In Which My Tattered Faith in Fandom is Almost Revived
You can look over the rest of the ballot at the official Hugo Awards announcement website. I don't want to argue about individual nominations. I especially don't want to argue about the novella and novelette categories, where I'm told that (because I gave up in despair after slogging through the short story nominees) there are some real nuggets. I just want to talk about my overall impression of the ballot, and that is this: gods above, fandom has succumbed the same expletive-deleted disease that is killing off Hollywood, addiction to franchises. There are just tons and tons of sequels on that list, just depressing amounts of franchise mass-produced writes-itself crap. So when I got down to the graphic novels category and saw that Digger was nominated, I knew for an expletive-deleted depressing fact that it didn't have a hope in Tartarus of winning, because of sheer unfamiliarity.
I only bothered to go to the Hugo Awards ceremony so that when they got to the graphic novel category, I could at least cheer for the fact that Digger got nominated, and then, when it lost, to have my low opinion of science fiction fandom's taste validated. Well, maybe I gave up too soon and should have known that: had I looked at the ballot more carefully, I would have realized that the farther down-ballot you get, the more obscure the category, the less vulnerable it gets to having mediocre crap overwhelm the actual innovative stuff by dint of unflavored-gravy familiarity. Way down the ballot, in categories like best editor and best fan podcast, there are categories where I wouldn't have been embarrassed no matter who won. And graphic novel was one of those categories. But honestly, I figured Fables volume 14 had it in the bag, because looking at the up-ballot categories, it was obvious that fans don't want anything new or original, they want the more of the same. Fables 14 isn't a bad book, it's just, well, more of the same, a mostly-predictable soap opera sequel to a series that degenerated into mostly-predictable soap opera half a dozen volumes ago. But it's still not bad. If Fables didn't get it, I figured it would be frequent nominee Schlock Mercenary, which actually is good, and the best space opera we've seen in a decade or more, consistently high concept, consistently honest to its hard-science-fiction roots, and consistently funny to boot. Heck, in any other year, Schlock Mercenary would have been my pick, even if it is volume (n+1, whatever, I lose track) in a series of bound editions.
But I knew that Digger wouldn't win because Digger is special, and I just didn't think that fans had taste that good. I could have gone on at length about all the obstacles Digger had to winning the Hugo. For one thing, it's upwards of 700 pages long. It's black and white. It's been coming out a page or two a week for ten years. Vernor doesn't trust her audience enough to make the whole thing available online, only the first and the most recent pages, which made it hard as heck to get into if you didn't discover it 10 years ago. The protagonist is not only female, but (by human standards) a short, dumpy female who never wears a fan-service costume. It's published by a relatively obscure small press - is it even in any comic shops? The author is not famous. There is no toy line, there is no media tie-in, and none of your favorite singers or actors has plugged it. It has no brand recognition. But even if it didn't have all of those problems, it had this going against it: it's not space opera, it's not medieval European fantasy, it's not tights-and-fights, it's not a parody or an adaptation of a TV show or movie. If you just pick it up in the middle and read two pages, you have no idea what to make of the world it's in or who to root for, because it is that (blessedly) original. It's about a wombat. You don't get more doomed than that.
It is also, hands down, the single most riveting, and the single most moving, story I have read in the last couple of decades.
In a world that is not ours, but has eerie similarities, in a world that has humans and talking animals and regular animals, the wombat Digs-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels (Digger, for short) is, like all of the successful businessmen and -women in her family and like most famous wombats, a mining engineer. While digging an exploratory tunnel, she hit a patch of bad spoiled magic, the rotted decayed remains of some ancient spell or artifact, and it made her sick, sick and intoxicated. She tunneled for miles, randomly, and came up inside a temple of Ganesha, the only one with a talking, enchanted avatar of Ganesha for its idol. Words cannot describe how much this annoys her; wombats hate magic, hate gods, hate prophesy, hate all that stuff. It's unpredictable, it's unreliable, compared to solid engineering. Worse luck, by the time she recovers, she finds out that the locals are on the edge of a three way war between human demon hunters, local human villagers, and the local tribe of hyenas -- and nobody on any side knows why the peace has been broken, what the war is about. The god is quite sympathetic for the fact that Digger is so lost that people here thought that wombats were mythical until she appeared, that she has family at home, that she has responsibilities to her burrow and contracts to fulfill. But a lot of innocent people, a lot of nice people, are about to die. And there is a prophesy that the only way to solve it will be by tunneling, and she's the only mining engineer they've met. Of course, if her other responsibilities are binding on her, if others' needs and her needs are so great that she has to leave them all to die, the god assures her that this is perfectly blameless and understandable. Against her better judgment, Digger stays.
Now you're thinking you've seen this story before. It's the classic reluctant hero in an orientalist knock-off of Narnia or Oz, with (eventually) a strong whiff of Lord Dunsany. But if I left you at that, I would be leaving you without the most moving, most touching thing about the story, and that is Digger herself.
This crotchety, almost despairing young middle aged woman's misanthropic veneer and relentless pragmatism are worn comfortably on top of a body of good sense, floating on top of almost limitless pools of effortless compassion. She's not a moralist, she's not a philosopher, she's not an altruist or a do-gooder; she's just someone who instinctively and automatically sees other people's perspective and their needs, and seeks ways to make their lives less painful for the same reason she'd shore up a tunnel or sink an air shaft, because to her it just makes sense not to leave people hurting. And so, with the effortlessness of a Robert Lynn Asprin hero, Digger accidentally assembles the team that saves the world from an unsuspected eldritch horror: herself, a hyena cast out from his tribe for a horrible crime, a teenage girl demon hunter with a shattered mind, and an orphaned baby demon who follows Digger around in hopes that she'll teach him how to be a good person.
And Digger won the Hugo. Fans deserve more faith than I had left for them. Congratulations, Ursula Vernon. You deserved that Hugo more than anybody else on that stage, because you did something harder than what any of the rest of them did, and you did it as well as or better than any of them.