by Doctor Science
The nominations for the Hugo Awards were announced last week, and the fiction slates are the oddest collection we've had in years, possibly ever.
Best Novel (1595 nominating ballots)
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
Parasite, Mira Grant
Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles, Larry Correia
The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Basically, this is three books that no-one is surprised to see on the ballot, and two ... others.
it's a quirk of the Hugo rules that if any individual book of a series hasn't been nominated, the entire series can be.I'm sorry, guys, WoT may be (as you say) a single narrative, but that stretches the definition o "novel" to the breaking point and beyond.
I've seen a lot of people in more-or-less despair because the long-running popularity of WoT means that it's "sure" to win, but wow, I don't think so. The Hugos use Instant Runoff Voting (which I've also heard called "Australian ballot", but it turns out that means "secret ballot", an Australian innovation), which dis-favors candidates that "you love or you hate" (with high negatives as well as high positives). And while WoT has indeed built up lots of fans over the past 24 years, there are a lot of us who just don't think it's very good.
My friends and I all read volume 1, The Eye of the World, when it came out in 1990. I can't remember how far I read -- volume 3, maybe? -- until I gave up, sensing that Jordan wasn't really heading toward an *ending*. At that time, my friends were horrified when I predicted that there would be 7 volumes ("The wheel of time has seven spokes" is a saying in the books) -- but that was predicated on believing that Robert Jordan had a plan. Soon it became clear that he didn't, really -- each book seemed to take more pages to cover less time, like a literary version of Zeno's Paradox. The nadir was probably the volume (I don't recall which one) that only made its publishing deadline when an editorial SWAT team went to Jordan's house, pulled his hard drive, edited the text over a long weekend, and sent the results to the printer.
Anyway, for all the dubiousity of having WoT on the ballot, that's not what's really caused an uproar in the SF community. Basically, a group of SF fans and writers who think of themselves as politically conservative fans of military SF (in particular) became exasperated that the kind of stories they like don't seem to get nominated:
The ugly truth is that the most prestigious award in sci-fi/fantasy is basically just a popularity contest, where the people who are popular with a tiny little group of WorldCon voters get nominated and thousands of other works are ignored. Books that tickle them are declared good and anybody who publically deviates from groupthink is bad. Over time this lame ass award process has become increasingly snooty and pretentious, and you can usually guess who all of the finalists are going to be that year before any of the books have actually come out or been read by anyone, entirely by how popular the author is with this tiny group.This is from Larry Correia, who put together a slate of Hugo nominees and urged his friends to vote for it. Most of his suggestions did, in fact, make it to the ballot.
And one of the stories was by "Vox Day", the pseudonym of Theodore Beale. VD isn't just a "conservative", he's a toxic bigot who managed to get himself kicked out of the Science Fiction Writer's Association for associating the SFWA with his egregious, racist assholery.
I haven't read either Correia or VD's works, so I can't yet judge directly, but when self-proclaimed supporters showed up in the comments thread at Making Light, they did not exactly inspire me with confidence in their literary (or other) judgment, e.g.
I don't believe women should have the right or opportunity to vote. I believe many, or most, mixed-races are genetically inferior to my own race.Welp. That kind of sums it all up.
Since I've been inspired by all this to buy a Supporting (=voting) Membership for LonCon, I'm prepared to *look* at Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles, but I don't know how much of it I'll actually *read*. Aside from everything else, the title seems to call for *Portentous Voiceover* as imitated by a 12-year-old boy, and I can't help but laugh every time. It just doesn't convey "Hugo-worthy", y'know?
Now, Correia is quite right when he says, as quoted above, that the Hugos are "basically just a popularity contest." I just don't think that's a particularly *bad* thing, nor do I think he's right in saying that it's driven by "a tiny little group of WorldCon voters", based on who they're friends with. Yes, you can often predict most of the nominees in advance -- readers have favorite genres and authors, and those tend to persist over time. As far as the SF/F awards go, the Hugos tend to be *more* populist (with a larger number of voters) than the Nebulas; the Locus Awards often have more voters than either, and a more consistent voter base -- because WorldCon is in a different region every year, there can be a "home-field advantage" to writers who live in that city or country.
I actually find the two nominating campaigns *hilarious*, because I predict that their net effect will be to make Ancillary Justice -- the most radically-feminist novel that had any chance of being on the ballot -- win by a wider margin than if the campaigns had never occurred.
Among dedicated readers of SF, Ancillary Justice was the breakout SF novel of the year. A first novel (though by an experienced short-story writer), it's a complex work exploring gender and identity, against a richly-imagined interstellar backdrop. It's very intertextual, playing with ideas and tropes from other SF, including Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Iain Banks' Culture novels, and more.
But what makes it really stand out as SF is how it *messes with your head*. The first-person narrator comes from a culture where gender is nonstandard and the default pronoun is "she", and "she" has a lot of trouble properly detecting and reacting to the gender of people from other cultures. At first, as I was reading, I kept trying to figure out what the "real" gender of various characters was, behind the narrator's use of "she". About half-way through I realized I was using up *way* too much of my attention on that mystery, and realized Leckie wasn't going to clear it up for me. So I just let it go and read while trying not to attach any importance to pronouns -- but it's *hard*, I felt like I was wrestling with my own brain. A most interesting and *very* science-fictional experience.
I think the WoT and Correia campaigns increase AJ's chances for the Hugo because several of the books I expected to see nominated didn't make the cut. I expected Abaddon's Gate by James S. A. Corey (pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) to be a strong contender -- it's the climax of a space-opera series, the first installment of which was also nominated, so its chances looked pretty good. I also expected Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane to be nominated, as he's a previous winner with a big reputation -- and he's also a Brit, and British writers should have a home-field advantage with WorldCon being in London. By that same token, I wouldn't have been surprised if Terry Pratchett's Raising Steam had been on the ballot, either.
I don't think much of the chances of Mira Grant's Parasite, for the basic reason that many SF fans -- myself included -- really don't care for zombie stories.
Which means that AJ's main competition for the Hugo is Charles Stross' Neptune's Brood. AJ and NB are in fact oddly similar: both novels have far-future interstellar settings; both are 1st-person POV; both narrators are asexual, rebellious cyborgs using "she" pronouns; both stories explore the consequences of separating mind and body.
Stylistically, AJ is much more interesting -- not just because of the way it uses pronouns, but because of a double-timeline narrative. The biggest problem with NB is that it's chock-full of infodumps, about both world-building and economics: Stross is clearly riffing on David Graeber's Debt as his forensic-accountant heroine explores the financial scams of the future.
The major British SF awards have now been announced, and Ancillary Justice won both the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, as well as the Kitchie's Golden Tentacle for First Novel. The signs are that Charles Stross' home-field advantage won't carry the day, and I expect Anne Leckie to take home the Hugo spaceship, to put on a mantle that's already getting mighty crowded.
 My title is a reference to OH JOHN RINGO NO, a classic analysis of a book by someone whose readership overlaps with Correia's, at least according to Amazon.