Hugo Blogging: Sagas

There’s been another controversy in the SF community, around the Hugo awards, today. And for once it’s not the Puppyfascists doing things like celebrating the death of the people at Charleston, but to do with actual books.

There’s a proposal, which will come up in the Worldcon business meeting this year, to change the Hugo categories. The proposal is to get rid of the “best novelette” category, leaving two short fiction categories (short story and novella), and to add an extra category at the top end, for “best saga”.

Now, I’m neutral on the novelette thing — I think novelette is a strange category anyway, and completely misnamed. I’ve written short stories over 7,500 words, and I’ve written a novel, and comparing the two is ridiculous — and reading 7,500 words should not take even the slowest reader more than about half an hour, so the reading experience is nothing like that for a novel either — so calling these stories “novelettes” is like calling a mouse an “elephantette”. So I don’t really think a novelette is a thing, in the way that short stories, novellas, or novels are. But on the other hand, I don’t think awarding the best short story between 7,500 and 15,000 words is actually a bad thing to do.

I do, however, have an opinion on the “best saga” award. I think it’s a terrible idea.

Right now, the Hugos, and SF in general, are completely dominated by stories in series, and from a commercial point of view I can see why this is — it’s easier to sell someone on book two of something they already like than to sell them a whole new book, and SF fans are often sufficiently compulsive that the collector mentality kicks in, and they say things like “yeah, I know the last five books in the series have been a bit rubbish, but I’m waiting to see what happens”.

Series, in other words, are great for selling to people who have already bought into them. But they make it very, very difficult for anyone who just wants to read a new book. And I’m certain this is a major reason for SF’s continued relegation to a literary ghetto (and its consequent decline in sales over the last few decades).

If I’m looking for a new book to read, I want an actual book, complete in itself, not just an excerpt of a longer story. I suspect this is the case for many other people too. What I don’t want is Darkrifle: Book Twelve of the Grimdark Chronicles, yet all too often that is all that’s on offer in SFF.

I’ve been reviewing the nominations for this year’s Hugo awards, and I’ve had a problem with the Best Novel category even though it’s not been hugely influenced by the puppyfascists. Only one of the five nominations — The Goblin Emperor — seems to me to be an actual novel complete in itself. Of the others, The Three-Body Problem ends on a cliffhanger which will be resolved in a different book with a different translator, Skin Game is something like the sixteenth book in an ongoing series, Ancillary Sword is the middle book in a trilogy, and The Dark Between The Stars is the start of a trilogy while also following on from another trilogy in the same universe.

Some of these books are very good, and some very bad, but what they all have in common is that you can’t just hand them to someone and say “here, read this, this is a good story”. You have to say “read this, and these three other books.”

And this sequelitis leads to unconscionable amounts of bloat. Last year’s Hugo ballot included Parasite by “Mira Grant”, which got me furious because the big last-page reveal was something which had been telegraphed so blatantly that in a reasonable-length novel it would have been the twist a third of the way through the story. Instead, it was a cliffhanger, and the resolution of that twist is, apparently, in the next novel in the series.

Similarly, Connie Willis’ Blackout/All-Clear, which I have elsewhere described as the worst books ever written, is so bad because it’s 1168 pages in two books. If you cut out eight hundred pages of idiot plot and brought it down to one short book, it would possibly be quite good, but selling two terrible books makes more commercial sense than one good one.

There is a place for sequels and series, of course — I love the Discworld books, enjoy Stross’ Laundry novels, or Paul Magrs’ Brenda and Effie series, and so on, and my own first novel is going to be in a series. But more often than not series tend to do the opposite of what I want from SFF — rather than give a new perspective, or shock with a new idea, they’re familiar comfort-reading for those who know them, and incomprehensible for those who don’t.

But currently there is massive commercial pressure on writers to write in series, and having a separate Hugo award for those seems likely to increase that pressure (if Kameron Hurley is right that a Hugo win is worth roughly $13,000 in its sales boost).

Were the “best saga” award to be brought in *and all books in series to be removed from the “best novel” category*, I would be ecstatic, because that would give more exposure to the standalone novels the field should be producing. As it is, though, it seems likely that it will encourage even further the decline of the field into a niche of thirty-book series called The Chronicles Of The Saga Of Dullworld. When the playing field is already tilted in one direction, tilting it further seems a bad idea.

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25 Responses to Hugo Blogging: Sagas

  1. How would Best Saga even work in terms of rewarding a given year? I struggle to think of any multi-book series that’s released more than one eligible book a year.

    That said, I do think “Best Novel (Series)” and “Best Novel (Standalone)” would be a nice improvement, yes.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      The rule is that something in the series must have been published in that calendar year, and at least 400,000 new words must have been published since the last time it made the ballot.

      (Having said that, there’s the Discworld books, which regularly did two books a year til Pratchett started getting ill, and there were of course the Doctor Who novels at one a month — and tie-ins and multi-author series have explicitly been cited as reasons for bringing in the award).

  2. Pingback: The Scarlet Litter 6/21 | File 770

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    What I don’t want is Darkrifle: Book Twelve of the Grimdark Chronicles

    Agree; but I would pay good money to read Darktrifle: Book Twelve of the Grimdark Chronicles.

  4. MatGB says:

    he Dark Between The Stars is the start of a trilogy while also following on from another trilogy in the same universe

    It’s not y’know, it’s following on from a seven book saga set in the same universe, and from what others have said doesn’t do much in terms of explanation for people that didn’t wade through the first 7 books.

    I got to book 6 and gave up half way, years ago, really nicely thought through background, terribly written with characters that just bored.

    I love the worlds Anderson sets his work in, including the spinoff novels, Dune prequels, etc. It’s just a shame that he’s such a, well, workmanlike author.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oof. I did wonder why the infodumps went on *so long*…

      • MatGB says:

        Infodumping that doesn’t actually inform combined with horrific mischaracterisation is one of his signature styles from what I can tell, in one of the first of his books I read, Artoo Detoo beeped ‘heroically’ and Threepio was very very brave.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Yeah, well, if you try for consistent characterisation, you might have to spend more than six weeks writing the book. You might even have to do a second draft!

  5. “It was the darkest of trifles: from the black dark chocolate roll, of the basal cake, through the black cherries and black liquer wine in which they were soaked, through the black custard – made from the eggs of the Raven and the Blackbird, to the topping of cream, whisked from the sable milk of the Black Cows of the Darkling Moors. But dark as the trifle was, it could not sate the appetite of the Brooding Lord Shaduzverld who pushed it from him with the hand clad in the iron glove – Venomsmitter – which cloaked the burns wrought upon his left fingers by the gore and ichor of the troll, which he had throttled with his own main strength in his assension of the Dolamite Throne. No it would take more than this confection from the depths of his domain to quench his nigh-insatiable lust to engulf all that was sweet and joyful. The word went out – the Fell Legions would march upon the outer lands: the desert was not enough, not any longer….”

    From “Darktrifle – Book Twelve of the Grimdark Chronicles”

  6. Andrew Rilstone says:

    I read the Royal Assasin series by Robyn Hobb because I thought I should read some fantasy that wasn’t Tollkien and people had told me they were well done. The third book alone is as long as Lord of the Rings. And there are four sequels. Not four books. Four trilogies, And no-one can get poisoned without three chapters of back story about the cook. I enjoyed them very much indeed,

  7. Andrew Rilstone says:

    PS I do in fact know how to spell Tolkien,

  8. PS Errata in “Darktrife” the word ‘desert’ in the final line should of course be ‘dessert’…

  9. Wasn’t volume XIII recalled because of the sexism of the cover artwork after the title had been misconstrued in a communications glitch with the art-team? I think its due to be reissued in 2016 under the much safer title referencing the feared avian warriors of Ird-tarbul: Great Tits Of Wrath.

  10. Michael Lee says:

    Section 3.8.2 should mean that Saga components are also not eligible for Best Novel ( Worldcon Committee shall determine the eligibility of nominees and assignment to the proper category of works nominated in more than one category.)

    My general thought is separating out the series and sagas will make it easier for stand alones to be in there.

    (The proposal is the starting place for discussion, not the expected final result…)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      The problem with that is you get:
      2017: Warbringer, Book One of the DarkWar Chronicles nominated for best novel
      2018: Darkdeath, Book Two of the DarkWar Chronicles nominated for best novel
      2019: Bloodspurt, Book Three of the DarkWar Chronicles nominated for best novel
      2020: Grimwar, Book Four of the DarkWar Chronicles nominated for best novel, and the DarkWar Chronicles nominated for best saga.
      Even if in 2020 the committee only allows the DarkWar Chronicles to go in best saga (and I can see people kicking up a real stink about that, with some people saying “but book four stands on its own! It should be judged on its own merits), it’s still giving books one through three a second shot at a Hugo.
      And then in 2021, book five is nominated for best novel, and in 2024 the whole thing gets a second try at best saga.

      The whole thing just seems to me like an affirmative action plan for authors with logorrhoea.

  11. Are there any good part X of a Y part series books that read just as well on their own?

    I can think of numerous series books/stories that read fine out of order (Discworld, Faction Paradox, Conan), but the closest I can think of that are meant to be read sequentially are a couple of Laurel K Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels, and even there the books themselves are only worth reading because of the interesting commentary on the dangers of basing characters directly on people you know.and having so little divide between your real life and your authorial stand in. To her credit, Hamilton does do an excellent job getting you up to speed on the premise, previous goings on, and minor characters in her opening chapters, and she knows exactly what her target audience wants. You can also jump right in with Tom Clancy, but the ones he actually wrote aren’t branded The Jack Ryan Files: Part 4: A Clear and Present Danger, and that’s not really science fiction in the way anyone would normally describe it.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It’s been a couple of years since I read them, but I don’t remember Greg Egan’s Orthogonal trilogy disappointing me in either of the first two parts (I thought the third was good, but didn’t quite wrap up all the elements I wanted it to wrap up).
      People who like the Harry Potter books say they work well as individual books too.
      And of course, the current proposal would cover both types of book, so The Dullwank Chronicles Part 17 Of 45 and, say, the latest Stross Laundry novel, would both count in the same way, though they’d be doing vastly different things.

    • meg says:

      I find that William Gibson’s classic cyberpunky Bridge trilogy and his more recent Pattern Recognition/Spook Country/Zero History trilogy both hold up very well to reading as standalones or out of order. Sheri S. Tepper has some books that seem to be set in the same universe but aren’t made significantly more confusing by virtue of being read in whatever random order you find them at the library (I’m thinking in particular of Grass and Sideshow… and at least one other I can’t remember the name of now.)

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