Hugos 2023: The Astounding Award for Best New Writer

I’ve often observed of past ballots in this category (now the Astounding Award, previously the John W. Campbell Award) that we voters are given apples and oranges to choose between; this year tennis balls have been added to the mix, as one of the finalists has submitted no work in English at all to the Hugo voter packet, and another has submitted one translated piece and one longer piece that is not translated.

Of course it is crucially important that the Hugos become more open to non-English-speaking cultures and submissions, and it’s also important to note that there is nothing in the constitution about the Hugo voter packet; as I have observed before, it is a privilege and not a right. The keen voter (like me) will run a non-English-language work through one or more of the many free online translators and will attempt to form a fair impression. Future Hugo administrators could think about ways of lowering the barriers to entry and reading here – perhaps the administering WorldCon could support professional translations, though that has costs in time as well as money.

(And if you are about to tell me how cool it would be to get fans to crowdsource translations of Hugo packet stories and other important WSFS documents for free, I have just three things to say to you: No. No. And no.)

Anyway, I’ve done my best to form a fair opinion of the two Chinese-language finalists here, and am casting my vote as follows:

6) 刘麦加 / Liu Maijia. Has submitted a short story with English translation ,《左⼿边》/ “LEFT”, and a short novel without English translation, 麦克斯先生很好》/ “Maxwell”.

I read “LEFT” with interest. The second paragraph of its second section is:

“从知道她存在的第一天开始,就很累……” 我自然知道自己现在是什么样子。不记得多少天没有睡过一个整觉,每天靠咖啡度日,身上的睡袍已经快一个月没有脱下。蒋老师的身子稍稍往旁边撤了点,我怀疑他是闻到了我两个星期没洗澡而发出的味道。“From the day I found out about her existence, it has been exhausting…” I naturally knew what I looked like now. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a full night’s sleep. I survived each day on coffee, and it had been almost a month since I took off my robe. Professor Jiang moved slightly away from me, which I suspected he had caught a whiff of my two-week-old unwashed scent.
Translation supplied in packet

It’s a story about moving away from western concepts of science using the Chinese language as a basis for understanding, a notion which I also remember T.H. White using in The Master long long ago. Breaking the monopoly of English is of course an important question in the wider scheme of things. I didn’t feel it was all that well executed, though; the emotional punch is missing, the wise old professor has a cute-not-cute obsession with Western hard liquor, and although the scenes set in Boston are given a little local colour, I don’t think we find out where exactly in China the scenes set there are meant to be.

I started “Maxwell” as well. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

从城市外三百公里开始,一直向南延伸到海岸线,是斯格林的世界。Beginning three hundred kilometers outside of the city and stretching south to the coastline is the world of Skrin.
DeepL translation

We’re given a summary, which says:

After experiencing a precipitous deterioration of the Earth’s environment and the era of advanced technology, humanity won the AI-war. At the same time, the technocracy went into a cul-de-sac. Overnight, all cyborg humans became “Robotic Skeletons “devoid of citizenship rights. The war with AI nearly destroyed all power facilities. Earth’s resources continued to diminish. Citizens were forced to settle in four 3D cities, awaiting a miraculous invention from the Cloud that would reshape human civilization with unlimited energy.
In 2115, a new round of federal presidential elections was underway. The support rate for the obscure mayoral candidate, Yino Feng, was far from optimistic. Citizen Seven, in order to witness the desired conclusion of their favorite anime, ventured on the edge of federal law. Meanwhile, outside of the city, a young Skeletons boy finally had the opportunity to join the survival battle for the power generator……

It doesn’t sound much like my kind of thing, and after running the first couple of chapters through translation, it still didn’t feel much like my kind of thing.

Liu seems to have published two earlier novels and two short story collections, but as far as I can tell they are not science fiction, so would not affect her Astounding eligibility.

5) Everina Maxwell. Was on the ballot last year and submitted her first novel, Winter’s Orbit, for the packet then; I reviewed it here. This year she has submitted a second novel, Ocean’s Echo. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

He was an army officer, stocky, with a bald head and an evidently lofty rank—Tennal couldn’t read rank tabs, but he felt a stab of apprehension from the miles of gold braid encrusting his uniform. But the officer’s nominal rank didn’t matter. The moment he stepped in the room, a vivid glare of light flooded Tennal’s head, drowning out even the pounding of the engines. Tennal couldn’t see. He couldn’t think.

It’s another queer space opera romance, where the super politically connected Bad Boy is thrown together with the Good Boy trying to overcome his controversial family heritage, in a world where mind-control skills are just sufficiently developed for the plot, and you can see where it’s going from the third chapter. I liked it more than the previous book though. You can get it here.

4) Travis Baldree. As already mentioned separately and under Best Novel, the author is a well-known gaming figure and he has submitted Legends and Lattes, his Best Novel contender, also as his contribution to the Astounding folder of the packet, which makes perfect sense. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The hob hauled in his box of tools and placed it inside the big doorway.

It is about an Orc warrior who decides that she will set up a coffee shop in a fantasy city. There are hilarious capers as she encounters jealous enemies, magical interference with the brewing process (both positive and negative) and love. I honestly don’t think it’s very deep but it’s good fun. You can get it here.

3) Naseem Jamnia. Has submitted a short novel, The Bruising of Qilwa, the second paragraph of whose third section (“Year Three”) is:

“I thought she didn’t even like Kofi.” Afsoneh wore a rose-patterned scarf around her hair, which she’d decided to cut short into a bob and not regrow.

This is a story in an alternate history Persia, dealing with the consequences of Arab invasions which worked out differently than in our timeline, with magical medicine and a very liberal take on gender. It’s pretty heavily loaded with colonial and other tropes, but I think it does manage to carry that burden with a very believable protagonist. The Persian contribution to the Islamic Golden Age is a topic that has long fascinated me, and this is a worthy fictional treatment of it. You can get it here.

(I also salute all of these authors for submitting submit shorter work rather than 750-page novels to the packet in this category. The longest submission this year is Maxwell’s, at less than 500 pages.)

2) Xin Weimu. Has supplied three stories in Chinese with no translation. I ran them all through the online translators and was rather impressed, starting with the shortest of them, 哈农练指法 / “Hanon’s exercises” – a pianist who has found a tech enhancement to drastically improve his performance but at a terrible cost. It’s Faust, of course, but from a fresh angle. The second paragraph of the third section is:

每天邵彬都会搞错什么节奏。正在备战利盖蒂大奖赛的大四女生在他第五次打断演奏的时候哭了出来:“可您说得太快了,我来不及消化!”音乐鉴赏专栏的编辑收到他的新稿呆了半晌,客客气气地回复说:“稿子当然无可挑剔,不过我们说好的截稿时间是两个月后,我知道您平时忙,不用写那么急的。”他换了身行头出去跑步,才稍稍压下了那种晕车似的恶心感觉,但不知不觉跑到30公里,还是平地绊了一跤,喘得被路人围上来询问,才慢慢平复了呼吸。Every day Shao Bin got something wrong. A senior girl preparing for the Ligeti Grand Prix cried out, when he interrupted her for the fifth time: “But you’re talking too fast, I can’t take it in!” The editor of the Music Appreciation column was dumbfounded when he received Shao Bin’s new article and replied politely, “Of course it’s impeccable, but our agreed deadline is not for another two months, and I know you’re usually busy, so you don’t have to write so urgently.” He changed his clothes and went out for a run, slightly suppressing his nauseous motion sickness; but he unwittingly ran for 30 kilometers, and then tripped flat on the ground, gasping for breath and surrounded by inquiring passers-by, before slowly calming down his breathing.
my translation

The second story, 明天就出发 / “Leaving Tomorrow”, concerns time-travellers from two centuries after the bulk of humanity decided to leave Earth, uneasily interacting with the Holocaust. This is tricky ground, but I thought that Xin navigated it well, and there is quite a lot between the lines if you look for it. The second paragraph of the third section is:

时空学院将这座星球上的人分成了两半。一半人能倒着背出三大本管控时空旅行的法律,一说起什么“祖父悖论”、“希特勒悖论”就引经据典、头头是道,一聊到出差或休假,就是天马行空地任意挑选。另一半人则和发明时空旅行以前的祖先那样,日复一日缓慢向前。他们有的仿佛忘了时空旅行的存在,有的则成了时空旅行题材的新闻、学术著作、文艺作品最忠实的受众。The Time Academy divides the people of this planet into two halves. Half of them can recite the three major laws governing time travel backwards, and when it comes to the “Grandfather Paradox” or the “Hitler Paradox”, they can quote from the classics, and when it comes to business trips or vacations, they can pick and choose whatever they want. The other half, like their ancestors before the invention of time travel, move slowly from day to day. Some of them seem to have forgotten about the existence of time travel, while others have become the most faithful recipients of time-travel-themed news, academic writings, and literary works.
DeepL translation

The third story, 血肉之锤 / “Hammer of Flesh”, is a really inventive story of Chinese workers in 1880s America whose experiments with robotics fail to preserve them from racism. One of the non-robot characters is also non-binary. There’s a lot here and I hope someone gives it a professional translation soon. The second paragraph of the third section is:

五金店的顾客络绎不绝,从买剪刀锤头、润滑钟表,到替换搅拌机齿轮、改装蒸汽车轮胎,傅九对任何要求都欣然答允。他的精湛技艺全都写在粗粝的双手上——出生在广东台山的工匠世家,去村里秀才家念书,都是靠给对方修房子作为学费,直到十八岁出洋闯荡,不知何时就传出“什么都能造”的美名。单身的金山客少有能在异国成家的,他却颇为顺利地结了婚,赶上太平洋铁路招募技术工人,便暂别怀着孕的妻子,去华工苦力聚集的路段奔波。There was an endless stream of customers in the hardware store. From buying scissors and hammer heads, lubricating clocks, to replacing mixer gears and modifying steam vehicle tires, Fu Jiu readily agreed to any request. His superb skills were all written on his rough hands – he was born in a family of craftsmen in Taishan, Guangdong. He went to the village scholar’s home to study, and built houses for them as tuition fees. He was known as “the one who can make everything” until he moved abroad at the age on eighteen. It is rare for anyone from Jinshan to start a family in a foreign country, but he got married soon and well. When the Pacific Railway was recruiting skilled workers, he left his pregnant wife for a while and went to the section where Chinese laborers gathered.
My translation

I am not blaming anyone, because I am very well aware of the limited resources of time, money and goodwill available to the Hugo team in any year, but it is really unfortunate that no translation was provided for Xin’s work – I think voters who do not take the effort to deploy the available online tools will miss a treat.

1) Isabel J. Kim. Has supplied a booklet of ten short stories published in 2021 and 2022. They are all really good. Most of them are about death. Most of them are about multiple or shared identities. Several of them combine the themes of death and multiple or shared identities. Several of them reflect the author’s Korean background. The second paragraph of the third story, “You, Me, Her, You, Her, I”, is:

“It’s what you would have wanted, right, Val?” her father had said, looking at the arm you are currently controlling.

Some of these stories made me uncomfortable, but all of them made me think. I expect that Travis Baldree, who has a lot of name recognition, will win this category, but if voters actually read the packet, I think they will incline towards Kim, whose work is really way ahead of the others.

2023 Hugos:
Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Novelette | Best Short Story | Best Graphic Story or Comic | Best Related Work | Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) | Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist | Lodestar Award for Best YA Book | Astounding Award for Best New Writer

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