Some Thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists, Part II: The 2019 Hugo Awards

And here is part II of my overview of the 2019 Hugo Award and 1944 Retro Hugo Award finalists, this time with the 2019 Hugo Award finalists. Part I with my take on the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists is here.

If you want to check out the 2019 Hugo Award finalists and don’t want to wait for the voter packet (or are not a WorldCon 77 member), JJ has compiled a list where to find them for free online at File 770.

Now I was largely happy with the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists. A lot of great works recognised, only one lackluster category and one finalist I flat out hate. My feelings on the 2019 Hugo Award finalists are a lot more mixed. There is a lot here I like and also a lot I don’t particularly care for.

So let’s take a look at the individual categories:

Best Novel

None of the six finalists in this category is really a surprise, since all six novels got a lot of positive buzz. We also have four unambiguous science fiction novels and two fantasy novels, which should relieve those who are worried that the Hugos are tilting too far towards fantasy. Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers are both sequels (loosely in the case of Becky Chambers) to previous finalists in this category. They’re also both excellent novels and were also on my ballot. Trail of Lightning is the debut novel of last year’s Campbell Award as well as Hugo Award for Best Short Story winner Rebecca Roanhorse. It’s a great post-apocalyptic/urban fantasy novel that does new things with two somewhat stale subgenres. It was also on my ballot. Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente is a book I haven’t read. The premise of an intergalactic song contest sounds great, but Catherynne Valente’s work is hit and miss for me. I also haven’t read the alternate history novel The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, even though it got a lot of buzz. But then I didn’t much care for “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, the novelette from which this series grew. Besides, it irks me that the alternate history of The Calculating Stars has removed the contributions of German scientists to the US space program, cause no one likes to be erased. I guess I just like Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate regency with magic books better. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is another book I haven’t read. Partly, because – as I’ve said repeatedly in these pages – I don’t like the current wave of fairytale retellings and wish that trend would die already, and partly because I didn’t much care for Uprooted, to which this book is a loose sequel. And from what I’ve heard, many of the problems I’ve had with Uprooted regarding the gender relationships also crop up in Spinning Silver. Again, I just like Naomi Novik’s regency with dragons books better.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 2 writers of colour, at least 2 LGBT writers

Best Novella

The finalists in this category are a mix of the familiar and the new. Artificial Condition by Martha Wells is a novella in the wildly popular (and wonderful) Murderbot series and a sequel to last year’s winner. Binti: The Night Masquearde by Nnedi Okorafor is the third part in the popular Binti trilogy and a sequel to a previous winner in this category. The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard is part of her Xuya universe, which has been featured on the Hugo and Nebula ballots before, though this particular novella largely stands alone. It also offers a great twist on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Finally, The Tea Master and the Detective is the only finalist in this category, which was not published by Publishing, which will relieve those who worry about Tor’s dominance, particularly in the novella category. Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire is part of her Wayward Children series. Two previous novellas in this series were nominated in this category and one even won. Now I have liked other works by Seanan McGuire, but I don’t particularly care for the Wayward Children books. The basic idea of a home for children who’ve visited portal fantasy worlds and are now back in the “real world” was fine for that first novella (and even that felt overly long), but I don’t think it needed to be a series. The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark is a standalone novella set in an alternate New Orleans that pretty much seems designed for me to love it (and I did). And while I have read and enjoyed other stories by Kelly Robson, I haven’t read Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 3 writers of colour, at least 2 LGBT writers, 2 international writers

Best Novelette

This category is another mix of repeat and first time finalists. Brooke Bolander has made a mark for herself with her angry and foul-mouthed stories in recent years. The Only Harmless Great Thing, an alternate history tale about abused circus elephants and radium girls, certainly matches that description. Naomi Kritzer is an author whose byline always makes me check out the story in question and “The Thing About Ghost Stories” is a lovely tale. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly is a fine story that is also on this year’s Nebula ballot. I read “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho, though I didn’t love it as much as many others obviously did. “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory must have completely passed me by, though I usually read the stories. “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller is another story that completely passed me by, probably because I don’t read Clarkesworld as often as I should. The author is a fellow German, by the way, so hurray for a German Hugo finalist (plus two for the Retro Hugos).

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 1 writer of colour, 2 international writers, at least 1 LGBT writer

Best Short Story

Once again, we have a mix of repeat and first time finalists here. “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher a.k.a. Ursula Vernon is a great and very funny story and was also on my ballot and on my Mom’s as well. “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow is a sweet story that was on my personal longlist, though it didn’t make my shortlist in the end. “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander was also on my personal longlist, if not my shortlist. But then, Brooke Bolander very much seems to be a “hate it or love it” author. I fall into the “love it” camp. “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark is a great story with a somewhat unusual structure that was also on my ballot. “STET” by Sarah Gailey is another great experimental story that was on my longlist, though once again it didn’t make my shortlist (there were a lot of great short stories last year). “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker is also on this year’s Nebula ballot, though I didn’t love it as much as many others obviously did.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 1 writer of colour, at least 1 LGBT writer

Best Series

This is the third year of the Best Series category and personally, I’m getting really frustrated with it, even though I initially supported the idea. But the way I viewed the Best Series Hugo (and the way it was originally sold) was as a way to award the sort of extremely popular SFF series that are beloved by fans and regularly hit bestseller lists, but whose individual volumes are almost never recognised by the Hugos, because the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts (see Wheel of Time, which was obviously misclassified in Best Novel, but would have been a natural for this category). When the category was announced, I assumed we’d see finalists like the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (which might have been nominated, except that the series hasn’t had a new book in years, because Jim Butcher is apparently ill), the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews (which actually ended in 2018 and really would have deserved a nod), the Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs, the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the Honor Harrington series by David Weber (not to my taste, but obviously beloved by many), etc… But that’s not what we’re seeing in this category. Instead, we’re getting the same finalists we’re seeing elsewhere on the ballot. Perhaps the Hugo electorate aren’t really series readers to the degree initially assumed. Or maybe they just have a really weird taste in series.

So let’s take a look at the actual finalists: The Machineries of Empire trilogy by Yoon Ha Lee is a logical and deserving finalist (and the only one that was on my ballot), since all three volumes have been nominated individually, though they never won, largely because they had the misfortune of being up against N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. The Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers is not so much a series but three loosely connected books set in the same universe. Two of the individual volumes have been Hugo finalists and the third would likely have been as well, if the eligibility hadn’t been muddled by earlier self-publication. The Xuya Universe stories by Aliette de Bodard are even more loosely connected than the Wayfarer stories, though several individual stories set in this universe have been finalists before. Charles Stross is inexplicably popular with Hugo voters, though I have never read a single novel by him that I liked. His nominated Laundry Files series is urban fantasy with a lot of political blathering. The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older is another series that seems to be popular, though it doesn’t do much for me. The October Daye series by Seanan McGuire has been a finalist in this category before in 2017. It clearly has published enough new volumes to be eligible again, though personally I would have preferred not to see a repeat finalists in this category so soon. Though at least, anybody who was a Hugo voter in 2017 won’t have to read it again except for whatever new volumes were published in the meantime.

Because that is another problem with the Best Series category, namely that it’s a lot of reading, particularly if you haven’t read the series. Last year, this was a real problem for me, because I had only partly read two of six finalists in this category – the others were largely unknown to me. This year is a little better, because I have read the Machineries of Empire and Wayfarers books as well as several of the Xuya stories and enough of Oktober Daye to get an idea. And based on previous experiences, I won’t bother much with either The Laundry Files and the Centenal Cycle.

Diversity count: 4 women, 2 men, 3 writers of colour, 2 international writers, at least 4 LGBT writers

Best Related Work

Now I have a very strong preference for what I like to see in Best Related Work, namely well researched non-fiction books, both academic and popular, about science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes, this category actually recognises that sort of work. A lot of the time, it doesn’t and sometimes, it had WTF? finalists and finalist which IMO don’t belong here at all.

So let’s start with the one finalist that absolutely belongs here, namely Astounding, Alex Nevala-Lee’s in-depth overview of the Golden Age of science fiction and how the genre developed as it did. This is a great book and absolutely the sort of work this category was created to honour. Which means it probably won’t win, because the most deserving finalists in this category rarely win. An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 by Jo Walton and Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon are also both the sort of works I like to see in this category.

Now for the WTF? finalists: Now I think that the fanfiction archive Archive of Our Own is a great project and I know there has been a push to get it nominated in this category for years now. But I still don’t feel that it belongs in this category, though there is no other where it fits either. Ditto for the Mexicanx Initiative at WorldCon 76, which again was a great project that deserves recognition, but I don’t feel it belongs here.

ETA: Apparently, the nomination is for a website about the Mexicanx Initiative, not the project itself, which should at least be easier to judge for those of us who weren’t at WorldCon 76.

Finally, the documentary The Hobbit Duology probably is a worthy project – I haven’t seen it – but it definitely doesn’t belong in Best Related Work, because it’s a dramatic presentation, a class of work which already has two categories, albeit two which are hard to crack for smaller projects like this one.

I think Best Related Work needs a definition overhaul, because as it is, it’s just a mess. I’m not sure how you can ever compare non-fiction books, a fanfiction archive, a live project at a previous WorldCon and a documentary.

Diversity count (based on the official listing, because how do you even classify the Mexicanx initiative or Archive of Our Own?): 6 women, 4 men, at least 5 people of colour

Best Graphic Story

Once again, this category has a lot of repeat finalists. Saga, Monstress, Paper Girls and Black Panther have all been nominated in this category before and most worthy comics they are too. Abbott, a gritty occult noir comic by Saladim Ahmed and Sami Kivelä is a new series and first time finalist. I haven’t read it, though I’ve heard good things. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden is a webcomic I’m not familiar with at all, though it looks cute.

No diversity count, too many people are involved in making comics.

Best Dramatic Presentation Long

Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War are both obvious finalists, since they were the two most successful movies of last year and cracking good superhero stories, too. The animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse rounds out the Marvel trifecta. The Hugo nod for Annihilation is a pleasant surprise, especially since the film came out very early in 2018 and only had a limited release with Netflix hogging the rights in many countries. It’s also a highly deserving finalist. As for Sorry to Bother You, I know it has gotten quite a bit of buzz as well as a Nebula nomination, but I haven’t see this one and don’t think it even had a German release. As for A Quiet Place, I’m not a huge fan of this new brand of “intelligent” horror and don’t care anymore for this film now than I cared for it when the Nebula finalists were announced. Also, if you have to nominate a new style horror film, why not Bird Box?

No diversity count, too many people are involved in maing movies. Though we have two finalists by a director of colour this year.

Best Dramatic Presentation Short

I’m massively frustrated with this category in most years, because the finalists often are multiple episodes of a series I don’t watch or no longer watch. Meanwhile, shows I actually watch hardly ever get nominated. The rule change which limited the number of finalists from the same author or series in the same category to two has curbed this problem somewhat, but it still persists, as this year shows.

For the finalists in this category are two Doctor Who episodes, two episodes of the execrable afterlife sitcom The Good Place, one episode of The Expanse and Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer video. Now I gave up on Doctor Who years ago, though from what I’ve heard the two nominated episodes are pretty good and I like what I’ve seen of Jodie Whittaker. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of The Expanse (and won’t get to see season 3 until sometime around Christmas anyway), though I can see why so many Hugo voters enjoy it. As for The Good Place, I still hate the show, still think it’s the worst Hugo winner ever and won’t bother with it again. I guess I have to hope it gets cancelled soon or this crap will get nominated ad infinitum. Meanwhile, I guess we’ll have to accept Doctor Who taking two slots for as long as this iteration runs. As for Dirty Computer, it’s a fine music video and definitely science fiction. However, given the proliferation of music videos in the Best Dramatic Presentation Short category in recent years, it’s maybe time for a music category.

Meanwhile, The Handmaid’s Tale, Outlander, Westworld, Star Trek Discovery, The Orville, Altered Carbon, Lucifer, the various DC shows, the various Marvel Netflix shows, etc… might as well not exist at least as far as the Hugos are concerned.

No diversity count, too many people are involved in making TV shows and music videos.

Best Editor Short

This category is a nice mix of the familiar and the new. Neil Clarke, Lee Harris, Lynne M. and Michael Damian Thomas and the late Gardner Dozois have all been nominated in this category before, while Julia Rios and E. Catherine Tobler are new finalists.

Diversity count: 4 men, 3 women, 1 editor of colour

Best Editor Long

Here we have mostly repeat finalists, though Gilian Redfearn hasn’t been nominated for a Hugo before as far as I know.

Diversity count: 6 women, 1 editor of colour

Best Professional Artist

There are quite a few new names in this category, which is nice, because Best Professional Artist used to be one of the most static categories out there with the same people nominated year after year after year. But while John Picacio, Galen Dara and Victo Ngai have all been nominated in this category before, Jaime Jones and Yuku Shimizu are new finalists and I don’t recall having seen Charles Vess nominated before either.

Diversity count: 3 men, 3 women, 3 artists of colour, 2 international artists

Best Semiprozine

This is another category that tends to be fairly static, because there only are so many eligible semiprozines. And indeed, Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies have all been nominated several times before, while Fireside Fiction was a first-time finalist last year. Meanwhile, both FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction and Shimmer have never been nominated in this category before.

No diversity count, too many people are involved in making magazines.

Best Fanzine

This is a fine selection of finalists. I’m particularly happy that Galactic Journey, the retro fanzine to which I contribute on occasion, has made it. nerds of a feather always does good work and I’m glad to see them on the ballot. Ditto for Lady Business. And considering how difficult it is to find short fiction reviews, both Rocket Stack Rank and Quick Sip Reviews are invaluable resources, even if their approach is different and I rarely agree with either of them. Finally, Journey Planet holds up the flag for the paper fanzine tradition.

No diversity count, too many people are involved in making fanzines.

Best Fancast

This is another strong category with a couple of new finalists. I’m particularly happy to see The Skiffy and Fanty Show recognised, because they do great work and have only just missed the ballot on recent years. Galactic Suburbia and The Fangirl Happy Hour are both repeat nominees and always worth listening to. I don’t listen to The Coode Street Podcast very often, but I usually enjoy it whenever I do. Be the Serpent and Our Opinions Are Correct are both new finalists in this category. I haven’t yet listened to either of them.

No diversity count, too many people are involved in making podcasts.

Best Fanwriter

There has been a bit of churn in this category with several previous finalists recusing themselves this year or producing little fanwriting for various reasons. James Davis Nicoll was also on my ballot and I’m really happy to see his work recognised. Foz Meadows is always insightful and worth reading, too. I haven’t read much by Alasdair Stuart and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. Bogi Takács and Charles Payseur are both repeat finalists from last year.

Diversity count: 2 women, 3 men, 1 non-binary, at least 2 LGBT writers.

Best Fan Artist

This category features both a nice mix of new and repeat finalists as well as a broad range of different styles and media. Likhain and Grace P. Fong are both graphic artists, Ariela Housman is a calligrapher, Meg Frank and Spring Schoenhuth are jewellery designers, Sara Felix is a sculptor.

Diversity count: 6 women, 2 artists of colour, 1 international artist

Best Art Book

This is a new one-off category, presumably because some people felt that art books, which normally go in Best Related work, fall through the cracks of that grab bag category. The finalists are an interesting and ecclectic mix. We have the latest volume of Spectrum: Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, Julie Dillon’s art book Daydreamer’s Journey, a Dungeons & Dragons art book, a Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse movie art book, the catalogue for the Bodleian Library’s Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition and the complete illustrated edition of The Books of Earthsea. I’m not sure whether the illustrated Books of Earthsea is what this category was intended for, though it is a beautiful volume. I’m kind of surprised that Simon Stalenhag’s The Electric State is nowhere in evidence, but then people weren’t sure whether to nominate it under art book or graphic story, which may have harmed its chances.

Diversity count: 3 women, 7 men, at least 1 person of colour

Campbell Award

I have to admit that this year’s Campbell shortlist is a little boring, because it’s largely a repeat of last year’s Campbell shortlist with two new names. Rivers Solomon, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Katharine Arden and Jeanette Ng were all Campbell finalists last year. Okay, so they’re all good writers and most of them have produced new work this year (not sure about Jeanette Ng, but the others definitely all had new works out in 2018), but it is a little boring. Meanwhile, R.F. Kuang and S.A. Chakraborty, whom I’m really happy to see nominated, are both new finalists.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 non-binary, 4 writers of colour, 2 international writers

Lodestar Award

The YA not-a-Hugo finally has its name this year as well as another strong shortlist. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Dread Nation by Justina Ireland and Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman all got a lot of buzz this year, while The Cruel Prince by Holly Black is the latest by a longtime popular YA writer. The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin is the only book that is entirely unknown to me, but then Peadar O’Guilin is in Irish writer and may well have profited from the fact that WorldCon is in Ireland this year.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 3 writers of colour, 2 international writers

My hit rate is 35 out of 120, i.e. 29,2%. My Mom got 10 out of 120, i.e. 8.3%.

As for notable themes, as with the Nebulas, there is quite a lot of alternate history on the Hugo ballot (well, at least it shouldn’t be difficult to find something to nominate in that category for the Dragon Awards this year). Artificial Intelligence and fairytale retellings both continue to be popular and at least two of the Best Series finalists tend towards political blathering. Science fiction makes a pretty strong showing, which will please those who fear that fantasy is taking over. Women continue to dominate, particularly in the fiction categories, which will probably set off the usual suspects. As before, I don’t much care. We still have twelve years of no male winners at all to go before we match the fifteen year streak of all male winners in the 1950s and 1960s.

And that’s it for this year. I’ll probably do a reaction round-up, as they come in, though so far most people seem to be happy with this year’s Hugo finalists, so I expect little controversy. There is a bit of discussion in the comments at File 770 here and here. And Camestros Felapton shares his take on the finalists here, again with some discussion in the comments. Unlike me, he actually likes this year’s best series finalists.

ETA: At the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, Joel Cunningham briefly talks about the Hugo finalists and notes that the ballot contains many familiar names. There also a write-up by Maureen Lee Lenker at Entertainment Weekly.

ETA 2: At the Motherboard subsite of Vice, Samantha Cole reports about the Hugo nomination for Archive of Our Own and claims that thousands of fanfics are now Hugo finalists. Which they aren’t, the nomination is for the archive itself and the software solutions, not the archived fics.

ETA 3: At Hypable, Michal Schick explains why the Hugo nomination for Archive of Our Own is a win for marginalized fandom. At least, this article explains just precisely what Archive of Our Own was nominated for (the technical and organisational aspects, not the actual fanfiction). And while Archive of Our Own is an important project that is worthy of some kind of recognition, I still don’t feel it belongs in Best Related Work. Especially since somewhere out there, there are writers who have poured years of their life into non-fiction books about SFF and who just missed the ballot because of the three Best Related Works finalists (cause it’s not just Archive of Our Own, though that’s the one everybody is talking about) that don’t quite belong.

Meanwhile, Camestros Felapton also weighs in on the Archive of Our Own controversy and declares that he supports their nomination.

At Amazing Stories, Steve Davidson also weighs in on the Archive of Our Own nomination and comes out against it, because he finds it difficult to determine what precisely makes Archive of Our Own a 2018 work.

And since Archive of Our Own is not the only Best Related Work finalist that doesn’t quite belong,  Jim Vorel chooses to focus on Lindsey Ellis’ Hobbit documentary in his article for Paste.

ETA 5: Best Fanzine finalist Rocket Stack Rank offer their annotations to the 2019 Hugo Award finalists in the short fiction categories.

And at The Daily Beast, Gideon Crudo offers an overview of the Hugo finalists in the one-off Best Art Book category.

ETA 6: Vox Day inevitably pops up to declare victory and claim that he has destroyed the Hugos and that no one cares anymore ( link). He also claims that none of the Best Novel finalists will ever sell as much as one of Nick Cole and Jason Aspach’s Galaxy’s Edge novels, which is a) highly debatable and b) was actually the first time in months I’ve even heard or seen Galaxy’s Edge mentioned anywhere. Apparently, the final book in the series came out in October 2018, the one before that in April.

ETA 7: At the 1000 Year Plan, Gary Tognetti shares his thoughts on the 2019 Hugo finalists in the fiction categories as well as which books and stories that he nominated didn’t make it.

ETA 8: At the Hugo nominated fanzine nerds of a feather, Joe Sherry and Adri Joy (who would have been an excellent pick for best fanwriter) discuss the 2019 Hugo finalists. Overall, they seem to be quite happy with the choices.

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