The fiction categories of the Hugo Awards' shortlist offer a study in contrasts, particularly in quality and, shall we say, lack of quality. This is part and parcel of popular-vote awards. I could go on about the "sad puppy" ballot campaign, which has been discussed exhaustively elsewhere, yet the phenomenon is neither new nor interesting. Ballot campaigns are a fairly reliable indicator of lack of quality. Worthy fiction doesn't need a ballot campaign. All it needs is a readership informed with a breadth and depth of reading and an engagement in the discussion of what makes fiction exceptional.
1. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
My next choice for novel likely would have been Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross. I've read several books by Stross and enjoyed them. Unfortunately, somewhere amid his prolific output I stopped trying to keep up. This one went unread.
Next comes "No Award," meaning I'd rather they skipped the award than give it to one of the following three nominees. I've written before about my adverse reaction to a Mira Grant novel. I won't belabor the point here. I've read enough of Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia, to determine that it is poorly written action-adventure with atrocious dialog. In a former career I was paid to read terrible prose and make it better. I don't see anyone offering to pay me to read this. Finally, there is the entire Wheel of Time series, started by Robert Jordan and finished by Brandon Sanderson, which only appears on the shortlist due to a misguided decision about serial works being eligible as a whole in the year of completion. My understanding is that the rule had to do with novels serialized in magazines that would sometimes run from the December issue of one year to the January issue of the next year. It was not intended for multi-volume series published across decades. Yet, here it is on the ballot. I've read enough that it is apparent that it is a poorly written variation on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It may be popular, alas, that doesn't mean it's worth reading.
1. "Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (read it here)
2. "Six-Gun Snow White" by Catherynne M. Valente
"Wakulla Springs" is a brilliantly written story of people and events at a resort in Florida in the 1940s and '50s, with wonderful descriptions of nature and great characters. It's the best novella, even though it doesn't have much to offer in the way of science fiction or fantasy. "Six-Gun Snow White" is a sophisticated blend of European folk tales and American folk tales about the Wild West, which works both as a linear narrative and a meta-fictional text. I'm sure some readers will object that the prose is over-written and calls too much attention to itself. I found the prose to be lush and beautiful and immersive. My objection is that I wanted more. Some of the events and characters were only briefly sketched and I would have liked a little deeper investigation of some aspects of the story.
My next choice for novella, like Stross' novel above, would probably be "Equoid" by Charles Stross, were it not for the fact that I haven't gotten around to reading it.
Then comes "No Award" followed by two weak novellas. "The Chaplain's Legacy" by Brad Torgersen had some interesting possibilities, hampered by pedestrian prose and cumbersome storytelling. "The Butcher of Khardov" by Dan Wells, had even less to offer.
1. "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang (read it here)
2. "The Waiting Stars" by Aliette de Bodard
3. "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal (read it here)
4. No award
Ted Chiang's novelette, it will come as no surprise, is excellent. It concerns language, and meaning, and cultural filters, providing the reader with a lot to chew on afterwards. "The Waiting Stars" is set in the same universe as her excellent novella "On a Red Station, Drifting," which was shortlisted for the Hugo Awards last year. "The Waiting Stars" considers issues of erasure of self and culture. "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" is the autumnal story of an astronaut late in her career.
After the first three stories comes "No Award" and two novelettes with poor prose and tedious stories.
1. "The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (read it here)
2. "Selkie Stories are for Losers" by Sofia Samatar (read it here)
3. "The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere" by John Chu (read it here)
4. "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky (read it here)
I should note that this is the only fiction category where I have not had to resort to "No Award." All of these short stories are award-worthy. My preference for "The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" comes from its wry sense of humor. The title of "Selkie Stories are for Losers" changes meaning in the course of this touching story about coming to terms with loss. "The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere" is an emotionally powerful story about truth-telling and a gay man coming out to his family. "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" is a brief prose-poem about confronting vulnerability.
Before I leave the fiction categories, I'd like to mention some titles that I think the Hugo voters overlooked and could have filled the place of the three novels, two novellas, and two novelettes on the shortlist that I ranked below "No Award."
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Empty Space by M. John Harrison (U.S. edition, 2013)
The Land Across by Gene Wolfe
Overlooked short fiction:
"Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance" by Paul Park (novella, U.K. edition, 2013)
"Entangled" by Ian R. MacLeod (novelette)
"Effigy Nights" by Yoon Ha Lee (short story, read it here)
First place votes in other categories:
I voted for Saga, Vol. 2 in the Graphic Story category; Orphan Black in Dramatic Presentation (Short Form); Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer in Related Work; Coode Street in Fancast; and Sofia Samatar for the John W. Campbell New Writer Award.
A category that needs special mention is Fan Writer, which is especially strong this year. I consider the essays of Kameron Hurley, Abigail Nussbaum, and Liz Bourke to be essential reading for anyone who wants to understand science fiction, both as literature and as a community. I'm less familiar with Foz Meadows and Mark Oshiro, and I suspect I should rectify that.
Related links on this blog:
2013 Hugo Award voting
2012 Hugo Awards: Best Novel shortlist
2011 Hugo Awards: Novel shortlist
2010 Hugo Awards shortlist