Hugo reading 2018: All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

I had heard good things about All Systems Red by Martha Wells, and rightly so.  This novella was an utter delight.  It is told in the first person from the perspective of Murderbot, a Security Robot on a planetary survey mission.

Murderbot doesn’t like its job, and doesn’t like people, and really would rather spend its time watching soap operas through its satellite feed.  It has hacked its governor module, so it doesn’t actually have to obey any of its commands, but it does need to obey enough of them that it isn’t obvious that it has been hacked, otherwise someone will try to fix it.  So it’s basically half-assing its job, doing as little as it can get away with, and not paying attention to anything that might not be immediately relevant because why bother.  The humans it is contracted to are disposed to be friendly, but Murderbot is not.  It prefers to remain in armour, with its helmet darkened so that nobody can see its face.  It doesn’t want to talk to you.  It doesn’t want to be your friend.  It just wants you to leave it alone.

I adored Murderbot’s character.  It isn’t depressed, or angry, or sad, it’s just disgruntled and antisocial, and has no interest in pretending otherwise.  There are days when I would love to be that character. Of course, it does feel that its particular humans are not too bad, as humans go, and is not impressed when it seems that someone is trying to kill them, but it does not want to bond with them or be part of their team or accept favours or help from them.  It does, over time, begin to like some of its humans, in a standoffish sort of way, but resents having to waste emotion on actual people.  It would rather save this for fictional characters.  Did I mention that I love Murderbot and want to be Murderbot when I grow up?

The story itself is well-plotted, and – hallelujah! – has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  There is certainly room for a sequel, but you can also stop at the end of the book having read a satisfying story.  The other characters are well-drawn, and very nearly as annoyingly nice as Murderbot thinks they are, which is a pleasant change.

I really enjoyed this book (hmm, and apparently, sentient robots are a thing this year…).

I think And then there were (N-one) is still my top pick for this section, though it’s a close thing, followed by All Systems Red and Down Among the Sticks and Bones.  After that, The Black Tides of Heaven, which I would like to put higher, but the ending really frustrated me.  I don’t know what to do about the last two.  I think Binti: Home is *part* of a better book than River of Teeth, but to my mind it remains just that – part of a book, and not a story in its own right.  I’m almost tempted to put it below No Award, not because it isn’t good, but because I don’t think it’s a novella, in the sense of being a self-contained narrative.  I’ll have to think more about this.

Hugo reading 2018: Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor

I read Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor a couple of years back, when it was nominated for best novella, and I liked it.  I was under the impression that there had been a novel between that and Binti: Home, which is this year’s nomination but it turns out that this is the second novella in the series.

Once again, the worldbuilding is very rich, and I enjoyed the character of Binti.  This book was somewhat painful to read, as Binti returns (temporarily) to the family she left in order to go to Oomza University, and the dynamics are… tense, to say the least.  She also brings her Meduse friend, Okwu, with her, and this nearly leads to disaster the moment they reach earth.  Binti’s intention is to go on pilgrimage (and I would have loved to know more about that), but instead, she winds up taking a different journey.  There is some interesting exploration of cultural hierarchies, here.  While Binti’s people are viewed as primitive by the Khoush, they in turn look down on the Desert People, who of course turn out to be more than they seem (and not ‘mystical primitives’. either).

All of this is great until Binti gets word of a catastrophe, which means she must return at once, and then you turn the page and the book stops, and you *don’t* scream rude things because you don’t want to wake your husband, but really, why do people keep nominating portions of books for the Hugos?  Once again, I’m at a bit of a loss of how to judge this.  If I were judging it as a chapter or extract from a book, it would get very high marks and make me want to read the book.  But as a story in itself, I think it fails.  It has, if anything, even less resolution than The Black Tides of Heaven, and also less of a beginning, though that bothered me less – I think it stands alone at the front end, if one doesn’t mind being dropped into a world and needing to figure some things out, which I believe is a requirement for enjoying a lot of science fiction!

So yeah.  I don’t think  I can put this or Tides at the top of my ballot, even though they are both excellent at what they are doing, because what they are doing is not writing a novella.  But equally, I feel like they deserve a higher ranking than River of Teeth, which is a complete story, but which did not leave me with any particular desire to read the sequel (which, yes, clearly exists, and the story clearly ends at a point where you would like one – but it has the courtesy to finish the first story first.)  And I don’t know where to put them in relation to Sticks and Bones, which I did like and which is complete, but which I suspect isn’t quite as good, objectively.

Ah well.  I’ve been saving the Murderbot book until last, and I have high hopes for it… though since it has never previously occurred to me to ask whether books have proper endings or not, I’ve not scanned the reviews for it with that in mind.  Here’s hoping I won’t be unpleasantly surprised on that front…

Hugo reading 2018: The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang

The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang, is a difficult book to describe.  The worldbuilding is very… dense, is probably the right word.  It feels like it goes all the way down, from magic, to politics, to religion and philosophy, to conceptions of gender, to things that don’t even appear in the narrative but one senses are there (for example, days and nights are clearly measured differently, but it isn’t clear how in this book – Yang’s website mentions in passing that the sun rises and sets six times a day, which explains a lot, and it’s clear that Yang has a really, really thorough and specific idea of how everything in this world works, not all of which makes it into the text).

The setting is ‘silkpunk’ – which is to say, it has a medieval Asian feel (I want to say alt-Japanese, based on the names and the religion, but I’m really not knowledgeable enough about asian cultures to be sure, and it feels like it borrows from a few different cultures anyway), with magic, and technology.  The protagonist, Sanao Akeha, is one of a pair of twins born to the Protector, the ruthless ruler of the lands in which the story takes place, and given to the Grand Monastery as payment of a debt.  Their twin, Sanao Mokoya, is a prophet, and once this becomes evident, both twins are returned to the Protector, who has a use for prophecy.  (Mokoya is the protagonist of the twin novella, The Red Threads of Fortune, which takes place during and after this story, and which I have not read.)

In this world, children are born with no gender, and choose, when they are ready, which gender they will be, taking the drugs to confirm this gender (a small number of people never make a choice and continue in the body they were born with).  Sanao eventually chooses to be he (and Mokoya to be she), so I’ll use those genders from here.  (Also, wow, I feel like non-binary genders are almost a mini-theme in this year’s Hugos.  I’ve seen more characters who prefer ‘they’ just in the last few weeks than in my entire life to date. It works, both here and elsewhere, but it’s definitely a thing this year.  I understand that Yang is non-binary, which probably influenced their choice in this instance.)

Yes, but what is this story about?  Well, here’s where it gets a little bit strange, at least for me.  *I* thought the story was about the politics – the Protectorate versus the Monastery, the slackcraft-using ‘Tensors’ versus the ‘Machinists’, who work to create technologies that everyone can use without help from slackcrafters.  The relationships are central, certainly, but there are, at various points, out and out rebellions going on in which Akeha (and to a lesser extent, Mokoya) are involved.

But… the climactic point at the book does not resolve any of this.  It resolves the relationships – leading me to suspect that these were, in fact, intended to be the focus of the book – but leaves the question of what is going to happen to the Machinist rebels very much unanswered, and unanswered in a situation where there is apparently unlimited political power on one side, and something that looks a lot like a nuclear bomb on the other side (and I’m not *entirely* certain that this technology is not now known to both sides).

Perhaps the twin novel resolves some of this?

So I don’t quite know what to say about this novel.  It feels brilliant, but unfinished, and perhaps this is because my priorities were not those of the author.  I feel as though I can’t judge it without reading the other novel, and I’m sort of reluctant to do that because I feel that a winning novella ought to be able to stand alone as a book.  And maybe it’s just that I’ve completely failed to get the point of the book?

(Or maybe I’m just a bit dim-witted – I feel as though there are several books this year which have had ambiguous or unfinished sort of endings, and I’m not sure if this is a trend or a sign that my reading comprehension is lacking…)

I don’t know where to put this on my ballot.  I’ll have to think about it a bit more.

Hugo reading 2018: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire is essentially a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. It tells the story of Jack and Jill and why they went through their door, and what happened when they did.  Their world had vampires and werewolves and mad scientists, and definitely falls into a horror sort of genre – it’s a fairy tale, and told like one, but it’s a dark one.

I actually bought and read this when it was first published, and wasn’t especially taken with it.  I enjoyed it more on this reading, partly, perhaps, because it was a nice change from all the science fiction.  McGuire does some interesting things with family, and gender, and how we are shaped by the roles we are put into (and what happens when we are given a chance at a different role).

One thing that I found kept grabbing my attention when reading this book (on both occasions) was the way Jack and Jill presented.  They are identical twin girls, and we meet them in Doorway, Jack dresses in a very masculine style, and has male mannerisms.  He is also the scientist of the group.  Jill, on the other hand, is a very girly-girl, and while she clearly has plenty of brains, she tends to pretend she isn’t using them. But at the start of the book, it’s little Jillian who is the bold, curious twin who gets pushed into the tomboy role and plays soccer and runs around, while the more timid, quiet Jacqueline is the ‘pretty’ twin, who wears beautiful dresses that she isn’t allowed to get dirty, and plays with dolls.  It’s clear that, once through the doorway, each child takes the opportunity to be someone different, but having seen them in such strongly gendered roles in Doorway, I kept getting confused and having to remind myself which was which in Sticks and Bones.  This is probably mostly a reflection on how I view gender…

I enjoy McGuire’s writing, and the way she convincingly relates the fantastical to the mundane.  For example, here is the vampire seducing Jill:

He is not so different from the boys she had been dreading meeting when she started her high school career. Like them, he wants her for her body. Like them, he is bigger than her, stronger than her, more powerful than her in a thousand ways. But unlike them, he tells her no lies, puts no veils before his intentions; he is hungry, and she is meat for his table, she is wine for his cup.

Creepy as hell, and not just because he is a vampire.

I don’t quite know how to write usefully about this novella.  I don’t think it’s McGuire’s most successful work, but I do think it’s good.  I don’t think it’s quite up there with the brilliance of And Then There Were (N-One), but I definitely rank it above the hippos.  We’ll have to see what else is in this category.

(Oh, and one last thing: you don’t need to have read Every Heart a Doorway to enjoy the Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but I think if you read Sticks and Bones first, then certain things in Doorway are going to be… fairly unsurprising.  In other words, read this one second.)

Hugo reading 2018: River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey is a Western, with hippos.  That’s… basically it, really.  If you like Westerns, and like hippos, you’re going to like this one. I don’t feel strongly about either of these things, so I quite enjoyed it, but feel no need to reread it.  It has lots of good Western archetypes and tropes. We have the protagonist, who fell in love with hippo ranching, but had his ranch burned to the ground and then had to sell the land to a villainous casino owner; he is now a lone cowboy (‘hopper’) type, living just-barely within the law – his best friend is his hippo, and he’s out for revenge and to make a buck.  He joins forces with a heavily pregnant assassin, a female con artist, an agender explosives expert, and the fastest gun in the West, to clear out a bunch of feral hippos from the river, and inevitably comes into conflict with the casino owner.

It’s all competently done, the characters are fun and well-drawn, and there were enough twists to keep it interesting.  My main complaint would be that it wasn’t very fantastical – it’s alternate history (based on a real-life plan at one point to point to breed hippos in the US for meat), but beyond that, the story is played very straight.  I don’t know my US history, but there’s no sense that the hippos have changed anything beyond some of the geography of the land (there was a need to build more swamps, obviously). It’s almost too convincingly mundane as a world to feel like it’s fantasy.

Where this goes on my ballot will depend very heavily on the other books – it’s doing what it set out to do, indisputably, and it’s doing it well.  But… I’m just not sure that what it is doing is ambitious enough to be worthy of a Hugo.

Hugo reading 2018: And then there were (N-One), by Sarah Pinsker

And Then There Were (N-One), by Sarah Pinsker, was clever and great fun and just a little unsettling. Sarah Pinsker receives an invitation from an alternate universe version of herself to attend a conference – SarahCon – at which all the other attendees are Sarah Pinskers from different universes. And then a Sarah Pinsker dies under suspicious circumstances and so Sarah Pinsker, who is an insurance investigator and the closest thing they have to a detective, is asked to try to find out what happened.

This is a fascinating exploration of the different choices people make through life, and their consequences. Some of the Sarah Pinskers are from very closely related strands, others from remote ones – what sent them there? Some of them are still with university girlfriends, others are single or have new partners, one of them invented the Transdimensional Portal, but four others very nearly did and were just not as fast.

I guessed one part of the murder mystery, but not the other part, and the resolution – or is it resolved? Can anything in a multiverse where every choice you make spawns a new universe ever be resolved? – was very satisfying. The motive for the murder was unexpected and clever and logical and in keeping with the Sarah who did it – and it made you wonder what else might happen at the end of the conference, when it was time for everyone to leave.
It’s an unsettling story to read, if you have ever questioned any of your own life decisions. Adding to the unsettlement is the fact that Sarah Pinsker is also the name of the author, and I can’t help wondering how autobiographical it is – it almost seems like a waste if it isn’t, but if it is, how very odd for her friends and acquaintances to read it.
This is a great start to the novella section. I think it’s going to place high on my ballot.

Hugo reading 2017: Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I saved Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold, for last, because I have read it before and thus already knew I liked it, and I wanted to save something safe for last!  And really, I have liked it more on every read. Penric is such an utterly endearing character – unassuming, sharply intelligent, and so very kind, and I love his relationship with Desdemona, the demon who rides inside his head and shares his thoughts. It takes a certain type of personality to just accept the presence of a powerful demon, and to view Desdemona as a council of older sisters who are his constant (and frequently commentating) companions. I love the combination of affection and exasperation he has for Desdemona in her many persons.

In this story, Penric is helping track down someone who might be a murderer, or might be a trainee shaman who had things go terribly wrong.  He is in the company of Osric, who is this world’s equivalent of a detective inspector or something of that nature, who has called on Penric’s patroness for some support, as he knows that he does not have the capacity to deal with the supernatural on his own.

I think what I love most about Bujold’s work is that it is always very good-hearted. There is a generosity to her stories that gives characters permission to learn from their mistakes. Yes, there are consequences for actions, but justice in Bujold’s universe is restorative, rather than vengeful. This is very soothing, especially after all the Lovecraft pastiche! I like that Bujold can write a story in which everyone really is doing their best, without necessarily being right – good intentions are important, but not sufficient.

Despite my desire to give the other stories a fair chance, Penric’s Shaman was by far my favourite. It is so easy to read, it has humour, and kindness, and a clever plot, and characters I want to spend more time with. My one possible quibble – which is something I really can’t judge – is that I don’t know how well this story would stand on its own, without having read the first in the series. I think it would work, but one can’t in-read a book, so I just can’t tell.

And I love this story too much to care.

At this stage, my ballot will be Bujold first, Ashanti Wilson and McGuire next, though not necessarily in that order.  These three stories were all enjoyable, did not bore me at any point, and I would read them again. Johnson comes 4th, because while I enjoyed the beginning and ending and loved the main character, it did get tedious in the middle (possibly because it was trying to follow the Lovecraftian original). Miéville comes fifth, because it might have been a good story but I found it opaque and unpleasant, and Lavalle is in last place, because it was unpleasant and wasn’t even opaque enough to give me distance from the unpleasantness! Also, I think it really did require a knowledge of Lovecraft to enjoy it.  I don’t know what would have made me enjoy the Miéville, but at least it stood alone.

I think I’ll tackle some of the non-fiction next, as I have a story to write, so I need to starve myself of new fiction for a few days.  I might even give myself a few days off from the ballot entirely – after all, I’ve done five categories already, and may not even be doing the film/TV episode ones, so I’m doing quite well for time.

Hugo reading 2017: A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson

A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson is a love story centering around Aqib, a Royal Cousin in the Kingdom of Olorum and Lucrio, a soldier and part of the Daluçan embassy. They meet and fall in love and this is a bit of a problem, because the men of Olorum are absolutely not supposed to have relationships with other men.

I liked this book a lot. It is, however, almost impossible to usefully talk about without spoilers, especially since I know that many people have very strong (and justified) feelings about reading yet another tragic gay romance, so I am going to tell you whether it has a happy ending or not in pale yellow so that you have to highlight it with your mouse to read it.

Aqib and Daluça end up together. This is less of a spoiler than it might seem, because while the story starts off by seeming to close that door, the entire structure of the story points to some sort of future for the pair, even as it seems more and more impossible. And when it is achieved, it is done in a way that was absolutely unexpected to me, and which worked on a lot of levels and without undoing what was already done, even when it seemed to.

Without touching the ending further, I will say that the story has an unusual structure, and leaps forward and backward in time quite a bit. We start with the lovers’ first meeting, then with their parting, and then we travel through Aqib’s life, but keep going back to the time the lovers spent together, so you sort of know that it can’t be a done deal even though it clearly is. The jumping backwards and forwards made it difficult for me to get into the story early on, but it quickly became quite absorbing.

What is interesting about this story is the character of Aqib (we don’t see Lucrio except through his eyes), and the worldbuilding. Aqib is very young at the start of the story. He is beautiful, rather sweet, and painfully naive. There is a sort of innocence about him which doesn’t really leave him even as he gets older. He is also very privileged, and astonishingly oblivious to it – I hesitate to say adorably so, but it really almost is. His society is very stratified, and he is in one of the top tiers, and at one point, Lucrio asks how the nobility can be recognized as such, and he answers, in utter sincerity, that they have a sort of glow or aura about them that everyone recognizes. The narrative shows Lucrio deciding not to touch that one, but also noting that nutritional levels, clothing and hairstyles may also have something to do with it…

One thing that I especially loved about this story is the world building. The Daluçans are basically the Roman Empire. They speak Latin (or something that looks very like it), and are warlike and logical and civilized, but clearly take a more benign view of homosexuality than the actual Romans did (having said that, I found that having read Holy Shit last year, I was able to translate a little bit more of the naughty Latin that I might have expected to).

The Olorum people are an African civilization, with an extremely structured and tiered society. The nobility are supposedly descended from the Gods – and this seems to be literally the case, only the Gods are really mortals with a longer lifespan and greater psychic and intellectual powers. Mathematics and physics and learning of all kinds are ‘women’s business’, and the business of men is war, which is a problem for the rather beautiful and feminine Aqib. Interestingly, while the women appear to be less powerful initially, there are a few disquieting instances of the power they actually hold, quietly and behind the scenes, and it’s pretty clear that they have much more understanding of how their world works than the men do.

I’m still toying with where I want to put this on the ballot. I mean, I know that if the ending had been different, it would definitely be going beneath McGuire and Ashanti Wilson, but since it does, it’s now vying with McGuire for first place. In terms of re-readability, I’d definitely read it again, but I’m not sure I’d read it again more than once. Which would put it behind McGuire. And, for that matter, Bujold, which I’ve re-read twice already. But is that the best way to rank it? I don’t know.

Hugo reading 2017: The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, by K.M. Johnson

The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, by KM Johnson, was much more my thing!  It starts with a women’s college that feels much like the one in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, only it is set in a dreamland.   A student has eloped with a man from the waking world, which risks shutting them down, and so Vellitt, former adventurer and now a Professor of Mathematics goes in pursuit.

This quickly becomes a quest story – well, of course it does.  It’s right there in the title. Still, not a lot of quest stories feature fifty-five year old heroines,  so I approve. Vellitt’s youth has been a good preparation for this quest, and her she meets former friends and lovers along the way as she retraces her steps.

The world building here is fun. This is a rather chauvinistic world of dreams, and all the Dreamers who visit are male (it is believed that women cannot dream great dreams, something which Vellitt finds rather doubtful). Dreamers are very charismatic and tend to be quite self-absorbed, which makes perfect sense. But the world they dream goes on without them, there are capricious gods with destructive intentions who might be involved in the student’s elopement, and whatever the dreamers might think, the people who live in this place have lives that go well beyond what the dreamers observe.

I liked the dream landscapes.  The sky is different, and has only 96 stars, distances between places vary depending on whim, and the Gods are not so much worshipped as placated.  The quest goes quite smoothly from dreamlike to nightmarish, and it becomes clear that if Vellitt fails, it is not merely her beloved college that will be at risk.  Vellitt’s head is a pleasing place to inhabit – she is perceptive, a little acerbic, and quite self-aware.  The ending of the story is extremely satisfying.

My only complaint (and this might be an artefact of the fact that I’m pretty tired and crampy at present) is that the story seemed to have too much middle.  I loved the beginning and the end, but the middle did drag a little bit.  But it was a highly enjoyable, clever story, and deserves a high place on my ballot.

Hugo reading 2017: This Census Taker, by China Mieville

This Census Taker, by China Mieville just didn’t work for me.  I’m not sure whether that’s my fault or Miéville’s, but I found it very frustrating to read.  It has quite a strong style (and I admit, I prefer my prose transparent), and is quite poetic, and the narrator has the infuriating habit of changing from ‘I’ to ‘the boy’ or even ‘you’. I am sure that this is intentional, but it dragged me out of the story every time.

Which was not, on the whole, a terrible thing, because I wasn’t enjoying the story very much.

It’s hard to say what the story is about.  There is a boy, who was raised in a fairly isolated place above the down by his parents. There is his father who is gentle and kind except when he beats animals to death. He also quite probably murders the boy’s mother, though this is ambiguous, and he almost certainly murders others, but this is also not clear.  These deaths are disappearances, or we have the not-necessarily-reliable narration of the boy, or we only see them obliquely.  There are other children who believe the boy about this; there are villagers who believe him enough not to trade with the father, but not enough not to leave the boy in the father’s care. There are magical keys, but it is hard to say what they unlock. The children who believe the boy disappear, too, and one has to wonder if the father killed them.

The tone is weirdly serene for a  book with this much implied and sometimes outright violence.  And really, if there are murders in a book, I would much prefer to be sure that they happened.  Is this so much to ask?  The pacing is also bizarre.  The book itself appeared to have 275 pages.  At around 190 pages, I thought I possibly understood enough of the premise to describe it in my notes.  Then – hooray!  Suddenly there is action and movement and things falling into place and – oops, sorry, the book is actually only 200 pages long, the rest is previews of other work, we’re all done here.

Aaargh.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this story. It’s disturbing and strange and full of cruelty to animals, and I think only barely falls into the realm of SFF. I think I like it more than the De Valle, but once again, I feel like I’m missing something. A key, perhaps, which is somewhat ironic…