reading Wil Wheaton’s Still Just a Geek, which is a weird artifact of an annotated version of his previous memoir. But what I’m excited about here is Blood, Sweat, and Chrome - Kyle Buchanan’s story of the making of Mad Max: Fury Road. I’ve seen a ton of buzz for that and I’ve been meaning to read it since it was first announced. 

As a general rule I prefer Related Work to be primarily written non-fiction with a further preference for book length work - so this category works for me. As with other categories with Chinese language works I’m very much hoping for a translation of Chinese Science Fiction: An Oral History, Vol 1 to be in the voter packet. That is full on part of my interests. 

As a general rule we don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about the fan categories, but we’re probably burying the lede by not acknowledging that we are on the Hugo ballot for a (staggering) sixth time. It remains intensely awesome every time we get that notification e-mail and we get to continue to be an active part of the Hugo Awards, which we’d obsess about whether or not we’re on the ballot. 

I would say a light-hearted “Go us!” but what I really mean is some of what we said in our Thank You article, which is that we have a really great group of writers and while it is traditionally the editors names on the Hugo Award ballot the work that gets us here is done by the full team and that should never go without being said. 

The other thing that I’m excited about with this year’s nomination is that we get to share it with our awesome crop of new editors Paul Weimer, Roseanna Pendlebury, and Arturo Serrano. They’ve been much of the heart of Nerds of a Feather the last several years and it is incredibly satisfying to have them share in this in an official category as Hugo Award Finalists. Paul has been on the ballot in Fan Writer and as part of the Skiffy and Fanty Fancast team, but this is his first Fanzine nomination. He needs to do some officially fannish photography so he can get a Fan Artist nomination and then be a finalist for every fan category currently in existence.

This is the first ever nomination for Arturo and Roseanna and I am so, so glad they are getting that recognition. 

Adri: Yes, all of the above. I’m so very proud of our team, and all we achieved last year, and it’s an absolute honour to not only be on the ballot again but to be sharing it with our expanded editorial gang. Disappointingly, some of our peers in fanzine and semiprozine have been denied this, through the award administrators’ insistence that teams can only have a maximum of 7 names on the ballot this year. This is, quite frankly, bullshit, especially when all that is being asked for is a name on a spreadsheet and a website, and larger zines like Strange Horizons have made it clear that they don’t expect their entire staff to be at the ceremony and have offered to foot the bill for other finalist perks (i.e. commemorative pins and certificates) to be sent to their staff. 

It would be lovely to go a single year without the people in charge of one of the biggest awards in genre - and one of the only ones which offers recognition to fans - undermining the experience for some or all of us. That said, Chengdu Worldcon has made it pretty clear they aren’t taking feedback on a lot of their decisions - having Russian nationalist genocide supporter Sergei Lukyanenko as guest of honour being another notable kick in the teeth - so it looks like we have to eat the Hugo sandwiches with whatever proportion of shit they get served with this year. “It’s an honour!”, I say again, my right eye only slightly twitching.

(Seriously though, it IS an honour, because you readers and nominators are the ones who make it so. Once again, thank you.)

Joe: To that point, and partially circling back to our brief musings on whether or not R.F. Kuang declined a nomination for Babel. As I noted, we should only expect to find that out when the longlists are announced with the nominating and finalist voting statistics and I had thought that would be the end of the conversation and that wouldn’t tie into the the more controversial elements of this Worldcon because it’s one of those things that people who decline nominations just don’t talk about. 

Except that S.B. Divya has recently shared that she declined two spots on this year’s Hugo ballot. One was her place as part of Escape Pod as co-editor. The other, though, was her story “Two Hands, Wrapped in Gold” had received enough votes to be on the ballot in Best Novelette. Divya shared her reasons in her public statement, but the reasons boiled down to a full non-participation in this year’s Worldcon in protest of “China’s treatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang” as well as the convention honoring Sergei Lukyanenko as Guest of Honor. Divya notes that Lukyanenko is “an apologist for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another act of aggression that I cannot support”.

Adri: That’s a really difficult decision to make and I massively respect Divya for doing so. There are ethical issues around this Worldcon that should be impossible to ignore - I’ve made personal  decisions around participation as well, though not ones I want to get into - and it sucks. I respect everyone who is more publicly grappling with it, especially since Divya and others I have seen talking about this make the distinction between Chinese fandom, and the wider context of having a Worldcon in the PRC, rather than conflating the two.

I don’t think this is the only struck-through nomination we’ll see when the data comes out - but that’s a conversation for October.

Joe: It is. I love digging into the numbers anyway, and all that changes now in the absence of other public statements of declination is that we understand there is a greater potential of more declined works in the long list. 

This is probably a good place to close things out because I’m not sure how we follow it with anything of real substance. Next time we chat will probably be when we start diving into individual categories. 

Adri: For all the shenanigans so far, I’m still really glad we’re back in Hugo season again and my TBR is filled with interesting stuff to talk about. See you soon!