The Awards Race Begins

Posted by Niall Harrison

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?


           

Comments (21)


Eric Brown's The Kings of Eternity is a contender for the BSFA Award. It's been getting lots of good reviews and he's been a UK sf stalwart for nearly 30 years.


Yes, that's a good call; I do think The Kings of Eternity is getting a bit more attention than usual for Brown, and I should have mentioned it.

I wish I knew the relevant bit of the field well enough to discuss possible Shirley Jackson Award contenders. Anyone got any thoughts on that?


No predictions for the Nebulas?


I don't feel I have enough of a handle on the process and preferences of the Nebulas to make many predictions.


Though you mention The Testament of Jessie Lamb in relation to the Tiptree, surely it's also a contender for the Clarke? I thought it turned a little YA toward the end, but it was still one of the best sf novels of 2011 I've read.


I think Snuff has to be in with a good shot for the Hugos - Pratchett is usually either on the ballot or bubbling under, and while Snuff was late in the year, I think the fans are consistent enough to give it a chance.

And I think The Magician King has an outside chance, given Grossman's Campbell win.


Ian: Glad to hear you liked Jessie Lamb. I dithered about it. I'd be quite happy to see it on the Clarke shortlist, but I think it might be a little too single-minded to win the judges over.

Liz: I don't think Pratchett's ever actually been shortlisted for a Hugo. In 2005, Going Postal got enough nominations to make the ballot -- but he declined the nomination. I don't know whether he's done that on other occasions, or whether he would do it again. As for The Magician King -- yes, an outside chance.


One interesting aspect about Dance with Dragons is that if you check a place like the westeros fan forum, reaction to the book among series fans has been rather mixed. The consensus seems to be that it contains some of the better moments and writing in the series, but also some quite dull sections. I'll be curious to see how that sense of the book translates to awards performance.

Deathless meanwhile is interesting in that it seems to be following a similar path as Palimpsest--not a ton of critical attention on release, but at the end of the year when people ask themselves "what have I read that was better?" it starts appearing on individual "best of the year" lists, gets mentioned multiple times in places like SH's year in review, I'd be surprised if it isn't on the Locus Recommended Reading list, etc. Valente's books have a way of slowly gathering readerly attention to peak at the right time for awards. (Similarly I'd be surprised if at least one of her books wasn't on a Tiptree list, either the honor list or the long list.)

Martha Wells's The Cloud Roads is a book we might see on one of the Tiptree lists, too--honor list or long list--although I can't see it winning, the story it tells is too conventional.

I've been impressed by the Shirley Jackson Awards, new as they are: they seem to do a good job of identifying good books that slip through the remits of the other big awards. As such I hesitate to even guess what will be on its shortlist...maybe Colson Whitehead, maybe Daryl Gregory, maybe Michael Cisco's The Great Lover....

I do like Le Guin's argument about awards. You write that "one important value of awards [...] 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." I feel like the response is, yes, but what kind of story does it tell when all our awards are competitions for a single top spot? When we try to create histories that have just one winner? Does that help create communities, or divide them? I wish awards stopped at the point of generating short lists; as far as the attention I pay to them, they pretty much do.


I tell you what, I'm kicking myself for not thinking of Deathless for the World Fantasy Award. Surely a likely nominee there. I'm less sure about the Tiptree; she does seem like she should be a natural fit, but since winning for The Orphan's Tales five years ago she hasn't been listed once. I suppose another way of looking at that is she's due.

Martin: Yeah, I'm aware of the fan reaction. I'm not sure how relevant it is. It will depend on the precise nominees, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's the most-read book on the shortlist, and that will give it a definite head start.

As you say, the Jackson has been very impressive so far. One of these years I'll read a whole shortlist.

I feel like the response is, yes, but what kind of story does it tell when all our awards are competitions for a single top spot?

To which the next response is surely that it's a mistake to see any of them in isolation; those communities I described are all inter-related. A year's worth of winners form a sort of mega-shortlist of their own.


Nobody mentioned Leviathan Wakes for The Hugo. From what I am seeing only Embassytown did better than this book in year's best lists. I've read about it everywhere: on SFF polls but also on more mainstream lists.


That's an interesting pick, Tudor; you're right, could be a possibility. Daniel Abraham has already been bubbling under the ballot with the Long Price books, if that audience has followed him to this book it could be in with a shot.

(Elsewhere, another BSFA nominations update. Osama and Wake Up and Dream have now arrived on the list, but still no sign of the Grimwood.)


I'm really surprised nobody is talking about Andrea Hairston's Redwood & Wildfire at least for the Tiptree. It's fantasy and from a small press Aqueduct so less likely for the popular awards.


As a member of this year's Tiptree jury I can tell you that the tiny list linked from this post bears no resemblance to the actual, massive list of books we're reading. It looks like something that might have gotten posted very early on in the process, when hardly anyone had nominated works yet. I believe all the books mentioned as possible contenders in this post or in comments are also on our reading list.


Hi Karen -- thanks! I thought that list must be incomplete, but it's hard to tell from the outside. Looking forward to seeing what you pick very much.


Lavie Tidhar's Osama is up for the BSFA award in the short-fiction section


Seems so odd to me that you have not mentioned the two prizes from the Carl Brandon Society of $1000 each annually: the Parallax Award and the Kindred Award. Why? Andrea Hairston's first novel was a winner. Also Hiromi Goto's most recent novel. Also Vandana Singh. The complete list of winners is at http://carlbrandon.org/awards.html

The Carl Brandon Parallax Award is given to works of speculative fiction created by a self-identified person of color.

The Carl Brandon Kindred Award is given to any work of speculative fiction dealing with issues of race and ethnicity; nominees may be of any racial or ethnic group.


In terms of current activity, a jury is deliberating on 2010 works and nominations are open for 2011 works at www.carlbrandon.org.


Nisi: You're quite right, I should have included them; I suspect they slipped my mind because of the irregularity of their schedule (it's strange to be thinking about 2010 books for awards at this point). But I like both awards, so let's see if I can rectify the oversight.

2010: A rich year for the Parallax judges to sift through, surely. Purely on profile it would look like the front-runners are Who Fears Death (Nebula nominee, World Fantasy winner) and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (nominee for just about everything; though I would hope that the judges would also look at The Broken Kingdoms, which I preferred) and Redemption in Indigo (World Fantasy nominee, Crawford and Mythopoeic winner). But beyond that you've got Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion, and Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects, any one of which would be a very worthy winner. And Haikasoru published several very well-received books which I've failed to read, perhaps most notably Project Itoh's Harmony, but also Hiroshi Yamamoto's The Stories of Ibis. The Kindred looks tougher to call; several of the above would be in contention, plus maybe Zoo City, maybe Tricia Sullivan's Lightborn, conceivably Ian McDonald's The Dervish House. Twist my arm and I think I'd hope for Yu for the Parallax, and predict Okorafor for the Kindred.

2011: Several notable mainstream-published novels this year: Murakami's IQ84, Chan Koonchung's The Fat Years, Colson Whitehead's Zone One, Ahmed Khaled Towfik's Utopia, Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox; plus two previous Parallax winners back in contention, Hairston with Redwood and Wildfire and Minister Faust with The Alchemists of Kush. Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods seems to have been as well-received as the other books in her trilogy, although I suspect she has a better shot at the 2010 award; Haikasoru had another good year, perhaps with Ryu Mitsuse's Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights as their flagship. Plus of course there's David Anthony Durham's brilliant The Sacred Band. For the Parallax I think Whitehead and Oyeyemi could have a serious shot; plus Durham, but I wonder whether his book might not be a better contender for the Kindred, perhaps against Craig Thompson's Habibi as a dark horse.


This was a fun post and I heartily agree with many of your choices (and I see by the BSFA nominations - correct in that instance - even down to Cyber Circus which I'm reading now). I agree with your ideas for the Hugo but you have missed one perennial fan favorite that is always a good possibility - WWW.Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer. He missed out on last year's ballot so I think will be a very strong contender this year. My predictions for that ballot are:

Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge
Reamde by Neal Stephenson
WWW. Wonder by Robert Sawyer
Among Others by Jo Walton

These are not all my choices for the award just my predictions.


I think you are underestimating chances of two debut novels which made quite a splash last year - The Night Circus and Ready Player One. I wouldn't be at all surprised seeing one of them - and perhaps even both - on the Hugo ballot


Bob: I think Sawyer tends to do best when there are substantial numbers of Canadian voters in the mix, so I'm not convinced he's a lock this year. The rest of your list seems plausible though.

Michal: Ready Player One could be a possibility, I agree, good call; I'm not convinced The Night Circus has reached the Hugo audience to the same degree as, say, the World Fantasy audience, so I'd be mor surprised to see that.


Post a comment