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.