As is usual around awards-time, there is much discussion about the usefulness of awards, the books that made the list of finalists, and what the Best Novel shortlist says about the field. With the Hugo awards coming up, we thought it timely to ask this week’s panelists a series of Hugo-related questions:

  1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?
  2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?
  3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?
  4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?
  5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

Read on to see their answers…

Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl has been active in the science fiction community for many years with her Emerald City magazine. She can currently be found writing at Cheryl’s Mewsings and at SF Awards Watch.

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

I wouldn’t. The Hugos are a popular vote award. The books that win are generally good books, but it would be silly to suggest that they are representative of some ideal of literary quality (always assuming you agree that such a thing exists in the first place). Furthermore, Hugo winners are always books of their time, voted on very quickly after they are published. It is entirely possible that deserving works get missed because they are not as widely available as books offered by the major US publishers. Also books do sometimes fail the test of time. What I will say is that the Hugos have a good track record of rewarding books that are good examples of the sort of science fiction that was popular in the year they were voted upon. It is probably better to look at the full nomination slate than just the winner, but I think very few Hugo winners have been bad books (except in the eyes of those who feel that any book that doesn’t meet their exacting standards is, de facto, BAD!!!).


2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?

That’s an interesting question. Clearly there are ways in which the books that achieve Hugo nomination are limited. Despite the fact that the Hugos are, in theory, open to works in any language from any country, the majority of Hugo voters are white, English-speaking Americans. Also there is a lot of research suggesting that many male readers have a tendency to ignore books by female writers, whereas female readers tend to be happy to read books by both genders, so even if the Hugo electorate were divided 50:50 on gender lines the shortlist would still tend to favor male writers. As a result there are some writers who are much less likely than others to appear in the Hugos.

But that isn’t the question you asked. You asked whether the books that appear on the shortlist are representative of the field as a whole. It may be that most writers tend to produce the same sorts of books (because they are all aiming at the same market) and that consequently the Hugos are representative. So we should also ask whether there are particular types of books that tend not to get the nod. That’s harder to demonstrate, but I think the argument can be made. A good example might be the urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres. Clearly such books are Hugo-eligible, and they are also very popular at the moment, but I’m struggling to recall such a book ever appearing in a Hugo shortlist. That’s probably because the people who buy and read such books do not vote in the Hugos.

You could also argue that books that are very innovative don’t get nominated (I’m thinking here of writers like Jeff Noon and Brian Francis Slattery). I like their work, and I suspect that Adam Roberts might too, but such writers are probably never going to be widely popular. A popular vote award will always favor books that are easy to read. As a popular vote award, the Hugos will never represent those parts of the genre that are not widely popular.

3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

Either Anathem or The Graveyard Book, I think it will be very close.

4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

The Graveyard Book (I nominated it and voted it first, though it might not have been my choice for the winner with a different shortlist).

5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

Here are a selection of books that I would have liked to see on the shortlist ahead of some of the other books on the shortlist.

The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway; The Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia; All the Windwracked Stars, Elizabeth Bear; The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie; An Evil Guest, Gene Wolfe; Memoirs of a Master Forger, Graham Joyce; Liberation, Brian Francis Slattery; Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory; Shadowbridge/Lord Tophet, Greg Frost; The Shadow Year, Jeffrey Ford; Last Dragon, JM McDermott; The Quiet War, Paul McAuley; The Two Pearls of Wisdom (Eon), Alison Goodman; An Autumn War, Daniel Abraham; Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin; Going Under, Justina Robson; Judge, Karen Traviss; Winterstrike, Liz Williams.

Here are a few more books that I have not read but have heard very good things about and which the voters might have considered:

The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness; House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds; The Dragons of Babel, Michael Swanwick; Nation, Terry Pratchett; Wits’ End, Karen Joy Fowler; Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan; The Engine’s Child, Holly Phillips; Half a Crown, Jo Walton.

Please note that this doesn’t mean I think that the actual shortlist is “wrong”. I make no assumptions about my taste being indicative of fandom as a whole, let alone being indicative of the “best” fiction. It is simply my taste. I shall continue to encourage people to read the books that I like, but I have no expectation, only hope, that others should share my taste.

Damien G. Walter
Damien G. Walter is a writer of weird and speculative fiction. His stories have been published in Electric Velocipede, Serendipity, Transmission, Pulp.net, The Drabblecast and many other magazines as well as broadcast on BBC Radio. In 2005 he was shortlisted for the Douglas Coupland short fiction contest, and more recently won a grant from Arts Council England to work on his first novel. He reviews for The Fix and blogs for Guardian Unlimited. He is a graduate of the 2008 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy workshop at UC San Diego.

1. Is that the job of the Hugos? Speculative Fiction is a very diverse arena. How do you establish whether Harry Potter is better than Hyperion? Or if George R R Martin is a better author than Neil Gaiman? These are value judgments, and given the huge range of people and different tastes involved with SF fandom no single award will ever succeed at pleasing them all. But what the Hugos have done without fail is celebrate the books and authors who have done the most to shape the genre and make it what it is today. Like all awards of its kind, the Hugos are really an award for long term contribution of artists to their field, and there is no denying that the list of Hugo winners is, with a few exceptions, a who’s who of speculative fictions most important and influential writers.

2. Again, is that the job of the Hugos? SF has a big and wonderfully supportive fandom, and a huge general readership of people who love the genre. Surely we have to accept the fact that some people in the world are not and never will be fans of the genre! Yes, there are a minority of academics and critics who sneer at SF, but they are always ignorant of what SF actually is. Should we really be bending over backwards to educate these people? Speculative fiction has produced much of the most important literature of the last hundred years or more. If some people choose to ignore that then it is really their own problem, because they miss out on the valuable ideas that have emerged from the genre.

3 & 4. I think The Graveyard Book will be a deserving winner. I think in the attempt to prove that fantasy is not JUST for children, we’ve forgotten that it can still BE for children. I’d love to see a children’s book, especially one as wonderfully crafted as The Graveyard Book, take the Hugo. I also think it will be a significant award, because more than any other writer Neil has embodied the emergence of fantasy as a mature genre. I know for fans of science fiction this is some cause for complaint, but in my view fantasy has taken over the role that science fiction played twenty or more years ago. It’s where the really interesting ideas and the most exciting writing is happening now, so I’m glad to see that recognised in recent Hugo awards.

5. Yes, so many of them I won’t even try and name names!

Mur Lafferty
Mur Lafferty has written for over 15 role-playing games, one textbook, one book on podcasting, and several magazines. Her column, Geek Fu Action Grip, appears regularly in the magazine Knights of the Dinner Table, and her column Dice Totin’ Mama appeared regularly in Games Quarterly Magazine until the magazine shut down in 2007. She has published fiction with the podcast Escape Pod, Scrybe Press, Murky Depths and Hub Magazine. In 2008 her novel Playing For Keeps was picked up to be published in August by Swarm Press.

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

As with all awards, each year is going to be different. The voting pool for the Hugos is actually pretty small (only members of the WorldCon – Which consists of attendees and anyone else who buys a membership for the honor of voting) and can vary from year to year, depending on location. I know that seems like a wishy washy way to approach it, but honestly, some years they get it, some they don’t, and I doubt anyone is ever going to agree.

2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?

If you mean outside SF fandom, I don’t think the Hugo is on their radar at all. But as it’s a popular award, I think it might show non-SF-fans a good list of readable, enjoyable titles.

3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

I’m betting it’s between Anathem and The Graveyard Book, with The Graveyard Book winning.

4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

It’s tough. I liked most of the books, which rarely happens. I would probably go with The Graveyard Book.

5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

The Alchemy of Stone, Sly Mongoose, and the The Hunger Games would have deserved nods, definitely.

John Shirley
John Shirley‘s new novels are Bleak History from Simon and Schuster and Black Glass: The Lost Cyberpunk Novel from ESP.

I think the Hugo awards are much like the Grammies–in that they don’t represent the best, they represent a crossover between the most popular and the most fashionable.

Paul Graham Raven
Paul Graham Raven is a freelance writer, editor, publicist and web-presence manager to busy independent creatives, and PR guy for PS Publishing, the UK’s foremost boutique genre press. He’s also ed-in-chief of near-future sf webzine Futurismic, a learning fictioneer and poet, a reviewer of books, music and concerts, a cack-handed third guitarist for a fuzz-rock band, and in need of a proper haircut.

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

OK, I’m going to annoy a whole bunch of people right off the bat by saying that I think the adjective “best” is so inherently tied up with personal taste, preconceptions of genre parameters and institutionalised ideas about what makes a good story that there’s no correct answer to the question… or even any verifiable definition of “best” that you could get everyone to agree on.

If what you mean is “have the Hugos tended to reward writers and writing that you like?”, then I’d say that historically they’ve done fairly well, notwithstanding a few glaring failures. But then: how much did those awards affect my likelihood of discovering and reading (let alone enjoying) those novels above and beyond the others of their era? It’s a chicken and egg gig, you see.

2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?

I don’t think it does much to represent the sheer breadth and diversity of the field, but how could any award really hope to do so? Even the genre’s closest aficionados, savvy critics and anthologists struggle to read the bulk of the writing produced in the field on a yearly basis, and getting any sort of wide and (more importantly) informed consensus on the genre’s entire offering is hence a logistical impossibility. The Hugo shortlist indicates the books and authors thought of most highly by fandom’s core at that moment in time; whether or not that is of any value to an individual reader outside of the scene is something that only they can determine by trial and error.

This is not to knock the Hugos,or the people who vote and nominate for them; their survival as an institution suggests that they are useful and relevant to those who care most about them. Debates over their merit only seem to emerge when people try to graft inappropriately excessive value judgements onto them. They’re inherently subcultural in nature; the further from the centre of that subculture you are, the less the ideological pull of their gravity well, and hence the less their relevance.

To be absolutely clear: [Hugo-voting Fandom] is not the same set as [Fandom], and certainly not the same as [Readers Of Genre Fiction], though all three have significant overlaps. Mobility toward that gravitational centre is eminently possible, though there is an argument (which I feel has some validity) to the effect that the barriers to entry are too high for the casual fan or reader to be bothered with. The corollary of that, of course, is that anyone declining to overcome those barriers to entry who continues to complain about the Hugo results not fitting their tastes appears to be engaged in the same act of hypocrisy as an anarchist complaining that everyone else voted for the wrong candidate.

Are the barriers to participation deliberate, or unfair? I have no idea, and frankly I don’t really care. Personal recommendations mean far more to me than awards, juried or otherwise. I’ll applaud and congratulate the winner, but I won’t mutter bitterly that my chosen horse was hobbled.

3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

I think Scalzi probably has this one in the bag, though I’d not be too astonished to see Anathem take the prize instead. That said, all five nominees are very popular writers, and all but one have strong creator-consumer relationships online; I think it could go any way, but then I’m not too clued up on the tastes of the Hugo-voting demographic.

4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

I’ve read not a single one of them, so how can I judge? Based on my appreciation of prior works by the same authors, though, I’d probably be backing Stephenson or Stross, with Doctorow as close third place.

5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

Again, I’m going to dispute the framing of the question: no books were missing from the list, because the list is a function of its generative procedure. If you mean “what book do you think was the best sf novel of the past twelve months” then my vote goes to David Marusek’s Mind Over Ship, closely followed by Bruce Sterling’s Caryatids… assuming that they fall within the dates for eligibility (which I can’t be bothered to check).

Robert Sabella
Bob Sabella is a high school math teacher who spends his free time editing a monthly online sf fanzine Visions of Paradise and blogging about sf. He published the book Who Shaped Science Fiction? and co-edited Nanking 1937: Memory and Healing with Fei Fei Li.

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

I think there is a direct correlation between the size of a worldcon and the value of that year’s Hugo Awards. In the first decades of the awards the winners tended to be quality stories and novels, while in recent decades, as worldcons have grown in size, there has been a tendency to reward lesser stories by popular writers. Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Michael Swanwick, Mike Resnick and Neil Gaiman seem to win repeatedly (a total of 28 wins among them from a total of 85 nominations, 27 of the wins since 1989), whether their nominated stories in any particular year actually represent the “best” stories of those years. So the Hugo Awards nowadays do a better job of directing readers to the popular authors rather than to the best stories.

2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?

Generally, the award nominees each year represent a wide cross-section of the science fiction and fantasy spectrum, so in that regard any “outsider” choosing to read all of any particular year’s nominees would get a good idea of exactly what is available in written f&sf. And there are generally quality stories among the shortlist of nominees, if not the winners themselves.

3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

Scalzi, Stross and Doctorow all have strong cult followings which are large enough to get them on the Hugo ballot (in the case of Scalzi and Stross, virtually every year), but none of their followings are as large as those of Gaiman and Stephenson, so it is probable that one of the latter two will win the award (unless the crazy “Australian ballot” system results in everybody’s third choice pulling out a victory, as has happened in the past). I predict Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book will win.

4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

Stephenson’s Anathem.

5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

Iain M. Banks’ Matter was the most acclaimed book of 2008 which did not make the ballot. It was more deserving than Scalzi’s and Stross’ books.

Ian Sales
Ian Sales is represented by the John Jarrold Literary Agency. He writes.

I don’t recall ever buying a book solely because it was a Hugo Award winner. And yet it was always in the back of my mind that the Hugo only went to the very best of genre novels. Except it doesn’t, of course. We all know it’s a popularity contest, and one which is voted on by a small subsection of fandom.

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

In the last couple of decades, badly. In the past, the voters were a good cross-section of fandom and so the shortlists often included what was good and exciting in sf and fantasy. But – bar the odd exception – that’s not been true since the late 1970s. This is hardly surprising. Books are nominated and voted on by a small group of fans who are growing older and increasingly conservative in their tastes. Whatever attracted them to the genre all those years ago, that’s what they look for in books being published today. The genre may have progressed, but it often seems those fans haven’t. So we get shortlists filled with old-fashioned and dull sf, picked by people who think that novels which “entertain” are successful… despite failing in all other areas, despite not trying anything interesting.

2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?

In no way at all does the genre from the inside resemble that seen by outsiders. Their view is dominated by cinema and television, by best-selling media tie-ins and writers such as JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. They see science fiction chiefly as a furniture catalogue. The fact that we can’t even decide ourselves what it *really* is doesn’t help. But, to add insult to injury, when it comes to the Hugo shortlist we’re expected to accept the choices of tiny minority as some sort of annual definition. Those outside the genre, of course, don’t care. I’m beginning to wonder why the rest of us should.

3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

I suspect it will be a Battle of the Neal/Neils (that only really works verbally). Either Stephenson’s heavyweight tome will pull in the votes with its massive gravitational field; or the Gaiman Effect will enchant all those in the vicinity and The Graveyard Book will take the award. Alternatively, the vote for those two could be split, so another receives lots of 2nd and 3rd place votes and so walks off with the Hugo. That’s a bit scary — a book which the voters think is only the 3rd best on the shortlist could be the winner…

4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

I don’t think any of them are especially award-worthy — or rather, none actually represent to me the best the genre had to offer in 2008. But if I had to absolutely pick one, then I’d probably go for Anathem as that at least tried to do something interesting with science fiction and with fiction.

5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

Look at the shortlists for other awards — they contain titles which might well have made for a more interesting Hugo shortlist. Well, the Clarke, BSFA, PKD and Tiptree awards, that is. Even then, there are some good books which haven’t appeared on any shortlist, such as: Omega, Christopher Evans; Matter, Iain M Banks; House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds; Kéthani, Eric Brown; The Last Book, Zoran Živkovic….

Steve Davidson
Steve Davidson is an author of paintball books, an editor of a paintball website, and a FAN. Of Science Fiction. He curates the Classic Science Fiction Channel, champions author A. Bertram Chandler on the Rim Worlds website and blogs as the Crotchety Old Fan, where he very much enjoys shaking his old man stick and flipping his propeller beanie at all and sundry. Steve also reviews Science Fiction and Fantasy books and films for a variety of sites including SFReader, Ray Gun Revival. His most recent review will be appearing shortly on Tangent Online.

I’ve been pretty vocal (blocal?) on the subject for the past several weeks, if not months, so I hope I can manage to make my answers match what I’ve been saying elsewhere.

1. How do I rate the Hugo Award’s track record in directing readers to the best the genre has to offer? Without getting into all kinds of distracting side notes about ‘what is it that we mean by genre?’, ‘what do you mean by readers?’ or even – the Awards as a whole or a specific category? – I’ll say, I think the Hugo Awards and their attendant/associated awards have done a pretty darn fine job of – at the very least – directing readers to what the most active, involved and experienced fans think is the best the genre has to offer.

The Hugo’s were originally created as a one-off idea – as a way for fans to recognize and reward other fans for their achievements, friendship, involvement and hard work. One of the very first Hugos given out was for the category of Number 1 Fan – an award that had very little to do with writing and authorship and very much to do with being involved with fandom, of spreading its core values and making things happen. That Hugo was given to Forrest J. Ackerman and anyone who’ll take a second to think about it will realize that it was a very appropriate award given to the right individual. 4E embodied what fandom is and should be, and the spirit of that award – from friends to a friend – is something that I believe is an important aspect of understanding what the Hugo Awards are all about.

Fandom at the level of the Worldcon (where the awards are given out) is very much a family of like minded individuals who think it is appropriate to give out annual recognition awards. Much of the focus of late has been on the writing categories (including these Mind Meld questions) but focusing on that aspect alone I think distorts the real intent and purpose of the Hugos. It ignores the fact that fully half of the award categories are given out to fans, to editors, to artists. If the Hugo Awards were purely literary awards, those categories would probably not exist.

With all of that said, I think that there was a time when – certainly through the early 80’s – the professional writing Hugo awards (best novel, short story, etc) were very much in line with ‘the best the field had to offer’. My personal opinion is that this has changed somewhat – but not because the Awards are not doing their job. The field has grown and fan participation in the award voting process has not kept up. If more folks would participate in nominating and voting for the finalists, I think the Hugos would once again become a very good barometer of the field.

2. See the above answer. The Hugos are the ONLY award in the field of speculative fiction that are entirely fan-based and democratic (in the true sense of the word) in nature: anyone can join the World Science Fiction Society, fill out a nominating ballot (ANY work of speculative fiction – by whatever definition the individual chooses to go by – that is eligible can be nominated. Any five (or perhaps six if there is a tie) eligible works can make it onto the final ballot. The results are a straight numerical count of the number of nominations received.

Right now, there has been some criticism that the Hugo Award ‘shortlist’ is dominated and influenced by “graying old fans” who pine for the days when magazines were pulpy and there were only three channels on the TV.

That may or may not be, but the argument is moot. The people voting now are the people who choose to participate.

So to answer the question directly: the shortlist represents a very fine selection of what the participating voters believe to be exemplary works of speculative fiction. If more people with different tastes were to participate, the awards would, by their very nature, reflect a different set of exemplary works.

3. Let’s not bandy about, huh? Which finalist will win the Best Novel Award? I’m torn. For multiple reasons, so I’ll put it this way: I’ve only managed (so far) to read two of the nominees – Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi and Saturn’s Children by Charlie Stross (and parts of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow). So I can’t judge them all side-by-side for merit. I’ve also taken a look at some sales figures for all five nominees and am interested to see if the final placements reflect, in any meaningful way, popularity as indicated by sales.

There are so many factors that go into guessing who will win: Scalzi has some longevity (as do Stross and Doctorow), Gaiman is getting all kinds of kudos and Stephenson’s Anathem is the kind of work that people argue about for a long time. Weighing everything, I’m going to GUESS (not predict) that the Hugo for Best Novel will go to Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book – but only by a smidgen. Everything this year is running a close second.

4. Who do I think SHOULD get the award? All of them. Because, again, Hugo’s are given out for more than just literary merit. Each of these authors has done work above-and-beyond simply writing a novel they sold to a publisher who markets it. In many respects some of the things these guys do is to make it possible for other folks – many of whom we know nothing about at the moment – to be eligible for awards in the future.

5. I’ll decline to answer the last one. I’m playing catch-up with the field these days – and I’m content to have my vote be one of many that helps arrive at a consensus of what fandom thinks is deserving on an Award.

Jason Sanford
Jason Sanford co-founded the literary journal storySouth, through which he runs the annual Million Writers Award for best online fiction. He recently won the 2008 Interzone Readers’ Poll for one of his stories, and has also been published in Year’s Best SF 14, Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, The Mississippi Review, Diagram, Pindeldyboz, and other places. He’s published critical essays and book reviews in places like The New York Review of Science Fiction, The Pedestal Magazine, and The Fix Short Fiction Review.

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

No award captures every person or work deserving of recognition. For example, the most prestigious award in the world is the Nobel Peace Prize, which was shockingly never awarded to the person most deserving of that award: Mahatma Gandhi. The Nobel Foundation is so touchy about this subject–I mean, Gandhi was nominated for the award several times, but always passed over–their website contains a prominent article titled “Mahatma Gandhi, the Missing Laureate.”

So obviously there are always those deserving of awards, but who are passed over for silly or wrong-headed reasons. But instead of grading an award by those it overlooks, an award’s success instead depends on whether or not it generally gets things right, and if it brings the ideals behind the award to the attention of the greater world. By both of these criteria, the Hugo Awards have been a success. Look through the last half century of Hugo winners and what you’ll find are those books and authors who define what speculative fiction is in the public’s mind.

Are there books, stories, and authors who deserved to win a Hugo but didn’t? Yes. Are there those who won but shouldn’t have? Yes. But overall, the award does what it should.

2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?

I think the Hugo shortlists are very successful at representing speculative fiction to the outside world. This success is due to the timeliness of the awards, and the fact that they are voted on by actual readers of speculative fiction, as opposed to juried awards. People who read speculative fiction know what they like, and Worldcon attendees are usually very good at selecting the best stories.

3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Gaiman previously won the best novel Hugo in 2002 for American Gods, one of those great convoluted novels authors like to drop on people to show how they are serious novelists. While fun to read, American Gods wasn’t deserving of the best novel Hugo award. Instead, it reads like a literary version of U2’s The Joshua Tree–i.e., British artist discovers America and tries to capture this vast land and culture in his great big work of art. While U2 pulled that trick off with their landmark album, Gaiman did not.

That said, The Graveyard Book is totally different. Not only is it Gaiman’s best novel since his Sandman days, it is also destined to be a literary classic. While rooted in a reworking of The Jungle Book, Gaiman’s tale of a human boy growing up in a cemetery goes far beyond it’s progenitor to become something new and wonderfully original.

As the final proof of the novel’s worthiness, I present my son’s reaction to the book. He is easily bored by most of the so-called young adult novels out there, but loved this book. He even said it is the best book he’s ever read. His reaction to The Graveyard Book is the same one I had at his age when I discovered all the great Hugo-winning novels of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

Again, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. See my ramblings above. When Gaiman wins the award, I’m sure there’ll be squeals of horror that this year’s Worldcon Guest of Honour was given the award, which obviously proves the award is merely based on incestuous relationships, favoritism, mob rule or INSERT YOUR OWN DISMISSIVE WORDS HERE. But the simple fact is that The Graveyard Book is the best novel of the year, and deserves to win.

5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

I really liked Marsbound by Joe Haldeman, which has an old-fashioned SF feel too it. Two great overlooked fantasy novels are Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin and The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, besides writing novels, works for magazines and newspapers. For five years he wrote a review column for the Guardian. Jon’s novels include Remix, RedRobe, Pashazade, Effendi, Felaheen, Stamping Butterflies, 9tail Fox, End of the World Blues, and Arabesk. Felaheen, featuring his half-Berber detective Ashraf Bey, won the BSFA Award for Best Novel. As did his End of the World Blues, about a British sniper on the run from Iraq and now running an Irish bar in Tokyo. Jon has also has been shortlisted twice for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, the August Derleth Award, John W. Campbell Memorial Award, among others.

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

A lot of people disagree, but I think that awards voted by fans, particularly knowledgeable fans, get it right more consistently than panels of judges. (Although panels come up with interesting winners more often than voted awards and select titles fans might overlook.) That said, the Hugo list can be oversafe, and an author’s public liaison skills sometimes earns a place for a work that doesn’t really make the cut. That said, juries have a nasty habit of giving the award to authors not for the book in front of them but because they feel the previous book should have got an award and lost out

2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?

It’s a good welcome to our world. It would be hard to argue that a casual fan/member of the general public who limited his/her reading the shortlist for the Hugo nominated novels didn’t have a reasonable grounding of what that year had to offer! Although gems would obviously be missed.

3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

Anatham.

4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

Anatham.

5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

Matter by Iain M. Banks, The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod, The Quiet War by Paul McAuley.

Karen Burnham
Karen Burnham edits for Strange Horizons, reviews for them and SF Signal, blogs at Spiral Galaxy Reviews and works for NASA.

I think that the Hugo award is a valuable resource for science fiction to present itself to the wider world. It is certainly the award with the most name-recognition, the one that graces covers throughout the bookshelves. Books that win the award are ones that appeal to the Hugo voters at WorldCons. And you know what? They tend to be darn good reads.

Some complain that cutting-edge sf doesn’t tend to win the Hugo. That’s probably true. However, to appreciate the truly cutting edge, you have to know about a lot of what came before. In the same way that you have to read a lot of Heinlein to appreciate a Heinlein pastiche, you will appreciate the post-Cyberpunks more if you read the Cyberpunk they’re reacting against. It’s hard to find an entrance into the great conversation of sf without some knowledge of where the conversation has been over the last 75 years.

The Hugo award winners, on the other hand, may not represent that bleeding edge of genre. What they do tend to offer, however, is a darn good read. And for folks (general readers) who are new to our little niche, that’s going to help them appreciate us more than a book that is perhaps more intellectually ‘exciting.’ There is nothing wrong with entry level sf–Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” has brought more readers into the fold than Bruce Sterling has (I imagine on no objective evidence whatsoever). Tolkein is a friendlier place to start reading fantasy (for many) than China Mieville. Of course for people who have read Tolkein rip-offs for decades, Mieville is a much needed breath of fresh air. But for someone dipping their toes in for the first time, that may be jumping into the deep end.

Long answer short: there are worse things in the world than having an award that means that a person picking up an award-winning book is pretty much guaranteed an enjoyable reading experience.

Oh, and there were other questions:

(3) I think it’s between Anathem and The Graveyard Book for Best Novel this year — how much will the Neil Gaiman GoH draw tilt the voting?

(4) Of this year’s shortlist, I voted for Anathem to win.

(5) Of course, being a reviewer, my tastes have inevitably drifted from the mainstream Hugo voter. So none of the books I nominated made the ballot. I was rooting for Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory, The Love We Share Without Knowing by Chris Barzak, Incandescence by Greg Egan (I’m still surprised that one didn’t make it on) and Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams.

L Timmel Duchamp
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love’s Body, Dancing in Time, the Marq’ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction. She is also the publisher of Aqueduct Press.

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

One of the genre’s strengths is that it has so many different kinds of “bests.” In recent years the Hugo Awards have come to serve the interests and reflect the taste of only a portion of the genre’s several distinct audiences. And yet the question as stated seems to imply that it’s possible to talk about a single, universal audience– which I just don’t see. “The genre” includes a wide and diverse spectrum of work because “the genre” encompasses several audiences. But to answer the question more narrowly: I think the Hugo Awards have a pretty good track record at reflecting the tastes of a certain segment of the genre audience. That segment’s notion of “best,” though, doesn’t often coincide with mine. And, I should probably add, my own notion of “best” doesn’t always come down to a single work per category per year.

2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?

It can’t represent what speculative fiction has to offer “the outside world” because it takes no notice of the work that appeals to other audiences than the one it serves. And it is a fact that “speculative fiction” as a whole includes work written for all the other audiences encompassed by the genre as well.

3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

All the authors are popular and well-known, so it’s hard to say. But I suspect that Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book has the edge.

4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

As you can probably tell from my response to the opening question, I’m no fit judge! But I *can* say I’d be happy to see Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother win.

5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

Again, I’m no fit judge. The narrowing of the Hugo audience in relation to the field as a whole that’s taken place over the last couple of decades makes it difficult for me to wrap my head around what currently makes a book Hugo Award-worthy.

Jonathan McCalmont
Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He also edits Fruitless Recursion – an online zine devoted to discussing works of genre criticism – and has recently launched Ruthless Culture – a site devoted to film criticism whilst bearing an uncanny resemblance to a blog.

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

Like all awards, the Hugos face the problem that ‘Best’ is quite a slippery term. Setting aside issues of taste and subjectivity, genre is not a field with a unified set of aesthetics. People constantly debate the correct direction for genre, these directions then sometimes coalesce into factions. Factions which praise their favoured books while denigrating others. These factions then sometimes set up alternative conventions and awards, start up their own blogs and issue manifestos and editorial broadsides against each other. So for me the issue is not whether the Hugos systematically track the best in genre, but whether they give an accurate reflection of what is going on in genre at any given time. The universalist language of Worldcon and the increased visibility of the Hugos demand a certain cosmopolitanism.

In the past, the Hugos have been quite decent at reflecting the multiplicity of SF. Yes, they completely ignored the British New Wave but they arguably made up for this by supporting the American New Wave and immediately welcoming Cyberpunk’s challenge to traditional SF values and that’s without mentioning the recognition that the Hugos gave to the health of British genre in the early 00s by providing an all-British shortlist for best novel in 2004.

One of the reasons why the debate about this year’s Hugos has been so ferocious and (at times) ill-tempered is because while there are no pluckily ambitious outsiders to root for (such as Watts’ Blindsight in 2007 or McDonald’s Brazyl in 2008), the list is also ignoring breakthrough genre successes such as Stephenie Meyer and Laurel K. Hamilton.

This invites the question : If the Hugos are not a reflection of what is popular or of what is artistically ambitious then what are they selecting for? Somewhat depressingly, going by a number of the shortlists, the answer appears to be having a name that is recognisable to the people who attend Worldcon.

3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

I think that the West is currently undergoing a crisis of faith in democracy : Few people vote because pollsters and political analysts tell them that what determines elections are swing states and key marginals. Meanwhile, the process of governance has become so complex and technocratic that it is impossible to have a serious public debate of the issues without the electorate zoning out and changing sides. This results in a level of public discourse that treats the general public as simpletons and politicians as cynical and calculating psychopaths. The same cheapening of public debate can generally be seen in the yearly handicapping of the Hugos.

Rather than being an opportunity to discuss a series of interesting books, the yearly handicapping process has become a merry-go-round of debates about who has a popular blog (Doctorow), who has the support of traditional SF fans (Scalzi), who is beloved of Fandom as a whole (Gaiman) and who is due an award because they have missed out in the past (Stross and Stephenson).

So I will opt for Stephenson because his work is the most interesting. That and he was totally overlooked for both Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle.

However, there is one additional issue that is worth handicapping when it comes to the Best Novel shortlist and that is whether any book will accumulate less votes than “No Award”. A number of voting bloggers have reportedly made use of that possibility in their voting and, in what is quite a weak year for the Hugos, it will be interesting to see whether this is a widespread phenomenon.

4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

One of the reasons why I have been quite vocal in my annoyance with this year’s Hugo award is because I do not really think that any of the books on the shortlist are particularly deserving of a Hugo. In fact, there is not a single book on the shortlist that I can say that I particularly like.

I picked up the Scalzi and the Gaiman because of their nominations. I did this despite the fires of my better judgement burning brightly on the fuel supplied by weak reviews from trusted sources and my own bad experiences with both authors’ work in the past. I gave up on both books quite quickly as nothing in the sections I did read gave me any reason to question my general lack of interest in the output of either author. Their work is, in the parlance of our times, “not for me”.

My love for Stephenson’s previous works gave me high hopes for Anathem but I found his latest work to be a kind of reductio ad absurdum of Stephenson’s methods as a writer. With Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, Stephenson walked a tight-rope between engaging our sense of curiosity with lots of information about the book’s subject matter and making us wonder why we were not simply reading a work of non-fiction about tech start-ups, cryptography or the enlightenment. Stephenson navigated this tight-rope by managing to balance exposition with some vestigial plot and characterisation. This balance was, I felt, entirely missing from Anathem. I can admire Stephenson’s devotion to the infodump as the be-all and end-all of narrative fiction but I cannot say that I enjoy it. I gave up on it too.

Doctorow’s Little Brother is also a reductio but of a different sort. Many have praised the politics of Little Brother and Doctorow’s obvious desire to change the world, but I was chilled by the book’s middle class exceptionalism. Despite his posturing, Doctorow’s issue seems to be not with the fact that the hysterical political classes are trampling all over our civil liberties, but rather that, as a result of false positives, the wrong people are having their liberties taken away. Doctorow casually refers to “Arabs” and “The Terrorists” and has no real problem with the state mistreating these people by locking them up and shipping them to secret prisons. It is only when white middle class kids have to face the realities of a state run by a hysterical elite that people start to take to the streets. Simplistically written, preachy and politically backward, Little Brother is a book that continues to rub me entirely the wrong way.

Stross’ Saturn’s Children is, for my money, the weakest thing that he has written to date. Its narrative is poorly paced and muddled. Its characters are inhuman enough to alienate but not weird enough to fascinate. His ideas are weak and over-stretched and the entire book is sullied by Stross’ ill-begotten belief that he can do humour. Sexual farce at that. One scene – clearly intended to be played for laughs – is a nightmare of bio-mechanical rape that is nothing short of Geigerian in its repugnant surrealism. I struggled with Stross’ Halting State, but Saturn’s Children is the work that made me stop buying his books.

Given this rogue’s gallery of titles, I am tempted to declare that “No Award” should get the Hugo but this is neither feasible nor in the spirit of Mind Meld and so I shall opt for Anathem. It is not a particularly revolutionary or important work but at least it shows an intellectual and a creative ambition that is sorely lacking in all of the other nominees.

5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

There are three works that have stayed with me in 2008:

I thought that Stephen Baxter’s Flood, though flawed, was an incredibly eloquent rephrasing of the themes that have brought the best out of Baxter in the past: The alienating power of change. The book ends with older adults looking upon human children born to a world without land as empty-headed animals. Happily swimming, screwing and singing songs made up of nonsense words while our world lies miles below the seas. I was quite struck by the power of that scene as a metaphor for the conservatism of the old status quo as well as its description of the capacity of human nature to adapt to new environments and new social structures. These ideas pop up throughout Baxter’s work but never have they been so eloquently and poignantly expressed and that is more than deserving of a place on the Hugo shortlist.

Also flawed but incredibly impressive was Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go. It’s YA like many of the actual nominees but Ness’ book showed not only a capacity for traditional story-telling but also laudable interest in the ways in which beliefs affect our worlds. You can see that not only in the cool SF idea of having the men in the book broadcast their thoughts to anyone and everyone nearby but also in the way in which the book teaches us the world and then set about showing us how all of those beliefs are false and the hazards of acting upon those false beliefs.

I was also impressed with Nick Harkaway’s Debut The Gone Away World. I could give you half a dozen reasons for absolutely hating this book and I would agree with every single one of them: The characterisation is manipulative, the ending is catastrophic, the use of geek iconography is slightly embarrassing, the book is packed with fantasies of agency, it’s about 200 pages longer than it needs to be and the names of its characters sound like off-cuts from Monty Python sketches but despite all of these failings, the prose is genuinely fantastic, the ideas are top notch and the book’s uplifting message of personal and political change is far more eloquently constructed and argued than anything I’ve seen in recent SF.

James Enge
James Enge‘s short fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Flashing Swords and Every Day Fiction. His first novel, Blood of Ambrose, was published in April by Pyr. His second, This Crooked Way, will appear in October 2009. He blogs at jamesenge.livejournal.com and www.blackgate.com.

As far as the Hugo’s track record goes, it was probably more reliable when the field was smaller and more people could read through more of the relevant work before the nomination period. But I was just looking through the Hugo nominations for the past ten years, and if I didn’t always agree with the final award, I didn’t see things on the list I’d be ashamed to be caught reading. (Except for the American edition of Saturn’s Children, but that’s not Stross’ fault.)

Every shortlist represents a set of compromises. They may be directly worked out between members of a nominating committee or they may arise haphazardly from the actions of a larger body of voters, but it’s unrealistic to expect any process to yield the 7.5 best works of fiction based on square roots (or whatever an award’s mandate is). If there was discussion before the shortlist, if there was discussion during the formation of a shortlist, there will be discussion after a shortlist. Generating such discussion is, in fact, one of the functions of having a shortlist. There are good things about it, but infallibility isn’t likely to be one of them.

What is likely is that there will be different types of fiction represented on the shortlist–things worth exploring, if you’re not the kind of insider who has already seen it all. In that respect, I think the award continues to be useful. The one serious complaint that can be made against it is that it’s not really representative enough–but that’s a political complaint that’s susceptible to a political solution, i.e. participation.

As far as predicting the result of this year’s vote: it seems clear to me that the novel likeliest to win is Stephenson’s Anathem. Its author has the advantage of iconic name recognition in the field. The book was actually on the bestseller lists for a while, which means that a lot of people have read it (or at least bought it). It also carries a certain amount of academic cachet because of the dense layers of ideas and cultural references woven through it. Whether it is literary or not is a question I will leave to people who think they know what that means, but certainly few books are as bookish as Anathem.

It’s also the novel that ought to win. The book is inventive and playful and makes use of ideas; it joyously celebrates the human capacity to think and understand and dispute matters rationally; it is radiant with crazy dreams. In an age that genuflects before the opinions of the ignorant and malicious, as long as they can acquire a media-megaphone large and glittery enough to attract attention, a book like Anathem is as necessary as air. In the end, an award only merits respect if it honors what is honorable; the Hugo will gain luster by honoring Anathem.

Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts was born two-thirds of the way through the last century; he presently lives a little way west of London, England, with a beautiful wife and two small children. He is a writer with a day-job (professor at Royal Holloway, University of London). The first of these two employments has resulted in eight published sf novels, the most recent being Splinter (Solaris 2007) and Land of the Headless (Victor Gollancz 2007). The second of these has occasioned such critical studies as The Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006).

I daresay I’ve already said too much on this topic for many people’s taste. So I shall keep my answers here brief, viz.

1. Not especially bad

2. Not terribly well.

3 Hard to call: possibly The Graveyard Book

4 Anathem

5. Anathem deserves its place on the shortlist, little though I (speaking personally) liked it. For the rest of the list, or the way the rest of the list might, or could, or should have been, you can, if you’re so minded, parse any five from: Steve Baxter, Flood; Nick Harkaway, The Gone-Away World; Gwyneth Jones, Spirit; Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia; Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones; Paul McAuley, The Quiet War; Ken MacLeod, The Night Sessions; Ian McLeod, Song of Time; Richard Morgan, The Steel Remains; Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go; Al Reynolds, House of Suns; Really, pick any five. Any five. Just as long as your five includes Le Guin’s novel. (I’d include Xiaolu Guo’s UFO In Her Eyes here, but I think that’s a 2009 title).

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