What do Hugo voters know that I don’t?

I read quite a bit of SF, but I’m not really a “fan,” in the sense that I’ve never been to a Worldcon or cast a vote for the Hugos. However, I just belatedly looked at the 2006 Hugo nominees, and I was really surprised to see John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is one of the finalists for best novel.

I happened to read this book when it appeared on the new books shelf of my library, and I found an amusing enough bit of literary junk food. But the thought “Hey! This is the best novel of the year!” never crossed my mind.

I’m not offended by the militarism of the book, as some people were – heck, I was fine with it when Seaton destroyed the whole Chloran galaxy in Skylark DuQuesne. I’m just appalled by the mediocrity of Scalzi’s book, now that it’s a Hugo nominee. The writing and characterization are adequate at best, and let’s just say that the plot has been done before. And the science is not good – this is SF at the Star Trek level. The aliens are basically people in makeup, and the technology is just souped up versions of present day stuff – apparently there have been no revolutions after the cell phone in this universe.

Wars with alien species on distant planets seem a lot like 20th century wars, which is pretty far fetched given that even war in the 21st century is not much like 20th century wars. Just as an example, let’s say you had advanced nanotech and you wanted to use it militarily. What would you do? Create a smart mist that turns enemy forces into gray goo? Nah, in Scalzi’s world they just make rifles that manufacture bullets on the fly – and they’re not even nanotech bullets that do something cool like subvert the enemy forces they hit, they’re just plain old bullets.

I mean really: quality SF should make futuristic stuff seem futuristic. I really got a kick out of the line “Simply grasping how such weapons were in some way disadvantageous to something loosely analagous to an enemy would have required such a comprehensive remapping of the human mind that it would be pointless calling it human anymore” in Alastair Reynolds’s Absolution Gap. Scalzi’s future just seems like the 1990s with starships and aliens added. (BTW, if you want to read a good space opera, with a nicely twisty plot, interesting ideas, and even decent characters, I recommend starting with Reynolds’s Revelation Space)

Maybe the explanation is that this is a weak year and Scalzi’s book really is the fifth best book. But I don’t buy it. John C. Wright’s very strong Orphans of Chaos was eligible. Even Karl Schroeder’s somewhat unsatisfying Lady of Mazes seems much more like a Hugo nominee (although it shouldn’t win).

I guess I’m left wondering what the Hugo voters saw in Scalzi’s book that I don’t.

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