Even though I was working from home during the first few weeks of lockdown here in the UK, I was busier than ever. I doubt I was reading much more than a page or two of the guilt pile on my bedside table (sorry Fourth Mansions, I’m trying my best) and bits and pieces of various fanzines.
Then, just around the time work started slowing down (or at least started having a few quiet days in between the full-on periods) the Hugo awards finalists were announced, and talk about your perfect timing.
Because the nice thing about the Hugo list is that, well it’s a list isn’t it? And lists are perfect for when you need direction and focus. Lists imply some sort of order, a place to start, and a finish line to cross. Completing a list makes you feel accomplished, virtuous even, regardless of how arbitrary the contents may be.
But the Hugo ballot is also more than a list, it’s something I care about. It’s an enduring connection to my community, the thing the larger fannish year turns on. As the holiday decorations start to go up, so do the blog posts and podcast episodes rounding up the year’s best offerings. It becomes time to pay attention to what names and titles friends are gushing about, and to excitedly share your own recommendations, sometimes leading to that great moment when you get to squee in unison after finding out a friend also loved that book you’re gushing about.
My reading switches to new books around this time, the library and its trusty app hopefully coming through with some of the titles most that piqued my interest. I revise my Christmas wish list, ruthlessly knocking off whatever was the hotness last year and replacing it with the new hopefuls. With the holidays at one end and the nomination deadline at the other, this is definitely the time of year I get the most reading done. Then the nomination period closes, and there’s the wait for the finalist announcement at Easter, when I get to see if wether my finger is on the pulse this year or not.
Most years at least a couple of the fiction finalists were on my ballot, which is always pleasing. This year my only hit is The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which is a very good example of exactly the sort of thing I want to be reading during this pandemic. Which is to say, I actually read it back in November, but I would happily reread it right now, and cannot wait for Harrow’s next novel, which comes out in October.
One of the other novels on the ballot I returned to the library unfinished pre-lockdown, so that’s going to be tricky, but I’ll give it a second try. The Light Brigades, on the other hand, is so exactly not what I want in my head at this moment in time that it’s not even funny. I’m not much for grimdark, and military sf is fine but not my usual go-to, so the odds were against it, but boy howdy is the timing wrong for that one. The one I am looking forward to though, is The City in the Middle of the Night. I suspect Anders’ particular perspective is going to be right up my alley just about now.
Meanwhile The Haunting of Tram Car 015 hit just the right spot. P. Djèlí Clark was on the ballot twice last year, but I only managed to read the short story, which was good but very different in structure, tone, and subject matter. I was not expecting a supernatural adventure in steampunk alternate Egypt, but I was delighted when I got one. Also great was finding out that there are more stories in the same universe, all now on my to-be-read list.
For some reason, this is the year that the best related category has captured my attention. I’d been wanting to read The Lady from the Black Lagoon for a while, I can’t remember how I heard about it – probably File 770 or Whatever, but it was the first thing I read after the list came out. It’s a good fit for lockdown; a mystery to pull you in, some righteous anger to keep you going, and a frosting of Hollywood glamour to keep things fun. It’s not perfect, but I blazed through it pretty quickly. And then I picked up Becoming Superman.
Man oh man, I had no idea about Straczynsky’s childhood, if you haven’t read the book yet just take this as a broad trigger warning for just about everything. But here’s the thing, I’m also blazing through this one. I guess it helps knowing there is a happy ending, or at least that he is alive and successful, and someone I generally admire. And the writing is good, obviously. But where a certain part in The Light Brigade made me put it down, a corresponding event in Becoming Superman was upsetting, but didn’t make me want to stop reading. I guess it’s the grim, rather than the dark that’s the real problem for me.
So that’s where I at am now; stuck in my house during a global pandemic reading about just about the shittiest childhood imaginable. It’s a strange old world.
The Drink Tank, Issue #420, June 2020