Ties for the Best Novel Hugo

That China Miéville’s The City and the City tied Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl for the 2010 Best Novel Hugo surprised me. Maybe, like many fans, I’m prone to underestimate fantasy novels as Hugo contenders.  

Bacigalupi’s SF novel had taken home every prize from the Nebula to the Compton Crook Award. It made Time magazine’s list of the Top 10 of Everything 2009. I expected it to win the Hugo by a landslide.

Now I’ve learned that hindsight is the only sight when it comes to Hugo handicapping. Other major awards may be poor predictors of Hugo success (see “The Unpredictable Best Novel Hugo”), still , they occasionally line up in the rear view mirror to make it seem as if picking against the favorite should have been the easiest thing in the world.

While The Windup Girl won the 2010 Locus Award for First Novel it finished far behind Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker in the SF Novel category. Meanwhile, Miéville’s The City and the City landed on top of the Fantasy Novel category. It was pretty clear that The Windup Girl would have serious competition for the Hugo.

The voters found these two novels indistinguishable in quality on Hugo night. Will they still seem so twenty years from now?

This is the third tie for the Best Novel Hugo in its history. Hindsight tells me it shouldn’t have happened the first two times.

In 1993 Doomsday Book by Connie Willis tied with A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge.

It’s Doomsday Book Diana and I have given to friends we wanted to interest in science fiction. Connie Willis’ time travel adventure builds to a transcendent ending in which the efforts of an individual make a great deal of difference – not measured by how many lives are saved (a typical yardstick of stfnal heroism) but by the compassion shown to characters we care about in their hour of death, proving we do not all die alone.

Credit A Fire Upon the Deep with impressive ingredients: a richly inventive collection of aliens with unique psychologies, a new cosmology, a freshly imagined doom hanging over sentient life everywhere in the galaxy, and a set of mysterious histories that must be unraveled if anyone is to survive.

Three critical shortcomings hold it back.  

First, Vinge never made me really care whether his characters won out, he merely made me curious about the final choices that he’d craft into the ending. When a story of children in jeopardy fails to jump-start a reader’s emotional connection to its characters, that’s a bad sign.

Second, Vinge initiated a romance between the two main adult human characters, then allowed it to fizzle for reasons that were valid in terms of their personalties and circumstances, facts that didn’t keep me from losing interest in their fates.

Third, the author uses a narrative scaffolding that turns this into SF’s only “e-mail punk” novel. Really, even in the early days of the internet when Vinge wrote this novel, were readers expected to believe the myriad alien races filling the galaxy in times to come would communicate with messages that look exactly as e-mail did in 1991? The small amount of intentional humor provided by strange sentient creatures writing like regulars on rec.arts.sf-lovers is swallowed by the vaster, unintentional humor of a future supposedly as limited as the primitive Internet.

At least in my view, history has broken the tie between Willis’s and Vinge’s novels.

Then, in 1966, Roger Zelazny was an author of one of the novels that tied for the Hugo, a story serialized as “…and Call Me Conrad” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1965. That it won an award under the circumstances is remarkable, having been substantially trimmed from the version later published in hardcover as This Immortal.

When Ted White was an assistant editor at F&SF it became his job to pare Zelazny’s manuscript to fit in the magazine. He spoke in his 1985 Worldcon guest of honor speech about his painstaking efforts, the guilt he felt every time he trimmed a word of Zelazny’s prose – and that after he turned in the manuscript editor Ed Ferman summarily cut another 5,000 words. 

Even the full-length This Immortal feels slight compared with the best of Zelazny’s other award-winning novels such as Lord of Light, Jack of Shadows, and Isle of the Dead. Though it’s a good read This Immortal can’t withstand comparison with the novel it tied for the Hugo – Frank Herbert’s Dune, a canonical great work of science fiction.  

Three times there has been a tie for the Best Novel Hugo. Hindsight tells me it shouldn’t have happened the first two times. What will the verdict be when another generation judges the Miéville and Bacigalupi novels?

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15 thoughts on “Ties for the Best Novel Hugo

  1. Seems as though you’ve written the editorial for the next Dead-Trees Issue of F770.

    When is that going to be, by the way?

  2. A Fire Upon the Deep is a much better novel than Doomsday Book, which displays all of Connie Willis’s weaknesses (inability to pull together the plot of a long work, idiot plots, refusal to do enough research on England).

  3. At least one item in favor of _A Fire Upon the Deep_ to me is that it had the most *alien* aliens I’d ever read up to that point.

  4. I was absolutely astonished by this post. I like _Doomsday Book_ quite a bit, but _A Fire Upon The Deep_ strikes me as one of the best books of all time and what science fiction is all about. So colour me gobsmacked — not quite as gobsmacked as when DDB stated that time had shown that _The Dispossessed_ had stolen the Hugo from _The Mote in God’s Eye_, but similar.

    I know mileage varies, but goodness me.

  5. I like this post. As for the two current selections I loved both The City & The City and The Windup Girl. When I read The Windup Girl I knew immediately that this was definitely a proto-typical Hugo nominee along the lines of a Dan Simmons or an Ian McDonald. To me it wasn’t the next best ‘new’ thing but reminded me of the science fiction I loved in the 80’s and 90’s. Now The City & The City on the other hand read to me like Franz Kafka & Philip K. Dick had a baby while smoking meth. I LOVED IT! Is it Fantasy? New Weird? Science Fiction? I loved both novels but for me The City & The City will stay with me for years to come while The Windup Girl was a fine science fiction novel and I’m glad I read it but it shouldn’t be drooled over.

    The Hugo’s are a funny award. Some years you can point to one book and say with plenty of confidence, “This book will win, hands down.” – and it does. Other years you can say the same thing and then some novel out of the blue wins. You scratch your head, wonder what people were thinking, then move on.

    Vinge versus Willis. I have tried to get into Connie Willis over the years. Everyone seems to like her. I’m sorry to say she just doesn’t do anything for me. As for Vernor Vinge I’m much more of a fan of his wife (ex-wife) Joan. I loved Psion and Catspaw. Doomsday Book was a fine novel. I enjoyed A Fire Upon The Deep. Seriously though Red Mars, Steel Beach, and China Mountain Zhang – the other three novels nominated I liked better than the two that tied. I thought for sure Red Mars was going to win, Red Mars seemed the ‘proto-typical’ Hugo.

    But hey, we are talking about the Hugo. Harry Potter took one home.

  6. It’s definitely a matter of taste. I like some of Connie Willis’s work a great deal, but Doomsday Book irritated me for its contorted plot set-up and a pervasive dimness on the part of the characters. If it had been my introduction to SF, given to me by someone assuring me it was a masterwork in the field, I would have concluded I must not like SF.

    But then, I couldn’t quite get into the Vinge either. My preference that year was for Red Mars.

  7. Oddly enough, it’s the characterization of The City and The City as fantasy that I’ve got to take issue with.

    Others might argue that The City and The City is a perfect example of the failure of genre, the mere reality of genre only being marketing categories, or of transcending genre.

    I’ll generally agree that the dividing line between fantasy and science fiction is blurry as all get-out, that in many cases it’s purely marketing-driven. I will argue that “transcending genre” is BS, unless by that meaning pushing, stretching and extending the borders and limits of genre (not becoming not-genre as so many critics use it).

    But this, ironically, isn’t a case of fuzzy boundaries. This may be a case of an arbitrary marketing decision. And it definitely extends the genre.

    Simon Guerrier is of the opinion that science fiction (craft-wise) is like mystery, only the big reveal is not “whodunnit?” but rather “where am I really?” Structurally, The City and The City meets that criteria. It’s a masterpiece of world-building that just keeps unfolding.

    There’s also the simple (well, not really) matter that the speculative nature of the story is science-based, it’s just social sciences, sociology and psychology bent to extremes.

    The City and The City is science fiction. It’s soft sciences hard SF.

  8. The Vinge caused a revision in my “5 best SF novels” list (an internal thing in my head; while I talk about it, I don’t really expect anybody else to care what I think) for the first time in at least two decades.

    I haven’t even read _Doomsday Book_, so I can’t have any real opinion about it — but what people who like it say about it makes me think I don’t want to read it (hence my not having read it).

  9. “Third, the author uses a narrative scaffolding that turns this into SF’s only “e-mail punk” novel. Really, even in the early days of the internet when Vinge wrote this novel, were readers expected to believe the myriad alien races filling the galaxy in times to come would communicate with messages that look exactly as e-mail did in 1991?

    Mike, AFUD, whatever its virtues or faults, is based on Usenet, not email. The functionality and structure of many-to-many communication is entirely different from one-to-one, or any of the other options available in email.

    And, for the record, I view AFUD as one of the most deserving Hugo winners ever, but, then, I’m also steeped in the online culture it drew some elements from.

  10. The reason the Usenet/email distinction doesn’t just matter, but is absolutely crucial, by the way, is that Usenet was, then, bandwidth limited, and that galactic bandwidth limitation on communication was crucial to the novel.

    Of course, the problematic aspect is that those readers unfamiliar with Usenet of the Nineties miss out on large sections of the novel’s humor and subtler points, which leaves me completely unsurprised that Mike — with no disrespect intended — wouldn’t hold the novel very high in his esteem, being unfamiliar with all the Usenet references and analogies in the story.

  11. Oh, and I also think “…and Call Me Conrad” is one of Zelazny’s best works, far better than Jack of Shadows or Isle of The Dead (or This Immortal).

    Really, what I think you’re doing here is looking at your taste of decades ago, and agreeing with yourself. That’s fine, nothing wrong with that, but I’m not seeing objective evidence for the views of history having changed here. You preferred a couple of books then, and you still do.

    If we have some poll evidence that people who voted for AFUD or “… And Call Me Conrad” regret their vote and would change it, that would be interesting. But affirmations of still holding the same views, not so much.

  12. @Gary: Thanks for commenting about the matter of personal taste. I set myself up for opposition — novels that tie for the Hugo have had and will continue to have many devoted fans.

    I reread A Fire Upon the Deep (AFUD in your abbreviation) a few months ago. The thoughts it inspired have been looking for an outlet ever since.

    I’m intrigued that you say “…and Call Me Conrad” is far better than This Immortal (among the other titles you named) — what gives the magazine version the edge? I must admit I have only read the hardback version, never the serialization.

    I also appreciate your observations about Usenet references in AFUD. I was privately speculating whether AFUD might be one of the earliest examples of a work winning the Hugo as a consequence of its appeal to online fandom. Any idea? I didn’t even try to phrase the question as part of my post knowing I would only demonstrate my spectacular ignorance about early online fandom (which is matched only by my ignorance of other eras of online fandom.)

  13. I read AFUD before I got online, and so had the effect of encountering the alien version first, which made me immediately confident and familiar with the real version when I encountered it a year or so later. So Vinge made me love usenet, not the other way around.

    This is a personal example based on a sample set of me only

  14. AFUD particularly resonated with me because I recognized not only Usenet but the Morris worm. I also think it’s a good book outside of that, but that’s what I’d say anyway, isn’t it?

  15. I’m intrigued that you say “…and Call Me Conrad” is far better than This Immortal (among the other titles you named) — what gives the magazine version the edge? I must admit I have only read the hardback version, never the serialization.

    I have to immediately confess that I’m simply passing along memory at this point, it’s been so long since I’ve reread either. I did reread each version several times, back thirty or so years ago, and thought the magazine version tighter and the novel’s longer version more padded. I recall believing that “…And Call Me Conrad” was a terrific story, and that This Immortal simply added unnecessarily to it.

    (Also, the magazine title is better, if “less commercial” as an identifiable science fiction title, which is why Don Wollheim changed it, as he generally would in such cases; regardless, “…And Call Me Conrad” is a good title, and “This Immortal” is almost generic. But the title is trivial.)

    What I’d think if I reread them both next week, I have no idea, but unfortunately it won’t happen for quite some time.

    I’m not always eager to reread some of the old classics, as some hold up much less well to my far more experienced and jaded eyes than I’d prefer, but some still do, and classic Zelazny doesn’t daunt me; I simply don’t have much time for rereading classics these days, given all the other reading to catch up with and keep up with. (I was disappointed to some degree rereading The Foundation Trilogy a couple of years ago.)

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