Rayner (pfy) wrote,

Reading notes on the 2015 Hugo Awards

This is a slightly cleaned-up version of the notes I made for myself while going through the 2015 Hugo Awards voter's pack, set down here in case anyone's interested, what with the awards happening today and everything.

For every category not listed here, I either ran out of time and didn't vote, or my though process wasn't in-depth enough to be worth recording.

Possible spoilers ahead.


First, I rank the candidates in order of quality. If I think something wasn't good enough to deserve a place on the ballot, I rank it below No Award. THEN, if there aren't at least three candidates better than "No Award", then "No Award" gets moved to the top of the rankings. This is on the basis that there wasn't a strong enough field for a meaningful contest, and so I'd rather vote "No Award" than vote for something that in any other year would only be a middling candidate. I reserve the right to bend this rule if there is one truly outstanding entry in a category otherwise full of dreck.

Short story

On A Spiritual Plain: Faraday-shielded segways? "Sermonblog"? Really? More to the point, this story is about the first ever undeniable human ghost. Proof, after millennia of human spiritual inquiry, that the soul and the afterlife are real. Does this cause any social consequences or even vague surprise? Does it fuck. The ghost just wants to be put to rest, so he, the protagonist, and an alien cleric go on a long walk to a place where he can dissipate. And that's it. This is the most crushingly dull story in the whole Hugo packet. I suppose I'll give it a small amount of credit for not being longer.

A Single Samurai: Workmanlike, with a decently satisfying conclusion. Not polished enough for an award. I do like the idea of humans finding ways to deal with kaiju before high-tech weaponry.

The Parliament of Beasts and Birds: I like the animal-fable setup of all the creatures debating what to do after the disappearance of mankind, and Wright's poetic language works well in this context. However, it turned into increasingly ponderous Book of Genesis fanfiction and then sort of petered out weakly.

Totaled: The brain-in-a-jar is a concept I usually associate with pulp-SF mad scientist stories, so I'll give this a lot of credit for being well executed with evocative and heartfelt writing. This is the only one that deserves its nomination, although I can't help feeling that in any other year it would be an also-ran.

Turncoat: Competently written war story. Some people made fun of this one for dwelling on the minutiae of ship statistics, but I thought it worked okay as as way to demonstrate the analytical, detail-focused mind of the ship's Machine Intelligence while also providing an info-dump for the reader. However, everything about the story is just... average. There are no clever twists, no thought-provoking insights, no sparkling turns of phrase. It would be fine as a fluff piece for some space battle RPG or something, but it's not award-worthy.

1 No Award
2 Totaled
3 Turncoat
4 A Single Samurai
5 The Parliament of Beasts and Birds
6 On the Spiritual Plain


Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium: Rattles along decently enough, but the ending is anticlimactic. The dying human figures out the psychological weakness of the alien oppressors, then just sort of horrifies them without any particular consequence.

Championship B'tok: Enjoyable, but too many loose ends. Why doesn't the first chapter tie into anything else? Was there an Intervener conspiracy, or was it the Snakes all along? And if the latter, how did they engineer the Cambrian explosion etc? Are there *meant* to be bits that don't make sense, as if the reader is also caught up in an intrigue they only half understand? I'm really not kidding about the first chapter, by the way; I almost wonder if part of a different story got pasted in by accident.

The Day the World Turned Upside Down: I honestly can't tell if this is meant to be a parody. The premise is absurd enough for comedy: [movie trailer voice] In a world turned literally upside down... one man must return... A FISH [/movie trailer voice]. And the protagonist's wangsting over his girlfriend leaving him is bordering on the ridiculous. But if it's meant to be funny, the protagonist is far too irritating for any sort of sympathy, and the payoff of the story is close to nonexistent. Whatever it is, I almost want to print it out just so I can throw it at the wall.

The Journeyman: In the Stone House: I liked the humour of the two main characters' interactions, but this suffers from being a Wacky Wayside Tribe instalment in a longer tale. There are allusions to a main quest, but it didn't seem like the plot of it advanced significantly. Also, minor niggle: is it really likely that a human tribesman would see a bathroom-door stylised person icon and mistake it for a moon rising over hills? I'd have thought humans would be pretty good at recognising human-like figures.

The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale: A decently-written first-contact story. I'm not sure why Priam gambles the careers of his whole squad and himself on a long shot when he has zero information, but I suppose he has at least been set up as an impulsive type. The ending is fairly satisfying - the clues are scattered throughout the story, but are only truly obvious in retrospect. However, I'm not sure why the creatures didn't bother to respond to initial radio contact. And if the humans' radio transmissions were scrambled by electrical discharges from the alien plants, why did the creatures' radio bracelets work? Anyway, this is probably the best of the bunch.

1 No Award
2 The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale
3 The Journeyman: In the Stone House
4 Championship B'tok
5 Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium
6 The Day the World Turned Upside Down


I am not reading three entire bloody novellas of John C. Wright's self-righteous pontificating, and frankly nominating the same person for three slots in a category would be taking the piss even if they were a lab-grown Super-Asimov mind-melded to clones of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. I'm short on time here, and there are other categories with a better chance of having something worth reading in them. No Award.


I did not have time to read all of these all the way through before the deadline, unfortunately. However, I decided to vote in this category anyway, on the basis that I could read a few chapters of each and make at least a semi-informed judgement.

Ancillary Sword: Well-thought-out military SF romp with a good helping of political intrigue. A real page-turner, with events happening at a pace that's keeping me engaged and interested. Enjoying this a lot.

The Three-Body Problem: Chilling opening that sets up the major characters' motivations. Pacing very odd - it feels at times as though the narrator is pushing the fast-forward button. Loved the scenes set in the 3Body game. However, I thought I'd figured out what was going on at one point, but my idea turned out to be much crazier than the actual plot, which left me a little disappointed. (FWIW, my thought was "What if everything we know about physics is just a special case of a much more complex and chaotic system, and we just haven't noticed because up until now the universe has been in an age of stability?")

The Dark Between the Stars: Quite honestly, if your boss says "Don't worry, the lava-processing facility is perfectly safe", the only correct response is indeed to steal the nearest spaceship and run for your life. Still only partway through this, but seems like a decent enough space-opera jaunt.

The Goblin Emperor: Everyone seems to rate this highly, but I'm not getting into it at all. Maybe I need to persevere for a few more chapters. I can't say anything especially bad about it either, though.

Skin Game: I have not read the previous fourteen books, and I'd probably be enjoying this more if I had that context.

1 Ancillary Sword
2 The Three-Body Problem
3 The Dark Between the Stars
4 Skin Game
5 The Goblin Emperor
6 No Award

I'm still happy about putting Ancillary Sword first, but now I want to re-order the others. I'm just not sure what order I would put them in.

Related Work

Why Science is Never Settled: AKA "An explanation of scientific methodology, and why this means global warming isn't real. I know this because I'm a neuroscientist. But you can't even check that, because I'm publishing under a pseudonym." Well, sorry, but I'm one of those brainwashed global warming cultists who's been misled by the mere fact that it's fucking well getting hotter. It's a shame, because this does have some good stuff in other parts, such as the description of the Andrew Wakefield vaccine fraud.

Wisdom From My Internet: A collection of snarky sayings. Most of them are unattributed, and I've seen many of them doing the rounds on social media sites, comment sections, and such like. This means one of three things: the author is the humble unknown source of practically every Twitter one-liner, he's plagiarising, or he didn't bother to check whether his thoughts were remotely original. Whichever it is, I'm disqualifying this work on those grounds alone. And as for the contents, they're the kind of "wisdom" you'd expect to get in e-mail forwards from the idiot uncle that you try to avoid at Christmas. Collecting them up and submitting them for a prestigious award is a prime example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect at work. This might barely pass muster as a Usenet signature generator, fortune-cookie file, or third-rate stand-up routine, but that's about all. The Notebooks of Lazarus Long this ain't. Practically every line I can hear in the smug voice of the kind of bar-room blowhard who regurgitates some ignorant but superficially impressive soundbite and thinks everyone else at the table should bow to his superiority. Last, but certainly not least, it isn't a related work. This can fuck right off and away.

Letters From Gardner: Somewhere between memoir, short story anthology, and writing advice. Enjoyable enough, with some fairly standard tips for new authors. The short stories are better than most of the nominees in the short fiction categories, despite them being the ropey first drafts that the author is using as examples of how to improve. This makes me wonder why Antonelli's short story nomination is so tedious.

Transhuman and Subhuman: Wright's florid prose can work well in a piece of fiction, but in a critique or philosophical essay it just comes across as pompous bluster. The title essay claims to be an argument against transhumanism, but immediately veers off into a seven-page sermon about the different kinds of immorality displayed by all the SF&F writers who are not John C. Wright. It wraps up with one page of unsupported assertions that suggest that Wright's only research was skim-reading half a dozen random comments on /r/transhumanism. The second essay I skipped because, never having seen the Hobbit films, I'd have no idea whether he makes any valid points. In the third essay, Wright only makes it a few pages in before beginning to rant about imaginary perverts, and the rest of the book continues in the same vein. The lasting impression here is of a bug-eyed street preacher who's got hold of a crate of Jack Daniels and a thesaurus.

The Hot Equations: Nice introduction to thermodynamics and propulsion for less-technical SF writers. I'm not sure that some of the figures are entirely accurate (e.g. Is the average asteroid really that warm? A quick Google suggests not, though it's not ridiculously out of whack), but anyone trying to write plausible "hard" SF could do a lot worse than read this and take heed. I'd have liked it to be longer, though. Caveat: I only did A-level physics, and that was a long time ago, so if there are any howlers I've probably missed them.

Below the cutoff, I have basically ranked these works by how much stupidity they contain, which has tended to favour the shorter ones.

1 No Award
2 Letters From Gardner
3 The Hot Equations
4 Why Science is Never Settled
5 Wisdom From My Internet
6 Transhuman and Subhuman

Graphic Story

Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal
Teenage Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel. A decent new take on the "awkward teen gets superpowers" origin story.

Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery
A party of adventurers in a D&D-style fantasy world, working their way through a very roleplaying-campaign-like plot, with plenty of jokes for the RPG fans while still being accessible to non-gamers. Manages to be both pants-wettingly funny one minute and deeply touching the next.

Saga Volume 3
Not entirely sure what's going on here, but it's good fun and visually lovely. I probably ought to read the first two.

Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick
At first this just looks like a comic about being a kid and trying to figure stuff out about sex. AND THEN IT REALLY ISN'T. This gets to be near the top just for the "Fat Bottomed Girls" scene.

The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate
I had to base my opinion of this on an Amazon preview, because unlike the others it wasn't in the voting pack. Sadly, none of the art, writing, or jokes struck me as anything more than mediocre. I liked the porcupine strapped to a board, I guess.

1 Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery
2 Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick
3 Saga Volume 3
4 Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal
5 No Award
6 The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate

Professional Artist

Julie Dillon's work is utterly charming; I really want to live in the Scholar's Tower! The submissions from Greenwood, DouPonce and Pollack all look great, and I wouldn't be too disappointed if any of them won instead. Here, as in the "Best Graphic Story" category, I had to base my assessment of Carter Reid on an Amazon preview, because his book wasn't in the Hugo voter pack. And sorry, but run-of-the-mill comic strip art just doesn't make the grade compared to the others in this category.

1 Julie Dillon
2 Nick Greenwood
3 Kirk DouPonce
4 Alan Pollack
5 No Award
6 Carter Reid

Fan Artist

Elizabeth Leggett's work looks better than some of the Pro category entries. Just... wow. Spring Schoenhuth comes next for her elegant, original, and wonderfully nerdy jewellery. Ninni Aalto's work is definitely worth a mention for weird, quirky cuteness.

1 Elizabeth Leggett
2 Spring Schoenhuth
3 Ninni Aalto
4 Brad Foster
5 Steve Stiles
6 No Award

Best Professional Editor (Long Form)

Vox Day: on the ballot, but disqualified on the grounds of not having a submission for this category, according to the accompanying notes. Ranked below No Award.

Best Professional Editor (Short Form)

Edmund R. Schubert: No vote, at his request.
Vox Day: Ranked below No Award on the grounds of clearly not telling John C. Wright to fuck off nearly often enough.

Regarding the entries from the Puppies' voting blocs, most of them turned out to be poor to mediocre. If that's the very best SF&F that they deem ideologically acceptable, I can see why it hasn't previously had much success getting on the ballot. They've pretty much demonstrated, hilariously thoroughly, that it's crapness that keeps their approved works from getting nominated, not some shadowy radical-left cabal. There were a few Puppy entries that I enjoyed reading, to be fair, but nothing that clearly stood out as award material. I will, however, say that I reckon Kary English is capable of Hugo-winning writing, and I hope to see some of her work nominated in future years under fairer circumstances.

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