Hugo Nominees (1)

by Henry Farrell on July 26, 2010

Usually, John Quiggin or I discuss the nominees for the Hugo Awards at some point – and time is running out. The nominees this year for Best Novel:

_Boneshaker_ by Cherie Priest (Amazon, Powells)
_The City & The City_ by China Miéville (Amazon, Powells)
_Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America_ by Robert Charles Wilson (Amazon, Powells)
_Palimpsest_ by Catherynne M. Valente (Amazon, Powells)
_Wake_ by Robert J. Sawyer
_The Windup Girl_ by Paolo Bacigalupi (Amazon, Powells)

Of these, I’ve read four. I’d rather spend two days at a Juggalo convention than read another Robert J. Sawyer novel – take that as you will. I will probably get around to the Bacigalupi novel at some point. I’ve found his work interesting, but too heavy-handed in the past – the message overwhelms the characters and situations.

The books I have read. Valente’s _Palimpsest_ is good – but doesn’t match up to her utterly original “Orphan’s Tales books”: _Boneshaker_ struck me as extremely competent, but no more than competent. Even if the combination was faintly novel, the ideas were not only second-hand, but looking quite shop-worn. Philip Reeve had some even more pungent opinions on this topic, but appears to have taken them down from the internets.

This leaves the Miéville and Wilson books. Of the two, I would give my vote to the Miéville book – I’ll have a piece on it coming out in the next few months, and it strikes me as a novel that is going to be highly influential and deservedly so – it remakes fantasy more comprehensively (in a subtle way) than _Perdido Street Station_, which was his breakthrough novel (as an aside – his “write-up”: in the Sunday NYT is worth looking at). But I am also extremely fond of Julian Comstock, which has not gotten nearly the attention that TCATC has – see “here”: for my earlier write-up.

Other categories: I liked both Charlie Stross’s “Palimpsest” (no relation to Valente’s) and Ian McDonald’s “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” in Best Novella. I’m reading the latter’s new book on Turkey, _The Dervish House_, and enjoying it lots. The two nominees for best novella that I have read – “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky, and “The Island” by Peter Watts both left me a little cold. Best Related Work I want to write a separate post on. Finally – the John W. Campbell award – I think it’s hard to beat Felix Gilman. I’m looking forward more than I can say to his new Western/fantasy hybrid whenever it comes out. Others with opinions on nominees (slate is “here”: ), feel free to express em in comments.



ECW 07.26.10 at 9:18 pm

The best short story I’ve read this year was “Divining Light” by Ted Kosmatka. It got a Nebula nomination (didn’t win), and I was disappointed it didn’t at least get a nomination for a Hugo. If there was a SF award for best short story one could use in a philosophy seminar it would surely win. Still available online:


Brian 07.26.10 at 9:58 pm

The Windup Girl is my pick, having read all the nominees, though it’s a hard choice between that and Mieville’s book. Bacigalupi is beating various sustainability drums fairly heavily, but I feel that the strength of the novel is actually in the plots of the massively self-interested, almost amoral characters. The City and the City is brilliant, but I feel that it collapsed to an extent at the end.

I am generally in agreement with Henry’s assessment, but found Julian Comstock disappointing; it provoked a great deal of deja vu of other somewhat post-apocalyptic novels, with the greatest highlight the idea of Colorado Springs as the headquarters of a new world order. In its defense, if I keep comparing all of Wilson’s work to Spin, I think I’ll inevitably be disappointed.


McDevite 07.26.10 at 10:17 pm

While I’m quite sure that “Wogtastic” isn’t the proper sort of word anymore, if there’s one word that summarizes Bacigalupi’s character building, it’s mostly that–unless one accurately considers the fact that the story is basically “What these ___ need is a White Man” and that the Asian characters are McGuffins to the White Man’s growth. It has dreadfully silly math and a bad understanding of technology. Worse, It is a distressingly rape-heavy book in a rape-heavy genre with no particular need for the rape; it contrasts with “River of Gods”‘ relatively civil treatment of the nuet’s sexuality and its social caste. (Those sentences bring to mind the discussion here about the rape in first Flashman book. This is worse, by many country miles)

“The City & The City” for someone who has great world building skills–without being too insufferable about it–the world here was too close to the uglier bits of the 20th century to ever really settle. The language and food were like Albanian, but just so much off as to not be, that sort of thing–a perpetual loose tooth. Unlike other Ruritanian fantasy, this weird ostalgie did less with more, and I decided not to finish it.

Yes, we all hate Robert Sawyer. Haven’t read the others, plan to get around to Priest and Wilson eventually.


Ian 07.26.10 at 10:24 pm

SPOILERS FOR “THE WIND-UP GIRL”: McDevite: I don’t think Baciglupi’s book is award-worthy, but why do you think it’s “What these _ need is a White Man”? Anderson Lake doesn’t really grow, and he just dies randomly at the end. I was concerned it would turn out as you describe when I first started reading it.


Cheryl Morgan 07.26.10 at 10:37 pm

Do give The Windup Girl a try. Like you I dislike Bacigalupi’s short fiction, but the novel length allows him much more space to consider the themes he’s addressing. As McDevite notes, there are areas of concern (I’ve listed my quibbles here), but I’m likely to vote it third.


Brian 07.26.10 at 10:46 pm

McDevite: I agree on some points – the sex slavery in Windup Girl is played a little too much toward the erotic, which did trouble me, and I should have mentioned it. However, I think my interpretation of the characters differed strongly from yours, which affects this issue as well as the race one. (vague spoilers follow) I don’t believe Lake should be viewed as a sympathetic, or for that matter, developing character in any sense. He has little empathy for any of the locals, even the windup he “loves” (but who can’t honestly give consent), and his only rationale for his brutal actions is that of historical fear. I believe the locals and yellow-cards are portrayed far more sympathetically – not always necessarily as ethical characters, but as ones with better reasons for what they are doing. Considering the book ends with (major spoiler) the flooding of Bangkok in order to prevent the usurpation of power by Western corporate interests, it’s difficult for me to consider it being in favor of Western intervention.


Jared 07.27.10 at 12:07 am

I’m in the anti-Windup Girl camp. It’s not that I thought it was an apology for Western imperialism, but that he too often used lazy cultural stereotypes as a substitute for characterization. None of the characters were sympathetic, mostly because they were confirmations of racist stereotypes. Bacigalupi should get no credit for doing the same with his white characters.


frabjous 07.27.10 at 4:24 am

Based on the reactions I got while carrying around my copy of Boneshaker, I would caution you not to underestimate the nerd-bait value of a novel featuring zombies and airships.


Warren Terra 07.27.10 at 5:30 am

For anyone who is interested, and isn’t already aware, voting closes at the end of this month (that’s quite soon!); voting rights come with an membership of this year’s Worldcon ($70 Australian for the non-attending Supporting Member level, apparently) – and those voting rights come with the right to download an electronic copy of pretty much everything nominated this year, excepting the movies and TV shows. A great bargain, if you like the sorts of things the Hugos honor.


TheBrucolac 07.27.10 at 6:01 am

The real question about the Windup Girl is why every surface of post-carbon Bangkok isn’t covered with photovoltaics and every building is not topped with wind turbines? If energy is expensive enough for people to use treadle computers and sailboats, shouldn’t those technologies make sense?

Beyond that quibble, it’s a very strong book, and much more about the unsustainability of Western modes than about sympathizing with the whiteys– although I agree with Brain’s distaste for the eroticization of the sex-slavery. Some of the rape is necessary– vulnerability proves to the reader the windup girl’s humanity. See also the near-rape of Sharon Valerii. But, there’s a little too much turn-on in the story.

Someone up there mentioned Ian Macdonald, who has a short story nominated. Is anyone else disturbed by his third-world tour– Brasil, India, Turkey? I really like each story– a lot– but the dilettante-poverty tourist pattern, taken as a whole, begins to look condescending. And condensing– these cultures are so nifty! They’re like all science-fictiony. I should write about them. Hand me that Lonely Planet, would ya?


McDevite 07.27.10 at 2:05 pm

@ Ian; I’d point out that Sam Worthington’s Marine doesn’t grown either. He just becomes a noble savage who gets his legs back. Since all of the Asian characters are, you know, crafty wogs and the Malaysians had to kill off all their Chinamen for being, you know, crafty wogs, and the windup girl gets gang banged for hilarity, plus that thing with the bottle, the only semi-human character is Lake, even if he is an utterly vile protagonist. I suppose it’s right that he’s not quite playing Kevin Costner, but it’s a cousin of that, or perhaps, uh, “The Quiet American.”

Cheryl, while you do appreciate the nasty racial-sexual politics that Baciglupi traffics in, but you seem to miss the totally cocked up science and economics that some people think makes this work brilliant, when it’s about as enjoyable as Fountainhead, when people want to go around congratulating it for its rich world building. Creating a shitty world where all your characters are vile–either because you’re a racist goon–or because you want to write an utterly morally vacuous character like lake to “challenge” people when real literature from Lolita to to Rebecca Pawel’s series of Spanish mysteries have been much better at that doesn’t make you interesting, it makes you a dope, and I dislike dopes being hailed as geniuses. Lots.

Here’s James Nicoll on this:

“The basic setup is Peak Oil has Peaked and now everything is expensive because
Peak Oil and because apparently all of the alternatives to oil vanished, even
the ones we see on stage beign used. At the same time, Climate Change has
Changed, enough that in general people stick to the laws restricting carbon
emissions, and at the same time climate change and Peak Oil has thrown
most countries into a tizzy, from Malaysia wiping out its Chinese for being
all Peak Oily and the US simply collapsing. Also, evil food companies have
apparently deliberately killed off a lot of potential customers spreading
blights aimed at making people buy EvilCorps’ sterile crops.

They do have superduper biotech, which is used to address the energy
problem by making really big elephants to use as domestic animals, and
they have implausibly powerful springs that can hold more energy per
kg than H2 + O2 (in fact, building an SSTO rocket with these springs
is trivial although nobody does it because the author is a Mundane
SF guy). Using the biotech to engineer oil-producing plants has not
been explored and neither has using the springs to transport energy
from nuclear power stations (perhaps because those no longer exist).

The book is on one hand the Windup Girl’s struggle to survive and on
the other Thailand’s struggle to survive the efforts of EvilCorps to
infest the nation and get control of a valuable trove of genetic
information from before the Blightening. ”

Seriously, go read FITZPATRICK’S WAR instead. Far more fun.


Theophylact 07.27.10 at 2:15 pm

Of the nominees for Best Novel, I’ve only read The City & The City and Julian Comstock so far. The Miéville would be a solid contender in any year, and I think it’s his best book so far. But the Wilson, I think, has been seriously misunderstood. For one thing, it’s a very funny book; for another, it’s loaded with wonderful and oblique references to other works, including Gore Vidal’s Julian. There’s a great ongoing discussion of it at Making Light.


David 07.27.10 at 3:36 pm

Mmmm…? The City & The City fantasy? I dunno. The two cities and their people certainly can directly interact, it’s just that it is totally forbidden. And they don’t actually occupy the same space – they just interweave. I don’t think there is anything in the novel that couldn’t have a totally natural present-day explanation. ‘Unseeing’ other people is something we all do naturally on a daily basis when we live in cities. This was just taking it further. When two ‘different’ communities of similar size (or at least same order of size) live cheek-by-jowel – it’s often a recipe for disaster (Northern Ireland, Ruanda, Sarievo, to name but three…). It may be that one solution to this perennial problem could, indeed, be that proposed in China Miéville’s novel.


Cosma Shalizi 07.27.10 at 3:41 pm

And a link to Nicoll’s take. (I have not read the book myself, and between that and this, do not plan to.)


johnm 07.27.10 at 8:09 pm

re: ECW @ 1

Thanks for the link, I just read the story and I agree that it’s absolutely brilliant. Possibly the best science fiction short story I’ve ever read.


Cheryl Morgan 07.27.10 at 10:17 pm

McDevite: People who laud the economics of The Windup Girl generally seem to do so because the book confirms their political prejudices. I’ve opted not to waste time arguing with that.


shah8 07.28.10 at 7:17 am

Alright, as for Windup Girl…

1) Those of you that think this is racist needs to read some of Paul McAuley’s later works for first rate fear of a black planet vibe. More than that, it feels like one of those “you’re the real racist” sentiment given that I think that Bacigulpi incorporates in a straightforward way the regional racial politics and does some extrapolation.

2) Every geek and her brother knows that the economy and engineering is unworkable. That’s pretty much because all steampunk, and this is very much steampunk, is completely unrealistic about the scaleability of gears.

3) One of the reasons I really liked this book was that it seems to have a realistic appreciation of how a people (like the thai) might adapt or reject a technology. I mean, the focal point of the novel is the eponymous Windup Girl, and my understanding of the novel is built around *why* thais considered the Windup an abomination, and *how* that Windup Girl processed and adapted to that understanding. I thought it was the key to understanding the wrongness of all the anti-heros around the central character. They are *supposed* to be unpleasant, because they displace a certain kind of perspective on their responsibilities to themselves onto others in classical ways. And bad/good things happen as the Fates decide.


shah8 07.28.10 at 7:20 am

Ah, and for those of you that think the calorie companies are so outre, desperately need to read a decent world history work between 1870s and wwi.


Cranky Observer 07.28.10 at 10:56 am

> Ah, and for those of you that think the calorie companies are so
> outre, desperately need to read a decent world history work
> between 1870s and wwi.

Anyone who thinks that today’s biofood corporations could not, and under the right (bad) circumstances would not, wage war needs to read the business and legal press from 1990-2010.



ajay 07.28.10 at 12:45 pm

I suppose it’s right that he’s not quite playing Kevin Costner, but it’s a cousin of that, or perhaps, uh, “The Quiet American.”

The title character in “The Quiet American” is actually the villain…


dsquared 07.28.10 at 1:09 pm

Anyone who thinks that today’s biofood corporations could not, and under the right (bad) circumstances would not, wage war

That’s unpossible!


McDevite 07.28.10 at 7:16 pm

Meh; Lake is a villain. Or a villainous protagonist.


Tpi 07.30.10 at 3:36 pm

The writing in Windup Girl is pretty good, but _everything_ connected in ANY way with science in that book is so total rubbish that it was intolerable. I could have written a long essay pointing out all the absurdities.


Doctor Science 08.03.10 at 11:13 am

I’m kind of surprised that no-one else here seems to have noticed how very closely Julian Comstock ties into discussions at Crooked Timber. I happened to read the book just after our long discussion of back-to-the-19thC libertarianism, and it’s stunningly clear that Wilson is not, actually, trying to *make up* or invent his future society, he’s showing a society that people, now, are trying to implement.

Similarly, Wilson put the headquarters of the Dominion in Colorado Springs because Dominionism already exists, and Colorado Springs is its center of gravity.

And then there are the issues of race as an unmarked state, which we were discussing at Making Light. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am at how many layers Julian Comstock has, and how much it rewards re- and close reading.

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