Hugo Novels 2010

I just finished reading the last of the novels nominated for a Hugo Award this year. I thought I’d write out a few brief thoughts on each, since this is my first year of trying to be really conscientious about my Hugo votes. I’m almost done with the nominated short stories, and then I’ve got about a month to get through the rest of the packet. So I think I can do it, I’m just going to have to do some skimming when it comes to the “best related work” category.

Boneshaker – Cherie Priest
Of the nominated novels, I would have to say that this one is the most fun. It doesn’t claim to be profound, it doesn’t try to be artsy, it’s just a good, enjoyable read with solid characters and an entertainingly built alternate America, one that involves both steampunk and zombies. I loved it. In keeping with the zombies, I could even feel comfortable saying that I devoured it. If it was a movie rather than a book, I’m betting several critics would use the word “romp” to describe it. This is one I’d definitely recommend to my friends.

The City & The City – China Miéville
I’ll admit this up front: this is the only book I didn’t actually finish reading, and I feel very ambivalent about it. I started reading The City & The City shortly before I came down with mono, at which point when I tried to read, nothing made sense anyway. Even before I got sick, though, I found the start of the book to be something of a slog, though I tried very gamely and got about a third of the way through. The central concept, of two cities interwoven where people just learned to not see the other city, never really made sense to me. I found it annoying rather than interesting, which is not a good basis for reading a book. By the time I was well enough that I could manage to make sense of the English language again, the book was long overdue and I couldn’t renew it, so I just returned it. I feel like maybe I didn’t give The City & The City quite a fair shake, but at the same time I’ve been unable to find the motivation to check the book back out and try reading it again. Which pretty much says all that needs to be said about my feelings.

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America – Robert Charles Wilson
I struggled a bit with this book as well, for about two thirds of it, though I did finish it and found the downhill third to be fairly satisfying. Ultimately, I felt like the novel was much more about the post peak-oil apocalypse setting rather than the characters. And don’t get me wrong – the setting was extremely clever and entertaining and well-thought-out, but I had a difficult time enjoying it when I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. Part of this is due to a narrative style that I think owes a lot to 19th century adventure stories (think: how Watson talked about Holmes) which gave the book a lot of its atmosphere. Unfortunately it also seemed to keep all of the characters at arms length, and I had a hard time really following what they were doing and why. For example, when the narrator asks the woman he’s in love with to marry him, she says yes – and my immediate reaction was, “what the — as far as you’ve described, she doesn’t even like you that much.” I like clever settings as much as the next person, but I need a little more than that to really love a novel.

Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente
The only true fantasy offering this year – I take this under the authority of the Denver public library, which has “science fiction” stickers on all the rest. I read a lot of fantasy, and I wanted to like this book, I really did. It had its neat points; the characters were interesting for the most part, and the setting was very well crafted. But in the way that Julian Comstock focused a little too much on its setting, I think maybe Palimpsest focused a little too hard on its characters, and a lot of times the plot felt like an afterthought. I will also admit that I am not a fan of the writing style that Valente used. I think that more articulate or educated people might describe it as “lush” or “rich,” while throwing in an “erotic” somewhere for good measure. I can take erotic or leave it when it comes to fiction, but to me “lush” often equals “prose that gets in the way of the actual meaning.” There were times when I felt like the language was obfuscating or needlessly complicating the authors point – though maybe I missed it, maybe the language was the point – and felt annoyed or bored rather than enraptured. I will also note that I’m one of those philistines that doesn’t like poetry (with only a few exceptions) so I tend to prefer the workmanlike to the fancy, particularly when we’re talking about anything longer than a short story.

WWW: Wake – Robert J. Sawyer
I’m already a fan of Robert J. Sawyer, so I was primed to like this book. I also wasn’t disappointed. Often the speed at which I read a novel indicates just how much I like it (since I steal more time to read then) and I powered through this one in only a few days. My only real complaint about the novel was that many of the plot lines seemed incomplete, or like they’d just been dropped before the ending. I recently found WWW: Watch at the library, which provides an answer to that problem. This was the first of a series, not a stand alone book. That makes it harder to judge as well; as part of a series, of course it will feel unfinished when compared to the other books. I thought the story was generally very interesting, as well as the characters, though I’m still not one hundred percent on how I feel about his treatment of consciousness developing on the internet. Then again, I also don’t think I could have done any better. Either way, this is another one I’d recommend to my friends as an enjoyable read.

The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi
The first half of this book took me a ridiculously long time to read. The second I finished in one day. At first, I really wasn’t sure about the story, or the characters, though the setting was very fascinating from the first page. But it grew on me, and surprised me, and demanded that I think about things that I wasn’t all that comfortable thinking about, which doesn’t happen all that often when I’m in novel reading mode and just want to find a fun story about space marines shooting aliens. (Note: This story does not involve space marines or aliens, though people do get shot.) Of the 2010 nominees, this is the only one with an ending that I could not possibly have predicted, even two pages before I read it. This is the one that surprised me, and kicked me in the head, and made me want to read it again just to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything. I wasn’t sure about the book at first, but once I got in to Bacigalupi’s writing style and invested myself in the world he’d created, I found it very compelling and – most importantly – enjoyable. It’s an uncomfortable story with uncomfortable heroes about uncomfortable topics, and I think it was beautifully done. I’ve still got a month to mull it over, but I think this is where my vote will end up.

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