2018 Hugo Recommendation List

Yeah, it's never too early to begin thinking about next year's Hugos! I plan to read enough, especially shorter material, that I need to begin a new page to keep track.

Best Short Story

"The Martian Obelisk," Linda Nagata, 7/19/17, Tor.com. (This is a lovely, sad, hard SF story, set in a future where the Earth is dying and a woman, Susannah, is trying to build an obelisk on Mars by remote control, to serve as humanity's funeral marker, sort of like the pyramids of Egypt. It's a story of recovering the hope one thought was dead, and it absolutely nails the ending.)

"Waiting On a Bright Moon," JY Yang, 7/12/17, Tor.com. (This is a unique mixture of SF and magic and Chinese culture, beautifully written.)

"Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance," Tobias S. Buckell, originally published in the anthology Cosmic Powers, edited by John Joseph Adams, reprinted in Lightspeed Magazine, February 2018 (This far-future tale of machine intelligences vs. humans--One True Forms--focuses on a "hull maintenance form" who discovers the CEO of a galactic starship that murdered many of its fellow "forms" to save biologics. That sounds confusing as heck, I know, but the story is damn near indescribable. Just go read it.)

"Soccer Fields and Frozen Lakes," Greg Kurzawa, Lightspeed Magazine, March 2017. (This is a subtle, restrained, heartbreaking story about a man who is discovered to be a "hybrid" [Alien? Neanderthal? It's never made clear in the story, and in the end it doesn't matter], and the societal upheaval that follows. This is a blunt exploration of humanity's fear of the Other, and what happens when we are divided into Us and Them. There is a touch of unreliable narrator about the protagonist, to the point where I wasn't sure if the ending actually happened as it's presented or not. One hopes so.)

Best Novelette

"Extracurricular Activities," Yoon Ha Lee, Tor.com, 2/15/17. (This is set in the world of Lee's novel Ninefox Gambit, and features General Shuos Jedao. Jedao is a compelling character, and this story shows some unexpected flashes of humor. )

"To Us May Grace Be Given," GigaNotoSaurus, 10/1/17. (A dark, bloody weird Western, with a devil [or maybe a vampire], three well-drawn characters, and a complex, twisted mother-daughter relationship at its heart.)

"Hungry Demigods," Andrea Tang, GigaNotoSaurus, 11/1/17. (Another selection from GigaNotoSaurus and editor Rashida J. Smith, which just fired on all cylinders last year. This story of a self-proclaimed "Chinese-Canadian kitchen witch" had me laughing out loud at several points. But this story also had some serious things to say about parents and children, and the price of immortality.)

Best Novella

"Down Among the Sticks and Bones," Seanan McGuire (4 stars; full review here) The second book in the Wayward Children series, this is a prequel to "Every Heart a Doorway," focusing on the twins Jack and Jill. I liked this better than the first book; it's tightly written, creepy and claustrophobic, with no unnecessary murder mystery.

"River of Teeth," Sarah Gailey (4 stars; full review here) Hippopotami in Louisiana! This weird alternate history Western has at its heart an actual proposal considered by the US Congress in 1910. The author takes this and runs with it, and the results are wonderful.

"All Systems Red," Martha Wells (4 stars; full review here) The character and voice of Murderbot, the self-aware Security Unit (android), carries the day. At times this cranky, snarky misanthrope who doesn't want to interact with humans and wishes for nothing more than to be left alone to watch its entertainment feeds reminded me of...me.

"The Refrigerator Monologues," Catherynne M. Valente (4 stars; full review here) A memorable collection of six stories in Valente's comic-book universe, tearing apart the repulsive "women in refrigerators" trope.

"The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion," Margeret Killjoy (3 stars; full review here). This is an odd little book, and I think you'll either love it or hate it. Whether you do either will depend on your reaction to its collectivist anarchist worldview, crossed with zombified demon animals.

"Agents of Dreamland," Caitlin R. Kiernan (5 stars; full review here). A fantastic novella from one of the most underrated writers of our time. It's a layered, dense, complex mingling of the Lovecraft oeuvre and The X-Files, with an alien invasion fit to give anyone nightmares.

"And Then There Were (N-One)," Sarah Pinkser, Uncanny Magazine, March/April 2017. This is a thoughtful, meditative story about choices, divergences, chance, and roads not taken.

Best Novel

The Stars Are Legion, Kameron Hurley (5 stars; full review here) This book is quintessential Kameron Hurley: messy, gory and brutal, with unreliable narrators who make hard choices, and full of feminist rage. If you're up for it, it's richly rewarding. I loved it.

Lotus Blue, Cat Sparks (5 stars; full review here) I'd never heard of this author before, and damn what a first impression. This far-future, post-apocalyptic and post-climate-change tale has everything: worldbuilding, characterization and a rip-roaring story.

Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty (3 stars; full review here) A lot of people are gung-ho about this. I'm not, unfortunately. Maybe because I'm not especially fond of closed-door murder mysteries, which is what this essentially is, dressed up in cloning and generation ship trappings. Some of the tech presented here stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.

The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi (4 stars; full review here) John Scalzi has steadily upped his game, and this book is his best yet (aside from an unnecessary, infodumping misfire in the prologue). His trademark snappy patter is on full display, but the characters are better developed and the story flows nicely.

Raven Stratagem, Yoon Ha Lee (5 stars; full review here) This is the fantastic sequel to last year's multiple-award-nominated Ninefox Gambit, and one of the few sequels that, in my opinion, are as good or better than their predecessors. If Ninefox confused the hell out of you (as it did for many people; that book has a pretty steep learning curve), start here. The world is more accessible, and Lee's writing is far more assured.

The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin (5 stars; full review here). Damn, talk about sticking the landing. This is the final book in the Broken Earth trilogy, and it's the best book I've read all year. Everything is explained, the loose ends are tied up, and the end is oh so satisfying.

Hunger Makes the Wolf, Alex Wells (3 stars; full review here). This first novel has an interesting setting and some nice character development for the two protagonists. I don't personally think it's quite award-worthy, but your mileage may vary. It's certainly worth reading.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings, Marie Brennan (4 stars; full review here). This final book in the Memoirs of Lady Trent wraps up the series in smashing style, with a bombshell plot reveal. This is one series that got better as it went along, and this final book is the best.

Brimstone, Cherie Priest (4 stars; full review here). Cherie Priest has a talent for weaving real-life characters and settings into her books, and she's done it again here. This book is set in Cassadaga, Florida, the "Psychic Capital of the World" according to Wikipedia, and features a budding medium and a shellshocked veteran of World War I facing off against a horror the latter brought back with him from Europe. Cassadaga is almost a third protagonist in itself.

Sea of Rust, C. Robert Cargill (5 stars; full review here). This book can be summed up in one sentence: "What happens after Skynet/the Terminators/the Cylons win the war?" But there's much more to it than that. Our robot AI protagonists--there's not a human to be found except in flashbacks--are fully developed characters with their own culture and world. They are decidedly not human, as several scintillating conversations about artificial intelligence, free will, and other philosophical/ethical debates demonstrates. It's also a slam-bang, tightly plotted story, with a nice arc for the main character, Brittle, a caregiver robot. The final third of the book will have you on the edge of your seat.

The Punch Escrow, Tal M. Klein (4 stars; full review here). This is a startlingly good first novel. It's a hard science fiction thriller full of well-extrapolated (at least to this layperson) technological concepts, examining what happens when one of those concepts goes off the rails. This would make for a deadly dull book without some good characters to back it up, but the snarky, smart-ass voice of the protagonist holds the book together and saves the day. I don't think this will quite make my top-tier novel list, but I am definitely nominating Klein for the Campbell.

Waking Gods, Sylvain Neuvel (5 stars; full review here). The careful setup in book 1 of the Themis Files, Sleeping Giants, pays off here as all hell breaks loose. This is a tale of a full-bore alien invasion by 200-foot robots, told almost entirely in dialogue (transcribed interviews and recordings, with a very few journal entries). It's an unusual, risky format, but the author has grown into his story and is up to the challenge.

Retrograde, Peter Cawdron (4 stars; full review here). This book is very much in the mold of Andy Weir's The Martian, but it's better. It's a lean, mean, hard-SF thriller with more plausible science and a ripping good story.

Starfire: A Red Peace, Spencer Ellsworth (4 stars; full review here). Not quite top-tier, I think, but a good beginning to a new series. With its galaxy-spanning war, sometimes squicky biotech, vat-grown supersoldiers, and half-alien pilots, it feels like a throwback to the pulp era. This is a very short novel (fifty-some-thousand words) with not a lot of room for character development. Hopefully the next book will be able to remedy that.

Into the Drowning Deep, Mira Grant (4 stars; full review here). This book could be boiled down to "When Mermaids Attack," but there's a lot more to it than that. It's an expansion of, and a sequel to, the story presented in the novella "Rolling In the Deep," and is a much better story all the way around. Time and care is given both to the characterizations and the science, and the result, even with the blood/gore/slime that comes from this being a horror novel, is very good.

Best Graphic Novel

Kindred, a Graphic Novel Adaptation, Octavia E. Butler, Damian Duffy and John Jennings (4 stars; full review here). This book has flown a bit under the radar, and I would like to change that. Reading Octavia Butler's masterpiece just boggles my mind with the depth of her talent all over again. Here, the story is stripped down to its essence, and seeing the poison of the antebellum South work its way into one of the main character's mind and heart is scary as heck. Yes, the "science," in this case time travel, is thin and handwavey, and it doesn't matter a bit. Butler's concern, as it should be, is squarely with the institution of slavery and this country's history of oppression, and how as a nation we are not nearly as far removed from either as we should be (and this applies even more so now than in the 70's, sadly). The art is harsh and stark, as befits the story.

Hawkeye: Kate Bishop Vol. 1, Anchor Points, Kelly Thompson/Leonardo Romero/Jordie Bellaire (5 stars; full review here). This is a feel-good story if there ever was one. Kate Bishop is a smart, competent character, a badass with archery and martial arts, but refreshingly not a superhero--she can get beat up, and in fact sports a collection of band-aids throughout one of these stories. Bonus guest appearance: Jessica Jones! Be still my heart.

Monstress Vol. 2: The Blood, Marjorie Liu/Sana Takeda (5 stars; full review here). The first volume of Monstress won the Best Graphic Novel Hugo last year, for good reason. This volume, every bit as good as the first, ups the stakes and expands the world.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 8: Mecca, G. Willow Wilson/Marco Failla/Diego Olortegui (5 stars; full review here). This is a welcome return to form after the disappointing volume 7. The heart of the series is Kamala's relationships with her friends and family, and this volume combines that with a timely storyline about discrimination and "law and order."

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele

This is more towards the horror end of the spectrum, although the central conceit is sufficiently SF for me to include it. To put it bluntly, this is a movie only an African-American filmmaker could have made, with a pointed commentary on race in America.

Life, written by Rhett Reese/Paul Wernick, directed by Daniel Espinosa

I was just ho-hum about this. Aside from a gorgeous opening tracking shot, this is basically a remake/ripoff of Alien aboard the International Space Station, albeit with a little higher stakes, since the station is, after all, orbiting right above Earth. Which ties into the impossibly bleak ending, where the planet is basically screwed. Well, at least that cuts off any possibility of a sequel (hopefully).

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, written/directed by James Gunn

The Marvel juggernaut rolls on, with this fun popcorn flick, although it has a lot to say about families, lost and found. Baby Groot is adorable, every member of the cast got a nice character arc, and the emotional center of the film was an unexpected sacrifice.

Kong: Skull Island, written by Dan Gilroy/Max Borenstein, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

This is basically a retelling of Apocalypse Now with the Big Ape and Samuel L. Jackson chewing scenery. (It's set in 1973, right at the end of the Vietnam War. Subtle, this director ain't.) Tom Hiddleston is always nice to look at, and this film is serving as the intro to the larger kaiju Monsterverse, with a post-credits scene talking about Godzilla, among others.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, written by Jonathan Goldstein/John Francis Daley, directed by Jon Watts

Spidey's been folded into the Marvel universe, introduced in Captain America: Civil War, and this is his movie. Tony Stark makes an appearance here, and the plot takes off from the events in The Avengers, eight years ago (but isn't that five years in real time? I thought The Avengers was in 2012). This film dispenses with the traditional Spider-Man origin to focus on Peter Parker's coming-of-age story, and his ultimate decision to not become one of the Avengers, but remain "your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, close to the ground." There's a lot of humor and snarky quips, and Tom Holland really captures the character.

Wonder Woman, written by Allen Heinberg/Zack Snyder/Jason Fuchs, directed by Patty Jenkins

This is the film of my heart so far this year. There's so many wonderful things about it: Robin Wright as General Antiope; the look on little Diana's face when she is told by her mother that she will never wield the Godkiller Sword ("you wanna bet?"); Etta Candy; and the entire No Man's Land sequence, which is the heart of the film. The final act of the film is a bit overwhelmed by CGI, but Wonder Woman's love and compassion shines through. Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot understand this character, and it shows.

War for the Planet of the Apes, written by Mark Womback/Matt Reeves, directed by Matt Reeves

This film has a depth and gravitas that surprised me, and that is mostly due to the fantastic performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar. Woody Harrelson is also nice as the antagonist, the ruthless Colonel, and is more restrained than usual, which is very effective. I know the Academy has shied away from recognizing motion-capture performances, but I would love for Serkis to get an Oscar nomination for this.

Logan, written by James Mangold/Scott Frank, directed by James Mangold

This is Hugh Jackman's final turn as Wolverine--and Patrick Stewart's as Charles Xavier--and both of them get proper send-offs, with Stewart in particular giving an outstanding performance. This film earns its R rating--the violence is brutal--but that suits this tragic story, of a near-future Logan dying of adamantium poisoning and taking care of a Charles Xavier with Alzheimer's. No more mutants are being born, but some are being created, and one of them, a young girl named Laura, has Logan's DNA. Logan comes out of his alcoholic fog and steps up to save the world--or at least the world of mutants--one more time, in a powerful story that tackles aging and mortality.

Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Hampton Fancher/Michael Green

This was mistakenly marketed as an action movie, I think. It's not. It's a thoughtful, absorbing meditation on who qualifies to be human, and what happens to your society if its manufactured slaves turn out to be as human as their creators. Visually, it is stunning. It answers several questions from the first Blade Runner (really, has any actor done more iconic characters over so many decades as Harrison Ford?) and extends the storyline and the horrific dystopian future, but it is also very much its own thing, due in no small part to Denis Villeneuve.

Colossal, written/directed by Nacho Vigalondo

Not many people have heard of this movie, which is a shame. Maybe because it's an unusual blending of what might be considered conflicting genres. It's a rom-com (although the comedy becomes black pretty quick); it's a study of alcoholism; it's a kaiju monster movie; and it's one of the most expert portrayals of toxic masculinity I've seen on the big screen (or rather the DVD screen). Anne Hathaway is excellent.

Thor: Ragnarok, written by Eric Pearson/Craig Lyle/Christopher Yost, directed by Taika Waititi

Well, was this ever a knockoff of Guardians of the Galaxy. It's also, if you've been following the Marvel timeline, a direct setup for next year's Avengers: Infinity War. I don't think this was as much of an allout blast as Guardians, but the ensemble cast did appear to be having a great deal of fun (especially Cate Blanchett), and Anthony Hopkins put some actual effort here instead of phoning it in. As usual, Tom Hiddleston's Loki is the most fascinating, watchable character of the group (I especially guffawed at his "I have been falling for half an hour!" during the meeting with Benedict Cumberbatch's Stephen Strange), although Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie was a close second. But there are plenty of serious undercurrents to this film as well, issues of imperialism and colonialism and refugees, and covering up one's sins. Taika Waititi was obviously an inspired choice as director.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written/directed by Rian Johnson

Here, of course, is the 800-pound gorilla of SF movies for the year. It's a worthy entry, I think, even if I now dislike Poe Dameron so much I hope he's thrown into the brig for the entirety of Episode IX. Mark Hamill gave a bravura performance, and Carrie Fisher broke my heart.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

The Handmaid's Tale, ep. 1, "Offred"; ep. 4, "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum"; ep. 6, "A Woman's Place"; ep. 9, "The Bridge"; and ep. 10, "Night." Or, hell, just the entire season.

I've been taking this in a little at a time, because damn it's hard to watch. This is Margaret Atwood's classic theocratic dystopia come to horrifying life. Elisabeth Moss is really good here, and was just rewarded with a well-deserved Best Dramatic Actress Emmy nomination. (Edit, after the Emmys: Woo-hoo! The Handmaid's Tale swept the awards, including Elisabeth Moss, Best Supporting Actress for Ann Dowd ["Aunt Lydia"], and Outstanding Drama Series! Very well deserved.)

The Expanse, season 2, ep. 5, "Home". This aired during the first part of the year, and even though The Expanse won this award last year, with so much excellent SFF television on the slate this year, I'm afraid it will be forgotten. Please don't. This story is the payoff to the entire series to that point.

Stranger Things, season 2, ep. 6, "The Spy," ep. 8,  "The Mind Flayer," and ep. 9, "The Gate." I'm not sure if I'll nominate the entire second season this time around, as there's so many good movies competing for my attention, and this season of Stranger Things doesn't seem as tight as the first. (And then there's ep. 7, "The Lost Sister," which stops the main storyline in its tracks, although it's an important episode for Eleven's development.) But the three episodes highlighted here form an incredible ending to the season.

The John Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Tal M. Klein, for The Punch Escrow (see Best Novel list, above).

Vina Jie-Min Prasad, a new writer with inventive settings and flowing prose. Sample stories here, here and (especially) here. This latter story is a gonzo, over-the top and unforgettable piece of flash fiction.

Sylvain Neuvel, for Waking Gods (see Best Novel list, above). I also nominated Neuvel for this award last year. This will be his second and last year of eligibility. 

Best YA Not-A-Hugo

(This is a newly ratified category, with the name to be decided on at this year's Worldcon.)

Defy the Stars, Claudia Gray (4 stars; full review here). Claudia Gray has written two Star Wars tie-ins, and other people have noticed her skill with characterizations. That ability is on full display here, in this young adult space opera of two protagonists on opposite sides: one who wants to protect her colony world from a dying Earth, and a cyborg who has been abandoned in the war between the mother planet and its colonies and wants to return to his creator, his "Father." This is greatly oversimplified, as this book is 500 pages, but for me it was absorbing from beginning to end.

Legion, Julie Kagawa (4 stars; full review here). This is the fourth book in the Talon Saga, and the best. You do have to read the previous three books to fully understand what's going on, but this is a wonderfully written story, with significant character development, nice pacing and riveting battle scenes. For anyone who likes Young Adult, if you're not reading this series, you're missing out.

The Empress, S.J. Kincaid (4 stars; full review here).  Your enjoyment of this book will depend on whether you can handle ruthless, sociopathic characters in a brutal backstabbing world. This is not lighthearted fare. I loved it.

Arabella and the Battle of Venus, David D. Levine (5 stars; full review here).  This is the sequel to last year's Andre Norton Award Winner for Best Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, and is an old-fashioned, swashbuckling, Jules Verne-esque adventure. Real-world science obviously does not come into play here, with the author's vision of Venus as a hot jungle planet, and airships the ply the "intraplanetary atmosphere," but this book's depiction of sea battles in space (between Napoleon Bonaparte and Admiral Lord Nelson, no less!) will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Best Series

(Another new category. After its trial run last year, it was ratified to be on the ballot going forward.)

The Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin (See my review of The Stone Sky in Best Novel above.)

The Memoirs of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan (See my review of Within the Sanctuary of Wings in Best Novel above.)

The Clan Chronicles, Julie E. Czerneda. (See my review of book #7, This Gulf of Time and Stars. The last book in the series, which I have yet to read, was published in 2017.)

Best Fan Writer

Foz Meadows, writing at the blog Shattersnipe: Malcontent and Rainbows. I nominated Foz in this category last year, and I'm likely to do so again. Her movie reviews, especially, are spot-on. 

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