Novel Review: Observer, by Robert Lanza and Nancy Kress

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Dr. Carolyn “Caro” Soames-Watkins is a promising neurosurgeon whose career is derailed when she reports a superior for sexual harassment. Unsure if there is a future for her in her chosen profession, she accepts an offer from her estranged great-uncle, the Nobel Prize winner Samuel Watkins, to join him at his institute in the Cayman Islands and to work on an exciting scientific breakthrough with himself and his partner, quantum physicist George Weigert.

Caro is at first shocked by what she is being asked to do. The entire project revolves around Weigert’s theory of the “primacy of the observer”, which posits that consciousness is the author of reality, not the other way around as has long been assumed. Watkins and Weigert have created a microchip that, when implanted in the brain, can supposedly allow the recipient to enter an alternate reality of their own creation. They want Caro to implant them into several willing volunteers. Caro is unsure if – despite Weigert’s very detailed explanation of the theory and technology – she believes the implants can do what they claim or if they just offer the recipients a very detailed hallucination. She also has some ethical concerns about the primary purpose of the project: she learns her great-uncle is dying of pancreatic cancer and wants to enter an alternate reality where he is young and healthy again, but where his consciousness retains the lifetime of knowledge he acquired. Caro has few career options at the moment, and when her sister Ellen finds herself strapped with legal and financial problems, Caro agrees to stay with the project in exchange for direct assistance to Ellen.

Nancy Kress has always had a gift for making cutting edge science both believable and digestible to readers, and this novel is no exception. Whether or not you believe the novel’s explanation of the primacy of the observer, authors Lanza and Kress continually find ways draw the reader into the emotional discoveries the characters make as they journey into uncharted scientific territory. This is the novel’s most commendable achievement. But Observer isn’t just a novel about the wonders of quantum physics; it is also a family drama, a romance, and a Crichton-esque technothriller complete with theft and murder and dangerous special interests willing to commit heinous acts to misuse, or destroy, the technology Watkins and Weigert have created. The pacing can get a little uneven at times as it skips uncomfortably from one mode to another, but this is a minor quibble. Observer will leave you better than it found you, and there are few better reasons to read a book than that.

Novel Review: Village in the Sky, by Jack McDevitt

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The plot of McDevitt’s new Alex Benedict novel recalls his most recent Priscilla Hutchins novel, “The Long Sunset”, which finds the author spinning a first contact scenario through a narrative of discovery and mystery. The book is like a comfortable old pair of shoes, for better or worse: its familiarity is beguiling and relaxing, though at some point you stop noticing it’s even there.

McDevitt makes it easy to return to the far future world that Alex and his pilot Chase Kolpath inhabit. It is a largely pleasant, low-conflict future, though not entirely lacking in the typical anxieties that attend human society. Alex, now re-united with his recently recovered Uncle Gabe, is still selling antiquities and artifacts, and Chase is still getting him wherever he needs to go. The story kicks off when an exploratory vessel stumbles on a tiny alien colony in the furthest reaches of known space. Up until then the only other alien race humans had encountered were the Ashiyyur, with whom they fought a long and devastating war before achieving a peaceful resolution. So when a follow-up mission is sent to make first contact, they are even more surprised to discover that the colony has completely vanished, leaving no trace of its presence behind.

In another odd twist, a third, completely different alien race of spider-like humanoids shows up to make first contact with humans. These folks, the Ulakans, are friendly and inquisitive, and their culture is so similar to that of humanity that one of their great works of literature seems lifted from Shakespeare.

While the encounter with the Ulakans is a positive one in contrast with their previous encounter with the Ashiyyur, the question of whether to send another ship out to look for the missing alien colony becomes a political hot potato: the general consensus is, we got lucky with the Ulakans, who is to say whether these elusive alien colonists have similar goodwill and peaceful intentions or not? It is decided that no further missions to that star system will take place, and furthermore anyone who attempts to privately undergo a mission there will be subject to legal penalties.

Alex is of course having none of that. Soon he and Chase have put together a party to reach out and find where the lost colony went, and hopefully pick up a few artifacts along the way that might make up the losses they will incur for defying the law.

The novel’s strengths are those typical of McDevitt’s fiction. His ability to craft an engrossing and suspenseful scientific mystery has not diminished over the decades, and his characters are as likable, and likeably flawed, as ever. In this case, though, his weaknesses are magnified by design. McDevitt has always been a proponent of the idea that cultures will necessarily evolve in the general direction that European civilization has taken, hence the very Eurocentric slant of future humanity and the aliens they encounter. It bogs the story down in a conceit that isn’t particularly illuminating or wonderous – that humanity ventures out to the far reaches of the galaxy to find alien races that are really kind of boring and like us. Additionally, the lack of a true antagonist, or anything but minor obstacles in Alex and company’s path, keeps the stakes too low for this to be anything other than a minor entry in McDevitt’s canon.

2023 Hugo Award Predictions – Fiction Finalists

The Hugo nominating period is coming to a close! In the fiction categories, we can expect the usual dominance from Tor publishing group – especially in the Novel and Novella categories – and several nods from Uncanny Magazine; in recent years both venues have solidified their statuses as the premier tastemakers among the current crop of voters. There are other publishers that do well, of course, and there are always a few dark horses and first timers (“Unknown Number”, anyone?).

There is always some crossover with the Nebula ballot also. A significant number of SFWA members are also Worldcon attendees and, presumably, nominators. Fans also likely do some more reading for the Hugos based on the final Nebula ballot. In 2022, 42% of Hugo fiction finalists were also Nebula finalists in the same categories. In both 2021 and 2020 it was 50%. My predictions for this year put it at 54%, so a bit above the norm.

The x-factor in this year’s awards will of course be the likely surge of Chinese voters from this year’s Chengdu-based Worldcon. How many Chinese voters there are and what works they are planning to nominate is a mystery to me. There is a common misconception that only works published in English in the previous calendar year are eligible, probably owing to the fact that only English language works ever get nominated. In fact, any work in any language can be nominated. The only caveat is that if a work is appearing in English translation for the first time, it is eligible for the year in which the translation appeared, even if it was published in another language in a previous year. So the question is not just “How many votes for Chinese works will there be?” but also whether there will be votes for works eligible for their English translation or for works available only in Chinese, or both. There are several English-translated works of Chinese-language stories eligible for this year’s awards. I will assume from the fact that a few such stories appeared on the “Nominations Below Cutoff” in a couple of categories of last year’s final report that at least some Chinese voters are aware of eligible, English-translated works by Chinese authors. There are also some western authors favored by Chinese fans – like Alastair Reynolds and Robert Reed – who have eligible works, though how available those works currently are to readers overseas is unknown to me. I can’t be certain of the overall impact of Chinese voters on the final nomination tally, so I’m going to play it safe and assume that the established norm will prevail. Of course, it is always a welcome surprise when it does not, so here’s hoping I’m wrong!

A final note: this post is a prediction of what I think will get nominated, not what works I have placed on my ballot. The tastes of the prevailing crowd of nominators has long since diverged from mine and even back in the day when my own tastes were more aligned with the actual results, I had maybe a 15-20% hit rate at best. This year, there is only one story on the list below that I have included on my own ballot this year. When the final ballot is announced, I will do a follow-up column comparing my predictions, and my own ballot, with the actual results. Full reviews of the nominated works will come some time after that.

Best Novel

These are mostly “play it safe” predictions. There are plenty of other novels in play: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel was a huge bestseller and could have enough juice to make the list, like Andy Weir and Susanna Clarke have in recent years. Debut novels from Sequoia Nagamatsu, Ray Nayler, and Sue Lynn Tan are generating a lot of buzz. Aliette de Bodard, T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), Neon Yang, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Naomi Novik all had popular releases this year. A half a dozen others have a shot as well. But if I were a betting man, my money would be on these six books:

Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree (Tor)

Despite (or perhaps because of) this novel’s runaway success I was mildly surprised at its Nebula nomination. It’s a more gentle and relaxed fantasy, along the lines of last year’s Hugo darling Light from Uncommon Stars, and a break from the usually more somber and serious-minded works that tend to fill up the Nebula list. It probably would have still landed on this list, regardless. It had that Hugo scent from the start.

The World We Make, by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)

Jemisin fandom is as firmly established as any among Hugo voters. This novel’s predecessor – 2020’s The City We Became – received 222 votes to easily make the list of 2021 finalists, and while sequels don’t always do as well as the original with voters, Jemisin has already bucked that trend with her Broken Earth Trilogy.

The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)

Kowal has been nominated for best novel three times before, for the first “Glamourist Histories” novel Shades of Milk and Honey, and for two of her Lady Astronaut novels, The Calculating Stars and The Relentless Moon. Her last stand-alone novel Ghost Talkers just missed the cut at 2017 Worldcon. Kowal’s track record, as well as the novel’s popularity with critics and fans alike, would suggest The Spare Man has a very good chance of scoring a nod.

Babel: An Arcane History, by R. F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)

This novel spent seven weeks on the NYT Best Sellers List, and while that is not always an indication of Hugo success, Kuang does have a track record with Worldcon fans. Her debut novel The Poppy War finished just below the cutoff in 2019, and the entire Poppy War Trilogy was a finalist for Best Series in 2021. Coupled with its Nebula success I would count this as a very likely nomination.

Nona the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir (tordotcom)

The two previous novels in Muir’s Locked Tomb series received nominations, and while there was a considerable drop between the total votes between Ninths Gideon and Harrow, there was still plenty of daylight between Harrow and the other works down list. It doesn’t appear as if Locked Tomb fans have lost enthusiasm for the series, so Nona’s success seems similarly assured. Also a Nebula nominee.

The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi (Tor)

Scalzi has the longest track record of Hugo success of any of the authors mentioned on this list, dating back to 2006. Many other authors popular with that era of fandom have since fallen by the wayside while Scalzi’s stock has remained roughly the same, most recently scoring nods for Best Novel (The Collapsing Empire) in 2018 and Best Series (The Interdependency) in 2021. From what I’ve seen, fan response has been very enthusiastic for his latest stand-alone novel. I think it has a strong chance of being among the finalists.

Best Novella

This category has essentially become a marketing arm of tordotcom publishing. In the last five years, a whopping 80% of Best Novella nominees have been from tordotcom. In the last two years it’s 100%. It’s not hard to predict this trend will continue. The best chance any non-tordotcom novella has to upset is probably Tread of Angels by Rebecca Roanhorse from Saga Press. Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Solaris) and James S.A. Corey’s The Sins of our Fathers (Orbit) have an outside chance to sneak in. Chances are though, should any of the following six favorites falter, another tordotcom novella (such as Kelly Robson’s Nebula-nominated High Times in the Low Parliament) will be ready, hydra-like, to spring forth its place.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, by Becky Chambers (tordotcom)

Much like Thanos, Becky Chambers is inevitable and can seemingly conjure up a Hugo nomination with a snap of her fingers. There are none powerful enough to stop her, nor brave enough to try.

A Mirror Mended, by Alix E. Harrow (tordorcom)

The sequel to her 2022 nominee A Spindle Splintered. This is a safe choice to be sure, but still a likely one.

What Moves the Dead, by T. Kingfisher (tordotcom)

T. Kingfisher/Ursula Vernon has proved to be among the most consistently popular authors among Hugo voters for the last decade. That is likely to continue.

Where the Drowned Girls Go, by Seanan McGuire (tordotcom)

McGuire’s fans have have been a constant and unwavering presence among Hugo voters. Her Wayward Children stories, which earned her a Best Series win last year (the vote wasn’t even close), enjoy wide popularity beyond just her hardcore supporters and will continue to rack up nominations as long as she keeps writing them.

Even Though I Knew the End, by C.L. Polk (tordotcom)

Polk finally broke through and grabbed a Best Series nomination for their Kingston Cycle last year, after seeing several works garner some votes but fall below the cutoff. A recent Nebula nomination for this work has certainly bolstered its visibility, and likely also its readership.

Into the Riverlands, by Nghi Vo (tordotcom)

The first novella in her Singing Hills cycle, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, won the Hugo in this category in 2021. This third book should garner enough support to at least be a finalist.

Best Novelette

The pool of works is larger for novelette than for novella, making it more difficult to handicap. These are my best informed guesses.

“If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You“, by John Chu (Uncanny Magazine May/June 2022)

Chu hasn’t been nominated for a Hugo since his 2014 win for “The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere”, but his story “Beyond the El” cameoed below the cutoff in 2020. This new novelette has the advantage of a Nebula nomination and its publication in the hallowed pages of SFF’s current alpha-zine, Uncanny.

“Two Hands, Wrapped in Gold”, by S. B. Divya (Uncanny Magazine, May/June 2022)

Divya has been nominated as Short Form Editor, and her novel Machinehood snagged enough votes to show up on the Nominations Below Cutoff list last year. Bolstered by a Nebula nomination and Uncanny’s strong readership among Hugo voters, this one should make the cut.

“The Six Deaths of the Saint”, by Alix E. Harrow (Amazon Original Stories)

I’ll give Harrow another tip of the hat here, based on her loyal Hugo fan base.

“In Mercy, Rain”, by Seanan McGuire ( 7/18/2022)

Another nod for McGuire’s popular Wayward Children series.

“A Dream of Electric Mothers”, by Wole Talabi (Africa Risen; tordotcom)

It’s tough – but not impossible – for anthology stories to crack the list, as the click-ready availability of the free-zines give their stories a built-in advantage. The buzz around this author (who has a novel out later this year) is growing, the story was nominated for a Nebula, and it was just reprinted on, giving plenty of readers time to peruse it before their ballots are due.

“The Difference Between Love and Time”, Catherynne M. Valente (Someone in Time; Rebellion)

Another anthology story, but the fact that it was reprinted on last November levels the playing field, and Valente’s past success scoring nominations in the fiction categories suggest there is a reasonable chance her fans will show up for this one.

Best Short Story

Even more difficult to predict than novelette, but there are a couple I think are pretty sure bets.

“Destiny Delayed”, by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki (Asimov’s May/June 2022)

This author is very hip with Hugo voters right now. Even though current trends in Hugo voting favor the free-zines over the classic digests like Asimov’s, this story was recently reprinted in the January issue of Apex magazine and is now only a quick click away. Ekpeki’s Hugo-nominated novelette “O2 Arena” was also reprinted in Apex just prior to its nomination last year, and went on to become one of the site’s all time most-viewed pages. I would suggest that a similar destiny (pun intended) awaits his new story.

“Give Me English”, by Ai Jiang (F&SF May/June 2022)

Ai Jiang is a relatively new writer with a lot of buzz surrounding her and this story, buzz that recently culminated in a Nebula nomination. This story, as far as I can see, is not available for free on the internet, which will hurt its chances. There may be a caveat to this handicap, however. Last year, Lauren Ring’s F&SF novelette “(emet)” received a Nebula nod, and nearly scored a Hugo nomination as well – finishing just two places below the cutoff despite not being available to read on the web. Perhaps this suggests a higher readership of F&SF among the current pool of nominators than with the other famous digests, Asimov’s and Analog. If successful this would be the first nod for F&SF since they nabbed three in 2012.

“Bonsai Starships”, by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 2/10/22)

Yoon Ha Lee has worked Hugo magic with these science fantasy tales for BCS before, with a nomination for “The Mermaid Astronaut” in 2021, and falling just short with “The Starship and the Temple Cat” in 2019.

“Skeleton Song”, by Seanan McGuire ( 10/26/22)

It’s a Wayward Children hat trick for McGuire this year.

“Rabbit Test”, by Samantha Mills (Uncanny Magazine November/December 2022)

A heady concoction of hot-button politics, a Nebula nom, and publication in Uncanny ups the odds that this one will be a finalist.

“D.I.Y” by John Wiswell ( 8/24/22)

Another Nebula nominee, but Wiswell has gathered a significant Hugo following of his own these last few years.