Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: 2024 Hugo Award Finalists (finally!)

Joe: We’ve had a few weeks to sit on the announcement and start the always exciting process of trying to read and watch all the things and fully engage with the Hugo Awards. The finalists were announced on March 29 and let’s not bury the lede here.

Nerds of a Feather is a finalist for Best Fanzine (thank you again, everyone), which is forever a thrill even with this being the seventh time we’ve been on the ballot. Before we move on because we’re not here to talk about ourselves, I do want to say that I’m thrilled to share a category with Black Nerd Problems, The Full Lid, Idea, Journey Planet, and the Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog. It’s super cool to be able to share this experience with such wonderful finalists.

Adri: Yes, congratulations to everyone! It never gets less exciting to be here, especially not in fine company. And since Glasgow is as close to a local Worldcon as London is likely to get (shit here is expensive), I’m already looking forward to going in person

Joe: I think I’d like to start with Novel both because I think in novels and also because this an interesting category for me this year - and I’m not saying that because I only predicted 4/6 of the finalists.

I struggled a bit with my reading last year, especially in regards to trying to stay up to date with what was published and what was hot. Back in October I messaged you and Roseanna to recommend things to me because the only negative of stepping away from social media is that I’m not seeing as much of the chatter of what books are interesting and what books are part of a conversation that I should consider to know what’s going on in the genre. It helped, but Roseanna recommended multiple 900 page books to me and somehow I had it in my mind that The Saint of Bright Doors was one of those mammoth tomes so I held off reading it and it turns out it is a perfectly reasonable sized 300ish page novel and is perhaps the most notable book of last year.

I follow author Vajra Chandrasekera on Bluesky (as should everyone reading this, he’s great!) and in March he had something like five announcements for different accolades that The Saint of Bright Doors has been nominated for, or won. So this book is really making the rounds and it deserves all of the praise it gets! I’m unusually underprepared for Best Novel, having only read this and Translation State (which I had some personal sticking points with, though I know it’s been very beloved otherwise!), and Saint of Bright Doors is for sure my novel to beat. It’s weird and subversive and unpredictable, which are not things Hugo voters are the best at, but I really hope this one gets a million trophies.

My predictions were worse than yours at only 3/6. I know the Hugo buzz for The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi passed us both by, although it probably shouldn’t since S.A. Chakraborty has been previously nominated in Best Series. I also hadn’t realised that Witch King had got the traction it clearly had, although once the Nebula nominations came out it became clear we wouldn’t be seeing any Murderbot on a major awards ballot (side note: good for Martha Wells for deciding this - it’s a tricky decision to recuse, and being able to say “no, that’s enough for one series” is a very classy move). Some Desperate Glory was on my predictions and it’s the first Hugo book I’ve picked up for my 2024 reading: I’m loving it so far, so this is a good start.

I don’t think I will love Starter Villain, and I wish the Hugo voters had cycled out their token boilerplate white guy novelist this year (there are several to choose from in the British SFF scene!), since I’ve heard nothing but “meh” about the book and I don’t even like the Scalzi that everyone else raves about. But inertia is going to do its thing, I guess.

Witch King and The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi were my two prediction misses. Witch King because I hadn’t read it AND because I wasn’t confident that Hugo voters were going to go with Wells outside of the Murderbot series, even granting the Nebula nomination for Witch King. Maybe Witch King feels like a fantasy Murderbot, I don’t know. Or maybe readers are fully on the Martha Wells train and it’s not just Murderbot. That’s cool, if so.

The Chakraborty I did read last year, very much enjoyed it, but it gets to a conversation we’ve had over the years - except for Daevabad in Best Series (well deserved), Chakraborty hasn’t been in the Hugo conversation and it’s hard for me to predict a writer who hasn’t made it on the ballot in the past for Best Novel to make it onto the ballot in the future for Best Novel. It’s hell on my prediction stats. If there was Hugo chatter on her behalf, I missed it, but I missed a lot of things last year so that’s not a big surprise.

I’ve variations on the same feelings you have for Translation State, but my highlight (of the nominated novels) is Some Desperate Glory. That one was fantastic and thrilling and it hit all the notes I was looking for. I’m so thrilled that it made the ballot. Along with The Water Outlaws (sadly not a finalist), Some Desperate Glory was one of my favorites of the novels I read last year.

The Scalzi - I enjoyed it. It’s John Scalzi doing John Scalzi things. My wife enjoyed it, possibly more than me. But compared to the other novels on this ballot (that I’ve read) it feels slight, and I’m saying that having nominated The Kaiju Preservation Society the previous year. But hey, we don’t have Bookshops and Bonedust on the ballot. Did you read that one? I remember you were reasonably offended by Legends and Lattes picking up the Hugo nod the year prior.

Adri: I did not read Bookshops and Bonedust. I think Travis Baldree has earned a reprieve from me dunking on his work and all it represents, and frankly so have our readers.

It was never a likely Hugo finalist, but my beloved “outsider” for 2024 was Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. It’s a challenging read because of the brutality of the subject matter - it’s about a future where the US has turned its prison system into a gladiatorial entertainment spectacle where people fight to the death for the slim hope of freedom - but that book is so full of radical empathy for the people whose lives are destroyed by the “justice system”, regardless of what they did that brought them into contact with it (and some of its characters have done terrible things) that it left me thinking for a long, long time.

Joe: Chain Gang All-Stars was on my ballot. It’s an incredible, powerful novel. And, I agree, it was never going to be a real Hugo contender.

: The interesting thing about this novel ballot, also, is that it compensates for the shift away from Tor dot com dominance in novella by having three Tor dot com published novels instead. On that note, I’m excited about the novella category despite also having read very little of it (I had a very backlist heavy year last year, OK?), not least because two of the novellas are Chinese works in translation, from the same UK small press anthology no less! Both are relatively old in original publication (1995 and 2002 respectively), but I've been nominating Jin Yong's Legend of the Condor Heroes translation to best series every year it's been eligible, so I can't complain about it not being the most up to date of Chinese SFF.

Joe: The two Chinese novellas are a fun addition to the category, especially stepping away from the Tordotcom of it all. I’m looking forward to reading them - fairly soon, actually, since I bought the Adventures in Space anthology.

I’ve only read half of the novella finalists, but Nghi Vo’s Mammoths at the Gate is a particular highlight. Vo is a previous novella winner and a semi perennial finalist, but Mammoths at the Gate is straight up one of my favorite stories of the year. Also of note is Arkady Martine’s Rose / House, a story completely unlike her Hugo Award winning novels. Not to mention T. Kingfisher’s Thornhedge. It shouldn’t be a surprise that each of Kingfisher’s stories are superb.

: All things I'm enthusiastic to read! And then there's Malka Older’s The Mimicking of Known Successes, which I absolutely loved last year, so there’s a high bar to clear for me, and I’m excited to see what if anything clears it.

Joe: I’m always happy for more Malka Older.

To bounce around a little bit from prose fiction, and to a category I’m not sure you’re going to read much of if I remember previous years correctly - Graphic Story is really interesting this year.

We’ve got the return of Saga which unfortunately isn’t landing for me since its return from hiatus like the first nine volumes did, but Bea Wolf is a very creative retelling of Beowulf if Beowulf and all of the thanes were children and Grendel was that one adult neighbor who doesn’t even tolerate the presence of kids. It has the formality of an epic poem, but in comic form.

Shubeik Lubeik was originally written and published in Arabic in Egypt in 2017 and I am delighted by the opportunity to read this story of the buying and selling of wishes. I never would have encountered this before and it’s really good and I’m so glad it’s on the ballot.

I’m likewise excited to read Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Wonder Woman Historia and Paul Cornell’s The Witches of World War II. Before I watched the Netflix adaptation of The Three-Body Problem I’d have said I wasn’t into the idea of any adaptations of that novel / series (I didn’t appreciate the novel despite the accolades) but the Netflix show was fantastic and now I’m curious what a Chinese translation in comic form might look like. Of course, I’ve no idea if it’s been translated and what availability might look like in the states, but that’s a problem for future-Joe.

Adri: I didn’t manage the graphic novel category last year, but this feels like a year with great potential to come back to it. Made easier by the fact that I’ve been keeping up with Saga, so being eleven volumes in isn’t a problem - and everything else here is either a standalone or a first in series! Aside from Wonder Woman Historia, which looks BIG, it’s a much less daunting category than it has been in the past. Which fits well with my energy levels, frankly.

Joe: Shubeik Lubeik is a fairly large volume, for what it is worth. Excellent, but it’s not a slim 4 issue collection.

: To go from one visual category to another, this is the first year of Best Video Game or Interactive Work, and it’s a great ballot. While we’re sadly lacking any non-video games to give the second part of that category description a precedent to start from, there’s a really intriguing mix of indie and bigger titles here. Chants of Sennaar and Dredge are on the smaller end of that and both have really interesting storytelling - Dredge is about being a fisherman catching increasingly eldritch critters for increasingly worrying ends, and Chants of Sennaar is about climbing a tower of different cultures and trying to piece together new languages and the history of the location and its divisions. I love a language puzzle game so Chants of Sennaar in particular was a hit for me, and I even found it fun on a replay despite already knowing what the puzzles were expecting of me. I’d love to see this game take the award home!

That said, its going up against Baldur’s Gate 3, which is about as Sensation as a Video Game Sensation gets, and for good reason. I LOVED my time in this D&D-adjacent video game and I think it does many, many awesome things that you could spend literally thousands of hours exploring. The one thing I don’t like is the game’s original ending, which felt quite limited in how it sent off the characters you’ve spent so long getting to love - and yes, there’s a content patch that helps a lot with that, and it was also released in 2023 so is part of the “Hugo-judgeable-package”, but it affected my original feelings after my playthrough and I haven’t quite got over it yet.

Tears of the Kingdom is also here, and it’s well deserved. This game got me through a rough part of 2023, and before that it’s the game I was playing when we got to hang out in person last year!

There are two games I haven’t played: Jedi: Survivor is the only Star Wars on the ballot this year, which feels kinda notable in this oversaturated Star Wars era. I have friends who love it specifically for the type of male protagonist it has, and that might also end up being me. Alan Wake isn’t the kind of thing I’d usually go for, and I guess I need to play the first game before the second? So that might be the one I don’t get to, but I’m gonna be doing my best.

Joe: I’m so thrilled about the inaugural Video Game category as a permanent thing and as a person who plays a fair amount of video games I also now see a challenge with the category because I’m just not going to get to Baldur’s Gate 3. It’s a huge game, I’ve been waffling about when to buy it but because I didn’t jump on it right away I’m kind of behind the game here. I’m in the middle of God of War Ragnarok, which is its own bit of epicness that I keep putting down because I can’t focus and just want to power wash things on Power Wash Simulator. I can’t believe I’ve put in 30 hours into that so far.

Adri: Power Wash Simulator is a gem and I’ve replayed more of it than I care to admit.

Joe: I don’t think I’m going to revisit any levels, especially fiddly ones, but it’s peacefully occupying more of my gaming time than I’d like to admit. But for actual finalists, I’m partway through Dredge and am really enjoying the mix of peaceful fishing game and absolute terror when I’m staying out on my boat too late and what the hell are these red lights and things in the dark chasing me and where did that rock come from it wasn’t there two hours ago?

Tears of the Kingdom was absolutely fantastic and I mostly enjoyed playing it more than I did Breath of the Wild (ascend for the win) - though as with most things, I completely ignored building stuff and because it’s an extension of that game Tears of the Kingdom didn’t have the same sense of wonder and discovery that Breath of the Wild did. But everything is relative because the highs of Tears of the Kingdom are so very high.

I have the same issue with Alan Wake 2 and Jedi: Survivor that you do. I haven’t played them, and I haven’t played the first game and I think I want to because I’m less likely to go backwards on either game (especially since I have Jedi: Fallen Order on PS+).

I will play Chants of Sennaar, though. Once I beat one of the three main Playstation games I’m in the middle of, as previously mentioned, I plan to add Chants to my rotation (ignoring the fact that I also started Tchia). You really sold Chants in a way that I’m very intrigued for a game I would have otherwise skipped over.

Best Series is a category that I love as a thing but have somewhat mixed feelings on this year. We have our recurring Seanan McGuire and I really hope this is the year October Daye brings home a Hugo. It really is the sort of thing that isn’t going to be recognized anywhere else on the ballot unless one of McGuire’s short stories breaks through again and to my mind it’s exactly the sort of thing that *should* be recognized by the Best Series Hugo. Also, and correct me if I’m wrong - it doesn’t look like we’re getting a new October Daye novel this year for the first time since she started publishing novels with Rosemary and Rue.

Adri: That seems to be correct, because of the publisher shift from DAW books to Tor. Aren’t you wishing you saved one of last year’s double to tide you over this year?

Joe: Is that what happened? I somehow missed October Daye switching publishers. But since I’m deep in my re-read all this means is that if Tor keeps the traditional September publication date I’ll have plenty of time to almost catch up. At this point I’m never not reading October Daye.

: I like this ballot, on the whole, although I’ve read as much Charles Stross as I ever intend to so I’m a bit bemused to see the Laundry Files back. Xuya is a fantastic nominee in this category though, as is The Last Binding, and while Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Final Architecture trilogy isn’t quite as amazing as Children of Time, it’s still an excellent space opera and Adrian deserves an untainted Hugo.

Joe: I’m really hit and miss on Stross, but I’m not at all surprised to see The Laundry Files on the ballot. Hometown kid and all. I read the first two or three plus a few stories, generally enjoyed them but fell off and never came back for no particular reason. I keep waffling on whether to jump back in either from where I left off or from when Tor picked up the series. Not sure if that makes a ton of sense given that everything seems to build off each other but therein lies the peril of series.

Likewise, I’m not all that excited about the Xuya Universe, though I do agree it is a fantastic nominee. I’ve read several novellas and short stories and I think my only issue with it is that Xuya is a bit more diffuse than other series in this category. I’m behind on the two novels, though, and that might make a difference. I’m not at all familiar with Freya Marske or her work, so that’ll be one of my discoveries for this category.

I’m so behind on reading Adrian Tchaikovsky because he is so incredibly prolific (though I’ve read one of his Shadows of the Apt novels on each of my last two trips and expect to read the third on my Scotland adventure), but I’m excited to jump into Final Architecture. It’s on request at the library and maybe will pop up in the voter packet but if I need to prioritize anything on this year’s ballot it’s going to be more Tchaikovsky. You’ve been singing his praises for years now and I should really pay attention.

: Tchaikovsky has had a patchy publication history in the USA as well, which doesn’t help.

Anything else you’re excited for on the rest of the ballot? I’m really happy that Maureen Kincaid Speller’s collection, A Traveller in Time, is represented in Best Related Work, though I very much wish that Maureen was with us to enjoy (or at least have enjoyment-adjacent feelings about) that recognition. And I’m delighted that Ai Jiang is in both novelette and Astounding - she’s really burst onto the short fiction scene in the last couple of years and she’s really, really good. I keep a little list in my head of amazing new short fiction writers that should have been Astounding finalists but were robbed and it’s nice not to make the list longer.

Relatedly -- and this is the only bit of process-related griping I’m going to do --  I’m happy that Xiran Jay Zhao has been given extended eligibility, but I wish Dell had declared that there should be seven finalists rather than six, rather than indirectly kicking a non-extendedly-eligible writer off the ballot. Because Zhao’s extended eligibility wasn’t announced in advance, I doubt they received enough votes to reach the ballot organically, and that means that whoever placed sixth among this years nominators has had an opportunity taken away from them in order to rectify a wrong done to one of last year’s finalists. That doesn’t feel good.

Then again, voters vote for ineligible things all the time, so hopefully my assumption that Zhao didn’t receive votes is wrong, people put them on their ballot in protest, and this situation is not as bad as all that. But there could have been space for seven in the circumstances.

Joe: There is a non-zero chance that Zhang received enough votes to make the ballot, but I agree that an announcement would have allowed fans to nominate with intention regarding Xiran Jay Zhao. I’m cautiously optimistic that Dell told the Hugo Committee that if Zhao receives enough votes to include them on the final ballot, but am likewise concerned that Dell added them to the ballot by fiat - in which case, yes, it is unfair that because a wrong was done last year than a wrong was done this year to make amends. On the other other hand - had that announcement been made in advance, I have no doubt that Zhao would have received sufficient votes and we’d have ended up in the same place - but I can definitely see a path to where the first one off the ballot when stats are announced doesn’t feel good about this.

Also, you missed the bad joke of saying that it doesn’t feel astounding.

(Adri could have written a response here, but she didn't because it was a bad joke).  

Joe: For the rest of the ballot, I’m always happy to see a story from Sarah Pinsker up for a Hugo. Dramatic Presentation Long Form is a fun mix of movies while Short Form feels like a category from twenty years ago - though I haven’t seen most of what’s nominated. I’ll probably get to all but The Last of Us, assuming I can muster up enough interest to push into the second season of Loki after being bored by the first.

My hope is that this is the year either Strange Horizons or GigaNotoSaurus can break through in Semiprozine, though I’d certainly be happy about FIYAH picking up their second Hugo. I’d really like to see Alasdair Stuart take home a Hugo for *something* this year - whether it is his fan writing (not that I’m rooting against Paul, maybe they can tie), Escape Pod, or if Nerds of a Feather doesn’t win I’m pulling for The Full Lid this year. Actually, that’s something Mary Robinette Kowal told me in DC a few years back when I was a bit extra stressed out - think about who you would like to win that isn’t you and root for them so that you have someone to cheer for if it doesn’t go your way. Regardless, Stuart is now an 11 time finalist. He’s such a force for good in the genre community and consistently puts out such good fan work that he absolutely deserves to be recognized - and what better time than in a UK based convention for a UK based fan?

I think that’s also a grand place to wrap this up. This is a fantastic lineup of Hugo finalists and given how excessively open Glasgow has been thus far I am very confident there will be absolutely no shenanigans. I’m excited to attend the ceremony in person and see you and Roseanna and Paul and everyone else who will be there!

Adri: Absolutely - so far from a finalist perspective we’ve seen the Glasgow team putting their absolute best foot forward and I really appreciate the level of communication, transparency and thoughtfulness that’s been evident so far. It doesn’t undo the damage of 2023, but it’s a good place to move forward from, and I’m really glad for it.