Friday, August 07, 2009

Thoughts on Hugo Nominees 2009: Novels

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross
Zoe’s Tale, by John Scalzi

Confession time, folks. The two novels I have seen considered as favorites are Anathem and The Graveyard Book, and I haven’t read either of them. I checked Anathem out from the library last week, read the first chapter, realized there was no chance I would make enough progress on the book before the Hugos are announced this weekend, and returned it unread. The impression I have of Neal Stephenson’s work is that there is a significant investment of time and effort required, and Anathem is not a novel I can just jump into. Frankly, Stephenson intimidates me a little bit. I have to psych myself up to read him (which I have never done) and I wasn’t in a position last week where I could honestly give Anathem a fair shake. If Anathem wins the Hugo, I’ll probably give the novel a go this fall.

The Graveyard Book has the opposite problem for me. I very much want to read the book, but I waited so long to put it on hold at the library that there are still 50 people ahead of me on the hold list and there is no chance I will receive this week, let alone in time to read the book before the awards are presented. Regardless of whether The Graveyard Book wins the Hugo, I intend to read it. It has also been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, so that’s double motivation to read the book.

I suspect that Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother will be the most polarizing novel on the ballot. Those who like the book tend to be enthusiastic about it and those who don’t, really don’t like it. Yes, I made that statement with nothing to back it up except the general impression I have from reading blogs and forums and seeing conversations about the book take place in public. Count me on the side of those who like the book and think it is an exciting piece of fiction. What I can’t separate is the MESSAGE of Little Brother from the story / storytelling of Little Brother. I don’t think this is really possible because Little Brother is a message book about the youth of America questioning authority and not blindly accepting the word of government, that the rights of the people trump just about everything and even though oppression can be couched in reasonable terms it doesn’t mean that it should be accepted. More or less. I’m simplifying. The target audience is the teenaged reader and the message is for them. I am not that audience, but I can see how I would have been excited by Little Brother if I read it at that time. I don’t think that Little Brother garnered the nomination due to Doctorow’s internet presence. I thought Little Brother was an impressive novel and I saw it on many Best Of lists from last year. Plus, I don’t read Boing Boing and the couple times I’ve tried, I’ve been disinterested. If anything, Doctorow’s internet celebrity allowed his novel to be read by more people, but I don’t think celebrity means that people will *like* his book. Let’s give people some credit here. Little Brother is on the ballot because people *like* his book. I don’t like it enough that I would make it my #1 choice of the year or that I think it is inherently the strongest novel on this list, but it’s a solid novel.

Oh, Saturn’s Children. I hadn’t planned on even cracking the cover until it picked up a Hugo nomination. I should have just expected the nomination because *of course* Stross was nominated for the Hugo. Folks love his work. I…don’t. I enjoy his Merchant Princes series as well as the two Laundry novels. Good stuff, those. I’m looking forward to the third Laundry book coming out in a year or two, and the conclusion to The Merchant Princes. The rest of his science fiction? Not so much. I couldn’t finish Halting State, didn’t bother with Glasshouse, gave up on Accelerando and Iron Sunrise. The only one I managed to finish was Singularity Sky (unless it was Iron Sunrise…whichever one came first). This is just to say that I am very much NOT the audience for Charles Stross. Lots of people are and he clearly sells enough that publishers want to keep buying his books and customers want more of his fiction, and he’s nominated for a whole slew of awards. Folks like him. So, none of this is intended as a slight on the man. My tastes and preferences just don’t line up with his science fiction. All of this is preamble to say that I read the first few chapters (50 or so pages worth) of Saturn’s Children and I just didn’t care about the robots doing surrogate human things. I don’t know about Stross’s vision or how well he executed his vision (though I have seen a fair amount of criticism about this novel), but the voting members of Worldcon clearly like Stross and this book.

Which brings me to Zoe’s Tale. So much of the commentary I’ve run across on this category has been highly critical of Scalzi and how well he pulled off a teenage girl’s voice and telling the same story of The Last Colony from the perspective of another character. But, that’s only representation of the little corner of the internet which I read on a semi-regular basis. If I listen to enough of it I start wondering if they’re right…until I go back and look at my review of Zoe’s Tale last year AND also look at where I ranked the book on my list of the Top 9 Books of 2008. And then I remember that I thought Zoe’s Tale was delightful and, out of the novels published in 2008 that I read between January and December, was one of the best novels of the year. For whatever I think the word “best” means.

How exactly I spend a thousand words talking about two out of five books that I read and one that I opened the cover to, is completely beyond me. But there you go. I’ve been holding off on this post in hopes that The Graveyard Book would come in from the library, but alas.

Most likely, the actual winner will be The Graveyard Book or Anathem. I’m sure they’re both great novels. The only one that would disappoint me to see win is Saturn’s Children.

Other Hugo Thoughts
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
Short Story


The Mad Hatter said...

If you really want to try Stephenson than start with Snow Crash. It comparison to his other works it is short and not as involved. From there it is up to you whether you want to delve further. I'm had Cryptonomicon sitting on my shelf for the same reasons you mention, but that work leads into 3 other books by him.

Also, The Graveyard Book is worth owning. It is a book I wish I had read as a child. It hits all the right marks.

V said...

All things considered (what you know about me and my aversion to certain kinds of SFF), I'm quite surprised that I've read and enjoyed Cryptonomicon and you haven't. I wouldn't mind reading it again, actually...

Joe said...

I've had an impression of Stephenson that his stuff is both heavy, SF, and alternate history.

From the historical fiction perspective, I'm not surprised you liked it. From the SFF perspective, I'm surprised you did.

Greyweather said...

The only Stephenson I've read was Quicksilver, and the impression it left me with is that he does not do "quick" or 'easy". I could see Anathem taking me a month or more to read, which is more than I'm willing to invest at this point.

The only Scalzi I've read was Old Man's War, which was good but not great. If Scalzi has improved as an author since then, and I get the general impression he has, then I could see Zoe’s Tale as a serious contender.

As far as Stross goes I actually enjoyed Accelerando quite a lot, I just haven't liked anything he's done since. Glasshouse had some good ideas but he couldn't make them all work together. I checked Saturn’s Children out of the library, read the first chapter, and then gave it back. I think Stross and I are done.

I liked Little Brother, but I'm going to be an exception and say that I'm not that enthusiastic about it. I think it and The Graveyard Book deserve the award about equally.

I have no idea who will win as these are all very popular authors (everyone but Doctorow has won a Hugo in some category in the past, and he has a Campbell Award for Best New Writer), though I doubt it will be Stross.