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Best of 2015: Debuting the Mainstream Meta-List

Now that my semester is over and my final grades are turned in, I can focus my attention on predicting the 2016 Hugo and Nebula awards. As a step towards that, I’ve been putting together collated lists of the “Best of 2015” posts from a variety of sources. Last year, I broke these down into two categories: a mainstream list (NY Times, Amazon, Goodreads, etc.) and a SFF Critics list (Locus, SF Signal, Book Smugglers, etc.). When combined with the 2015 Awards Meta-List, these three lists provide a very interesting take on what the best SFF novel of the year was. Each is idiosyncratic in its own way and are best used in concert rather than alone.

I’m going to debut the 2015 Mainstream list today. Last year, I collated 20 lists from a variety of popular sources. Appear on the list, get 1 point. Most points wins. Here’s last year’s top 5:

1. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell: on 13 lists
2. The Martian, Andy Weir: on 10 lists
3. Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer: on 9 lists
3. The Peripheral, William Gibson: on 9 lists
3. The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman: on 9 list

Annihilation won the Nebula, and The Bone Clocks won the World Fantasy Award. So not too shabby for the mainstream! The lists I collect are very different: some are popular votes (Goodreads); some are marketing tools (Amazon). Some are short, some are ridiculously long (NPR). Some include graphic novels, collections, and books that aren’t eligible. I don’t make distinctions; I just list everything and figure that the sheer number of lists will balance everything out. I don’t include lists that are specifically Young Adult / Children’s / Graphic Novels, as my goal is to try to predict the Hugo and Nebula Best Novel categories. Historically, Young Adult works have not been nominated for those awards, although there are a few exceptions.

This year, in an effort to be more transparent, I’m going to use a Google Docs document that anyone can access at anytime. Only I can edit it though (of course, you can just cut and paste the data and then do what you want with it). So, if you don’t want to read on, you can just go look at the list right now. This way, I can update the list immediately and you can check where things stand at this moment.

We’re still early in the year. So far, I’ve collected Amazon’s Best of 2015, The Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, the Goodreads Choice Awards (Fantasy and SF categories), The Guardian, Buzzfeed, NPR’s Book Concierge, the NY Times Notable books, and Publisher’s Weekly. Links to all those sources are in the spreadsheet.

Here are the too-early results:

5 points: The Fifth Season, Jemisin, N.K.
5 points: Seveneves, Stephenson, Neal
5 points: Ancillary Mercy, Leckie, Ann
4 points: The Water Knife, Bacagulupi, Paolo
4 points: Golden Son, Brown, Pierce
4 points: Aurora, Robinson, Kim Stanley
3 points: Uprooted, Novik, Naomi
3 points: The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Dickinson, Seth

Not particularly surprising. We knew that past Hugo winners Leckie, Stephenson, Bacigalupi, and Robinson all published well-liked novels this year. Uprooted would be 1 point higher if Goodreads hadn’t strangely put her novel on their YA list. Jemisin running neck and neck with Leckie and Stephenson is impressive, and I expect at least a Nebula nomination to be very likely for The Fifth Season.

The real surprise here is Golden Son. The first volume in that series, Red Rising, was marketed more as a YA novel in the vein of The Hunger Games. Golden Son is being hailed as an improvement in every way, and now seems to be in the adult rather than YA category. It will be interesting to see if this book can develop into a viable Hugo contender.

Unlike last year, where The Bone Clocks, Station Eleven, and Annihilation where highly esteemed by the literary mainstream, we don’t necessarily have a breakout “literary” SFF book. All the authors I listed above are more associated with speculative than literary fiction. The Entertainment Weekly Top 10 list had 0 speculative works after 3 last year (unless you count the Zebulon Finch by Daniel Krauss; anyone read this?); the NY Times Top 50 novels only had 2, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Michel Houellecbecq’s The Submission.

As I said above, we’re still early in the year for best-of lists, but patterns are beginning to emerge. Will the mainstream list be mirrored when the Nebulas and the Hugos roll around? Contrast this list with the SFWA Nebula recommended list, and we already see some interesting points of overlap. If you know of a good list I should add to the data, let me know in the comments.


SFWA 2015 Nebula Recommended Reading List: Analyis and Prediction

In a somewhat surprising move, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) decided to make their annual “Nebula Recommended Reading List” available to the public. I say this is surprising because the Nebulas have historically been a closed shop. They don’t share voting numbers with the public, only the list of nominees and winners. Here’s the Press Release, and a link to the list pages themselves.

This list is gathers the various SFWA members’ (i.e. Nebula voters) recommendations as to the best of the year. They also included the number of recommendations for each work. They even threw in the data from 2014! All of this is stunning because it gives us an enormous amount of information to predict the Nebulas. In fact, this is the best data I’ve ever had at Chaos Horizon!

To use this information to predict the upcoming Nebulas, I’ll need to look to see whether the 2014 recommendations were correlated to the eventual Nebula nominees and winners. Sneak preview: they are, to the tune of 84% accuracy! Winning was a little dicier, with only 50% accuracy from the Suggested Reading, although the two other winners placed #2 on their respective Suggested Reading list. Why the SFWA would want to give so much information away is beyond me.

Once we know the correlation, I can make a common Chaos Horizon assumption (i.e. in the absence of better data, what happened last year is likely to happen again next year), and use that 2014 correlation to predict what will happen in 2015. I’m not claiming that this list is causal; I’ll discuss some possibilities below. What I will claim is that if the 2014 list predicted the Nebulas with 84% accuracy, you better take that into account for 2015!

So, let’s dig in. I’m interested in the Novel, Novella, Novelette, and Short Story categories. The SFWA also gives a movie/TV award named the Bradbury and a Young Adult award named the Norton; those seem to work a little differently, so analyze them on your own.

What I’m going to do is see what correlation exists between the Top 6 works from the “Suggested Reading List” and the Nebula nominees. Simple language: do the works show up on both lists?

Table 1: Correlation Between Top 6 (and Ties) of the 2014 Nebula Suggested Reading List and the Eventual 2014 Nebula Nominees

Novel: 4 out of 6, 67.7%
Novella: 6 out of 6, 100%
Novelette: 5 out of 6, 83.3%
Short Story: 6 out of 7, 85.7%

Total: 21/25, 84%

If Chaos Horizon ever manages to be 84% accurate, I’m packing it in. Those are staggering correlation numbers. With only a few exceptions here and there, the top 6 works from the 2014 Suggested Reading List were the eventual Nebula nominees. Will the same happen in 2015? I wouldn’t bet against it.

In novel, our outlier with only 2/3 accuracy, the Top 3 books from the Top 10 list got nominated, and the lowest nominees were two books tied for #7. Here’s the 2015 Suggested Reading List, Novel category; the number at the start of the column is the number of recommendations.

32 Annihilation VanderMeer, Jeff FSG 2 / 2014 (nominee, winner)
23 Trial By Fire Gannon, Charles Baen 8 / 2014 (nominee)
22 The Goblin Emperor Addison, Katherine Tor 4 / 2014 (nominee)
19 Afterparty Gregory, Daryl Tor 4 / 2014
17 My Real Children Walton, Jo Tor 5 / 2014
16 Ancillary Sword Leckie, Ann Orbit 10 / 2014 (nominee)
15 Coming Home McDevitt, Jack Ace 11 / 2014 (nominee)
15 The Three-Body Problem Liu, Cixin Tor Books 11 / 2014 (nominee)
9 Lagoon Okorafor, Nnedi Hodder & Stou… 4 / 2014
8 American Craftsmen Doyle, Tom Tor 5 / 2014

Gregory got a Novella nomination for We Are All Completely Fine; perhaps people didn’t want to nominate him twice. I can’t account for why Walton didn’t make it, but the difference 15 and 17 votes is pretty small. The McDevitt and Liu also came out in November and maybe didn’t have enough time to pick up votes on this list.

Let’s not get too overwhelmed. Perhaps 2014 was an odd year, and there are normally greater differences? We’re also talking about some pretty fine numerical differences in categories like Short Story, where the difference between being in the Top 6 and outside that is 1 vote.

Nonetheless, based on 1 year of data, using the Suggested Reading List to predict the Nebulas seems very viable. It even seems to work to predict the winner: Annihilation easily won the Suggested Reading list and went on to the win the Nebula.

There are a couple explanations I can think of as to why these lists are so correlated:

1. The Suggested Reading list is Causal: Under this theory, you’d claim that the Suggested Reading List exerts such a gravitational force on the Nebulas that it essentially forms the final nominations, i.e. it works like a slate. Once you get the ball rolling on these recommendations, more people read those works, which leads to more recommendations, which leads to more votes, etc. While the suggested list isn’t 100% accurate, 84% is pretty substantial . This analysis would seemingly open the door to manipulation: i.e. if someone could logroll a specific author up into the Top 3 or 4, would they receive a nomination? I don’t know.

2. The Suggested Reading List Operates as an Accurate Poll: Perhaps we shouldn’t think of the list as causal, but more from a polling perspective. There were 372 total votes on the 2014 Novel list. Let’s say your average recommender recommended 3 books; that’s mostly a number I pulled out of the air, but does sync up with how many books the average Hugo voter nominates. I’m sure some people recommended 1, some people recommended 5 or 6. The average has got to be somewhere in the middle. Using an average of 3, that would mean around 124 people participated in building the Suggested Reading List. Is that substantial snapshot of who actually nominates? The SFWA says they have 1800 members, but how many vote in the Nebula nomination stage? Half? A quarter?

Let’s say it’s half (which I think is way too high), and that you accept my 124 number. That means the Suggested Reading list is effectively polling (124/900) = 13.7% of the eventual nominators. That’s a solid N. Now, since this isn’t a random poll and I had to estimate voting pools size, etc., we can’t calculate things like margin of error with any accuracy. This is also a self-selected poll (i.e. people choose to participate), and, as such, the most passionate voters will be participating.

But it may seem—based on one year’s data—that these suggesters have their finger on the pulse of the Nebula voters. Perhaps the 15% (or 25%, or 35%, whatever the actual number is) just accurately reflects how these voters think.

3. The Number of Nominators is Small: This is another interpretation you could put on these numbers. We’ve never known how many votes it takes to get a Nebula nomination, but maybe the numbers of voters from the Suggested List is all that it takes (or close to it). If you go back to 2012 with the Hugos (well before recent controversies/slates set in), it only took between 72-36 votes to grab a Short Story Hugo nomination. If the Nebulas have half as many voters as the Hugo (again, we don’t know), the 17-11 votes indicated by the Suggested Reading list may have been in the ballpark of what it takes to grab a nom.

We don’t need to know fully understand how the list impacts the Nebulas. In fact, Chaos Horizon is more interested in predicting what will happen than explaining why things happen. The Suggested List is published, and that data goes into the black box of the Nebula nominators minds. Something happens in there, then the list of nominees pops out. If the data in consistently matches the data out to the tune of 84%, who cares what happens in the black box?

What It All Means: We don’t need to know fully understand how the list impacts the Nebulas. In fact, Chaos Horizon is more interested in predicting what will happen than explaining why things happen. The Suggested List is published, and that data goes into the black box of the Nebula nominators minds. Something happens in there, then the list of nominees pops out. If the data in consistently matches the data out to the tune of 84%, who cares what happens in the black box?

For Chaos Horizon, it means that to predict the Nebulas, I should use the Suggested Reading List because it has an 84% success rate. Even if that drops to 75%, it’s still stellar.

So, we could take the 2015 suggestions and predict the eventual Nebula nominees right now. If we check out the total numbers of votes this year, we’re already at 337—not quite the 372 of last year, so I’d still expect some changing, particularly for works that came out late in the year (the Gannon and McDevitt would be prime examples of works I’d expect to rise). Making the list public, which will bring more scrutiny, might also change the way people vote.

Here’s the current Top 10 for the Novel:

20 Uprooted Novik, Naomi Del Rey 5 / 2015
17 The Grace of Kings Liu, Ken Saga Press 4 / 2015
16 Karen Memory Bear, Elizabeth Tor Books 2 / 2015
13 The Traitor Baru Cormorant Dickinson, Seth Tor Books 9 / 2015
11 Ancillary Mercy Leckie, Ann Orbit 10 / 2015
10 Updraft Wilde, Fran Tor Books 9 / 2015
9 Beasts of Tabat Rambo, Cat WordFire Press 4 / 2015
9 Last First Snow Gladstone, Max Tor Books 7 / 2015
9 The Fifth Season Jemisin, N. K. Orbit 8 / 2015
8 Sorcerer to the Crown Cho, Zen Ace

Updraft has more votes over in the Norton as YA novel (11), so that might eventually show up in that category, not this one. Cat Rambo is the current President of the SFWA, so there might be some conflict of interest issues in accepting a Nebula nomination. Given Jemisin’s prior Nebula nominations in this category, I’d give her the edge over Gladstone in making it into the Top 6. So that would make my current prediction:

Uprooted, Naomi Novik
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson
Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

I suspect either Gannon or McDevitt has a strong chance to creep up into the Top 6 once the fans of those authors begin suggesting their works. I’d kick Dickinson out first, because I think Leckie and Jemisin will rise based on past Nebula performance.  Gannon had 22 votes last years and only has 2 votes this year. Don’t count out Bacigalupi who is tied for 10th with 8 votes, or Robinson at 15 with 6 votes; both have strong recent Nebula history. Strangely, The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu doesn’t show up on the list at all.

Last year, Annihilation was the clear winner of the Suggested Reading list and then won the Nebula. I’m not willing to crown Uprooted yet because Novik is only 3 votes ahead of Liu, but I think she’s still the clear favorite to win at this point.

The SFWA has been updating the list constantly. I’ll keep my eye on it, and see what we can learn. There’s lots of other analysis that could be run with this data (gender breakdowns, genre breakdowns, ethnic/race breakdowns, etc.) that would tell us a great deal about the Nebulas.

If the list above is the eventual Nebula nominees, or even 5/6 of them, the SFWA is going to have seriously consider whether or not they want to release so much info so early.

So, what do you think? Does this list give away too much information? Should the SFWA take it down? Or should we just be happy we have such good data?

Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest Review Round-Up

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.

The Dark Forest
Published August 11, 2015

About the Book:
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page

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.

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly
Kirkus (starred review)
Denver Post

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.

SFF Reviews:
Barnes and Noble SF Blog
SF Signal (5 out of 5 stars)

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.

WordPress Reviews:
Relentless Reading (4.5 out of 5 stars)
For Winter Nights
Novel Gazing Redux
Simon McNeil

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?

Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix Review Round-Up

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 of Phoenix
Published May 5, 2015

About the Book:
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page
Nnedi Okorafor’s Web Page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly
NY Times

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.

SFF Reviews:
Locus Online
Book Smugglers (8 out of 10)
SFF World (7 out of 10)

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.

WordPress Reviews:
Alternative Worlds II
Minimalistic Eric

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.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora Review Round-Up

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.

First published July 17, 2015.

About the Book:
Amazon Page
Goodreads page

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.

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The Guardian
LA Times
Scientific American

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.

SFF Reviews
Locus Online
Book Smugglers (10 out of 10)
SF Signal (4.5 out of 5)
Strange Horizons
SFF World

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.

WordPress Reviews:

Little Red Reviewer
Robert McGrath’s Blog
Frequently Arsed Questions
For Winter Nights
From Couch to Moon
Relentless Reading (5 out of 5)
Xeno Swarm
Bree’s Book Blog

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?

Jo Walton’s The Just City Review Round-Up

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 Just City
Published January 13, 2015.

About the Book:
Jo Walton’s Web Page
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
Los Angeles Review of Books

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.

SFF Reviews:
Tor / Second Tor Review
Boing Boing
Barnes and Noble SF Blog
Strange Horizons (interview with Walton, not a review)
Skiffy and Fanty
SF Signal
SFF World

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.

WordPress Reviews:
Violin in a Void (8 out of 10)
Intellectus Speculativus
Robin’s Books
Antonio Urias
Far Beyond Reality
Bibliotropic (5 out of 5)
Relentless Reading (5 out of 5)
The Dinglehopper
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.

Hugo/Nebula Conteders and Popularity, October 2015

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:

Table 1: Popularity of Hugo/Nebula Contenders, October 1, 2015
Popularity Chart October 2015

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!

As a fun comparison, check out the October 2014 list (from October 31, 2014, not October 1, so it’s not quite parallel) to see what the picture looked like last year.

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.

Naomi Novik’s Uprooted Review Round-Up

I’ll cut right to the chase: I’m bullish on Uprooted‘s chances in the 2016 awards season. A lot factors point to this being the break-out novel of 2015: Ellen DeGeneres snapped up movie rights. The book has been doing absolutely gangbusters on Amazon and Goodreads; as of late September, this has 620 reviews on Amazon, with a 4.5 score. On Goodreads, this has 16,133 ratings (!), with a 4.21 score. Those are very high numbers for a Hugo and Nebula contender. Compare those to last years Hugo winner, The Three-Body Problem. Cixin Liu’s book is still sitting (after wining the Hugo) at 467/4.4 at Amazon, and 7041/4.0 at Goodreads.

Part of the reason Uprooted has been a break-out book is its unusual approach. This novel, from cover to content, has a “fairy-tale” feel without imitating any specific fairy tale. This novel tells the story of a young woman named Agnieszka. She’s taken to a wizard’s tower, where she at first seems to prisoner and then becomes a witch-in-training. We’ve got shades of Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, etc. Then the novel shifts gears, and we end up having a confrontation with the corrupted Wood, a kind of moving forest of evil that threatens the land. Uprooted is a wide-ranging book, bringing in plots that involve magic education, romance, and even war.

Since fairy-tales are one of the obvious roots of fantasy literature, this book has plenty of appeal for a broad fantasy audience. More than that, the fairy-tale approach make this seem original and important book. It’s very different than your typical epic fantasy, and I think this will follow in the footsteps of something like The Goblin Emperor. If anything, I think this book is stronger, more original, and more appealing than the Addison. Add in that this book seems to be about 10x as popular as Addison’s book . . .

Novik has been writing her well-regarded Temeraire series for years, a kind of Napoleonic wars with dragons series, and this is her first step outside that familiar territory. Hugo and Nebula voters tend to reward authors when they begin new series. Since this is an accessible starting point for new readers, it makes more sense to nominate Uprooted than volume #7 or #8 of Temeraire. Novik does have one prior Hugo nomination, back in 2007 for Her Majesty’s Dragon.

A lot of the question for 2016 will revolve around the Hugo controversies swirling in the field. Those uncertainties might substantially change voting patterns. If such changes were out of the equation, I think Novik would be a shoo-in for the Hugo and Nebula. I wouldn’t even be shocked to see Novik win some major awards next year, although we’re probably too early to predict that.

Even with various campaigns, expanded Hugo electorates, and other kerfuffles, I think Uprooted has an excellent chance. It’s widely read, original, positively reviewed, and written by an author with a prior Hugo nomination. That’s pretty much the Hugo profile in a nutshell.

Published May 19, 2015.

About the Book:
Naomi Novik’s website
Amazon page
Goodreads page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
NY Times

Good but not great mainstream coverage. The mainstream only tends to push books if they’re by super well-known writers (William Gibson, Neil Gaiman); I think Uprooted was more of a surprise word-of-mouth success.

SFF Reviews:

Locus Online
Book Smugglers (10 out of 10, 9 out of 10)
Barnes and Noble SF BlogStrange Horizons
Fantasy Book Critic

This is as positive a slate of reviews from the SFF world as you’ll see. It’s already being hailed as a “great book,” an “enchanted forest,” as one of the best of the year, as a new and exciting step forward for Novik. I think these reviews are more influential in the Hugo/Nebula process than the mainstream. What’s more important is that is early reviews seem to have led to word-of-mouth success. There will be times a book gets positive SFF coverage but doesn’t break out of the core; Uprooted seems to have a very broad reach.

WordPress Reviews:
Bree’s Book Blog
SF Bluestocking
Bookish and Awesome (3.5 out of 5)
SFF Book Reviews (9 out of 10)
Woven Magic (10 out of 10)
Bibliodaze (5 out of 5)
Bibliosanctum (4.5 out of 5)
Intellectus Speculativus
Relentless Reading (4 out of 5)
Bibliotropic (4 out of 5)
Love is not a Triangle

I could have added another dozen links if I wanted to—this book has been broadly reviewed and discussed amongst my fellow WordPress bloggers. As you’d expect, we’re a feisty bunch, and no one agrees on everything. Overall, though, the reviews are highly positive, singling this out as a unique, original, and unexpected 2015 read. Broad reception really helps in the Hugos: the more people read a novel, the more people can fall in love with it. Remember, you get a nomination based on having a highly passionate group of readers, not necessarily across the board consensus. It looks to me that Uprooted has exactly that.

My Take: I’ve been trying to add short microreviews of my own to these Review Round-Ups; I think readers need to be able to see my own biases and tastes so they can decide whether or not to trust me. My reading experience with Uprooted split neatly in half: I greatly enjoyed the first part of the book. I thought it’s ability to weave the familiar with the unfamiliar was striking, and drawing on fairy tales without reproducing classic fairy tales was original and exhilarating. I liked Novik’s prose style, and she has some well-crafted sentences and scenes, and the Wood certainly comes across as frightening and sufficiently mysterious.

Then the book shifts gears in the second half, and settles into Novik’s more familiar territory, being a kind of war novel between the Wood and the main characters. This part didn’t work for me; I never felt I fully grasped the “rules” of what the Wood or the wizards/witches could do. This made the battle sequences feel incoherent—instead of being involved in the war, I was taken out by the new powers that were constantly being introduced. I imagine that other readers might feel differently; there’s enough romance to keep driving the plot forward, and others might found those battles fun. Individual taste is individual taste; if the book would have ended on page 200, I probably would have given it an 8.5 or a 9, and it would have been my third or fourth favorite book so far this year (the one-two punch of Sevenves and Aurora are currently at the top of my list). I found the second half boring, and that drags my score down to a 7.5.

So, what do you think of Uprooted‘s chances? 9 months from now will Novik be celebrating a Hugo/Nebula sweep? I think it’s a strong possibility, but this year is going to be so chaotic that it’s too early to say.

Happy reading!

Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves Review Round-Up

With Seveneves, Neal Stephenson has lived his dream of creating the three most awkwardly titled novels in SF history. Has there ever been a run of tongue-twisters as profound as Anathem, Reamde, and Seveneves?

Snark aside, Seveneves is one of the biggest SF novels of the year in every way: length, ambition, execution, and sales. Seveneves is going to make plenty of noise when the 2016 awards season rolls around. Stephenson has been a major SF writer for more than 20 years (Snow Crash hit in 1992; that makes me feel old), and Seveneves continues his investigations into the nature of knowledge, the future of humanity, and the ways that technological and social systems interact.

Seveneves begins with a bang: the moon is blown up on the first page. This sets off a chain of occurrences disastrous to humanity, and we’re launched into an 800+ plus journey about the survival of the species. A large cast of characters has to take to space, facing off with problems both practical (dwindling supplies), interstellar (cosmic radiation), and self-inflicted (divisive internal politics). Stephenson’s novel mixes a lot of discussion about orbital mechanics with the mechanics of group conflict. While I don’t want to give away all the twists, Stephenson launches us far into the future so that we can see the end-results of the choices made by human groups. We also eventually learn what Seveneves means and how to pronounce it.

This is the kind big, meaty, philosophical SF that Stephenson has perfected since Cryptonomicon. While you aren’t going to fall in love with Stephenson’s characters (we have an stand-in for Neil deGrasse Tyson, for instance) and you may object to the meandering plot, no one delves into the connections between science and social systems more deeply than Stephenson. You’ll either love the depth here or be turned relatively quickly. While I’ll have some later posts that get more deeply into the “meaning” of the novel—this books makes a great companion piece to Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, by the way—let’s focus now on his award chances.

For all of Stephenson’s fame, he hasn’t done particularly well with the Nebulas and Hugos. Stephenson has 3 Hugo nominations and 1 Best Hugo win, all in the Best Novel category: The Diamond Age won in 1996, and Cryptonomicon and Anathem scored nominations in 2000 and 2009. I think Seveneves is of similar length, ambition, and SF-ness to Cryptonomicon and Anathem, so I expect another Hugo nomination. The Nebula awards have largely ignored Stephenson: only 1 nomination back in 1996 for Snow Crash. That’s an impressive 20 year record ignoring Stephenson; I don’t think it will be any different this year.

A lot depends on how people talk about Stephenson. I think a real argument could be made that it’s Stephenson’s time to win another Hugo, as a sort of “way to go” for the past decade of writing. Alternatively, Seveneves could be written off as not as good as Cryptonomicon or Anathem, and thus not as worthy to win. Keep an eye on how people start blogging and writing about Seveneves.

To be fair to the Hugos and Nebulas, Stephenson is pretty much a novel only writer, which gives him less chances for awards nominations than an author publishing both novels and short stories. His novels are also formidably long, which I think helps and hurts his chances. If you commit to reading Seveneves, you’ll probably remember it, but the bar of entry is pretty high.

Or is it? When we turn to sales metrics, Seveneves does extraordinarily well for a SF novel. Seveneves reached the #5 spot on Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list, the second best as SF novel has done this year (Armada hit #3), and PW reported 30,000+ sales before it dropped off their list. On Goodreads as of 8/6/15, Seveneves has 9,280 ratings and a 4.03 score. As a contrast, Ancillary Sword only has 8,398 ratings and that came out 8 months earlier and already scored Hugo and Nebula noms. Amazon rings in at 1,066 ratings and a 4.0. There won’t be many SF novels this year that put up better numbers than Stephenson.

So what does this all mean? I think Seveneves is primed to follow Anathem to a Hugo nomination in 2016, and I think the Nebulas will ignore Stephenson just like they have for the past 20 years. This is a big, substantial novel that will attract the core SF audience, and Stephenson’s fame and positive reviews will break this novel past that core audience to other SF fans. The length is going to turn some readers off, and the more experimental (and at times pessimistic) nature of the book will also alienate some. Still, Stephenson is going to get enough readers, and enough positive readers, to be a strong player in 2015.

On to reviews:


Published May 19, 2015.

About the Book:
Neal Stephenson’s web page
Amazon page
Goodreads page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
Kirkus Reviews
The New York Times
The Guardian
Entertainment Weekly (A-)
LA Times

Pretty much everyone in the mainstream reviewed Seveneves. This is extraordinary coverage for a SF novel, and the reviews are pretty uniformly positive as well. I could have gone on and added another dozen mainstream reviews, but the point is to compare this books using the same 7 venues. For an 800 page SF tome to get an A- from a venue like Entertainment Weekly says all you need to know about the mainstream embrace of this book. Basically, the mainstream is saying, “If you read one SF book this year, it should be Seveneves.”

SFF Reviews:
Barnes and Nobel SF Blog
Fantasy Book Critic
Boing Boing

Some of the SFF reviews have been slower to get out. Locus is usually here, but they haven’t put an online review up yet. It was definitely reviewed in the print magazine, but who reads print anymore? Reviews here are positive but actually less enthusiastic than the mainstream. Interesting.

WordPress Reviewers:
Bill’s Book Reviews (5 out of 5)
Relentless Reading (2.5 out of 5)
Rhapsody in Books (4 out of 5)
More Notes from Aboveground
Sharp and Pointed
Yet There Are Statues (3 out of 5)
The Dilettante’s Dilemma

Now we really get into it. I could have included more reviews—the book is very broadly discussed on WordPress—but this slice gives you a good representative sample. Seveneves was very divisive: some loved it, some hated it. You expect that with a book that’s so long and takes so many chances. For those readers who disliked it, it was often a question of engagement. Seveneves is a very dry read, and, in some ways, very philosophical/political. I think as the online discussion evolves, more people will engage with those politics, and anything political has a real chance to alienate some readers. Stephenson’s view of humanity is highly critical, and the books conclusions about scientific versus social knowledge cut against some 21st century political trends. As more readers have read the book and we don’t have to worry about spoilers, I expect Stephenson’s highly unusual take on knowledge, race, genetics, etc., to become even more divisive.

My take: For me, Seveneves has been the best SFF novel I’ve read in 2015 (although Cixin Liu’s Dark Forest is coming out soon). While it can be slow-moving and awkward at times, this novel had such a depth of philosophical and scientific discussion that it overwhelmed any character/plot shortcomings. I appreciate the ambition and scope of Seveneves—as well as a surprisingly detailed amount of hard science about orbital mechanics—and that ambition and scope carried me easily through the 800+ page length. I don’t necessarily agree with Stephenson’s observation about humanity, but they were well enough made to be highly interesting. I find more value in a book I can argue and debate with than one that I simply agree with, and Seveneves gave me plenty to think about. Highly recommended, 9 out of 10.

So, what do you think? Is Seveneves a Hugo frontrunner for 2016?

Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory Review Round-Up

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.

Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory was one of the first SFF novels of 2015 to gain traction with critics and fans. A steampunk Western set in a fictionalized 19th century Seattle, the book tells the story of a group of prostitutes that have to fight back against a power-mad mind-ray wielding villain. Featuring a large cast of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities, our rag-tag group of heroes pulls together to lead Seattle to a brighter, more democratic future.

Karen Memory is an interesting combination of genres. The SF/alternative history elements are fairly light; there is some advanced technology, but the driving force behind the book is Karen’s narrative voice. Told in the first person, this is a vivid account of her struggle against the evil Peter Bantle and her development as a person. She falls in love with another woman, learns that she has strength she did not expect, and generally matures into a more powerful person. You’re going to like or dislike Karen Memory largely based on how you feel about Karen and her narrative voice.

Bear has never been nominated for a Nebula before. She is a four-time winner of the Hugo award (as well as the winner of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer). She has two wins for short fiction (“Shoggoths in Bloom” in 2009 and “Tideline” in 2008), and two more shared wins for SF Squeecast podcast (2013 and 2012). Interestingly, Bear has won every time she’s been nominated—that has to be the best win percentage of all time (4 for 4). What you don’t see in that history are any nominations for Best Novel, and Bear has written a ton of them. In 2012, Bear placed 15th in the nominations for Range of Ghosts 56 votes. To get into the mix, she’ll have to at least triple that for 2016 (and, given the rise in Hugo voters, probably even more than that). Does Bear have enough fans? Will Karen Memory be her leap into this category?

On the sales/metrics front, Karen Memory shows some weakness. As of 7/30/15, she has 57 Amazon rankings and 1,117 Goodreads ratings, with scores of 4.4 on Amazon and 3.82 on Goodreads. For a book published in early February, those are on the low side. In contrast, Uprooted by Naomi Novik has 395 Amazon ratings and 9,5000 Goodreads ratings. Karen Memory never made the Publisher’s Weekly Top 25 list. Karen Memory still has plenty of time to sell, but these numbers indicate that the book hasn’t broken out of the SFF core, and I also worry about that relatively low 3.82 Goodreads rating (Uprooted is 4.24 and Sevenes 4.03 for contrast).

What does all of this mean? I think Karen Memory has an outside shot but isn’t a frontrunner for the Hugo. Since Bear has never received a Nebula nomination, I don’t think Karen Memory has much of a chance there. Steampunk is not a sub-genre that has ever done well in the Hugos or Nebulas; looking back over the lists, only Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson strike me as a steampunk works with Hugo Best Novel noms. Throw in the Western motif, and you have a chance to turn off fans who don’t like Westerns or steampunk books.

2015 is also shaping up to be a very competitive Hugo and Nebula year. Many recent winners and nominees are publishing new novels this year: Leckie, Scalzi, Walton, Bacigalupi, and Robinson for recent winners, and then multiple nominees like Stephenson, Jemisin, and Stross. We also have breakout books like Uprooted, and I’m not yet factoring in things like possible Hugo campaigns for what is sure to be the most hotly contested Hugos ever. To receive a nomination in 2015 is going to take huge support; I don’t know if Bear has that. While popular with a segment of progressive SFF fans, does she have enough reach to break out of that bubble? Time will tell.

On to some reviews and info about the book:

Karen Memory
Published February 3, 2015

About the Book:
Elizabeth Bear’s Web Page
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly
Kirkus Reviews

This was fairly lightly reviewed in the mainstream. Reviews were generally positive, but no stars for either Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus; I think that indicates that both outlets saw the audience as limited for this book.

SFF Reviews:
Locus Online
Barnes and Noble SFF Blog
Book Smugglers (8 out of 10)
A Dribble of Ink
SFF World
Far Beyond Reality

Broadly and positively reviewed by the more mainstream SFF blogs, Karen Memory was praised for its vibrant world and Karen’s unique voice. These blogs liked what the novel did with the steampunk genre, and generally regarded it as an excellent “rollicking” book. A couple called it lighter than some of the more serious SFF books of the year, and that might damage Karen Memory‘s award chances.

WordPress Reviews:
Space and Sorcery (8 out of 10)
Songs in Squee Minor
Intellectus Speculativus
Relentless Reading (4 out of 5)
Bibliosanctum (4.5 out of 5)
Civilian Reader

Now for the most important people: my fellow WordPress reviewers! That’s a fair number of reviews, but for a book that came out in February (I’m writing this in July), that’s not an overwhelming number. People were largely positive but didn’t necessarily give the book 10 out of 10 or 5 out of 5. That jibes with my sense of Karen Memory: people like it, but they don’t absolutely love it. To score a Hugo or Nebula nomination, you need some truly driven fans.

My sense is that Karen Memory did well with a certain core of the SFF fanbase but that it didn’t break out to the larger circles of SFF readers. That’s due in part to the steampunk/Western nature of the work. Lots of writers are writing those: Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, the Alloy of Law and sequels by Brandon Sanderson, Boneshaker and sequels by Cherie Priest. I’ve read most of those, and they’re interesting but they don’t seem essential.

My Take: A new debut in the Review Round-Ups is my microreview of the book. I found Karen Memory perfectly readable but also fairly forgettable. Fun while it lasted, but the book had a rushed feel to it: too many characters who were only on stage for one or two scenes. Aside from Karen herself, no one received much development. I found both the villain and the love interest pretty one-dimensional. I was also expecting a book about prostitutes to be funnier and edgier, and the book was ultimately a pretty safe “heroes win” romp. That might be my fault; I was expecting Cannery Row, and I got something a lot tamer. I also wanted more about the world, including a deeper investigation of how steampunk technology might change the United States. Middle-of-the-pack for me, 6 out of 10.

So, what are Karen Memory‘s chances in 2016? Will people forget this novel when the nomination period finally rolls around, or will positive word-of-mouth drive it to new set of fans? I’ll likely have Karen Memory in the mid-teens for my Hugo and Nebula predictions.

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