The 2016 Hugo Award for best novel

This year’s Hugo Award for best novel will soon be announced, so I thought I’d summarise my thoughts about the nominated novels. In case you’re not familiar with the Hugo Award, it’s one of two major science fiction and fantasy awards, awarded by the World Science Fiction Society (by popular vote at various conventions). You can read more about it here.

Below, I have written something about each of the five nominees and ordered them in the order I think they deserve to win, with the best novel first. We’ll know which novel actually won on August 20th, but if they deviate from my own opinion, they are of course wrong.

Update after the winner was revealed: I’m happy that N.K. Jemisin won the award. It was the only really good book on the list. Neal Stephenson’s would have been a contender if the last part had been transformed into a short epilogue, but the others don’t come close. The right book won!

N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Fight Season is nominated for a Hugo Award this year. I normally don’t read fantasy, but I thought this looked interesting and decided to have a go. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised and I found this book rather interesting.

The setting is a geologically very active super continent that undergoes cyclic cataclysms where life is about preparing for the next catastrophe. There is a mix of advanced technology from earlier, fallen civilisations and magic related to geological activity and heat.

The story is composed of three threads; three women experiencing a different part of the setting and a different stage of the approaching catastrophe. The narrative is well written, the characters believable and also quite interesting. The story itself is rather bleak and there’s plenty of oppression and tragedy involved, but not to excess.

I like a couple of things with this book. First, I like the concept of cyclical catastrophes that influences everything in the setting. Second, the story is well written using a device I have actually considered using myself at one point (spoiler: the three women are actually the same person at different times).

Do I think the book should win this year’s Hugo? I don’t know, yet, but it beats the only other nomination I’ve read so far, which is Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Also worth noting is that three of the five nominees this year are women.

Neal Stephenson – Seveneves

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson explores a scenario I’ve been interested in for a long time. The basic idea is that the entire surface of the Earth will turn into an inferno for several thousand years, wiping out all life. Humanity gets about two years to prepare for survival in orbit.

The first part of the book focuses on humanity’s collective attempt to launch as many people and as much resources as possible into orbit, turning the ISS into the centre of a “cloud ark” meant to be self-sustaining and able to survive without any support from Earth. This is of course problematic, not only from an engineering perspective, but also from a political and social one. This part is great! The second part covers the time after the catastrophe and is good too.

The third part of the book takes place thousands of years later and is really bad; I seriously wish I had stopped after the second part. It feels pretty much like taking a good hard science-fiction novel (the first part) and sticking a mediocre far-future soft science-fiction novel to the end. It doesn’t work at all. I care neither for the characters nor the story. The third part should have been an epilogue, which would have chopped a few hundred pages off the book. That would have been no bad thing considering that the book is 880 pages long.

My suggestion: Read the first two parts. Then, regardless if you liked it or not, do not read the third part. Here’s what happens (spoiler): They find out that there were other projects apart from the cloud ark, including one to burrow deep into the mountains and one to survive deep in the oceans. All three succeeded and the third part is an extremely roundabout and boring way of saying that.

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Mercy

I have now finished Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Overall, the books are competently written and worthwhile to read. The first book is significantly better than the following two, but far from awesome. To be honest, this feels much like Lois McMaster Bujold, just slightly worse and not as funny (there are some good parts though; I loved the translators). They might be fairly bad for non-initiated readers, so I only recommend the first book to people who already like reading space opera. For the rest of you, there are better books in this genre.

Jim Butcher – The Aeronaut’s Windlass

I’ve now finished The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher, which means that I have read all the nominees for this year’s Hugo Award for best novel. I’ll write something about my thoughts in general later; I’ll stick with this novel for now.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a strange hybrid of fantasy, steam punk and intelligent cats. While the world is not described in detail, it’s clear that the surface of the planet has been abandoned and that most people live in very tall towers, or spires, that were left behind by an earlier civilisation. As the title implies, airships of various kinds are central to both the plot and the setting.

It sort of works, but let’s start with the good things. The characters are interesting and mostly well-written. They are also varied and are reasonably well-connected to the story. I also like airships in general, although I like the magic aspect much less, especially on the personal level (they have gauntlets of some kind that can channel ethereal energy). The setting with an abandoned surface is also cool.

What doesn’t work is the narration. The entire book feels too much like an action TV-series with almost no time to breathe or build characters or setting. One climax has barely passed before the story rushes on to the next. Most chapters finish with cliffhangers that would have been more suitable in a periodical of some kind, but make for a very tiring experience in the long run. To put it bluntly, the pacing in this novel is awful. Furthermore, there’s nothing really ingenious or imaginative about the plot, and the novel probably fits into the category of things I could have written myself given enough time.

So, while I like steam punk, the setting and the characters, this is not a good novel. It would be great as a setting for table-top role-playing or similar though. I haven’t fully decided which book I think deserves this year’s Hugo, but I’m quite sure it’s not Jim Butecher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

I usually don’t read much fantasy, but this year I have decided to read all the nominations for the Hugo award for best novel, which includes both science fiction and fantasy. Uprooted by Naomi Novik definitely belongs to the second category.

The setting is small-scale fantasy heavily influenced by Slavic fairy tales. The main character grows up in a small valley where one girl every ten years is picked by the mysterious wizard living in an isolated nearby tower. She is picked because of her latent magical powers, and the rest of the story is about her finding out about these powers, the wizard, his tower and how they fight the dark forest threatening the country.

The book is interesting because of the somewhat unusual influences from Slavic fairy tales mentioned above, plus the setting itself. However, it’s also an example of why I don’t really like reading certain kinds of fantasy. Way too many pages are spent on describing magical battles or adventures that would work well in a film (which I think is planned), but don’t add much to a book. The book is fairly long, but the story would be very easy to summarise because so much time is spent on just describing what happens.

While I think the book was worthwhile, it’s far from the best of the nominees I’ve read so far. I only have one left now, which is The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. I’ll try to summarise all the nominees once I have read the last one!

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