2019 Hugo Award Reviews: Novels Part Two

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Welcome to the final set of reviews for this year’s Hugo Awards! The previous post in this series covered three of the six books in the running for the Best Novel Hugo. Now, it is time to cover the remaining three…

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Cover of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalThe story begins in an alternate 1952, when the space programme is already ahead of our timeline – America having sent three satellites into space, beating the Russians in that particular race – but disaster strikes when a meteorite lands in the ocean off Maryland, destroying Washington DC and leaving tens of thousands dead.

Rocket scientist Elma York and her husband Nathaniel lose their families in the catastrophe, but they themselves survive. Making their way across a corpse-strewn landscape, Elma and Nathaniel finally find safety when Elma, a WAF pilot during World War II, meets her old contacts in the armed forces.

But any safety is short-lived. As the aftereffects of the meteorite strike are felt around the world Elma calculates that Earth may be seeing the beginnings of an extinction-level event. Dust and smoke in the atmosphere will lead to global cooling, before the greenhouse effect kicks in and causes further disruption to the climate. Humanity’s best hope, she concludes, is to colonise space. The Moon will be the first step, followed by Mars.

So ends the first of the novel’s two parts. The second, which is considerably longer, picks up four years after the meteorite strike. Plans for a lunar colony are underway, and Elma is keen to get involved. But she faces significant hurdles: despite her skills and experience, along with the basic fact that women would be essential to any successful colonisation attempt, the space programme is reluctant to put a woman in a rocket. Aided by both her husband and by a bevy of other female would-be astronauts, Elma must fight to shift perceptions if she is to take part in shaping the future.

The change in tone and pace between the two sections is significant. Where the opening chapters take place in the middle of an apocalypse, the remainder of the novel is an altogether more sedate affair: the story establishes that humanity is still facing impending extinction, and newspaper clippings at the start of each chapter indicate the turmoil occurring in certain parts of the globe, but Earth’s fate is far enough off for the characters to argue over preparations. The parallels to modern debates over climate change are hard to miss, and indeed, Mary Robinette Kowal appears to have set out with the specific aim of using the 1950s space program as a background to an exploration of themes that remain relevant today.

The character-based drama in The Calculating Stars is, in large part, a study in prejudice. As well as being held back by male chauvinism, Elma – who is Jewish – faces ethnic and religious prejudice. She also has mental health problems, and relies on tranquilisers to keep stable; but she is forced to keep her medication a secret so as to avoid stigma, something that is used in a blackmail attempt against her towards the end of the novel. But despite her victimhood, Elma is not entirely guiltless herself, and must confront her own shortcomings when she realises that she has been overlooking the struggles of her black and Asian colleagues. Colonel Stetson Parker, the novel’s antagonist, is an embodiment of machismo’s dark side: not only does he harass and belittle the women around him, his desire to keep up a macho appearance prevents him from getting help for his own medical issues.

With these themes running thick and fast through its story, The Calculating Stars risked turning into a set of Bunyanesque allegories about gender relations, but Kowal avoids this by ensuring that her characters come alive as people rather than cyphers. Elma York herself, with her air force history, detailed family relations (duly shaken by the meteorite crisis), rich southern-Jewish cultural background, and such personal quirks as her habit of dealing with anxiety by reciting a list of prime numbers, is a fully fleshed-out protagonist.

The characters exist within a landscape filled with attention to period detail. A mission to Mars being planned in the 1950s may sound far-fetched, but in reality, Wernher von Braun had written extensively on the topic shortly after the war; Kowal acknowledges this by including von Braun as a minor character, although she does not shy away from addressing his controversial involvement with the Third Reich. Another, wildly different figure from the period’s scientific world is Don Herbert, the Mr. Wizard of children’s television, who helps give Elma a platform for her agenda; Kowal notes in her afterword that this plot element was to honour Herbert’s forward-looking practice of giving both boys and girls equivalent roles in his show.

The Calculating Stars is the prequel to an earlier novelette, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, which detailed the life of 63-year-old Elma on a Martian colony. So thoroughly has Kowal filled in Elma’s terrestrial exploits that it took a second novel – The Fated Sky, also published in 2018 – for the protagonist to actually reach space. Manifestly the first in a series rather than a standalone novel, The Calculating Stars is nonetheless a rich and satisfying voyage into a romanticised – but hardly idealised – version of the space race’s beginnings.


Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Cover of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky ChambersAs a fleet of spacecraft carry the remnants of humanity away from an uninhabitable Earth, one of the ships suffers a catastrophic breach. Nearly half a million are killed, and the survivors are taken in as refugees by a sister vessel in the fleet, the Asteria. It is a task too large for the human fleet itself to manage, but help comes in the form of an alien race called the Aeluons.

The main body of Record of a Spaceborne Few picks up a few years after the disaster. Things have settled down, but some of the ramifications are still being felt, and the newcomers are still being integrated. The novel follows events on board the Asteria as seen through the eyes of five main characters.

Isabel, head of archives on board the Asteria, is first faced with the task of documenting the catastrophe and its aftermath before offering aid to a visiting alien researcher named Ghuh’loloan. Eyas is a “caretaker” – that is, one of the people tasked with recycling human bodies into compost, a practice that is commonplace and accepted in spacefaring culture. Tessa is a mother who has to take care of her children Aya, Ky and Pop while her husband George is consumed by work. Kip is a teenager on the cusp of adulthood and eager to move forward, no matter how much trouble he risks. Finally, Sawyer is a young man hoping to enter the workforce. Each chapter focuses on a specific character, the novel cycling through their respective viewpoints as the overall story unfolds. Squeezed between the major stretches of narrative are scenes written from the perspective of the alien Ghuh’loloan, who muses about the ways of the human race.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book in a series that also includes The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and the 2017 Hugo finalist A Closed and Common Orbit. It does not continue the narrative of the earlier novels – their connecting character, an AI named Lovelace, is nowhere to be seen – but it does carry over the general tone of its predecessors. Becky Chambers’ series has, from the beginning, been a space opera about family, one full of warmth and observation.

The characters’ narratives are formed in large part by the sort of everyday desires and anxieties that, behind the minor SF twists, will be easily recognisable to the reader. Tessa worries that she will lose her job at a recycling plant to AIs. Teenage Kip obtains a fake ID from his friend Ras and sneaks into a club, only to be caught by his parents. Sawyer yearns for social acceptance, hoping to someday belong to a group of friends – like the ones he has seen in fiction. At times the connections between Chamber’s vision of the future and the mundane business of today are played for laughs, as when we see parents trying to steer their children away from trashy Martian entertainment, or ace hackers using pseudonyms like “fluffyfluffycake”.

This is not to say that the subject matter of the novel can be summed up as lighthearted domestic humour – far from it. The story’s major dramatic turning point occurs when an industrial accident leads to a death, which the victim’s superiors try to cover up. The ramifications of this turn out to affect all of the main cast in one form or another, as the spacefaring society takes the opportunity to learn from the disaster, adjusting and evolving.

The theme of evolution is central to Record of a Spaceborn Few, and the novel approaches the topic with optimism. It depicts a future where humanity has started anew after losing Earth, and faces further catastrophes along the line – but, crucially, is capable of adapting to whatever comes along. The human race may have to adjust its culture to accommodate the new practice of recycling its dead as compost; it may have to broaden its outlook to take various alien species into account – but yet human life remains filled with the sort of anxieties, conflicts and joys that even an inhabitant of our backwards, low-tech era will recognise.


Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Cover of Space Opera by Ctherynne M. ValenteEarth has entered the sights of an extraterrestrial confederation, one which demands that all populated planets must prove the sentience of their dominant species – or perish. Unless humanity can demonstrate that it is a sentient lifeform, the species will be annihilated so as to prevent it from spreading its barbarism to the wider cosmos. The aliens have a very specific criteria for proving sentience. Not the usage of tools, which is found amongst otters, crows and apes; not the construction of cities, which is also carried out by ants; and not complex problem solving, a skill possessed by dogs. Instead,

The only question is this: Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself and scream into the void in four-part harmony? Enough brainpower and fine motor control and aesthetic ideation to look at feathers and stones and stuff that comes out of a worm’s more unpleasant holes and see gowns, veils, platform heels? Enough sheer style and excess energy to do something that provides no direct, material benefit to your personal survival, that might even mark you out from the pack as shiny, glittery prey, to do it for no other reason than that it rocks?

In other words, the human race must prove its worth by rocking its way to survival in an interplanetary song contest.

Helpfully, the aliens provide Earth with a list of artists worthy of serving as humanity’s ambassadors; this turns out to be a jumbled assortment ranging from Nicki Minaj to the creator of the He-Man theme – but then, the aliens are a strange species who consider “Revolution 9” to be the only Beatles song of merit. A graver flaw in the list is that almost every artist is either dead or incapacitated… with one exception.

Enter Decibel Jones, lead singer of the Absolute Zeros and the “ultimate glamgrind messiah of the late 2010s”. However, as it happens, the late 2010s were a long time ago; Decibel Jones is a faded has-been, and not all of his bandmates are still alive. Can the group pull itself together for a reunion performance to decide the fate of humanity?

As this synopsis should make clear, Space Opera is a very silly book. But it is a carefully-crafted silly book. Valente has found a nexus of silliness, where three distinct genres find common ground.
The first genre, of course, is the rich tradition of comedic science fiction. The novel’s narrative voice feels like Douglas Adams crossed with a sugar rush, gleefully describing a procession of bizarre alien creatures and their respective customs and cultures. Secondly, the novel draws heavily on cartoon imagery: the bird-like aliens arranging the contest are repeatedly compared to the roadrunner, and by extension our hero Decibel Jones comes out as something of a hapless Wile E. Coyote figure.

The third genre simultaneously lampooned and celebrated by Space Opera is 1970s glam rock. Glam already overlaps with pulp sci-fi imagery, a connection that runs from Ziggy Stardust through to Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack and more recently fed into the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Although the story places Decibel Jones’s heyday in the late 2010s, he is clearly a throuwback to 70s glam, and feels like a composite of that era’s leading lights: he has the otherworldly iconography of David Bowie; an immigrant backstory recalling Freddie Mercury; and a past-his-prime naffness that is a teensy bit Elton John.
Beneath the multi-coloured layers of camp, Space Opera boasts some genuinely intriguing worldbuilding. The aliens who organise the contest, the Esca, have a sociology based around music: “A breeding pair and their offspring are a Verse, the kidlets are Lyrics, the ruling classes are the Chorus, the proletariat are the Key, and the mercantiles are the Bridge.” Another character we encounter is Öö, who outwardly resembles a red panda but who is in actual fact a Keshet, an alien species “born flitting from timeline to timeline like hummingbirds from flower to flower to the invasion of the Mongols to flower”. Öö consequently speaks in a strange stammer, the result of their alternate-timeline selves using different words at the same time.

Naturally, all these weird and wonderful creatures bring their unique musical traditions to the contest. To pick one example, a previous iteration was won by the Sziv (“a group intelligence comprised of hot punk algae genetically fused with nanocomputational spores”) who sang a song not with sound, but with pheromones, exiting the entire audience’s sexual urges “until the slightest whisper sounded like a techno-erotic laser light show of the soul”.

This kind of thing forms the meat of Space Opera, which often looks less like a story and more like a tour through various strange cartoon creatures. The core narrative is of the sort extensively mythologised by countless rock biopics and Behind the Music documentaries: Decibel Jones was born Danesh Jalo to a large Asian-British family, and we see him growing up above a video rental shop in Blackpool; crafting a new identity away from his family; forming a band with fellow musicians; watching as creative tension mounts between Mira (wanting to move the band towards socially-conscious songs) and Oort (favouring “concept jazz, or something”); seeing the band end with the death of Mira; and finally coming out of retirement for a reunion performance.

But while this plot is not especially original, the novel does show an infectious fondness for glam rock in all its over-the-top campness. Indeed, at one point Decibel delivers a monologue on how camp spectacle can be a force for good in a grim world:

I felt like I was the only one who understood that the only wall we could ever build against What’s Going On was the glitter and the shine and the synth and the knowing grin that never stops knowing. The show. Because the opposite of fascism isn’t anarchy, it’s theater. When the world is fucked, you go to the theater, you go to the shine, and when the bad men come, all there is left to do is sing them down […] you can’t sing a dirge to the reaper, he’s already heard them all. You gotta slaughter him with joy and a beat like the best of all possible shags, and because somehow, somehow, my nan’s cartoons always had it right and the Care Bear Stare is the most powerful force in the world…

Space Opera was published in the midst of debates over the concept of “hopepunk”: unerringly sunny optimistic science fiction and fantasy that stands in opposition to the grimdark fare such as Game of Thrones. Through its alien antagonists, the novel voices a large number of criticisms about the human condition, albeit in a sardonically humorous way (comparisons with Douglas Adams are, once again, hard to avoid). Yet, the story unambiguously comes down on the side of Decibel Jones and all that he stands for.
After all, how can you wipe out the planet that invented disco?


Overall Thoughts

So, that wraps up the main category of the 2019 Hugo Awards. Let us take one last look over the six books competing for the trophy…

Four of the novels belong to existing series, but of these, only one – Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun –requires familiarity with earlier instalments to appreciate. Spinning Silver is more a spiritual successor than a literal continuation of Uprooted; Record of a Spaceborn Few takes place in an established universe but, with a new cast and setting, works as a standalone novel; and The Calculating Stars is a prequel designed to serve as the first volume in its series. This is refreshing, as past iterations of the Best Novel category have been heavily reliant on earlier continuity – the 2017 ballot, for example, included four sequels that were written on the general assumption that readers were familiar with the previous instalments of each respective series.

In terms of recurring themes, it is notable how many of these novels are concerned with optimism in the face of apocalypse. Record of a Spaceborn Few and The Calculating Stars depict humanity heading into space to escape a doomed Earth; although one is set in the far future and the other in an alternate past, each makes an effort to address contemporary concerns. Trail of Lightning treats its apocalyptic scenario as part of a cycle, seen from the perspective of a group – Native Americans – who have endured far graver catastrophes within modern history. Space Opera, meanwhile, treats the impending destruction of Earth as an excuse for a big, outrageous joke. Readers who want to read about something other than the destruction of Earth have a choice between the esoteric space battles of Revenant Gun or the fairy tale fantasy of Spinning Silver.

Which author will take the trophy? Well, that’s impossible to say right now – although the fact that The Calculating Stars won this year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel would make Mary Robinette Kowal a reasonably good bet. But whichever one takes the prize, these six novels feature a combination of fantasy, history, space opera, comedy, adventure and social commentary that offers something for a wide range of different tastes.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.