Hugo 2020 Ranking Novellas

I’ve read and reviewed all the 2020 Hugo Award novellas.

I thought I might try ranking them along different criteria. There is at least one I loved and at least one I hated but there are several here that had some very notable qualities that I was less than enamoured with. Splitting these impression into different criteria doesn’t make those criteria objective but it lets me think about how my different feelings/impressions play out between them.

Cohesion: How well did the story hold together as a single piece. Did the multiple parts all work in concert? Lower ranked stories had parts that I liked but which worked less well when taken as a whole.

  1. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
  2. In an Absent Dream
  3. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  4. This Is How You Lose the Time War [this feels a little unfair as some of the lack of cohesion was intentional]
  5. The Deep
  6. To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Characters: How well did I feel I know and care about the characters in the story by the end of it? I was surprised that Time War ended up sixth but looking at it this way made me appreciate some aspects of To Be Taught

  1. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  2. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
  3. In an Absent Dream
  4. To Be Taught, If Fortunate [I found them annoying in places]
  5. The Deep [Perhaps a little unfair also as the central character was struggling with a loss of identity]
  6. This Is How You Lose the Time War

Prose: Pure word-smithing. Which ones show how to put a sentence together.

  1. In an Absent Dream
  2. This Is How You Lose the Time War
  3. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
  4. The Deep
  5. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  6. To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Engaging Plot: How much did I want to know what happens next! Possibly this overlaps too much with cohesion but pacing and characters also play a role. Time War does better as a result.

  1. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  2. This Is How You Lose the Time War
  3. In an Absent Dream
  4. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
  5. The Deep
  6. To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Boldness: Which story tries to push envelopes and be inventive! A story can do well on some of the above criteria by playing it safe but the spirit of science fiction is to boldly go where no story has gone before or at least not as often! This is a tough criterion because they each really do push some boundaries.

  1. The Deep
  2. This Is How You Lose the Time War
  3. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
  4. To Be Taught, If Fortunate
  5. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  6. In an Absent Dream

Intangible sfnalness: I want to give a boost to fantastical ideas here! But this is a tough category. They each emit large amounts of fantastical energy.

  1. This Is How You Lose the Time War: Crammed full of time hopping weirdness
  2. The Haunting of Tram Car 015: Steam punk djinn 1910s Cairo
  3. The Deep: Hundreds of years of a deep sea history mixing magic, trauma and tragedy and the history of a people
  4. To Be Taught, If Fortunate: multiple planets and exotic life forms richly imagined
  5. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom: a classic of taking a single science fictional idea and exploring the social and human ramifications
  6. In an Absent Dream: The intricacies of the Goblin Market and its cruel/not-cruel rules

Scores! In alphabetical order.

  • Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom (1,2,3,4,3,5)
  • In an Absent Dream (2,3,1,3,6,6)
  • The Deep (5,5,4,5,1,3)
  • The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (3,1,5,1,5,2)
  • This Is How You Lose the Time War (4,6,2,2,2,1)
  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate (6,4,6,6,4,4)

Oh but I have painted myself into a mathematical corner! Multiple rankings on different dimensions! A point system would be better but we’d still need to think about how to weight each category! Oh no!

What I could do is treat each criterion as the preferences of a different voter where each voter is part of my fractured taste in stories. However, it’s a cold morning and implementing instant run-off voting on a spreadsheet is to much like hard work and I’m not sure the numbers would work (To Be Taught… would get eliminated first but without changing anything). One method that uses a simple calculation rather than an iterative process is a Borda Count. Each ranking generates points based on how many candidates are ranked lower. Add them all up and the candidate with the most points wins! The results aren’t very different than averaging the rankings but statisticians don’t ask you why you think you could possibly go around averaging that set of numbers if you shout “voting system!” at them. Of course you then get psephologists shouting “violations of the Condorcet!” at you.

Borda’s method gives me this ranking which I think is almost right in terms of how I’d rank them holistically — Time War should be lower, The Deep should be higher I think.

TitlePoints
The Haunting of Tram Car 01519
This Is How You Lose the Time War 19
Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom18
In an Absent Dream15
The Deep13
To Be Taught, If Fortunate6

Hugo 2020 Novellas: The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark

There is a conceit to book reviews that even when the broader context of a story is acknowledged, the quality of a story stands by itself. It’s a necessary lie because how else would reviewing a story be possible when each of them is lit by reflections and shadows of other stories? With Hugo finalists that set of illuminating and overshadowing objects is at least constrained to an influential six and yet, giving a full accounting of each story in relation to each of its five neighbours is beyond the humble reviewer. Ranking is the best we can do, knowing that any ranking is flawed and misguided — at best a clumsy cartoon of the relationships between the stories.

I say all this because I’ve been thinking more and more about the accidental curation of stories that the Hugo process creates. This year we had again many excellent stories but unlike previous years we haven’t had much in the way of humour. We’ve had melancholy and introspection both of which I like to indulge in with my reading, so I shan’t complain to much (and as I nominate works for the Hugos, I shouldn’t be surprised to see some of my tastes reflected in the results). However, reading through as a collective set of shorts, novels, novellas and novelettes, I did need something that tickled and had its own cheeky irreverence.

So P. Djèlí Clark gets a massive advantage at this point of my reading, an advantage that arises from aspects of other stories and the order I read them in. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 offers a steampunkish buddy-cop fantasy set in a magical early 20th century Cairo. It’s a sequel focused on different characters to “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”. The premise is the same world, one where djinn are real and their powers have given Egypt a magical and technological edge along with political independence and economic prosperity. This is a setting that use fantasy tropes to pursue the modern in an engaging manner.

Agent Hamed of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities has been lumbered with a new partner, the English educated newly qualified Agent Onsi and from there we know that the two will clash, Onsi will learn about some of the realities on the street and Hamed will grow to trust his new partner. Playing off that template gives Clark the freedom to build up a fantastical setting and simultaneously delve into the politics and social change of his alternate Cairo. Women’s suffrage, clandestine smuggling rackets of Armenian sweets and central Asian folklore collide and ricochet of each other as Hamed and Onsi struggle to keep their investigation of the possessed tram car within budget limits.

I loved this so much. Genuinely funny but with a consistent and compelling sense of place and world building. Clark is careful to never let the humour drift into parody of any of the genres he integrates into the story and lets the wit and charm of the setting and characters work its own way into the fun, horror and social commentary. Competent people just a bit out of their depth in circumstances with real stakes (a murderous, violent supernatural entity) but with limits (it’s possessed a tram car and the Superintendent of Tram Safety and Maintenance is very cross about it).

I want to watch the movie of this. I want to watch the Netlfix animated series set in this world.

Hugo 2020 Novellas: This How You Lose The Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Two agents from two conceptually different future outcomes for the universe, range through time attempting to shape history to make the destiny of their faction the inevitable one. Stepping between worlds and alternate realities they begin a correspondence: at first taunting and bragging, then flirting and then, inevitably, declaring their love for one another. The plot is easy to sum up primarily because the details to some degree do not matter, the arc is inevitable but that’s part of why it is the perfect choice for a story about vast factions attempting to tweak history.

Of all the novella finalists this year, it is the most ambitious — an author collaboration on timey-wimey epistolary story that is happy to indulge in long flights of romantic prose. That it works at all is remarkable, whether it always works well, I’m not so sure. I’m really not sure whether I wanted a story that was longer or one that was shorter. The argument for shorter was, I’m sad to say, that I got bored with the point at which Red and Blue were just saying how much they loved each other repeatedly — it was sweet but I was relieved when the story moved towards its end game.

The argument for longer? Both the Garden and the Agency were underplayed and while the whole point is there is no real rationale for the Time War, a better sense of what the factions imagined the stakes were is something I craved. That same context was missing for Red and Blue in terms of their fellow agents or connections with other ongoing characters. Really only the Commandant existed as an additional character throughout the story. The personal isolation of both agents was part of the issue that both had and provides a reason for them to continue to reach out to each other but without any other real personal dynamic with anybody else that very passion between them lacked something.

I ended up wanting to like this a lot more than I was actually enjoying it. However, there’s some stunningly well written sections and the obsessive and baroque methods by which messages are exchanged as the characters zip between settings is delightful. The vivid imagery and use of verbal colour is compelling, as is the technique of referencing paintings (in particular Henry Wallis’s Death of Chatterton) to add to the very visual sense of the story.

I very much do like to see bold stories that take big risks and follow ideas through. I really can’t fault it by that standard, even if it didn’t quite pay off its promise for me.

Hugo 2020 Novellas: To Be Taught if Fortunate, Becky Chambers

I’ve found Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers books a bit hit and miss. They have many positive qualities and I absolutely understand the love for them but I’ve struggled to finish more than one of them. So I was interested to see her branch away in this novella that is set in a much nearer future.

Not unlike the film Interstellar, the story follows a group of explorers visiting exo-planets each with potentially harbouring life and each with their own unique circumstances (an icy planet, a high-gravity planet, a water world). What makes these explorers different from the standard trope is that they are purely doing science for science’s sake. They aren’t the advanced guard of terraformers or colonists (or not intentionally so). It’s a nice idea to see in fiction that too often sticks 19th century European-explorer tropes onto science fiction trappings.

As with her Wayfarer stories, the crew are mix of characters who attempt to work together with compassion while dealing with their own unique personalities and issues.

And that’s about it for positive things I can say. Maybe it was because of the audio book but I found the protagonist to be patronising and condescending creating an overall tone of smugness that often ran counter to the plot. The story was full of the kind of poorly worked through unnecessary detail that serves Chambers’s stories badly (like the genetic enhancement to make the crew’s skin glitter when they are working on a dark planet…in full protective suits to stop them contaminating the planet). I really don’t need every detail to be science perfect and free of any niggles to enjoy SF but Chambers often adds these kinds of techno flourishes that then make little sense. It’s the sense of these thing as carefully constructed details that adds to the incongruity of them that simply wouldn’t be an issue if treated more vaguely or out of focus. For example, I have zero issues with the ship’s interstellar drive. How does that work? Who knows! And that’s fine — it’s a necessary thing for the story to exist and not everything needs an explanation but if you give an explanation that is intended to make sense textually then it really should make sense. Arrrgh! There’s nothing wrong with having characters get glittery skin via gene modification in itself but if you want that to happen because it would be cool to have glittery skin THEN HAVE THAT AS THE REASON WHY THEY DID IT – because it was cool and not because it might save them some infinitesimal fraction of the power on lighting on their trips outside of their interstellar spaceship on a DECADES long mission.

That issue isn’t just confined to the techno bits but also to the character motivations. We have a whole scene in which one of the crew members is in anguish at having to kill an alien critter. It is an important emotional moment and as an idea it is a neat reversal of the usual human-alien encounter featured in, for example, the various Alien films. But, but, but the crew really, really must have already worked through emotionally and ethically a lot of the issues that they then struggle with and we KNOW this because the main character earlier had already discussed the biggest obvious problem: they keep dropping a great big fiery rockety spaceship into these eco-systems killing goodness how many critters each time it plonks down. I’m not having a go at the ethical framework the crew have adopted, it made sense and the fact that even to explore and investigate requires a degree of pragmatic acceptance that they WILL have some impact on the local fauna. It’s like she’d set a story in a vegetarian restaurant but for just one scene and one scene only, she needed the characters to be vegans. Later on the crew (under psychological stress but still) end up killing a huge bunch of alien creatures because they were just really f-ing annoying.

I audio-booked this one and if I’d read it with my eyes I’d have given up way before the end. Even so, I had to re-listen to half a chapter because my mind had wandered off to somewhere more interesting part way through and I realised I had lost track of 30 minutes of the story. Even the title of the story has that maybe-you-didn’t-think-this-through aspect to it, being a quote from the recording added to the Voyager probe’s golden disc from (at the time) UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim which is reprised at the end of the story:

“As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of the 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet earth. I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.” [my emphasis]

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Kurt_Waldheim

Yes, it’s a great quote but hmmm the inspirational quality is maybe not so great in context. I’m not saying nobody should ever quote Kurt Waldheim, just that there is a hell of a lot of baggage there that makes any quote from him becomes weighed down with irony particularly when used inspirationally about our common humanity.

There’s a decent short story or novelette here but the whole thing needs some merciless editing. I ended up actively disliking the whole crew and by the end I had to imagine that the actual twist was that the rest of planet Earth found the crew so insufferable that humanity just pretended that Earth had lost all capacity to communicate with them any more, like somebody pretending to have bad phone reception to get out of a phone call.

The same emotional beats, the same subversion of space exploration tropes, the same view of science-for-science’s-sake could have been done in a much shorter, much tighter, much, much better story. I finished it days ago and thought if I stepped away from it then I’d be less annoyed by it but I wasn’t. Now I’m doubly annoyed because I’ve ended up writing a mean review and now I’m annoyed that I’m annoyed.

Hugo 2020 Novellas: In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire

Last time I reviewed Ted Chiang’s novella finalist and that story has an odd dynamic with his also nominated novelette. Based on a plot synopsis the stories are utterly different but there is a conceptual overlap such that reading one causes a re-evaluation of the other. There is a similar dynamic here between McGuire’s novella (a new entry in The Wayward Children series) and her nominated novel Middlegame.

There are some more obvious overlaps, both Middlegame and In an Absent Dream feature a clever friendless girl who doesn’t really understand how lonely she is who finds friendship in magical way. Both characters even escape class to a janitors closet but it isn’t these plot points so much but the sense of an author exploring a set of ideas, in particular the process of bookish children becoming adults and the parallels of escape within literature and literature as escape.

With In an Absent Dream, the main character Lundy finds a door (as is required in the Wayward Children) that leads to the small world of the Goblin Market. The first thing we learn about the market is that it is governed by rules and from there the story is set on a course that we know will end with Lundy breaching the rules in some way leading to a semi-tragic end. That’s not a flaw in a story but rather a way of establishing the gravity of the tale. It has a sense of a morality fable but there is not a moral as such beyond the reality that growing up is painful for children and parent alike.

It is a more complete and consistent story than Middlegame but it was, for me, a less interesting one. It was also hard to experience the story as a thing separate from both Middlegame and the other stories in The Wayward Children series. In that context, In An Absent Dream felt to me like an addition to an exploration of an idea that didn’t add much to what I’d already experienced in the other stories whereas Middlegame opened up new avenues of exploration but with connections to those same ideas of children’s literature (and specifically portal fantasies) as questions about the process of becoming an adult and what we lose or retain on the way.

As always, you really cannot fault McGuire’s mastery of prose. There is an apparent effortlessness to the story telling and the emotional impact of Lundy’s numerous disappearances adds to the tragic melancholy of the story. However, and this may sound odd, I really thing I’d have enjoyed this a lot more without the surrounding connections to the stories that preceded it. Perhaps the very theme of the Goblin Market and its insistence on ‘giving fair value’ makes me doubt whether I, as a reader, gave fair value to the story (note: I’m not doubting whether I gave fair value to the author and publisher 🙂 because I did pay for the book!) by finding myself judging the story on the merits of other stories.

Hugo 2020 Novellas: Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, Ted Chiang

The title gives me an excuse to talk about the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Concept_of_Anxiety ) except I know very little about Søren Kierkegaard other than that he makes me nervous. Suffice to say if you entitle a story with a quote from Kierkegaard you are pointing to questions of what it means as a person to be. For the stories collated in Ted Chiang’s anthology Exhalation that was already clearly a theme. The pneumatic robot scientist dissecting his own brain to discover a terrible revelation about the certainty of entropy in the title story is a distinctly science fictional take on the them of existentialism. Likewise the introspective shift in Omphalos when the devout scientist protagonist comes to understand that (the very real and manifest) God’s centre of attention is not humanity brings us back to the question of what is it like to be. That two letter English irregular verb is the centre of metaphysics but the sense here is one of psychology.

Ultimately, in Omphalos the complex premise takes the central character down a path of acceptance that in many ways is unremarkable and the same can be said of the scientist in Exhalation. Taken together, the common idea could be stated that the core question doesn’t change with circumstance. Chiang utterly changes the universe in both examples and the clever, nimble minded protagonists find themselves contemplating the same issues as those same characters might if translated to our universe. The same spectrum of responses is open to them and both characters look for a way of maintaining a personal equilibrium in the face of a universe or a god that is perhaps indifferent to them.

“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” has a similar quality in that we meet people in a world in which there is a highly pertinent science-fiction conceit that impacts questions of personal choice and identity and what it is to be but which, in the end, does not fundamentally change how we or the characters engage with those questions. I think it does so more successfully than either Exhalation of Omphalos by centring ordinary people in a story where the technology informs the setting rather than providing a surprising revelation about the universe.

The conceit is very well done. In a world not unlike ours, there is a marvellous invention called a Prism. This is a machine that use quantum mechanics to provide a means of communicating across branching realities spawned by quantum bifurcations in line with the many worlds interpretation. The Prism machines have distinct limits, each one is tied to a specific quantum event that machine itself induces when first activated which provides access to an alternate reality only from that point forward. Also, while large amounts of information can be exchanged (including audio and video) the exchange of information is finite — you will eventually use it all up.

The nature of a Prism means that once you activate it, a parallel you has also activated the machine (or rather you split Schroedinger’s cat-style into two prism owning people) allowing communication with this version of you that up until that moment was exactly the same as you. At this point the value of the Prism practically (and monetarily) is very limited as this other person is basically you living in (almost) exactly the same world. Only over time do timelines diverge as random and/or chaotic events accumulate giving both of yourselves insights into how your lives might have gone.

The story follows two interrelated plots: firstly a psychologist who runs a support group for people who have become obsessed with the paths their alternate selves have taken and secondly a woman who works in a dodgy Prism shop who is running a scam that involves trying to con a member of said support group into selling their Prism. The con relies on the fact that the value of the information in an alternate universe may not lie with the specific alternate self but with other people in that universe. In the case of the Prism at the heart of the con, a celebrity couple who suffered a fatal car crash have a different survivor in each universe making the Prism potentially a means for the grieving survivor to speak with their dead soulmate (and vice-versa).

Meanwhile the psychologist is still dealing with her own issues around a choice made when she was a teenager — a choice that she feels set her best-friend off on a bad path. In a world were people can trace where alternate choices have led themselves, such questions have the potential of empirical exploration. However, as the people in the support group reveal this additional information often leads to deeper issues of people trying to second guess themselves or even issues of jealousy and envy of alternate more successful versions.

Ultimately the Prisms cannot answer how we should behave ethically but Chiang is also careful to avoid fatalism, predestination and chaotic indeterminism as views of the world. The Prisms do offer ways of doing controlled experiments to reveal true facts about the world or even personal choices but they simply cannot resolve a person’s individual dilemmas because one way or another a version of you will have to live with the choice that has been made.

Regret is the central emotion here rather than the anxiety of the title. The two key characters experience regret in different ways and come to terms with past choices in their own ways.