Four of the six books nominated for the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novel include epic disasters. Empires crumble, oceans rise, and in one case a semi-sentient planet deliberately tries to slaughter its inhabitants. In each book, humans respond to these disasters in the usual ways, driven by greed and self-interest, but also with a capacity for surprising acts of altruism and empathy. Taken as a whole, all six offer a microcosm of the state of speculative fiction in the world today, but the four disaster narratives in particular offer readers visions of hope for humanity—even as the systems that sustain us continue to disintegrate.
Every year, fans of science fiction and fantasy vote for the Hugo Awards. In exchange for a supporting membership at the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), which this year cost $50, you get the right to nominate and vote for the Hugos (along with other perks). A given year's nominees can provide a snapshot of what's being well received by the most engaged fans in the community. The results in 2018 are stories of disaster, recovery, cloning, murder, and competitive scrapbooking.
Both New York 2140 and The Stone Sky present explicitly ecological parables. The first, by Kim Stanley Robinson, takes place in a flooded New York City that has become a "super Venice." The main characters live in the Flatiron Building, which in our New York looms over Madison Square Park; in Robinson's, it's flooded and has become the "Madison Square Bacino." Over the course of the first few chapters, we meet a black female cop with a history of underwater sumo wrestling, a housing lawyer whose ex-husband happens to be the head of the Financial Reserve, a hotshot hedge-fund trader who runs a market in which people can bet on coastal flooding, two coders who end up imprisoned when they try to hack the global financial system, a couple of kids with a lead on $400 billion worth of buried gold, a Web video star who travels around the world moving animals from danger zones into new habitats, and a few other equally extraordinary souls. The setting feels hyper-realistic, based in Robinson's expertise in climate science, and readers encounter a juxtaposition of a fantasy about defeating capital within a setting that feels all too plausible.
The world of The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin, is wracked with constant geological and meteorological upheavals: earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and more. It's the conclusion of Jemisin's epic Broken Earth trilogy about human civilizations that have adapted around surviving these constant geological disasters. For one, urban dwellings have organized around rigid caste systems, the need to store both lore and food supplies against coming disaster, and the capacity to kill (and eat) the inhabitants of other towns and cities when a "season" strikes and renders the Earth largely uninhabitable for a time. But more interestingly, some humans have become "orogenes," people with the power to control the Earth and temperature with their minds. Because this is the third in a trilogy, it's hard to reveal much about the plot without spoiling the first two books. Suffice it to say that the series comes to a grand finale, and the deep historical secrets of the world are explained.
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi, and Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee, are both set in vast space empires on the verge of cataclysm. Lee has constructed one of the most seriously weird galactic scenarios I've ever encountered in a lifetime of reading sci-fi. In Lee's universe, a Hexarchate of six factions rules over a wide swath of planets, keeping order by forcing adherence to a strict religious calendar. Here, belief and public ritual give the rulers the power to wield awesome abilities that straddle the line between exotic technology and something more like magic—including faster-than-light travel, weird weapons that twist the body and soul, and the ability to probe into people's minds. Fear, torture, and public execution mandate obedience, but heretical rebellion and outside invasion threaten the carefully maintained order. The empire must fall, surely, but can it be replaced without total chaos? There's a lot going on in these books, including an undead general possessing the body of an infantry officer who is also a mathematical genius, but this isn't a classic shoot-'em-up space opera. As with with all the best sci-fi, it's not the technological whizz-bang or weird, pseudo-magic powers that make a story matter. Rather, Lee's story chiefly takes place in quiet rooms where fascinating characters wrestle with moral dilemmas, on which the fate of empires hang.
The society that Scalzi describes has been designed (much like ours!) around the assumption that basic necessities can be shipped over long distances. In The Collapsing Empire, which I've written about before, Scalzi traces the fallout when the portals that enable faster-than-light travel collapse. What happens when those portals close and each station or planet has to fend for itself? How long will it take for people to understand that politics as usual isn't a good idea in the face of overwhelming natural catastrophe?
The remaining two works, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty and Provenance by Ann Leckie, don't fit into the disaster theme but are just as worthy of being nominated. Six Wakes presents a locked-room murder mystery, as six cloned humans wake up amid the corpses of their predecessors, locked on a spaceship heading to colonize a distant planet, and with the last 20 years of memories wiped. Provenance tells the story of Ingray, the adopted daughter of a noblewoman seeking social status on a planet where one's standing depends on the public display of "remembrances": valuable historical artifacts, for which some people are willing to steal or kill.
A few years ago, a group of right-wing fans took advantage of the nomination process and pushed their preferred slate of titles onto the ballot. These agitators were firm in wanting less diversity and more white-dude fantasy and sci-fi, and they advanced that year's slate as a move against so-called social justice warriors. The process of nominating had never been organized to defend against this kind of concerted effort, and so the 2015 Hugos became a battleground for ongoing culture wars around speech, diversity, and representation. The rules have since been tweaked to minimize slate voting, and while there's still plenty of politics in Worldcon, 2018 feels like the awards are in a solid place: good books, good-natured arguments among fans over their favorites, and a slate that reflects at least some of the best speculative fiction of the year.