We continue Hugo roundups with the Novella category! In some ways, this was an easy one for me as I’d read all six entries on the ballot before it came out. This is partly a reflection of how many 2017 novel and novellas read last year, but I think it’s also indicative of how much Tor.com currently dominates the category: anyone relatively up-to-date on their novella range, especially the buzzy ones, probably has a good idea of what’s going to make the cut. That said, the dominance of a single publisher here certainly doesn’t make the list any less strong, and this was one of the hardest categories to rank, as you’ll see soon enough…
I’m continuing to include absolute ratings alongside my ballot ranking system, putting works in the following categories.:
- Meh tier: I’m not sure why this is here, and I’d be pretty annoyed if it won.
- Good tier: I liked this but it didn’t blow me away.
- Great tier: Oh hey, this is really cool stuff. I might have nominated it and I would be happy to see it win.
- Awesome tier: One of the best things I’ve read, deserves all the accolades.
- Everyone Else Go Home: I would happily punch a thousand sharks to see this win. In fact, maybe I already have?? (I haven’t).
Adri’s Best Novella Hugo Rankings 2018
6. River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. Alas, this is the one finalist I don’t quite “get”. Set in an alternate USA where a ridiculous plan to introduce hippopotami to the southern swampy bit of the USA actually happened, this is a caper novel where a bunch of misfits and ruffians have to go into dangerous hippo territory to carry out a cunning plan which… I’ve sort of forgotten the details of in the year since I read it. Blowing up a dam to stop total hippo domination, or something? What I am clear on is that there are good characters and prose here, but nothing that really grabbed me, and it’s not a sub-genre or aesthetic that naturally appeals, so… here it is. I liked it well enough but I don’t see myself going back for the second part any time soon.
5. Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire. Here’s the second time a book I voted first last year has a continuation on the ballot which I’ve ranked fifth. It’s not you, authors, it’s your competition being so darn excellent (to continue the parallel further, both Machineries of Empire and Wayward Children have third instalments in 2018 that I unconditionally adore…!) Down Among the Sticks and Bones is actually a prequel to last year’s winner Every Heart A Doorway, and it’s a dark portal fantasy about twins forced into narrow gendered roles at home, who discover freedom at a very high price in a bleak gothic world called the Moors. It’s good, although the narration veers from fairytale into preachiness a little too often for my tastes, and some aspects of Jack and Jill’s upbringing are a bit… unsubtle. A worthy finalist but not my favourite this time.
4. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor. Just above the prequel of last year’s winner, we find the sequel of 2016’s winner. Binti: Home picks up the story of Binti, a Himba girl and mathematical prodigy who has become the first of her people to travel the stars and study at space’s prestigious Oomza University. We catch up with Binti after her first year of studies, and follow her as she returns home with her alien friend Okwu to an uncertain reception. The thing I like most about Binti is that the overall story doesn’t always go where you expect, but the twists that do happen always promote the growth of Binti as a character, making it feel original unpredictable without that sense of being cheated that one gets from books that have subversions for the sake of subversion. This entry’s major weakness is its cliffhanger ending, which means the story really needs the (excellent) third volume to be fully appreciated. Still, I’m really glad this series is still getting recognition.
3. The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang: An interesting side-effect of doing these roundups in reverse order of how good the entries they are means I get to frontload my nitpicky whining, as I try to explain why I think some of the best books of the year aren’t quite good enough to be the absolute best of the year. You’d think we’d be past this by the time I get to the “awesome” category but no, it’s about to get worse, because I have been nursing a sustained grudge against Tor.com for suggesting I could read the Black Tides of Heaven and its companion, The Red Threads of Fortune, in either order and I’m about to let it loose here.
“Most people are reading The Black Tides of Heaven“, I thought, “but I’m going to be edgy and go for the other one first because it’s got a woman riding a magical beast on the cover”. A great choice at the time, but it’s since left me in the odd position of 1) being the only person who thinks Red Threads is the absolute standout of this pair and Black Tides is merely a superb second and 2) suspecting that Red Threads, being chronologically second, actually did spoil me for Black Tides and that’s why I don’t understand why this one is on the ballot instead of its companion. Life is hard.
But, yes, fine, Black Tides of Heaven is an outstanding story featuring a fascinatingly well developed culture and magic system: a feat which becomes even more incredible when you consider it’s done within novella, not novel, length. I know I keep saying this, but it’s a testament to how strong this ballot is that I’m only ranking it third.
Everyone Else Go Home
(Does it make sense to have two things in this category? Yes, because as far as you’re concerned I’m not choosing between them.)
=1. And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker. The only entry not published by Tor.com (it’s from Uncanny Magazine, which is also a Hugo favourite and for good reason) is a mystery with a fascinating premise. We follow Pinsker’s self-insert as she attends a conference for all the versions of herself from across a ton of different dimensions, because in one of the dimensions where she wasn’t a highly accoladed writer she invented interdimensional travel instead. When one of her other scientist selves is murdered, it’s up to her to unravel the mystery and figure out which version of herself committed the crime and why. I don’t know Pinsker at all, obviously, but I find the idea that she contains this world-changing hidden potential to be a plausible premise on the strength of her writing alone, and this is one of the best things I’ve read by her.
=1. All Systems Red by Martha Wells. This hilarious, smart, subtly emotive novella is very much on my mind right now as its sequels are in the process of coming out all at once, in publishing terms (we are getting no fewer than three Murderbots in 2018!). All Systems Red is categorically the best AI story I’ve ever read, and definitely in my top 5 favourite first-person narratives of all time, taking the perspective of a human-robot “construct” assigned to protect a survey team who ends up outing itself as a “rogue” unit. To Murderbot, however, being “rogue” means being able to sit in the corner watching TV and being left alone, and certainly not being forced by humans to have any sort of emotionally compromising, anxiety-inducing interactions. What follows is a magnificent blend of character study and action packed story that comes together perfectly by the end, forming a satisfying standalone while still leaving plenty to be explored in future volumes.
What I think will win: All Systems Red has taken the Nebula and I think it’s going to come out on top here too. I’d celebrate a win from literally any of the above, though.
My original nominations :
I’m still a bit salty about Reenu-You, the best of the novellas I read from the Book Smugglers’ Novella Initiative, being overlooked, but otherwise I seem to have had very representative novella tastes this year:
- Reenu-You by Michele Tracy Berger
- All Systems Red by Martha Wells
- And then there were (N-one) by Sarah Pinsker
- The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang
- Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor