So, my final thoughts on the 2016 Hugo Award Best Novel nominees:
If this is the best science fiction and fantasy have to offer, then I weep for science fiction and fantasy. The works here were “Meh” at best, and utter crap at worst. I find much less flawed and even philosophically deeper works in the X-Wing series, and it’s not even really trying to do that. Even worse, in order to keep my mind uncluttered I refused to read any actual science fiction and fantasy novels, and since reading is my major pastime I ended up reading graphic novels and, most importantly, the “Order of the Stick” books, and found that that stick-figure comic had better characterization, plots, and generally was more entertaining than any of the Hugo Award nominees. To rub salt in the wound, I read the “Order of the Stick” books twice while reading these works, and can’t think of a book here that I would ever read again. Science fiction and fantasy is in dire straits, it seems to me.
Another thing I noticed in every work is the focus on super-competent and generally female protagonists, being able to do what no one else things wise or even possible. Gwen in “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”, all of the “Seven Eves” in “Seveneves”, Breq in “Ancillary Mercy”, the main protagonist in “Uprooted” … all of them are hyper-competent and almost never fail due to their own fault. I had thought for a while that “The Fifth Season” would avoid that, but even though Syenite isn’t as powerful as Alabaster, even in those sections she does almost everything of importance and never fails, and even the trans character (male to female) is overly impressive in a number of ways. Jemisin only avoids doing this outright because she really fails to establish anything about any of the characters beyond soundbites, which leaves little room for them to be overly impressive.
Now, people may reply that male protagonists were always that hyper-competent, and it’s just that when it’s women that I’m objecting. To counter that, let me present characters from the Amber series and from David Eddings’ “Elenium” and “Tamuli”, all of which are among my favourite works. Corwin in the first Amber series starts off with amnesia and has to trick others into helping him, and relies on Random and Deirdre to fill him in, protect him, and get him to the castle. In the first book, he joins with another sibling to take the throne of Amber, and fails miserably. Later, it is implied that he was actually manipulated by his sibling. He is blinded, and recovers his sight, not because of some super-special ability, but because he is arguably better at doing what all of his family can do … which only means that he does it faster, not that they wouldn’t recover in the same way. And, when his sight recovers, it’s not portrayed as this huge victory, but instead as a spur for him to escape because if he doesn’t he’ll be blinded again. As he escapes, he curses Eric … and opens the way for the forces of Chaos to attack Amber. He returns in the second book to take the throne, and wins because of unique weaponry … that he discovered not because he was some sort of great chemist, but instead purely by accident. For the rest of the series, he investigates various things, almost gets killed on a number of occasions, and arguably screws everything up in trying to save it. He learns humility and decides that maybe his feud with Eric — and the fight over the throne — wasn’t worth it, and while he meets his son, at the end of it all he wins neither the fair maiden nor the throne, and loses his most beloved sister … and is mostly content with that.
In Eddings, the most powerful character is … the secondary female character Sephrenia. And while she is very wise and experienced and very powerful in magic, she’s pretty vulnerable to weapons, and so has to be protected a lot of the time. Thus, she fits neatly into the mentor/wise advisor role. Sparhawk, the main character, is important because he has a destiny and is generally a jack-of-all-trades: he can fight and use magic, but isn’t necessarily the best at any of them. And at the end, when he gains ultimate power, he gives it up because he doesn’t like the person he becomes while using it … and only uses that ultimate power to fight the other ultimate power.
Good heroes need weakness and flaws to exploit. They need to struggle and fail, and overcome it all in the end. Modern science fiction and fantasy — at least in these Hugo nominees — seem to attempt to take away the struggle … but heroes who never struggle are uninteresting to us, and plots featuring them are boring. “Uprooted”, “Seveneves” and “Ancillary Mercy” are prime examples of how uber-competent protagonists kill any drama in the plot.
Okay, all that aside, here are my picks, starting from the worst and working my way up. If you’ve read my commentaries, the work at the bottom of the list will not surprise you, but the book at the top might:
5) Seveneves: This work is just terrible in every way imaginable. It’s only interesting at all as hard sci-fi and doesn’t even do that right. This is the only work that I’d even consider “No Awarding”.
Hugo Award standings: 4th.
Vox Day’s standing: 2nd.
4) The Fifth Season: While last place (and first place) were pretty much clear for me, 2 – 4 was a tight race. For the longest time, I had this in third, but the primary job of the first book in a series is to make us want to read the next books in the series, and it’s clear that the way Jemisin chose to do that falls completely flat due to a lack of development. It fails at its main goal, and isn’t really good at doing anything else either.
Hugo Award standings: 1st.
Vox Day’s standing: No Award.
3) Ancillary Mercy: For all of the time that this languished in fourth place, I was torn over it … and am still torn over putting it third. The problem is that most of the problems with this work are not the fault of it, but are instead the fault of the other works in the series. If it had tried valiantly to save the series and failed, I would have been more charitable, but at the end of the day, it didn’t.
Hugo Award standings: 3rd.
Vox Day standing: No Award.
2) Uprooted: While it is still terribly flawed, boring, and suffering from an utter lack of drama due to an overly powerful protagonist, it manages to come in second by being pretty much a standard if lackluster fantasy work. One ought not be proud of coming in second because the work wasn’t specifically horribly flawed.
Hugo Award standings: 2nd.
Vox Day standing: 1st.
1) The Aeronaut’s Windlass: The work is boring at times and relies heavily on us feeling an emotional connection to people, places and things that it doesn’t do the legwork to ensure that we do develop that emotional connection. But … it actually has a plot and some interesting characters, which is enough to get top spot. Again, that’s not really something to be proud of; I would think that all authors would want to achieve something more than “well, there’s a bit of a plot and characters there, so you win!”.
Hugo Award standings: 5th.
Vox Day standing: 3rd.
There you have it. I was starting to read “The Mote in God’s Eye” (which so far was “Okay”), but I now think that I need to cleanse my palate, and go read something that I actually like. And I’m going to try to sell all of the Hugo Award nominees if I can, because I will never read any of them again.
Tags: Hugo Award Assessment