The 2017 Hugo Best Novel finalists

As the Hugo administrator this year, I refrained from posting my own reviews of the finalists in the spring. But we're now 75 days on from the ceremony, and I think enough time has passed for you all to point and laugh at how my tastes differ from the voters.

My general observation is that I guess I was just very tired from organising the actual awards, but I bounced off several of these.

My first vote went very clearly to All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders. Second paragraph of third chapter:

The first week of school, Patricia smuggled an oak leaf in her skirt pocket—the nearest thing she had to a talisman, which she touched until it broke into crumbs. All through Math and English, her two classes with views of the east, she watched the stub of forest. And wished she could escape there and go fulfill her destiny as a witch, instead of sitting and memorizing old speeches by Rutherford B. Hayes. Her skin crawled under her brand-new training bra, stiff sweater, and school jumper, while around her kids texted and chattered: Is Casey Hamilton going to ask Traci Burt out? Who tried what over the summer? Patricia rocked her chair up and down, up and down, until it struck the floor with a clang that startled everyone at her group table.

I really loved this from the first chapter on, a sort of Jo Walton / Neil Gaiman mashup which really worked for me. It was the first of the Hugo finalists that I got (I was given an ARC in late 2015) but in fact the last that I read. Interestingly it has by far the most owners on both Goodreads and LibraryThing, but also the lowest ratings on both. It missed winning the award by 43 votes, the second closest of any result on the night, and won second place.

Top ranked by LibraryThing users, though owned by fewest of them, was my second choice, A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers. Second paragraph of third chapter:

It was too much. Too much, and yet, the restrictions that were in place made processing the Port all the harder. Things were happening behind the kit, she knew. She could hear them, smell them. The visual cone of perception that had rattled her upon installation was maddening now. She found herself jerking the kit sharply around at loud noises and bright colours, trying desperately to take it all in. That was her job. To look. To notice. She couldn’t do that here, not with fragmented views of crowds without edges. Not in a city that covered a continent.

I read the first book in the series last year but confess that I had forgotten so much about it that I read this as a standalone. Never mind; I thought the two interweaving storylines worked well, and Chambers actually made me care about the fate of a more or less anthropomorphic artificial intelligence (usually my pet bugbear). Nicely done. Placed fourth by the voters.

Top ranked by Goodreads readers, Death’s End by Cixin Liu was my third choice. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Tianming read the newspaper and came to the following conclusion: Compared to the time before he was hospitalized, news about Trisolaris and the Earth-Trisolaris Organization (ETO) no longer dominated everything. There were at least some articles that had nothing to do with the crisis. Humanity’s tendency to focus on the here and now reasserted itself, and concern for events that would not take place for four centuries gave way to thoughts about life in the present.

I loved the ambition of this book, from present day China and America to the far future of humanity, firmly in the Clarke/Stapledon tradition. I felt there were some flaws of execution, especially of the means and motivation of the alien threat, so marked it down accordingly. The voters didn't like it as much as I did and placed it sixth; if as in previous years there had been only five finalists, this would not have been one of them.

My fourth preference went to Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee. Second paragraph of third chapter:

The Burning Leaf had shuffled itself into a new configuration. More importantly, a message on the terminal alerted her that they had already separated her from her company. She wished she had been awake for it, but they had undoubtedly done it this way on purpose. If anyone had a sense of mercy, her soldiers would be allowed some rest before they were hauled off for an examination by Doctrine, and those needing further medical care would receive it before they, too, went to their fate.

Basically military SF isn't really my thing, but I really did admire the gradual unfolding of what the dead general's plan really is. The voters liked it a bit more than me and placed it third.

The sequel to last year's winner, The Obelisk Gate, by N. K. Jemisin got my fifth preference. Second paragraph of third chapter:

The force that shatters the Clalsu is orogeny applied to air. Orogeny isn’t meant to be applied to air, but there’s no real reason for it not to work. Syenite has had practice already using orogeny on water, at and since Allia. There are minerals in water, and likewise there are dust particles in air. Air has heat and friction and mass and kinetic potential, same as earth; the molecules of air are simply farther apart, the atoms shaped differently. Anyhow, the involvement of an obelisk makes all of these details academic.

I bounced off the first volume last year, and equally this year found it difficult to engage with the world-building or characters. Mine is clearly a minority viewpoint – it was far ahead in nominations and won the actual award, if by a rather narrower margin as noted above.

Finally, I completely bounced off Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Martin Guildbreaker alighted from the car and crossed the gleaming footbridge over the flower trench to ring the main door’s bell. What could those inside see as he approached? A square-breasted Mason’s suit, light marble gray, and crisp with that time-consuming perfection only seen in those who perfect their appearances for another’s sake, a butler for his master, a bride for her beloved, or Martin for his Emperor. A darker armband, black-edged Imperial Gray with the Square & Compass on it, declares him a Familiaris Regni, an intimate of the Masonic throne, who walks the corridors of power at the price of subjecting himself by law and contract to the absolute dictum of Caesar’s will. Martin wears no strat insignia, not even for a hobby, nothing beyond his one white sleeve announcing permanent participation in that most Masonic rite the Annus Dialogorum. His hair is black, his skin a healthy, vaguely Persian brown, but I will not bore you with the genetics of a line that has not worn a nation-strat insignia these ten generations. There is no allegiance for a Guildbreaker but the Empire, nor a more unwelcome presence on this doorstep than a Guildbreaker.

Perhaps I was just too tired to concentrate, but I never really understood what was going on here. Running the damn awards does put a bit of a crimp in one's reading time and possibly brain capacity… The author did give a lovely and moving speech on winning the Campbell Award.

One thought on “The 2017 Hugo Best Novel finalists

  1. It seems to be the new orthodoxy where Krynoids are concerned that the pod tendril simply strikes the victim, leaving a wound; this emerged in the DWM ‘Fact of Fiction’ piece a few years ago, appears in Finch’s story, but is at variance with earlier interpretations of what was seen on screen in 1976 and the novelisation in 1977. John Gleeson seems to be holding the tendril to his arm, while pretending to be unable to detach it, in part one of ‘The Seeds of Doom’, and the pod’s attack on Keeler is framed in a similar way.

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