The Awards Race Begins
Posted by Niall Harrison
6 January 2012
Last week, Ursula Le Guin made an excellent post about literary awards and evaluating literary merit in general:
Voting is the dangerous but essential tool of democracy. In art, voting is dangerous without being essential. Often it’s not even appropriate. In art, even given a carefully selected jury of peers, there’s no way to guarantee that a vote reflects informed, unprejudiced judgment not influenced by fashion, faction, or mere personal quirk. Anybody who’s juried an award, or just argued about a book, knows that.
Novels and stories that a whole lot of readers, plus honest and serious teachers and critics, have continued to hold in esteem for over six decades are surely beginning to deserve the status of “excellent” or even that slippery and over-used adjective “great”. But there are so many different kinds of fiction, so many standards by which to judge a novel, so many ways in which one work may excel another — Whose judgment is so widely and deeply and disinterestedly informed that they can presume to say which handful of them are “the best”?
And when you’ve said it, what have you gained?
And what have you lost?
Her criticisms (it's a lengthy post) are extensive and damning: "Awards", she writes, "serve above all to supply commercial booksellers with a readymade commodity and lazy-minded readers, teachers, and librarians with a readymade choice." They are not completely without use, but that use is largely practical:
Competitions and awards arouse interest in the audience, even if it’s the kind of interest appropriate to a horse race — witness the hysteria of betting on some of the “big” literary awards — which brings much-needed money to artists and those who support or invest in their work. This is a service principally to the business of art, but also to its vitality in the culture.
My feeling is that she downplays one important value of awards, which is the extent to which awards are a way in which communities tell stories about themselves. The panoply of different sf and fantasy awards exists because there are communities that want histories to refer to; their different constituencies reflect different values and enshrine different kinds of book.
So it's in that spirit that I'm going to offer a run-down of some of the awards for novels our field will be giving out this year, and an assessment of which books I think will (which is not the same as should) be in the running. There is some cynicism in this exercise, since I'm going to talk about a lot of books I haven't read, but there's also some optimism, and affection; I consider myself a part of all of these constituencies. I invite dissent in the comments, of course. If we're lucky, in a small way the discussion will help to serve as a reminder of the range of books out there, before they get winnowed to the winners.
First up, two popular vote awards:
The Hugo: Open to any science fiction or fantasy novel first published in 2011, plus sf/f novels receiving their first US publication in 2011. There are two books I think are certainties for the shortlist. George R. R. Martin's profile has never been higher, and I'll be astonished if A Dance With Dragons doesn't get a nod. (In fact I expect him to win: previous installments in A Game of Thrones have been nominated, but the HBO series seems to have inspired a lot of people to get around to actually reading the books, which I think will be enough to allow Dance to pick up more second and third preferences than A Feast For Crows did, and push the book over the top.) Jo Walton's Among Others, meanwhile, has been extremely well-received within fandom; her Small Change books hovered just below the ballot threshold (e.g. Farthing tied for sixth in nominations [pdf]), and I expect this one to do better.
The remaining slots are harder to call. You rarely lose money betting on Vernor Vinge or Neal Stephenson at the Hugos, but I haven't seen as much chatter about Children of the Sky as I expected, and the response to Reamde has been less uniformly positive than for other recent Stephenson. (The fact that Reamde is even less sfnal than Cryptonomicon is probably incidental to its chances.) Meanwhile, two of the decade's regular nominees, John Scalzi and Charles Stross, both have core sf novels out after a couple of years' break; I would not be surprised to see both Rule 34 and Fuzzy Nation nominated. China Mieville's Embassytown has been topping year's best polls all over the place, including ours; I don't think it's quite generated the level of excitement that The City & The City did, but it's also an extremely plausible nominee (Kraken only just missed the ballot, despite mixed reviews). N. K. Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods has to be in with a shot, although it may be hampered by being published relatively late in the year; Mira Grant's Deadline could also appear, given Feed's extremely strong showing in the 2011 final voting. Other previous nominees in the mix include Catherynne Valente, for Deathless, Michael Swanwick for Dancing with Bears, and Ian McDonald for Planesrunner; in a year with the gorillas listed above, though, I suspect all three will miss out.
What about first-time nominees? There are two novels benefitting from extended eligibility after US publication that placed in the runners-up last year: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. Historically extended eligibility hasn't led to many ballot appearances, but both have a higher profile than usual for such books, and if enough voters remember that they have a second chance I could see either showing up: both are energetic, distinctive books. And -- here's the optimism -- I have to mention God's War by Kameron Hurley and The Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham, both of which will be on my ballot. I don't think either is completely out of the question: Durham is a previous Campbell winner, and both books continue to pick up favourable mentions. But if I'm honest, I suspect they have better shots at other awards.
The BSFA: Open to any science fiction or fantasy novel published in the UK in 2011. For the other popular-vote award I'm going to consider, we have a cheat sheet, because the BSFA has posted a list of works that have received at least one nomination so far. Given the tendency of voters to get their nominations in at the last minute, I won't be at all shocked to see shortlistees who currently don't appear on this list at all; but it's a starting point. The two certain shortlistees here, I think, are perennial BSFA favourite Christopher Priest for The Islanders, and China Mieville for Embassytown (with Priest to win the match-up at the end). I expect Adam Roberts to join them on the ballot with By Light Alone, based on the continued improvement in his profile in the UK. After that it gets harder: I don't perceive a depth of support for most of the other novels that have currently received nominations. I'm surprised there's no sign of Stross' Rule 34 so far. Jon Courtenay Grimwood has historically done well with BSFA voters, but fantasy novels haven't, and The Fallen Blade hasn't received any nominations yet. Equally, there's no sign yet of Lavie Tidhar's Osama or Ian R. MacLeod's Wake Up and Dream -- both first published in limited hardback editions by PS Publishing -- but if enough people have read them, which in the UK (and with ebook editions) is plausible, they could well be contenders. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see several first-time nominees, of which the most likely-looking right now is Ian Whates, a previous winner in the short fiction category whose novels The Noise Revealed and City of Hope and Despair are both on the current list. Whates' Newcon press also does well at the BSFA, so Kim Lakin-Smith's Cyber Circus could be in with a shot. Perhaps less likely -- both fantasy, again, and one is YA to boot -- but very welcome if they did appear, would be Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox and Frances Hardinge's Twilight Robbery, both of which have enthusiastic supporters among the BSFA membership.
And now, some juried awards:
The Tiptree: For a work of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender published in 2011. The prize most likely to surprise me every year, and one of the most open to "mainstream"-published sf, this is difficult to call. As with the BSFA, there's a cheat sheet, this time a list of books recommended to the jury (although presumably they've also read plenty of works not listed). Technically short fiction is eligible as well as novels, but since a novel almost always wins (and since there are currently nine Strange Horizons stories on the recommendation list, which I probably wouldn't be entirely objective about), I'm going to focus on novels here. This is where I see Kameron Hurley's God's War, and possibly Infidel, appearing; in fact I'd love to see her win, although I have a suspicion that she might have to settle for the honor list, and see Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox walk off with the prize. (Which would hardly be a bad winner.) Other novels I wouldn't be surprised to see listed: The Testatment of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (if they can get copies, from a UK-based small press); The Courier's New Bicycle by Kim Westwood (if any of the jurors other than Tansy Raynor Roberts can get copies, being outside Australia); The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman; and Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.
The Kitschies: For books that best elevate the tone of genre literature. Another award that I think is likely to surprise me, if only because it has less of an established track record. I have, however, been reading Pornokitsch for a couple of years now, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Sophia MacDougall's Savage City and K. J. Parker's The Hammer, both lauded in reviews, show up on the main "red tentacle" shortlist. Embassytown must also be in contention here, given The City & The City's win two years ago. Lavie Tidhar's Osama seems to fit the spirit of the award nicely. But beyond that, who knows?
The Dick: For distinguished science fiction published in paperback original format in the US in 2011. It could be a good year for short fiction collections: Geoff Ryman's Paradise Tales, Maureen McHugh's After the Apocalypse and Gwyneth Jones' The Universe of Things are all major books, and all paperbacks. On the novel front Daryl Gregory's Raising Stony Mayhall looks plausible, as does Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique, and I'll be disappointed if there's no sign of God's War or Infidel; but beyond that I find the award hard to call if only because I'm in the UK, and don't have a good sense for which books have appeared in paperback.
World Fantasy: For an outstanding fantasy novel published in 2011. For which the obvious question is, will George R. R. Martin appear? He did for A Game of Thrones, but not for any subsequent volume in the series, and I don't think A Dance with Dragons is going to break that record: the WFA is more likely than some awards to go for a late-series volume, but still doesn't do it very often, and if they do it this year I want them to pick David Anthony Durham's The Sacred Band. Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods may also fare better, given the quasi-standalone structure of her series. I think Jo Walton is, once again, a near-certainty, and a plausible winner. Stina Leicht's Of Blood and Honey and Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique are well talked-of genre debuts; from the mainstream side, although the WFAs don't go there as often as you'd expect, Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife seems a possible pick; Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus a bit less so but certainly in with a shot. Karen Russel's Swamplandia! or Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox could show up if the jury is feeling particularly adventurous.
The Clarke: For a science fiction novel published in the UK in 2011. Last, but certainly not least, this is the award I pay the most attention to, which has rewarded my attention best in the past and which is most likely to guide my reading this year. But I've read less of the science fiction published in the UK than I usually have, so I also feel it's more likely to surprise me than usual. Let's go back to the possible BSFA nominees: Mieville, Priest and Roberts have to be front-runners here as well. I think all three are more likely to appear on the shortlist than not, but I wouldn't call any of them certainties. For all the enthusiasm for Embassytown, and the fact that it's an actual science fiction novel, it has some weaknesses that I think the jury could recognise, while Priest and Roberts are acquired tastes -- and the latter, at least, has an uneven record with the Clarke. Besides Priest and Mieville, there are three previous winners in contention: Ian R. MacLeod with Wake Up and Dream, Richard Morgan with The Cold Commands, and Neal Stephenson with Reamde. The first two seem possible (The Cold Commands is by all accounts sfnal enough for the Clarke), the latter less so (not sfnal enough to justify its flaws). The most likely other genre nominee seems to me Lavie Tidhar's Osama, which has a strength of voice that the award usually likes; Greg Egan is probably doomed to be overlooked again, while Greg Bear may have his best shot for several years with Hull Zero Three. From the YA sphere, Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker may be able to do what The Windup Girl didn't; and if I was a Clarke judge I'd certainly have had my eye on Moira Young's Blood Red Road, particularly after its Costa win. And on the mainstream side? The most likely contender has to be Colson Whitehead's Zone One, which seems like a quintessential Clarke choice; for some dark horse picks I'll go with Naomi Wood's The Godless Boys and Kevin Barry's City of Bohane, both of which have picked up positive notices.
Right then. Who have I missed? What have I got horribly, horribly wrong?