Of all the Hugo categories, this is both the strangest, and the hardest to prepare for. Basically it is the best series over 240,000 words (about 500 pages), that hasn’t won this award yet, and had an entry come out in the previous year (no matter how small).1
I feel that as series can be ongoing, this category conflates two different things that could be separated out. The first is that best series implies to me a complete, cohesive story arc, and this category could be amended appropriately.2 The second is that by leaving it open to incomplete or loosely connected works, it feels more like a category for world building or setting, and this could be carved out into a separate award with basically the same rules as above but a different name.
As to the difficulty of reading, amongst the six nominees this year there are 33 novels and countless short stories, which given a nomination announcement of 2 April, gives the completionist reader a target of around two novels a week if they are starting from scratch. In previous years I have tried reviewing series off one entry (somewhat disastrously), so I now try to review only after reading a significant portion of each series.3 Fortunately I had already read twenty odd of the books on offer before nomination, and at least two more were in competition to be read on the way here, so this year I feel like I can make a fairly authoritative contribution.4
Note: I’ve included lists of the major works in each series at the bottom, with indication of which ones I read.
The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older
Micro-democracy in action from the perspective of those who try to keep it honest.
There is no getting around that this is a “Big Idea” series, and that idea is micro-democracy – world wide, 100k centenals where the winner doesn’t send delegates to a deliberative body, but instead becomes the government for all the centenals that it wins. Each of the books is used both as opportunity to show of the benefits of such a system, but also its practical problems: book one entrenched power and corporate interests, book two the difficulties of spreading diffuse micro democracy into non-democratic states, book three what is the best way to keep the system fair. All of which suggests that this will be a dry and dusty affair, like the worst of hard sci-fi.
Older sidesteps this by making each of the books an espionage thriller, complete with spies, operatives, and analysts, written in a propulsive, and compulsively readable style. A huge advantage inherent in the world building is the mixture between extremely local and global, she can really drive down into the guts of a small town in darfur, while also giving the characters opportunity to hop flights from Geneva to Saigon via Doha. This merges well with the technology – a near future aesthetic of continual data streams, exotic foods, and fascinating travel options (including the crows, a vehicle that acts as a sort of aerial tuk-tuk.5
As befits this sort of story, there is a globally diverse cast of characters. Older does an excellent job of giving the characters disparate interests, setting up a strong web of relations between them, and providing them with broad networks and backgrounds that gives them a huge range of behaviours. Unfortunately I found that a side effect of the fast paced writing style was that even while each of the characters acted differently, they sounded the same.6
This is a criticism that expands more broadly, even though the series does an excellent job of expressing its ideas, it feels a little insubstantial. In addition, I’m not sure that State Tectonics really added a lot to the series; it was nice spending more time with our core cast, and Older should be commended for how she ends the series, but I felt like it had less to say then the first two volumes.
A series of fast paced espionage thrillers built on a big idea in political science.
Place to Start: Infomocracy: There is a high degree of continuity, and this is a series that lives and dies on the world building in book one.
Best entry: Null States: Has the best balance between ideas, plot, and character.
Weakest Entry: State Tectonics: Not bad, just not as good as the other two.
The Laundry Files
The British Bureaucracy fights lovecraftian horror indistinguishable from computer science.
There is a lot going on tonally in the Laundry Files. To begin with, each of the books is a comic pastiche, generally of spy fiction. Layered on top of that is a Yes Minister/Thick of it ribbing of the tight-fisted, pedantic, but trying to do their best in the face of political incompetence British Bureaucracy. Finally, this is a world where any sufficiently advanced mathematics is indistinguishable from magic, providing opportunities for a wide range of in-depth computer science and engineering jokes. Impressively, Stross is generally able to balance all of these threads, allowing stories to vacillate from genuine horror to laugh out loud humor effortlessly.
The biggest draw of the Laundry Files however is that they are perpetually an exercise in Reductio Ad Absurdum. Each idea is taken to its logical extreme, from Nazi occultists to vampire parasites, and most notably, VERY English Demons. This has the effect of making the world building of almost all other urban fantasy seem slapdash in comparison. This approach also applies to its cast, with Bob Howard being the archetypal civil servant, just one who can use their IT skills to literally perform magic, and the supporting cast (wife, boss, boffins in the lab) are all richly realised characters taken to their logical extreme.
While the series has been moving towards the stars aligning, early books are inspired by different authors, and later books by genre, while the short stories are generally very high concept (unicorns, santa, etc). As such while the series feels cohesive, the individual stories vary quite a bit in form, and I suspect which one a given reader gravitates to will reflect their tastes more than the underlying quality of the books. In addition it suffers from a tendency of all Stross’s books; sometimes he gets so caught up in an idea that it temporarily derails the story. However these are minor blemishes on what is otherwise an excellent and influential urban fantasy series.7
Horror, humor, and a an endless series of high concepts make this a classic series of urban fantasy.
Place to Start: If you want a brief introduction to the series, the first novel in the series includes The Concrete Jungle short story, which, while it contains a minor spoiler for the novel, is a quick way to judge your interest. Otherwise The Atrocity Archive (Book 1) is the best place to start, though The Nightmare Stacks (book 7) feels like a soft reboot if you want to jump into his more recent books.
Best entry: The Jenifer Morgue and The Fuller Memorandum. It’s not that the later books are bad, I just love the bond pastiche of the former, and the shear Englishness of the later. The short stories are also highlights (Equoid and the Concrete Jungle in particular), and can be read as stand alone stories.
Weakest Entry: Annihilation Score: Stross’s shift to superheroics feels out of place with the rest of the series.
Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee
When you let your most dangerous General out, you better make sure you can control him.
Its fitting that this has been nominated in the same year as The Laundry Files, as both have a science as magic aesthetic. But while the Laundry files skews towards comedy and horror, Machineries is military sci fi with a weird twist. In this world, your technology relies on your calendar, math is as important to a general as leadership, and if you cross the border your weapons might stop working.
Indeed Machineries is an endless series of ideas, each weirder than the last, and yet the world building is always solid; it feels like there are rules, its just that the reader doesn’t know what they are yet. On top of this, Lee exhibits meticulous plotting through the series; everything has a purpose, and underneath all the flash there is a solid story about breaking down and rebuiding a totalitarian society, and what a society will put up with for their creature comforts. None of which is to say these aren’t fun, there is often a Warhammer-esque over the topness to the violence and settings that is intentionally bombastic to the point of parody, and Raven Stratagem in particular is a bit of a hoot.
In Ninefox Gambit, I complained that the characters were given short shrift relative to the world building, but after spending three books with them, the key characters were nicely fleshed out. Jedao in particular is that rare character who is portrayed as a legend and actually feels like one. Indeed, my favourite beat in Revenant Gun was actually the coda – if provided a perfect ending to the character arcs.
The biggest problem is that the series thrives on the new, and each subsequent hit is just a little bit less exciting. I really liked this, but I’m glad that it was wrapped up in a trilogy. Most of all, I can’t wait to see what Lee will do next.
A gestalt of weird ideas and ultraviolence that never looses the fun.
Place to Start: Ninefox Gambit. The joy of the series is discovering the new, and you really need to start at the beginning. I would even recommend avoiding the short story prequels to avoid dulling the hit of the first book.
Best entry: Raven Stratagem is the best of the tree, but the shocking novelty of Ninefox Gambit is an almost unreproducable feeling.
Weakest Entry: N/A: Revenant Gun is weaker than the other two, but that’s primarily a product of the novelty wearing down.
The October Daye Series by Seanan McGuire
Even fairies sometimes need a PI…
This was nominated in 2017 and I had this to say:
It’s no secret I love urban fantasy, and I particularly love fairy urban fantasy.8 The October Daye books are therefore a guilty pleasure for me, I don’t think they are great books (though some of the short fiction in the series is), but I really do like them. McGuire has also created one of the really great characters in the form of the sea witch – the cryptic mother of a lost race.
Given I hadn’t read an entry since then (and even for that one, it had been a couple of years), I took my own advice and reread An Artificial Night. I more or less stand by the above, with the caveat that “guilty pleasure” is a bit harsh. The October Daye books are a genuine pleasure because of how readable, almost ephemeral they are. I started reading the book on the train into work in the morning, and I polished off the book before bed. Its not that they are compulsive in the manner of a beach read, but more written in a chill out after a hard day of work style; they are genuine, weapons grade escapism.9 The best thing I can say is that after the Hugo nomination season is over, I’m probably going to plow back through the October Daye books in anticipation of the new release in September.
Urban fantasy for those who just want to get lost in a good book.
Place to Start: Rosemary and Rue or An Artificial Night: Book 1 or 3 respectively. One weakness of the series is that for the first half dozen or so books, McGuire compulsively tries to catch you up, so jumping to book 3 is fine. What I would actually recommend is start at Rosemary and Rue and skip A Local Habitation unless you are a completest (you can always loop back around to it).
Best entry: In Sea Salt Tears: A short story about the best character in the series. For the main novel run, One Salt Sea, for similar reasons.
Weakest Entry: A Local Habitation: A sophomore slump with some really weak technological elements that McGuire was wise to largely leave behind as the series went on.
The Universe of Xuya by Aliette de Bodard
Vietnamese galactic empires where the ships are honoured family members…
It’s revealing that in my subheading for the Universe of Xuya, I refer to the setting. For starters, the Xuya books are unified by setting and history, rather than a through line of plot. More important, the setting is the selling point of the Xuya: while this isn’t the only Asian infused science fiction, even in this category,10 it feels the most specific, particularly the Vietnamese influence. Everything in Bodard’s universe feels built from different assumptions to most Euro-centric science fiction, from the nature of the ships, to the focus on familial duty and friction.
My problem is that I admire the Universe of Xuya more than I like them. I can recognize the quality, but I just don’t get very excited by them.
A glimpse into an alternate world of Vietnamese SF.
Place to Start: Ship’s Brother: A short story that both establishes the most interesting part of the universe (the AIs), and the most common focus of the stories (familial relations).
Best entry: The Dragon That Flew out of the Sun: A story about making stories.
Weakest Entry: The Waiting Stars: It won a nebula, but I really didn’t like it on a structural level.
Wayfarers by Becky Chambers
Space isn’t just other worlds and other races, its the relationships you make with other people.
Periodically an author or intellectual will come along and get a rise out of the SF community by declaring that they will write a science fiction novel that actually grapples with ideas and uses space for more than lasers and explosions.11 Whenever anyone does this, someone should hand them a copy of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, as evidence they have no idea. The reason is that while most SF authors write books with big ideas, Chambers writes science fiction about relationships between people (and not people, it is after all still SF).
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is an exploration of the families we make through life, and yet it is not just modern drama on a space ship, the SF elements are integral to exploring the idea of family. The sequel takes a couple of minor character, and explores ideas of consciousness and sentience, but again, in terms of the connections we make. Finally Record of a Spaceborn Few is her most ambitious work to date, and explores what makes a society work, and how must the adapt going forward.
Of course books about relationships don’t work unless they are filled with compelling characters, and all of Chambers’ books are filled with big casts of interesting protagonists. Indeed a criticism of of her books might be that she has so many good characters that there isn’t really room for great characters. The other major criticism I can level is that all of her books are a bit plotless, but that is clearly meant to be a feature of her writing not a bug.
A great example of anthropological SF built on relationships, not explosions.
Place to Start: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet: There is only limited continuity between the books, so you can start anywhere, but this is such an inviting book, that it makes a wonderful place to start.
Best entry: Record of a Spaceborn Few: I can’t think of a high compliment than to say that it feels like it is in dialogue with some of Pratchett’s work.
Weakest Entry: N/A A Closed and Common Orbit: This is still an above average SF book, so it is more a prince amongst kings.
- The Laundry Files
- Machineries of Empire
- October Daye
- The Centenal Cycle
- The Universe of Xuya
This is exactly why the definition of this category is so problematic. How do you weigh three excellent, but loosely connected books against six very good novels telling a cohesive story (plus some great short stories and one OK book)? Machineries is a very close third, but the weakness was in its conclusion – when the other two are finished will they have ended nearly as well? Meanwhile escapism trumps big ideas based purely on Chris Sims’ going out the door test,12 and Xuya comes in last as a great setting that just doesn’t do it for me. I would not be shocked by any of these winning, and despite my ballot I’m kind of rooting for Lee as it is the best complete series on the ballot.
Major Nominee works
Note Bold indicates works that I have read in the series.
The Centenal Cycle
- Null States
- State Tectonics
The Laundry Files
- The Atrocity Archives
- The Jennifer Morgue
- The Fuller Memorandum
- The Apocalypse Codex
- The Rhesus Chart
- The Annihilation Score
- The Nightmare Stacks
- The Delirium Brief
- The Labyrinth Index
Short Stories read: Concrete Jungle, Equoid, Down on the Farm, Overtime.
Machineries of Empire
Short Stories read: The Battle of Candle Arc, Extracurricular Activities.
The October Daye Series
- Rosemary and Rue
- A Local Habitation
- An Artificial Night
- Late Eclipses
- One Salt Sea
- Ashes of Honor
- Chimes at Midnight
- The Winter Long
- A Red-Rose Chain
- Once Broken Faith
- The Brightest Fell
- Night and Silence
Short Stories read: In Sea-Salt Tears, Rat-Catcher
Note: I noted in my series review in 2017 that I had read the Winter Long, but I didn’t write a review of it, and I don’t remember it.
The Universe of Xuya
- On a Red Station Drifting
- The Citadel of Weeping Pearls
- The Tea Master and the Detective
Short Stories read: The Waiting Stars, The Dragon that Flew out of the Sun, Ship’s Brother, The Frost on Jade Buds.
Note: The major works here are still novella length, and some of the short stories are almost as long, which is why I considered this was a significant enough spread of works read to vote on it in this category.
- The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
- A Closed and Common Orbit
- Record of a Spaceborn Few
- 3.3.5: Best Series.A multi-installment science fiction or fantasy story,unified by elements such as plot, characters, setting, and presentation, appearing in at least three (3) installments consisting in total of at least 240,000 words by the close of the previous calendar year, at least one(1) installment of which was published in the previous calendar year, and which has not previously won under3.3.5.
- Ie. you can take a subset of a series if it makes a complete story arc, very useful for authors who keep returning to the same world.
- I know that this is a bit fluffy, and I’ll get into it a bit more when talking about the Universe of Xuya .
- Though I have kind of run out of actual writing time.
- In the sense of being shared transport.
- A problem exacerbated by having so many characters whose name starts with M.
- I assume the Checquy books are heavily inspired by this for example.
- I read the Merry Gentry books for pete’s sake!
- I’m not damning with faint praise here, it takes genuine skill to write books like this.
- Machinery of Empires fits into this category, and in fact it is a plot point in Extracurricular Activities.
- Of course science fiction is a genre of ideas, and on some level their posturing is just a way of stating “I don’t write genre fiction, so when I do ideas it will be better”, showing complete ignorance of Sturgeon’s Law.
- You are walking out the door for a break, which one do you take?