My Hugo and #RetroHugos1941 votes: Best Novella

As noted previously, it is more difficult this year than last year to assess the impact that slate voting had on the final ballot for the Hugos. For some guidance on that question, once again I'm looking at the File 770 straw poll, where the top novellas that readers reported nominating were:

Penric’s Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold (25)
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor (16)
Witches of Lychford, by Paul Cornell (13)
“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”, by Usman T. Malik (12)
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson (12)
“The New Mother”, by Eugene Fischer (11)

In fact the first two of these did make it to the final ballot, Binti without slate support and Penric’s Demon with support both from the Rabid Puppies and from me; if the File 770 readership is representative of the broader non-Puppy Hugo electorate (which of course it may not be), “Slow Bullets”, by Alastair Reynolds (7), would not have been far off either, whereas “The Builders”, by Daniel Polansky (3) was probably further, and “Perfect State” by Brandon Sanderson (0) further still.

It's probably also worth noting that all four of the slated finalists have distanced themselves from the slate in pretty clear terms. (Okorafor's views are also pretty clear.)

My own nominations were:

"The Mound", by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop
"If This Goes On—", by Robert A. Heinlein (finalist)
Fattypuffs and Thinifers, by Andre Maurois
The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares
"But Without Horns", by Norvell Page

"Citadel of Weeping Pearls", by Aliette de Bodard
Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold (finalist)
Witches of Lychford, by Paul Cornell
"The New Mother", by Eugene Fischer
A Day In Deep Freeze, by Lisa Shapter

So one of my five choices made the final ballot for both 1941 and 2016, and in both cases, having read the other four possibilities, my surviving nominee will remain my top preference.

1941 Retro Hugos

It’s a real shame that only Heinlein and de Camp/Pratt are represented on the final ballot. The best writing of 1940 went a lot broader than that, and frankly I’m applying No Award rather brutally at the point where I feel the quality is less than the weakest of the stories I nominated ("The Mound").

6) “Coventry”, by Robert A. Heinlein

Second paragraph:

‘Very well-the jury has determined that you have violated a basic custom agreed to under the Covenant, and that through this act did damage another free citizen. It is the opinion of the jury and of the court that you did so knowingly, and aware of the probability of damage to a free citizen. Therefore, you are sentenced to choose between the Two Alternatives.’

A political parable which didn’t really have a lot of point as far as I could see. Unlike the other three finalists, I read it during the nomination phase but quickly rejected it.

5) “The Roaring Trumpet”, by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The explorer of universes ducked under the skins and into a long hall panelled in dark wood. At one end a fire blazed, apparently in the centre of the floor, though bricked round to knee height. Around it were a number of benches and tables. Shea caught a glimpse of walls hung with weapons – a huge sword, nearly as tall as he was, half a dozen small spears or javelins, their delicate steel points catching ruddy highlights from the torches in brackets, a kite shaped shield with metal overlay in an intricate pattern—

The first of the Compleat Enchanter stories which I read in 2006 and have reread now, in which a modern scientist visits the world of the Norse gods. It’s rather uneven, obviously a taproot text for much that came after, but really not well executed, memorable only for the phrase “Yngvi is a louse!”

4) No Award

3) “Magic, Inc.”, by Robert A. Heinlein

Second paragraph of third section:

“Are you an expert in magic, Mr. Wiggin?” he asked.

Tim Powers argues in the afterword to the Baen edition (only $8.99, recommended) that this should be seen as an early example of urban fantasy and actually I think he’s right; we have a situation of intrusive magic, intervening in the normal business and political life of a small US state. It feels a bit didactic to me, and is of course pretty sexist, but it lurches above No Award as a good case of “What If?” for me.

2) “The Mathematics of Magic”, by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Shea was taken in tow by a pair of youths who gazed at him admiringly. Each wore medieval hose, with one leg red and the other white. As he mounted a winding stair under their guidance, one of them piped, 'Are you only a squire, sir?'

Having been a bit disappointed with “The Roaring Trumpet”, I was relieved to enjoy the second instalment of the series much more; here our hero and his colleague visit the world of Edmund Spenser, with much scope for confusion about the code of chivalry. It is very funny in places, particularly the recitation of “Eskimo Nell”. So I’m giving it my second preference.

1) “If This Goes On—”, by Robert A. Heinlein

Second paragraph of Chapter 3:

Zeb turned to her. ‘I don’t believe so.’ She stared at him. ‘Are you a Cabalist?’

I think this is far and away the best contender in this category. As I have said before, Heinlein’s portrayal of a theocratic dictatorship ruling a dystopian future America seems very close to the bone in 2016, and his thoughts about political messaging are pretty up to date as well, though of course the techniques turn out to be different. This is a worthy winner.

The quality gap between the 1941 and 2016 lists is rather less here than for other categories (mainly because the 1941 list has a couple of weak finalists). My votes for 2016 are as follows:

2016 Hugos

6) The Builders, by Daniel Polansky

Second paragraph of third section:

He nodded brusquely to Reconquista and slipped his way to the back, stopping in front of the main table. “Where is everyone?”

I may be being a bit harsh, but I couldn't really see the point of heavily armed talking small furry creatures. Maybe it ties into something I am not aware of.

5) Perfect State, by Brandon Sanderson

Second paragraph of third section:

It felt so odd to have nobody trailing me. No servants, no soldiers. At the front doors, a man guarding the entrance bowed, then waved me past. I caught a glimpse of a clipboard with a page full of faces on it, mine included. Several of the people from the gunfight earlier were also pictured, and I guessed this was a sheet telling him all the Liveborn visiting the city, so he’d know who to obey. Only a few of those here in the city would be Liveborn—maybe a hundred or so out of millions. Just like in other States, the rest would be Machineborn. Simulated Entities who had been born within the State, and would live their entire lives here.

This was quite a neat concept, but I guessed what was going on not very far into the story and felt that it then went on a bit too long.

4) No Award – in a normal year I might be more generous to trailing stories, but my view is that the Polansky and Sanderson probably owe their spots on the ballot to slating, and the other three probably don't.

3) Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Second paragraph of third section:

When the officer handed me my astrolabe, I resisted the urge to snatch it back. He was an old Khoush man, so old that he was privileged to wear the blackest turban and face veil. His shaky hands were so gnarled and arthritic that he nearly dropped my astrolabe. He was bent like a dying palm tree and when he’d said, “You have never traveled; I must do a full scan. Remain where you are,” his voice was drier than the red desert outside my city. But he read my astrolabe as fast as my father, which both impressed and scared me. He’d coaxed it open by whispering a few choice equations and his suddenly steady hands worked the dials as if they were his own.

I expect that this will win, and indeed it has already won the Nebula. As I said when I read it for the BSFA vote, the plot (plucky kid survives alien attack, makes peace between aliens and humans) is hardly original, and the fact that the protagonist's tribal adornments uniquely give her protection against the aliens is pretty cliched. But obviously it appealed to a lot of readers.

2) Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds

Second paragraph of third section:

But once I was able to assess my condition I realised that there was no longer any pain anywhere in my leg. I felt neither the bullet nor my wound.

I wasn't quite sure about this in places, but Reynolds conveys bleak unforgiving vastness of space and time very well, and managed to find redemption for both protagonist and antagonist at the end. So I have swallowed my uncertainty and put it second.

1) Penric’s Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Second paragraph of third section:

“Where did the fellow go who came with . . .” Pen wasn’t sure what to call her, dead sorceress seeming disrespectful though definitive. “With the late Learned Ruchia?”

I’m a total Bujold fanboy and knew I’d be voting for this as soon as I read it.

I’m hoping that the one 1940 novelette that I haven’t otherwise found will show up in the Retro Hugo packet from MidAmeriCon 2 – I’ve read all the others, including the 2015 finalists.

Best Novel (1941/2016) / Best Novella (1941/2016) / Best Novelette (1941/2016) / Best Short Story (1941/2016) / Best Related Work (2016) / Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) (1941/2016) / Art categories (1941/2016) / John W. Campbell Award