Tue
Jul 22 2008 8:03pm

Handicapping the Hugos

Once upon a time I was a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Although my name wasn't on the reviews, the fact that they appeared in PW made me one of the most influential SF/fantasy reviewers in the world. I wasn't a big fan of the weekly deadlines, but I did have lots of fun getting the first word in on a wide variety of important SF and fantasy. One of the side effects was that I was as au courant with the field as I've ever been, and probably ever will be.

That meant that when Hugo nomination time came around, I already knew what I wanted to nominate; and when it was time to vote, I'd already read all the nominees.

Nowadays, being busy trying to find and publish future Hugo winners of my own, I just can't keep up. Every year this century I've sworn I would take a week off and read all the nominees -- the ceremony is much more fun if you've voted and have a rooting interest -- and every year I haven't managed it. (To my mind, people who vote without reading the nominees are beneath contempt.)

This year was no exception.

So I'm going to take advantage of the shiny new soap box provided by Tor.com to find out what I've been missing.

Here's a list of the Hugo nominees for best novel:

* The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins; Fourth Estate)
* Brasyl by Ian McDonald (Gollancz; Pyr)
* Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer (Tor; Analog Oct. 2006-Jan./Feb. 2007)
* The Last Colony by John Scalzi (Tor)
* Halting State by Charles Stross (Ace)

The only one of these I've read is Michael Chabon's book, which I loved (and which, to my pleasant surprise, won the Nebula). So I'd like you to tell me which one you think should win (and why) and which one you think will win. (Alas, you can't influence my uncast vote, since the voting deadline was back on July 7th.)

I'm sure the results will be enlightening, and I look forward to seeing what you have to say. (No extra credit for picking a Tor book!)

[2005 Hugo Award image from Wikipedia Commons; reproducible for any purpose.]

41 comments
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
1. pnh
"To my mind, people who vote without reading the nominees are beneath contempt."

Call me kooky, but I think that people who get caught up in "ethnic cleansing" hysteria and start enthusiastically killing their neighbors are "beneath contempt." People who vote for stories they love even thought they've only read three or four of the five nominees? Not really "beneath contempt."
Moshe Feder
2. Moshe
OK, but when I said that, I was thinking more of people who haven't read any of the nominees, and vote for a friend's story, or because they recognize a novelist's name, and so on. If there's enough of that -- and there's always been some -- it just makes the whole process pointless.

I do in fact agree that it's possible to read one work and recognize it instinctively as worthy of an award, and that it's reasonable to vote for it on that basis.

I've always said (and can probably cite twiltone chapter and verse from the 70s) that Hugo voting should not be a matter of relative quality, but of absolute excellence.

Choosing what to vote for should be less a matter of comparison among nominees, and more a matter of recognizing one of them as having outstanding qualities. Comparison only comes into it when you find that two or more works are equally remarkable.

I know you remember my "No Award" campaign. The whole point was that if the nominees in a given category are weak, we don't want people just voting for the best of a bad lot. In that case, we want them to choose No Award, so the award can have a chance of standing for excellence rather than mediocrity. No Award doesn't win nearly enough.
Mike Scott
3. drplokta
I suspect it might finally be Charlie Stross's year, with his fifth consecutive nomination. Brasyl is too poorly distributed in the US, The Last Colony is the middle of a series, Robert Sawyer has never won outside Canada, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union is too slipstream.
Ed Bear
4. Ed Bear
I've read "Halting State." It's superb, and about five seconds after I find out "Last Colony" is available as an eBook, I'll be buying and reading it.

But there's no way in hell I'll read a book just to vote on it. I've tried both MacDonald and Sawyer and consider them third-rate at best, and Chabon's book isn't available as an eBook, so it's out of my personal running.

That's how people vote, and you have to live with it.
Jeffrey Richard
5. neutronjockey
I've always said (and can probably cite twiltone chapter and verse from the 70s) that Hugo voting should not be a matter of relative quality, but of absolute excellence.


...and should be chosen by people with impeccable tastes and --- no, just a $50.00 buy-in fee.
Arachne Jericho
6. arachnejericho
I probably don't fall into a large percentage of the Hugo voters, so my opinion counts for so near naught that it doesn't matter.

But the best contender in quality is definitely Brasyl. Despite what it covers---the bending of space and time---it's a hard read, yet highly accessible. But that's not probably not what SF hard-core fans will vote for, because it's also a mainstream contender. That pretty much dooms it.

Next contender: Yiddish Policeman's Union---also very high quality, but unusual in that it's Alternative History---and I don't know if a large enough percentage of Hugo voters will like that. Plus it's too mainstream (I really don't think it's "slipstream" but perhaps I'm working off a naive definition of the latter), like Brasyl, and there's a lot of Michael Chabon hate in the SF field. (Extreme irony, since he started *off* in SF.)

So both high-quality contenders: not going to win. They deserve to, but not going to happen.

After them comes Rollback. "Whut?" people may ask. Quite simply it handles immortality and the contact story in dual parallel lines that work, and its story is quite touching---and very, very human. And mainstream. And also doomed because, while accessible, it's not hardcore enough.

Next comes Halting State. Quite likely it's going to win; it's far more hardcore than any of the above entries, and it speaks to those who are actually part of SF's core of fans: the geeks. And the way it's told embraces 2nd person and present tense in such a way that it both works (it can't backfire if you're not a good writer) and is a reflection of the themes of isolation and virtual reality in the novel itself. Clearly it's going to win.

After that comes The Last Colony. I love it very much, and of all these it's the one I can re-read. Of all these, it's also, I think, the most accessible. And from what I've read of Heinlein, Scalzi's definitely the new Heinlein. But it calls back to older times in SF's history, and so is doomed.

All five of these are high quality, wonderful reads. They wouldn't have gotten nominated if they weren't, and as such it was hard for me to rank them. Currently I'm re-reading them all to see how well they hold up; Brasyl uncovers more meaning, kind of Gene Wolfe-ish in that way. For some reason I just love The Last Colony and could re-read it for years out of enjoyment. I've yet to re-read The Yiddish Policeman's Union, but it's scheduled for the weekend.

Anyways, these books were all available for free online or, in Chabon's case, with a write-in to the publisher for a review copy, so you could indeed read them all without spending a cent. I bought them all. And read them all. Gods, with everything else, it was such a dang lot of reading and watching to do, and I still didn't get through enough to vote on the (non-Hugo) Best New Science Fiction writer award.

And anyways anyways, I don't mind doing the footwork. I'm a picky reader, but all the same, if you have to expand your tastes and knowledge, there's no better way to do it than through award nominees.
Arachne Jericho
7. arachnejericho
You know, there were a lot of errors in my previous post. Worst ones were

"(it can't backfire if you're not a good writer)" --> replace the "can't" with "can"

"All five of these are high quality, wonderful reads" --> I already said the first two were high quality. What I was thinking was "extreme high quality" for Brasyl and Yiddish Policeman's Union.

Oh, for an edit function....
Jason Pettus
8. jasonpettus
I've now read and reviewed four of the nominees for my own blog (cclapcenter.com), everything but "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." In my opinion, "Brasyl" far and away beats the other three I've read; I just have this feeling, though, that "Yiddish Policemen" is going to win, both because it seems to be the big "golden boy" of the entire literary world this year, and for the irony inherent in it being the one book I didn't get to read before the award ceremony. To tell you the truth, I also read and reviewed most of the nominees for the latest Philip K Dick award, and found that to be a much more interesting race than the Hugo; both M John Harrison's "Nova Swing" and Adam Roberts' "Gradisil" from the PKD shortlist blew away nearly everything seen on this year's Hugo shortlist.
David Siegel
9. bigscary
Halting State is excellent, I have YPU in the queue, the other books are not planned, so I can't say who I would vote for, had I a vote.

I can, however, say that this is either going to be Mr. Stross's year, or enough voters will go for "respectability" and "mainstream cred" to give it to Chabon. The other books, as good as they may be, are probably not really in competition.
Adam Lipkin
10. yendi
I've read three of the five (missing the Sawyer and Stross), and if I were voting (which I'm not), I wouldn't even hesitate at voting for Brasyl. It's both a good novel (in the "fun, enjoyable, etc" sense of the word) and a great one (in the "big ideas" sense), and one that actually increased my understanding of a subject (something it has in common with last year's winner). I liked the Chabon well enough, but it wasn't even my favorite alternate-world, post-WWII, Jewish-history, allegorical mystery novel of 2007 (that would be Ha'Penny). I enjoyed The Last Colony as a means of providing closure on characters I'd grown to adore, but it simply isn't in the same league as the other two.

That said, I'm not voting, and handicapping is a tricky business. Based on my selective view of the blogosphere, the buzz seems to be heading towards Chabon or Stross. But there seemed to be a lot more buzz for Blindsight last year than a fifth-place finish would imply, so I suspect that my view of the blogosphere is not necessarily useful for predictions.
Steven Silver
11. shsilver
Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union is the one to beat, but I don't think anyone will come close. Scalzi and Stross have very strong fan bases, which will help both of them, especially if Chabon's book doesn't win in early rounds. Although many people have raved about Brasyl, there is an equal contingent which has proclaimed it to be unreadable, and I don't think it will get many #2 votes, so I would look for it to drop out after the first or second round of vote tallies.
Kerry Kuhn
12. Kerry
This was my first year reading all the novels nominated - I should say attempting to read all of them. I see a lot of people raving about Brasyl, but that was the first book in many years that I have been absolutely unable to finish.

I would be happy if either Scalzi or Stross won as I thought both of those books excellent reads. I am not your typical geek since I don't game, so Halting State was a tough read for me, but I enjoyed it very much. It was also the first book of his I have ever read - I promptly went and bought everything he has out in PB so far.

The Last Colony was enjoyable for completely different reasons. Although at first glance, it seems to be just a quick romp, it does make you think about how humans interact with the greater universe around them. Also, while it is the 3rd book of a series, I don't think there was anything that made me feel I would be missing something had I not read the first two.

The other two books YPU and Rollback seemed rather mediocre to me. YPU had an interesting alt. history premise, but maybe I just don't know enough about Judaism to 'get it'. Rollback spent more time talking about morality than telling the story IMHO.
Paul Bickart
13. Theophylact
I've only read the Chabon and the Stross, both of which I liked very much. Haven't read the Scalzi, but I read the first two novels in the series, so I think I've a fair idea of what to expect. Sawyer strikes me as earnest and a little dull (don't want to get into national stereotyping here, because I like Charles de Lint a lot). The McDonald hasn't been available, but I read River of Gods and was okay with it, though I think that Jon Courtenay Grimwood does this kind of thing better.

Charlie doubtless deserves the Hugo; but the Chabon is splendid. Probably helps if you're Jewish.
Paul Bickart
14. Theophylact
I should add that I mean, "as a reader". Stross is as Jewish as both Chabon and I am.
Hugh Staples
15. hugh57
Choosing what to vote for should be less a matter of comparison among nominees, and more a matter of recognizing one of them as having outstanding qualities. Comparison only comes into it when you find that two or more works are equally remarkable.


Moshe: I think a comparison among nominees is inevitable, given the mechanics of Hugo voting, i.e., we are asked to rank the nominees 1 thru 5.
Arachne Jericho
16. arachnejericho
I'm not Jewish and still enjoyed, hmmm, YUP as I suppose it is acronymed.

And I didn't vote the way I did because of "mainstream cred" or because "they read more literary-like"; I voted the way I did because that was the stack as I liked them. I was surprised that I would even like Brasyl, but went through anyways. I thought for sure I'd vote for Halting State or The Last Colony, and that none of the others would even remotely be in the running because they would surely be mainstream and thus definitely not to my taste.

So I was wrong....
Ed Bear
17. Mike G.
Wow, I've read 4 of the 5 (all but _Brasyl_). Most years, I've only read 1 or 2 of the nominees...

They're all VERY good books. The Sawyer story included -- I know that many people are automatically "anti-Sawyer", but _Rollback_ is well written, and has some cool ideas.

I'll be happy if any of the 5 win. I liked the 4 I read, so to be in that company, _Brasyl_ is probably pretty good too.
Josh Kidd
18. joshkidd
My prediction:

1) The Yiddish Policemen's Union
2) The Last Colony
3) Halting State
4) Rollback
5) Brasyl

Based entirely on Amazon sales rank.
Patrick Shepherd
19. hyperpat
Much as I like Scalzi's work, both in and out of his OMW universe, I found I could only rank it 3rd out of the contenders. There's a humanness and strong cultural awareness that elevates the two I picked as better beyond mere competence and inventiveness: Chabon's YPU and Sawyer's Rollback. Halting State I found to be too concerned with computing and cleverness, while Brasyl zoomed off into metaphysics to the detriment of its excellent characterization.

But that's my personal feelings about them. In the universe of SF fans, Stross's work probably has a lot of traction, while there will be a certain amount of not picking Chabon's work merely because it's accepted as literature rather than SF. With these two somewhat canceling each other out, Scalzi's work being the third book of a series, and Brasyl apparently not having too many readers prior to the voting deadline, my handicap pick is Sawyer's Rollback - but I've been wrong almost every prior year, so why should this one be any different?
Ed Bear
20. romsfuulynn
I've read (or tried to read) all of them.

I think Halting State is the most genuinely modern of the five and got my vote, partly for the unusual and yet almost transparent use of POV. I wouldn't have thought that second person POV could be anything other than a short story parlor trick, I thought it was brilliant. I also think that the whole exploration of what is real in a world where virtual and recorded experience is integral was really interesting. I didn't think anything else came close.

Yiddish Policeman's Union and Brasyl are well done, but very conventionally literary - self conciously so. Eh.

I liked "Last Colony" a lot and for me it was worth considering - It's solid hard sf. I might well have voted for it another year.

"Rollback" is competent, but the people never really clicked for me. I buy and read Sawyer, and I like him, but his people never really come alive for me and I don't know why.
dave t
21. dave_t
I think Brasyl was brilliant, unbelievably immersive, and should win. That said, I suspect Yiddish Policemen's Union will win.
Ed Bear
22. Hooligan
I read them all except for the Yiddish Policeman's union, which never arrived. Oh well.

Found Halting State to be so 'cutting edge' as to be unreadable and therefore unfinishable. Second person POV should remain a parlor trick.

Brasyl came across as so self-aware of the author's own cleverness it was, again, pretty much unreadable, though I tried really really hard to get into it.

Rollback I enjoyed though it was just a touch less than riveting.

The Last Colony was interesting, well-written, and spoke most to my personal tastes. It got my vote for top dog.
Paul Weimer
23. PrinceJvstin
I think The Yiddish Policemen's Union will pull it out this year--unless the substantial fan bases of Scalzi and Stross fail to give it any love (read: second or third place votes).

The rules on how Hugo votes are allocated have to be taken into account in prognosticating who is going to win. I think Stross and Scalzi will have strong support, but the overall strongest support will go to Chabon.

I give little chance to Sawyer since Worldcon is not in Canada this year.Macdonald is not enough of a household name to have Brazyl break through with the other contenders.
Ed Bear
24. Eddie McFreddie
Chabon is a lock.
Steven Silver
25. shsilver
Wait, Worldcon's not in Canada this year?!?! What am I going to do with those tickets to Whitehorse?!?!
Robert Thornton
26. rthornton777
I think Brasyl is the most deserving. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that Scalzi might come away a winner.
Ed Bear
27. Simon MacDonald
My prediction on having read 4 of the 5 books, sorry Robert but it's on my list, is:

1) Halting State
2) The Yiddish Policemen's Union
3) Brasyl
4) The Last Colony
David Bilek
28. dtbilek
What should win: BRASYL. Great novel. Not a chance in hell of winning.

What will win: Probably the Chabon. It's a very good book but not SFnal enough to really deserve the Hugo, in my opinion. There are lots of brilliant novels out there that shouldn't win the Hugo because they aren't SF/F, and this is one of them.

What should not win: ROLLBACK. It's actually a better book than what usually gets Sawyer nominated. Kudos to Sawyer. Still not Hugo-level. Definitely better than HOMINIDS, though.

Both the Stross and Scalzi were quite enjoyable but not quite the best novel of the year level. The Stross, in particular, had some squandered potential. I thought Charlie could have played more with the second-person presentation and interactive fiction tropes. As it is, it felt more like an affectation than anything else.
Madeline Ferwerda
29. MadelineF
I agree that Chabon is a lock. Firstly, because YPU is way more available and visible than any of the others: I was seeing it face out on tables in the center of bookstores, at Costco, written up in newspapers, etc. Scifi-interested people probably got it for Christmas or Hannukah from their benign relatives. Secondly, because it hits the lovers of good alt-history who made Strange and Norrell a winner, and also hits the people who like to fear apocalyptic religious folks who were probably a factor in Spin's win. Thirdly, because it's the best.

The rest I found fine but mostly forgettable, aside from Brasyl which I tossed aside after giving it a good chance to develop a plot, and Scalzi where the first in the series didn't impress me enough to read on. Reasons why one might beat the others for second: Stross has an always-a-bridesmaid history. Sawyer has the book most full of neepery: since none of the nominees pause the book to talk about physics, which is what "hard science" readers look for IMO, Sawyer's excellent job of pausing the book to talk about xenolinguistics or morality will draw votes. Scalzi has a popular online presence.

Are there going to be other posts to handicap other categories? I was so happy to discover Jon Armstrong while reading for the Campbell award for best new writer. "Grey" was an awesome book which deserved a Hugo nomination. Novelette and Short Story also had a lot of good stuff.
Ed Bear
30. Rhuvaughn Pynnonen
I usually go out-of-my-way to read all of the Hugo nominees, and this year was no exception. Of the five novels, BRASYL was easily my favorite, so there's not a chance in hell it'll win.

Since my favorite won't win, I have to bet on another, and I'm almost willing to bet on HALTING STATE. It is a terrific novel, and the POV is nearly unique.

I've got to say that, as much as I liked THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION (and Chabon in general), I would never have expected it to earn a Hugo nomination, since Chabon is generally considered a more "mainstream" author.
Bob Blough
31. Bob
I've read all five books and my personal preference is for YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION with BRASYL just a hairbreath behind (and I think that is only because RIVER OF GODS by McDonald was one of the greatest SF works of the first years of this century and this one paled a bit in comparison).

ROLLBACK reads like mediocre Sawyer. I feel he's been writing the same book (using different science fiction themes) now for a long time - Ah for THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT when it was new!

THE LOST COLONY is a good, fun, fast read but not, I think, Hugo worthy.

HALTING STATE is Stross's best novel so far, but still not in the same league with the Chabon or the McDonald. This would be my third choice.

I think the race is between YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION and HALTING STATE. But my vote would be the former.

Oh, and I think all of these works are SF - just in different styles and voices. Alternate History is as viable as Deep Space Adventure. Both of these themes are part of the history of SF. Science Fiction is large. It contains multitudes.
Arachne Jericho
32. arachnejericho
@Bob said
ROLLBACK reads like mediocre Sawyer. I feel he's been writing the same book (using different science fiction themes) now for a long time - Ah for THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT when it was new!


Hm. I wish I did have the background in SF to know that. Rollback is the first bit of Sawyer I ever read.
Moshe Feder
33. Moshe
What a great series of responses!

I wish I could have been at my Mac watching as they came in and commenting on them individually in real time, but since posting my call for Hugo touts, I've been immersed in the world of Brandon Sanderson's next novel, Warbreaker (a standalone fantasy coming out next June), as he and I have been dealing with the final tweaks before sending it off to Production.

It's clear from the range of your opinions that when time permits (after Worldcon?), I should continue to try to read all the nominees. You've also convinced me that this is a strong year for Hugo-worthy SF novels. But was there really no fantasy that was as good?

After I've had some breakfast, I'm going to return to offer some specific reactions to what you've had to say.
Moshe Feder
34. Moshe
First off the mark was drplokta, who bets on Charlie Stross to win and notes that "The Yiddish Policemen's Union is too slipstream."

I can't disagree that it could be responded to as slipstream, but I think it is unquestionably alternate history. To me -- as you'd expect from a former Sidewise judge -- AH is definitely part of SF, hence YPU is not actually slipstream.

Ed Bear says,

"But there's no way in hell I'll read a book just to vote on it. I've tried both MacDonald and Sawyer and consider them third-rate at best, and Chabon's book isn't available as an eBook, so it's out of my personal running."

But Ed, do you discount the possibility that a writer can grow and improve over time? And isn't it possible that a book that struck you as third rate was an unfortunate exception, perhaps just a bad match of premise and author, and that a new work might be better?

I'm also surprised by your insistence that you'll only read an eBook. I think digital books have great potential, but given how early it is the evolution of that medium, restricting oneself to it seems needless self-deprivation. Even if you don't want to shell out for a copy in what you consider to be an obsolete format, I'm sure you could find Chabon's book at the library for free.

Ed goes on to say,

"That's how people vote, and you have to live with it."

Well, I've been living with it since I started voting for the Hugos in 1971, but I don't have to like it. :-)

neutronjockey quotes me and then responds to what I said:

"I've always said . . . that Hugo voting should not be a matter of relative quality, but of absolute excellence."

"and should be chosen by people with impeccable tastes and --- no, just a $50.00 buy-in fee."

I have to agree that it's unfortunate that Hugo voting participation has gotten so expensive because it's tied to worldcon membership. Proposals have occasionally been made to to extend the franchise by creating a cheaper category of voting-only membership, but so far that idea has always been defeated by those who raise the specter of easier ballot-box stuffing.

The sarcasm I think I detect in the first part of neutronjockey's comment is a bit unfair.

Any sensible person recognizes and agrees that all awards processes are imperfect (just as every voting method is flawed -- something that Charles Dodgson proved mathematically), and that of course there is no way to guarantee that everyone involved has "impeccable taste."

But when the Hugos were created, the winners were chosen by the members of a world convention with just a few hundred members. Given the low status of SF and fantasy at that time (the first Hugos were in 1953), they were a self-selected group of passionate lovers of the genre who, almost by definition (and default!), were the world's leading experts on the field. In those days, when SF was still a magazine-based genre, and books were much scarcer, everyone at the worldcon could be expected to have read everything that had come out the previous year as a matter of course. The problem wasn't too much stuff to keep up with, as it is now, but that there was never enough to satisfy their stefnal appetites.

I suppose it's idealistic and quixotic, but I think we get a better Hugo process the more we emulate those fans of the 50s.

arachnejericho makes the excellent point that mere involvement in the award process can itself be educational. It forces you to think more consciously about why you like or don't like a given work, and it encourages you to read things you might otherwise have skipped or maybe would not even have known about.

But, arachnejericho, I'm not quite sure what you mean when you say about Brasyl that "it's a hard read, yet highly accessible. But that's not probably not what SF hard-core fans will vote for, because it's also a mainstream contender. That pretty much dooms it." If it's a hard read, then in what sense is it accessible? And a book about "the bending of space and time" hardly seems mainstream. Did you mean mainstream in style?

About YPU, you say, "also very high quality, but unusual in that it's Alternative History---and I don't know if a large enough percentage of Hugo voters will like that." In fact, commercially speaking, AH is one of the most popular sub-genres of late and there's no reason the voters would be an exception to that. Yet it's also true that you're right that alternate history hasn't won too often. In fact, just twice, I think, and very good books: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke in 2005 and, one of my all-time favorites, The Man In the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick in 1963.

jasonpettus believes that YPU is going to win because ". . . it seems to be the big 'golden boy' of the entire literary world this year . . ." which raises the interesting question of whether fans will be positively influenced by such success in the wider culture, or react against it.

I'm also grateful, Jason, for your high recommendation of the PKD Award contenders by Harrison and by Roberts, which I will try to get to.

And that's all I have time for now. I'll be back later with more of my comments on your comments.
Arachne Jericho
35. arachnejericho
But, arachnejericho, I'm not quite sure what you mean when you say about Brasyl that "it's a hard read, yet highly accessible. But that's not probably not what SF hard-core fans will vote for, because it's also a mainstream contender. That pretty much dooms it." If it's a hard read, then in what sense is it accessible? And a book about "the bending of space and time" hardly seems mainstream. Did you mean mainstream in style?


That's one of the weird things about Brasyl; what I meant was more that it was a difficult book to read, but it reached beyond the SF genre. It was difficult not because of the SF in it, but because it was a complex tale. And it was a complex tale that was still straight-forward when it came to the SF elements.

And you can't really say that about many books that talk about space/time-bending.

Some SF manages to be difficult to read because of how they portray the SF; that's probably not a very great reason to be difficult to read, but then again, I'm no SF geek.

Also---I'll note that Brasyl is well-written, not in the "literary fiction" meaning but in the "it's actually understandable and yet the flow is smooth" sense.

You have to read it. It's just beyond easy description. I wrote a review on my blog, and I don't know if it'll help.

Brasyl ended up an Amazon.com "hidden gem" book, and those are usually mainstream.

As a random odd point, I have a hard time thinking of Strange & Norrell as AH, but it is with fantasy elements. (The followup book of short stories was also very very good.)
Moshe Feder
36. Moshe
Thanks for explaining about Brasyl. Now I get what you meant, and I'm even more eager to read it. I'll have a look at your blog review, too.

As for JS&MN's combination of AH and fantasy elements, it is unusual, but hardly unique.

Alternate History is usually the most mainstreamy subsection of SF, because typically the historical alteration is the only fantastic element. But there have always been exceptions to that, and to my way of thinking, an alternate history world that's "just like ours except magic works" is perfectly legitimate -- Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series is a classic example -- just as Naomi's Novik's wonderful examination of how the military use of non-magical dragons might have changed history is good AH as well.
Arachne Jericho
37. arachnejericho
Hmmm. I guess I do like Alternative History then---as long as there's additional touches of fantasy/SF. I have never really liked pure AH, though people seem to eat up the pure AH of Harry Turtledove like crazy.

So much reading to do. I look forwards to Lord Darcy and Naomi Novik's dragon series.
Jo Walton
38. bluejo
Ian McDonald is a genre writer, he's always been published as one and all his (many) books are SF with the possible exception of King of Morning, Queen of Day which is arguably fantasy. Also, he's a very fannish person. I can't see any way Brasyl is offputtingly mainstream -- it's not a mainstream story, it's not marketed as mainstream, and it's by a genre writer.

I thought it was good, but less terrific than River of Gods, which didn't win the Hugo, so I doubt it has a chance.
Arachne Jericho
39. arachnejericho
@bluejo
I can't see any way Brasyl is offputtingly mainstream -- it's not a mainstream story, it's not marketed as mainstream, and it's by a genre writer.


How does one define mainstream? I thought Brasyl read as mainstream very well, which may be different from actually being mainstream. I know there are mainstream writers who may be considered to dabble in SF/F, but to me they're just as SF/F.

(Although part of me wonders if we can apply the "If it's not good, it's not SF" in the reverse direction for "mainstream" in some way.)

I guess I have a hard time understanding the finer points of genre writing vs. mainstream.
Stephanie Young
40. bosswriter
The Hugo award is always tough to handicap, because when people get around to voting, all kinds of issues come to mind and not necessarily the quality of the book.

I read Rollback, Last Colony and YPU. I got about 100 pages into both Brasyl and Halting State and found both unreadable due to lack of story, poor characters and dullness.

I liked YPU for the way Chabon turns a phrase and his metaphors are terrific, but I found the story pedestrian at best and the alternate history had no main impact on the story IMHO.

So it boils down to Rollback and Last Colony for me - I won't say which I voted for, but I suspect with a Nebula already in hand for YPU it is the front-runner.
Susan de Guardiola
41. Susan
I'm not good at handicapping Hugo races, but I'm hoping for one of: Halting State, The Last Colony, or Brasyl. I thought the Sawyer was mediocre (at best) and excessively burdened with product placement; I hope the Atkins people chipped in on his advance. YUP actually repelled me and I hope it does not win. I found the alternate-history premise basically irrelevant to the story and fell asleep several times while reading it, it took so long to get going. First 200 pages: awful. Second 200 pages: getting better. Around page 400 it suddenly got interesting, and then the book ended. Yuck! Whatever the opposite of sensawunda is, YUP gave me that.

My go at having-it-both-ways handicapping: YUP will either take it fast or lose to one of the three good skiffy works, which will likely be each other's second and third choices. Since YUP won the Nebula and Locus awards, I'm afraid it might take the Hugo as well.

I posted my thoughts on all five books on Rixosous back in June, starting here.

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