On August 19th, N.K. Jemisin made history when she became the first author to win awards back-to-back for each book in her Broken Earth trilogy. The awards are called the Hugo awards – the most prestigious writing awards in the science fiction and fantasy world. The awards are named after Hugo Gernsback, the famous editor of Amazing Stories and considered the “father of the science fiction magazine.” Why does this matter? Because not only is Jemisin the first author (since the awards began in the 1950s) to win three consecutive years in a row, but she is also an African-American woman. In 2018, that is a statement that the world of science-fiction and fantasy fiction is pushing back against the right-wing gatekeeping that has plagued the genre and its writers for decades.
Jemisin’s trilogy is an amazing work of fantasy writing – and fiction writing in general – and she deserves all the praise and attention the series has received. To celebrate her momentous win, I want to look back at some of the other winners of Hugo awards, focusing on the cutthroat category of Best Novella. Why the novella and not the novel category that Jemisin won in? Because novella’s are one of literature’s great and underestimated formats – much like the underestimated talent of female fantasy and science fiction writers.
Note: In order to be considered for a Hugo in the Best Novella category, the novella must be between the lengths of 7,500 and 40,000 words. So, longer than a short story but shorter than a novel.
Nightwings by Robert Silverberg – 1969
The first novella in a trilogy that is often published under the title Nightwings. Pure science fiction, this novella centers around a future where humans are divided into guilds based on their abilities and jobs. It seems that several guilds make use of genetic engineering – as members of specific guilds have wings or telescopic eyesight. This is a future humanity that is decadent and technologically advanced. The plot of the novella revolves around a member of the Watcher guild tasked with watching the skies for an alien invasion. Soon, the Watcher (and his motley crew of misfits) find themselves entangled with the possibility of invasion. Along the way, they uncover some of the secrets from the past that explain how humanity got to this future. A solid example of science fiction that was given the graphic novel treatment in 1985.
Home is the Hangman by Roger Zelazny – 1976
Home is the Hangman is another novella that is part of a larger series collected under the title My Name is Legion. This is an amazing science fiction story that showcases Zelazny’s talent at exploring the bigger questions of humanity: What makes a person good or evil? What makes something truly alive? The novella centers on the premise that in the future, all of the information databases have been combined. In this future, a man sets out to erase himself from the database, thus erasing himself from existence. In Home is the Hangman, the man is trying to locate and stop the Hangman – a robot that has become sentient and is determined to return to earth and murder his three creators. This novella has lots of smart twists and turns, and there is a lot that is revealed to be more than it seems to be on the surface. Despite its retro-science fiction vibe, this is a novella worth checking out.
Souls by Joanna Russ – 1983
Critic Stephen Burt has called Russ’s novella “perfectly wrought.” Souls tells the story of Abbess Radegunde, a 12th century woman that is stronger and more powerful than any of the men in her world give her credit for. There is one man who attempts to convey the story of the Abbess – a man named Radulphus. It is through his eyes that the reader gets the story of this larger than life woman. Russ does not flinch from the story’s message that women have power beyond just value as mothers. Without going over the top with stereotypes, Russ’s novella shares a kick ass woman with the world. There is not a lot of plot to this novella, and its power hinges more on the conceptual agenda against materialism and misogynistic views of domesticity. Worth reading as an important contribution to the genre of science fiction and fantasy.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman – 2002
Neil Gaiman is no stranger to winning Hugo awards. His novel American Gods has won in the Best Novel category. Coraline is a story geared toward an audience of children, but it still resonants with adult readers. The novella tells the story of a girl named Coraline, who moves into a house that contains some weird secrets and even weirder neighbors (I’m looking at you, Miss Forcible). After unlocking a secret door in her new house, Coraline travels over to the “Other World” and meets alternate versions of her parents – that happen to have creepy buttons for eyes. Coraline was turned into an animated movie for children that often leaves kids with nightmares about scary parents with button eyes. If you remember Coraline for anything, it may be because it is the story that makes ordinary buttons absolutely frightening. Coraline eventually has to fight the Other Mother and free the trapped ghosts of children that have been trapped in the Other World. It is a classic plot that is full of some new twists and adventures.
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire – 2017
McGuire’s novella is an inventive and new take on the classic trope of portal fantasy – think C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and Lev Grossman’s Magicians series. Taking place at a boarding school, all the students have passed through doorways into various fantasy worlds and then returned to the real world. Each of the main characters are searching for a way to return to the fantasy worlds that rejected them. These are teenage characters that have been changed and are now lost in the world that they are supposed to belong to. McGuire does a great job exploring the ways that teenagers can be disengaged and disenfranchised from the world. The novella’s plot that centers around destroying evil and unlocking secrets in the corners of the boarding school becomes a great backdrop for exploration on deeper issues of empathy and belonging. This is an almost perfect weird tale that includes a fair amount of well-times humor and diversity.
This year’s winner of the Hugo award for Best Novella:
All Systems Red by Martha Wells – 2018
This novella is a radical new take on the classic robot science fiction plot. Focusing on one of the future’s security robots – nicknamed Murderbot – the plot focuses on backstabbing politics and murder while exploring the growing humanity experienced by the machine. This is a short novella but a deep dive into questions of morality, humanity, and capitalistic futures.
Extra Extra Bonus:
In 2017, Sarah Gailey wrote my favorite novella of all time, River of Teeth. It was a finalist for the Hugo award for Best Novella in 2017 and lost to Every Heart a Doorway (which definitely deserved the win). I cannot list Hugo novella winners without including this honorable mention:
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey – 2017
Fact: In 1910, Lousiana congressman Robert F. Broussard had a plan to import hippopotamuses to America, in hopes they would eat environment-destroying plants and serve as an alternative meat source. Obviously, this stayed a plan. In River of Teeth, Gailey describes an alternative American South that did make Broussard’s plan a reality. The novella is a fun escape and includes nonstop action and death – by human hands and by hippo. Gailey’s novella is also radical for its inclusion of a bisexual lead character (Houndstooth) and a non-binary hero named Shackleby. There is also some badass women characters, one of which fights the bad guys while nine months preggo.