August 2004

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

The End of a Tradition

In the past, I made a point of reading all of the novels nominated for a Hugo that year. It was a silly tradition, granted, but so is St. Patrick’s Day or Superbowl Sunday. Our lives are rounded by a little tradition.

Besides, my Hugo reading always seemed to fall during a reading dead zone, after classes had ended and before prep for the next semester set in. Generally, the Hugos are handed out in late summer during WorldCon, which is in Boston over Labor Day weekend this year.

The Hugos always seemed like a good way to gage what the majority of speculative fiction fans are reading, since it is the biggest award that is voted on by actual readers. The Nebulas, which is the yang to Hugo’s yin, are voted on by other writers, specifically those who have joined SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The Hugos feel more democratic, somehow, like that year’s winner has a mandate from the people to represent what the genre is.

The winners have been varied -- and, lately, only a few are what one commonly thinks of as “genre” work. Last year, Robert J. Sawyer, a perennial nominee who cropped up at least six time in the last ten years, won for Hominids. The year previous, Neil Gaiman picked up a statuette for American Gods. In 2001, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire got the nod. These are the books that WorldCon attendees loved enough to vote for that year. A complete list of nominees and winners is online, for those who are curious. I’m sure lots of data can be gleaned from these charts. I’m not a great gleaner, so I’ll leave that to more nimble minds.

I am, however, a great reader -- but I have lost my taste for my annual tradition. There are a variety of reasons behind this, not the least of which that I now have a small child, who sucks up a lot of my reading time, and I’m now teaching classes rather than taking them, which requires more summer legwork. Life goes on. Some traditions die.

The lack of time excuse only goes so far. The crux of my reluctance to read the novels has more to do with disenchantment than it does with poor time management. I’m tired of reading Robert J. Sawyer novels, frankly. Sawyer’s a good guy and writes a decent story -- but reading that many of his books makes you feel like you’re having a Groundhog Day episode, where you’re forced to relive the same plot every year, told in the same workmanlike tones.

Still, that’s only another sliver of the disenchantment. Perhaps it has more to do with getting older and having more perspective on books, simply because I’ve read more of them now. With gray hair, of which I have plenty, comes some strange maturity -- plus a realization that life is just too dang short to read books that I don’t find engaging.

And that’s what most of the Hugo noms have been lately. In the last five years, there has only been one or two books that I’ve truly enjoyed. The rest I’ve read out of form, out of a feeling of guilt. It could be that as a white woman of a certain age, my tastes have shifted from those of the Hugo voters. While it is unkind to characterize the entire body as a pack of geek fanboys (whom I love but don’t share a library with), there are still enough of them to drown out those who want a little Rucker or a lot of Banks or a bunch of Carroll.

So, this year, I skipped the novels. In truth, I’d already picked up Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, simply because I’d read the backs of sugar packets if she’d written them. I’d also slogged through Simmons’s Ilium because I loved his Hyperion so much, but Ilium felt somehow incomplete, even once I took into account the fact that it is the first of two books. I may pick up Stross’ Singularity Sky when I get a chance -- but will go nowhere near the new Wilson or *sigh* Humans, penned by Robert J. Sawyer.

What I did instead was turn my attention on the novellas, which have all been plunked online for your reading pleasure by their publications of origin. My hope was that the real action was in the shorter fiction, where it might be able to take more stylistic chances. Most of the noms are recognizable. Catherine Asaro (“Walk in Silence”) won a Nebula in 2001. Connie Willis (“Just Like the Ones We Used to Know”) and Vernor Vinge (“The Cookie Monster”) tied for the Hugo in 1993 for Doomsday Book and A Fire Upon the Deep, respectively, and both have won it outright in later years. Walter Jon Williams (“The Green Leopard Plague”) frequently makes the ballot. Kage Baker (“The Empress of Mars”) was just up for a Nebula, also for this story.

The stories are good. Vinge’s and Williams’ novellas both explore how changes in technology will change how people operate. Asaro’s is a standard and well-told alien-loves-girl, alien-loses-girl-type of romance. The standouts are the stories by Baker and Willis, whose characters are finely drawn and propelled by some integral engine in their stories, rather than by the agendas of the authors. If the vote were soley mine, I’d give it to Willis, whose “Know” reads like a blizzard, with its power disguised by its beauty. I suspect, however, that Vinge will get the statue -- but I would love to be proven wrong.