The 2009 Hugo Best Novel Shortlist

It’s an incredibly strong year for the best novel Hugo.  The nominees are Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, and Charles Stross’s Saturn’s Children. I’ve now read four of these five, and though I don’t know if I will be buying an Anticipation membership and actually voting, I think I know what this part of my ballot would look like.

A caveat: I haven’t read Zoe’s Tale.  I’ve read Old Man’s War, the first book set in the series.  Zoe’s Tale is supposed to be able to stand on it’s own, but I understand that it covers the same period of time as the previous book set in this universe, The Last Colony, which makes reluctant to jump straight to it.  I enjoyed Old Man’s War well enough that I will probably read the rest of the series, but I found it to be solidly in the light entertainment, read-it-in-a-day category.  Combine that with my current attempt to read books I already have rather than buying more new books, and I might not get to it before the convention.  While I love Scalzi’s blogging, the fiction of his I’ve read makes me suspect that his contribution would be at the bottom of my ballot in this absurdly strong year.  But I could be wrong.  If I manage to get to Zoe’s Tale any time soon, I’ll update this.

The ones I’ve read, in ascending order of how I would vote:

4) Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross.  Stross’s work has so far been hit-and-miss for me, but when it misses it’s a near miss and the hits are incredibly solid.  I found Accelerando and Glasshouse absorbing, but I put down Singularity Sky after about 100 pages, and I’m honestly unlikely to ever return to it.  (Can anyone tell me if Iron Sunrise stands alone?)  Halting State also failed to grab me, though I think I will give it another chance at some point.  The books that worked for me are hard, big idea SF carried out with astonishing verisimilitude, and Saturn’s Children follows in this mode.  In addition, it continues Stross’s trend of incorporating alternative sexuality and kink–especially BDSM–in a way that is neither judgmental nor sensationalistic.  So I loved Saturn’s Children, and the only thing that keeps me from putting it higher on this list is that there were several plot reveals crucial to the climax, and I saw all of them coming well in advance of where I thought I was supposed to.  I found it a brilliant but unfortunately predictable book, in a way that neither Accelerando nor Glasshouse were.  Almost any other year this would probably be higher.

3) Anathem by Neal Stephenson.  This was the hardest one for me to settle on a place for.  On the one hand there are few books that I’ve spent more time thinking about after I closed the cover.  On the other hand, there is no way for me to think of this book where it doesn’t seem to have a flaw right at its heart.  A big problem for me is that, for all of the interesting philosophy, Stephenson just gets the physics wrong.  He conflates multiversity and many-world QM in a way that, the more you follow through the implications, undermines nearly every scientific conceit in the story.  (Briefly: he’s internally inconsistent in his handling of the interactions between atoms from different universes.  It’s a big problem.)  My conception of Anathem is as a book that essentially fails to hit it’s target–but at the same time, the target itself is so grand that even coming close makes for an impressive work.  And I continue to just lap up Stephenson’s prose; I tore through this 1000 page novel in a matter of days.

2) The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.  A gem, and my favorite of his works since American Gods.  If Anathem seemed to somehow miss its target, then The Graveyard Book is a milimeter-precision bullseye.  It is beautiful and sad and funny, and it’s lessons about bravery and self-sufficiency and how to make mistakes and respond to having made them are timeless.  And it is this timeless quality–which made it a supremely worthy winner of the Newberry award–that has me placing it second on the Hugo ballot rather than first.

1) Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.  My top two books this year are both YA, both engrossing, and both made me want to find the nearest precocious young person and put it immediately into their hands.  I think, and this is not hyperbole, that these are two books that have the potential to change people’s lives.  The Graveyard Book is perhaps the slightly more polished of the two.  But while the lessons of The Graveyard Book are timeless, Little Brother sets out to educate us about our own immediate, onrushing future.  That’s a task to which science fiction is uniquely suited, and the Hugo is science fiction award.  All other things being largely equal, it is this quality of Little Brother being more essentially SFnal that makes me think it the worthiest winner of the Hugo this year.

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  1. I’m still deciding how I am going to vote, so I am not going to comment on your rankings (and really, it is an amazingly strong year, and I don’t have any serious disagreement with what you’ve said.) What I will say is that I think that Zoe’s Tale is actually the strongest entry in the OMW series, as well as a step forward for Scalzi — I’ve always enjoyed his writing, but I think ZT is a different kind of good. So there’s that, for what it’s worth.

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