Best Novel (links to my earlier livejournal reviews)
5) Rollback, by Robert J Sawyer. While this is the best book I have read by this author, this should be understood as damning with faint praise. The prose somehow seems a bit less clunky: the tedious undergraduate-level discussions of philosophy and science are wisely constrained to the first half of the book; the two story lines - the central character's unexpected rejuvenation, and the decoding of an alien message - come close to reinforcing each other.
Yet in the end, it doesn't work. The biggest flaw is that while our central character is undergoing the dramatic changes of rejuvenation, and the consequent disruption of his life with his wife and family, we get very little sense of being inside his head. The second huge plot problem is that the alien messages come only once every 18.8 years (well, actually every 37.6 years): surely once contact has been established, one would set up continuous transmission in both directions, even knowing that there would be an 18.8 year lag?
4) The Last Colony, by John Scalzi. I have much more sympathy with the political message of this book than of the same author's Old Man's War: humanity is dragged into an unwinnable war with the rest of the galaxy by the lies of its own political leadership, and our hero ends up as the one man who can resolve matters. So no complaints on that score.
There are touches I liked - Charles Stross makes an appearance as a genetically engineered super-soldier, and I appreciated the subtle "Commodore Perry" riff at the end of the book. But the plot is both complex and reliant on fortunate accidents of timing. And I find Scalzi's narrative style rather wearyingly unvarying; almost all the characters speak with identical voices.
3) The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. A great book, set in an alternate present where a large chunk of Alaska was colonised by Jewish refugees after the Second World War, and the Israelis lost in 1948 - there are other differences too, but those are the major ones. Now, sixty years on from those events, the Alaskan territory is within weeks of reverting to US control and its inhabitants face displacement again. Chabon's viewpoint character is a memorably seedy and depressed detective, trying to solve a murder which appears to be linked to chess and a Messianic Jewish sect, and at the same time dealing with his own professional and family dilemmas. The tenuous society of Sitka is well depicted at all its levels. In places it's terrifically sad. I was a bit dubious about the portrayal of conspiratorial politics at the highest political level, but perhaps that was part of the point.
However, it's not going at the top of my Hugo list; I don't think it is sfnal enough. Apart from the ahistorical setting, there is no sfnal content (well, a couple of miracles are hinted at, but I'm not sure that counts). The genre of this novel is detective, not sf; the setting is not much more counterfactual than Agatha Christie's country houses, or Lindsey Davis' richly imagined and researched Rome, or Ellis Peters' medieval Shrewsbury (which also gets the very occasional miracle, but that doesn't make it fantasy). While in a lot of ways it may be the best novel of the three I've read so far, it lacks the sensawunda that I got in spades from my top two preferences. Still, it won the Nebula and the Locus Awards. (Thanks, shsilver.)
2) Halting State, by Charles Stross. A glorious melding of genres, police procedural and cyberpunk, set in the Edinburgh of an independent Scotland in a few years' time. The narrative voice is striking - three different viewpoint characters, but all told in the second person, as (quite deliberately) in a computer game. There are nods to all kinds of sf taproot texts, and an unnerving background theme of questioning reality. And Charlie's prose seems somehow more under control than I can remember from any of his other books. Excellent stuff, and only just squeezed out of the top spot in my ballot paper.
1) Brasyl, by Ian McDonald. The setting of Brazil fits McDonald's lush, dense writing style so well that it is remarkable that he's never set a novel in real South America before (his two books set on Mars portray a rather Patagonian version of the planet, but it's not quite the same). We have three interleaving narratives, from the mid-18th century, the present day, and the near future (2030); we have peculiar variations of reality; and we have the jungle, both urban and literal, with its various hostile inhabitants. In some ways it's deliberately less ambitious than River of Gods, which juggled ten different viewpoint characters against the background of India forty years hence, but the intermeshing of the different characters from their different time periods in the end comes across rather pleasingly. Has already won the BSFA award.
What others say: Karen Burnham agrees with me except that she puts Halting State last. Joe Sherry is with me on the top choice. Alan Heuer reverses my top two and bottom two. This person reverses my third and fourth choices. Susan De Guardiola hasn't finished them yet but her ballot is very different from mine.
Best Novella (links to stories on-line)
5) All Seated on the Ground, by Connie Willis. I am not a total hater of Willis' work - I very much enjoyed both Doomsday Book and her short story "Even the Queen" - but I find her appeals to sentimentality a bit wearying, and this story combines that with another wearyingly familiar Willis theme, failure to communicate - both between a newly arrived group of aliens and between the earthwoman trying to communicate with them and her boss. No doubt a lot of people will vote for it because they think it is funny, but I didn't laugh.
4) The Fountain of Age, by Nancy Kress. Oddly enough this is the nominee that comes closest to my professional interests, in that it is partly set on Cyprus (and then the rest of the story has the protagonist dealing with the consequences of what happened there). But it didn't really do it for me; reflections on aging, lost loves, and new biotechnology which just didn't gel satisfactorily for this reader.
3) Memorare by Gene Wolfe. A rather peculiar story of astronautical documentary makers in the moons of Jupiter, lost loves, grave-robbing and unpleasant brain-washing by alien intelligences. The science, such as it was, didn't make a lot of sense to me, and I didn't really get what the story was supposed to be about.
2) Stars Seen Through Stone, by Lucius Shepard. Certainly the least traditionally sfnal of these nominees (possibly of all the nominees). Spooky happenings in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1970s, well told and with a set of interesting characters and relationships navigating through the odd happenings. Very enjoyable.
1) Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Perhaps I am a crazy sentimentalist, but I loved this more than any of the other nominees in any category. The story is an alternate timeline where Apollo 8 was lost at Christmas 1968; and over the next several decades, the capsule and then the bodies of the three astronauts are recovered, one by one. I'm fascinated by this sort of thing, having dabbled in archaeology myself at one time; and Rusch takes an audacious concept and rus well with it. It won the Asimov's readers' poll in its category.
What others say: John DeNardo almost agrees with me but reverses the top two; likewise Karen Burnham. Alan Heuer and Abigail Nussbaum also almost agree with me, with the important exception of bumping Rusch down from first to third and fourth place respectively.
Best Novelette (links to stories on-line)
5) Dark Integers, by Greg Egan. Familiar territory for Egan of mathematics changing reality; but I was rather unconvinced by the idea of the three or four human mathematicians who are responsible for relations with the dangerous other universe. Just didn't work for me. Won the Asimov's readers' poll though.
4) Glory, by Greg Egan. Egan has two stories on the ballot, but I didn't really like either of them. This one is about a mission of enlightened investigators from a more developed situation doing guerilla archaeology on a more primitive world, and paying the price. Again, I wasn't totally convinced by it.
3) Finisterra, by David Moles. Utterly superb worldbuilding, of a planet with living dirigible beasts, now being exploited by the humans who are colonising the world; the plot is fairly standard but the scenery amazing.
2) The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, by Ted Chiang. A lovely lovely story of time travel at the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, working up all those human themes of loss and love in a richly imagined fantastic environment that Chiang has done so well before. I expect this will win.
1) The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairytale of Economics, by Daniel Abraham. I thought this was superbly original. Like the Chiang story, it adopts a fantasy fairy-tale style of presentation; but I can't remember any other story I have read about economics that was this much fun and avoided being preachy. Gets my vote.
What others say: Abigail Nussbaum and Joe Sherry put The Cambist... second, and John DeNardo bumps it down to third place but otherwise they agree with me; Karen Burnham and Alan Heuer agree with me apart from putting Finisterra fourth and fifth respectively.
Best Short Story (links to stories on-line)
5) Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?, by Ken MacLeod. Sadly didn't really do anything for me; a rather dense space opera story whose point sailed over my head.
4) Distant Replay, by Mike Resnick. Another one of those sentimental stories, about one's dead spouse coming back to life, that will do better than it deserves.
3) A Small Room in Koboldtown, by Michael Swanwick. Rather a fun detective story in an indutrialising fantasy setting. Won the Locus award.
2) Last Contact, by Stephen Baxter. A moving and ingenious story about the end of the world, let down just a little by Baxter's prose, which has never quite worked for me (but came very close to doing so here).
1) Tideline, by Elizabeth Bear. I really hate stories about anthropomorphic robots which develop deep and meaningful relationships with human beings which we are supposed to find moving. Elizabeth Bear has scored big time by writing such a story about a decidedly non-anthropomorphic robot developing a friendship with a boy as it gradually breaks down on a beach. Really good stuff, which won the Asimov's readers' poll.
What others say: Abigail Nussbaum completely disagrees with me, putting Ken MacLeod first and Stephen Baxter fourth. John DeNardo swaps my top two, and also my third and fourth choices; Alan Heuer swaps my top two and my bottom two. Joe Sherry likes the Baxter but not the Bear. Karen Burnham has only read the top two but agrees with me on their ranking.
I should also add that for the relevant category I am voting for Blink, Human Nature/Family of Blood, and Captain Jack Harkness in that order.
In summary: I liked this set of nominations much more than last year's. In each of the fiction categories, I feel that any of my top three nominations would be a credible winner. (Probably my feeling this won't be enough to stop Connie Willis though.)
Edited to add: Apologies to John DeNardo for misidentifying him first time round!