Works in the Hugo Novella category are almost always short novels (17500-40000 words).
I feel like this category has undergone a bit of a renaissance with digital publishing: when I was growing up, I thought of Novellas as either the anchor of a short story collection, 1 or works that flesh out a larger series.2 Without the pressure of meeting mass market paperback length however, novellas can be sold as free standing works, which then can lead to series of novellas. Fully half the slate fall into this category,3 and not only are they sequels, but they are sequels to previous nominated works.
In all three of these series, I liked the original novella,4 but the two sequels that were in the ballot last year, Binit: Home and Down Among the Sticks and Bones were both marked by precipitous drops in quality. Given this, my big questions going into the ballot this year are can Artificial Condition avoid this sophomore slump, and can either of the threequels pull out of their series nosedives?
I get into spoilers pretty heavily for Binti and Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach – for the former just read the first paragraph if you want a spoiler light impression, for the latter, I’ve excised the major spoilers to the end.
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
A Tea Master and a Detective stumble across a crime together. Oh, and one of them is a spaceship.
Strip away the trappings, and this is a fairly straightforward scifi mystery; body is found, investigation proceeds, culprit found. But oh the trappings here. From a tea master using advanced technology to create brews that act as personalised psychotropics to a ship coping with the loss of its crew when it considers its crews descendants, Boddard’s Xuya universe has always felt built from the ground up on different assumptions than standard western space empire settings. This should be perfect for a mystery story – the TV procedural is built on rote plots carried by interesting characters or settings. Unfortunately the plot here was just a little bit too linear, slightly undercutting the other strong elements.
Great setting and characters slightly held back by a simple mystery.
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
Ecological restoration is much easier with a time machine…
The most impressive thing in God, Monsters and the Lucky Peach isn’t obvious at first. It is fairly easy to be distracted by the setting: a devastated world where most people live underground, a fringe few perched on the surface trying to attract venture capital to undertake ecological restoration projects, and of course, a time machine. Then of course there is the idea to use time travel not for anthropological but ecological survey, some interesting characters, and few pieces of well integrated and believable near future technology, all elevating that setting. By the time I got to the end however, what I was most taken with was the structure, which I won’t spoil, other than to say that it sneaks up on you at just the right time.
Unfortunately, the story fell apart for me a little in the time travel. A large driver of the finale are the knock on consequences of smart people doing stupid things, always a red flag. Worse however, the emotional beat of the ending completely missed for me, as it felt like it contradicted a fundamental premise of the story (See Spoilers below).
Brilliant structure and an unusual setting let down by a weak ending.
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
A murderbot tries to find its way in the galaxy…
I’ve railed on a number of stories this year for assembling a whole bunch of familiar pieces without doing anything new, and it is a criticism that could be leveled here. Indeed it’s hard to review Artificial Condition, because it is an exercise in near perfect execution, and I feel any attempt to describe it will undersell it. Wells absolutely nails the tone required from a book with a human adjacent protagonist, and it is impressive that the tautest moments for our protagonist are not any of the scenes of violence, but the ones of social interaction.5 While the story isn’t quite as compelling as All Systems Red, Murderbot’s new friend more than makes up the difference.
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
War comes to Binti
I liked the original Binti, and while I thought Binti: Home was a huge drop in quality, I at least appreciated its aspirations. I genuinely have no idea what Binti: TNM is trying to achieve, to the point where I wonder it I’ve just missed the point.
The problems start, fittingly, at the beginning. I was unhappy that Binti: Home lacked a real finish, and this means that Binti: TNM lacks a real start. We literally pick up straight from the end of the previous story, with no catch up or introduction, with Binti acessing a host of new powers. Rather than giving the book a running start however, all this achieved was to damage my suspension of disbelief, and the magical sci-fi mileau that the Binti series inhabits relies heavily on the reader accepting the world without asking too many questions.6
From here her family is instantly imperiled, and the cultural specificity that elevated the first story feels subsumed by the plot. What happens to her family, her interactions with the Night Masquerade, and the decisions made by her tribe felt like they happened because that’s what the story demanded.
Even worse is the confrontation between the Meduse and the Khoush. I have no objection to Binti succeding in creating peace using her magical math powers, nor with that peace falling apart.7 I just don’t think it achieved anything, other than to set up the Jesus analogy: someone preaching peace and being killed, only to come back three days later. Worse, this, the climax, arguably of the series, happens only a little over half way through the book.
After coming back to life, Binti returns to university and life goes on. Perhaps Okorafor was trying to match the structure of the original Binti, anxiety, violence, acceptance, catharsis. But in the original book, the violence felt like it was part of the themes of growing up and overcoming trauma, and Binti’s reaction to it, to harmonise it, felt genuinely novel. Given the heightening of all of the stakes, except at the university, the failure of the peacemaking, and the religious analogy, I feel that there is a point being made, but I just can’t quite fit all of the pieces together to get it.
A maddening exercise that amplifies everything in the first novel, except the quality.
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
A paladin of the wind stumbles upon a confederate plot to steal a Haitian Weapon of Mass Destruction in neutral New Orleans.
I like being right. I found Clark’s entry in the short story category unsatisfying, but predicted I’d like a novel, and here we are with a novella that I liked it quite a lot.
Civil war steampunk is not exactly novel, but the world building here goes a step beyond with an emancipated Caribbean built around Haiti as a great power, a south that has taken superscience and applied it to the business of slavery, and best of all, a free city of New Orleans squeezed by politics and weather. This all generates a strong sense of immersion, but more importantly it gives the story a strong foundation and a bit of intellectual heft without weighing it down. Throw in the typical but still well realised cast of characters including an urchin, an airship captain, and some insane nuns, and keep everything moving at a reasonable clip, and you have a fun read that doesn’t feel like empty calories.
Immersive world building lifts a fun story.
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire
A nonsense girl comes to a sensible school looking for her mother so she can be born.
I’m not going to bury the leade, Beneath the Sugar Sky feels like a return to the form of Every Heart a Doorway. In fact, the two feel like companions, Every Heart a Doorway was a story about the children who had been forced out of their perfect world finding a place, not to fit in, but to be. Beneath the Sugar sky gets to show us the children who get to live in their perfect world.
It is here that McGuire gets to show off here inventive storytelling. It’s fairly easy to imagine why someone would want to live in a nonsense world of baked treats, or a world of grand adventures. Here we get to see why someone would choose, say, a world of statues or crushing depths. And while it loses some of its emotional substance without the melancholy and frustration of the first story, it is replaced with a non-intrusive examination of the surprisingly cohesive cosmos of this universe.
Indeed, ironically, the fault of this story is once again the plot. The driver of the plot is a loose combination of fetch quest and Back to the Future that at least gets the job done without getting in the way.
The “happy” ending that I didn’t know I needed to Every Heart a Doorway.
- Artificial Condition
- Beneath the Sugar Sky
- The Black God’s Drums
- The Tea Master and the Detective
- Gods, Monsters, and the Luck Peach
- Binti; The Night Masquerade
This reminds me of the slate from 2017, as with the exception of Binti, I could see any of the entrants in this category winning.8 I don’t think there is a lot separating the top 3 in terms of quality, they are all very good, though I think Artificial Condition stands a little ahead, and I liked Beneath the Sugar Sky a little more than The Black God’s Drums. Meanwhile, Tea Master, and Gods, Monsters were both a slight step down, as good stories with minor blemishes.
SPOILERS FOR Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
I don’t need a happy ending, but the the ending here felt forced, and I think it would have benefited from not pulling the Aliens company reveal. Even worse is that throughout the story, we are given one primary rule of how time travel works, that the universe collapses after the time machine returns, and while there might be in cannon reasons why that might not be true, if it is, then the ending of the story doesn’t make any sense as they will all cease to exist in a few weeks.
- ie half the book was a novella, the rest shorter works
- Which to be fair, is exactly what the Tea Master and the Detective is.
- So far.
- Binti, Every Heart A Doorway, and All Systems Red.
- Murderbot’s meeting with prospective clients is a scene from the ages.
- How do the tribal politics of earth interact with other species in that there can be such a limited interstellar war being the most pressing.
- OK, with my suspension of disbelief crumbling, I have huge questions about the king of the Khoush, the Meduse, the role of the Himba, etc, but they are not relevant to my point.
- Though, to be fair, there is nothing as astoundingly good as The Dream-quest of Vellit Boe.