The 2013 Hugo-nominated novels are a bit of a mystery, in that most of them are not very good. I’ve been trying to figure out why this is, as we’ve been reading through them. There are less-than-charitable views on why the Hugo’s suck, but I have more optimistic view of the matter.
As anyone who’s tried to read EarthFic knows, it is relentlessly depressing. And I don’t mean in a cool Grim Dark The Crow kind of way, but rather in the life-sapping soul-draining This American Life kind of way. Where individuals are weak and ineffectual and we just have to take comfort in our shared humanity and accept our powerlessness in the face of the unfairness of life. It’s hard to explain the level of crushing pessimism most TAL episodes convey. Secretly everyone is just a flawed person who ruins everything due to human weakness and we have to shrug and make the best of it because in the end it doesn’t matter, we don’t have any effect on anything anyway. It is emotional solipsism and it grinds you down.
Genre fiction has long been a bulwark against such bullshit. The stakes matter in a wider context and people have the ability to change things. Usually. But it’s not always that way. Some books are darker than others, and some go so far as to give up on humanity entirely. Lots of Phillip K Dick’s stuff and almost all of Vonnegut’s stuff was like this. The less enjoyable a novel becomes the more it’s praised by the traditional literary critics, and things can start to slide in that direction. Soon everything you’re reading becomes sullen.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky recent said –
“It’s getting shockingly hard to find enjoyable reading material anywhere, including in mainstream science fiction and fantasy. I think that reading fanfiction has trained me to expect a certain amount of funny and awesome in my stories, and mainstream SF&F, whatever its other virtues, is not delivering the quantity of hedons per second I have come to expect. I mean, yes, have your characters suffer and character-develop, but also have them strap a solid-fuel rocket to a broomstick, ya know? I try to read the mainstream stuff now and nobody in the novels is having any fun even when I’m a third of the way through the book. It’s like they don’t even realize their readers might want sympathetic hedons along with the suffering and character development.”
I think the 2013 Hugo nominations are a reaction against that. Every single book seems to be a way to try to bring back awesomeness. Let’s have a balls-to-the-wall good time without angsting and moaning about how tortured we are and how much everything sucks. It’s harder for readers to relate when life in this century is objectively so darn good.
I think it’s unfortunate that the books that captured this zeitgeist and got Hugo noms are so very *very* lacking. I’ve honestly read fanfic better than most of them. And I’m not just talking about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, although obviously that’s the big one. It IS possible to write Awesome stories that are also good! There must be some way to also make them legally publishable. The first person who figures out how to do that is going to make massive amounts of money. 50 Shades of Grey-style money. Until then, at least we have the big Hugo carrot to keep tempting new authors forward with more.