The biggest problem with this year's best novel category is that there is only one rocket to go around. I like to see the Hugo Award go to a novel that is unique and memorable and thought-provoking and superbly written. Three of this year's nominees, the Bacigalupi, Miéville, and Valente novels, meet those criteria for me.
Out of a very strong field, my #1 choice is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi is only the third author of the past 25 years to see his first novel nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and The Windup Girl is just the sort of once-in-a-generation reading experience that suggests. The novel combines an absorbing story with one of the most fascinating settings I've ever encountered, Bacigalupi's vision of future Thailand. Paolo Bacigalupi will be one of the leading voices of the SF field (and all of literature) for as long as he wants to be. A Hugo Award would be a great way to urge him on to a very long writing career.
China Miéville's The City and the City also features a tremendously inventive setting, the coexisting cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. The way the inhabitants of both cities learn to unsee one another is fascinating and a powerful metaphor for how people manage to train themselves to avoid facing what is right in front of them. I enjoyed this novel throughout, even though the murder mystery plot is not entirely successful.
Catherynne M. Valente writes in a lush, ornate style that I would detest, except that she does it so exceedingly well. Palimpsest is a beautifully written novel, with striking imagery and a great deal to say about love and sex and the barriers that separate all of us. Valente is one of the very best authors in our field, and I am delighted Palimpsest received a Hugo nomination.
For me, whether I enjoy Robert J. Sawyer's work usually turns on if the ideas of a particular book are interesting enough to overcome the clunky writing. The ideas in WWW: Wake, including a blind woman gaining sight as she encounters an emerging intelligence existing in the Internet, would be strong enough to pass that test but they didn't have to, for I didn't find the writing of WWW: Wake clunky at all. In particular, I would not have thought Sawyer up to the challenge of conveying what it might be like for a blind person to gain eyesight for the first time, yet I found those passages in this novel very powerful and moving. Still, Sawyer can't quite compete with Paolo and China and Cat.
I enjoyed Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, a steampunk zombie adventure that has a lot more going for it than that gimmicky hook might suggest. As described in more detail in my review, Boneshaker is most entertaining, even if not tightly written, but does not compare favorably with the other outstanding works in this category. The same is true for me of Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock, about which I will say nothing more, because I must confess the novel didn't catch my interest enough for me to finish reading it.
With the range and quality of works on this ballot, this is an exciting time to be a science fiction and fantasy reader. I wish I were down under right now, to see one of these outstanding authors receive his or her well-earned recognition.
Aaron's Ballot for Best Novel
1. Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl
2. China Miéville - The City and the City
3. Catherynne M. Valente - Palimpsest
4. Robert J. Sawyer - WWW: Wake
5. Cherie Priest - Boneshaker
6. Robert Charles Wilson - Julian Comstock