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Hugo Award Nominee

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Just a moment ago, this years Hugo Award ceremony was held in Melbourne, Australia. Since I have read all but one of novels awarded the Hugo in the past, I felt that this year it was time to go one step further and read all the nominees before the prize ceremony, usually held in August or September. That way, I get to read more new science fiction, but I can also complain in the probable event that the wrong book wins. In this post, I’ll go through the six nominees and comment on my assessment of how much they deserve the award. I’ll do it in reverse order, so my favourite nominee will come last. For a discussion of the actual winner of the award, see the last paragraph.

To read the full review of each novel, click title over each entry.

Number 6:
Robert Charles Wilson – Julian Comstock

This is by far the worst novel of the nominees. In fact, it’s the only one that I would call bad and I regret reading. It’s written by a fairly skilled author, but he just simply doesn’t know when to stop. This as post-apocalyptic story about two boys (one of them the nephew of the sitting president) and their adventures, both in the ongoing civil war, but also in the political environment none of the actually understands. The major problem with the book is it’s length and the fact that most of the book feels like a long-winded and dull epilogue. If I the Hugo was separated into ten pieces, I would give none to Robert Charles Wilson.

Nunmber 5: Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

Having left the only really bad book, it becomes a lot harder to distinguish the best from the very best. I would say that the numbers five through two are quite similar in their overall aptness to win the Hugo Award. The overall rating is, however, the only common denominator between the four books is the rating. Palimpsest is an explosion of creativity, both when it comes to language and setting. Sadly, in my opinion, the author fails to piece the novel together. She’s created a lot of beautiful shards, but in it’s current form, the novel lacks a few key features and contains too much of some other things. If I had ten Hugo Awards, I would give one to Catherynne M. Valente.

Number 4: Robert J. Sawyer – Wake

Wake is in some ways the diametrical opposite of Palimpsest. It’s written by an author who truly understands how to use science in science fiction. As such, it’s a lot harder (i.e. more realistic, more scientific) than any of the other nominees. As is the case with Palimpsest it feels like the novel lacks something. It’s inspires and it creates a wish for more, but as a novel in itself, it’s not very good. This might be remedied in upcoming sequels, but I hesitate to praise series, to say nothing of the first book in a series. Of the ten hypothetical Hugo Awards, I would give one to Robert Charles Wilson.

Number 3: Paulo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl is a debut novel from an author I expect much more from in the future. It’s set in a quite unique post-apocalyptic setting after waves of genetically induced doom and destruction. In this world, Thailand is still a relatively calm island, where people live on much as they have before. The main character is a windup, i.e. a person who is genetically created for a specific purpose (to entertain, in this case), and the novel tells the story of how she tries to escape from her genetic destiny. The novel feels a bit unpolished and could have become a lot better without having to change too much. If I could split the Hugo in ten pieces, two would go to Paulo Bacigalupi.

Number 2: Cherie Priest – Boneshaker

Continuing in the steam punk genre, but this time for real and with little else, Boneshaker is a book which combines so many cool things that it simply can’t be bad. A mad but brilliant scientist living in Seattle designed a mining machine, but during a test run of the machine (called the Boneshaker), something went horribly wrong and parts of downtown Seattle were destroyed. A poisonous gas also began to seep out from the tunnels dug by the Boneshaker and the people who didn’t evacuate died. Or so people thought. The son of the scientist goes into the city to find the truth. His mother follows to find her son. This book is fast-paced, well-written and set in a thrilling environment. If I had ten Hugo Award pieces, I would give two to Cherie Priest.

Number 1: China Miéville – The City & the City

My overall favourite is, without the slightest hesitation, China Miéville’s The City & the City. It’s so good that I knew that it would be my preferred choice for the Hugo Award even when I didn’t even know which the other nominees where (I read this book first)! The concept is one of the coolest ever: two overlapping and yet legally and customarily distinct countries, with border upheld by psychological training and behavioural rules, as well as the intercity police force, the Breach. In this city, the author describes a case of homicide, where one officer from each city needs to cooperate. The investigation of course has far wider implications than what at first seems to be the case. The remaining Hugo Award pieces would go to Miéville, i.e. four.

The right book won!

When I prepared this post (no, I didn’t write in the ten minutes that have past since the award ceremony), I actually had the heading “the wrong book won”, because I didn’t think that Miéville’s book would appeal as much to other readers as it did to me. I was wrong, or at least partly wrong. The 2010 Hugo Award for best novel is a tie between The City and the City and The Windup Girl. Two good books, congratulations to the authors. The official results will probably be up on the Hugo Award official website shortly.

Even though my prediction was wrong, I’m happy that two good novels shared the award. I already look forward to reading the nominees of next year’s Hugo Award!

Update: Here are the complete data from the voting in the various categories.

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Title: Palimpsest
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Year: 2009

Palimpsest is the last of six novels I read of those nominated for this year’s Hugo Award. I started reading without any preconceptions whatsoever (I even had to check a dictionary to know what “Palimpsest” meant), but this book turned out to be excitingly creative in more ways than one. If you ask me, it shouldn’t win the Hugo (more about the award in a another post), but I think it was more than worthwhile to read it.

The story opens up with a long streak of more or less weird scenes featuring sexual intercourse with one of the participants having a map-like tattoo somewhere on his or her body. The intricate lines describe the topology of Palimpsest, a city that can only be reached in sleep by combining one’s own map with that of another person’s. The novel opens up with a number of these scenes, which means a little bit too much sex in too few pages, but this stops as soon as the four main characters, initially separated in their own very special lives, begin to gravitate towards Palimpsest.

This novel has three merits. The first is that it is a cornucopia of small but brilliant ideas; it’s a pity they aren’t connected to form a better whole, but there are enough small wonders to make the reading interesting all the way through. The third is that the characters are unique and well-portrayed, and yet feel credible.

The third merit is that the language is poetic in a way I have seldom seen. It’s not only beautiful, but it also sets my imagination spinning. Here is an example where one of the main characters is served a small bird at a dinner party in Palimpsest:

November veils herself and takes the finch by its roasted beak, pushing it into her mouth with two fingers, her remaining blessings. It is sweet, at first, the burnished skin and meat, glazed in something like brandy and something like plum wine. But as she chews—methodically, for it fills her mouth to bursting—the organs rupture, bitter and bilious, a taste like despair, like the loss of love. And deeper, the bones shiver and crack and cut her—the taste of her blood flows in, salty as tears shed over a ruined body, mingling with the marrow, and it is sweet again, sweet as herself, herself remaining at the end of all trials. And November can see why the veil is needed. No god should bear witness to a woman devouring a meal of herself.

Here is another one, shorter, but which doesn’t need much introduction:

Sunday, as is its nature, was slow in coming, but it found her eventually, nosed her out with its beatific muzzle, and found her sitting in the seedy grass of Caracalla, waiting, her heart racing itself in circles around nothing.

The fascinating fact is that I could have quoted half the book, it’s all written like this. It’s written in a way that I would like to be able to write, and it makes the book worthwhile regardless of its shortcomings.

Alas, there are major problems with this book. The beginning contains way too much of the same thing (i.e. sex with weird people in weird situations). The pieces of the parallel stories never really fit together, giving me the feeling that this is a fantastic image of a city, but a shattered one where I have to piece the shards together to form something meaningful. This can be beautiful or effective in itself, but I simply don’t think the author has succeed in this regard.

By way of conclusion, I’m thrilled by the language in Palimpsest and by Valente’s audacity. However, I’m also a bit disappointed that these characteristics didn’t result in a novel that was absolutely stunning, which it has the potential to be. I give this book four snails, but I wish I could have given it more.

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