The 2009 Hugos

A few weeks ago, SF author Adam Roberts stirred up quite a storm by suggesting that the nominees for the 2009 Hugo award for best SF/F novel were somewhat lackluster:
Science Fiction Fandom: your shortlists aren’t very good.

I'm not saying the works you have shortlisted are terrible. They're not terrible, mostly, as it goes. But they aren’t exceptionally good either. They’re in the middle. There’s a word for that. The word is mediocre.
It is an interesting post, and of course his remarks have engendered all sorts of responses and discussion about the nature of the awards themselves and which books on this year's shortlist deserved or didn't deserve to be there. SF Signal took the opportunity to ask a panel of writers several questions, and since I've been reading a lot of SF lately, I thought it might be fun to answer them myself.

How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

A quick glance at the history of the Hugo Award for Best Novel shows a pretty good list of winners. A lot of my favorite SF novels are winners of the Hugo, and several others were at least nominated. Now, I'm far from an authoritative expert on SF novels and I have not read the grand majority of nominated books, but still, the list seems pretty well balanced. It's worth noting that of the past 15 or 20 SF novels I've read, a little more than half have been hugo winners (or nominees), and a hefty portion of my book queue is also represented by Hugo books.

As an award, the Hugo is interesting because it's a popular vote of Worldcon members. You have to pay to be a member, so that weeds out most casual voters, and it's interesting that a lot of Worldcon members are themselves SF authors or otherwise involved in the SF or publishing business world. This seems to present a good mix. Not as insular as something like, say, the Oscars, but not completely populist either. And I think that shows with a lot of the Hugo winners and nominees. Of course, the entire premise of this question relies on a completely subjective evaluation, so all of this should be taken with a grain of salt.

As for this year's slate, well, I've only read 2 of the 5 nominees. Zoe's Tale is an entertaining read and a good book, but I'm surprised it made the shortlist. I certainly don't think it's an embarrassment or anything, and it's a fine book, but the other book on the shortlist that I've read was Anathem, which I loved and which even curmudgeons like Roberts admit probably deserves to be on the list (if not win). With all due respect to John Scalzi, Anathem far outclasses Zoe's Tale. The other nominees include Charlie Stross's Saturn's Children, which I haven't read but given my experience with Stross, I'd wager I wouldn't like. I've never much cared for anything of his that I've read, so when he gets nominated (and he does, just about every year), it seems kinda boring. For all I know, Saturn's Children is the greatest book evar, but I'm doubting it. I admit that I'm intrigued by the premise of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and as a YA novel, I bet it works pretty well (at the same time, it's not exactly groundbreaking stuff... then again, what is?) Finally, there's Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, which I don't know much about except that it's a children's book. All in all, not a bad field at all. Not having read a lot of other novels from this year, I can't say if they're truly the best, but there doesn't seem to be any stinkers in the list. It does seem to have a pretty good variety - you've got a children's book (Graveyard Book), a young-adult novel (Little Brother), a book that might as well be young-adult and that features a teenage girl protagonist (Zoe's Tale), a rather standard SF book (Saturn's Children) and an ambitious, epic novel that features numerous philosophical digressions as well as an entire glossary of made-up words and references (Anathem). I suppose that the under-represented group would be authors that focus a lot on style and literary flourish, but that doesn't bother me (though it does seem to bother Roberts).

How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?

Since I think the winners, overall, seem to comprise a pretty good list of novels, I think the Hugos do a pretty good job of representing what SF has to offer. Several Hugo winners would make a good first SF novel for a more traditional reader, and there are plenty of other winners that have enough heft to attract more discriminating readers. The one thing that might be a bit strange to outsiders is that SF is more concerned with ideas than stylistic flourishes (something that Roberts seems to lament), but honestly, the focus on ideas is what makes us all love SF in the first place. If you're not into that, your interest in SF will probably be limited to certain authors.

Which of this year's finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

The two frontrunners seem to be Graveyard Book and Anathem. Both Neil and Neal are popular with the SF crowd (both have already won an award), and these two books seem to be quite popular. I'll say that Graveyard Book will win, because I'm assuming it has a broader appeal.

Which of this year's finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

If you read this blog, I'm sure you already know that I think that Anathem should win. Even though I haven't read 3 of the other nominees, I'm pretty confident that Anathem would be my favorite. What can I say, I'm a Stephenson junkie.

Which books do you think were missing from this year's list of Best Novel finalists?

And not having ready any other 2009 SF books, I have nothing to contribute here. So there.

Well, there you have it. I'd be interested to see how some others more knowledgeable of the genre would respond to this though. Maybe next year, I'll make sure I read all of the nominees. That way, I could better comment on something like this... Of course, that assumes I ever finish Infinite Jest (which, incidentally, is a SF novel, something I didn't know when I set out to read it). I'm a few hundred pages behind at this point and not sure if I'll be able to make the deadline. But I digress. The Hugos, like any other list of bests, can sometimes leave something to be desired, but that's half the fun of awards and top 10s and the like. Even lists that are generated by hundreds of votes (as opposed to a list collected by an individual) have their interesting bits, and I think the Hugos do a decent job of that.