Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem was something of a surprise Hugo winner last year: a Chinese language SF novel that came out very late in the year (November), and then rapidly grabbed a Nebulas nom and a Hugo win. There are a lot of things going on in the case of The Three-Body Problem. Ken Liu translated the book, and he brought with him his Hugo/Nebula credibility (3 prior Hugo nominations, 2 wins; 8 prior Nebula nominations, 1 win). That brought eyes to The Three Body-Problem, and once people starting reading Liu’s book, they found a highly original novel ranging from Cultural Revolution to an alien invasion to a massive human computer to a ship being cut apart by microfilaments to the unfolding of an elementary particle. Three Body-Problem also benefitted from the great 2015 Hugo controversy—it was the book most acceptable to all parties, and enjoyed the support of the Rabid/Sad Puppies in beating out The Goblin Emperor.
In many ways, though, it wasn’t a fair fight. Cixin Liu is a sensation in China, and these books are considered some of the best Chinese SF of all time. It’s no surprise that the best Chinese novel of the decade is better than the American/British novels of any given year. Perhaps the Hugo is truly becoming a world SFF award, and that would certainly change the face of future nominations.
All that aside, let me state this: if Three Body-Problem could win last year, its sequel The Dark Forest could win this year. The same circumstances (and even voters) that created last year’s Hugos are still in place: could Liu be the compromise choice two years in a row?
The Dark Forest picks up where The Three Body-Problem left off. Mild spoilers follow. The Tri-solarians are on their way to Earth, and the humans now have a several hundred year period to prepare. In many ways, The Dark Forest is a more conventional novel than Three-Body, insofar as it has more of a main character and a more unified plot. Many readers will like that, although I missed the sheer exuberance of the giant set-pieces. Liu doesn’t do away with those entirely, and by the time you’ve finished The Dark Forest, you’ve seen some truly memorable SF moments, including the idea of the Wallfacers, the concept of the Dark Forest, and a murderous teardrop. I won’t say more for fear of giving away too much.
Sequels are always at a disadvantage on the awards circuit. Since not everyone has read the first novel, your potential audience is cut down. There’s also a sense of “This author just won, let’s give someone else a chance.” Liu’s biggest competition might be Ann Leckie this year, so the sequel-disadvantage is in play for both of these books. That’s why Uprooted or Seveneves has a chance to sneak in.
In terms of nominations, I think Hugo and Nebula nominations for The Dark Forest are likely. Cixin Liu was one of the most talked about SF authors last year, and more and more readers are checking out his work. More readers = more award chances, and we know that the Hugo and Nebula voters tend to be repetitive. It’s hard to fill out a 5 spot ballot; most SFF voters just don’t read 5 new novels a year.
In terms of metrics, The Dark Forest is doing pretty well. In late October, Goodreads is at 1,617 ratings and a 4.48 score. On Amazon, we’re at 116 ratings and an outstanding 4.7 score. Those score are very high, showing that those who read The Dark Forest have really liked it. That’s inflated because it’s a sequel (if you hated the first novel, why read the second?), but high scores are always better.
Cixin Liu doesn’t have much presence in English-language social media. Rather than hurting his chances, I think this might help in the charged 2015-2016 awards environment: Cixin Liu seems totally removed from the various controversies of the Hugo awards.
Not great mainstream coverage—no articles in NPR, NY Times, etc. That might be because The Dark Forest is a sequel. Liu does get a variety of pieces on why you should read him in general. For instance, The Washington Post ran an article on “Why you should be reading Liu Cixin, China’s hottest SF writer”; NPR has a similar piece on “Cultural Revolution-Meets-Aliens: Chinese Writer Takes on Sci-Fi.” Chaos Horizon is still trying to parse through how much this kind of mainstream coverage helps your Nebula/Hugo chances: it seemed to help VanderMeer win the Nebula last year. I’m less certain if it helps in the Hugos.
That’s actually pretty thin: no online review at Locus yet, no Book Smugglers review (they gave Three-Body Problem a 10 out of 10), no Strange Horizons, etc. Maybe these venues are just a little bit behind on reviewing the book—that happens often when sequels. When people know they’re going to read a book, they might wait until later in the year, or even after the Hugo/Nebula noms, to read something. In fact, I’m afraid that’s happening more and more with the Hugo packet. A reader may say, “Cixin Liu is sure to make it, I’ll just wait for my free copy.” At some point, that attitude will cost someone a Hugo nomination.
Finding WordPress reviews of The Dark Forest was surprisingly hard. It doesn’t look like a lot of my fellow WordPress bloggers have read The Dark Forest yet. The book came out in August, so it’s been a few months. Maybe this one is in the pile of “too read”–sometimes reading a sequel isn’t as pressing as reading a new book. However, if everyone takes this “wait to read it attitude,” that would hurt Liu’s chances. Readers seem to have liked the book, some more than The Three-Body Problem, some less.
Overall, I feel worse about The Dark Forest‘s chances now, after seeing how few people have reviewed his book. I’ll keep checking in to see if this picks up.
My Take: I didn’t like The Dark Forest as much as The Three-Body Problem, which was my favorite SFF novel of 2015. Maybe my expectations were too high. Don’t get me wrong, The Dark Forest is still a good novel, with some very memorable set pieces and ideas in it. It just has less going on than the first novel, and lacks the constantly frantic, over-the-top energy of Liu’s initial vision. If it makes any sense, The Dark Forest is a better novel but a worse book. It may have better characters, a smoother plot, and a more accessible feel, but it lacks the monumental vision of The Three-Body Problem. Still, I think many readers will prefer The Dark Forest to The Three-Body Problem for exactly those reasons. I’ve long since made peace with the idea that my reading tastes are eclectic. 8 out of 10.
So, will The Dark Forest make it back to back Hugo wins for Liu? Will the Nebula voters want to play catch up and give Liu the award? Will too many people put off reading the sequel?
Part of the work I do here at Chaos Horizon includes eliminating novels from my Hugo and Nebula predictions. I do this for a variety of reasons: the novel is the wrong genre, the novel is too late in a series, the novel has no buzz, the novel has no discernible sales. We can learn as much about the Hugos and Nebulas by what novels aren’t included in those awards as the ones that are.
Sometimes, a novel seems to be a possible contender but then fades away after it comes out. Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix seems to fall into this category. While there is still plenty of time left in 2015 for a book to rise from the ashes—placement on year end lists would really help—I’m not seeing the broad support the book would need to be a 2015 awards contender, at least in the Hugo and Nebula.
Okorafor was in an interesting position going into 2015. Her novel Lagoon came out in the UK in 2014 and got some good awards traction: it was nominated for the BSFA and Tiptree, took 7th in the Locus SF poll, and even finished 16th in the Hugo voting—all without a US publication. The Book of Phoenix seemed poised to follow up on this success. It was a prequel to the Nebula nominated and World Fantasy Award winning Who Fears Death, returning to the origins of that well-liked novel. Book of Phoenix is a short, violent narrative about an artificially designed woman with wings who flees a dystopic America to Africa, and who comes backs an avenging angel to rip down the institutions that created her. This has many of the same themes about personhood and autonomy that Ancillary Mercy, Aurora, and The Just City do. So you’ve got a prequel to an award-winning novel by an author who has just come off a good amount of awards buzz who seems on trend: that has been a past formula for awards success.
But, five months after The Book of Phoenix was published, it doesn’t seem to have connected with audiences. I don’t see much online discussion, and the metrics are very low. On Goodreads in late October, this has 351 ratings and 4.00 score; on Amazon, 40 ratings and 4.1. Compare that to the other major contenders of 2015, most of which are at least 4 or 5 times that number. In a competitive year, you need a certain critical mass of readers to drive you to a nomination.
Part of this stems from Lagoon itself. Book of Phoenix came out in May, and the US edition of Lagoon in July. Did that divide Okorafor’s reading audience? Not a lot of readers are going to by two hardcovers by the same author in a three month span. The US Lagoon publication actually makes Lagoon eligible for both the 2016 Hugo and Nebula, so there’s an outside chance of a nomination there. Book readers don’t have the longest memories, though—will Lagoon be a distant memory by time the 2016 nominating period begins? Will the Okorafor vote be divided between that and Book of Phoenix?
This is a good case study of how Nebula/Hugo history and even pre-release buzz might not translate into award nominations. Your book has come to out and audiences have to embrace it; without word-of-mouth, a book won’t reach the threshold it needs to grab a nomination. Dinosaur Lords is another good example of that: fierce pre-release buzz, then silence. Okorafor’s chances can still change, but I think splitting the audience between Lagoon and Book of Phoenix dooms both. If you’ve got arguments to the contrary, I’d love to hear them.
The book got killed by Publisher’s Weekly: it was called “haphazard” and “This tale of oppression is brimming with anger, but without a compelling reason to care about the characters, Okorafor’s vital larger messages are lost.” It did get a few paragraphs in the NY Times in their “SF and F” roundup article, but otherwise coverage was very light.
We’re thin on the ground here as well, and reviews are definitely tempered in their enthusiasm. Reviewers didn’t find the same, accessible narrative that Who Fears Death provided, and that seems to have scared away potential readers.
There’s the problem—five months after release, and I wasn’t able to find more than a few WordPress reviews. Normally, I have my choice of 15-20 WordPressers to feature. The more people who read your novel, the more can fall in love with it—and those passionate fans are the one that drive awards nominations. Lagoon did far better on the WordPress review circuit than this; if you had to predict one Okorafor book for 2015, it would definitely be Lagoon.
My Take: I enjoyed The Book of Phoenix; I read both it and Lagoon this year, and I preferred it to Lagoon. It was short, disjointed, and violent. I can see why readers would have a problem with it; Who Fears Death featured a young female protagonist that was very easy to relate to. The Book of Phoenix gives as a main character who is barely human, and the books rapid pace (less than 200 pages) doesn’t give her much space to develop. I thought the novel’s herky-jerky style reflected its themes well, and it had a kind of angry intensity to it. 7.5 out of 10.
Rocket Stack Rank looks like a cool new Hugo/Nebula stat blog that’s running some stats and data for Novellas, Novelettes, and Short Stories! Since Chaos Horizon has never had time to delve into such issues, it’s cool to see someone else tackling the same kind of work I do.
More data is always good. They’ve got a nice post about the correlation between the Locus Recommended Reading list and the eventual Hugo/Nebula nominees. I use similar data in my Hugo and Nebula predictions, although for novels. It’ll be interesting to see if Rocket Stack Rank will develop their own predictions (hint, hint) . . .
Now we’re in the thick of it—Aurora could be a heavy-hitter on the 2016 awards circuit. Robinson has a staggering number of past Hugo (14!) and Nebula (12!) nominations, and he’s won the Hugo Best Novel twice (Green Mars, Blue Mars) and the Nebula Best Novel another two times (Red Mars, 2312). That’s as a good a Hugo/Nebula profile as any living author with the exception of Connie Willis, who has an insane 24 Hugo noms/11 Hugo wins and 15 Nebula noms/7 Nebula wins. The conclusion: don’t bet against Willis.
Back to Robinson. Aurora is also the big prototypical SF novel that voters have gravitated towards in the past: a multi-generational ship launches towards a distant star, trying to colonize a new planet in the wake of Earth’s overpopulation. When they arrive, they face unforeseen circumstances . . .
It’s hard to say much more without spoiling the novel, but Robinson takes us on a profound journey through ideas of space colonization, individual and group decision making, the value of the individual life, ship design, A.I., and all the kind of BIG IDEAS you’d expect in a novel like this. Robinson gives these familiar ideas a new and effective spin, and I think almost anyone interested in classic SF is going to find something of value in Aurora. It’s a surprising and provocative novel, forcing us to think about space colonization in new ways.
It’s easy to read Aurora as Robinson looking back on his own 1990s defining Mars series, which had an optimistic spin on grand-scale terraforming. Aurora is far more measured with those ideas, and this book makes a great companion piece to his earlier work or even to a novel like Seveneves, which has surprisingly similar themes. To be fair, Robinson and Stephenson go in almost completely opposite directions in these two books, but I think the cross-talk between the novels enhances both.
What does this mean for the awards in 2016? The last time KSR published a true SF novel (2312), he grabbed a Hugo nom and won the Nebula in 2013. How much has changed since then? In the Nebula, not a lot—the same core of SFWA voters are still voting, so I expect this to show up on the Nebula ballot. Given that he just won three years ago, I don’t think he’ll win again, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The Hugo is a murkier award in 2016, given the turbulence surrounding it. 2312 took third place in 2013, and was also third in the nominations. Given the campaigns that are sure to take place in 2016, 3rd place is probably vulnerable to being pushed out. Add in that 2016 is a strong Hugo year (former Best Novel winners Robinson, Stephenson, Leckie, Walton, Bacigalupi, Scalzi, and Liu are all fighting for 5 spots, and that’s not even factoring in Puppy campaigns or buzzy authors like Novik). As a result, I think Robinson will miss the ballot, but a strong year-end push could definitely grab Robinson a spot.
As for metrics, as of mid-October 2015, Aurora has 2,535 Goodreads ratings with a 3.79 score and 264 Amazon ratings with a score of 3.7. Those aren’t great but they aren’t terrible. It’s a rare thing to see the Goodreads score higher than Amazon, but I couldn’t tell you what that means. I think around 1500 Goodreads / 100 Amazon is the cut off to be competitive, so KSR is well above that. Score doesn’t seem to matter for either the Hugos or Nebulas; VanderMeer won a Nebula last year with a 3.62 Goodreads score.
I couldn’t find a blog for KSR; he doesn’t seem to do much social media. Instead, here’s a list of his 10 favorite SF novels.
Words like “top of his game” show up in these reviews; Adam Roberts calls it “the best generation starship novel I have ever read” in The Guardian. High praise from the mainstream for this book, and a good range of coverage to boot.
That’s as positive a group of reviews as you’re likely to see from the SFF world. All identified the book as “vintage” KSR, speaking very highly of the ideas and execution of the novel. It was interesting to see how he was positioned as a “literary” SF author. I expect these glowing reviews to translate to a strong position on year-end lists, which can definitely drive awards.
It’s always interesting to see what happens when actual readers get their hands on the book. Aurora is full of some very unusual philosophical and political twists, and a couple reviewers took issue with these politics, and I expect—once people finally get deeper into the ideas of Aurora—-that it will prove a little divisive. That won’t matter in terms of nominations, which are driven by passionate fans. Plenty of my fellow WordPress bloggers were overwhelmingly positive.
My Take: I greatly enjoyed Aurora even if I found myself disagreeing with much of it. Some of the philosophical stances KSR takes (or seems to take) are unexpected, and by the time we reach the final sequence of the novel, an ecological sublime with a character swimming in the ocean, he’s made a powerful argument about the absolute value of the self. Don’t know if I buy it, but the fun of this novel is in thinking about the ideas. In that way, Aurora does much the same work as Seveneves, using a SF canvas to probe complex ideas of the relationship between identity and scientific knowledge. Reading Stephenson’s novel and then reading Robinson’s was the best new SFF reading experience I’ve had so far this year, even if I liked Stephenson more. 9.0.
So, what’s your take? Will we see Aurora on the ballots next year?
Note: This is part of a series of Review Round-Ups investigating potential Hugo/Nebula Best Novel contenders for 2016. I use the information I gather to help my Hugo and Nebula predictions. See my Review Round-Up Strategy for 2015 post for more info.
What if Athena and Apollo tried to set up Plato’s Republic? And what if they travelled through time and body-snatched Plato’s greatest supporters to run the city as masters? Throw in 10,000 young kids that need to be raised the perfect way . . .
With that bold speculation, Jo Walton’s The Just City is off to the races. Walton shows us as a wide assortment of characters, both historical (i.e. Cicero, Socrates, etc.) and imagined, who try to put Plato’s grand dream into reality. Add in some robots—an ideal city needs servants, after all—and you’ve got a broad canvas for Walton to write about justice, societies, childhood, and what a perfect city might be. For anyone who has read The Republic, or been forced to read excerpts in class, this is a fun variation on Plato’s timeless vision.
As you might expect, everything begins to go wrong. In fact, the book can get quite violent at times, particularly around the issues of sexual assault. Walton is exploring the ways even the most ideal city crumbles under the weight of human imperfection. The Just City ends abruptly, but Walton has already published the sequel The Philosopher Kings in 2015, and there’s a concluding volume to the trilogy in the offing.
My initial thoughts about The Just City were that it was “too Greek” for the Hugos or the Nebulas, but I’ve tempered that position. This is more of a thought experiment than a traditional science fiction or fantasy novel, but audiences seem to be embracing Walton’s writing. Since sweeping the 2012 Hugo and Nebulas with her extraordinarily well-liked Among Others, Walton’s profile as an author has greatly increased. If not for the Puppy campaigns, she likely would have won a second Hugo in 2015 for her book of criticism What Makes This Book So Great. Her last novel My Real Children did well on the 2015 awards circuit, winning the Tiptree and scoring a World Fantasy nomination. If you exclude the Puppy nominations from 2015, My Real Children placed 8th in the 2015 Hugos, and I think The Just City is the more appealing of those two books.
I still don’t think it’s likely Walton will grab a Nebula or Hugo nomination in 2016, but I wouldn’t be if surprised she did. The Nebula is more open this year, since the Hugos are going to be an absolute mess in 2016 with huge turnout, voting campaigns, and other assorted kerfuffles. Walton’s book is posting middle-of-the-road numbers on Goodreads and Amazon. As of mid-October, she had around 2000 Goodreads ratings with a score of 3.78 and 51 Amazon ratings with a score of 4.00. What hurts The Just City is that, if you haven’t read Plato, it’s not very accessible. I don’t want to underestimate the SFF audience, though. I think a lot of those readers do know their Plato, and, if you do, this is an easy novel to like.
Ultimately, I have this down in the 8-12 range for the Hugos and Nebulas: a fighting chance, but by no means a sure thing. On to other opinions about the book:
The mainstream venues were a little tempered. Publisher’s Weekly noted the sexual violence of the novel, and Kirkus was somewhat cutting with their claim “This is novel as study guide: Mary Renault meets undergraduate Philosophy 101.” The bigger mainstream venues (NY Times, etc.) ignored the book, as you’d expect for a pretty niche SFF title.
That’s broad coverage, and solid but not glowing reviews for The Just City. A lot of the reviewers identified it as idea-driven rather than character or plot-driven; words like “interesting” or “eclectic” were more often applied than “must-read.” Still, it was widely discussed, and that helps drive readers—and possible fans—to the book.
Violin in a Void (8 out of 10)
Far Beyond Reality
Bibliotropic (5 out of 5)
Relentless Reading (5 out of 5)
Mermaid Vision Books
A wide range of reactions and opinions. I think my fellow WordPress bloggers found the book interesting to argue with—and against—rather than a book they loved, although some certainly thought highly of it. Others disliked the book. I’m not surprised to see reviews polarized: you either willingly embraced the “though experiment” idea of the book or you didn’t.
My Take: I liked The Just City a great deal. I’m the core audience for this novel: I took three years of Greek in college as well as multiple philosophy courses. I thought Walton did an excellent job of throwing Plato’s ideas against the wall. It was good fun to see the historical and mythological figures interact. If you like the idea of seeing Socrates talk to Apollo and then a robot, this is the book for you. The Just City gives you a great space to think about Plato in a new light, and it’s the kind of novel that makes you want to pull The Republic off your shelf again. Now, we do have to give Plato at least some of the credit, and that’s what keeps The Just City from being truly great: it’s a novel about Plato rather than a novel standing entirely on it’s own merits. 8.5 out of 10.
Here in New Mexico, fall is in the air, and 2015 is shockingly close to being over. It’s time to turn our attention to the 2016 awards seasons. Last year, I tried to track Goodreads stats a measure of popularity. This year, I’m tracking both Amazon and Goodreads.
I’ve been disappointed in both of those measures; neither seems particularly accurate or consistent, and they don’t seem to predict the eventual Hugo/Nebula winner at all. What is useful about them, though, is getting at least an early picture of what is popular and what is not. I do believe there is a minimum popularity cut off, where if you fall below a certain level (1000-2000 Goodreads votes), you don’t have much of a shot at winning a Hugo or Nebula. This also allows good comparisons between books that are similar to each other. If you think Uprooted and Sorcerer to the Crown are both contenders as “experimental”-ish fantasy books, one of those (Uprooted) is 10 times more popular than the other. If you had to pick between one of them being nominated, go with Novik.
We’re also very early—some of the biggest Hugo/Nebula contenders haven’t even come out yet! That’ll happen by next week. October 6 is one of the biggest publishing days of 2015, with new books by Leckie, Martin, Hurley, and Sanderson all hitting the shelves. Once we’re through that push, almost all of the major SFF books of 2015 will have been published, and we’ll really have chance to begin sifting through the year. At this point, a lot of readers don’t yet know what their “best” book of the year was, but that’ll become clearer over the next 2-3 months. So, on to the chart:
If you haven’t thought about popularity at all so far for 2015, this chart is very revealing. We have a tier of SFF novels that have sold very well, in that 10,000+ range on Goodreads. Armada, despite being broadly hated by segments of the SFF community for being too similar to Ready Player One and too pandering to 1980s nostalgia, already leads the pack. The vitriol surrounding that book will likely prevent it from receiving either a Hugo or Nebula nom; massive popularity, particularly when joined with negative reviews, can be a negative rather than a positive. The Ishiguro is more of a mainstream/literary text, and although moderately well-reviewed, is probably too much outside the SFF bailiwick to be a serious Hugo/Nebula contender.
That leaves Seveneves and Uprooted as early favorites. Seveneves is doing extraordinarily well on Amazon rankings, and is the kind of big, traditional, epic SF novel you think would do well at the Hugos. The Nebulas have ignored Stephenson since The Diamond Age; if Cryptonomicon and Anathem didn’t get Nebula noms, I’m not sure why Seveneves would. As I’ve written elsewhere, Uprooted is an early favorite for both Hugo and Nebula noms; it’s got the sales, the critical reviews, and the buzz.
Darker Shade of Magic isn’t a book I’ve considered much for a Hugo/Nebula nomination so far; maybe I need to change that. I’ll be interested to see if this shows up on year-end lists as a “best of.” Note how much better this book does on Goodreads than Amazon. That’s a good example of how those two different websites (despite both being owned by Amazon!) survey different audiences.
Other than those books, a couple things pop out at me from the chart. I haven’t seen a lot of online discussion of The Water Knife, but rankings are strong for that book. This is Bagicalupi’s first adult SF novel since his Hugo and Nebula winning The Windup Girl, and has to be considered a strong contender. Walton, Robinson, Scalzi, and Liu have all done fine: neither good nor bad, and have to be counted still in the mix.
Some books that got good pre-release buzz seem to have fallen flat in these popularity measures. Dinosaur Lords was talk of the town for a while, but that doesn’t seem to have translated to readers. The Okorafor is surprising; Book of Phoenix is the prequel to the Nebula nominated Who Fears Death, but those are very weak numbers 4 months after publication. I don’t think we can consider this a Nebula contender unless those numbers pick up.
Obviously, things are fluid. Last year’s Hugo winner The Three-Body Problem didn’t come out until November. Thins around going to change: the Sanderson is going to bound up the list in the next month, but is a western version of Mistborn appealing enough to break into the Hugo top 5? Is something like The Fifth Season, already off to a good start, going to accelerate or stall? Time will tell. Keep tuned!
Lastly, any books missing form the list that should be on? Chaos Horizon is just beginning to spin its gears for 2015, and I don’t want to leave any strong contenders off.