So the Hugo was just awarded, which means that a roundup of the nominees now is absolutely timely and not at all a bit belated. I already talked about Cryoburn, but I actually did read all the nominees this year, for the first time in the history of ever, so let’s go over the rest of them.
First up is the winner, Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear. This is, as my italicizing indicates, two books, so it’s a little weird that they won as a single book, but hey.
There’s been a lot of complaining about these books, mostly centered around historical inaccuracy and ridiculously farcical plotting. The first complaint goes right past me because I wasn’t in England in the ‘40s (or indeed, ever), so have no way to catch any inaccuracies. They felt like a plausible depiction of wartime London, and I suspect the inaccuracies are matters of detail, like whether particular train lines existed or how long it takes to get to a particular place, so find myself unable to really care about that.
The second complaint, though, yeah. In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Willis was writing an explicit farce, which meant that she had lots of the common tropes of farces, including people running around frantically and just barely missing each other and not getting crucial pieces of information and jumping to incorrect conclusions. In the service of comedy, that works well, and To Say Nothing of the Dog was a great book. But here, she’s using the same tropes in the service of weighty tragedy, and it works horribly. The book is madly frustrating, as you just want to sit each character down and slap them until they tell everything they know to the other characters. This is by far the biggest flaw of the book, and when it’s the main plot driver for 800 pages, the feeling of pointless bloat is hard to escape.
But: The book did have a satisfying ending, and it’s atmospheric throughout, and most of the individual scenes work well even if the cumulative effect is frustrating. It’s not a great book, but it’s not the unreadable monstrosity it’s being made out to be.
And speaking of unreadable monstrosities, Mira Grant’s Feed took second place. This is a book set 25 years after a zombie apocalypse, focusing on the role of bloggers in a Presidential election. It is bad. I mean, really bad. The characters are implausible, poorly drawn, and two-dimensional. The plotting is stupid and contrived, and only works if all the characters are stupid (which they fortunately are). The central conceit — that it would be utterly shocking if bloggers covered a Presidential campaign... in 2040 — is idiotic beyond belief. And the world-building is just ridiculous, full of implausibilities stacked on implausibilities. I could go into a lot more detail, because it’s really phenomenally stupid in very deep ways, but I can’t quite find the energy at the moment.
Thanks to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, this isn’t the worst Hugo nominee ever, but it is very, very bad. And it very nearly won. Worldcon attendees, I look askance at you. And if you personally want to read a zombie apocalypse novel, go read World War Z instead.
So then there’s N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. This is the one that I guess I’m supposed to have loved; everyone else apparently did. But so the thing is, it’s basically a very standard court-intrigue fantasy, set in a moderately-inventive world, with characters who are moderately annoying, and with a tacked on Goth-dark romance. It reads a lot like a minor Dave Duncan novel (Ill Met in the Arena, say). And since good Dave Duncan novels never get nominated for awards, I’m not sure why a merely okay one should be so highly praised. It’s an inoffensive and reasonably enjoyable book, but it’s a weak Hugo nominee.
And finally, there’s Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, which is certainly the “respectable” choice for the Hugo. It’s got a respectably interesting setting in Istanbul; it’s got a respectable interesting set of intertwining plots (a nanotech thriller, an occult mystery, and a financial heist); and it’s got respectable writing.
But it also has a first half that’s incredibly dull (I nearly quit reading before it turned interesting), a cast of characters that I don’t care about at all, and a kind of generic feel to it. It’d be hard to really dislike this book, or to deny that it’s a perfectly solid work with some genuinely good attributes; but it’s impossible to get excited about it. I think that on balance it’s actually the best of the Hugo nominees, but I understand why it finished last in the voting.
Overall, an underwhelming slate of nominees, and if the winner wasn’t a great book, well, hey, at least it wasn’t Feed.