2016 Hugos

by Henry Farrell on March 24, 2016

As usual, my list of the Hugo eligible books for this year (as well as short story collections), meant less as a form of canvassing (especially given that nominations are about to close) than of solving the commitment problem of getting me off my arse to talk about books that I liked and didn’t like. Necessary qualification – the very best novel that I read last year isn’t available yet – Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning – a book that has the potential to remake the genre. It’ll be out in a couple of months, at which point I’ll have more to say.

Best novels

* Paul McAuley – Something Coming Through. Didn’t get nearly the attention that it deserved on this side of the Atlantic, but really very good. In theme, it’s a little like the science fiction bits of M. John Harrison’s Light books, but it worked much better for me (although there’s nothing quite as good as Harrison’s not-really science-fictional portrait of Anna Kearney, which may be the best thing that he’s written). Humanity in a universe which is a midden-heap of dead civilizations, trying to figure out what the story is, and bringing all of its old problems and pre-conceptions with it. This year’s follow-up, Into Everywhere, is even better.

* Jo Walton – The Just City. Enough said already.

* Leena Krohn – Collected Fiction. I’m putting it here rather than under short stories since it contains several novels that are both good and strikingly odd. More modernist than genre, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. It’s a bit lazy to say that if you liked Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath you will likely like this too, but you will.

* Robert Charles Wilson – The Affinities. Not one of his very best novels, but very good. Think of it as a science fictional version of Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree, describing and parodizing in a Canadian pince-sans-rire voice, how social networking technologies might intersect with the desire of elite organizations to recruit people who are just like the people they’ve recruited already.

* Michael Swanwick – Chasing the Phoenix. Without spoiling it too much, it starts off looking like a very well written chinoiserie a la Ernest Bramah, and ends up being a novel *about* chinoiserie, without losing the fun.

* Edward Carey – Foulsham. The second in a series of three and the best. Imagine a young adult narrative by Samuel Beckett that somehow managed to work as both Beckett and YA, with a Marxist account of alienation (there’s a wonderful scene in which the protagonist literally becomes money) worked in too.

Best collections

* Mary Rickert – You Have Never Been Here. My favorite collection of the year – a voice that is chilly, sharply intelligent and quite unique.

* China Mieville – Three Moments of an Explosion. Some excellent stories. My favorite was “Sacken,” a kind of Kafka’s “Before the Law” reversed and written as a horror story.

Also read and enjoyed. Max Gladstone’s Last First Snow – political fantasy which riffs very deliberately and explicitly on the work of James Scott. Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves was sharp and very nicely done. Naomi Novik’s Uprooted could have been cut a little, but moves along very nicely (Patricia McKillip, if Patricia McKillip were more caustic). Greg van Eekhout’s Dragon Coast is also a lot of fun – I most liked the tangled and poisonous family interaction that kept trying to break out of the heist narrative, and would love to see more of it. Charlie Fletcher’s The Paradox and The Oversight have a little too much stage Irish dialogue in places but are very reliably entertaining.

Read and found disappointing – Zen Cho’s Sorceror to the Crown, Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings and Aliette de Bodard’s House of Shattered Wings. All three of these tried to bring non-Western perspectives to the standard genre; all of them seemed to me to be overpowered by the genre they were trying to transform. Cho’s book tries to weave serious themes of race into a Regency comedy, but has a hard time balancing the seriousness of underlying theme and the frivolity of treatment (she’s clearly a very good writer though, and I’ll buy her next book). The Grace of Kings just seemed stolid epic fantasy, drawing on a different cultural base of stock tropes which were still stock tropes, while de Bodard’s book was too in love with its goth and grand guignol (by far the best characters were the peripheral ones who were damaged without being especially romantic). I liked Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Sorceror of the Wildeeps much more – it seemed more comfortable in its own skin, challenging the reader to adapt to its expectations rather than trying to adapt to the expectations of the reader.

Also disappointing – Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. The good bit – that it gets the importance of fiscal and monetary policy to statecraft. The bad bit – that the rest of its theory of statecraft is a kind of cod-Machiavellian superheroism of cunningly laid and staggeringly complex and subtle plans coming to fruit. Lois Bujold, via Jo Walton has a riff about f/sf being a fantasy of political agency. Dickinson’s book takes this to an extreme.

So those are the books I liked, as well as a couple that I wanted to like more than I did. What about you?



Doctor Science 03.24.16 at 10:21 pm

I’ll comment more later, just here to promote my 2015 Hugo Eligible Art tumblr, which may give you enough data to actually nominate in those categories.


Josh jasper 03.24.16 at 10:34 pm

Charlie Jane Anders All The Birds in the Sky


Phil 03.24.16 at 11:22 pm

The doggies have buggered off, then?


shah8 03.25.16 at 1:14 am

2015 was a great year for speculative fiction.

I pretty much disagree with Henry about Last First Snow, I thought it was pretty epic and Gladstone’s best novel to date. Also think that the Zen Cho novel deserves a bit more credit. Agree with the disappointment over The Grace of Kings. I didn’t like Uprooted or Dragon Coast much.

Here’s my list…

Max Gladstone’s Last First Snow–Just really good plotting and writing in a well done world
Cat Rambo’s Beasts of Tabat–Some really nice transmorgrification of Americana like Huck Finn, etc…
David Ramirez The Forever Watch–really excellent mystery thriller in hard sci-fi setting
Silvia Moren0-Garcia Signal To Noise–I loved the telenovella-magical realism blend here.

Worthy of mention:
Scott Hawkins The Library at Mount Char–creepy and fun
NK Jemison The Fifth Season–pretty good tale of the apocalypse
Ferrett Steinmetz Flex and the sequel, Flux–fun in a primary colors way.

Haven’t gotten to Affinities or Valente’s Radiance.

a little off-topic: Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs and City of Blades are a little underexposed (also 2014 and 2016), and these are excellent second world fantasies in a way that Daniel Abraham can’t match.


Henry 03.25.16 at 2:16 am

shah8 – Gladstone’s was one of the books that I very much liked – the main conflict is a very cleverly done riff on James Scott’s books (I think Gladstone was a student in one of his classes – hope to run an interview with him around the time of the next one). Has just the right mix of braincandy and intellectual kicks. I liked City of Stairs; haven’t read the second one yet. Nor yet Valente’s, nor Samatar’s The Winged Histories, which also looks very good.


Henry 03.25.16 at 2:29 am

Also forgot to mention V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, which is fun.


Rheophile 03.25.16 at 3:21 am

shah8 got a couple of mine – Flex was probably my favorite novel of the year (it combined some clever worldbuilding with just a really wonderful sense of joy). Fifth Season was very engrossing (though I felt it lost some of its sense of scope as it went along).

The one I haven’t seen mentioned yet is A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark by Harry Connolly – urban fantasy with a pacifist old woman as the main character. Pulled off a very high degree of difficulty sort of story, with about 95% success.


Soullite 03.25.16 at 7:33 am

No point in wasting time with political awards. There was enough truth on both sides last year to make me want to wash my hands of the whole thing. Nobody who wins these awards at this point deserves to have it matter much. Everything looks rigged to me.


Lowhim 03.25.16 at 7:45 am

Any good short stories to recommend? Haven’t dived into too many scifi novels from last year. Still working on 3body, which has an amazing beginning.


Doctor Science 03.25.16 at 11:49 am


“The Forever Watch” is 2014, it looks like, so not qualified for this year.


Steven desJardins 03.25.16 at 9:17 pm

Huh, for some reason I thought The Just City was a 2014 book. I may replace The Philosopher Kings with Just City on my ballot (or I may end up putting Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, which I’m 2/3 through, in that slot instead).

My other novel choices are N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, B. R. Sanders’s Ariah, Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorceror of the Wildeeps, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (which had a 2014 British edition, but is still eligible because the U.S. publication was 2015).

I’ve posted the rest of my fiction picks over on my LiveJournal.


Doctor Science 03.25.16 at 10:58 pm

I’m still dithering — I just finished Cat Valente’s Radiance, which will probably go on my ballot — but I want to put in a plug for the Seraphina series by Rachael Hartman.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 03.26.16 at 12:35 pm

I liked The Traitor Baru Cormorant very much, but yes, it is a bit too “pulp” in that regard. Also, not sure how it can be followed… or if it should.

May need to check the Gladstone, but I’ve only read the first one and it was fun but going for a bit of a Pratchett vibe at some points that I did not like much. Clashed a bit with how “serious” everything else was. No idea if I’m going to read the other 2 books to reach this (is the 4th, no?)


Rob Barrett 03.28.16 at 2:54 am

New Macauley series I hadn’t heard of before? Sold.


JakeB 03.28.16 at 9:39 pm

I like Robert Jackson Bennett. He reminds me a lot of early Stephen King without the same burden of grue, e.g. in his American Elsewhere.

I enjoyed Uprooted a lot more than Novik’s dragon books, perhaps because it doesn’t seem like such a shameless ripoff of a better writer.

One book I thought was terrific was Lawrence Schoen’s Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard (even if some of his ideas about linguistics are badly misguided IMHO).


4jkb4ia 03.31.16 at 7:51 pm

Glad that Henry agrees about The Grace of Kings. It made me curious about the source material, but I really did not think it was a Hugo-worthy book.

Kate Paulk at Mad Genius Club is in charge of Sad Puppies IV so I would go over there to see what they’re up to. I am cringing because they probably have enough people from last year to wreck the ballot for this year.


4jkb4ia 03.31.16 at 7:54 pm

Among my abandoned goals is to read enough this year to be able to nominate. It’s a shame because I wanted to put in a word for Supergirl.


Steven desJardins 03.31.16 at 10:47 pm

If you’ve read or seen anything this year that you think deserves to be on the ballot, then you’re qualified to nominate. If there’s an episode of Supergirl that you think is better than the average Hugo nominee—or even better than the average fifth-best Hugo nominee in that category—why not nominate it? The only way it will end up on the ballot is if a lot of people agree with you.

There’s absolutely no need to nominate in every category, or to fill every slot in any of the categories you do nominate in. Even if there are only one or two works that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about, nominate those one or two works. It does no harm, and does some good.

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