The Hugo Awards: my thoughts on the novella nominees

The Hugo Best Novella Award goes to a work of science fiction or fantasy between 17,500 and 40,000 words — a fine length for speculative fiction. I’ve read all the nominees, and these are my votes. The Hugo Award uses instant run-off voting, so voters can rank their preferences: it’s all explained here.

I’m a little harsh because I have to rank these. They’re all good stories and well worth reading, no matter what else I say.

6. Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (
This is #2 in the Binti series. A young woman named Binti, who in novella #1 had gone off to study at a university and in the process ended a war and became a hero, must now return home. As in the first novella, there are complications with her family, with her culture, and with the larger galaxy — and she must also find out more about her identity. It’s a coming-of-age story with interesting details, but the narration rambles and the plot twists are few and not always surprising. The novella is also clearly part of a series and doesn’t quite stand alone. Although Binti is charming, the storytelling about her is a bit less so. Binti #1 won the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

5. The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang ( Publishing)
In an Asian-like culture with two moons and fluid genders, twins are driven apart as children by their tyrannical mother, the country’s dictator, who rules with a bloodstained iron hand. Technology is managed by those gifted with the control of a sort of elements-based magic, and the tyrant and her family are among those gifted. But a rebellion against the dictator, using mechanical technology, brings the twins, now adults, back together. At times, the writing seems a little cliche and approaches purple prose, and some characters, including the evil mother, get little development. The story doesn’t quite end, either, instead setting up a sequel. This novella was a finalist for a Nebula Award.

4. River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey ( Publishing)
The Wild, Wild West with hippos. A man of few scruples and a thirst for revenge assembles a crew with even fewer scruples and a variety of essential skills to clear the fierce, feral hippos out of a Louisiana swamp. (The prologue explains how they got there.) Repeatedly, the man denies that his plan is a caper, but it is: a predictable story right down to the many reversals, much like a matinee movie except that this story has a lot of savage murders. Despite the bloodshed, this is a fun farce of an old-fashioned Western — with hippos! — but I was hoping for something a little more solid and original. A Nebula Award finalist.

3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (
At age 12, twin sisters, Jacqueline and Jillian, or Jack and Jill, find a portal in the attic that leads to a fantasyland. They’re glad to go. Their parents aren’t abusive, just self-centered and clueless in a way that makes both girls miserable and emotionally stunted, one a tomboy and the other a princess. In fantasyland, their roles are reversed, and they change. After a few years, they have to escape back to reality, which is where the story ends. I wish it had gone on just a bit longer. I would have loved to see how the parents reacted to their now older, wiser, and different daughters, one of them blood-spattered upon her arrival (not her own blood, either). Although the story was in some ways predictable, the plot twists sometimes felt more like knife twists and kept the story surprising. A worthy contender for a Hugo, and it’s already won the 2018 ALA Alex Award.

2. “And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Sarah Pinsker (not the author) gets an invitation to a Sarah Pinsker convention being organized by Sarah Pinsker, the quantologist, who has found a way to connect alternate realities. More than two hundred Sarahs come from a wide variety of divergence points, some very similar to other Sarahs, a few quite different, and from similar or different Earths. In one, for example, Seattle has been destroyed by an earthquake. Then a Sarah Pinsker is murdered. Which one? By which one? Why? Sarah (the author) does a good job of showing the weirdness of being surrounded by people almost just like yourself. This novella was also nominated for the Nebula, Locus, and Sturgeon Awards.

1. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells ( Publishing)
I was among those who nominated this, a straight-up science fiction adventure. The narrator’s mordant attitude makes the story outstanding: a robot who has killed in the past, who is sure everyone hates it because of that, and who hates itself, too. It’s possibly clinically depressed and spends its time trying to lose itself in its favorite video series, secretly dreaming of not being a slave to a brutal, profiteering corporation. But it does its job to protect people on a dangerous mission, even risking its own life, in a way that those people didn’t expect. This story won the ALA Alex Award and the Nebula, and it was also my vote for the Nebula.

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