Sunday, July 24, 2011

The 2011 Hugo Awards: Novel shortlist

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz; Pyr)
Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)

I’ve read four of the five novels on the 2011 Hugo Awards shortlist. Cryoburn is the one that I’ve skipped. I decided that to give the book its due I should read the whole Vorkosigan series from the beginning, which I have never done. So far, I’ve read three books in the series and I am enjoying them. It will probably be several months before I’ve caught up with Cryoburn.

Blackout/All Clear was the most frustrating and disappointing of the novel nominees that I have read. There may be a good story about time travelers visiting England during World War II buried within these pages. Unfortunately, this two-volume novel is more than twice the length it should be and contains a multitude of structural issues, “idiot” plotting, and obsessive characters who worry about their concerns repetitively for hundreds of pages. I wrote about this novel in greater detail a few weeks ago. Read the full review.

I would call Feed an energetic puppy of a novel, except Jonathan McCalmont beat me to it, so I suppose I shouldn’t. Set during a U.S. presidential campaign 20-some years after a zombie outbreak, the story is narrated in first person by Georgia Mason, a web blogger who styles herself as a journalist. Georgia attaches herself to the campaign of a promising presidential contender. The zombie threat is ongoing, allowing for life and death situations to develop at any moment. The best parts of the story are the notions about the infectious nature of zombie transmission and the constant blood-testing needed for security. The novel is on less-sure ground when it deals with journalism and politics. Georgia tells us repeatedly that she is dedicated to objectivity and truth, yet when we read her published work it is opinion-filled ranting that has nothing to do with objectivity. She gets special access to her candidate that other media aren’t allowed and instantly she is biased in favor of her candidate. The reader gets little sense of the larger political landscape, either domestic or international. When the story keeps a narrow focus on Georgia and her circle of friends, colleagues, and relatives, with lots of blood and mayhem and zombie fighting, it is entertaining and moves along well. When the novel tries to address larger issues about the media and politics it is frustrating and unsatisfying.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a first novel and a promising one. It stands on its own even though it’s the first book in a trilogy. Yeine Darr is brought to the capitol of a globe-spanning empire and told that she is one of three possible heirs to the dying ruler, setting up a potentially lethal competition for succession. The empire derives much of its power from a pantheon of gods that have been bound and enslaved. The gods have varied and interesting personalities. The great strength of the novel is the first person narrative voice of Yeine, who is in over her head as the story begins. The author puts Yeine through a series of changes and the narrative voice reflects that. Yeine develops a romantic interest in one of the enslaved gods, which is handled well. There is one bedroom scene that is perhaps inadvertently funny, where sex is described in cosmic terms and results in broken furniture.

The Dervish House, set in Istanbul, is the third of the author’s novels dealing with emerging economies in the near future. Prior novels were River of Gods (2004), set in India, and Brasyl (2007), two of the most remarkable science fiction novels of recent years. There isn’t any overlap between these books, except that they each explore non-Western futures. The Dervish House is, I think, the most controlled and enjoyable of the three novels. A detailed picture of Istanbul in 2027 takes shape through a variety of viewpoint characters over the course of five days. Several of the characters live in or near an old converted Dervish house, which becomes something of a character itself. One plot thread turns into a variation on The Da Vinci Code, as an art dealer chases after an ancient artifact, called a mellified man. Unlike The Da Vinci Code, this thread of the story does not wear out its welcome. I was less interested in the story of the gas commodity trader and his plan to manipulate the market. Still, all the threads weave together into a coherent and satisfying whole.

This group of nominees provokes an extreme range of reactions from your humble correspondent, from the exceedingly weak Blackout/All Clear to the especially strong The Dervish House. Foremost among the books that should have been on the shortlist but weren't, Under Heaven by Guy Gaviel Kay was an exceptional fantasy novel set in Tang Dynasty China.

Rankings for the SF Strangelove Hugo Awards ballot for novel:
1. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz; Pyr)
2. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
3. No award.

The 2011 Hugo Awards will be presented August 20, 2011 at Renovation, the World Science Fiction Convention to be held in Reno, Nevada.

Related links:
2011 Hugo Nominees
Reactions to the 2011 Hugo Nominees
2011 Hugo Nominations: Novella
The 2011 Hugo Awards: Novelette Shortlist
The 2011 Hugo Awards: Short Story Shortlist
Renovation, The 69th World Science Fiction Convention: The Hugo Awards


  1. I was also disappointed that Under Heaven didn't make the ballot. It was definitely one of the strongest novels I've read this year.

  2. Under Heaven is on the best novel shortlist for the World Fantasy Award it was announced today.