My recommendations for the Best Novel Hugo

Every year, the members of the World Science Fiction Society choose the Hugo Awards. Most years, I vote in at most one of the Dramatic Presentation categories, but I decided to do better for Denvention and read all of the novels so I could cast an informed vote.

This decision was a bit easier than it sounds, since I’d already read The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Rollback, leaving me only three books to read, all of which were conveniently available at my local library.

The Hugo Awards use the Australian ballot (otherwise known as Instant Runoff Voting), so I had to rank-order all five novels, as well as No Award. Here’s my vote, starting with the best and moving down from there.

Originally, I didn’t think of this as science fiction; I came to it as a confirmed fan of Chabon, originally from reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I’ve enjoyed most of his books. And my main interest in the book was its Jewish content; in fact, Shir Hadash chose the book for its first congregational reading program.

But it is SF, of course, dealing, as it does, with an alternate history in which many (but not all) European Jews were evacuated to Alaska as a temporary refuge, leading to a present day where there is a large cohort of Yiddish-speaking Jews (well, mostly Jews) in and around Sitka, and where their lease on the territory is about to expire.

There is intrigue, an evil US Government plot, a love story, a murder to solve, and more — highly recommended. My only real complaint is that the loose ends were tied up very abruptly, as though Chabon had been given a maximum page count and had to avoid going over.

Stross is always reliable, and Halting State does not disappoint. It’s set in a very near-future Scotland (after the breakdown of the United Kingdom), in a world where gaming has gone mainstream and become a significant part of the economy. There are bad guys and possibly some good guys, a love story (of the geekish kind), some tech talk and predictions (I suspect he’s too optimistic on the release date of Python3000), and lots and lots of action. The book is written in the second person, with multiple viewpoint characters, a narrative trick I found irritating, but it kept me turning the pages very steadily indeed.

I wasn’t sure whether to put this or Yiddish Policeman’s Union first, but eventually, I decided I found the characters in Yiddish Policeman’s Union to be more convincing.

I enjoyed Rollback when I read it as an Analog serial, and I enjoyed rereading it, once I figured out why it was so familiar; it hadn’t made a strong enough impression on me for me to remember the title. The McGuffin here is that Earth has just received a reply to the message it sent to aliens in response to their message to us (yes, interstellar email has reply chains), but that it’s encrypted, and the Rich Industrialist is willing to pay to have the scientist who figured out the first message “rolled back” (or rejuvenated) so she’ll be able to figure out this message. She is reluctant, and only agrees if her husband is also rolled back — but his rollback takes and hers doesn’t.

Again, pages turned rapidly, but the characters would have been right at home in 2008; sure, there were some changes in the gadgetry, but they didn’t seem to have any effect on the way people lived and acted. Despite that weakness, I recommend the book — but it’s not outstanding.

Brasyl is set in, strangely enough, Brazil — three Brazils, in fact. One seems to be contemporary, one is about 30 years in the future, and one is a couple of centuries in the past. But they aren’t in the same timeline. And they might not be real.

Brasyl reminded me a lot of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And of various authors’ crosstime books. And of the end of James Blish’s The Triumph of Time.

I found the characters unsympathetic, and I don’t know enough about the history of Brazilian football (soccer) to really appreciate the significance of the Fateful Final (though I did enjoy it when the Brazilian team stayed in Los Gatos for the 1994 World Cup).

Perhaps The Last Colony lost something for me because I hadn’t read the two earlier books in the series, but I found it to be by far the least worthy of the Hugo nominees. The characters were cut from cardboard that Asimov would have rejected as being too thin, the aliens weren’t very alien, and I didn’t find the plot points to be particularly believable.

I did finish the book, but it was largely from a sense of duty.