Some (belated) comments on the 2020 Hugo finalists

I voted in the Hugo Awards ballot this year. I also managed to blog about the dumpster fire that was George R. R. Martin leading the Hugo ceremony, largely because I couldn’t believe someone that successful could be quite that unprofessional. Unfortunately, I hadn’t manage to blog about my ballot until now, thereby adding to the awfulness of GRRM by overlooking the exact same people he’d overlooked.

In general, I was surprised by how much I liked the stories compared to the stuff I read in 2015. I don’t think it’s because I’m jaded. I genuinely think that the long-term impact of Puppygate may have been an influx of progressive readers and voters, who have stayed around to signal-boost a wider, and more varied range of works.

So, onto the finalists.

Best Novel

You need to be a VERY fast reader to get through the Hugo packet. Needless to say, as a new mum, my criteria for ‘best novel’ was whether I was motivated to read beyond the first few pages. I was looking for clear, simple language and a great ‘hook’ into the story. I’ve always been a (sort-of) fan of Kameron Hurley’s writing, although I never quite gelled with God’s War.  The Light Brigade was the only Best Novel nominee that I finished, and I also enjoyed the short story that inspired it.

The Light Brigade is a pacy story with a clever idea (see Kameron’s blogpost about time travel). However, as a military SF fan, I’m always going to like military SF nominees. So, I also voted for Charlie Jane Anders The City in the Middle of the Night, which I enjoyed for the extensive, imaginative world-building. I haven’t actually finished Middle of the Night (yet). As this Guardian review points out, the plot is not in a hurry to get anywhere.

I left the eventual winner, A Memory called Empire by Arkady Martine off the ballot. I got a page into it before the poetic writing and long sentences blitzed my sleep-deprived brain. Both Middlegame and The Ten Thousand Doors of January didn’t register as anything out of the ordinary.  The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I remember belonging to a genre I’d call ‘portal fantasies for grown-ups’. There were a couple on the ballot and, although I loved portal novels as a kid, they’re not my thing as an adult.

Best Novella

My favourite novella, by a significant margin, was The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark. The historical world-building is a true delight and I was unsurprised that Dexter Gabriel (he writes under a pen name) is a history professor.  The characters are lively, his alternate Cairo is playful, and I always enjoy a good, fast-moving detective story. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the suffragettes, although I could see their role in the denouncement a mile away. I would be more than happy to read a novel in that universe (there’s currently a short story).

I’d read To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers before the Hugo Awards (can’t remember why). I found it very readable, although I felt the opening promised an exciting ending that didn’t happen. In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire was anotherportal fantasy for grown-ups‘. It seemed to be a story about the struggle to put childish things behind you. I didn’t understand the appeal of the goblin market or why you would stay there instead of growing up. Either way, it didn’t resonate with me.

Unfortunately, I ricocheted off the other finalists. I, personally, don’t like lyrical language in fast-moving prose writing. It’s hard to read when tired and I always feel the author is trying too hard. I think I got ten pages into the winning This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone before I found the writing style annoying. Sorry, Amal and Max, please ignore me – everyone else liked your story.

Best Novelette

Again, I found Omphalos by Ted Chiang and Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin to be my favourite shorter stories by a noticeable margin.

Omphalos is a story about a universe in which evidence for God’s existence is found in fossils and where science is driven by a desire to know God. It’s a fascinating commentary on the philosophy of science, and of the role of science in mediating faith. It’s also speculative. It asks: What if? I felt the same profound joy reading Omphalos as I did Baoshu’s What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear (a tale about how people create stories to link random historical events).

Emergency Skin was lively, clear, beautifully written and engaging. It was memorable. It had a point. It cleverly allowed the reader to read between the lines of the somewhat biased protagonist. Likewise, The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker, which was also highly readable, but more prone to ‘tropes’ than Emergency Skin.

Best Short Story

The Hugo Award voters agreed that As the Last I May Know by S. L Huang was the best of the short story finalists. It was clever, well written and I loved the ethical dilemma that Nyma both represented, and faced. I also voted for And Now His Lordship Is Laughing by Shiv Ramdas, which I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ because it was pretty dark, but I liked his clever interpretation of a real historical event. Finally, I voted for Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island by Nibedita Sen, simply because I liked the idea of storytelling through academic bibliography, although there’s something (elitist) about a story that relies on familiarity with academic bibliography.

As with the 2015 Hugos, there was at least one short story where I simply didn’t understand *why* it was on the ballot. Perhaps I just don’t like postmodernism (I *really* don’t like postmodernism), but I felt Fran Wilde’s A Catalog of Storms was a language soup. I think entirely in pictures, and if you tell me something is a storm, I expect it to be one.

Best Series

I voted for The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey and The Wormwood Trilogy by Tade Thompson. I’d read both of these series outside of the Hugo packet and just loved them.

Best Graphic Story/Comic/Dramatic Presentation/Astounding Award

Many Hugo Award categories assume familiarity with Worldcon-attending fan culture. So, I felt unqualified to vote in most of the other categories…

I voted Die, Volume 1 and LaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor for best graphic story.  I also bought The Poppy War after discovering it was grimdark military fantasy inspired by real-life history. I felt qualified to vote for the Mandalorian in Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, and for Good Omens, Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel for Dramatic Presentation: Long Form.

I voted Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker below No Award. It’s another of those ‘why is this here?’ I mean, seriously, is The Rise of Skywalker REALLY the best SF&F series/movie released this year?


I think that’s a wrap. Cora Buhlert, who was nominated for Best Fan Writer, has a great blogpost about the Hugo finalists with links. She’s described me, elsewhere, as ‘a fan and critic whose taste in books leans more conservative’. This is kinda funny. Well, unless pulp writing, hard SF and military fiction count as ‘right wing’.

Caption: Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

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