The five books chosen for the 2009 Hugo Awards shortlist are largely mediocre, insists up-and-coming author Adam Roberts. But the interesting part isn't his critiques of Gaiman, Doctorow, Stross, and Scalzi, it's his ideas of what make a great novel.
The Hugos, of course, are the fan-voted awards, and anybody who attended last year's WorldCon or plans to attend this year's gets to vote. That makes them the most democratic of all the major awards, although actual numbers of voters still tend to be quite small.
And Roberts argues that the voice of fandom, through the Hugo Awards, has chosen to represent the genre poorly. With the possible exception of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, the six books chosen for the Hugo Awards shortlist are utterly unremarkable, says Roberts. He calls Scalzi's Zoe's Tale "mediocre but pleasant," Gaiman's The Graveyard Book "twee" and "cosy," Stross' Saturn's Children "as scattershot a novel as any Stross has written," and Doctorow's Little Brother "stylistically dull." As for Anathem, it's "enormous and deranged and so boring it goes through boring into some strange condition on the far side."
Widely publicised shortlists of mediocre art are a bad thing. What do these lists say about SF to the multitude in the world-to the people who don't know any better? It says that SF is old-fashioned, an aesthetically, stylistically and formally small-c conservative thing. It says that SF fans do not like works that are too challenging, or unnerving; that they prefer to stay inside their comfort zone.
As for the fact that the novel shortlist is so dominated by young adult fiction, Roberts quotes Abigail Nussbaum who says that's not the real problem:
Though it might be tempting to conclude that the shoddy state of this year's shortlist is the result of the infantilization of the genre, to my mind the problem isn't that YA books are being nominated, but that the wrong YA books have been. How much stronger would this year's best novel shortlist have been if Terry Pratchett's Nation, Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, or even Allegra Goodman's The Other Side of the Island had been on it? (This is not even to mention books that have received a great deal of critical attention, but which I haven't yet read myself, such as Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, Kristin Cashore's Graceling, or Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.)
But once you unpack Roberts' statements further, you realize that he's actually making a larger argument about what a good novel is, and what science fiction novels should do. It's not just that he didn't like the shortlist, it's that those books didn't do what he wanted them to. Writes Roberts:
[T]he very heart's-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing. And if this true of literature, it is doubly or trebly true of science fiction. For what is the point of SF if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?...
Fandom, look at the 2009 Clarke novel shortlist. Do you know why that list is better than yours? It's not that its every novel is a masterpiece-far from it (although it seems to me regretable that you couldn't you vote books as good as The Quiet War, House of Sons or Song of Time onto your shortlist.) But some of the books on that list fail, no question. Martin Martin's on the Other Side, for instance, is a mediocre novel. But (and this is the crucial thing) it's a mediocre novel trying to do something a little new with the form of the novel. It's an experiment in voice and tone, and ambitious in its way. The novels on the Hugo shortlist-except Anathem, as I mentioned-try nothing new: they are all old-fashioned: formally, stylistically and conceptually unadventurous.
And that's probably the crux of it, I think — do we want awards like the Hugos to celebrate works that tell a good story, or do we want to uplift works that are experimental and "do something a little new with the form of the novel"? I don't think it's actually true that mainstream literary fiction values strangeness or formal experimentation, outside of a few rarified circles. I have a feeling the Hugos represent the books that most of the WorldCon-goers read and liked the most, rather than ones which pushed the envelope in some way.
Maybe we should have a different set of awards for envelope-pushing works? What do you think? [Punkadiddle]