Every year a number of awards are granted to works of science fiction, fantasy and other forms of speculative literature. Of these, the Hugo and the Nebula Awards are perhaps the most well known in the SF community.
The Nebula Awards have been given out each year since 1965, for the best novel, novella, novelette, and short story. These are selected through voting by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
The Hugo Awards have been given out since 1955, and are awarded in a number of categories, including individual works such as books and films, serial publications, and even people. They are voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Convention or Worldcon.
The two awards thus give us two unique perspectives on what the creators and consumers of speculative fiction consider to be the best work in any given year. For the year 2020, the Nebula Award in the Best Novel Category went to Network Effect by Martha Wells, while the Hugo Award was won by Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire.
The Nebula winner
Network Effect is the fifth book in Martha Wells’s “The Murderbot Diaries” series. The series began with All Systems Red, a novella that was awarded a Nebula in 2017 and a Hugo in 2018. Written in the first person from the perspective of an artificial entity that is rented out by a corporate organisation for providing security, All Systems Red starts off with this Security Unit of SecUnit hacking its “governing” module and ridding itself of control system put in place by its owners for monitoring it.
Over the first four books of the series, this fast moving mix of cyberpunk and space opera about a non-human protagonist that loves watching soap opera and has named itself Murderbot unfolds against the backdrop of an universe where ruthless corporates literally battle one another for profit – while an independent political entity named Preservation tries to uphold the values of liberty and equality.
At the end of the first book Murderbot is adopted by the leader of Preservation, in whose sector of space non-humans are not considered property. Murderbot, however, decides to embark on a journey to discover its past, and in the process uses its newfound independence to assist humans held in the thrall of rapacious corporate organisations that are not averse to murder and mayhem. The first four books of the series sees the character build up of Murderbot as an entity which helps humans out of choice and not because of the compulsion to protect “clients” that has been imprinted in its circuitry.
The fifth book, Network Effect, opens with Murderbot attached to the Preservation political entity as a “teammate” rather than as an “appliance”, deeply committed to the safety of its leader Mensah, as well as her friends and family. Early in the novel, while returning from an expedition, Murderbot is captured along with a few members of Preservation by an unknown hostile force, and as it battles enemies both in the physical and the cyber realm to protect its friends, and unlocks forgotten mysteries and defeat powerful enemies, the story touches upon issues of friendship and loyalty between human and machine entities.
Though Murderbot sometimes is seen to express disdain for humans with statements such as “I am tired of the whole concept of humans right now” and “I try to avoid asking humans if there’s anything wrong with them. (Mostly because I don’t care.)” its actions prove otherwise, as it fiercely fights to protect its human friends, often at the the cost of its own safety.
When a hostile being threatens a friend with, “I’ll take your ribs out one by one and break them in front of your little face”, Murderbot mentally vows to deliver a ruthless reprisal” “I saved that for future reference. Unidentified One seemed to have gone to some trouble with the wording of that threat, it would be a shame if they never experienced it firsthand.”
And after another incident it informs the same friend, “If I thought he was going to hurt you, I’d be disposing of his body.” It is this wry humour of the conflict between word and deed that makes Murderbot’s reluctant engagement with its own humanity the captivating theme of the novel.
The Hugo winner
In contrast to the space adventure plot of Network Effect, Arkady Martine’s debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, is a complex political story set in the future and intertwined with many layers. It touches upon themes such as the hegemonistic role played by language, literature and culture in empire-building, urban planning as the scaffolding and reinforcement of social hierarchy, and the relationship between institutional memory and politics and continuity after death through preservation of memory. Against the backdrop of this rich tapestry, the novel deftly weaves the development of a relationship between two young women from two opposite poles of culture and polity.
The story unfolds in a distant future, when humanity has expanded amongst the stars. One of the largest powers in the universe is a human empire called the Teixcalaan. It is ruled by an emperor from its capital, a completely urbanised planet called “The City”.
The empire is a rich source of literature and poetry, most of which is based on a cultural tradition of empire-building and expansion. A tradition that believes that “The Empire, the world. One and the same. And if they were not yet so: make them so, for this is the right and correct will of the stars.”
There are other human settlements outside the boundaries of the Teixcalaan empire, and one of them is a space station called Lsel Staion. Though Lsel Station has been able to maintain its independence, its relationship with the Teixcalaan is not an easy one. For, “Empire was empire – the part that seduced and the part that clamped down, jaws like a vise, and shook a planet until its neck was broken and it died” and “Nothing touched by Empire stays clean.”
Right at the beginning of the story a Teixcalaan warship demands of Lsel Station that it send an ambassador to The City. The person is intended to be a replacement for Lsel’s earlier ambassador Yskandr Aghavn, who has died. Conceding to the Teixcalaan demand Lsel sends an young woman, Mahit Dzmare, to replace Yskandr.
The protagonist Mahit has never been to The City before, and must depend on a special piece of technology whose secret is known only to the people of Lsel Station. Called “imago”, this brain-implanted technology transfers memories from one person to another and is used by Lsel station to retain learning and skills across generations. To help her in her job Mahit has been provided with such an “imago” with the memories of Yskandr.
Mahit is received in The City by a young woman named Three Seagrass, who has been assigned as her liaison. Some time later Mahit’s “imago” malfunctions, and she starts suspecting that her predecessor had been murdered. Having lost the “imago”, Mahit seeks the assistance of Three Seagrass to probe this mystery, but while meeting a past acquaintance of Yskandr, both of them barely survive an attack on their lives.
Mahit realises that somehow Yskandr’s death was connected to a deep conspiracy related to a tussle for succession to the Teixcalaan throne, and that “There was nothing safe; there were only gradations of exposure to danger”. As Mahit gets pulled into the palace intrigue and Three Seagrass continues to help her inspite of personal danger to herself, the relationship between the two young women slowly blossoms into something stronger and deeper.
As the plot moves along the warp and weft of the political drama, and Mahit tries to revive the memories of Yskandr, we are left with the thought that “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe; it gives life back to those who no longer exist.”
These award winning novels, selected respectively by authors and readers, are so vastly different in plot, narrative style and theme from each other that they serve to remind us of the diversity that can be found in recent works of SF. Together they also remind us that the genre has raised and continues to raise fundamental questions on what constitutes our humanity, culture and memory.