So Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about magic doors, in pretty much every sense of the word. It’s set around the turn of the century (not this most recent one, the one before that), and it interweaves a kind of children’s adventure story in with the rise of twentieth century imperialism, contrasting modern capitalist institutions with exploration and wonder and the like. Which sounds really tendentious when I say it that way, but while the book comes close to being too precious, it stays on the right side of the line.
While I was reading it, though, the Hugo nominees were announced, and somewhat to my surprise, I saw that Ten Thousand Doors was on the list, as were two books I’d previously read (Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire). Well, that’s three of six; if I’m halfway done reading the nominees, I might as well commit to it, and read the rest.
So next up was Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night. I’d read a previous novel of hers while reading through the 2017 nominees; it was okay, but was the weakest of that bunch, so expectations were low here—but those expectations were easily surpassed. Because this is a kind of ‘70s-era SF story about a distant-future human civilization on a planet with a distinctive environment (in this case, it’s tidally locked to its sun, so has a boiling hot side and a freezing cold side, and humanity lives in a narrow band on the boundary between them); it’s one of those civilizations where things clearly have not gone right for the settlers, and seem to be only going worse over time in an entropic way. So in addition to the personal story of the protagonists of this novel, there’s also a kind of over-arching question of whether humanity has a future.
One of the things I like about this novel is that it is deeply political, but it is never simplistic. As much as you might sympathize with the revolutionaries, Anders will keep you from deifying them; as much as you might hate this or that aristocratic character, it’s not clear whether anyone else in their position wold really be better. Solid characters, great world-building, and an interesting multi-track story make this one a very solid piece of SF in the Le Guin mold.
And speaking of low expectations, I was extremely hesitant about Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, because I also read one of her books, Feed, while reading through the 2011 nominees, and I absolutely loathed it. It was, and remains, one of the worst SF books I’ve read, and it was a terrible award nominee.
And so McGuire has been super-successful, with like a zillion Hugo nominations (and wins) to her credit, and it is of course entirely possible that a writer can grow and improve over nearly a decade; but I have been distinctly lacking in recommendations for her work from people who share my opinion of her early stuff, so… who knew what I was getting into.
Fortunately, it turns out that she has improved greatly as a writer. This book is enormously better than Feed was, in a whole bunch of ways. It’s telling the story of two kids with a particular destiny, the alchemist who made them, and the battle for control of cosmic forces as waged through children’s fantasy stories. It’s creditably fast-reading, has an interesting story structure that’s playing around with time, and is an enjoyable read.
But while it’s good, I still don’t think it’s great. The storybook element never really fully integrates in with the modern storyline, and there’s some really clunky writing—I forget if it’s actually a verbatim quote that the villain says “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” but at worst, it’s something close to that. Yikes. Decent fluff, but not really award-caliber stuff, in my opinion (which is clearly not that of the Hugo nominators).
And finally, we come to Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. This one is best described as a leftist’s response to Starship Troopers. It starts off the same way, with a young boy who’s not a citizen joining up to attack the alien menace after they wipe a city off the Earth, and then we follow him through that war (not always in strict chronological order—this is another one that’s doing interesting structural things with time). It should be an interesting read, and much of the time it is.
But the problem is, the actual story is interspersed with these godawful political rants. Some of them are monologues in a character’s mouth, others are just straight tendentious description from the first-person viewpoint. In both cases, they’re awful. They’re just crashingly unsubtle. While Hurley’s political beliefs are a lot better than Ayn Rand’s, this has the monologuing quality of Rand, like someone got a really predictable red rose twitter feed mixed up with the novel.
And the hell of it is, it’s not needed. If Hurley just told the story straight, you’d end up angry at the capitalist overlords; if she just had people naturally doing what they do and going about their lives, you’d understand the pains and frustrations of their daily life in this world. Showing the story would drive home the point a lot more clearly than page after page of political philosophizing does anyway. (And really, even if it were taken down a notch that way, it’d still be simplistic; there’s none of the nuance and depth you see in Anders’ novel here, this is just straight polemic.)
Overall, this is a solid round of nominees. If I were voting for the winner, I’d put Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire on the top of my list (probably in that order); next up would be Ten Thousand Doors and City in the Middle of the Night (in no particular order), as the “very good” choices. Below that, I’d vote for Middlegame as a kind of weak winner, and then “No Award” before Hurley’s novel. It’ll be interesting to see what the actual Hugo voters do.