Hugo 2019 Novellas: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

The third book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series is a sequel to the first, with one of the murders in the first book having severe repercussions on the magical-portal world connected to the victim. There’s more of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in this story than the last but it’s clear that the interesting premise of the lives of people who once had a magical adventure as a child in a magical land after they return has limited scope.

Nominally Beneath the Sugar Sky continues the core theme but it is less a commentary on portal fantasies and more of a straight portal fantasy. A group of students from the school become embroiled in the fate of a magical land that is based on confectionery, which due to events in the real world is now under the control of an evil queen that needs to be defeated. To do so requires resurrecting a character from the first book, which leads the characters in an adventure into the realms of the dead.

Now McGuire is incapable of telling a bad story and this one has a nice balance of characters and events that kept me nicely diverted while reading it. However, it lacked some of the broader qualities of Every Heart a Doorway or the tragic conflict of Down Among the Sticks and Bones. It’s not a standout story, although well executed. Perhaps I’ve missed some of the nuance or significance in it but having read it and thought about it, I found I had very little to say about it.

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Hugo 2019 Novellas: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

I read this sometime ago and there have been two further instalments of Murderbot’s adventures since. Looking at it again in the context of the Hugo Awards raises a tricky dilemma: how to see the second novella in the series as a thing in itself distinct from the series as a whole? This is further compounded by the deep affection I have for Murderbot as a character, who is a vulnerable empathy magnet of insecurities covered in high-tech weaponry.

Artificial Condition is the one with the asshole research transport (ART) but also the one in which Murderbot has a series of interactions with other AIs as they investigate the site of Murderbot’s mass killing. While All Systems Red introduced the character and the universe of corrupt corporations in which the series is set, Artificial Condition begins the journey of Murderbot and the wider arc of the series. The template for future stories is established and Murderbot changes both as a character and in appearance, gaining more agency in the process.

Although the four novellas do work together as longer story, they do work as connected episodes. I can’t think of a good reason why you’d read them out of order or skip All Systems Red but if you did, the stories would work up to a point.

Cats, Dogs, Robots & Rockets: Hugo 2019 novels where they stand

I’ve reviewed and ranked the Hugo finalists for best novel by my subjective impressions but how about some more objective criteria. Specifically, how does each one feature in the key metrics of:

  • Does it have cats in it?
  • Does it have dogs in it?
  • Does it have robots in it?
  • Does it have rockets (or spacecraft) in it?

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal: Cats? No. Dogs? No. Robots? No. Rockets? Yes, lots. Some missed opportunities here. Elma could have saved a in her airplane. Another astronaut could have had a faithful dog anxiously waiting for them to return.

Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers: Cats? No. Dogs? No. Robots? No. Spaceships? Yes, lots. Another missed opportunity with a clear opportunity for one whole deck of the Exodan fleet having nothing but puppies on it. The Wayfarers series in general has had some quality robot moments but this one is robot free (a brief mention of AIs).

Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee: Cats? No. Dogs? No. Robots? Yes, lots. Spaceships? Yes, lots. There are multiple robot factions and lots of spaceships. No cats though even though several characters (good and bad) strike me as cat people. I guess the universe of the Hexarchate is not a safe place for pets. [ETA see comments: Shuos Zehun names their cats after assassins]

Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente: Cats? Yes, as a viewpoint character. Dogs? Not quite. Wile E Coyote is a recurring theme. Robots? Sort of. Spaceships? Only really one. A very high cat quotient here but could be higher on robots (AIs are a key species but not robots per-se). The genere of sci-fi space comedy has historically, since its roots in comedia-dell’arte, required at least one sarcastic robot.

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik: No cats, dogs, robots or rockets. Elves (sort of) and demons. Could the Tsarina not have had a beloved dog? Could Wanda not owned a cat? Could the Staryk have not been building a giant ice-rocket? OK, probably not the last one. [ETA see comments, there’s a dog near the end]

Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse. No cats, robots or rockets. Coyote as the trickster god is a key character though (which makes our coyote index for this years finalist surprisingly high) and he covers some cat and dog characteristics. [ETA see comments, I’d forgotten the cat spirit/being person who runs the nightclub]

Hugo 2019 Best Dramatic Short etc Round-up

I really like Doctor Who and I really like The Good Place but two episodes each, particularly from not particularly strong seasons is too many. So we have a weird battle of three groups

  • Not The Doctor Good Who Place:
    • The Expanse: “Abaddon’s Gate,” written by Daniel Abraham, Ty Franck and Naren Shankar, directed by Simon Cellan Jones (Penguin in a Parka / Alcon Entertainment)
    • Dirty Computer, written by Janelle Monáe, directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning (Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boy Records / Atlantic Records)
  • Doctor Place
    • Doctor Who: “Demons of the Punjab” written by Vinay Patel, directed by Jamie Childs (BBC)
    • Doctor Who: “Rosa” written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, directed by Mark Tonderai (BBC)
  • The Good Who
    • The Good Place: “Janet(s),” written by Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan, directed by Morgan Sackett (NBC)
    • The Good Place: “Jeremy Bearimy,” written by Megan Amram, directed by Trent O’Donnell (NBC)

My first confession is that I have not watched the nominated episode of The Expanse. I love the books and the next in the series is parked on my Kindle waiting for me to finish some other Hugo Reading and I watched Season 1 of the TV show but I left it at that. So, I’m putting it one side. That means Janelle Monáe wins my first bracket by default!

Dirty Computer is an album and ’emotion picture’ Monáe (see below) starring Monáe and Tessa Thompson.

The film combines Monáe’s music with a loose narrative about a sexually repressive future society. Visually it mixes sci-fi and sci-fi fantasy images with more positive expressions of sexuality.

Doctor Place

2018 saw a partial reboot of the venerable franchise with a new show runner, a new Doctor and a different approach to the supporting cast. The overall result was mixed with the Doctor being placed in a less interventionist role that led to some oddly passive plot resolutions. An advantage of this approach was that the season could have historical episodes that dealt with more recent events and focused on the real conflicts underlying them.

The two nominated episodes demonstrate this advantage, placing the story in situations were the Doctor’s usual capacity to disrupt & change would rob characters of their agency. In Rosa this is most overt, with the real-life actions of Rosa Parks forming the backbone of the story.

However, in other aspects Rosa‘s strength as a drama does not extend well to the other Doctor Who and sfnal aspects. The science-fiction plot is weak and the science-fiction villain is one-dimensional. Also, it always worries me when US racism is examined through a British lens. There’s a danger in the way the very tangible aspects of the Jim Crow era allows British people to identify that as the limits of racism and hence ignore how racism has manifested both in the UK and beyond.

Demons of the Punjab is therefore the more important of the two. Despite the deep intertwining of British history with India, the post war shift to independence and the human toll of partition is not well covered in British popular culture. The topic is treated more gingerly than Rosa, the impact of famine and World War 2 is there in the story but the role of the British Empire (or the Doctor’s pal Winston Churchill) and aren’t examined. As with Rosa, the Doctor is forced into a more passive role as events unfold but that role is paralled with a story about aliens that complements and enhances the themes of the more historical plot.

Of the two, I think Demons of the Punjab is the stronger, braver and more award worthy of the two but it is not without flaws.

The Good Who

While Doctor Who could learn a thing or two about how to make good use of an ensemble cast, The Good Place has already learnt how to handle high concept plots in an ongoing series.

Janet(s) is entertaining, exploiting D’Arcy Carden’s excellent acting to highlight the central characters each in the form of Janet — the quasi-omniscient artificial being. Meanwhile, the horrific calculus of the afterlife gets re-examined with a visit to accounting.

Earlier in the season, we have Jeremy Bearimy, in which the human characters discover (once again) the horrific manner in which people are allocated to either the Good or Bad Places after their death. With the recent past events in Australia being revealed as a deception, the characters react in different ways, with Chidi in particular stuggling to find meaning in his life as a consequence. The title, refers to a model of time — a looping timeline which resembles the words Jeremy Bearimy, written in cursive. The lonely dot above the i forming a kind of lagrange point of tranquility orbiting a timeline of apparent paradoxes.

Carden’s performance aside, I think Jeremy Bearimy is the stronger episode.

Finals

I’m not going to pick between Dirty Computer, Jeremy Bearimy and Demons of the Punjab but they’ll form my top three, with the other episodes of Doctor Who and The Good Place lower down. I’ll skip over The Expanse.

I’d be interested to see what nearly made it. There’s a lot of top-notch science fiction available. The old issue of international access has diminished but access to shows has become far more dependent on which (and how many) streaming services you sign up to.

Hugo 2019 Best Dramatic Long etc Round-up

And the contenders are:

  • Annihilation, directed and written for the screen by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (Paramount Pictures / Skydance) [my review]
  • Avengers: Infinity War, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Marvel Studios) [my review]
  • Black Panther, written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, directed by Ryan Coogler (Marvel Studios) [my review]
  • A Quiet Place, screenplay by Scott Beck, John Krasinski and Bryan Woods, directed by John Krasinski (Platinum Dunes / Sunday Night) [partial review]
  • Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley (Annapurna Pictures) [my review]
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman (Sony) [partial review]

In a time when Marvel superheroes are dominating the box office it isn’t a a surprise to see three Marvel films in the list even if one isn’t strictly an MCU film. Superheroes aside we have one fairly conventional sci-fi thriller and two films where the conventions got eaten either by some kind of swamp creature or a man-horse hybrid.

The only way to tackle this is in two halves: a superhero league versus weird-shit-happening-to-Americans.

Clash of the titans

Bless its mega-crossover heart but Avengers: Infinity War is not a serious contender for the best science-fiction film of 2018. It is a notable bit of film making but it’s rather like what ends up on your plate when you* visit a really nice buffet — lots of tasty things but not a carefully constructed dining experience. I get why it’s here instead of Thor: Ragnarok^ but Thor 3 was a better contender as a sci-fi movie.

That leaves a face-off between Black Panther and Spider-Man. Both are visual treats. Spider-verse pulls off the remarkable feat of creating yet another reboot of Spider-Man as a film character in a way that makes me genuinely excited (doubly remarkable as the MCU version of Spidey was pretty good too).

However, overall Black Panther was a better story and a more well rounded film. Tough contest though.

A metaphor for the alienation of Americans from America

Or maybe just freaky things happening to people. Of the non-superhero films only Sorry to Bother You is overtly a social satire but there’s a sense of isolation from reality in all three of these non-cape wearing films. How to rank them though? They all have excellent acting and interesting stories to tell.

A Quiet Place is the most accessible and commercial of the three, a post-apocalyptic alien-invasion monster movie. Very tense and some excellent performances particularly from younger cast members. However, as a science-fiction story it is nothing new.

Annihilation, really doesn’t care about whether you need to know what is going on or not. There is no apologies for the fact that any depiction of the incomprehensible must necessarily be incomprehensible. Yet the film manages to make you care about a set of characters who are themselves just a little more than cyphers.

Sorry to Bother You, shares Tessa Thompson with Annihilation and is the least polished of all the nominees. It’s also the most original of the films listed and darkly funny. The film rattles through ideas like it is unsure where to put the next one and expects the viewer to keep up. The whole film delves into the fantastic via more mundane aspects of reality but events later in the film make it indisputably science-fiction.

As a set there’s no way of avoiding comparing apples versus oranges (or at least they look like oranges but maybe they are simply the fruiting bodies of some kind of cosmic organism, also the apple is a bear with a human voice) but on balance, Sorry to Bother You beats the others on story grounds. Annihilation is more of an experience than a plot and A Quiet Place isn’t original enough for the top spot.

The final round

It’s Black Panther versus Sorry to Bother You, the unusual blockbuster versus the persistent independent. I may change my mind but I think originality counts for a lot and Sorry to Bother You is refreshingly different.

My final rankings:

  1. Sorry to Bother You
  2. Black Panther
  3. Annihilation
  4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  5. A Quiet Place
  6. Avengers: Infinity War

*[and by ‘you’ I mean ‘me’, except that wouldn’t be grammatical]

^Because I forgot it came out in 2017…

Hugo 2019 Novel Round-Up

Six novel finalists and six books read (well, one listened to). I’m not going to give my final ballot rankings but I think from my reviews there’s some obvious groupings to how I see the books. Specifically, I see the finalists in three groups:

  • Peak of their craft: books that are exemplary works by their respective authors and likely contenders for the top spot.
  • Not for everybody: well no book ever is but these finalists may leave some readers wondering how the book ever got nominated while other readers are ecstatic about them. Great books but they each may find it hard to win over non-fans.
  • Promising but not there yet: Interesting and well crafted but maybe not as strong as the others.

Peak of their craft

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor) [my review] and Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan) [my review] are the two books that deeply impressed me this year. In both cases I thought I knew what to expect and in both cases my expectations were overwhelmed by substantially better books. They are both books other authors can learn from in terms of craft and also in terms of originality within familiar stories.

I’d be surprised if one of these two don’t win. I suspect The Calculating Stars has a greater chance but I preferred Spinning Silver despite it’s more conservative bent.

Not for everybody aka variations on the theme of ‘space opera’

Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager) [my review], Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris) [my review] and Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga) [my review] are all ostensibly big space stories with aliens and generation ships and people boldly going. Aside from that, it would be hard to imagine three more different books.

Of the three, Revenant Gun is probably the least divisive, which says a lot about the other two as Machineries of Empire is infamously odd and at times feels actively antagonistic to its audience. I think it is also the most impressive of the three, although in other ways it’s a conventional story of a despotic space empire being destroyed from within.

Space Opera was a silly but sometimes moving journey into the absurdity of science fiction. I feel like the book was finely tuned to my tastes and I’ll confess a sincere lack of objectivity on my part as a consequence. The rational is absurd and the absurd rational — something Revenant Gun has in common.

Record of a Spaceborn Few, on the other hand was not for me. However, like the other two books here, it clearly did what it was intended to do. The flaws in the book were central to the nature of the book and hence not flaws at all. Demanding ‘more action’ from the book would be like demanding more sensible writing from Space Opera or more conventional sci-fi pseudo-physics from Revenant Gun. You would end up with a more conventional book which wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. The world isn’t short of fictional space ships shooting at each other.

Collectively, these books set an unsurmountable challenge to anybody trying to sum up where modern science fiction is at. Stylistically and thematically, these outer-space stories have little in common other than demonstrating the competence and confidence of their authors.

Promising but not there yet

Ironically, I think Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga) [my review] will find a broader audience than the three books I just discussed but I don’t think it displays the same level of craft as them. It is a pernicious aspect of talking about awards that perfectly good books get pitted against each other and hence end up being discussed more negatively than they would in isolation. Trail of Lightning is an enjoyable and well written adventure but then so are a lot of books. What it has that perhaps some other books don’t have is a promise of even better books to come.

Hugo 2019 Novels: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

One of the things I admire about some of the best short stories is the way some writers can quickly establish both character and setting with a few brushstrokes. Short stories have little space to linger and if we are going to find ourselves caring about a person’s fate, establishing a distinctive person quickly is a necessary skill. It’s not often something you see in novels though.

Spinning Silver is not “Uprooted 2” but it shares common features: based on folk tale tropes and using a (sort of) Eastern European setting to tell an original story with familiar aspects. Instead, we get a story of multiple characters navigating a world of promises, oaths and bargains and the consequences of ambiguous terms.

Miryem is the daughter of an overly kind Jewish money lender in a small community in a Russia-like (or maybe Poland-like) country of harsh winters and deep forests. Her father’s gentle soul is a poor match for his occupation and his unwillingness to chase down debts in the hostile community (and the very real fear of violent reprisals) has forced Miryem’s family into potentially fatal poverty. In desperation she hardens her own emotions to collect the debts her family is owned, if not in cash then in kind. In the process she ends up employing a peasant girl, Wanda, to help her ailing mother as a means by which Wanda’s violent father can pay off an old debt.

Wanda adds a second perspective to the novel but she is just one of several viewpoints. The story jumps from Miryem to Wanda to the daughter of a noble to Wanda’s brother, to a Tsar and to a noble’s daughter’s maid. As the book progresses these shifts of perspective occur within chapters with little notification and yet the voices are so clear and distinct that there’s very few transitions that are confusing.

What the shifts of perspective provide is insight into the magical conflict that is going on around the more gritty lives of pre-industrial Eastern Europe. The winter forest contains not just the normal perils of hypothermia, hunger and wild beasts but also the Staryk: fae beings with wintery powers and a jealous ownership of all purely white animals in the forest.

In very slight parallels with Rumplestiltskin, an idle boast of Miryem’s that her money making skills “spin silver into gold” catches the attention of the fearsome Staryk king and forces Miryem into a supernatural bargain to save her family. It’s the very familiarity of the situation and its echoes with classic fairy-tales that makes the subsequent narrative so surprising and compelling. Without ever undermining those expectations, the story then heads off on a wild sleigh ride, layering on changes in expectations, protagonists and antagonists throughout. Nothing is quite as it seems initially and it’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the book that the final destination becomes clearer.

I should add that this is a book about trades and bargains between powerless people and powerful people. It is not a book that explores consent and some of the character choices (particularly towards the end) are very much about the pragmatism of the poor and powerless in the face of a chance of survival rather than the choices of modern characters.

Despite some elements of brutality and violence, this is also a deeply kind book. Generosity of spirit suffuse through the book and mark out people who give without expectation of return. The kindness of people in hardship to each other is a central virtue of characters as well as the bounds of family.

It is also a book with an excellent sense of magic to it. Magic has an awesome quality in the old sense of “awe” that is both wonderful and to be feared. The Staryk are a enchanting depiction of fearsomely magical beings with powers too great for them to be good. The arrival of other magical threats into the story then allows us to see other layers to the conflict with humanity, the full magnitude of which is not revealed until deep into the story.

I was really taken aback by how good this novel is. I very much enjoyed Uprooted and obviously Novik is a strong and deeply experienced writer but I found Spinning Silver to be at another level to the point that it paradoxically makes Uprooted seem less good as a novel. A very, very strong contender for this year’s Hugo Awards.