In early 2013, about the same time I was developing my present delusions of literacy, I realised that as an aspiring writer of speculative fiction, I was hopelessly unaware of what was going on in my genre. Sure, I was reading lots of science fiction, but it was all within my comfort zone, and I didn’t really pay attention to interesting new stuff. I couldn’t even claim to be aware of all the interesting old stuff outside my particular tastes. Since this felt like a major oversight for someone fancying themselves a sci-fi writer, I figured that one way to fix this might be by catching up on the Hugo Award winners. Specifically, winners of the Best Novel award — I don’t really read or write short fiction, and anyway including more than one category of awards would have felt like a huge load of work. But novels? I like science fiction novels. Reading them would be fun!
I set a challenge for myself: to read every single novel that had won the rocket since the award was introduced. I had already read a third of them, how hard could it be to catch up on the rest? I figured it would take a year, tops. Hoo boy, was I ever optimistic.
At the time I had no notion of any kind of controversy surrounding the award. In 2013 the first puppies were just getting sad, and I wasn’t really that interested in the hows and the whys of the award, merely the results. I think the first time I even heard of the Puppies’ campaign was when the 2015 award season was starting. I read their arguments, and wondered: do they have a point? Was there a time when the Hugo was something completely different from what it is now?
Three years after my initial challenge I’m finally finished. Since I’m now fairly up to speed with the recent history of the field, or at least fairly up to speed with the Hugo Award for the Best Novel, I can present some conclusions. These are coloured by the recent arguments surrounding the awards, and some parts of them may read as a rebuttal of some views presented. Others are just me rambling.
What I read and what my biases are
At the time of this writing 64 novels have won the Best Novel Hugo Award. I read all of them with two exceptions. The first was the 1955 winner They’d Rather Be Right (The Forever Machine) by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, which was completely impossible to find anywhere. The second was the Blackout/All Clear combo by Connie Willis, which I hated after 200 pages and kept on hating until the end of the first novel, and since I’d really hated Doomsday Book as well and this 1200-page package was pushing all the same buttons, I decided to save my sanity and just let it drop after finishing Blackout.
(I’m also really glad Wheel of Time didn’t win in 2014, because there’s no way I’d have slogged through that pile of dead trees / electrons. I have no idea if it’s any good, only that I have no intention of reading three and a half million words of epic fantasy.)
I didn’t re-read any of the 22 novels I’d finished before I took on the challenge. This does mean that my recollection of some novels might not be that accurate – I might not have remembered the finer nuances of The Man in the High Castle or Ender’s Game which I’d read as a teenager, let alone Foundation’s Edge and Way Station that I haven’t touched in 30 years. Since I’m not trying to present a complete analysis of every single Best Novel winner in history, I’d argue that this does not matter. Still, the mid-eighties in particular are a suspect period: I mostly remember the winners of that era fondly from my foolish youth, and have no idea how I’d feel about them were I to read them now.
As a reader, I generally like certain things in my speculative fiction. In no particular order: I enjoy adventure and excitement (for instance Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Vor Game), stories that feature hard science and play fair with their rules (such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars and Blue Mars), stories that combine wild imagination with everyday context (Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin) and stories that hold up a mirror to our society, showing something that one might not have noticed before (Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). To make this perfectly clear: this does mean that I also like preachy message fiction if the message is one I feel should be preached. I make no apologies for this. Some people would probably call me a social justice warrior, even if I personally feel I’m bit too lazy to proclaim myself a warrior of any kind. Social justice cheerleader perhaps?
There are also things that are turn-offs for me. One is the xkcd fiction rule of thumb, which I guess is an indication that I’m something of a conservative. I don’t, in general, like fantasy, and I prefer my stories to have a touch of the ordinary as a contrast against all the speculative and the strange. I dislike protagonists that are either wishy-washy or hypercompetent. I hate naturalistic argumentation. I am uninterested in religion, especially of the 20th-21st Century Christian kind.
Conclusion 1: The Best Novel award is no guarantee of quality
With 64 novels, you expect some stuff you don’t like. With 64 award-winning novels, you don’t really expect to find crap. Now, of course, I can’t pretend to be objective about this, and in some cases I recognised that the novel was of high quality, but it just wasn’t for me (hello, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). Then there were those winners where I couldn’t but shake my head and wonder what the Worldcon attendees had been smoking.
Of course, being a popular award, you expect to find some mediocre winners. J. K. Rowling won the rocket with the Goblet of Fire, a novel that was the least interesting of the Harry Potter novels that had come out at the time. 25 years later does anyone actually remember Downbelow Station? No one I know has ever mentioned reading it, and it didn’t really make an impression on me either – and it actually beat out Wolfe’s Claw of the Concillator. As for American Gods, maybe I just don’t understand the novel, or maybe I’m just burned out on the kind of modern fantasy stories Gaiman tends to write.
But then there are the couple of winners which I’d argue are really bad. The Big Time. Hominids. A Stranger in a Strange Land. And the most mind-boggling of the winners, Doomsday Book, which seems to combine clunky storytelling and horrible, horrible characters with the most unambitious way ever to tell a time-travel story. Somebody actually read this and liked it? Several somebodies? Enough to win the Nebula as well?? Enough to beat Red Mars??? At least it was tied with A Fire Upon the Deep. Reading Doomsday Book made me actually dread opening the two other winners by Connie Willis (which were, in chronological order, rather good, and just as bad. I guess the bad old days had Heinlein’s books to annoy me, and the present has Willis’.)
It needs to be said that most of the time I found the winning novels well worth my time. Even when it wasn’t so, I’d still say that 90% of the time they were interesting. This goes even for the cringe-inducing Doomsday Book. And if the winner was a miss, I found that the shortlist always had something I found really good. (I didn’t read every novel that had ever been nominated, but I didn’t really find years that had nothing good on the shortlist.) Obviously the Hugo seems to get something right with regards to quality – always has, and still does. All of this is probably a bit of a no-brainer.
Conclusion 2: The Hugo has often been political
The Best Novel winners have had always their share of preachy message fiction. One author in particular stands out for this: Robert Anson Heinlein. With four best novel awards to his name, they are all chock-full of smug, arrogant know-it-alls who spend way too many pages lecturing naive impressionable youngsters about their brilliant worldview. Sometimes there is a gripping story to go with them (e.g., Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and sometimes … you just get A Stranger in a Strange Land.
In all fairness it needs to be noted that of course I’d notice Heinlein’s politics, since they are just about diametrically opposed to my own. I’m the kind of sexually suspect, socialistic, pacifistic artsy sissy who thinks that humanities and social sciences have value, who wouldn’t last a minute in any of his stories. (And yes – this includes Stranger in a Strange Land, which I’d argue was never progressive in any but the most superficial sense, and these days not even that.) This is hardly surprising, for reasons I’ll come to later. However, Bob is hardly alone in using the sci-fi novel as his personal soap box. I also note (and personally approve of) the overt political messaging of, for instance, The Dispossessed and A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Some in the Adjectival Puppies land have claimed that message fiction in the Hugos is a recent trend. They are mistaken. It has always been with us, sometimes out and proud, sometimes more subtly. (And sometimes the message has been cheerfully confusing, like with Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead.) Indeed, I’ve probably missed many of the subtle examples of political messages, since they really aren’t my strong suit.
The puppies might have what at first appears to be a real grievance: overt right-wing politics from the fifties have all but disappeared. The reason for this is, unsurprisingly, that we no longer live in the fifties. We’ve had several decades of social progress and most of us can now see that some of the values we used to hold were a bit horrible, and we are better off without them. If for some reason your own value system is still stuck sixty years in the past, it’s no wonder that the politics of the present seem strange and frightening to you. Of course, the same goes the other way as well: I find Bob Heinlein’s politics disgusting and horrible, since I’m looking at them from across a gap of sixty years.
There’s still conservative science fiction winning the rocket, but it may not be recognizable as such by the Puppy movement. I’d argue that Harry Potter and Connie Willis’ time travel stories are very much conservative. This means that their politics are politics of the present status quo, not those of a status quo of six decades past.
Actually, and quite surprisingly, I found hardly any truly progressive present-day politics among the recent Best Novel winners. Robinson, Haldeman and Leckie were the ones that stuck to my mind, but whereas the nominees on many years did have some interesting progressive political points to make, they generally didn’t win. The only overtly political one, compared to, say, The Dispossessed, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or The Forever War, was Blue Mars, maybe. (As my native language lacks gendered pronouns, I didn’t find Ann Leckie’s not using them all that extraordinary.)
Still, if what you are looking for is an aggressive, active return to the politics of the past, I’d say that the most prestigious award of science fiction is probably not the best place to look. In the fifties I don’t think anyone would have won an award with a novel championing values from 1890s either.
I’ve run across a claim that right good storytelling has been replaced by “political correctness”. Taking a look at the Best Novel winners of the past 20 years does not really support that claim. I’ll respond to this claim more thoroughly in the next section.
Conclusion 3: Our science fiction is getting better
The Hugo Best Novel award winners are currently bookended by two books I love: Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, and 2015’s Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. Weirdly enough, and opposite to the case I’m making, Bester’s novel has more merit as literature, whereas Liu’s is classical nuts-and-bolts semi-hard science fiction, where characters and style are secondary. In general, even though some of the old stuff is phenomenal, I’d argue that the contemporary stuff tends to score better on all metrics. Not just being better written and posessing more merits as literature, but even being better entertainment.
Naturally this is a highly subjective judgement, and if someone wants to claim that, for instance, Rendezvous with Rama is the best thing ever written, I’m much more likely to join them in celebrating its merits than start listing the ways in which I prefer Spin. Because Rama is great! However, another claim often heard was that politics – namely left-wing politics – has pushed out interesting adventure stories. That claim is simply wrong, at least with the Best Novel winners of, say, the last two decades. Of the winners since 1996, at least 8 can definitely be classified as exciting and entertaining adventure stories. The percentage wasn’t that much bigger in the olden days. The action adventure stories have always been surrounded by the philosophical, the introspective, the weird. Just check out A Case for Conscience, Stand on Zanzibar or, indeed, Neuromancer.
How about science fiction as the literature of big, fancy ideas? Way back when, Ringworld brought us a strip of a Dyson sphere, Heinlein gave us powered armour and massdrivers, and The Gods Themselves dealt with an alien species that was well and truly alien. I’d argue that with the detailed terraforming of Green and Blue Mars, the breathtaking scope of Spin and the mind-bendingly weird geographies and mindscapes of The City & The City hold their own against the old stuff without any problems. I remember how I felt as a teenager, first reading about the scope and structure of the Ringworld, and recall that last summer I had that tingly feeling of awe and wonder again, as I’d finished the first chapter of Spin and the stars had disappeared – and that feeling wasn’t just a fluke, it persisted until the very end. I’d argue that big, wondrous ideas are doing as strong as ever.
Then there’s the claim I mentioned earlier – that good storytelling has been replaced by political correctness. Having read the winners, I’d say that is a bizarre claim. Sure, if all you’re into is rockets and space war and orbital equations, you might find something like Among Others a chore to read, yet the book is a nice take on the fairy tale as well as a love letter to science fiction fandom. I’d have to say that rock’n’roll is dead in your soul if you don’t find anything to enjoy in it. And if you don’t think Redshirts is a classical science fiction story well-told, I’d have to wonder just how narrow your definition of the term must be. It just might be that your sense of good storytelling is impeded by an inability to see beneath the surface, by overreacting to things assumed to mean “incoming preachy commie feminazi propaganda”. In this case the fault certainly lies with the reader. If a liberal pinko heathen sexual deviant like me can find Starship Troopers a really good read despite hating its politics, surely a sad puppy can appreciate the space opera of Ancillary Justice and recognise its merit as a novel worthy of note, even if it’s not the absolute best thing they read that year.
(There are also claims that the winners are selected by a process that rewards other things than actual merit. Obviously I have no way of studying this by just reading the winners. However, I stand by my claim that the award winners from recent years are, in general, better than the novels that won in the previous decades, which sort of suggests that actual merit has at least something to do with winning, and that the award must be doing something right.)