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First, a confession: I didn't finish reading everything in my Hugo packet. (If you buy a membership in the World Science Fiction Convention, these days, they give you a digital download of almost everything that's been nominated for an award, pretty much everything but the TV and movie categories.) Frankly, I looked over the list of nominees and realized that if I did bother to turn in my ballot, it was going to read No Award in almost every category. If that was the best that science fiction produced in 2011, then 2011 was (in my opinion) the worst year for science fiction since the late 1970s. Except for one category: Ursula (ursulav)Vernon's Digger was nominated in the Best Graphic Novel category. I really should have sent in my ballot, just to show support for her. But one reason I didn't bother is that I knew for a fact that she wouldn't win.

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.


( 58 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 7th, 2012 10:41 pm (UTC)
Well, let's see: in Best Novel, Among Others is a standalone, Embassytown is a standalone, Leviathan Wakes is the first of a series, Deadline is second of a series, and A Dance With Dragons is nth (fifth?). So only two out of five are sequels, and the winner was a standalone.

Even in BDP long form, Hugo, Source Code, Game of Thrones Season 1, and arguably Captain America (as indicated by the subtitle "The First Avenger") are not sequels, though Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part two is kind of a double-sequel.

I don't think the fiction works nominated come anywhere close to supporting your position.
Sep. 7th, 2012 11:09 pm (UTC)
Among Others isn't even eligible for the category it's in, it's not science fiction; it should have been competing in Best Related Work. Game of Thrones is a media adaptation of a series of sequels; volume 4 (I think) was on the novel category. Deathly Hallows 2 was the 8th movie in a series, itself an adaptation of a decade old novel series. Captain America was unambigiously a sequel to earlier (and prequel to later) Avengers films, and marketed as such - and that series itself an adaptation of a decade-old comic line, Marvel Ultimates. But the one that really pissed me off was, at a time when there's more science fiction on television than ever before, three of the four serious short-form media nominees were Doctor Who and the fourth was a Doctor Who parody; no Fringe, Warehouse 13, Supernatural, Being Human, Eureka, no SyFy miniseries or movie events, just Doctor Who, Doctor Who, and more Doctor Who - itself a series in its, what, 20th season? 30th? Whatever. On some level I'm glad that Source Code and Hugo got nominated, but did anybody think they were going to win? For crying out loud, by all accounts Source Code wasn't even all that good.

Embassytown ... leading up to the con, I was predicting to my friends that if fans were unashamed of themselves, they'd vote for Game of Thrones 4; if they were self-conscious, they'd vote for Embassytown or Among Others because of the critical hype. But I made three attempts to read Embassytown, and I swear by the god, it's boring unreadable crap, as bad as Gene Wolfe's equally inconceivably hyped Urth of the New Sun series was. It's padded out worn-over Silverberg that gets mistaken for quality because the author is handy with a thesaurus. "If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me, what a singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!" It would have faintly raised my opinion of fandom if it had won, because it would have shown that fans at least had the ambition to pretend to have read a non-franchise book, but you can't convince me that it's any good; too many people have tried. Even with non-stop peer pressure to give it a chance, give it time, none of my three tries made it more than a couple of dozen pages in.

Leviathan Wakes had a lesser version of the same problem. Three chapters in and the characters are all personality-less cyphers in a mostly featureless generic world. I like space opera, I wanted to like Leviathan Wakes, but it kept putting me to sleep. As the deadliest words in fiction criticism go, "I don't care about any of these people."

I know for a fact I read all the short-story nominees. I couldn't tell you word one about any of them except for Scalzi's funny, but annoyingly structured parody of a bad fantasy story. The others were utterly forgettable, and slipped completely out of memory less than 60 seconds after the end of each one. They must have been incredibly generic, because not a single detail from any of them stuck in my mind; it was as if each of them was a pastiche of a story I've read a thousand times.

Trying to read the novels in my Hugo packet, and reading the short stories, almost finished the job of putting me off of science fiction for good. Being told that the only science fiction worth watching on television is the 803rd, 807th, and 809th episodes of Doctor Who (or whatever the actual numbers are) just about finished the job.

Edited at 2012-09-07 11:10 pm (UTC)
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Sep. 7th, 2012 11:45 pm (UTC)
You made me late for work! Digger is quite addictive.
Sep. 8th, 2012 12:48 am (UTC)
My comment got eaten.

The whole series is available on the website http://www.diggercomic.com/
That is where I read it.

Digger's full name is Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels
Sep. 8th, 2012 12:55 am (UTC)
Beat me to it! Also, we're working out the details for an omnibus edition in 2013.
Sep. 8th, 2012 11:13 pm (UTC)
Ah. When I first started catching up on it, only the first couple of chapters and the most recent pages were on the website; I didn't realize that had changed. Good to hear!
Sep. 14th, 2012 04:23 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I realized about a third into his description that I had stumbled upon it on-line years and years ago, but had lost it when I had a massive bookmark failure. I'd always hoped to pick it up again. :-)
Sep. 8th, 2012 12:54 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! (Kind doesn't begin to cover the review--I'm very flattered!) And I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to run into each other at the convention!
Sep. 10th, 2012 02:49 am (UTC)
Hi there! Is there any chance of eBooks?
Sep. 8th, 2012 04:15 am (UTC)
I've definitely noticed the trend towards series in science fiction publishing in the last few years. Which is why whenever I go to the bookstore to pick up a book I've been anticipating (usually because it's the next book in a series I'm reading) I try to pick up at least one book by an author I've never heard of as well.

However, about 3/4 of the time, these new or unknown authors are just not very good. I write amateur book reviews (www.http://dragote.com/rev/index.php) and most of these books get C's, or very low B's. Yes, there's a few times I found real gems. That's how I came upon Jim Butcher, for instance, who is now among my favorite authors, after all. But given the quality of most of these unknowns, is it any surprise people keep buying authors they know are at least decent?
Sep. 8th, 2012 05:53 am (UTC)
But are they, really? How often is the 4th book in a series any good? Or the 6th? Or the 14th, for crying out loud - do even the authorized Dune ripoffs make it to volume 14? Or the authorized Dragonrider ripoffs? Or Xanth?

When I was a kid, I read all 33 Tom Swift, Jr. novels. I'm not especially proud of that, even if I was a kid, and I sure wouldn't have nominated any of them for a Hugo. I read the first six Dune novels, and I resent reading the last three. I read the first seven Pern novels, and I resent almost every page after the 2nd one, but I didn't know any better yet. Because I generally like David Brin, I read the first six Uplift War novels, and would almost like to get my money back for the second trilogy, but I should have known better. Stories have a natural lifespan. Sadly, writers' paydays often take them far beyond that natural lifespan. I don't blame the writers for cashing the paychecks. I don't especially blame the readers for falling for it. But I'm at a loss as to how anybody confuses book 4, or 8, or 12, or 16 of any series for Best Novel of the Year, even in a bad year.
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Sep. 8th, 2012 08:14 am (UTC)
I've not read Digger, largely because postage to the UK was quite high. I do love The Unwritten though.
Sep. 8th, 2012 02:55 pm (UTC)
Read it on the website http://www.diggercomic.com/
It's worth it.

Edited at 2012-09-08 02:56 pm (UTC)
Sep. 8th, 2012 03:49 pm (UTC)
I find reading comics online annoying - because they take a long time to download compared to my reading speed. For long-form work I'd much rather have a paper copy (or CBR on a tablet).
Oct. 4th, 2012 04:55 am (UTC)
I'm late to the party, but i did want to correct an error of fact in your post: ALL of Digger is in fact available online? I just reread it the other day. You have to go to the first page and do next-next-next, etc -- there's no INDEX -- but it is all, 100% of it, available.
( 58 comments — Leave a comment )