Friday, February 24, 2012

Awards, space opera, and Leviathan Wakes

The nominees for this year's Nebula Awards have recently been announced. The Nebulas are an interesting counterpoint to the Hugo Awards; anyone who is willing to cough up $50 can vote on the Hugos, whereas the Nebulas are professional awards, voted for by active members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. This year's Novel category -- the only one on which I'm even slightly qualified to comment at the moment -- looks like this:

  • Among Others, by Jo Walton
  • Embassytown, by China Mieville
  • Firebird, by Jack McDevitt
  • God's War, by Kameron Hurley
  • Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine
  • The Kingdom of Gods, by N. K. Jemisin

That looks like a pretty great ballot to me. I've already mentioned how much I like Among Others and Mechanique, both of which I intend to nominate for the Best Novel Hugo this year. The Kingdom of Gods is the third in the series that began with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I enjoyed very much when I read it last year. I'm looking forward to Embassytown, but I don't know much about Firebird or God's War. I'll have to hunt them out.

Between the Nebula announcement and reading for the Hugo Awards, I've been thinking quite a bit about what these awards actually mean to me. Is the 'best' novel simply the one I enjoyed the most? Perhaps not -- I think I try to choose the novel that I believe would cast the genre in the best light if I were to give it to a critical reader (whatever that means).

Which brings me to Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (who is really Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). It was published last year, so it's part of my reading for the Hugo ballot. I just finished it yesterday, and I had a great time. I'm a real sucker for big, action-packed space operas, and this was a particularly good one. I realised as I read it, though, that I was never going to nominate it for Best Novel. And if it did appear on the final ballot, I probably wouldn't vote for it. 

Why is that? I've spoken about this before, but I think I believe that a book should be judged against its own goals. There's not really much point in comparing a plot-driven thriller against a literary character piece (although Best Novel awards force you to try). If I really believe that, though, why isn't a space opera that absolutely nails it just as worthy of a Best Novel nomination as anything else?

I feel like the answer might be ambition -- a space opera just seems like a less ambitious undertaking than, well, many other things. But that's not a feeling I'm particularly comfortable with. It implies an inescapable, objective hierarchy of value: these books over here are 'good', by definition, and these other ones are 'trashy'.

And worse than that, it's a paralysing feeling. I love space operas. I think they'd be really fun to write. But I never try. Maybe I should nominate Leviathan Wakes for the Best Novel Hugo -- embrace it, rather than give into the temptation to marginalise it. Because really, I enjoyed it very much.


  1. "A child's reading is guided by pleasure, but his pleasure is undifferentiated; he cannot distinguish, for example, between aesthetic pleasure and the pleasures of learning or daydreaming. In adolescence we realize that there are different kinds of pleasure, some of which cannot be enjoyed simultaneously, but we need help from others in defining them. Whether it be a matter of taste in food or taste in literature, the adolescent looks for a mentor in whose authority he can believe. He eats or reads what his mentor recommends and, inevitably, there are occasions when he has to deceive himself a little; he has to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little more than he actually does. Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology. When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, 'I know what I like,'he is really saying 'I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu', because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read." -- W. H. Auden

    Vote your conscience, man. We'll back your play, whatever you do. I'm just glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Anyway, it's funny that you posted this, because I just started _Leviathan Wakes_ today very much with the "should I nominate this for a Hugo?" question in mind. Inspired somewhat by last year's novelette category, I think I've decided that the Hugos need to reward more straight-sf-done-well rather than different-sf-stuff-done-okay-but-hey-at-least-it's-kinda-original. That latter form has garnered lots of nominations of late, and I don't think it's been good for sf as a genre. Then again, I see where you're coming from, so you should do what the last mysterious commenter said and vote your conscience (I'm not far enough to have decided myself anyway).

    Also, I don't understand why this "Daniel Abraham" fellow seems to feel ownership for the works of Mr. James S. A. Corey... ;)