Thursday, August 21, 2014

Well done Ancillary Justice! Some thoughts on the Best Novel Hugo

I've read 25 Hugo-award winning novels, which feels about right given my reading rate and omnivorous interest in fantasy and SF.

They range from the amazing (A Canticle For Leibowitz, The Diamond Age, The Dispossessed, Hyperion, Stand on Zanzibar) to the just plain terrible (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). And like the Oscars, it's hard not to feel the award has sometimes been given to the right author for the wrong book: The City & The City for China Mieville, say, rather than Perdido Street Station.

Nonetheless, for this reader the Hugo voters have had a pretty good track record - 1 in 5 based on my sample - of recognising great work. And most of the other winners sit comfortably above the average.

2014 - may the most quite good win?

We realised that we'd read three and a half of this year's nominees without really intending to do so (Larry Correia being mainly an American phenomenon, best I can tell). Of those we had read, the eventual winner, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, was comfortably the best of the bunch.

It's a curiously old fashioned but solidly structured story - a throw back to the days of 1970's/1980's experimental space opera. with some nice ideas about language and identity creating enough of a sense of Otherness successfully challenging the reader to struggle for empathy. I liked it a lot - a solid 8/10.

And as others have pointed out, the fact that a book which unfussily challenges the gender binary while still being at the same time a pretty commercial proposition is a pretty strong rebuke to the idea that you can't have your literary cake and eat it too.

Neptune's Brood is Charles Stross back in picaresque space journey mode, with lots of great vignettes and a fascinating take on interstellar currency in a largely sub-light speed economy. Stross on a so-so day still beats most people's year, but Brood is badly let down by an underwhelming ending.

Parasite, I'm assured is also quite good and an interesting indictment of Big Pharma, but also loses traction towards the end.

The half I've read is - naturally - the Wheel Of Time series, where I'm pretty sure I got to book six or seven before giving up: bloated, fatigued and uncaring. The first book is genuinely rather good, but as a series it's better analysed in terms of engineering, creating a story so large it's practically visible from space, rather than any great literary merit.

So the best book won, but I do wish that there had been a really strong contender this year, a truly first rate novel. I'd like a shortlist which felt not just like a celebration of speculative fiction, but a gauntlet thrown down to it. 

Maybe next year?

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