Thoughts on the 2019 Hugo Award Finalists

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash
Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash


The Hugo Awards weren’t announced on a Friday afternoon, Easter Weekend, or at some other incredibly inconvenient time—I’m still reeling from this act of decency.

Oh, and the incredible short list this year.’s got the run down, as usual. So, head on over there (in a new tab, obvs), and then come back here for some thoughts.

Back? Okay. Let’s go.

First off, I just want to acknowledge that this year the ballot features a lot of my friends and professional acquaintances, so my excitement is giddily personal. But, let’s not kid ourselves, this is a razor sharp dissection of all the amazing work being done in SFF right now. We’re in a new golden age, and we’re going to be able to look back on this period—especially in light of the puppy shenanigans from a few years ago—and beam with pride at the face of science fiction and fantasy in the early 21st century. It’s sharp, clever, cutting, adventurous, fun, thrilling, and, as good speculative fiction has always done, challenges us to do better with the present we’ve been given. This is, far and away, one of the most hopeful and impressive Hugo ballots I’ve seen in years. Or ever.

Now, onto the individual categories.

Unlike most years, I’ve read most of the Best Novel finalists! Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun, The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, and Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning are all brilliant, and, god damn, I don’t know which one I’d put on top. I have an intense emotional connection to The Calculating Stars, because it was the book I was reading immediately after the birth of my second child, but Space Opera is one of the most unique, funny, and heartbreaking books I’ve ever read (buoyed immensely by Heath Miller’s terrific audiobook narration.) So, I’d give the nod to one of those two. But, really, whatever wins, SFF fans should be happy.

Unlike above, I haven’t read any of the books in Best Novella. I’m a huge fan of P. Djèlí Clark’s work, and will get to The Black God’s Drums before too long, so I’m rooting for it, but any category with McGuire, De Bodard, Wells, Okorafor, and Robson is just swelling with quality.

I’ve gotta give Best Novelette to Brooke Bolander’s “The Only Harmless Great Thing.” It’s an absolute punch in the gut that, nearly a year later, I still think about regularly. I’m also thrilled to see Zen Cho’s “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” on the ballot. I’m a huge fan of Cho’s work, especially her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, and Joel Cunningham has been doing wonderful work on the Barnes & Noble SFF Blog for years. I’m pleased to see both of them rewarded, and hope this means the Barnes & Noble SFF Blog can grow as a fiction publisher.

Oh, man. God damn. Best Short Story is loaded with quality. As much as it pains me to pass on Clark’s “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” and “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander, Sarah Gailey’s “STET” is one of the most unique, impactful, and compelling pieces of short fiction I’ve ever read. It’s gotta go to “STET.” A big kudos not only to Gailey, but to the amazing layout and design work by Pablo Defendini and Julia Rios’s editorial work. It took guts and great vision to make Gailey’s work come to life, and they NAILED it.

I haven’t read anything from Best Series besides Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire, but it’s terrific. I gotta get reading!

Best Related Work is bursting with great stuff, but for me it’s a toss-up between Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan’s The Hobbit Duology (documentary in three parts), a great, in-depth, and super smart dissection of Jackson’s much-lamented film trilogy, and Archive of Our Own, which, by my estimation, is one of the most valuable communities on the ‘net.

I don’t have much to say about Best Graphic Story, to the Best Dramatic Presentation categories, other than that I wish The Dragon Prince had found its way onto the ballot. It’s a terrific follow-up to my favourite TV show of all time, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and deserves greater recognition for its accomplishments. Oh, and Black Panther rocks.

Best Professional Editor, Short Form is too difficult to decide. Gardner Dozois offered a lifetime of amazing editorial work to the SFF field, and it wouldn’t upset me at all to see him nab one final Hugo. Otherwise, Rios, Tobler, the Thomases, Clarke, and Harris are all deserving.

Best Professional Editor, Long Form is an awesome showcase of the brilliant women shaping science fiction and fantasy today. Like above, any of those nominated would be a deserving winner.

It’s hard to believe Charles Vess has never won a Best Professional Artist Hugo, but his sublime work on the illustrated edition of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Books of Earthsea should put an end to that. It’s odd seeing this category without Julie Dillon’s name, but I’m very pleased to see new artists like Jaime Jones and Yuko Shimizu popping up. Just as with fiction, we’re in a new golden age of SFF art, and this list highlights some of the best in the field.

Oh, god. Don’t make me decide between all the Best Semiprozine finalists! I love seeing Shimmer on the list in their final year of eligibility. I’m an enormous fan of everything Uncanny does, but I’d like to see the spotlight moved onto some of the other equally impressive magazines. It’s hard to believe Strange Horizons has never won a Hugo, and that has to be corrected at some point, but, for me, this year it’s a toss-up between Fireside and FIYAH. They’re both pushing SFF’s boundaries and introducing readers to some AMAZING writers.

If I’m being honest, Best Fanzine feels like it’s in a bit of a funk. The nominees do good work—especially Lady Business and Nerds of a Feather—but there’s been no new blood in this category for a number of years. Perhaps this says more about the state of fan writing, and the unfortunate way a lot of online dialogue has been cannibalized by the mega sites like, Barnes & Noble SFF Blog, and io9, but I’d like to see some new voices rising up to steal spots on this ballot over the next couple of years. I still find it odd that in the day and age of the Internet, making it easier than ever to publish a fanzine, the online publications are losing ground to traditional fanzines once again. Of the finalists, I’d be thrilled to see Lady Business and Nerds of a Feather take away the rocket, but, since Lady Business already won a couple years ago, I’ll give the nod to the latter.

Best Fancast is chock full of great stuff. Fangirl Happy Hour, Skiffy and Fanty, and Galactic Suburbia are all great and deserving, but Our Opinions Are Correct from Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz is top dog for me. In stark contrast to what I wrote above about Best Fanzine, I’m very pleased to see two newcomers on this list (Our Opinions Are Correct and Be The Serpent) and hope to see this trend continue.

Very, very excited to see Alasdair Stuart on the Best Fan Writer list. He’s been working tirelessly for years, is one of the best and most interesting voices in SFF, and the sky’s the limit for his future writing. Alongside Stuart are some other great writers, including Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, who’s an essential writer and new to the ballot.

Between Meg Frank, Likhain, and Grace P. Fong, this is a great year for Best Fan Artist. I’m also pleased to see someone like Sara Felix make the list for her jewelry. It’s easy to forget in the age of online art communities that artists are working on other forms of fantasy art, and it’s great to see the variety and depth of the fan artists community recognized here.

The fan categories are often in danger of becoming stagnant due to the reality that fan creators pour an immense amount of time and energy into their projects without much (or any) monetary compensation. This means they’re doing it after work, once the kids are down for bed, on weekends, or in the dim hours of the morning before breakfast. It’s not easy. This also means that the pool of people who have the will, time, and ability to accomplish such consistent high quality work is small. Not everyone can do it. I have immense respect for those that appear on the list year after year, but hope, as always, to see newcomers rise up and force their way into the conversation.

I don’t know what the answer is here—except that, just like we did several years ago when we fought to have blogs recognized as fanzines, we have to continue to push the boundaries of what we consider a “fanzine.” As the Internet matures, and the online SFF community grows, conversations are becoming less centralized—split between social media platforms, private Discord channels, newsletters, hidden behind Patreon paywalls, and scattered throughout various websites, and we have to figure out how to reward the best collective writing, no matter where it exists or how it’s published. Can Delilah Dawson’s Twitter feed, full of amazing writing advice and conversation, be considered a fanzine? Perhaps it should be. What about the amazing work from Krista D. Ball on r/fantasy? Or Sarah Gailey’s newsletter, Here’s the Thing?

I think Best Fancast continues to evolve because it’s a new media and we haven’t established an idea of what the category means yet. It’s a product of the Internet, so rather than fighting against the change and evolution, like Best Fanzine often does, it embraces it and actively rewards new, experimental creators. Best Fan Artist has been given an immense gift by the visual communities—like DeviantArt or Pixiv—that have risen up to give fan artists an online home.

So, the question is: how do we reconcile the way conversation and publishing are changing and help the fan awards—especially Best Fanzine—continue to evolve? I don’t know the answer, but I’m thinking about it a lot these days.

Lots of great stuff in Best Art Book (which I would love to see as a permanent category), but my vote’s gotta go to Ursula K. Le Guin and Charles Vess’ The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition. It’s a beautiful once-in-a-lifetime achievement, and nothing would make a more suitable send off for one of SFF’s giants than a Hugo honouring her most famous work.

And, continuing the ballot-long trend, we’ve got another impossible-to-decide list of finalists for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Katherine Arden hit the ground running with her trilogy, but I think R.F. Kuang will probably take the cake. Her debut novel, The Poppy War, has been lighting the world on fire, and capping off her year with the Campbell feels right.

Finally, I haven’t read any of the books, but the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book seems like Adeyemi’s for the taking, right? Children of Blood and Bone is a phenomenon, and has set an enormously high bar for the field.

And, so, there we go! An excellent ballot all around, and many categories that are achingly difficult to narrow down to a single winner. No matter what happens in August, we’re in for a treat.

On a related note, I’m hoping to attend WorldCon in Dublin this year, so, if you’ll be there, let me know on Twitter!