Review: Binti: Home and The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti won the Hugo Award for Best Novella last year.  This year, the middle volume of the trilogy, Binti: Home, has also been nominated, and a few months ago the conclusion, Binti: The Night Masquerade was released.  So it seems like a good time to talk about the whole series!

(As I am discussing the final book of a trilogy, there will be a certain amount of spoilers for the first two books.  I will do my best to keep them somewhat vague, and to avoid spoiling the third book much.)

In Binti, we met the title character – a gifted harmonizer able to create currents of energy by “treeing”, or meditating on mathematical equations, and the first of the Himba people to attend Oomza Uni, a prestigious galactic university.  The Himba are strongly rooted to the earth that they live on, as evinced by her people’s tradition of covering their skin and hair with otjize – a mixture of red clay, oil, and fragrant herbs.  The neighboring Khoush people mock and belittle the Himba for that and for their general provinciality, despite the Himba specialty – and in fact Binti’s family’s own expertise – in the intricate and widely used technology of astrolabes (think smartphones taken to their logical conclusion of being one’s entire interface to the digital world).

Despite derogatory comments from the Khoush and resistance from her own family, Binti boards a living spaceship full of Khoush students, literally covered in her own homeland as she travels out into the galaxy despite the way it separates her.  She also brings her edan – a strange artifact she found in the desert, which responds somehow to her treeing – and she brings her wisdom as a harmonizer in training as well.  All of these things allow her to be the sole survivor of an attack on her ship by the alien Meduse, in which the hundreds of Khoush students are killed. Binti is pressured into acting as a representative for the Meduse and brokers a truce between them and Oomza Uni – but she is irrevocably changed in the process, becoming somehow part Meduse herself, and developing a sort of bond with a Meduse named Okwu, who becomes the first Meduse student on Oomza Uni.

In Binti: Home, she tries to go home again, a year later, and Okwu accompanies her.  She is now wearing otjize made from clay on Oomza Uni, reflecting her confusion and ambiguous feelings about what “home” means to her. Her family, being so strongly rooted to their homeland, is still angry about her departure; Binti has to endure barbed comments from family and friends alike. The Khoush are still angry about the Meduse attack on their students, and see Okwu’s accompanying Binti back to Earth as a provocation. And Binti learns more about the non-Himba side of her family; her father came from the Enya Zinariya people, who even the Himba look down on. Instead of going on the traditional pilgrimage of Himba women, to attain her status as an adult of her people, she is instead taken to see the leader of the Enya Zinariya and undergoes a ritual to unlock the alien technology embedded in their blood. At the end of the second book Binti discovers that her family home, the Root, has been attacked by the Khoush, seeking revenge on Okwu.

Binti: The Night Masquerade picks up immediately from that cliffhanger and thrusts Binti back into the position of trying to broker peace between humans and the Meduse.  Her own identity has been shattered into pieces – part Himba, part Meduse, part Enya Zinariya – and the tension between the different parts of her, as well as the disorientation from her new access to the Zinariya technology, leaves her unbalanced and unsure of herself.  Her otjize continues to carry the symbolic weight of her connection to her concept of home, which in this story takes quite a beating as Binti tries her hardest to resolve those tensions and figure out who she actually is – not who she’s being told to be by her Himba family and friends, or who she’s been turned into by the Meduse metamorphosis, or who she’s been linked with through the Zinariya technology.  But despite all the strife she faces both within herself and at the intersection of the multiple different worlds that all try to claim a piece of her, her heart is still in the same place.  She is a harmonizer, and harmony is the meaning of her life; she seeks to bring it to those around her and strives for it within herself as well.

Dr. Okorafor writes Binti’s struggles so empathetically.  It’s an utter joy to spend time in Binti’s head, even when she’s miserable and unsure, because she just feels so real, despite the fact that the problems she faces are mostly alien to me, both literally and figuratively.  At her lowest points I was worried and desperately hoping she would find a path to happiness; at her highest points I exulted along with her in the wonders the universe had to offer, and at her strongest moments I marveled at her fortitude, her harmony, the gravitational pull she exerted on the world around her to try to make things better.  Binti: Home was a masterful conclusion to the trilogy, leaving me satisfied with the story but simultaneously hoping to see more of Binti’s story someday.

Best Novella Hugo

Only two novellas in, and this is already a really difficult choice.  I suppose it’s my own fault for starting with my two favorites.  As I have noted with previous ballots, I typically prefer to avoid voting to give a second Hugo to a series; in this case, Binti was awarded the Hugo for Best Novella in 2016, so I’ll put the newcomer on top for now.

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor

Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red by Martha WellsAll Systems Red is the first novella of a new series entitled The Murderbot Diaries.  For some of you that’s probably enough to recommend the book already; it was for me.  (Well, that and hearing about it via Seanan McGuire’s Twitter feed.  Any murderbot that passes Seanan’s standards is good enough for me.)  Suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.

The titular character is, well, a murderbot.  Specifically, a security unit with little ambition and less interest in murdering people, who has been contracted – rented out, really – as protection for a research group investigating a new planet.  Its main interests are serial dramas and gaining personal autonomy by hacking one’s own governor protocols; its greatest dislikes are social interactions and being forced to do things it doesn’t want to do.

The murderbot simply refers to itself as Murderbot, and it is not a person, at least as far as its society is concerned.  The line between human and robot has become rather blurred – we know augmented humans exist, and Murderbot’s body is at least part organic; nevertheless, Murderbot is an object, owned by a corporation and rented out like a rototiller.  But the first-person viewpoint of the story – engaging, emotional, and all too familiar to someone who suffers from social anxiety like I do – puts the lie to that idea almost immediately.

I found Murderbot to be a deeply sympathetic character, whether just trying to keep its head down and not shoot anyone, or fretting about how the humans it protected would see it, or recoiling from the humans’ well-meant attempts to get to know it.  Murderbot clearly has a severe case of social anxiety from being treated as less than human for so long, and goddamn do I understand that feeling.

Lest I give the impression that the whole story is just Murderbot trying to figure out how to interact with humans – there are actual problems outside of its own head to solve, too; its personal development is driven by, and drives in turn, other events in the plot.  But it’s Murderbot’s emotional arc, and the tension between its clear personhood and society’s refusal to consider it as anything other than an object, that grabbed my attention more than anything else – and that leaves me wanting so badly to read the next book in The Murderbot Diaries.

Best Novella Hugo

This looks like another strong year for several of the Hugo Award categories, so as I review each of the nominees for this year’s Hugos I’m going to build up my final ballot one by one, rather than trying to put everything in order at the end.  In this case, I read All Systems Red last year and nominated it for the Hugo, and I’m happy to see it on the ballot.  Will it be my top choice?  Honestly, I’m not sure; three of my nominees were finalists, and even among those I don’t know how I’ll order them yet.  But until I review them, my ballot so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells

Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Space Opera started as a joke. How else? Cat Valente was livetweeting the Eurovision Song Contest, Charles Tan made a joke about “you should write a Eurovision SF novel”, and Navah Wolfe immediately offered to buy the novel before a word had been written.  From these hilarious, humble beginnings came… well.

Take the combined aesthetics of David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Jem and the Holograms, and the Diva Plavalaguna and crush them into a glittery powder.  Now smash Douglas Adams and Hunter S. Thompson together in a transporter accident, and have the resulting author-golem snort an entire noseful of the aforementioned powder and then rewrite “Encounter at Farpoint” as a pop-song competition with humanity’s survival at stake.  That’s almost what Space Opera is like.

Almost, but not quite, because I still haven’t figured out how to describe the raw, beating heart and soul of the book.  The absurd descriptions of the aliens and their technology and culture, and the improbable appearances of certain Earthly avatars seven thousand lightyears away, are certainly due at least in part to Adams’ influence – but he never examined the failures and faults of humanity with such anguish.  The aliens’ gonzo music scene and the variety of neurochemical alterations needed to fully grok it, as well as the unflinching descriptions of humanity at its shittiest, are also somewhat reminiscent of Thompson’s work – but he never contemplated the human condition with such compassion.

In the end, comparisons to other authors and artists fall short.  The heart of this book is Catherynne Valente’s own, as is the variety of startling and revelatory imagery she employs, and they’re the same things that keep me coming back to every new book she writes.  Humanity, like all life across the galaxy, is beautiful and stupid.  We fuck things up all the time but we keep trying, and Valente loves us all for it, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting off easy.  Beneath all the glitter and glam, Space Opera reminds us that we’re capable of so much beauty, if we could just stop being assholes to each other for long enough.

2018 Reading List

Everything I read in 2018, with 2018-published works separated out and bolded if I’m considering nominating them for Hugos.  See 20172016, and 2015 lists.  (As usual, there are plenty of works that I enjoyed quite a bit but am unlikely to nominate; don’t take the lack of bolding as an indication that I didn’t like it!)

2018 Novels (at least 40,000 words):

2018 Novellas (17,500 to 40,000 words):

  • Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire
  • The Armored Saint, Myke Cole
  • Binti: The Night Masquerade, Nnedi Okorafor

2018 Novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words):

  • TBD

2018 Short Stories (less than 7,500 words):

Non-2018 works read in 2018:

2017 Hugo Ballot

My final ballot for the 2017 Hugo Awards, with links to my review posts:

Best Novel

  1. Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee
  2. A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers
  3. Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer
  4. All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders
  5. The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin
  6. Death’s End, Cixin Liu, tr. Ken Liu

Best Novella

  1. A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson
  2. The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle
  3. Penric and the Shaman, Lois McMaster Bujold
  4. Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire
  5. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson
  6. This Census-Taker, China Mieville

Best Novelette

  1. The Jewel and her Lapidary, Fran Wilde
  2. “The Tomato Thief”, Ursula Vernon
  3. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong
  4. “Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman
  5. “The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan
  6. No Award
  7. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, Stix Hiscock

Best Short Story

  1. “The City Born Great”, N.K. Jemisin
  2. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, Alyssa Wong
  3. “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar
  4. “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, Brooke Bolander
  5. “That Game We Played During The War”, Carrie Vaughn
  6. No Award
  7. “An Unimaginable Light”, John C. Wright

For everything below this point, I have been limited by what I was already able to read/watch prior to the voting, hence the incomplete ballots in most places.  Some particular notes:

  • I did read a few excerpts of each of the Best Related Work nominees, but not in most cases the entire thing.
  • For the artist awards I looked through the provided portfolios.
  • The editorial awards are primarily based off which of their various edited works I read and enjoyed; I deeply appreciate this year’s Hugo packet including lists of editorial credits.
  • Some categories I haven’t read from at all, and have just omitted as a result.

You might see No Award pop up here or there; while I’m just leaving most works I haven’t seen off the ballot because I do not have enough information to make a judgment, there are a few cases that have specifically squandered any benefit of the doubt I might have had.

Best Related Work

  1. The Geek Feminist Revolution, Kameron Hurley
  2. Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, Ursula K. Le Guin
  3. The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher
  4. The View From the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman
  5. The “Women of Harry Potter” posts, Sarah Gailey
  6. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, Robert Silverberg and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Best Graphic Story

  1. Saga, volume 6, Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Hidden Figures
  2. Ghostbusters
  3. Rogue One
  4. Deadpool

Best Professional Editor, Short Form

  1. Ellen Datlow
  2. Jonathan Strahan
  3. Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
  4. Neil Clarke
  5. John Joseph Adams
  6. Sheila Williams

Best Professional Editor, Long Form

  1. Sheila E. Gilbert
  2. Liz Gorinsky
  3. Devi Pillai
  4. Mirian Weinberg
  5. Navah Wolfe
  6. No Award
  7. Vox Day

Best Professional Artist

  1. Julie Dillon
  2. Chris McGrath
  3. Sana Takeda
  4. Galen Dara
  5. John Picacio
  6. Victo Ngai

Best Semiprozine

  1. Uncanny Magazine
  2. Strange Horizons

Best Fanzine

  1. Rocket Stack Rank

Best Fan Writer

  1. Mike Glyer
  2. Chuck Tingle

Best Fan Artist

  1. Vesa Lehtimäki
  2. Elizabeth Leggett
  3. likhain
  4. Ninni Aalto
  5. Spring Schoenhuth
  6. Steve Stiles

Best Series

  1. The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold
  2. The Craft Sequence, Max Gladstone
  3. The October Daye books, Seanan McGuire
  4. The Temeraire series, Naomi Novik

John W. Campbell Award (for best new writer)

  1. Ada Palmer
  2. Malka Older
  3. Sarah Gailey

2017 Hugo Nominees: Best Short Story

Last of the prose fiction categories!  The first five nominees here are an amazing set of stories showcasing the breadth and depth of what the genre is capable of, and again I had a hard time making some of these choices.

(Previous 2017 Hugo posts: Novelette nomineesNovella nomineesNinefox GambitA Closed and Common OrbitToo Like the LightningAll the Birds in the SkyThe Obelisk GateDeath’s End.)

1. “The City Born Great”, N.K. Jemisin

At first, the juxtaposition of monsters on a plane of reality we can’t quite see and police-driven racism in New York City would seem to place this story in very similar territory to The Ballad of Black Tom, but N.K. Jemisin takes a much more optimistic view.  In Black Tom, by the present day the entire world is already damned – has been, for close to a century – by our inhumanity towards those we refuse to acknowledge as people of equal significance.  Whereas in “The City Born Great”, taking place in the present, Jemisin says: see that kid over there?  The homeless guy you spit on, the gay teenager you kicked out of your home, the unarmed black man who could get murdered any day by the police while you look away?  He’s going to stand against the darkness.  He’s going to bring this place that reviled him into a new age of glory.  He’ll save us all, if you’ll only let him.

2. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, Alyssa Wong

When someone close to you commits suicide, woven through the shock and the grief is that question that may well haunt you for the rest of your life: What if you’d done something differently?  Could you have saved them?  What if you had the chance to try again?  Is there, maybe, a universe where they’re still here, and if so, can you make your way to it if you’re willing to never make peace with your loss?  Alyssa Wong turns those counterfactuals into a reality-bending trip through multiple different ways this short, sad story could have unfolded.

3. “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar

The burdens and expectations that patriarchy puts on the two female protagonists of this story are rendered as physical, magical impediments.  One must wear down seven pairs of iron shoes on a quest to save her husband from his own abusive nature, while the other is locked in a glass castle on a glass hill as men dash themselves against it to reach her.  But when the two of them meet, each of them recognizes the injustice of the other’s situation while still believing that, on some level, they deserve their own plight.  “Seasons of Glass and Iron” interrogates the stories we tell ourselves about the abuse we suffer, and raises the question of why we can so clearly see injustice against others and yet have so much trouble identifying our own abusive situations.

4. “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, Brooke Bolander

The story of a murder and its aftermath, seeking to redress the imbalance between the men whose stories take center stage and the women whose deaths are used simply as motivation fodder.  If you’re sick of seeing women fridged, this is a short but satisfying response, reclaiming at least this one story in the name of one seriously pissed-off harpy and her sisters who help her take revenge.  And for an ancient mythological creature, her voice is delightfully modern – not only in the liberal sprinkling of profanity, but also in the very matter-of-fact way in which she describes, as a series of fifteen or so bullet points, the relevant facts of the situation.

5. “That Game We Played During The War”, Carrie Vaughn

An enjoyable story about Calla and Valk, two soldiers on opposing sides of a recently concluded war, and each at one point a prisoner under the watch of the other.  Valk’s race is telepathic, but they still passed the time playing chess on occasion; the game, and the strategies Calla developed for confounding his telepathy, becomes a symbol and a common interest around which they reconnect.

The optimistic theme of two nominal enemies building a bond of understanding during the war, and then building further on it during the ensuing peace, reminded me a little of Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan.  As did the characters themselves; I thought of the dynamic between Cordelia’s canny emotionalism and Aral’s surface-level stoicism whenever Calla managed to surprise Valk despite being a completely open book to him.  She is so open, and he is much more closed off, and in spite of that mismatch, or because of it, they build a rapport that could hold the key to a future of peace.

6. No Award

Here we go again.

7. “An Unimaginable Light”, John C. Wright

For all the complaining the “Rabid Puppies” do over “boring message fiction”, they sure do write some excruciatingly dull stories.  I bailed on this story about a third of the way through.  Nearly the entirety of that time was spent by the two main characters, a robot and a robopsychologist, lecturing each other about the history of robotics and their analyses of each other.  Most of the remainder was spent in descriptions of the robot’s appearance, like this paragraph of introduction:

The kneeling girl did not look like a robot. She looked like a love goddess. Her face was piquant and elfin, her eyes danced and glittered. Her lips were full, her smile ready. She was pulchritudinous, buxom, callipygous, leggy. Her torso was slender, and her abdominal muscles as well defined as those of a belly dancer, so that her navel was like a period between two cursive brackets. Her hair was lustrous, and tied in a loose knot at the back of her swanlike neck. Hair, eye, and skin color were optional. She was, of course, naked.

Six pages later, she still hasn’t been given a name, but the author has made multiple sneering references to the social justice concepts he has spent the last several years railing against.  John C. Wright is going to make sure you know how little he thinks of ideas like pronoun choice and microaggressions, by God, no matter how shitty a story he has to write to do so.

2017 Hugo Nominees: Best Novelette

Let’s see if I can edit myself down a little bit, shall we?  (Previous 2017 Hugo posts: Novella nominees, Ninefox GambitA Closed and Common OrbitToo Like the LightningAll the Birds in the SkyThe Obelisk GateDeath’s End.)

1. The Jewel and her Lapidary, Fran Wilde

Hidden in a valley is a small kingdom, protected by the magical gems wielded by its royal family, the Jewels, and the Lapidaries who serve them and help control their magic.  This is the story of the Jewel princess Lin and her lapidary Sima, the last defense against the foreign invaders who have destroyed the Jeweled Court with the help of a betrayer within.  The invaders know they must control the last Jewel in order to solidify their conquest of the kingdom, but Lin and Sima have other ideas.  Their respective fathers, the king and his own lapidary, are both dead, one at the hands of the other, but under the incredible pressure of the deaths of everyone they love but each other, they persist in defending their home to the last.

The girls’ friendship is the heart and soul of this book, as each is devoted to the other through bonds of duty and love.  But while that devotion gives them strength, they are each clever and resourceful as well.  I don’t know if there is to be more of this series, but I hope so; despite a climax with great emotional effect, The Jewel and her Lapidary feels like it ought to be a prologue to a much longer story, and I’d love to read more of it.

2. “The Tomato Thief”, Ursula Vernon

Ursula Vernon is at her best when she is writing unlikely, stubborn protagonists, and Grandma Harken is no exception.  The ornery, practical witch from “Jackalope Wives” simply wants to tend her garden and live in peace, with an occasional fresh tomato sandwich.  When her tomatoes start disappearing overnight as they ripen, she sets out to catch the thief – who turns out to be a bird-woman shapeshifter under some kind of enslavement, who Grandma Harken releases and then tracks as she tries to get to the root of the situation.

“The Tomato Thief” isn’t a terribly long story, but the American Southwestern setting is dense with richly detailed magic and fantastic beings; the bird-shapeshifter seems practically mundane next to the train-god and the folds in reality and the Coyote with his sometimes-canine, sometimes-feline, always-tricky demeanor.  Grandma Harken’s own personality reminds me a lot of Granny Weatherwax from Discworld, with her combination of stubbornness and a prickly sort of kindness.  But where Granny Weatherwax’s canniness verged on genre savviness, in keeping with the metafictional nature of her world, Grandma Harken’s keen sense of how the world works – and particularly, how to respect the desert so it doesn’t kill you – simply feels like a lifetime of hard-won experience distilled into wisdom.  Between that and a gently snarky viewpoint, she’s a great character to spend an hour with; at this point, I’d happily read a story about Grandma Harken waiting in line at the DMV as long as Ursula Vernon was the one writing it.

3. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong

Speaking of magical fiction set in the Southwest… Alyssa Wong tells a story of Ellis, boy who inherited necromantic magic from his late father and desert magic from his absent mother, which has left him sort of betwixt-and-between.  He lives and works at a brothel in the Southwest, though his otherworldly nature and general aura of death tends to prevent customers from lingering too long.  His best friend, Marisol, a girl at the brothel, is more understanding of his nature than most.

The desert is dangerous.  It collapsed a mine outside of town, killing dozens of townsfolk, and drought now threatens the town while dead things roam the desert.  Ellis’s internal conflict between the two halves of his magical heritage is reflected in that broken relationship between desert and town, and when the mining company tries to use his magic to return to the mine, things deteriorate further.

Ellis’s emotional arc is about learning to accept himself, conflict and all.  He is scared to let Marisol know too much about him, but after the things he faces in the desert, he is able to find greater understanding from her as well, and is able to help the town heal.

4. “Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman

Alien vessels have suddenly appeared all over North America.  Human “translators” have emerged from them, claiming to be children previously abducted (or “adopted”) by the aliens.  Avery is a woman working for a legally-gray “shipping company” and has been hired to drive an alien translator and an alien itself from its vessel near Washington, DC to St. Louis.  Avery spends most of the meandering road trip talking with the translator, Lionel, and trying to understand the aliens better.  Lionel is not exactly acclimated to human society either.

Avery and Lionel gradually establish a rapport, as she begins to understand the relationship between the aliens, Lionel, and human society, and as she tries to teach Lionel how to behave like a normal human.  Gilman does an excellent job of portraying a truly “alien” alien – a species that is extremely difficult for humans to understand because their very notions of thought and action differ in some fundamental ways from what we are used to – and the frequency with which Avery and Lionel talk past each other because they’re making different assumptions felt like a much more realistic portrayal of the problems of first contact than most such stories I’ve read.

That said, the ending seemed to come out of nowhere.  Specifically, the way Avery suddenly not only accepted the situation they found themselves in but actively shifted to helping it along seemed disconnected from her behavior for the rest of the story.  Her breakdown in the graveyard was likely supposed to motivate how she handled the ending, but I feel like there were still a few missing steps on that emotional arc.

5. “The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan

A story about a woman working at a hotel which will soon host the astronauts about to embark on a mission to Mars, decades after a previous launch ended in disaster.  Emily’s mother was part of the disaster-recovery crew dealing with the fallout from the failed launch, and her health and memory have been gradually failing ever since.  Emily’s paternity has been a mystery her whole life, with her mother only recently being willing to speak about it as she realizes in her more lucid moments that before long she may not be able to say anything meaningful at all.

This story kind of meandered through Emily’s speculations about who her father was, having gotten some vague hints about it being someone her mother had met during launch preparations.  I frankly didn’t find that aspect of the story terribly interesting, not having known the character long enough for me to be invested in the paternity question, and the eventual revelation of her father’s identity was unsurprising to the point of being trite.  But there wasn’t a lot else to the story; the Mars mission itself was basically just a background detail that only impacted the story to the extent that it made the paternity question a little more immediate and motivated some discussion of Emily’s mother’s illness.

6. No Award

If you need a refresher on the Hugo rules, voters are allowed to include “No Award” (occasionally personified as eleven-time Hugo winner “Noah Ward”) in the rankings on their ballots.  If a work is ranked below No Award by a voter, it means that voter would rather no Hugo be given out at all than one be awarded to that work.  No Award is not only treated as a normal candidate in the instant-runoff process, but if it does not win the category outright, it is also compared in a direct head-to-head tally against the eventual runoff winner; if a majority of voters preferred No Award to the runoff winner, then no Hugo is awarded for that category.

Which brings us to…

7. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, Stix Hiscock

This year’s “Rabid Puppies” entry, a puerile and unimaginative attempt to out-Chuck-Tingle Chuck Tingle.  But “Hiscock” – I don’t know whether it’s a pseudonym for Vox Day or one of his sad little hangers-on, and honestly I don’t care – apparently can’t tell the difference between winking absurdity and simply bad writing.  This, if it isn’t clear by now, is the latter.  It starts off like a Penthouse letter, with our titular alien stripper expressing confusion at how the current situation came to pass.  Then, after either an unmarked viewpoint shift or an out-of-body experience on the part of our extraterrestrial narrator, we get multiple pages of sentence fragments describing, in lurid yet somehow boring detail, the stripper’s appearance and dancing technique.

Whereupon I returned to my Kindle’s home screen and deleted the book from my device.  I’m afraid no review of whatever Hiscock tried to pass off as a sex scene will be forthcoming here.  Reader, I tried.

2017 Hugo Nominees: Best Novella

While I have written at length about the novels this year, I find myself running a little low on time before the voting deadline, so I’m going to have to abbreviate myself a bit.  So here’s my rundown of the Best Novella nominees, in order of my preference.  This was in some ways a harder decision to make than the novel voting; I changed the order of these multiple times as I wrote this post.

1. A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson

A Taste of Honey is a followup to Wilson’s debut novella The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps; while it isn’t a direct sequel, it takes place in the same world, a pre-industrial analogue of Africa in which the gods live among, or at least adjacent to, humanity.  Olorum is a prosperous city-state ruled by a royal family that carries some of the blood of gods; the protagonist Aqib is a distant cousin of the family, son of the Master of Beasts and possessed of a talent of talking to animals.  The story with Aqib embarking on a whirlwind romance with Lucrio, a soldier accompanying a visiting delegation from Daluça (which is something of an analogue to Rome).  Olorum, and Aqib’s family, are not nearly as accepting of same-sex relationships as Daluçan society is, and the twin pressures of that disapproval and Lucrio’s impending departure lend additional intensity to their trysts.

Interleaved with the ten days of their relationship are vignettes from Aqib’s decades-long marriage to a princess of the royal family, begun shortly after Lucrio’s departure.  The Blessèd Remysade is a mathematical genius who often prioritizes her work over her family, and her daughter by Aqib manifests the divinity of their blood more strongly than either of her parents.  While Aqib remains faithful to Remysade, and is an excellent father to Lucretia, he never quite stops feeling like he could have had something else with his life instead; Lucrio had, after all, asked Aqib to come away with him.

Weaved into an elemental story of love, loss, and regret were several different aspects that I adored in different ways.  The magic of the gods, integrated with Remysade’s advanced mathematics, is something of a Clarke-style sufficiently-advanced-technology.  Where a conversation in a “pure fantasy” story might have used magic incantantions and words of power, Wilson instead writes densely scientific dialogue; while the reader can at least understand enough of it to perceive it as science, Aqib as viewpoint character is utterly lost and must simply think of it as magic beyond his ken.  Aqib’s life as a father is also something that resonated with my heart, and the scenes with an infant or a young child instinctively using magic while their parents reacted helplessly gave me sympathetic shudders as I imagined my own children suddenly defying the laws of conventional physics for their own amusement.

And then there’s the end.  I nearly cried.  As much as I enjoyed the rest of the story, the ending made it a perfect gem of a story that reminded me of another of my favorite science fiction stories.  I won’t say which one, as even identifying it would be a significant spoiler, but it gave me the same feeling of simultaneously stimulating my brain and engaging my heart, and being glad for the experience as it ended.

2. The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle

One of two Lovecraft pastiches on this year’s ballot, The Ballad of Black Tom tells the story of Tommy Tester, a black man living in Harlem in 1924.  He’s a small-time con man who mostly gets by doing odd jobs that skirt the law, but when he is hired to deliver a book full of arcane symbols to an address in Brooklyn, he knows nothing good can come of knowing the full contents of the book, and he tears a page out and hides it.  After that brush with the occult world he is never quite able to escape it.  As Tommy grows aware of the cosmic horror just beneath the surface of our reality, it is juxtaposed with the everyday horror of being black in America, as the story describes unflinchingly the many insults and injuries Tommy suffers, mostly at the hands of the police, for no reason beyond the color of his skin.

Which is more horrifying to contemplate?  An old god sleeping fitfully until he wakes and wipes humanity off the surface of the earth, or a police force empowered to murder you for no reason beyond momentary hatred?  The idea of the universe being not only uncaring but actively hostile towards the existence of humans, or the reality of American society being actively hostile towards people of color?  Compared to the fact that Tommy could be killed at any moment at the whim of an authority both powerful and impulsive, the idea of Cthulhu rising to devour us all at least has the benefit of being free of the prejudices pervading our society.

Victor LaValle uses Lovecraftian story elements to create a complex and multilayered criticism of Lovecraft’s racism, his stories, and American society.  He shows that black Americans face everyday the kinds of existential horror that Lovecraft’s white protagonists only saw once they went looking for it – and that they regretted seeing once they found it.  With that comparison LaValle not only demonstrates the ignorance and pointlessness of Lovecraft’s racism, but also goes on to challenge his readers – particularly his white readers – to face the horrors that Lovecraft and his characters feared.  And by portraying in 1924 police brutality that isn’t qualitatively different from what was still happening in 2016, LaValle reminds us that we haven’t made nearly as much progress in addressing racial injustice as some of us would like to think.

3. Penric and the Shaman, Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric is a young sorcerer, whose powers come by way of a demon, Desdemona, who inhabits his body and mind (as she has those of twelve others before him).  He’s also a priest of the Bastard, one of the Five Gods of the story’s world.  In Penric and the Shaman, he is sent to track down a missing spirit, and along with Oswyl, a priest-investigator, he must chase down Inglis, a shaman who is dealing with a theological crisis of his own.

Penric and the Shaman is a warm, empathetic story.  We get viewpoints from both Penric and Inglis, and occasionally from Oswyl as well. While the characters’ aims are originally opposed, Penric’s compassion and spiritual duty means that he approaches the situation looking to help instead of to prevail, and the climax of the story is a reconciliation rather than a victory for one character and a defeat for another.  Both that overall arc and the theme of interdependence between humans and nature put me in mind of some of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies as I read.  The dialogue and narration, on the other hand, is pure Bujold; she writes with the same gentle yet piercing wit that I loved in her Vorkosigan books.

This was a joy to read, and while it was the first one of her fantasy stories that I’d read, it certainly won’t be the last.

4. Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire

What happens to the children from portal fantasies once they return to the “real world”?  How do they handle their lives when they realize they may never be able to go back?  In Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire contemplates the fact that such children will not be able to adjust easily to their old lives.  Some of them eventually end up at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where they can live among others that understand what it is to have seen a world where you belonged, and then lost it again.  Nancy Whitman is sent to the institution after returning from the underworld, and the thing she wants more than anything is to return to the side of the Lord of the Dead.

The plot of the story – a murder mystery, well suited to the talents Nancy brought back with her from the underworld – is primarily an engine to drive the emotional arc of Nancy coping with the world she’s lost, and learning about the other children and the worlds they’ve lost too.  McGuire effectively uses the portal experience as an allegory for the many and varied ways in which children feel like they do not fit into their own lives.  The trips they’ve taken to other worlds have changed them, or shown them the inadequacies of the real world, or simply given them something wonderful and then taken it away again.  All of them want to return to their worlds; most of them feel like they could if they only figure out the trick to getting back, or the thing that they should be doing that they aren’t, or some lesson they need to learn…

Portal fantasies so often use the other world as a metaphor for adolescence, an experience that must be endured in order to grow into the person you’re supposed to be.  But growing up isn’t that simple, and McGuire’s home full of adolescents damaged by that process puts the lie to the notion of childhood as something one can simply and painlessly grow out of.

5. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson

This is the other Lovecraft pastiche this year, and I enjoyed it despite not having read “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, the work it was originally based on.  Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college in the world of dreams, and one of her students – the daughter of one of the college’s deans, and a granddaughter of one of the dream world’s terrible gods – has run away with a dreamer, a man from the waking world.  Vellitt was a far-traveler in her younger days; now a middle-aged woman, she nevertheless argues to the faculty that she is best suited to go retrieve the missing student.

Where The Ballad of Black Tom uses Lovecraftian elements in a more-or-less direct way to refute Lovecraft’s own attitudes, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe takes a different approach and inverts basically every aspect of Lovecraft’s storytelling to create a mirror image of his work.  Vellitt Boe is quite at home in the dream world; until her student goes missing, her greatest concern is academic politics, rather than the dreaming gods that inhabit the world.  As her quest proceeds, those gods become aware of her, rather than the usual Lovecraftian arc of a character slowly becoming aware of them.  She handles most of the challenges she faces through negotiation and diplomacy – and, at least once, through the timely repayment of an earlier kindness – rather than the Malthusian conflict typical of Lovecraft’s work.  And in the end, it is the unusual environment of our own world she has to contend with, rather than an earthly sleeper contending with the strange world of dreams.

It is a gentler response to Lovecraft than Black Tom, but still a refutation nevertheless; where Lovecraft’s work spoke of the nihilistic hopelessness of the world, Johnson promises us that there are good people (and creatures) to be found wherever we go, and that there is more to heroism than the swashbuckling of young men.  And it’s quite a good adventure story, besides.

6. This Census-Taker, China Mieville

Frankly, I bounced off of this one.  20% of the way through, while we’d gotten little bits and hints of the existence of a plot – and a confusing, brief shift to a very different setting, later in the narrator’s life – it seemed like very little had happened, and I found that I simply didn’t care anymore.  A novella is a very short form compared to the dense novels that Mieville is most famous for, and while that slow-burn approach to introducing the world might work for the first thirty pages of an 800-page book, in a novella it just felt meandering.

Best Novel Nominees: Ninefox Gambit

I have to admit, it has been a while since I’ve read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit – longer, I think, than any of the other Hugo-nominated novels.  But I still remember the feeling I had reading it – an awed fascination with the weird, exotic technology and the fictional science underlying it, and rapt interest at the dangerous intrigue driving the plot.  Ninefox Gambit is one of the most imaginative works of science fiction I’ve read in years.

When I attended the University of Michigan as a computer science student, I still had to satisfy the university’s base requirements in some non-compsci topics, including literature.  Luckily, the university offered a course on science fiction, taught by Prof. Eric Rabkin.  He also ran a research group, the Genre Evolution Project, which sought to quantify the ways in which science fiction had developed over the past eighty years.  I owe to that course and that project a certain portion of the vocabulary I use to talk about science fiction, as well as the development of my “critical eye” in reading stories.  One of the most important concepts I learned – or, rather, learned to discuss – was the idea of the novum: a thing that a science fiction story introduced to distinguish it from the real world we knew.  Science fiction, and more broadly speculative fiction, is defined by that concept; the essence of the genre is that there is something important about the world of the story that isn’t true about the world of the reader.

The reason I bring this up is that the novum of Ninefox Gambit is one of the most compelling parts of the story.  In the world of the Hexarchate – ruled by six factions, which as a set have that same Sorting-Hat-like aspect as the Hives of Terra Ignota or the Houses of Dragaera – there are two distinct varieties of technology.  Conventional tech works everywhere in that predictable way our own civilization relies upon.  But exotic technology is dependent on the beliefs and behaviors of the people in the vicinity of the tech, and most strongly on the calendar that they use.  The Hexarchate relies on a calendar whose fundamental number is six, resulting in a six-day week among other things, and that fact plus the particular configuration of its feasts and holidays can be leveraged to enable seemingly supernatural effects from specially-built weapons.  But because of that reliance on the calendar, their technology – and their rule – is vulnerable to “calendrical rot”, as people start observing different holidays and maybe even different lengths of the week; take a weapon built for the Hexarchate calendar into a place where a different calendar rules, and that weapon isn’t going to work in the way you expect anymore, if at all.  So maintaining control over the calendar is vital to maintaining technological superiority, and by extension military and political power.  And as with many other belief systems underlying power structures, defiance of the dominant calendar is defined as “heresy” and considered to be one of the most serious and dangerous crimes possible.  In addition to being a deep and complex metaphor for the interrelationship of cultural and political hegemony, that novum of belief-driven technology also provides some classic “sensawunda” sci-fi writing.

(For the sake of completeness, and to illustrate the dizzying complexity of the fictional science of Ninefox Gambit, I want to highlight that the calendar isn’t the only thing involved in powering exotic tech.  The main character, Cheris, belongs to the Kel faction, whose military strength is underpinned by the “formation instinct” of its soldiers – psychological conditioning that makes it nearly impossible to disobey orders from one’s commanding officers.  Those officers can direct their troops into formations to create exotic effects as well, but the formation required to accomplish a given effect depends mathematically on the prevailing calendar, which means that an officer fighting calendrical heresy has to be constantly doing math on the fly in order to figure out how to most effectively deploy their troops.)

That unique and new science-fictional concept – that novum – was already enough to make me sit up and pay attention.  Dropped into that world, the reader spends some time bewildered and lost before beginning to grasp the rules that guide the story, and that experience of figuring out just what the hell is going on here, anyway? is an absolute joy to a certain type of reader.  (If you enjoyed Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief or M. John Harrison’s Light, you’re probably going to enjoy Ninefox Gambit too.)  But layered on top of that is a complex web of political intrigue among the six factions, in which Kel Cheris is forced to entangle herself in order to salvage her career, and which has been destablized by a rebellion’s calendrical heresy.  And that’s not the only thing she becomes entangled with; she has to work with the ghost/spirit/mind of Shuos Jedao, a legendarily clever but treasonously unstable general.  Even having Jedao anywhere on the same battlefield as you is already a risky proposition; trying to work directly with him is like wielding a three-edged sword made of snakes.

The politics and intrigue of the Hexarchate and the narrative of the story itself is also shot through with the idea that games, and the careful and intentional design of games, can change the world.  As an aspiring game designer and a serious player of games of all kinds, the role that game-playing and game design holds in this world – a tool for not only entertainment but also pedagogy and propaganda – utterly delighted me.  Even when the story isn’t specifically focused on games, the feeling of everyone in the world being pieces on a multi-dimensional chessboard never goes away; Cheris is aware from the beginning that accepting the assignment entails stepping onto that game board.  But both Cheris and Jedao create their own games too, and each wields them with devastating effectiveness.

Between her canniness, her mathematical genius, her love of games, and a dash of idealism that the world can be better than what the Hexarchate has made of it, Cheris is a character I felt instant and abiding sympathy for.  Jedao was more of a cipher, naturally, but as I learned more of his story I came to care about him quite a bit as well.  And the way the author took cerebral, abstract concepts like game design and complex math and turned them into forces of great import within the story made me feel at times like the story was targeted incredibly specifically at me as a reader.

As far as I’m concerned, Ninefox Gambit marks Yoon Ha Lee as one of the breakout stars of science fiction.  It’s been years since I’ve read something that grabbed me by the brain like this did.  I imagine this was what readers in the 60s felt like when they encountered Dune for the first time, or picked up Ringworld in the 70s, or Neuromancer, or The Diamond Age…  I suspect we’ll be seeing the influence of this novel, and its sequels, reverberating throughout the genre for years to come.  In a fantastic year for the genre, and among some very strong competition, I think Ninefox Gambit is the best novel of 2016.

Best Novel Nominees: A Closed and Common Orbit

I love emotionally optimistic science fiction and fantasy.  Stories where the protagonists are not only “good” on a moral scale but also empathetic and kind – and who can demonstrate that kindness can be a strength.  Basically, the opposite of the recent “grimdark” trend (though I have been known to enjoy stories fitting that label as well).  My prototype for this was Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, whose protagonist Maia was a breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed.

Which is all to say that the first book in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, was a joy to read in a similar way.  The ensemble of protagonists, making up the crew of the Wayfarer, has drawn comparisons to Firefly and Star Trek – the crew’s familial relationship, including not only love and cohabitation but also the occasional squabble, is the beating heart of the book.  The diversity of the crew (and the universe!) in species, gender identity, relationship structure, and biology brings a distinctly utopian feeling as well; most Humans1Side note on capitalization: Like Mass Effect, occasionally mentioned as another precursor to the series, the Wayfarer books acknowledge the inconsistency of capitalizing the names of alien species but not our own, as so many other SF stories do.  But it remedies it in the opposite way: while Mass Effect lowercased “turian” and “krogan”, Wayfarers chooses to uppercase “Human” (and so I have done likewise in this post).  It’s a detail I noticed and appreciated in both works. are some shade of brown with dark hair because the diasporic Human society gave up on racial divisions long ago.  The members of the crew generally try to understand and accommodate each others’ biological, cultural, and personal differences, though they don’t always succeed, and under pressure the domestic peace aboard the Wayfarer is often strained.

So, on to A Closed and Common Orbit, which I read immediately following.  The sequel, to my brief and unjustified regret, does not continue with the adventures of the Wayfarer.  Rather, it tightens its focus onto two characters from the first book – Sidra, an AI recently transferred into an illegal “body kit” allowing her to emulate a Human rather than being confined to a server, and Pepper, a mechanic and technician who was a minor character in the first book.  The narrative alternates between their two stories.  Sidra’s story takes place following the events of the previous book, and portrays her attempts to adjust to her body, pass for Human (with a little help from her body kit), and integrate into both galactic culture and Pepper’s home.  Pepper’s own story starts a couple decades earlier, with her childhood as an enslaved clone sorting scrap, interrupted by her discovery that there exists a world beyond the sorting facility’s walls.  Despite my brief disappointment to be leaving the Wayfarer behind, I was soon deeply engaged by the characters’ struggle for acceptance and growth.

As the meaning of family and the crew’s creation of a family-by-choice was the core theme of  The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the heart of A Closed and Common Orbit is the idea of personhood.  What makes someone a person, rather than a tool, or an animal?  What freedoms are inherent to a person, and what happens to the right of personhood – if it is, indeed, a right – when those freedoms are curtailed?  What are the responsibilities of a person to their society, and what does society owe an individual person in return?  Both of the main characters’ struggles in this book are about attaining the right of self-determination and the responsibilities, to oneself and to others, that come with it; those struggles themselves become part of the characters’ identities, and help them each realize and fulfill those responsibilities in the end.

Additionally, both characters have to deal with challenges within their own minds.  Sidra is used to the full scope of her sensory input being constrained to the inside of a ship and its crew, but in the body kit her external senses are narrowed to the typical Human sensorium.  Simultaneously the scope of her stimuli increases dramatically, with exposure to wide-open spaces and crowds far beyond the size of the crew she is dealing with, and on top of all that, the simple reality of having a body requires significant adjustment.  The result is a condition that in a Human would likely be considered a blend of agoraphobia, social anxiety, autism, and body dysmorphia; Sidra’s development of coping methods (and the turmoil that ensues when they don’t quite work well enough) will be familiar to many people who struggle with mental illness, particularly those who have undergone cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Pepper, on the other hand, is a survivor of years of abuse – primarily emotional, occasionally physical.  She escapes her abusers relatively early in the story, but escaping the long-term effects and psychological conditioning of the abuse is a much longer process.  I can’t speak to the accuracy of the author’s depiction of Pepper’s abuse and PTSD as well as I could to Sidra’s anxiety and coping, but from what I understand of the subject, Pepper’s ongoing recovery – spanning multiple decades, and still in progress when the book ends – is just as faithful and empathetic a treatment of the topic.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet might be my favorite book of the last couple years, and so it was difficult for A Closed and Common Orbit to measure up to.  But the emotional heart of the first book is still there – the love and care between the characters; the emotional verisimilitude of people living together, rubbing up against each others’ sore spots, arguing, and then working their issues out; and underneath it all the breadth and depth of a much vaster universe that I can’t wait to see more of.  All that together makes A Closed and Common Orbit one of my favorite books of 2016.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Side note on capitalization: Like Mass Effect, occasionally mentioned as another precursor to the series, the Wayfarer books acknowledge the inconsistency of capitalizing the names of alien species but not our own, as so many other SF stories do.  But it remedies it in the opposite way: while Mass Effect lowercased “turian” and “krogan”, Wayfarers chooses to uppercase “Human” (and so I have done likewise in this post).  It’s a detail I noticed and appreciated in both works.