Finally, the big one. This actually seems like a good time to lay out what I consider to be the qualifications for the Best Novel Hugo. I’ve now read 49 of the previous winners, so I think I have a solid idea of what works (and what does not) for this award. As I see it, there are three things that make a great Hugo winner:
- Ideas. A Hugo winner should make you think about society, technology, human character, etc.
- A compelling world. What really defines speculative fiction for me is that it creates a new setting as a way to examine or escape our own. Whether that’s alternate history, a fantasy realm, a city with unusual culture and politics, a future dystopia, or an interstellar spaceship doesn’t matter.
- Literary quality. A Hugo winner should be solid literature that can stand up next to successful mainstream novels. You shouldn’t have to make excuses for the prose or the plot.
Now, with the disclaimers that these are my personal qualifications and my own opinions of the books, I think only two of this year’s nominees really meet all three of these criteria. Actually, looking back, two is probably a good number, and I'd add that three more are near misses, so I think this was a good year for the category.
In ascending order:
Wake has a lot of good ideas, but they’re just barely connected by anything I’d call a novel, and the world is really just our own (and Sawyer doesn’t even give us a particularly nuanced or interesting take on our world).
I think Julian Comstock comes close on all three points but misses the mark every time. It’s more an attack on the religious right than a book that really made me think. The world is detailed, but too much like the past. And, Wilson successfully evokes boys’ adventure novels, but goes a little too far in aping a style that can by cloying.
Boneshaker also feels like a youthful adventure novel, but is more successful – enough so that I think it could meet the test in point #3. I also really enjoyed the world that Priest created. It wasn’t so much a novel of ideas though, as the world existed more to satisfy aesthetic qualities.
Palimpsest gives us a fascinating world and rich language, but it’s more of a character piece than a novel of ideas, and I’d argue that it’s really more about Valente’s prose than even the characters.
So, that leaves Bacigalupi and Mieville as the two successes. I do think these are the top two contenders, as they’ve deservingly dominated the other sf awards. This was the toughest voting decision I faced.
Both novels have a lot to say about the world we live in, but the issues of globalization and energy are so central to what’s happening to us right now, and Bacigalupi’s prose, characters, and story cut so remarkably to the heart of them, that I had to vote for Nebula-winner Windup Girl in the end.
However, The City & The City is also a great novel, and I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that it actually wins the category this weekend.
Anyway, thanks for reading all of this. If you’re out there reading and you have suggestions for how I should cover the Hugos next year, let me know.
I’ll have my thoughts on the actual winners on Sunday or Monday, then we go back to the Monday/Friday schedule and it's all 80s, all the time!