The Hugo Awards remain fascinating as a sort of collective divination ritual over the path of SF/F, whatever it turns out that SF/F might mean—it is, obviously, a moving target and always has been. Here, then, is my ranked preference, with accompanying tiny essays to comment on what this particular set of entrails have to say and offer some thoughts on the state of the art in the genre.
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan
In an uncommonly weak year of nominees, She Who Became the Sun stands out as the only novel on the list to offer something genuinely new, innovative, and vital-feeling. At its heart, Parker-Chan’s novel takes the genre of courtly politics and layers on two elements that significantly transform it. The first is a queer lens. The novel retells the rise of the Hongwu Emperor, founder of the Ming Dynasty, as a transmasculine story, imagining that the documented story of a peasant boy rising to be emperor was in fact a destiny seized by a peasant girl who impersonated her dead brother and his foretold destiny.
To state the obvious, this is transformative. The tropes of courtly politics and seduction all change when you have a transmasculine lead, especially one who does not have the simple, convenient framework of transition—Zhu Chongba uses feminine pronouns in her internal monologues, but bristles furiously for much of the book at any suggestion that she is anything other than her brother, understanding her ruse as a ruse to fool heaven itself. Nothing is certain here,.
The second element is the Chineseness of it. This is a book that tangibly follows different logic than anglophone civalric fantasy, not in the deconstructionist sense of George R.R. Martin’s obviously popular novels, but in the sense of something where the basic ways in which expectations are set up and fulfilled or subverted has changed—a structure built around patterns and slightly varying iterations of specific archetypes. Pleasantly, the book makes few concessions for this—it is relatively disinterested in teaching its new expectations. Instead it does its thing and leaves the reader to catch up.
The result is breathlessly strange in all the best ways. At times one wonders why this is SF/F at all—its tone is much closer to magical realism, and the fantastic could probably have been picked out of it adequately to leave an interesting bit of queer literary fiction, at least until the end, when it suddenly snaps into perspective and reveals in full the novel it’s been all along. Perhaps it still could have been literary fiction, but instead we get it here, and its presence transforms the genre around it in fascinating ways, just as the one stunningly explicit sex scene roughly 90% of the way through the book transforms the narrative in a key way.
I do not, generally speaking, want to denigrate the state of the art in SF/F literature, which I broadly think is in rude health, even if it has an increasingly evident dominant mode. Lots of good stuff is being published, and 2021 was a better year than its nominees. But of the six books on the list this year, this is the only one that moves the state of the art—that tangibly reshapes the boundaries of what is possible within the genre. If that is not what awards are for, then what are they for?
2. A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine.
As a sequel, it is not strictly possible for this to change the state of the art. A Memory Called Empire, however, was a worthy enough winner two years ago, and here we have an interesting situation in that the sequel is measurably better, with an expanded range of characters and emotional stakes. Where A Memory Called Empire had an entire world to introduce and spent an awful lot of its time doing that, A Desolation Called Peace has the space to pay that off. The result is a novel with much more to say about colonialism, dual consciousness, and communication than the original.
Realistically, She Who Became The Sun is not going to win, which makes this the obvious “actually a contender” choice. Were it to win, it would be a victory for the recent status quo. It’s a classic, archetypal bit of scab-picking Torwave. If you do not see any burning need for SF/F to advance from that default any time soon—and it’s certainly not a bad place for the genre to be—then this is an entirely reasonable pick.
And yet it’s hard not to have a faint sense of disappointment in a ballot that makes this come in second place. A very good sequel to a book that was the second or third best nominee in the year it won is always going to be a perfectly acceptable winner, but it hurts to have it be such a clear cut second place finish, and speaks to the curiously weakness of this particular ballot. None of this is a problem with a legitimate highlight of science fiction in 2021, of course. But it is still a problem.
- Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki
It was thoroughly unsurprising to see this show up in Charlie Jane Anders’s “Sweetweird Manifesto” as an example of the concept. Unfortunately, I was neither especially taken by the manifesto nor this book. I think it’s telling that Anders’s examples derived largely from children’s media, and that her primary literary example is by a trans woman. Indeed, I think it’s telling that she’s trans, because at the end of the day what’s really being described here is a particular trans aesthetic.
The problem here is that, bluntly, I never liked the aesthetic. The prevalence of the aesthetic held back my transition by years because I was so alienated from trans culture that I failed to recognize myself as a viable part of it. While I understand why trans people, who almost definitionally had their childhoods at least in part taken away from them by dint of having had to live through them in the wrong gender, are drawn to various flavors of “second childhood,” I am these days unable to find anything but a sense of growing horror at the sheer degree of infantilism that seems to dominate trans aesthetics. Without wanting to denigrate children’s media, which is a genre like any other with no shortage of great material, it cannot be a good thing that any list of television shows that are largely popular in the trans community is going to be dominated by cartoons. I suspect this widespread queer infantilism is no small part of where the corrosive “no kink at pride” and “anti” discourse comes from. Even if it isn’t, it’s not a great sign when an entire community is dominated by grown adults unable or unwilling to progress beyond media intended for ten year olds.
So yes, here we have a novel in which the major relationship is portrayed with so little chemistry that it is a genuine surprise when it turns out late in the book to have been intended to be romantic, in which the lead character builds a sensational, world-beating career as a violinist playing the theme music to a thinly veiled Undertale, and which is basically just a titanic monument to this entire trans aesthetic.
And for what? The usual line with “Sweetweird” or whatever else it wants to call itself on a given day is that the world is so full of grim horror that escapism is important and so here’s a bunch of cheery stuff about people taking care of each other. And yet here we have a book so utterly unrelenting in its depiction of trans misery that even I got tired of it—a book that lingers far, far more on experiences of bigotry and oppression than A Desolation Called Peace, which is actually about oppression, whereas this nominally isn’t.
Basically, as far as I’m concerned this entire strand of trans aesthetics needs to politely die off and the trans community needs to move on to something—anything—new.
That said, cis people aren’t allowed to care about any of this for like 3-5 more years and are morally obliged to rate this book highly. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
4. The Galaxy and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers
Becky Chambers was impressively screwed by the Hugo rules, which left A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet ineligible the year it got widespread publishing because it had a previous small self-published run, although that coincided with the Puppies, so really the book of hers that deserved to win because it set up an interesting new paradigm for doing things got doubly screwed. Meanwhile the other book of hers that deserved to win, A Closed and Common Orbit, ran straight into the threshing blades of N.K. Jemisin’s completing her series sweep. So here we have the only writer who can give Tamsyn Muir a run for her money in “most robbed novelist of the last decade” closing out the series she probably should have won something for.
Unfortunately a decade is a long time, and Chambers, who all but defined Torwave (ironically while publishing with Hodder & Stoughton) finds herself getting her last bite at the apple after it’s gone a bit mealy. What worked in her early books because the cheerfully pastoral vibe was laid against a world with enough spikes and teeth to keep it interesting, now finds itself feeling perfunctory and facile as she settles on a more emphatic and total embrace of the light, pastoral mode, an approach that leaves me cold in almost exactly the same way Sweetweird does. I see the doors it opened, I see the good work it’s done, but I feel like it’s time to walk through those doors and on to something new, not triple down on what was an interesting move eight years ago.
None of which is to say that there aren’t good parts in this book. The entire plot focusing on Speaker and the Akaraks is quite good. The four epilogues and the way in which one feeds into the next is charming. The cheese scene is very possibly the best individual scene in any science fiction book this year. You can absolutely see why this approach was a big deal, why people cared about it, and why people still do. Nevertheless, to give the award to this book would be one of those “oops we forgot to give an award to your real accomplishment” make-up awards. Not the worst thing in a year where the nominees are a bit dire, but never something to feel good about.
- Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark
At its heart, this is a straightforward genre romp enlivened by its diversity. The question, then, is what this is worth in 2022. My instinct, alas, is not much; diversity’s status as a positive good instead of a bare minimum is entirely tied to its ability to bring something new to the table. The reason that it is valuable to see queer and Black and Asian science fiction is that there are stories about these things that have never, ever been told.
Unfortunately, Master of Djinn brings relatively little to the table in this regard, or at least little that I can see—I freely admit that as a white reader I could well be missing something here, and I would dearly love this essay to turn out to be a Bad Take. But from what I can see, what we have is a pretty standard fantasy noir—cops investigating the supernatural and solving a straightforward murder mystery—that’s claim to being interested is simply that it is set in Egypt and has quite a lot of sapphic content. (We might also comment on a male author writing sapphic content, and the cynicism thereof, but I’d rather save such musing on gatekeeping for a book in which that’s the biggest problem.)
Is this worthwhile? Undoubtedly, to a Black queer person who’s never had a standard fantasy noir done about characters like them. But to an audience who is broadly familiar with genre tropes, this is fundamentally just more of the same, only with better representation. That matters. That is worth writing. But I don’t especially think it’s worth awarding, especially in a year that had Black and queer fiction that did and said more than this, that used its diversity of perspective to tell a story that felt urgent, instead of that felt like a rerun. To name two eligible examples, both The Unbroken and Sorrowland would have been entirely worthy nominees, and would have outranked most of the things on this list for me.
But fundamentally, I simply am not interested in genre retreads, and I think the purpose and value of awards is to promote ambition of a sort this book simply does not have.
- No Award
A venerable winner of multiple Hugos that’s never won Best Novel. Not much more to say, really.
7. Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir
And then there’s this, about which all that can really be said is that it is profoundly embarrassing for the Hugo Awards that this is even on the ballot. In many ways its presence is a sobering reality check for all of the fine discussions above about what exactly constitutes imaginative leaps within the SF/F genre. Here we are discussing whether representation is necessary or sufficient and whether or not aesthetic jumps over the last five years are sufficient to make perfectly good novels slightly too obsolete to be worth giving awards to, and meanwhile there are people nominating this shit.
It’s probably necessary to unpack just what this book is. Obviously, at least to anyone familiar with Weir as an author, it’s a deliberately unreconstructed Golden Age throwback that cares more about authentic science as an aesthetic unto itself than it does about plot or character. And for all that I’m resolutely forward-looking in thinking about SF/F—indeed for all that I think about SF/F in no small part to be forward-looking—I think that mining the past for what’s been forgotten is one of the most productive ways to move forward. Torwave, as I’ve said, is first and foremost about the unrealized potential of the New Wave. There’s stuff to be found and repurposed in Hard SF and the Golden Age.
But these things are not a novel that feels like an extended exercise in having a man who’s convinced he’s smarter than everyone else explain how clever he is, in excruciatingly leaden prose, and with nothing to say about its world beyond “look at all this science stuff.” And that’s before you get to the worrisome confluence of a self-professed “social liberal, fiscal conservative” (so libertarian then) who “doesn’t do politics” penning a novel in which the solution to a crisis is to appoint a global dictator with seemingly unlimited power and no legal oversight, all of which comes alarmingly close to Mencius Moldbug territory.
So what is one left with here? A novel with nothing to say, no decent prose to say it with, no notable characters who might say it, but quite a lot of math. The fact that the Hugo voters are the sorts of people who would nominate this is, frankly, why the awards were vulnerable to the Puppies in the first place. The mediocrity of this year’s nominees, capped with the presence of something that is at best small-r reactionary, is a sobering and disquieting reminder that for all the astonishing and compelling visions of the future, it is first and foremost necessary to make sure that we actually have one.