The marquee category, prima inter pares, what people mean when they refer to “The Hugo Award”, the novel category is open to works greater than 40,000 words (~80 pages plus). It is also the category I dread the most; no matter how bad a short story is,1 it will be gone in a moment, while even a good story can drag at novel length. This year I’ve read two going in, Trail of Lightning and Revenant Gun.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Rowanhorse
When the waters rose, the monsters came back…
Read my full review.
For those looking for novel urban fantasy with a bit of an edge.
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
A mathematician possessed by the most feared general in existence conquers the hexarchy.
I didn’t review Revenant Gun when I read it because I felt I had little to say about it. I loved the Machineries of Empire Trilogy, and I really enjoyed this installment, but if Ninefox Gambit felt like a magic trick of new ideas and weird science, then Revenant Gun is what you have when a magician has shown you his tricks: it’s not quite as dazzling, but the craft and skill is still impressive.
Here Lee wrestles with the idea of what comes after you smash your oppressive overlords, and how external pressures can shape revolution. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that personifying the system really works, nor does showing how they came to be from a series of understandable decisions. Fortunately it has a number of great sequences,2 and ends with a nearly perfect coda.
A good ending to a great series.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
A natural disaster cracks the glass ceiling to the stars.
The first thing to note is how compulsively readable this story is. It has the same read in one sitting feel that made The Martian such a success. Throw in the easy sales pitch, The Right Stuff meets Hidden Figures, and this feels like the sort of book that could cross over into the mainstream with the right push, and will be a staple of book clubs for years.
Kowal has fun tweaking the space program and pushing it up both in time and relative importance. The prime focus of the book however, are the woman overlooked by the real space program, and the layers of privilege that held them back. Elma is an incredible figure: calculator, pilot, woman of intense will. But despite the disadvantage of her gender, she still possesses a number of advantages in life – daughter of a general, wife of America’s chief rocket scientist.3 Kowal is constantly contrasting her against comparable men who have gone further because of their gender, and comparable women who lacked her advantages and were trapped. It takes a special figure to break the glass ceiling, though not necessarily a representative one.
Proof that the popular books can have brains as well.
Science interlude – the driving force of this book is a runaway greenhouse effect generated by a meteorite crashing into the ocean. This kicks off both a space program (don’t put your eggs in one basket), and a drive to limit global warming. All well, all good. It is interesting that given prevailing attitudes in the 50’s and 60’s that cooling solutions aren’t a topic of discussion. While SF aficionados will naturally gravitate to ideas like sunshades, I went to a science talk once that went off on a tangent about pumping sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere (the same mechanism that drives the cooling caused by volcanos) and the presenter said that the technology was cheap enough to put it “in range of the world’s poorest countries and richest individuals”, still one of the most chilling things I’ve heard in my life.
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
When the earth died, humanity took to the stars, but what happens to the fleet after we reach them?
Before going hyperbolic with praise, lets talk about the plot. Record of a Spaceborn Few’s plot doesn’t kick off until about half way through the book, finishes at about the three quarters mark, and even this section is not exactly dominated by the plot. There are approximately two paragraphs of action in the entire story. If you are looking for propulsive plotting or exciting action, look elsewhere.4
Which would be a mistake. The Wayfarers series is a loosely connected series of novels set in the same universe, with connected characters.5 Record feels more ambitious than the previous two volumes; while they were about character, relationships, and identity, this is a character study of a whole society focused on a simple question, what happens to a society after its time has passed? The Fleet is a socialist society built to survive a generational journey, but since meeting the galactic community it has been parked in orbit around a star, while more and more of its young flee to more advanced, richer pastures.6
The laconic pacing and gentle introduction provide Chambers the opportunity to give us insight into the Fleet, from a newly minted immigrant, to the person responsible for recycling the dead. It is in many ways a utopian society, designed that way from the ground up to hold together for a a very long journey: everyone works, everyone eats, everyone has a place to stay. Even the structure of the ships forces people to mingle and create extended families. Yet Chambers does not make it unrealistic: while there is opportunity for commerce, it is still a backwater of the galaxy, living to a certain extent on charity and the remittances of it emigrants, and while it has socialist ideals, it is also insular and unwelcoming. Indeed the whole book feels like it is in dialogue with Terry Pratchett’s Guard’s Books, particularly this exchange from the Fifth Elephant:7
‘They come back to the mountains to die,’ said the King.
‘They live in Ankh-Morpork.’
Record grapples with addressing this problem, and how a place can change while still maintaining its essential character. It also does this in the best way possible, not by lecturing the reader, but by presenting great characters, and letting them live their lives. It is as strong a piece of anthropological science fiction as I’ve read in a long time.
Great science fiction about societies not spaceships (though it still has spaceships).
Space Opera by Catherynne Valente
It’s up to a washed up Glamrock superstar to sing for our lives on the galactic stage…
Obviously comedy is subjective, but something about Valente’s writing style causes me to bounce off her work. I struggled with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland despite liking the ideas, and I struggled here. I can see what she is doing here, the influence of Douglas Adams is right on its sleeve, but ultimately the prose felt like being mauled by an arch, but overly affectionate puppy.8 In spite of not enjoying the writing, or really finding it funny, I found myself enjoying large tracts of Space Opera, as it was a font of good ideas built on the brilliant premise of Eurovision song contest as societal Turing test. Valente’s tone and politics seem to fit well into the vein of humanism espoused by a long line of English satirists,9 and ultimately the book feels like a rebuke of brexit in favour of the triumphant multiculturalism of Europe (plus Australia and Israel).
Which is why I was surprised that it so completely shat the bed at the end. The climax of the book managed to both be incredibly abrupt, and extremely telegraphed, making it feel like Valente had an end in mind, but couldn’t execute it. Even more unforgivably, this a book about Eurovision that ends at the singing.10
A great idea that fails in the execution.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
If you want to turn something into gold, don’t make a deal with a goblin, hire a money lender.
The opening paragraph of Spinning Silver is perfect: a dark cynical retelling of Cinderella that acts both as social commentary, and a spectacular introduction to the main character. Novik paints a layered portrait of small town life in a slightly magical medieval Eastern Europe, and a young Jewish girl who hardens her heart and takes on the burden of collecting on her family’s debts.11 From there, we get the perspective of the farm girl offered a better life by the village outcasts, and a young noble girl given the opportunity to become something more, and many other characters in a slowly broadening view of the kingdom.
Unfortunately this was the book that almost broke this year’s Hugos for me.12 The opening and closing of the book are excellent, and when Spinning Silver focuses on its main cast, Miryem and Irina, who are also the characters most involved with the supernatural elements of the story, it absolutely flies by. However for some inexplicable reason, Novik keeps expanding the cast, bringing in more and more POV characters, and padding the story more and more. If this had been a novella about the duo, it may have topped my ballot, but at 480 pages it became an unrelenting slog. Ultimately I found the good outweighed the bad, but the pacing and bloat make it a difficult book to recommend.
A revisionist fairy tale in desperate need of an editor
- Record of a Spaceborn Few
- The Calculating Stars
- Revenant Gun
- Trail of Lightning
- Spinning Silver
- Space Opera
For me, this category wasn’t even close, though I fully expect The Calculating Stars to actually win this category due to its broad appeal. The next two books were above average but not best in class examples of their genres,13 and Spinning Silver was a magnificent 200 page story trapped in a meandering 480 page novel. Meanwhile Space Opera rounds out the field as the book with good intentions poorly executed.
- I’m looking at you An Unimaginable Light.
- The code cracking is a particular highlight.
- She is also Jewish, which is an interesting choice, and plays into the layers of privilege.
- For example at any of the works above this one.
- Which means you can start here if you want, thought I would recommend reading the series from the start just because the other two books are pretty good as well, though I will get to that later.
- Something that obviously resonates with me, a diaspora Kiwi living in Australia.
- If you know how much I love Pratchett, then you will realise what high praise this is.
- With the exception of the album and song reviews scattered through the early chapters which are incredible.
- And for which I am broadly sympathetic.
- Note for Americans and non-Eurovision fans, a major part of the competition is the post competition, country by country voting, and Valente alludes to it pretty heavily in the early parts of the book, but neglects it when it matters.
- Comment 4/08/2019 – When writing this I was going to make a connection with the protagonist of the The Calculating Stars here, never did it, and rereading this it seems really odd that I’ve singled this main character’s ethnicity without engaging with how it is important to the story. Obviously Jewishness and money lending are intimately connected in Europe during this period, and Novik integrates her faith into the story beyond the need of her profession, both in her interactions with her husband and the other villagers.
- There is always one.
- Where Genre for Revenant Gun means the previous two books in the series.