Thursday, July 26, 2012

The 2012 Hugo Awards: Best Novel shortlist

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (Orbit)
Deadline by Mira Grant (Orbit)
A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin (Bantam Spectra)
Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan / Del Rey)
Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor)

Starting from worst to best, here are my rankings:

I won’t be reading Deadline by Mira Grant. I read the first book in the series, Feed, which was on the Hugo Award Best Novel shortlist last year and I had a strongly negative reaction to it. It will be a long time before I am likely to give the author another chance.  The main problem with Feed for me, as someone who worked in journalism for many years, is that since the main character is a journalist, the author needs to convince me that he or she knows something about journalism. Unfortunately, Feed demonstrated some basic misunderstandings about what journalists do and how they do it. As a result I lost confidence in the author. I did finish reading Feed. It read as an early draft of the novel that was intended. It’s about zombies, which scores negative points for lack of originality. (For more about Feed follow here.)

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) reads like two novels mashed together. Story one: a hard-bitten detective pursues a missing person’s case across the asteroid belt. Story two: an idealistic space-ship captain and his faithful crew have a series of adventures across the solar system. Unfortunately, neither story is particularly interesting. The world building and the plot points are built from over-used parts. The prose feels rushed and hobbled with clichés. The characters are thin. The fascination with weapons and violence suggests that the novel is intended for 13-year-old boys. It features zombies, which scores negative points for lack of originality.

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin is a category error. The Hugo Awards don’t have a category (thank goodness) for a middle volume of an unfinished and apparently endless series. This book doesn’t belong in the best novel category. It’s certainly not self-contained. It reads like a very long set of middle chapters excerpted from an incredibly long novel, which is exactly what it is. I enjoyed it, even though it is overlong and could use some editing. It comes from the more-is-better school of series fiction, so any complaint I have that it is too long is only a recommendation to those who like this sort of thing. It features zombies, which scores negative points for lack of originality.

Among Others by Jo Walton is a cleverly constructed character portrait of a teenage girl dealing with issues of arriving at a new boarding school, relationships with boys, a dysfunctional family, and grief over the unnatural death of her twin sister. It is also a fantasy novel that confounds reader expectations by being set entirely after the climactic battle between opposing magical forces. Along the way the reader encounters remarkably alien faerie creatures and a vivid and original magical system. Our main character spends much of her time in the school library and discovers a variety of science fiction and fantasy novels from the 1960s and ‘70s and offers her impressions of each reading experience. What could be seen as calculated fan-service instead provides a surprising depth of insight into the thoughts and maturation of our young viewpoint character. Among Others is an excellent novel with layers that reward close attention.

Embassytown by China Miéville is an ambitious, difficult, and brilliant novel. There are problems with the structure and pacing of the novel, none of which matter when rereading the book. I can imagine that many readers new to Miéville will give up in the first hundred pages or so. I’ve read other Miéville novels; he has earned my trust. I knew that if I stayed the course I would be rewarded.  It’s a novel about language. The central metaphor is to literalize certain aspects of language: that language limits our experience of the world, that language circumscribes identity, that language is an intoxicant. It’s set on a far flung alien planet with an intelligent species whose language is confoundingly different from our own. Communication breaks down in a dramatic fashion, causing a revolution among the aliens, and conceptual breakthroughs are required to reestablish communication. This is a fascinating novel, with thoughtful ideas about language incorporated into a compelling story.  Judging from the four Miéville novels that I’ve read, this is his best yet. (For more about Embassytown follow here.)

SF Strangelove’s ranking of the Hugo Awards Best Novel shortlist:
1. Embassytown by China Miéville
2. Among Others by Jo Walton
3. A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin
4. No award
5. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Anything after “no award” doesn’t matter in the voting. A Dance With Dragons only barely makes it above “no award” in my estimation.

It’s a relief to be able to say that two of the five best novel nominees are actually worthy of a best novel award. That makes it an above-average year for the Hugo Awards Best Novel shortlist.

Here are novels I’ve read that deserved a spot on the best novel shortlist:

The best science fiction novels published in 2011:
This Shared Dream by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Embassytown by China Miéville
The Islanders by Christopher Priest
Home Fires by Gene Wolfe

The best fantasy novels published in 2011:
The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein
Among Others by Jo Walton

I’m sure I missed a few. Still, that’s more than enough to fill my ideal Hugo shorlist. Simply put, the Hugo Awards nominators missed several superior novels.

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