Could “The Return of the Secret Baby of the God Emperor of Dune” win a Hugo Award?

It certainly could but only by defying expectations. [Post title based on this comment by Cora ]

Not only are no wholly original ideas but the more out-there a story is the less accessible it is. Tropes, familiar plot structures, common refrains all make the cognitive task of reading a story easier (see and up to a point, that makes reading familiar stories more pleasurable. Conversely, surprise, sudden shifts of perspective (e.g. when ‘getting’ a joke or a pun), novelty, solving a puzzle or getting an abstract reward for cognitive effort are also pleasurable. Twists, subversions of genre, reversals of tropes and other forms of surprise can cause delight — think about a baby playing peek-a-boo and the delight we get from an early age from learning about object permanence. Delight and comfort are related twins of cognitive pleasure (along with other elements such as excitement and catharsis).

Plot twists are one way to engender that delighted feeling of surprise and they have a multiple effect. The surprise itself is enjoyable but we also feel clever in being rewarded with a revelation (even if we didn’t actually work it out) and we often feel the urge to share with others precisely because when somebody watches The Sixth Sense (for example) unspoiled, we know something they don’t know and we enjoy the punchline again vicariously.

Of course M. Night Shyalaman’s career illustrates that over-familiarity with a structure can undermine the pleasure of surprise. Multiple films with a twist or revelation intended to make you re-evaluate the whole film is a signature move. His films come pre-spoiled, you can’t go into them now without an expectation that the story arcs contains such a twist, which undermines the surprise when it comes. Indeed, the twist becomes a harder move to make in general after the success of films in the 90’s by other directors such as The Usual Suspects, or Seven.

Of course a twist at the end isn’t the only way to create surprise. Undermining expectations by exploiting familiarity either of genre, character or context is another way to create surprise/delight. Rian Johnson’s film Knives Out did this, for example, by taking a whodunnit murder mystery plot, derailing that plot part way by showing exactly the who, how and why of the death, shifting to a different kind of genre thriller only to return at the end of the film to the detective revealing who the real murder actually was and thus making the surprise twist of the film being that the film really was the cosy country house mystery that it initially appeared to be (plus a whole bunch of other things).

Comfort versus delight are juxtaposed but they aren’t *opposed*. Books can have both in much the same way that somebody who enjoys murder-mysteries might well enjoy Knives Out (or not, as the case might be). Comfort and sticking to form is itself a skill and having invoked Rian Johnson already the juxtaposition is one that exists with the recently concluded third trilogy of Star Wars films: J.J. Abrams providing the two book-ends and Rian Johnson the middle in a way that demonstrates the problems with the two approaches.

Abrams, particularly with The Force Awakens, took the comfort path with a film aimed at nostalgia and hitting the plot beats and style of the original films. The film had new characters and better effects but the overall approach was to try replicate the feeling of watching Star Wars. Johnson’s The Last Jedi didn’t ditch all of that but in multiple ways (see my review) attempted to zig when the audience expected a zag. The result was less than perfect — I haven’t done a complete new triology rewatch but the middle film is my favourite and yet…it share with Abram’s films a sense of dissatisfaction. Neither approach entirely worked despite the obvious talents of both directors.

I’m talking about Dune of course and hence it is appropriate that it takes seven paragraphs about a different medium before bringing it up. Dune was hardly the first science fiction book to mix fantasy tropes with far future space travel. If anything, this mixture of faux-medievalism and planets harked back to earlier pulps (just as Star Wars echoed film serials of the 1940s) but the addition of other elements and that broad-brush sense of a bigger setting with a unexplained but deep history still felt fresh when I first read it (again, like Star Wars borrowing Akira Kurosawa).

The Abrams versus Johnson dichotomy with new works by new creators within an established fictional-universe is one way to personify the dilemma. The Abram’s approach is to provide the same thing again but different and the Johnson approach to undermine and rework, or the dichotomy between the-same-but-different versus different-but-the-same.

However, when it comes to awards, the-same-but-different has an obvious disadvantage. It is the same issue I have discussed before and it is an absolutely inherent one. Awards for creative works necessarily must single out particular works and in doing so assert that the honoured work is notable and hence different from comparable works. This in no way is a disparagement of those writers whose work is deeply within the comfort territory, Kevin J Anderson is manifestly a talented writer at what he does and I’m also mindful of how huge swathes of writing (particularly in Romance) is dismissed as less worthy precisely because it as seen as “unchallenging” or otherwise undifferentiated (and hence regarded as disposable).

Nor is this strictly an issue of formulaic writing or sticking to familiar plot arcs. Terry Pratchett is another name that is raised in discussion about under-acknowledged writers. Yet his quirky and often self-subverting novels were rarely singled out despite Pratchett himself being widely honoured (literally honoured with an OBE). However, the question of why this book rather than that book also applies and, to some degree, to which Pratchett could reliably deliver familiarity and consistency with sufficient novelty.

And yet. That very quality of familiarity is the essence of surprise. Jokes often work by a sudden shift in expectations. To quote Douglas Adams (like Pratchett, comfortingly surprising):

Ford: “It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”
Arthur: “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
Ford: “Ask a glass of water.”

Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

So arguably, the greatest surprise, the most novelty, the ultimate in standoutability is not a wholly novel work. If everything is different, aside from the book being difficult to read (because you literally have to work hard to read it) there’s also no ground from which to distinguish the figure. Highly original works don’t offer surprise because they don’t engender the same expectations or worse the expectations work against the novel leading to disappointment rather than surprise.

So *maybe* the most standoutability and hence the most word-of-mouth, the most I-shan’t-spoil-it-but-you-must-read-this, and hence the greatest chance of picking up nominations would be the (n+1)th sequel to Dune that utterly changed how you think about the original novel. Yes, that probably wouldn’t get published because it would alienate the readership who buy Dune-sequels for the pleasure of familiarity (and may well quite different books for the pleasure of surprise) but at some point (2036?) the original book will come out of copyright and then…

If that still seems improbable, consider how works like The Ballad of Black Tom have received critical acclaim and award recognition by taking the once-surprising-now-very-familiar framework of H.P.Lovecraft and by examining the overt and less-overt racism of the works and Lovecraft himself created stories that are familiar and unexpected. Of course horror as a whole genre is an art form that delights in taking the familiar and making it unnerving.


15 responses to “Could “The Return of the Secret Baby of the God Emperor of Dune” win a Hugo Award?”

  1. “However, when it comes to awards, the-same-but-different has an obvious disadvantage. It is the same issue I have discussed before and it is an absolutely inherent one. Awards for creative works necessarily must single out particular works and in doing so assert that the honoured work is notable and hence different from comparable works”

    I’ll argue this point a little bit, I mean we’ve seen a number of works that are basically similar in concept get awarded or nominated multiple years in a row (Murderbot, Wayward Children, etc.) but even beyond that……take Asimov’s “Foundation’s Edge” which managed a Best Novel nomination almost entirely due to the comfort of returning to a world which fans loved and missed and wanted more after decades (despite it not being particularly good).

    The reason Anderson’s Dune works never stood any chance of getting nominated is that they don’t carry the extra bonus of being by the original author (no offense to Brian Herbert, but those books read entirely like KJA books and he’s not his father anyhow) to get fans extra excited to get around the fact they aren’t that interesting. Anderson’s fine at what he does, but his reputation as a guy who puts together comfort versions of things people have already enjoyed is not unearned (I really like the JJ Abrams comparison above, that’s brilliant) as also seen in his Star Wars work. And yet other Star Wars EU work has of course been highly lauded, even if as far as I can tell none of such works has ever been nominated for a Hugo – and even there the problem is probably discriminating against tie-in works more than the familiar, I would think.

    I don’t think your wholly wrong, I just think the circumstances to allow such a nomination are a bit more common than you’d think, even without a book being a subversion like The Ballad of Black Tom or half a dozen other nominated Lovecraft subversions.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. One thing you’ve sort of implied but haven’t quite stated here is how much of this is pretty much a numbers game.


  3. Ack, no idea how it posted that previous, currently ‘awaiting approval’ comment, feel free to delete.

    One thing you’ve sort of implied but haven’t quite stated here is how much of this is pretty much a numbers game. The ‘comfortable’ books will always outnumber the ‘new and interesting’ books (especially as the field has grown more popular over the decades), and thus while there may be more nominations for ‘comfortable’ books, they will be spread out over a wider set. The way the Hugo votes get counted (even prior to EPH, but more so afterward) tends to reward the books that show up on the most ballots over the books that were ranked the highest on individual ballots. So the one book that most people thought was new and interesting gets ranked higher than the semi-random selection of four books from dozens that various subsets of people thought were really great.

    This, of course, is especially true since the 1980s or so, not just because the old masters started dying off, but because there has been a huge explosion and mainstreaming of the amount of stuff out there which dilutes the ‘dozens of comfortable reads’ even more.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I think this is right – I’d add that past experiences have shown that comfort books, when they do become insanely popular ala let’s say Harry Potter – can break into the award nominations as well.

      If GRRM ever releases some form of A Wind of Winter, that might in fact do just that, even as that form of novel has become increasingly commonplace and uninteresting to Hugo voters in general.


  4. I initially misread the comment about how Pratchett’s novels are often “self-subverting” as “self-serving”, and geared up to deliver the smiting blow of an angry god. Then I read more carefully, and saved myself some embarrassment. This is advisable behaviour in the internet age.

    Liked by 2 people

      • That’s the inherent danger of four-fold rotational symmetry for you. Obviously, there are far worse things the Nazis did but somehow ruining a basic form of symmetry of plain shapes is one of the stranger additions to their list of shitty things they did.

        Liked by 2 people

    • //I initially misread the comment about how Pratchett’s novels are often “self-subverting” as “self-serving”, and geared up to deliver the smiting blow of an angry god. //

      Phew! Narrow escape 🙂


  5. Speaking of subversions and hot takes, I see over there —–^ in your Twitter feed box* you’ve RT’d Jim’s comment that “Pizza is a cookie”, to which some people took great umbrage, at which point I immediately thought, “They’ve never heard of dessert pizzas?” Lots of places sell them, and they are manifestly cookies in the form and often the appearance of pizza.

    Also, pizza can be a sandwich, if you consider the folded NYC slice, and the calzone.

    *(not to be confused with a box of feed for things that twitter, aka bird seed)**

    **(which you can’t grow birds from)***

    ***(though it will make birds grow)

    Liked by 1 person

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