The Hugos are back! Mercifully, they come with considerably less controversy (as far as I’m aware) this year than even last year 1. There’s some issues with kids having to be supervised at all times (which apparently has to do with Irish alcohol laws), and the super-weird decision to stop allowing supporting memberships to be purchased two weeks before the event, which baffled just about everyone.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this year’s Hugos from the non-awards-announcing perspective is the attempt to rollback the “five of six” amendment, which was one of the attempted safeguards against puppy-style block nominating. It’s due to expire soon anyway, but the assertion is that it creates more administrative work for Hugo-party-attenders. It’s further stated that the other puppy-avoidance-tactic rule, E Pluribus Hugo, does most of the heavy lifting where that kind of thing is concerned, and it’s not going anywhere. I have no major opinion on the matter, other than that I like more nominees rather than fewer in general, I guess.
Beyond that, and some necessary clarification to make the internet itself count as public display and a counting error on the Retro Hugo ballot, it’s all pretty smooth sailing for this, the first Irish Worldcon. Very exciting stuff, and it leaves us with nothing left to do but talk about the actual nominated works.
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
Everyone here has done pretty good work and, it seems, is destined to do even more. Jeannette Ng is perhaps the least to my taste 2 of these folks, but she’s still not undeserving. Katherine Arden certainly earns full marks for showing up fully-formed and remarkably prolific. While I haven’t read all of the Winternight books, I liked The Bear and the Nightingale just fine. She also writes young people books, which I have not read but am told are excellent. R.F. Kuang is previously covered in this space 3, and I maintain the opinion that The Poppy War is a tremendous display of talent that I absolutely did not like, although I do look forward to what she writes in the future, given that she’s as good as she is already. Rivers Solomon wrote An Unkindness of Ghosts which is a terrific generation ship novel, and I’m super-excited about what happens next from her. It must be noted, however, that I thought Vina Jie-Min Prasad was the rightful choice last year, and her work this year has only gotten better, so I still think it should be Vina Jie-Min Prasad.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book
Without casting major aspersions over things that people otherwise like, this is probably the most difficult this category has gone down in the three years I’ve been writing about the Hugos 4. Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road was a convincingly-rendered character study in a character whose thoughts and behavior are tremendously difficult, and who learns how to live in the world in a more comfortable fashion, after some degree of tribulation. She definitely takes on the subject matter directly and unflinchingly (which is admirable), but her style wasn’t something that I ever really engaged with, and I found it (especially in the early going) to be frustratingly repetitive 5, to the point that I had a hard time getting through it. Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince is a court drama about faeries and humans, and is fine for all that, but none of that is anything I engage with as a matter of course, and I didn’t really get into this one either. Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles takes a big swing at depicting a society that has gone mad in its obsession with “beauty” as the result of an apparently-divine en-uglyfying. The world-building is good, and there are a few moments of pretty effective horror as the nature of the titular belles reveals itself through the narrative, but it’s glued to a pretty standard narrative. The end of the book was very good, however, and made me wish that the first seven-eighths or so had been dismissed in a foreword or something so that we could get the story that happens after this book. It has a sequel, which presumably is that story, and I’ll probably read it because it’s that promising, but this book doesn’t have a whole lot going for it other than several hundred pages of table-setting. Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Invasion is a lot of fun, with a lot of really effective body horror. It’s the sequel to The Call, which was much better, but also blissfully completes the story in two books rather than drawing it out, which I appreciate a lot. It’s nice to see a book that’s so very Irish nominated at the first Irish Worldcon, and it’s definitely a book I’ve recommended, but it’s not got a lot of weight to it, and the first one was better than the second. This category, then, comes down to the same books it did at the Nebulas. Tomi Adeyimi’s Children of Blood and Bone remains more interesting and thought-provoking than well-rendered, and a few months ago, when I had just read it, I was a little more caught up in the emotional content and the richness of the world, and now I just sort of think that perhaps it’ll be better later, when the series develops a bit more plot and a bit less incident. That’s a quibble, though, since it’s still an excellent book. The one at the top for me is Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, which is probably the first time I’ve called the win for a piece of alternate-history work (a subgenre I’m not usually super-into), but which is a super-readable, super-affecting, and really well-told bit of Western horror-adjacent writing.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Justina Ireland, Dread Nation
Best Art Book
Hokaaaaay, so. I am familiar with all of the books here nominated, but as I’ve mentioned again and again previously, I’m not much for visual art, and have very little to go on in terms of evaluating these other than “I liked the pictures” or “I didn’t like the pictures”. Spectrum 25: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art is largely fine – there’s some good pictures in there! – but runs afoul of my general belief that best-ofs in this kind of thing have to be really exceptional to be competitors, and it isn’t really. Daydreamer’s Journey: The Art of Julie Dillon has the benefit of being about one artist, and it’s much more consistent, but I also find the pictures in there, devoid of their context, to be not as interesting as some of the books that do more story-telling with their art assemblage. The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition is a cool collection of Charles Vess’s excellent art, but it also manages to, however well-rendered, limit the visual representation of one of sf’s finest works to one guy’s idea of it. The pictures are good, but some of the stuff doesn’t look right, and so it’s hard to really get behind it as a thing. It would probably rate higher if I thought of things visually the same way that Charles Vess does, I guess. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – The Art of the Movie has a lot of subtitles and is, as suggested by the title(s), a collection of the concept art of the movie. It’s a wonderful movie (see below), but the concept art is a nice little addition to my enjoyment of the movie, and not really essential to the world. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth uses a collection of letters and pictures and things to tell the story of J.R.R. Tolkien, and it’s an interesting way to do it, but ultimately it’s not as good a history as the book that I believe is the rightful winner. Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History is not only a collection of art that I’ve spent an enormous amount of my life looking at, but it does a pretty good job of also telling the history of Dungeons & Dragons, and does so better than the Tolkien book, so is the winner here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History,by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer
Best Fan Artist
This category was made easier for me by containing the work of artists who don’t work exclusively in pictures, which I appreciate a great deal. Of the “pictures” artists, Likhain is my favorite – her pictures tend to be really busy ink-y things, all spindly lines and color gradients. It’s really effective 6. Meg Frank is also an excellent painter, whose work is more impressionist than representational, although I don’t know if I like it more than the other stuff in the category. I like pretty much all of it more than Grace P. Fong, who’s a good-enough drawer that draws pictures that fail to move me pretty much at all. Spring Schoenhuth works metal into fannish items, all of which look pretty cool, if not actually to my taste. It’s good work, though. Sara Felix is a mixed-media artist whose work is remarkable, and is admirable in its simplicity and directness. She also designs awards, including the 2018 Hugo. But it’s Ariela Housman who does the most interesting stuff to me – mostly text stuff, and she’s a fantastic calligrapher, but she also does illuminations that are terrific 7. She’s probably my favorite of this set.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ariela Housman
Best Professional Artist
There are some extra-heavy hitters in this here category this year. Charles Vess is Charles Vess, and has done fantastic work, but is here primarily for his Earthsea illustrations, about which see above. John Picacio works in a style I actively do not like, and when I encounter one of his covers, I sort of wish I hadn’t. I’m sure it’s someone’s thing (he’s nominated here, after all), but it is decidedly not mine. Jaime Jones did the covers for Martha Wells’s Muderbot books, among others, and those are pretty good, but they’re also not so good that I would declare them deserving of an award of their own. He’s done tonnes of other stuff as well, but those are the things I think of immediately. He’s a highly-realistic artist, which never goes very far with me. Victo Ngai, whose work I’ve praised here in the past, is here largely for covers that I’m not into and her contributions to the Spectrum book, which I was also not into. Shame, really. I’m a little sad that I don’t get more out of Yuko Shimizu’s work – it’s clearly excellent 8, and I suspect that if I knew more about Japan or about visual art generally I might be in better shape as far as appreciating it goes. But I don’t. So it goes. Galen Dara’s work is terrific, and I like her use of color and form, and I often find myself wishing there were more of it, especially her excellent cover for The Future is Blue, which I love.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Galen Dara
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Ok we’re out of the picture-evaluating woods, guys. It gets a lot smoother from here. I’ll start off here by addressing Dirty Computer. This here website is all over the place, content-wise – it sort of has a generalized idea of “looking at the way popularity manifests itself and how we decide to honor things in the popular culture sphere”, which is why so much of it is focused on awards shows. It also has a decided music bent, because most of what I consume in my free time is music 9, so that’s mostly how it comes out. So among the things I champion are pop music, science fiction, and weirdo R&B. Dirty Computer would seem to be directly inside my wheelhouse, and would, in fact, seem to be driving the very wheels of the wheelhouse themselves. It is not. For whatever reason, I have spent most of the last decade bouncing squarely off Janelle Monae. It’s weird and I can’t explain it. I like it fine, and some of the songs are quite good. I admire her as a person who exists out there in the world and does cool stuff. I do not much like Dirty Computer as an album. There. Now we have to wade through a bunch of tv first. Like The Expanse, which is about as good as it can be I suppose, but which I only watch around awards time, and then kind of slog through as much of it as I need to to get the idea. “Abaddon’s Gate” was a good episode, for what it’s worth, but it’s a good episode of an ok tv show. “Rosa” was also a good episode, this time of Doctor Who, a much better tv show, and “Demons of the Punjab” was better still, but since they aren’t comedies, and it’s my long-state belief that television is for comedies 10, they aren’t winners here. Luckily, the best show on television right now is a comedy, and as much as “Janet(s)” is the episode to talk about due to D’Arcy Carden’s tour de force performance as literally everyone in the show, “Jeremy Bearimy” is the better piece of sf, mainly because it does away with the issues that the show necessarily creates timeline-wise, and because it has Chidi’s breakdown, which isn’t great sf, but is one of the funniest things ever committed to television.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Good Place, “Jeremy Bearimy”
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
This is a surprisingly strong field, given that it’s a field of movies. A Quiet Place is a scary good time, but the world itself falls apart if examined at all, and since these awards are meant to be about the fiction itself, rather than the spectacle, I think it probably fails to rise to the occasion. Annihilation was an ambitious swing at making an adaptation out of a work that is particularly hard to adapt, and, while I applaud the effort, certainly, I don’t think it quite passes muster either. Avengers: Infinity War is fine, but is the first three hours of six hours worth of fan-service, so also doesn’t quite make it over the line. Black Panther was nearly as good a superhero movie as has ever been made, and certainly the best one that Disney has accomplished – it has a great villain, a solid authorial position, and a bunch of other stuff that you’d want out of a movie. It comes in third because the other two are just…better. Sorry to Bother You is fantastic and funny, but sort of flops over under the same criteria as A Quiet Place, which is to say that it’s better at being satisfying in the moment than as a piece of narrative 11. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best superhero movie made during my lifetime. The alternate-universe stuff is great, the cast is great, the story is whippy, the villain is evil, the heroics are super, and the whole thing manages to buoy along its message by being, essentially, a perfect movie. Great job, everybody.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Best Graphic Story
It is the case that I like comics considerably more than I like movies, but also that this field wasn’t as good as it sometimes is. Much of the work was fine, but a lot of it was middle installments of long-running books, which can make it kind of hard to get into choosing it as the recipient of this kind of thing. For example, Saga did just fine with its ninth volume 12, and Paper Girls continues to get better with every volume, but they’re both just middle chapters of longer stories. Monstress has some of the best art currently happening in comics, but I still find the story somewhat difficult to engage with, and it’s never my favorite thing. Nnedi Okarafor’s Black Panther: Long Live the King offers an excellent look at the world in which Black Panther operates, and has a couple of really moving stories in it, but kind of doesn’t stand alone very well, and so doesn’t quite make the cut. Saladin Ahmed’s Abbot is a pretty cool socially-conscious supernatural noir, and is a good beginning to a story that I hope continues for awhile, but also doesn’t seem like it has a real ending. That brings us to On a Sunbeam, which also used to be a webcomic, but which contains an entire story in a really interesting world (or set of worlds, as it were). It’s also about interstellar construction/restoration workers, which pushes all my buttons where sf stories about working-class people are concerned. It’s very good, but it kind of wins by process of elimination, which is why I’m a little down on the category this year. Ah, well. At least none of it is bad.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tillie Walden, On a Sunbeam
Best Related Work
This is a pretty far-reaching and exciting set of nominations. The books are all fine, but none of them really rises above “fine”. Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos was a great set of blog posts, but reading it as a book is a little more difficult, because it’s easy for it to read like someone just listing books at you. It’s cool to get someone’s read on the set of Hugo nominees and the world around them all, but not a very good reading experience. Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing is good, and a good central repository for Le Guin’s opinions on art and the reasons for making it, but it’s all stuff she’s said elsewhere, and so, while it’s excellent, it’s also not essential. Alec Nevala Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction is a very good account of four very difficult people, and if you have a lot of interest in the subject matter is about as good as one could hope for, but requires a level of interest that the other works nominated here don’t require. Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan’s The Hobbit Duology is terrific, but similar to Astounding, is probably much better if you’re already obsessed with the material it covers. The Mexicanx Experience at Worldcon 76 is important and essential work, and mostly just isn’t quite as important or essential as An Archive of Our Own. AO3 winning would be a major win for fan culture, and specifically for fanfiction, which has always been a huge and active part of fandom. Since the Hugos are a fan-granted award, it seems to make sense for the thing that would be fan-related would be the one that is fan-focused and fan-driven, and I can’t think of a single reason why it wouldn’t be the best choice in the field.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: An Archive of Our Own
This is one of the toughest categories to evaluate. It was introduced last year, and is here again this year, and I’m basically over the same barrell. I’ve read some of all of them, and all of only two, so I’ll make this easy and decide it’s got to be either Yoon Ha Lee’s The Machineries of Empire or Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers. Wayfarers is good, and contains a lot of excellent utopianist humanism, which is right up my alley in the first place, and gets better as it goes, even if the second and third books are shockingly lacking in Dr. Chef-related content. The Machineries of Empire also gets better as it goes along, and in addition to a mind-bending set of rules about how the ships and the people that are on the ships work, and the way that the conflicts are resolved and basically every other aspect of the world-building, it’s also got a twisty plot that actually feels earned and not cheap, and a terrific ending. So I’m going with the Lee, here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Yoon Ha Lee, The Machineries of Empire
Best Short Story
For whatever reason, the Hugos seem to skew more fantasy-oriented this year. This is fine, and happens from time to time, but it does some damage to the short story category since, as an extremely generalized tendency, fantasy tends to work better at longer lengths, and science fiction tends to work better at shorter lengths. Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician” is, as I have mentioned previously, my least-favorite Sarah Pinsker story yet. It’s still fine, but it’s not really a standout, and while it does its job as a short story well, the other stories here are better. T. Kingfisher’s “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” is also a fun but kind of slight work by one of my very favorite authors. It concerns a young lady and her charms, and specifically the way those charms hold sway over several of the fey, in a nifty reversal of that kind of story. It’s clever and funny, but not the winner. Brooke Bolander’s “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” is similarly funny 13, but also kind of slight, although it’s got a very satisfying ending. P. Djèlí Clark’s “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” is a very good story about the lives of the slaves whose mouths used to hold the titular teeth. I can easily see it being someone’s favorite, but it isn’t really mine. Alix E. Harrow’s “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” is a top-notch story that literalizes both the magic of libraries and the importance of escape through literature. It’s the best of the fantasy stories here by a long chalk. Sarah Gailey’s incredible “STET” is not only a terrific and thought-provoking story, but plays with the form (the actual story itself is told in the editor’s notes and stuff, including the many invocations of the title) in a way that makes it even more impressive, and is the clear winner here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sarah Gailey, “STET”
I usually mention at this point how I think novelette is a weird length, and how I also think that it’s weird that I have an opinion about the word count of a story. There, now I’ve said that. I mention it primarily because this category, as it has for every “novelette” category in any awards so far, has an eight hundred pound gorilla in it, so I’ve got a little space here. Naomi Kritzer’s “The Thing About Ghost Stories” is a surprising story about an anthropologist who studies ghost visitations and the way that people tell their stories about them. Zen Cho’s “If At First You Don’t Succeed Try, Try Again” is about a dragon that strives to ascend to more, and his relationship with a woman who believes in him. Daryl Gregory’s “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” is a set of vignettes, and is excellently-drawn, but works better as a sort of tone piece than a story as such. It’s good, though. Simone Heller’s “When We Were Starless” is a fantastic story about memory and robots, and an apocalypse of our devising, and what is forgotten and what is remembered, and the importance of the latter. It’s as beautiful a story as I’ve ever read in which an AI museum docent is a primary character. Tina Connolly’s “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” involves a terrific magic device, and is an excellent revenge story (of which there are not very many) 14. But really, this category has belonged to Brooke Bolander the whole time, and The Only Harmless Great Thing is the best.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Brooke Bolander, The Only Harmless Great Thing
This is a pretty good category, not much out of the ordinary or noteworthy about it in and of itself. P. Djèlí Clark’s The Black God’s Drums is pretty good alternate-history stuff, but feels more like a prelude than an actual story. If there’s no follow-up or sequel or whatever, it will be a strange little orphan in his bibliography. Martha Wells’s Artificial Condition is probably my favorite of the murderbot books, but suffers from being another middle installment 15. Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master and the Detective is an effective and surprising detective story with some really well-done world-building in the background of it. Seanan McGuire continues to invent really interesting portal lands for her Wayward Children stories, and Under the Sugar Sky might be the oddest and most interesting one yet. It doesn’t have quite the same quality of story of the other installments, although I do like the protagonist a lot. Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach is the best story about a time-travelling squid-woman I’ve ever read, and is therefore the winner. I may have made this exact same joke back at the Nebulas, but I apologize for nothing.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kelly Robson, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach
And here we are, the most exciting of the categories. Or at least the one that requires the most time investment 16. I’m already in a minority here, mainly by thinking that The Calculating Stars was fine, but not that great. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, though, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it win. I also wouldn’t harbor any bad feelings about it – it’s good, it’s just not as good as the other stuff in the category. Cathrynne Valente’s Space Opera, by contrast, could not be more directly up my street, from the first word to the last, and so it’s probably the book I enjoyed reading the most and will re-read the most often of all of these, but it’s not really the best book here, so I don’t think it should win. I’d be pleased if it did, though. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning has a great protagonist and is in a great world 17, but I was a little let down by the ending. NB that this is kind of a recent development, and I liked it a lot more back when I read it around Nebula time. Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun is the best part of the series I just said was the best series back there a couple of categories ago, but very much does not stand alone, and so is kind of hard to evaluate as its own thing, and thus isn’t really a winner here. Becky Chambers’s Record of a Spaceborn Few is also the best part of its series, and does stand alone very well 18, but just isn’t as good as Spinning Silver. It’s odd for me to call a fantasy book the best of the category, but here I am doing so: Spinning Silver is amazing. It uses a fairy tale as a jumping off point to talk about inequality and privilege, as well as intentions, and the fact that actions have consequences. It’s a real triumph of a book, and it’s the winner here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver
- where there was some business with panels being handled terribly, and nominees being treated badly, and which I wrote about in last year’s Hugos piece. ↩
- or, at least, the stuff of hers that I’ve read isn’t to my taste. ↩
- for the Nebulas ↩
- I fully acknowledge that three is not that many years. I get it. ↩
- probably intentional, I understand, to reinforce just how baked-in to Tess the thoughts and attitudes that she felt governed her life were, but also: still hard to read. ↩
- Gosh I hope that sentence sheds some light on why I don’t talk about pictures more often. ↩
- it’s also worth mentioning here that she’s the woman who is the impetus for there being a reconsideration of “public display” in the nomination guidelines. ↩
- I did like her covers for Unwritten, but those were years ago ↩
- even more than books, in fact ↩
- primarily for narrative reasons – it’s hard for me to ignore the constraints of the form when it’s telling a purely dramatic story, and I’m sure I’ve written about this somewhere else before, or you can buy me a drink and I’ll explain it to you at great length if you really want to know. I got reasons, is what I’m saying here, although I don’t think they’d be very interesting to anybody else. Or even apply to anybody else. ↩
- Note that I think this makes for a better movie experience, but also probably shouldn’t win awards. I’m trying to be consistent about the place I come from for all these things, is what I’m saying, and I’m not a naturally-consistent man. ↩
- it’s nominated every year, and I suspect next year, when the tenth volume comes up, I’ll feel it’s more deserving, since the tenth volume represents the halfway point and kind of has a caesura, if not an actual ending. Also it’s followed by a hiatus, so I’ll be desperate for more Saga at this time next year. ↩
- Well, it is funny, as is “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” but they are not actually similar. ↩
- excellent revenge stories. Non-excellent revenge stories are a dime a dozen and I usually hate them. ↩
- it earns some points back for being the one with ART, the best non-murderbot character in the whole series ↩
- the astute reader will be able to tell at this point that I am out of things to say in these little category-heading sentences, but I feel like I should say something. I guess this is the price I pay for a non-controversial, relatively-straightforward award situation. ↩
- although it is not without its controversial possibly-appropriative elements, which I didn’t think about but which have, since I read it, been brought to my attention, so your mileage may vary. ↩
- all of the Wayfarers books do – they’re connected by world, mostly, and a couple of characters, but they’re not really sequential ↩