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2016 Hugo picks: Novellas
Once again, four from the Rabid slate and one from the Sad. Though I was actually surprised to find that I didn't hate any of these. In fact, I think I actually enjoyed reading every single one (which is in stark contract to last year's pickings in this category). So that's a positive sign, at least.

5. The Builders by Daniel Polansky
In a world of talking animals, the Captain gets the old gang back together to take revenge.
This is to me the most obviously Puppyish of the nominees, with its emphasis on vengeance, violence, and little else. The characters felt more like hastily sketched archetypes than fully formed people, and there were a number of plot points and character decisions that didn't make sense. The style was also quite punny ("the server was a shrewish sort of shrew, as shrews tend to be", "the Captain was singular in his single-mindedness"), which was occasionally grating, and just in general it was fairly well bloated with cliché. Still, it was a fun read in a Furry Tarantino kind of way, and I don't mind having been subjected to it.

4. Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
After the end of a brutal civil war, soldiers from both sides wake up from hibernation sleep on a transport ship, but something is wrong.
It was enjoyable but reminded me too much of its antecedents for me to be overly impressed by it. I did appreciate the hints of unreliable narration, though.

3. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (novella, 2015, Hugo nom)
A girl from an insular human population (a real one- the Himba) leaves home against her family's wishes to take her place at the most prestigious university in the galaxy.
This won the Nebula and is the only non-Rabid story on the list. As such it is likely to win, but I'm ambivalent about it. I like the MC a lot. I like the meditations on balancing commitment to your roots with openness to the rest of the universe, and how doing so can lead to lonely neither-here-nor-there places. I like the mathematics-as-magic angle, and the tech is fun. Where I run into problems is the plot. I won't go into detail so as to avoid spoilers, but there were a number of holes and gimmicks that I just can't get past. (The author's note at the end says the plot was essentially the invention of her eleven-year-old daughter, so maybe that explains that.)

2. Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
Things don't go according to plan when a mild young nobleman from a minor house is possessed by a demon departing a dying sorceress.
Historically I haven't enjoyed Bujold's work. In Hugo voting I've always ranked her stuff last or second-to-last (with Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant the only author who consistently grates on me more among historically frequently nominated authors). I imagine that to her fans her work comes off as something like comfort food, but to me it's humdrum and hackneyed. And a lot of that is on display here, what with the standard-issue medieval fantasy setting, the long and pointless descriptions of setting (it even starts with one), the slow pacing, and the arch tone. But this one managed to win me over, rather against my will, despite all that. The cracks in the walls began with the scene where he names the demon, about 20% of the way in, and by the time I got through the last scene I had to wave my white flag. This hit something with me, and I wouldn't be annoyed if it won.

1. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson
The god-emperor of Alornia is called upon by powers that even he cannot resist to leave his realm and find another of his kind to reproduce with.
I admit to struggling with privileged male guilt about making my top choice the story about a guy struggling with privileged male guilt, but here we are. Say what you will about Sanderson's political and religious views; he's very good at what he does. (Not to mention that I appreciate his reasonable and empathetic views on the Puppy mess.) This story has a rich setting, a nuanced, flawed, and yet sympathetic main character, and an interesting plot. One might quibble with the presentation of the "feminist" character, but in the context of the whole story I think that deserves a pass. The characters and the setting seem like they could be plumbed to much greater depths. (I actually envision it as an anime series, somehow.) There's an iceberg feeling of so much more going on here, and I like that. I've never quite gotten around to tackling one of his full-length novels, which, magical gold factories though they may be, never quite get him the rocket (which might be why he trots out these little boluses now and again). I might have to remedy that.

That leaves the novels. You'll have to give me a bit of time on those, since I've only read one of them so far. Till next time…

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