Hugo reading 2018: Wind Will Rove, by Sarah Pinsker

I saved “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker for last, because I enjoyed her novella so much. I’m… not quite sure what I thought of this one. It is set on a generation ship on its way to a new planet, and the protagonist, a history teacher and a fiddle player, was born on the ship and will die there. Her grandmother was one of the original colonists, who boarded the ship with her nine-year-old daughter, the protagonist’s mother. The generation ship originally had extensive archives of all the greatest art, literature, music and other cultural artefacts of the Earth, but about ten years into the voyage, the archives were destroyed by sabotage. As a result, the travellers have created a series of ‘memory Projects’, whereby they recreated and re-recorded everything they could, based on their memories, but also continue to memorise specific pieces and pass these down through family lines, in case of another loss of the archives.

This is a lot of background, but that’s because the story is almost more a slice of life than anything else. The protagonist teaches Year 10 history, and is faced with students who want to know why Earth history should even be considered relevant to them, since they will never see Earth or indeed anywhere but this ship, and are unlikely to face any problems of historical significance in their lifetime. Her grandmother was one of the founders of the music Memory Project, but her mother felt that the old art was irrelevant and left to join a commune making new art, and her daughter, too, rebelled, performing new music that was never to be recorded.

The story, then, seems to be about the significance of art, of creativity, of history and of memory – of the relative importance of retaining the best of one’s old culture (and who exactly judges what this is?) versus creating new cultural artefacts, when there is not, realistically, the space to do both. These are questions that are addressed and explored but not really answered, perhaps because they cannot be answered.

I liked this story, and the characterisation of it, but for me, the most compelling image was of all these generations of people whose lives are constrained by their ancestors’ choices. They did not choose to be born and die on a ship, after all, or to spend their lives preserving and learning skills which will be used only by their great-grandchildren. To an extent, I suppose, all our lives are constrained by those of our ancestors, but not to this degree.

I don’t know. It’s a story about music and about history and about creativity, and I feel like I really should have liked it more than I did. I have a feeling it’s going to win its category, but I don’t quite want it to.

I think my ballot will be “Children of Thorns”, “A Series of Steaks”, “Extracurricular Activities”, “Wind Will Rove”, “Small Changes Over Long Periods” and “The Secret Life of Bots”, but to be honest, the top four could easily all switch around – I’d be happy to see any of them as winners.

Hugo reading 2018: Children of Thorns, Children of Water, by Aliette de Bordard

I wasn’t expecting great things from Aliette de Bodard’s “Children of Thorns, Children of Water“.  I read one of her novellas for the Campbells last year, and it struck me as very technically pretty but a little empty.  But I was pleasantly surprised by this story.  It’s a sequel to The House of Shattered Wings, about which I have heard the sort of good things that make me suspect that it is excellent but not a book I will enjoy, but it stands alone very well.

In this story, Thuan and his compatriot Kim Cuc are spies disguised as houseless people, who are trying to win a place in Hawthorn House. They are teamed up with Leila, a true houseless person for their test, which turns out to be about baking something impressive in under an hour.  I was totally here for this.  In fact, I was so here for this that I was deeply, deeply disappointed when the test was interrupted by the inevitable plot-driving emergency, because I *cared* about those eclairs, damn it, and I wanted to know if they were going to get them done in time, and if they would taste good.

Also, now I want to make eclairs.

(Any time you want me to like a story, put baking in it.  Works like a charm.)

However, once I got over my disappointment, I really enjoyed this story.  I was a little confused by the magical system, but I liked the shape of it, and I liked the way the House worked.  I especially liked the character of Sare.  The ending was not at all unexpected – but that was fine, because sometimes the story has to arc in a particular way, and any other ending wouldn’t have fit.

This has actually made me want to go back and read de Bodard’s two novels in this series, so I think it’s pretty good.  Of course, Andrew pointed out to me a few years ago that, without exception, any book I recommend to him as being really really good and something he absolutely must read is full of people baking things, so I can be almost certain that the eclairs strongly influenced my feelings about this story.  But it’s currently fighting for first place on my list with “A Series of Steaks” (which, I now can’t help noting, is also about food… hmm…), with “Extracurricular Activities” trying to nudge it’s way into the winner’s circle.

Hugo reading 2018: Small Changes Over Long Periods Of Time, by K.M. Szpara

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara is, at first glance, a sexy vampire story, and not really my thing. What makes it interesting is that the protagonist is a gay trans man who is on hormones and has had at least some surgery (top surgery, definitely – I’m not entirely sure what bottom surgery entails, but I think the implication is that he hasn’t got that far), and when he gets bitten, the restorative / regenerative effects of becoming a vampire start restoring him to the female body he was born with. Szpara is, I understand, a trans man himself, and he does a good job of writing this as the horror it is.

He also has to contend with the laws around vampire recruitment and vampirism. He is bitten by a vampire acting outside the law, but the penalties for becoming a vampire without filling out the proper applications (and the protagonist would never have been able to apply even if he wanted to, because trans people are one of several classes of people banned from becoming vampires) seem to fall upon both the person who turned the new vampire, and the new vampire him or herself. Szpara does some interesting things here; although the protagonist was turned mostly involuntarily (he would have died otherwise), the changes and effects are viewed as something he has chosen, and thus his problem to deal with, in a similar way to the way being gay or trans is often seen as being a choice.

I honestly find it hard to judge this story. The trans bits (is body horror the word I’m looking for?) were interesting and well-written, but I really have a strong dislike of the sexy vampire trope – it’s very, very rare for a book to manage to use this trope in a way that I don’t find thoroughly off-putting. I think, too, this story troubled me because it was using some romance tropes without being a romance – and from a romance reader’s perspective, I felt that the allegedly sexy older vampire was a bit alpha-hole-ish and not great on the whole consent thing, which is never comfortable to read (to be clear, with the exception of the initial biting attack, the later sex scenes were… not overtly, exactly, but I kind of felt like he was taking advantage of someone who was under the influence on several occasions.)

To make matters worse, the sexy older vampire shares a name with someone I work with and while I can usually ignore characters sharing names with people I know, for some reason I couldn’t this time and that added a whole extra level of squick to the situation.

This goes above The Secret Life of Bots for me, but not above anything else at this stage.

Hugo reading 2018: Extracurricular Activities, by Yoon Ha Lee

Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee is set in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit, which I haven’t read since last year, and so it took me a little while to realise that, oh, wait, THAT’s who the protagonist is. THAT being a young Shuos Jedao, years before his atrocities, and thus many, many years before his consciousness decanted into the brain of Kel Cheris at the start of Ninefox Gambit. So that was a double take.

This story is basically a spy story caper, in space. It contains many of my favourite tropes – I love characters who seem to be utter dilletantes or wastrels on the surface who turn out to be super competent, and we had some of that; I adored Jedao’s mother, who is even more formidable than he is, in her own particular way; and Jedao himself was a delight, and very nearly as brilliant as he thinks he is. I enjoyed the humour in the mis-translations when he is trying to infiltrate the Gwa Reality (and what IS the problem with his haircut?), and I liked the interactions between characters. (Also, just randomly, genderqueer characters seem to be a thing this Hugo year. The puppies must be feeling very sad indeed by now.)

In fact, I enjoyed everything about this story except… the story itself, really. I did not want that ending. I especially did not want that ending in that universe, given the prevalence of torture everywhere.

I’m not sure quite how to rate this one. Up until I realised where the story had to go, I liked it most of all the novelettes so far – but I don’t think the story was flawed in and of itself. Just… not the story I wanted. Which is probably unfair, because Yoon Ha Lee is always going to write well, but he is definitely NEVER going to be writing the sort of stories that make me happy – he likes to raise the stakes too much.

Hugo reading 2018: The Secret Life of Bots, by Suzanne Palmer

The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer was perfectly fine, but appealed to me less. The viewpoint character is Bot 9, an elderly robot, which is woken up to perform maintenance on an equally old ship headed to a perilous destination. The ship, it seems, is the very last ship left, being sent in a last-ditch attempt to save Earth from invasion.

The ship is captained by humans, but by and large run by bots, and the bots are the main characters in this book. The Bots are numbered in order of construction, and most of the bots on this ship are in the 8000s and above, and highly specialised, where Bot 9 is a multibot, capable of a variety of tasks. Bot 9 also has an Improvisation Routine, not included in later robots, because it made them unpredictable. The newer robots tend to view Bot 9 with a combination of respect and pity, and part of the story could be said to be about Bot 9 finding its place among the robot crew.

Altogether, this is a perfectly good robots-in-space sort of story. It presents a problem and solves it with the tasks to hand, and the robot characters are quite interesting. I like their ‘botnet’, which seems to be IM for robots, which allows them to share information – far more than the human crew might realise or desire – and make decisions based on that information.

I can’t quite say why this one isn’t my cup of tea. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but I don’t love it. It’s probably going to sit in the middle of my ballot, unless everything on the list turns out to be brilliant.

Hugo reading 2018: A Series of Steaks, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is just a world of fun.  In it, we meet Helena, an artist in 3D printing, which in this world can be used for everything from making meat from animal cells, to creating replacement organs for human beings.

Helena… started off on the latter track, but after a catastrophe, she found herself on the run from a powerful family, and had to change her name and go underground.  She now makes a living forging steaks, something which is apparently illegal in this world. When she is blackmailed into forging a large order of T-bone steaks, she hires an assistant, Lily, who is perky and energetic and very competent, and who has, shall we say, hidden depths. I sort of want to be Lily when I grow up…

I don’t want to say too much about this story, because it’s too delicious to spoil.  It has moments of darkness – I mean, technically you might say it was in the noir genre – but the relationships between the central characters are delightful. I also really appreciated the description of the artistry involved in forging meat – making sure the marbling is just random enough to look real, but not so random that it no longer looks organic, for example – not to mention the anatomical knowledge required to put a steak together that looks and behaves like a steak.

Also, did I mention that I adored both Helena and Lily?

I found myself chortling with glee as the story wound towards its conclusions.    Highly recommended.

Prasad was nominated for a Campbell Award, and this was part of her voter pack, alongside her short story, Fandom for Robots, which was also enormous fun.  I’ve put her high wherever I’ve seen her on the ballot, and hope to read more of her.

Hugo reading 2017: Novelette category

The first novelette I read was You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay, by Alyssa Wong.  It’s a bit of a strange one to read – it’s written in the second person, which I find a little uncomfortable, and it’s sort of a Western, only with magic.  Specifically, the desert is full of dead things that are walking, and the protagonist can make the bones of the dead come together and walk, too, often without meaning to (for example, the chicken being prepared for dinner…).  It’s a bit of a coming of age story, and it’s fairly sad, and fairly dark. By the end of it, a lot has been lost, but something has been gained, too.

It’s good, but I wouldn’t want to re-read it.

I then moved onto the Puppy Special, which is that edifying work by Styx Hiscock known as Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex. This was clearly an attempt to get back at WorldCon / Chuck Tingle after last year’s Puppy nomination of Tingle backfired on them.

Honestly, I thought this was going to be another distasteful Puppy parody, and was expecting misogyny and rapiness.  In fact, while there is some fairly bad writing in there (Hiscock suffers from a terrible case of adjectivitis, and periodically switches tense mid-sentence), it’s all quite enthusiastically consensual, and clearly being written by someone with a sense of humour and an awareness that the premise is entirely ridiculous.

Let’s see if I can give you a slightly serious review of this…

The heroine is from the planet Fylashio (I feel certain that the author worked hard on that one), and is working as a stripper to earn quick money in order to fix her spaceship, which has broken down.  You need to know that she is bright green and has three breasts that discharge laser ejaculations when she has an orgasm.

The T-Rex at first appears to be judgmental, but turns out to be rather sweet, and with a Tragic Past.  The brontosaurus girl whom he loved died, and things have never been the same for him.

My personal favourite bit in the story is where our alien sympathetically asks him what happened to her, and he replies:

“A, um… a meteor got her… And my family… And friends… My neighbours… My church group… My dentist… My weed dealer…. Pretty much everyone I knew, actually…”

There is much to love in that sentence, as I think we can all agree.

I’m not entirely convinced there is enough here to raise it above No Award, and I don’t think it achieves entirely what the author is aiming for. For one thing, it can’t quite decide whether it is slut-shamey or not (it is, I think, trying not to be, but not entirely succeeding). There is some truly bad writing in places – so many adjectives, and a fair bit of repetition in words and phrases – but on the other hand I have definitely read worse-written sex scenes than the ones in this story, and I did quite enjoy the way the author was rejoicing in the sheer ridiculousness of the whole thing.

I would also note that my research indicates that Hiscock is, in fact, a woman, a legitimate author of SF erotica, and not puppy adjacent.  This might explain why it is that her jokes are actually funny.  I’m thinking I might put her last in the novelettes, assuming there isn’t a truly terrible one to come, but keep her above No Award, since she is clearly being used by the Puppies rather than being a Puppy herself.  And also because I did, in fact, find this story quite fun.  Terrible, but fun.

The third novelette I read was The Jewel and her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde.  This is a high fantasy story, in which the Jewels are royalty, and their Lapidaries are bound courtiers who can speak to jewels and use them to magically defend against enemies, or calm the distressed, or put people to sleep.  The relationship is a symbiotic one – the Lapidaries require their vows and bindings in order not to be driven mad by the gemstones, and the Jewels require the power the Lapidaries bring them.

This story starts by making it clear (via a guidebook extract) that the Jewels and their Lapidaries are all gone, and were in fact killed off some time ago, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is not a cheery story.  It starts with a palace coup, in which the King’s Lapidary goes gem-mad and betrays him, killing the entire court and then himself, and leaving only the youngest Jewel and her Lapidary alive.

Lin, the Jewel, was never intended to rule, so she was trained only to be a good wife to the prince of another kingdom.  Her Lapidary, Sima, who is three years older than her, is likewise quite weak and under-trained, which is one reason she was bound to a relatively unimportant princess.  But the two of them are all the kingdom now has, and so two teenage girls have to thwart the invading general who wants to marry Lin to her son so that he can take the throne, and take over the kingdom.

I love the relationship between Sima and Lin. Sima is at different times servant, guardian and nursemaid to Lin, and their relationship becomes more equal as the story progresses, with the balance of power tipping one way, then the other, between them.  It is, above all, a very strong friendship, with each trying to protect each other, and each holding an even higher loyalty to the kingdom itself.  I also love the way both girls slowly realise the power they have over the course of the story – not because they have had no power before, but because they have not been required to use it to its fullest degree.

The story feels a lot like a chess game, and I do not understand all of the moves.  I feel as though there is a lot of worldbuilding in the background that doesn’t always make its way quite enough into the foreground to be intelligible, at least to me.  But there is something very vivid about this world, that I think makes it quite compelling, and clearly puts it at the top of my novelette ballot so far.

At the halfway point of this category, I’m feeling unexpectedly heartened, mostly because I really was expecting the Hiscock to be like some of the nauseatingly awful puppy food from last year, and since it wasn’t, everything is just lighter and better!  I do hope that at least some of the novelettes or Campbells will strive for cheerier storylines, however.  I feel like I’m reading a lot of depressing things in a row at present…

Touring with the Alien, by Caroline Ives Gilman, is weird. The aliens have come to earth, but all they do is sit there in their pods. They have translators – children they abducted from Earth and raised, and with whom they seem to be in a symbiotic relationship – but the translators don’t say much and don’t really understand how to be human anyway.

In this story, the protagonist is asked by the government to take an alien and his translator on a tour of the country, with no particular destination. And I don’t really know how to describe the story further. The alien is really very alien, which is good, and there is a lot of discussion about what it means to be conscious and whether this is even important. There is also animal cruelty because apparently the unofficial theme of this year’s Hugo Awards is Let’s Traumatise Catherine By Doing Terrible Things To Cats.

It’s an interesting science fictiony story with some very lovely writing, and I didn’t like it.

The Art of Space Travel, by Nina Allan, was much more to my taste.  It’s only just barely science fiction, and is about the daughter of a physicist who was involved with planning the first voyage to Mars and in analysing the debris when it exploded over Heathrow.  Now there is another trip to Mars planned, and two of the astronauts are coming to visit the hotel at which the heroine works.

This was mostly a story about family, and identity, and history, though there were some interesting little moments, like when the heroine is thinking about the fact that one of the astronauts has two young children, and yet she is choosing to go on a voyage which she will not come back from and which is likely to shorten her life significantly.  The heroine is also trying to figure out the identity of her own father, who might or might not have been on the first, disastrous, Mars voyage, and her mother is dying of a mysterious illness that was probably caused by her work on all the radioactive debris from the first mission.

I’m not sure that a lot happens in this story, and the SFF connection is somewhat tenuous, but it was a relief to read after so many fairly grim stories, so it’s going to go high on my ballot.

I saved The Tomato Thief, by Ursula Vernonfor last, since I always enjoy Vernon’s work, and was pretty confident that this one would be just as much fun.  And it was.  The Tomato Thief is a cranky, subversive fairy tale about an old woman who is more than she seems to be, who lives in the desert and is tired of having her tomatoes stolen, so she lies in wait to find out who is doing the deed.  The answer to this question leads to entirely new questions, and also a quest, with all the proper elements done in Vernon’s lovely, dry, affectionate style.  Her fairy tales are always very concrete and grounded, and her characters are entirely and stubbonly themselves.  The protagonist in this story – I’m not sure we ever learn her name – reminds me a bit of Old Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, which is never a bad thing.

I definitely enjoyed Vernon’s story more than any others in this category though Wilde’s may actually be the better story.  I can’t tell if Wilde’s worldbuilding is actually more complex and interesting or if it’s just that I know Vernon’s style so well that it’s harder to see where it’s original.  This is where things get tricky, because if I were ranking purely on enjoyment, I’d actually put the Hiscock ahead of the Gilman, even though the latter is definitely better written and the former probably shouldn’t be on the battle at all.  I think my final rankings are Vernon, Wilde, Allan, Wong, Gilman, Hiscock.