(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many nominees on the 2015 Hugo ballot as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)
Skin Game, by Jim Butcher, #15 in the Harry Dresden urban fantasy series, is the only Hugo nominee I read prior to the ballot's being announced. My 5-star review is here. Full disclosure: I own the entire series, the last two in hardback (thank goodness for Hasting's 75% off clearance sales). I stand by everything I said in that review: Jim Butcher is a master at plotting, even though I'm beginning to think he should get on with his apocalypse already. The books are great fun reads, and this particular title is an excellent Harry Dresden book.
Having said that, the question now becomes: How does it compare to books outside its urban-fantasy bubble, and what, if anything, makes it a contender for Best SFF Novel of the Year?
Just to dip my toe into this year's Hugo controversy a teeny-tiny bit for context: Some of the current kerfluffle is the objection by certain, ah, canids, to books that supposedly place Message over Story. (Also that the book covers don't adequately represent what's inside, which is just weird--I mean, what are the back covers, with their little mini-summaries, for? Just to hold the pages together?) Over the past few months, literally millions of words have been written about this, by people far wiser than I. Many have pointed out that messages (along with weird covers) have always been part and parcel of the books produced in this field, and the gentle (or sometimes not-so-gentle) suggestion has been made that it's the nature of the messages that certain, ah, canids are objecting to. If the message is to their taste, they approve; if not, they snarl and spit unpronounceable, cheesy acronyms at the perceived offenders.
To this issue, I can only relate how I feel, which is thus:
If your Story doesn't have a Message, your Story isn't worth shit.
I always thought that was the explicit role of art and literature, to shine a light on the process of being human. The SFF field is uniquely positioned to accomplish this task; the mirror that is a society and/or a race of beings invented out of whole cloth reflects the human experience even more brightly. Or it should, if the author is doing his/her job.
That, my friends, is the Ultimate Message Fiction: if I stare into the abyss (or the alien's sight and/or other sensory appendages) and the abyss stares back...then what does that make me?
This isn't to say the Story of how I got to the abyss isn't important. For example, I am right now reading, in addition to the Hugo stuff, a book of short stories by Native American writer Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. These stories are beautifully written and are a harrowing depiction of modern Native American experience: the desperation, the alcoholism, the black humor, the sickening sense of betrayal, the despair of a conquered, all but annihilated people...it's all there. At the same time, as amazing as these stories are, they are tough to get through--not only because of the subject matter, but because almost nothing happens. These are not so much stories as they are character sketches and vignettes. There is no overarching goal, no struggle--other than the struggle for survival, which given said subject matter and the fact that Alexie is generally described as a "literary" writer, is certainly worthy, but it's not what I would define as an exciting story.
(Although I recently heard that Sherman Alexie has also written a George Armstrong Custer zombie story. That description alone makes me want to search for it.)
So I know you have to have a Protagonist with a Goal navigating Obstacles, at a minimum, for a Hugo-worthy story. But if you have said Protagonist striving for his/her goal with no thought, no reflection, and no "what does this all mean?" when s/he finally stares into the abyss...well, then, you get crap like John Norman's Gor.
Yes, I have read a few Gor books. A long time ago, before I became aware of their ugly misogynistic aspects. Here's the thing, though: until all this Hugo stuff came up, and everybody started talking about the early days of the field, and the type of stuff published Way Back When, I had actually forgotten I had read them...because they were all Story with no Message. (Putting aside that whole women-are-only-good-for-fucking-and-childbearing thing, because I didn't pay any attention to it at the time.) In short, they were a mile wide and an inch deep.
Now that I've grown up a bit, I do not like that kind of story. (I also do not like a story of "manly men doing manly things," as a certain, ah, canine once put it. After a while that sort of cookie-cutter stuff gets boring as hell.) Yes, I want my Protagonist to navigate Obstacles and reach his/her Goal...but I also want a Declaration of what it means to get there, and a Reflection on just how looking into that abyss informs the Protagonist about the human experience.
In short, I want my Story, but I also want my story to have an effing Message. Sure, I want to have fun, but I also want to think. And the best books, the ones that resonate in my mind long after I reach "the end," are, to me, the only books worthy of a Hugo award.
My favorite example of this is the book so harangued by certain, ah, canids: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie.
That book swept nearly every award it was nominated for last year, and deservedly so, in my mind. There are so many layers to this book, so many wonderful Messages: an artificial intelligence (at one time an actual starship) forced into a single human brain, an exploration of gender, the deconstruction of the horror and cruelty of an interstellar empire, a ruthless, fascinating society built on expansion and conquering...all wrapped up in a rip-rollicking Space Opera that leaves the reader breathless.
As far as I'm concerned, Ancillary Justice and Peter Watts' Blindsight are the two best SF books I've read in years. Both of them left me thinking after I closed the back cover. (And why in hell didn't Blindsight win the Best Novel Hugo? Watts wuz robbed, I tell you.) Needless to say, this year I'm going to vote for Ancillary Sword (unless Kevin J. Anderson's The Dark Between the Stars sucker-punches me to the floor; but given the reviews I've read by others, I have my doubts). It's a slower, tighter, more focused story, and I actually liked it better than its predecessor.
Skin Game simply does not reach those lofty heights. Sure, it's a fun read...but it's also a forgettable one. As I said, I appreciate it because it's a master class in plotting, but that's as far as it goes, and it will not get my vote.