Essay: Alternate Hugos, 1951-2010

As far as I’m concerned, the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year is an important award. When I really started reading SF by the metric ton in the early nineties, I first sought out every Hugo-Award-winning novel I could find.

In retrospect, though, some choices are just mystifying. Re-reading some of those novels today is an exercise in puzzlement; what were the Hugo voters thinking? Results haven’t necessarily gotten better in time. Even though I have voted for the Hugos nearly every single year between 2003 and 2009, I’ve also disagreed with every single winner since, to various degree of impotent fanboyish rage.

But rather than annoy everyone with incoherent screeds on the blogosphere, those results also spurred me into assembling this list. In short, I tried coming up with my list of what should have been the Best Novel Hugo winners. A list that would chart the evolution of Science Fiction from 1951 to today. (Alternately, it also doubles as the URL I sent to people whenever they ask me for a list of good SF.)

(Required disclaimer: Yes, the Hugo are designed to be awarded to the best SF or fantasy novel of the year, as selected by members of the following year’s World Science Fiction Convention. In keeping with the evolution of the SF and Fantasy field, it followed the rise of fantasy as the dominant SF&F genre by the late nineties. But, c’mon, play along with my unrealistic alternate award solely dedicated to the best Science Fiction novel of the year. One of those days, I’ll do Alternate World Fantasy Awards for you.)

I’m obviously an old-school hard Science Fiction geek, and the following list is heavily biased in favour of “the pure SF stuff”. My alternate Hugos go to SF books that are influential, readable, memorable, and substantial. (Though I occasionally cheat shamelessly and pick book-length short-story collections, especially when they’re stuffed with classics stories.)

One particularity of this list is that it’s drawn up after the fact, and that it is not set in stone.  Every year, I intend to review this list and update it with the best of what I have read since the last update.  So don’t be surprised if winners and honourable mentions change from year to year!

If it can save you some reading time, note that my “best of decade” choices for those six decades are, in order,

  • 1950s: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • 1960s: Dune, Frank Herbert
  • 1970s: The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
  • 1980s: Neuromancer, WIlliam Gibson
  • 1990s: Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • 2000s: Accelerando, Charles Stross (under consideration)

Disclaimer: The word “Hugo” used in an Science Fiction award context is a trademark of the World Science-Fiction Society. This list is a form of literary criticism and is not meant to undermine the value, reputation or commercial appeal of the Hugo Award. So there.

This list was last reviewed in June 2014.

Key: (H)=Nominated for the Hugo. (N)=Nominated for the Nebula. Also: Hugos for Year Y are actually given in Year Y+1, which usually causes some confusion: I have stuck to calendar years in the lists below.

1951

Hugo Winner: (None given)

My choice: The Puppet Masters, Robert A. Heinlein

Honourable Mentions:
The Sands of Mars
, Arthur C. Clarke
The Weapon Shops of Isher, A.E. van Vogt
The Green Hills of Earth, Robert A. Heinlein (Collection)

We begin our survey in 1951, just because that seems like a good year… Here, three good contenders, in a toss-up between grandmasters van Vogt, Clarke and Heinlein. Heinlein wins by a nose over Clarke given that even if The Sands of Mars is a fine hard-SF novel (according to the science of the time), The Puppet Masters is a fabulous time-capsule of paranoid Cold-War alien-invasion SF.  It’s also a great deal more fun to read, even today. The van Vogt novel is, like most van Vogt novels, pleasantly insane. Finally, I have a huge soft spot for Heinlein’s short-story collection The Green Hills of Earth, which I had the good fortune to read at an impressionable age.

1952

Hugo Winner: The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester

My choice: The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester (H)

No other novel published that year even comes close to the literary pyrotechnics of The Demolished Man.  Nothing. You can read it even today and it still seems fresh: Tenser, said the tensor… (Do note that the original magazine publication date of the serialized novel is 1951, the Hugo Award was given out for 1952 and my copy of the novel itself is dated 1953. This type of confusion was commonplace in this era, as SF migrated from the magazines to original book publication. I have tried to stick to the copyright calendar year of first book-form publication in this list whenever possible.)

1953

Hugo Award: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (retroactively awarded in 2004)

My choice: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke (H)
The Space Merchants, Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth
Revolt in 2100, Robert A. Heinlein (Collection)
Against the Fall of Night, Arthur C. Clarke

What a year!  No Hugo Awards were given out in 1953, but at least four true classics of the genre were published that year, and that’s after discounting the first book-form publication of both Bester’s The Demolished Man and Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Wow. The obvious choice of the year (heck, the decade) is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but all are worth seeking out.

1954

Hugo Winner: They’d Rather Be Right, Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

My choice: Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement (H-1953)

Honourable Mentions:
The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (H-1953)
Shadows in the Sun, Chad Oliver

To think that the classic hard-SF masterpiece Mission of Gravity lost to the unremarkable They’d Rather Be Right (now justly forgotten) is one of the least pleasant footnotes in the history of the Hugo Awards.

1955

Hugo Winner: Double Star, Robert A. Heinlein

My choice: Double Star, Robert A. Heinlein (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jack Finney
The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
Citizen in Space, Robert Sheckley (Collection)

Double Star is one of the shortest Hugo Winners –more like a novelette, really. (Note that the book was published in 1956: 1955 is the date of the original magazine publication) Otherwise, well, don’t miss the oft-adapted Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the classroom favourite The Chrysalids nor the satirical short-story collection Citizen in Space.

1956

(No Hugo Award for Best Novel were presented)

My choice: The Stars my Destination, Alfred Bester

Poor Alfred Bester. His classic novel came out just as the Best Novel Hugo decided to take its last year
off…

1957

Hugo Winner (in the “Novel or Novelette” category): The Big Time, Fritz Leiber

My choice: The Big Time, Fritz Leiber

Honourable Mentions:
Atlas Shrugged
, Ayn Rand
The Deep Range, Arthur C. Clarke
The Black Cloud, Fred Hoyle
On the Beach, Nevil Shute

I’m not a particularly big fan of The Big Time, but I’ll be darned if I’ll give even a wholly fictional alternate Hugo to Ayn Rand.  (I do suggest that Atlas Shrugged is worth a read, though, if only for comic effect.)  Curiosity: The Big Time has the unusual characteristic of being the only Hugo-winning novel so far that could be (and was) adapted, almost as-is, as a live theatre production.

1958

Hugo Winner: A Case of Conscience, James Blish

My choice: The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury (Collection)

Honourable mention: A Case of Conscience, James Blish

Ideally, I should stay away from short-story collections for “Best Novel” awards, but The Martian Chronicles is such a influential and thematically-unified work that I’d be betraying my own “favourite book of the year” standard if I didn’t select it as the year’s finest SF choice.  This being said, A Case of Conscience is not a bad book at all, and even has the particularity of being a good catholic SF novel.

1959

Hugo Winner: Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein

My choice: Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Immortality Inc., Robert Sheckley (H-1958)
Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank

Oh yes. Military SF has never been so cheerfully fun to read than in Heinlein’s still-classic novel. Immortality Inc. is also worth a look, and not solely because it was adapted on the big screen as FREEJACK. Post-apocalyptic Alas, Babylon is a childhood favourite of mine, and is still well-worth seeking out even today.

1960

Hugo Winner: A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

My choice: The High Crusade, Poul Anderson (H)

I personally can’t figure out the appeal of A Canticle for Leibowitz: While the premise is fascinating, I just can’t get over the line-per-line dreariness of the prose. My alternate choice is far more pulpish, but impossible to put down.

1961

Hugo Winner: Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

My choice: Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein (H)

Honourable Mention: Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

Some swear by Stranger in a Strange Land (which became a cult favourite in the following decade). I, personally, can’t find the attraction. But despite my sentimental attachment to Solaris, there wasn’t anything much better published that year, so…

1962

Hugo Winner: The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick

My choice: A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C. Clarke (H)

Honourable mentions:
Ellison Wonderland, Harlan Ellison (Collection)
Tales of Ten Worlds, Arthur C. Clarke (Collection)

Not much on the plate in 1962: Two good short-story collections from Clarke and Ellison, but very few novels. Still, my hard-SF prejudices take over, and so allow me to suggest Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust as my pick for the year. (Note: There seems to be some confusion as to when the novel was published; my paperback copy says 1961, but it was Hugo-nominated for 1962 -presumable due to US availability-, and so I put it here.)

1963

Hugo Winner: Way Station, Clifford D. Simak

My choice: Way Station, Clifford D. Simak (H)

Honourable Mention: Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (H)

Again, in the absence of anything more compelling, let’s allow this one to Simak, especially given Way Station‘s unique credentials as the only Hugo-Award-winning novel to take place mostly on a farm.

1964

Hugo Winner: The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber

My choice: The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber (H)

Another lackluster year, though it should be noted that The Wanderer is not just a spectacular disaster novel, but it also features a scrumptiously sexy cat-like female alien character.  Meow! (…and now you know the historical link between SF and furries, especially if you factor in the near-simultaneous 1964 publication of the first half of Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia, which also features a cat girl.)

1965

Hugo Winners: a tie between Dune, Frank Herbert and …and Call Me Conrad (This Immortal), Roger Zelazny

My choice: Dune, Frank Herbert (H)

Honourable Mention: Skylark DuQuesne, Edward E. Smith (H)

There’s no contest here, though one may wonder how Zelazny’s novel ever tied with Herbert’s all-time classic.  Oh well. Dune not only wins this one, but pretty much takes the prize for best SF novel of the decade. Skylark DuQuesne was old-fashioned even in 1965, but it’s worth a look as a last gasp of pure pulp SF.

1966

Hugo Winner: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

My choice: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

Honourable Mention: Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes (H)

One of the great kick-ass hard-SF novels of all time, augmented by the usual playful Heinlein prose. I envy anyone about to read this book for the first time. Purists will be fascinated by the fact that it was nominated for the Hugos both for 1965 and 1966. Media-SF fans will note that Flowers for Algernon was adapted to the big screen as the Oscar-winning CHARLY.

1967

Hugo Winner: Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

My choice: The Past through Tomorrow, Robert A. Heinlein (Collection)

Honourable Mentions:
Those Who Watch
, Robert Silverberg
Dangerous Visions, Ed. Harlan Ellison (Original Anthology)
The Nine Billion Names of God, Arthur C. Clarke (Collection)
The Counterfeit Man, Alan E. Nourse (Collection)

I have read Lord of Light but can’t remember much about it, hence another nod to a short-story collection.  (But then again, The Past Through Tomorrow‘s landmark “Future History” had a deep impact on the genre.)  Other good books of the year included collections by Nourse and Clarke, as well as the classic Dangerous Visions.

1968

Hugo Winner: Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner

My choice: Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Rite of Passage, Alexei Panshin (H)
2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
Neutron Star, Larry Niven (Collection)
A Gift From Earth, Larry Niven

Nothing published that year could touch Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and few novels have even approached it ever since. Also noteworthy: Larry Niven’s fantastic collection Neutron Star.

1969

Hugo Winner: The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

My choice: The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Can’t say I care deeply about The Left Hand of Darkness, but it was influential in expanding SF outside its usual techno-scientific areas of interest… although I regularly toy with the idea of switching it for Slaughterhouse Five.

1970

Hugo Winner: Ringworld, Larry Niven

My choice: Tau Zero, Poul Anderson (H)

Honourable mention: Ringworld, Larry Niven (H)

I do like Ringworld a heck of a lot, but Tau Zero just sends me in SFnal nirvana.

1971

Hugo Winner: To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer

My choice: To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Phillip José Farmer

Honourable Mention:
The World Inside, Robert Silverberg
A Time of Changes
, Robert Silverberg

Can’t say I’m a big fan of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, but there was little competition that year, it’s readable enough, and the central premise has a kick to it. Otherwise, it was a remarkable year for Robert Silverberg.

1972

Hugo Winner: The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov

My choice: The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad

Honourable Mentions:
The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner
The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov (H)
Dying Inside, Robert Silverberg (H)
Again, Dangerous Visions, Ed. Harlan Ellison (Original Anthology)

As a subversive take-off on the power fantasies implicit in lower-end science-fiction, The Iron Dream remains unequaled. The rest of the short-list isn’t bad either: The Sheep Look Up is one of the great eco-catastrophe novels of all time; it’ll make you angry for days, especially given its prescience.  The Gods Themselves isn’t bad, but it’s a bit stuffy.

1973

Hugo Winner: Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke

My choice: Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Protector, Larry Niven (H)
The Wind from the Sun, Arthur C. Clarke (collection)

In some ways, Clarke’s classic exploration novel Rendezvous with Rama is the last hurrah of a certain kind of straightforward Science Fiction: It’s a great way to identify those who have the SF bug and those who don’t. Otherwise, it was a fine year for hard-SF given Niven’s novel and Clarke’s other short story collection.

1974

Hugo Winner: The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin

My choice: The Mote in God’s Eye, Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle (H)

Niven and Pournelle’s book is a fantastic space opera for teens, exactly the type of antithesis to LeGuin’s softer, more mature work.

1975

Hugo Winner: The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

My choice: The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

Honourable Mentions:
The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner
Tales of Known Space, Larry Niven (collection)
The Tomorrow File, Lawrence Sanders

Well, what do you know? I was born in 1975, and as luck had it, two of the best SF novels ever written were also published during that year. While The Forever War deserves its place here (It’s the SF novel of the seventies!), I have to point out that The Shockwave Rider is one of the great sagacious SF novels. It prefigures most of the Internet and the cyberpunk genre, for instance, and does so in luminously readable style.  Strongly recommended, especially given that most of the attention that year went to The Forever War. The Tomorrow File is a science fiction novel from a mystery author, and the fact that it hasn’t aged well is part of its charm.

1976

Hugo Winner: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

My choice: Man Plus, Frederik Pohl (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Mindbridge, Joe Haldeman (H)
Imperial Earth, Arthur C. Clarke

Man Plus is a top-notch story of alienated terraformation (sort of) while the Haldeman and Clarke novels are both solid hard-SF stories.

1977

Hugo Winner: Gateway, Frederik Pohl

My choice: The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley

Honourable Mentions:
Gateway, Frederik Pohl (H)
Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, Spider Robinson (collection)
Lucifer’s Hammer, Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle (H)

Oh yes, Gateway ranks as one of the classics of the genre. But Varley’s novel is even better on an idea-per-page, shock-per-paragraph basis. Lucifer’s Hammer is a big-budget disaster spectacular, somewhere between SF and the mainstream disaster thriller. While it’s a collection, Robinson’s short-story collection also marks the beginning of a very interesting SF series.

1978

Hugo Winner: Dreamsnake, Vonda McIntyre

My choice: The Persistence of Vision, John Varley (collection)

Honourable mentions:
The Genesis Machine, James P. Hogan

I don’t remember anything about Dreamsnake other than the snakes. But then again, it was a pretty dull year overall: my prize goes to Varley’s collection by default than anything else. The Hogan novel is fun.

1979

Hugo Winner: The Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C. Clarke

My choice: The Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C. Clarke (H)

Honourable mentions:
Lagrange Five, Mack Reynolds
Macrolife, George Zebrowski
The Web Between the Worlds, Charles Sheffield

1979 was a very good year for hard-SF, as the honourable mentions roll suggests with its emphasis on near-space engineering projects. Curio: Sheffield’s novel deals with the same vertiginous premise than Clarke, a clear case of parallel inspiration.  But Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise marked a career high-point in the author’s character development, not to mention some tasty engineering-fiction.

1980

Hugo Winner: The Snow Queen, Joan D. Vinge

My choice: Sundiver, David Brin

Honourable Mentions:
The Cool War, Frederik Pohl
Shiva Descending, Gregory Benford & William Rotsler

Not a particularly good year: Pohl’s book is closer to techno-thriller (and would indeed acquire a nasty little edge afterward considering the practice of economic sabotage) while Shiva Descending is a straight-up disaster novel. Fun, but unfulfilling, and that also applies to my relatively minor pick for the year. At least it’s fun to read, which is more than I can say for Vinge’s novel.

1981

Hugo Winner: Downbelow Station, C. J. Cherryh

My choice: Oath of Fealty, Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Honourable Mentions:
Shuttle
, David C. Onley
Dream Park
, Larry Niven & Steven Barnes
Time Travelers Strictly Cash, Spider Robinson (collection)

Can’t say anything particularly nice about Downbelow Station. Not a spectacular year; more of a comfortable period of rest and quiet before the cyberpunk storm. Dream Park isn’t too bad either.  Shuttle is a high-tech thriller verging on SF; I mention it partly because Onley eventually became Ontario’s Governor General.

1982

Hugo Winner: Foundation’s Edge, Isaac Asimov

My choice: Software, Rudy Rucker

Honorable mentions:
2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C. Clarke (H)
Sten, Allan Cole & Chris Bunch
Friday, Robert A. Heinlein (H)
Foundation’s Edge, Isaac Asimov (H)
Courtship Rite, Donald Kingsbury (H)

2010, Sten and Friday are simple SF adventures, maybe overlong but highly enjoyable. Foundation’s Edge is all length and moderate enjoyment, though the comfort level of “a return to the Foundation universe” alone may be highly pleasing. Courtship Rite has problems, but it’s one of the clearest descendants of Dune. On the other hand, Software is a difficult read, but a rewarding one, and the clear first shot across the bow for the cyberpunk movement.

1983

Hugo Winner: Startide Rising, David Brin

My pick: Startide Rising, David Brin (H)

Honourable Mention: Millennium, John Varley (H-Nom)

A quiet year, but that’s no reason not to cheer for Startide Rising, one of the best slam-bang space operas ever written as such. Otherwise, well, I quite like Millennium. Don’t look now, but the entire SF world is about to change in 1984…

1984

Hugo Winner: Neuromancer, William Gibson

My choice: Neuromancer, William Gibson (H)

Honourable mentions:
Icehenge, Kim Stanley Robinson
The Merchant’s War, Frederik Pohl
Warday, Whitley Strieber & James Kunetka

Bang.  Neuromancer, undisputed SF novel of 1984, heck, undisputed SF novel of the eighties. Is there anything else to add? Icehenge is a nice little surprise, well worth tracking down. The Merchant’s War is a fair sequel to The Space Merchants, and Warday is a chilling post-apocalyptic thriller.

1985

Hugo Winner: Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

My pick: Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Honourable Mentions:
Schismatrix, Bruce Sterling
Blood Music, Greg Bear (H)
Heart of the Comet, Gregory Benford & David Brin
The Postman, David Brin (H)
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Yes, Ender’s Game was scientifically designed to win all awards. I quite liked it -and if you read SF, so will you. But 1985 was a relatively strong year; any of the honourable mentions are well worth a read, especially for Bear’s Blood Music and Sterling’s Schismatrix, two of the truly forward-looking novels of the mid-eighties. In some ways, Schismatrix was a touch too forward-looking: It earned little attention when it came out, but ended up inspiring at least a generation of SF writers.

1986:

Hugo Winner: Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card

My choice: Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card

Honorable mentions:
Songs of Distant Earth, Arthur C. Clarke
Burning Chrome, William Gibson (collection)
The River of Time, David Brin (collection)
Hardwired, Walter Jon Williams

Card manages a consecutive double-hit with Speaker for the Dead, one of the most emotionally manipulative award-winner (and successfully so). Otherwise, a fairly good year, what with good novels by Clarke and Williams, and two fantastic short-story collections by Gibson and Brin.

1987

Hugo Winner: The Uplift War, David Brin

My choice: The Forge of God, Greg Bear (H)

Honourable Mentions:
The Uplift War, David Brin (H)
Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks
The Legacy of Heorot, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle & Steven Barnes
Voice of the Whirlwind, Walter Jon Williams
When Gravity Fails, George Alec Effinger (H)

I do like Brin’s novel a lot, but it’s a minor pleasure while The Forge of God is a turning point in SF’s depiction of alien invasions.  The Williams, Effinger and Niven/Pournelle/Barnes collaboration are good-fun adventures. (Meanwhile, Banks’ novel is a no-fun space opera)

1988

Hugo Winner: Cyteen, C. J. Cherryh

My choice: The Dragon Never Sleeps, Glen Cook

Honourable Mentions:
Farside Cannon, Roger MacBride Allen
Starfire, Paul Preuss
Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (H)
Islands in the Net, Bruce Sterling (H)
The Gold Coast, Kim Stanley Robinson

The Dragon Never Sleeps may be a hard-enough book to read (think of it as a space-opera trilogy compressed in one single volume), but then again Cyteen is much worse.  It was a quiet, but good year for hard-SF, what with Allen, Preuss, Bujold, Sterling all producing enjoyable works. Robinson’s dystopia is something else, but its lack of outrageous SF elements make it just as readable today as in 1988. Maybe more.

1989

Hugo Winner: Hyperion, Dan Simmons

My choice: Hyperion, Dan Simmons

Honourable mentions:
Orbital Decay, Allen Steele
Nemesis, Isaac Asimov
Angel Station, Walter Jon Williams
Twistor, John Cramer
The Long Run, Daniel Keys Moran

Hyperion annihilates all competition that year, and this despite strong competition. Steele’s novel of blue-collar workers in near-earth orbit unbolts the glorious squeaky-clean assumptions about the future. So do the Williams and Moran books, though Moran’s The Long Run simply burns on pure action/adventure fuel. Meanwhile, Asimov shows how the hard-SF game is played one last time while Cramer shows the old masters a fancy new trick or two.

1990

Hugo Winner: The Vor Game, Lois McMaster Bujold

My choice: Earth, David Brin (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Pacific Edge, Kim Stanley Robinson
Contact, Carl Sagan
Clarke County, Space, Allen Steele
The Fall of Hyperion, Dan Simmons (H)
Golden Fleece, Robert J. Sawyer

The Vor Game may play well to Bujold’s crowd of admirers, but it’s in a minor league when compared to Brin’s novel, a spectacular SF blockbuster novel with plenty of material for thought. Elsewhere in SF, 1990 saw the publication of the third (very strong) entry in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Three California” tryptich, and the auspicious debut of Robert J. Sawyer.

1991

Hugo Winner: Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold

My choice: Lunar Descent, Allen Steele

Honourable Mentions:
Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold
Fallen Angels, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle & Michael Flynn
Orbital Resonance, John Barnes
Russian Spring, Normand Spinrad
La Taupe et le Dragon, Joël Champetier

A weaker year. While I’m giving the nod to Steele on account of a rather good hard-SF book with interesting political implications in a field hitherto dominated by conservatism (an interesting contrast with Fallen Angels!), I’m not particularly enthusiastic about the choice. All of the runner-ups (including a novel only published in French that year) inspire similar feelings of mild appreciation.

1992

The Winners: A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge and Doomsday Book, Connie Willis (tie)

My choice: Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
Quarantine, Greg Egan
The Guns of the South, Harry Turtledove
Aristoi, Walter Jon Williams
Steel Beach, John Varley (H)

If 1991 was lacklustre, 1992 still stands as one of the top years of science-fiction. Any of the runner-ups could have won an alternate Hugo in any other year; it’s only because Red Mars is such a piece of brilliance that they find themselves in the runner-up category. (It goes without saying that any of them are also better than the two actual winners.) Vigorous and mature story-telling both figure on the list, maybe the finest yearly short-list ever produced so far in the genre.

1993

Hugo Winner: Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

My choice: Moving Mars, Greg Bear (H)

Honourable Mentions:
The Last Dancer, Daniel Keys Moran
Flying to Valhalla, Charles Pellegrino
Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (H)
Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (H)
Assemblers of Infinity, Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason

Picking one Mars over another, so to speak. A far more ordinary year than 1992, of course, but still packed with some interesting material.

1994

Hugo Winner: Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold

My choice: Heavy Weather, Bruce Sterling

Honourable mentions:
Permutation City, Greg Egan
Otherness, David Brin (collection)
The Engines of God, Jack McDevitt
Gun, with Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem
Mother of Storms, John Barnes (H)

Sterling comes back to long fiction after a few years’ absence and the results are spectacular. The rest of the honourable mentions are all worth a read, though they may be seen as inaccessible (Egan), collections of previously-published material (Brin), long (McDevitt), science-fantasy (Lethem) or just too mean for some (Barnes).

1995

Hugo Winner: The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

My choice: The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

Honourable Mentions:
Headcrash, Bruce Bethke
The Killing Star, Charles Pellegrino & George Zebrowski
The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter (H)
Kaleidoscope Century, John Barnes
Axiomatic, Greg Egan (collection)

A very good year; I had so much trouble picking only one winner that I decided to go with the majority. Note that Egan’s stupendous first short story collection appeared that year. The rest of the nominee list looks backward, from an H.G. Wells homage (Baxter), a cyberpunk satire (Bethke), or updates on the themes of alien invasions (Pellegrino & Zebrowski) and time-travel (Barnes).

1996

Hugo Winner: Blue Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

My choice: Blue Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (H)

Honourable Mentions:
The Fortunate Fall, Raphael Carter
The Probability Broach, L. Neil Smith
Ribofunk, Paul Di Filippo (collection)
The Truth Machine, James L. Halperin
Starplex, Robert J. Sawyer (H)

Once again, majority opinion saves me the trouble of making a choice. Do note that Ribofunk is a great short-story collection with a stronger unifying theme than most novels, and that if both the Halperin and Sawyer books aren’t exceptionally well-written, they exemplify the sense-of-wonder so beloved by SF geeks.

1997

Hugo Winner: Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman

My choice: Diaspora, Greg Egan

Honorable Mentions:
Einstein’s Bridge, John Cramer
Illegal Alien, Robert J. Sawyer
Sewer, Gas & Electric, Matt Ruff
Infectress, Tom Cool
The Rise of Endymion, Dan Simmons (H)

Not to disparage anyone, but look: Hugo voters were smoking crack that year, voting for barely-publishable yadda-yadda even as Egan’s Diaspora redefined notions of space exploration, heck, destroyed the safe assumptions of the entire genre. The honourable mentions are a lot safer, from sequels (Simmons) to humour (Ruff) to SF-tinged judicial thriller (Sawyer) to characterless hard-SF (Cramer) to explosive action-adventure (Cool).

1998

Hugo Winner: To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

My choice: Distraction, Bruce Sterling (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson
Cosm, Gregory Benford
Heaven’s Reach (Uplift Storm #3), David Brin
Dust, Charles Pellegrino
The Golden Globe, John Varley

My pick couldn’t be farther away from Willis’ safe, comic, breezy book: Sterling rocks the house with a vigorously dense, politically-aware work of authentic Science Fiction. The rest of the short-list is just as enjoyable: 1998 was a good year for SF.

1999

Hugo Winner: A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge

My choice: A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Blood Moon, Sharman DiVono
A Good, Old-Fashioned Future, Bruce Sterling (collection)
Flashforward, Robert J. Sawyer
The Trigger, Arthur C. Clarke & Michael Kube-McDowell
Gravity Dreams, L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

I’m not an unqualified fan of Vinge’s book, but I can certainly recognize that it’s a very solid piece of work, and a much safer choice for the award than my shortlist, all of which have some problems.

2000

Hugo Winner: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling

My choice: The Light of Other Days, Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter

Honourable Mentions:
Ventus, Karl Schroeder
Calculating God, Robert J. Sawyer (H)
Manifold: Time, Stephen Baxter
Wheelers, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen
First Contract, Greg Costikyan

Goodness.  Any of the Star Trek books published that year had more claim to winning “best science-fiction novel of the year” (as I narrowly redefine the Hugo Awards) than Harry Frickin’ Potter. (Just don’t tell anyone I quite like the Potter series… as fantasy.)

2001

Hugo Winner: American Gods, Neil Gaiman

My choice: The Secret of Life, Paul McAuley

Honourable Mentions:
Angelmass, Timothy Zahn
Falling Stars, Michael Flynn
The Chronoliths, Robert Charles Wilson (H)
Manifold: Space, Stephen Baxter
First Landing, Robert Zubrin

While I rather do like American Gods as mythological fantasy, any book on my short-list (as average as it is) easily trumps its SFictional intent and content.

2002

Hugo Winner: Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer

My choice: Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan

Honourable mentions:
The Ocean of Years, Roger MacBride Allen
Creature Tech
, Doug TenNapel
Permanence, Karl Schroeder
Kiln People
, David Brin (H)
Bones of the Earth, Michael Swanwick (H)

The good news were that the winner was an authentic SF novel. The bad news is that it certainly wasn’t one of the best SF novels of the year. My alternate choice goes to Richard Morgan’s ultra-dynamic, ideas-packed debut novel.

2003

Hugo Winner: The Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold

My choice: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow

Honourable mentions:
Singularity Sky, Charles Stross (H)
Blind Lake, Robert Charles Wilson (H)
The Time Traveler’s Wife
, Audrey Niffenegger
Broken Angels, Richard Morgan
The Speed of Dark
, Elizabeth Moon

My pick may not have a lot of depth, but it has tons of fun and is crammed with dynamic new concept boldly stolen from the Internet revolution.  None fo the honourable mentions are flawless, but each of them does something interesting with the genre, even when they’re commenting on its fans (Moon) or ignoring it (Niffenegger).

2004

Hugo Winner: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

My choice: River of Gods, Ian McDonald (H)

Honourable Mentions:
The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks (H)
The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross
Iron Sunrise, Charles Stross (H)
Market Forces , Richard Morgan
Air, Geoff Ryman

While the winning work was a big bold fantasy novel, by now you know what I think about fantasy in a Hugo-winning context. No, my pick for the year goes to McDonalds’ epic work, a sprawling, challenging, satisfying tapestry of mid-twenty-first century India. Good ideas, great execution, beautiful prose and tons of action. Loved it.  My honourable mentions are generally strong in their own ways.

2005

Hugo Winner: Spin, Robert Charles Wilson

My choice: Accelerando, Charles Stross (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Lady of Mazes, Karl Schroeder
Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (H)
Spin, Robert Charles Wilson (H)
Mindscan, Robert J. Sawyer
Counting Heads, David Marusek

At last, a result with which I can (almost) agree. My only quibble: Accelerando marks an age in SF and represents, for better or worse, the flavour of SF at the beginning of the millennium. As for the rest, well let’s just say that 2005 was a good year.

2006

Hugo Winner: Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge

My choice: Blindsight, Peter Watts (H)

Honourable Mentions:
Carnival, Elisabeth Bear
Sun of Suns
, Karl Schroeder
The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi
Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge (H)
Glasshouse, Charles Stross

Another decent choice by the Hugo voters. (If they keep it up, I may have to discontinue this list.) But as good as Rainbows End can be in sheer ten-minutes-from-now speculation, I found Peter Watts’ Blindsight to be an even better work of pure Science Fiction. It’s designed to overturn many clichés about SF itself, and that’s the kind of stuff that makes me happy. The rest of the honourable mentions list is made of fine reading material, though I’d single out Glasshouse as the third must-read title of the year.

2007

Hugo Winner: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon

My choice: Halting State, Charles Stross (H)

Honourable mentions:
Brasyl, Ian McDonald (H)
Black Man, Richard Morgan
Rollback, Robert J. Sawyer (H)
The Last Colony, John Scalzi (H)
Ragamuffin, Tobias Buckell

Chabon’s novel continues to mystify me: I really should love it, and yet I had a really hard time making it to the end. And the payoff wasn’t worth it, unlike the similarly difficult-to-read Brasyl. Halting State, in comparison, was pure candy, but candy with vertiginous implications and a fair bit of audacity: near-future SF doesn’t get much better than this. My four other choices are either lightweight (Sawyer, Scalzi or Buckell) or far too long for their own good (Morgan), but they’re still worth a read.

2008

Hugo Winner: The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

My choice: Little Brother, Cory Doctorow (H)

Honourable mentions:
Anathem, Neal Stephenson
Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross (H)
Pirate Sun, Karl Schroeder
Implied Spaces, Walter Jon Williams
Neuropath, Scott Bakker

The Graveyard Book deserved its John Newbery Medal, but a Hugo?  Well, periodically the rage that led me to this list has to be revived by the weight of awards I disagree with…  This being said, the entire year felt slightly off-beat in matter of SF. My top choice is unenthusiastic, and I swapped a number of titles in the top spot before settling on Doctorow for nothing more than accessibility to non-SF readers.  This being said, I can argue for and against any of my honourable mentions: The Stephenson’s too long, the Stross’s too meta-SF, the Schroeder’s too light, the Williams’ makes some really strange structural choices and the Bakker’s, well, designed to infuriate readers. Not the best of years.

2009

Hugo Winners: The City & The City, China Miéville and The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi

My choice: Buyout, Alexander Irvine

Honourable mentions:
Shades of Gray, Jasper Fforde
Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson (H)
Wireless, Charles Stross (short-story collection)
The Breach, Patrick Lee
This is Not a Game, Walter Jon Williams

I have trouble accepting The City and the City as Science-Fiction, and I strongly dislike The Windup Girl, but I won’t try to pretend that Buyout is anything more than a competently-executed tight SF California Noir thriller in a somewhat old-school vein.  It’s fun, but I feel as if I’m pushing by naming it my SF novel of the year.  In pure extrapolation, Charles Stross’ short-story collection Wireless puts nearly all SF novels of 2009 to shame (it includes three of the best SF short stories of the decade, including the mind-blasting (and Hugo-winning) novella “Palimpsest”.  Elsewhere on the list, I quite liked Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Gray, but I’m still waiting for the follow-up volumes in the series to prove that it all hangs together as more than a few good ideas thrown together.  Julian Comstock is fine read, better than I expected, but if you’re getting the feeling that I’m lukewarm about it, then you’d be right. I am quite a bit more enthusiastic about Patrick Lee’s The Breach, but I’ll be the first in line to admit that it’s not exactly coherent even as it multiplies its over-the-top craziness, and will please techno-thriller fans far more than SF readers.  Finally, I offer Walter Jon Williams’ This is Not a Game as a final runner-up, albeit with the asterisk that it was a high-tech thriller in 2009, and may have aged faster than anything else on the list.

2010

Hugo Winners: Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis

My choice: The Dervish House, Ian McDonald

Honourable mentions:

The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
Zendegi, Greg Egan (H)
Ghost Country, Patrick Lee
Directive 51, John Barnes
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu

Blackout/All Clear, really?  Couldn’t you come up with something better, Hugo voters?  It may not have been a good year, but it certainly had better novels out there.  Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House may not be quite as good as River of Gods, but it’s about as good as SF gets in 2010: World-aware, dense, slickly written and peopled with distinctive characters.  Elsewhere on the list, The Quantum Thief is dizzying in good and bad ways, Zendegi feels a bit too down-to-earth, Ghost Country is what happens when a big loud techno-thriller meets time travel, Directive 51 has its share of highs and lows, while How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is more of a conceptual trip than a satisfying narrative.  But, you know, it takes all kind of stuff to make a genre.

 

…and given the state of my reading in SF, that’s where we end this particular list. Stay tuned for more updates on a yearly basis, roughly around Worldcon time as I repress the urge to rant and rave about yet another stupid choice by the Hugo voters. It’s a tradition, and it keeps me off the streets.

This being said, I have two parting thoughts:

  • I realize that the list above is almost exclusively made up of books written by male authors. I’m not proud of it, but that’s the way my notes tally up: I can name quite a few competent female authors working in my type of SF, but it annoys me that they remain exceptions.
  • More happily, I’m always struck at how the golden age of SF seems to be now. From a quality standpoint, putting Ringworld next to Spin only shows the gap between what was considered good in 1970 and in 2005. SF, as a genre, has grown up a lot more than its critics (and nostalgics) are willing to admit. Cheer up: there’s a lot more good stuff out there than ever before.

Bonus: 2011-2013

Aw, heck, why not taunt you with a few early results for 2011-2013, based on nothing more than hot-off-the-page impressions, advance buzz, past track records and a total lack of perspective?

Rule 34, Charles Stross (2011)
Deep Sky, Patrick Lee (2011)
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)