2020 Hugos: Best Novella

Today I’m looking back at the Best Novella finalists for the 2020 Hugos.  Two of my five nominations made the ballot, and I only had one novella left to read after the finalists were announced.  My other three nominees were from paid magazines:  “New Atlantis” by Lavie Tidhar (Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/Jun 2019), “Waterlines” by Suzanne Palmer (Asimov’s, Jul/Aug 2019), and “The Work of Wolves” by Tegan Moore (Asimov’s, Jul/Aug 2019).  The two from Asimov’s were available online, and all three were on the Locus Recommended Reading List.  I’ll be curious to see if any of them appear on the Hugo longlist.

“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” appeared in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection and is one of eleven total Hugo nominations including three wins that Chiang has received for his short fiction.  It was also a finalist for the Nebula and Locus awards.  He is a previous winner of the Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly known as the John W. Campbell Award) and is on the ballot this year in the Best Novelette category as well.

This was the only novella finalist that I had yet to read, and I think I’ve only read one other story from Chiang prior to the two on the ballot this year.  In a world otherwise like our own, there are devices which allow one to temporarily communicate with an alternate reality in which a different choice led to a different life.  The premise is well-written and thoroughly explored, but it just didn’t hold much interest for me.

The Deep by Rivers Solomon has already won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror.  It was also a finalist for the Nebula and Locus awards and on the honor list for the Otherwise Award (formerly known as the James Tiptree Jr. Award).  Solomon is on the ballot this year in the Best Short Story category as well, and they were a two-time past finalist for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

This came very close to making my nomination ballot.  If I had one more spot, this would have been my pick.  I really enjoyed the world-building which further develops the same premise which the group Clipping (Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes) had in their Hugo-nominated song of the same name.  Solomon presents us with an elaborate culture based on the idea of the pregnant slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage giving birth to mermaids.  But I ended up feeling like I wanted to like the story itself more than I actually did.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark was also a finalist for the Nebula and the Locus awards.  Clark was on the Hugo ballot last year in both the Best Novella and Best Short Story categories.

I thought this story was good but didn’t stand out enough to make my own nomination ballot.  It gives us a glimpse of a fascinating alternate twentieth century Cairo with djinn and automatons, but this particular story of the investigation into the titular tram car didn’t really grab me.  I would love to see more in this setting though.

In an Absent Dream is Seanan McGuire’s fifth Best Novella nomination out of twenty total Hugo nominations between her own name and her Mira Grant pseudonym.  This is the fourth book in the Wayward Children series, and all four have received Best Novella nominations with a win for the first.  (I expect an appearance in Best Series once the required word count is met in a few more installments.)  McGuire is also on the ballot this year for Best Novel and Best Series.  She is a past winner of the Astounding Award for Best New Writer and a two-time Hugo winner for Best Fancast as well.

This was on my own nomination ballot.  These stories of children who discover portals to other worlds continue to delight me.  I found the Goblin Market where everything is negotiated for fair value, the ability to go back and forth between the Market and one’s own world until turning eighteen, and the fact that our protagonist’s father has traveled to the Market before her provided some fascinating new twists on the overall setting.  I was also pleased to finally learn the backstory on one of the minor characters from the first book.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone has already won the Nebula, the Locus, and the British Science Fiction Association awards.  It was also nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Kitschies Red Tentacle, the Aurora Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.  El-Mohtar is a past Hugo winner for Best Short Story, and Gladstone is a previous Hugo finalist for Best Series.

I imagine the authors had a ton of fun writing this, passing the story back and forth like their protagonists traded letters, and challenging each other to create evermore elaborate situations.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have as much fun reading it.  I had to push myself to make it though, and I just wasn’t sold on the enemies-to-lovers romance between these two agents on opposite sides of a conflict which I never really understood.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers was also a finalist for the Nebula and the British Science Fiction Association awards.  Chambers is a past winner of the Hugo for Best Series and two of the books in that series were finalists for Best Novel as well.

The other one of my nominees which appeared on the ballot, I went into this with high expectations from Chambers’ Hugo winning Wayfarers series, and I was not disappointed.  It does an excellent job of portraying this small family-like group of scientists as they study four very different planets.  Their love of scientific discovery and their care for one another comes through clearly and was incredibly moving.

My first two spots went to my own nominees which were really tough to choose between.  Surprisingly I went with the science fiction story where I often favor fantasy.  It could have easily gone the other way, and I’ll be just as happy with either winning.  Next we have the two stories I liked for their world-building, but not enough from them to make it onto my own ballot.  Finally, two stories that were well-written but didn’t really work for me.  Here’s what I ended up with:

  1. To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)
  2. In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
  3. The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga Press/Gallery)
  4. The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
  5. “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador))
  6. This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Saga Press; Jo Fletcher Books)

Not gonna lie, I rather This Is How You Lose the Time War didn’t take home another win.  Maybe In an Absent Dream, the one story it hasn’t come up against yet, will triumph instead.  What do you think?

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