This is actually the third year in a row that I have managed to read all the Hugo-nominated fiction (I first tried in 2002 but not everyone saw the merits of on-line publication back then). This year, for the first time, I am myself a voter and will be attending the WorldCon in Glasgow this summer, so I know that at least one vote will be cast along the lines I propose below!
But of course this is not a set of recommendations; this is a personal assessment of which books and stories I thought were good and which were not. I'm aware, from my lack of success at predicting previous winners, that my tastes are not universally shared, and indeed already this year I note that others have seen qualities that I have not in, for instance, Jim Kelly's "The Best Christmas Ever" and Bradley Denton's "Sergeant Chip", whereas my enthusiasm for Mike Flynn's "The Clapping Hands of God" may prove to be a minority view.
All of this is part of the discourse between writer and reader, and the wider discourse of sf fandom. I'm posting this on my own website, also on my livejournal and in shorter form on rec.arts.sf.written; I hope others find it of interest.
Last year, and the year before, I linked to all the reviews I could find on-line for each of the shortlisted novels. It takes a heck of a lot of time, and I don't think really added much to the page in the end, and I'm sure there are three times as many on-line reviews this year. So what I've done is added a Google search for other reviews after each entry, plus one other reviewer whose assessment was similar to my own, and you can make up your own minds as to who is worth reading and who isn't. See also brief notes on four of the five by Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber. It's worth noting that all five of the finalists are from the UK, apparently the first time this has ever happened; Mieville and Clarke are English, Banks is a Scot, Stross is English but has lived in Scotland for years, and McDonald has lived in Northern Ireland since he was a small child. It's also a very strong list; it would not be too embarrassing if any of these won.
5) The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks. A really fun story of space opera, which in a less good year would be a strong contender. Our hero has the job of communicating with the inhabitants of his local gas giant, who live life at a much slower pace than we humans do. They may (or may not) be the guardians of an ancent mystery, which explains why a crazed religious warlord is about to invade their solar system. This is not the Culture in which most of Banks' sf has been set, but perhaps the same universe at an earlier stage of its history. (Though probably not.) It's funny and fascinating, but the solution to the mystery itself is not totally convincing and I felt the bad guys were a bit one-dimensional, and in particular it was less hard work than some of Banks' writing - usually a good thing but I felt it was a bit flat. Having said that, the real reason it won't win the Hugo is that it won't be published in the US until two months after voting closes. Nonetheless it's on the Locus Best SF Novel shortlist.
4) Iron Council, by China Mieville. Back to the fantasy city of New Crobuzon, setting of Mieville's two earlier books, but this time with revolution, and the legacy of a socialist train from years ago in time bringing the ideology back home, combined with the variegated humans and near-humans and the distorted landscapes of Mieville's created world. Lots of fascinating stuff here, including desperate if unusual love affairs, extraordinary landscapes, and nods to many historical revolutionary movements (New Crobuzon for once more reminiscent of Paris than of London in places). But I felt it went on a bit too long, and the language, while lyrical and wonderful in many places, was verbose in others, and that the ending didn't really reward the effort I'd had to put in; actually my least favourite of the three New Crobuzon books. Also the fact that Mieville's politics are well to the left of the average Hugo voter's will probably put him out of contention. (Of course, that is less true this year than most years.) On the Locus Fantasy Novel shortlist; won the Arthur C Clarke Award.Other reviews; see also Adam Lipkin in Bookslut who is a bit more negative than I am.
3) Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susannah Clarke. Big huge book, generally received well though heavily hyped to the mainstream audience. Magic returns to England in the early nineteenth century and helps to win the Napoleonic wars. The difficult relationship between our two protagonists themselves a sort of wizardly rather than musical Gilbert and Sullivan), and between them and the government and the realm of faery, is portrayed in a beautiful pastiche of nineteenth-century literary style, with footnotes the like of which I haven't seen since The Third Policeman. I loved it on first reading. In comparison with the others, however, it goes on a bit too long, and the pacing is uneven. On the Locus Best First Novel shortlist.
Other reviews; see also John Clute in scifi.com.
2) Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross. Sequel to last year's nominee, Singularity Sky, a 24th century space opera combined with spy story; perhaps a bit reminiscent of the more successful of Bujold's early work. The "Iron Sunrise" of the title is an artificially (though possibly accidentally) triggered supernova that wipes out an entire solar system. Features nassty neo-Nazis in space, tough teenage girl protagonist, explosively brilliant prose, plot twisting up and down (though I did think the final twist was a bit too similar to the end of one of his other recent stories). I really liked it, and as it's had decent circulation in the US it must have a chance of winning. Also on the Locus Best SF Novel shortlist.
1) River of Gods, by Ian McDonald. I realise I'm partly cheering for my home team here. I believe the last Hugo winner from Northern Ireland was Bob Shaw, who was voted Best Fan Writer in 1979 and 1980 (and I think Walt Willis' "Outstanding Actifan" Hugo in 1958 may complete the list not just of Ulster winners but of Irish winners in toto). However I'd like to think my opinion of this book would be just as high if it had been written by a Californian, or indeed an Indian since that's where it's set. In 2047, a hundred years after independence, the sub-continent is embedded in ecological troubles and accelerated technology. The cast of characters includes a comedian who inherits a business empire, a journalist, a policeman hunting rogue AI's, an American scientist, a politician, a neuter, a small-time crook, a Big Dumb Object, and India itself. McDonald keeps all these balls hurtling through the air, to dazzling effect. A great book in a good year. Won the BSFA Award. Unfortunately has not yet been published in the US.
Best NovellaNot a bad selection, with only one that really struck me as below par. Anne K.G. Murphy has also reviewed all the nominees at greater length over at Emerald City. She doesn't rank them but I think comes to similar conclusions to my own.
5) "Time Ablaze" by Michael A. Burstein (HTML, FictionWise). A story of a time-traveller researching a forgotten disaster in New York, who gets involved with the subjects of his research; the latest I suppose in a number of sf-nal stories in response to the 9/11 attacks. It really didn't work for me; Burstein's prose, which has never grabbed me particularly, is especially clunky here, the plot is cliched, and the ending predictable almost from the first page. Was on Nebula long-list (but not short-list). I'm afraid I rank this one below "No Award" on my ballot.
Chris Markwyn at Tangent Online liked it. Mark Watson, Anne Murphy and Jemima Pereira shared my scepticism.
4) The other four are OK though. "Sergeant Chip" by Bradley Denton (HTML) is a story about a loyal enhanced canine soldier in a near-future war. Not a lot happens - he does some dramatic fighting, and may or may not live to tell the tale - but it's nicely told in a blunt, straightforward voice without veering too much into the sentimental. Dog lovers will probably support this one en bloc. It's also the only military sf story nominated in any category. Was on Nebula long-list (but not short-list); on Locus Best Novella shortlist. Included in the Hartwell/Cramer Best of the Year anthology. Given the way other people have responded to it I wouldn't be surprised if it wins.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden thought it was the best sf short story he'd read in 2004, and Cory Doctorow was almost moved to tears by it Curtis Chen admits it made him cry). Patrick Samphire, Chris Markwyn at Tangent Online, James Reasoner, Mark Watson, Charles Coleman Finlay, Anne Murphy, Scott Danielson and Jonathan Strahan were also very positive. Only Victor Trey and to an extent Byron Bailey shared my reservations.
3) "Elector" by Charles Stross (HTML) is the culmination of his "Accelerando" sequence of stories, of which several have previously been nominated for Hugos. In typically exuberant Stross style, our post-Singularity heroes are reincarnated on the planet Saturn, and an election is held. I actually nominated this story but on reflection it doesn't quite come together in the end, and I was left uncertain as to what it was All About. Still, a fun ride. Included in the Haber/Strahan Best of the Year anthology.
Andrew Liptak loved it. Jeremy Lyon and Anne Murphy's takes were similar to mine, Niall Harrison perhaps a bit more enthusiastic.. Scott Danielson didn't quite know what to make of it.
2) "Winterfair Gifts" by Lois McMaster Bujold (FictionWise) This story alone will have guaranteed decent sales for the otherwise indifferent anthology in which it first appeared. The latest episode to be published of Bujold's superb Vorkosigan saga (though preceding the latest novel in internal chronology), here we have the tale of Miles Vorkosigan's wedding, told from the point of view of the bodyguards. As ever the characterisation and style are great, though the plot didn't totally grab me. I still nominated it, and being Bujold there must be a good chance it will win.
BookCrossing readers and Nathalie at Fantasy Romance Writer loved it, as did I on first reading.. Cyndy Lynn Speer at the SFSite, Adrienne Martini at Bookslut, Paula Klug at A Romance Review and Ellen D Micheletti at All About Romance liked it. The Pandora's Box reviewers and Rebecca Gold were baffled by the Vorkosigan references, though Jane Bowers at Romance Reviews may have become a convert. Anne Murphy felt it wasn't very original.
1) "The Concrete Jungle" by Charles Stross (HTML, PDF) I hadn't read this before the nominations deadline, but if I had I probably would have put this alone on my list. Concrete cows in Milton Keynes; bureaucracy, geekery, software and magic; secret agents, office politics, and unspeakably strange beings; all very much in your face. I loved it and I hope it wins. On the Locus Best Novella shortlist.
Rick Kleffel, Cat Eldridge, Neil Ikerd, Christian Sauve, David Chess and Anne Murphy also loved it. Paul Di Filippo in the Washington Post and Michael Rawdon liked it. Rich Horton at the SF Site, Rick Klaw at Revolution SF, Paula Guran and Michael Berry in the San Francisco Chronicle liked it but felt it suffered in comparison with the rest of The Atrocity Archives, the collection in which it was first published. If they're right, I'd better get hold of the whole book. (Some on the Asimov's message board took the opposite view.)
Best NoveletteThis is a particularly excellent selection and a particularly difficult choice. To be honest I wish it were possible to take the Hugo away from this year's Short Story category and give an extra award here. All five of these stories are very good and deserve wide circulation. Anne K.G. Murphy has done a brief survey of the nominees for Emerald City.
5) With great reluctance, one has to start pruning somewhere. "The Faery Handbag" by Kelly Link (HTML) is another typically thought-provoking fantasy from this author, set in contemporary America; the narrator's grandmother's handbag holds all kinds of things, including missing menfolk. A beautiful story, perhaps just a little insubstantial. On the Locus Best Novelette shortlist.
A.M. Clifford, Jonathan Strahan Hilary Williamson at BookLoons and Tim Pratt and Gwenda Bond loved it. Grey Walker at Green Man Review and Andi Shechter liked it. Cheryl Morgan found it "highly entertaining", and her colleague Anne Murphy highly recommends it.
4) "The People of Sand and Slag" by Paolo Bacigalupi (HTML, FictionWise) is a rather disturbing story about some genetically modified warriors guarding, well, something, while playing various horrible games with each other's bodies they regenerate fast and can eat anything, including sand and slag, which is fortunate as that's mostly what they get). Their preconceptions and relationships with each other are turned upside down when they adopt a stray dog. Included in the Dozois and the Haber/Strahan Best of the Year anthologies. If I have a problem with the story I suppose it's just that I found it nastier than necessary to make the point.
Rich Horton "liked it a good deal". Byron Bailey "greatly enjoyed it". Mark Watson felt it went a little to far.
3) "The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe (HTML, FictionWise) Soma-With-The-Paintbox-In-Printer's-Alle
Eugie Foster, in a long and thoughtful review for Tangent Online, loved it. Susan Groppi thinks it's "excellent". Andrew Hatchell: "truly fabulous". Matthew Cheney: "breathtaking". Philip Brewer: "awesome". Kurtis Roth says it will "peel your head off" and this is a Good Thing). Brian at WeirdWriter loved it too. Gwenda Bond describes it as her favourite story of the year, but she is married to the author.
2) "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" by Benjamin Rosenbaum (HTML, PDF, FictionWise) is an alternate history, tales of derring-do at high altitude between airships mixed with philosophical and counterfactual reflections, nicely paced and written. If there's a problem with this story, it is perhaps just a little too clever - the first line, for instance, includes a reference to a well-known real life feminist sf convention which may be lost on many readers. Of course it may well win for precisely this reason.
Sherwood Smith at The SF Site and Dan Percival liked it. Therese Noren loves the pirates' emblem: "In a yellow circle, two round black dots stared like unblinking demonic eyes; beneath, a black semicircle leered with empty, ravenous bonhomie."
1) "The Clapping Hands of God" by Michael F. Flynn (HTML). I thought this was exceptional. At first it seems to be a straightforward "first contact" story - human surveying team arrives on a planet full of aliens - with the extra little twist that the viewpoint character is an observant and devout Muslim. The team's efforts to understand the alien culture are distorted by their own expectations, as is the reader's (well, this reader's) anticipation of what the story is going to be about. Included in the Dozois Best of the Year anthology. I really hope this wins, though won't cry if it is Rowe or Rosenbaum, or indeed either of the others.
Chris Markwyn at Tangent Online liked it a lot; Anne Murphy wasn't so sure.
Best Short Story
Really this is a very poor selection, a point also made by "Safe Light", in a thoughtful review of all five nominees, and by Tero Ykspetaja. I don't particularly care for Sawyer's writing, but the other three nominated authors have all produced stuff I enjoyed much more than this. I'm very surprised that Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Embracing-the-New" wasn't shortlisted, nor were the other two stories I put on my nominations form. My biggest dilemma, to be honest, is whether or not to put "No Award" top of my list. The best of these stories is just about of award-winning quality, but far inferior to the best in the other categories.
Yoon Ha Lee in a thoughtful review was left underwhelmed. Several other livejournal readers agree with me one doesn't). Mark Fox also questions the premise. Mark Watson thought it was "fairly routine". But James Schellenberg liked it.
4) "The Best Christmas Ever" by James Patrick Kelly HTML). The last man alive is comforted by his robot helpers, who organise a Christmas celebration for him. I normally hate stories with cute anthropomorphic robots, and this was no exception. Included in the Haber/Strahan Best of the Year anthology.
Eugie Foster, in a typically thoughtful review, liked it more than I did; so did Zhaneel, "Safe Light", Scott Danielson and Jonathan Strahan.
3) "Decisions" by Michael A. Burstein HTML, FictionWise) Astronaut appears to have gone through a time warp; the truth turns out to be much stranger. First published in the same issue of Analog as Sawyer's "Shed Skin". Burstein's prose has not always been as clunky as it is here and in "Time Ablaze", has it?
Scott Danielson liked it. Mark Watson did not.
2) "A Princess of Earth" by Mike Resnick HTML, FictionWise). Old man meets famous fictional character John Carter, of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars books) for long rambling conversation and cop-out ending. Won a straw poll in Turku, Finland.
"Parsoni" and Mark Watson loved it. Chris Markwyn in Tangent Online liked it. Scott Danielson thought it was fun.
1) "Travels with My Cats" by Mike Resnick HTML, FictionWise). Only half-decent story in the list. Time-slip romance between author and reader across the decades. I found the protagonist's passivity very irritating. Shortlisted for the Nebula. Won the Asimov's reader's poll. If I'm in a generous mood the day I fill in my ballot paper, I may put this ahead of "No Award".
Scott Danielson, "Fiftytwo" and Andrew Liptak and Chris Markwyn at Tangent Online loved it. Mark Watson liked it. Simon Owens thought it was pretty poor.
Comments welcome below or on rasfw.