Sunday, 29 May 2011

Book Refereeing

For the second year in a row I am going to be voting for the Hugo awards, the world's most prestigious science fiction award. The reason for my voting is rather mundane: for a $50 fee I get to download legal copies of all award contenders, which I can then read at my leisure (without any annoying DRM). The fact I can then go and vote for my preferred works of science fiction is, as far as I am concerned, a bonus.
First, let's get rid of the technicalities. You can become an eligible voter and download your own set of contenders here. If you were to do so, you would notice that you are downloading five contenders for best book, five contenders for best novella (short book?), five contenders for best short story, five contenders for best new author, and much more (e.g., comics). It's not a bad deal at all for $50. Go ahead, make my day: get your own voters pack.

Now that we got that out of the way, let us discuss the implications. My voting "duties" mean that for the next few months till the voting deadline at the end of July, I may be devoting some of my precious reading time to reading some of the best novel nominees, the most prestigious of the Hugos, in order to be able to vote with some confidence. I'm saying that I may because things are not as simple as they should be:
  1. I have some other nice books just waiting for me to read them, like Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi and The Good Book by A. C. Grayling.

  2. The shortest of the five nominees for best novel is 350 pages long; the rest are north of 400 pages.

  3. At least four out of the five are either sequels, the first of a trilogy and such, and in general - books that were never designed to sell entirely by their rights.
It is observations 2 & 3 that bother me the most. Something is wrong with modern day science fiction when a book has to be long to qualify; sure, the shorter ones get under the novella banner, but the one Hugo category that everyone talks about is the Best Novel one, and if nothing below 350 pages can find its place there then there is something wrong with the science fiction of today. I, for one, cannot afford to read such long books too often: it would mean I would read way too few books a year. I'm afraid it would mean I would not be able to keep myself up to date with contemporary science fiction writing. Not to mention the fact that even these long books are only a part of some vast series of books!
Whatever happened to short and sweet?

I do seem to be receiving some aid with the voting process, though. I know who will get my vote for last place even before reading a word of it or its contenders. I'm being sarcastic here, so let me clarify myself.
One of the Best Novel contenders, Black Out / All Clear by Connie Willis, is actually two books: they're a book and its sequel. For the record, Black Out is actually this year's Nebula award winner, the almost as good as the Hugos science fiction award given by American science fiction authors to one of their own.
My problem with Black Out / All Clear is that its distinguished publisher has elected to provide only the first book, Black Out, in the voter pack. If I do want to read the two books and decide my vote on the basis of merit I would therefore have to buy All Clear separately. If that is the case then what is the point of the voters packet in the first place?
Connie Willis' publisher continues to do her disfavors. While the other four nominees for Best Novel provide ePub as well as PDF versions of their books in the voters pack, Willis' is provided in PDF format alone. This means very poor reading on my ebook reader (the font is way too small for reading on my Kindle's screen). Even after using the Calibre application to convert PDF to my ebook reader's native format, I still get page numbers stuck in the middle of sentences because the converter does not know how to tell them apart from the rest of the book.
It therefore seems clear to me that Connie Willis' effort deserves my vote for last place. If I am not meant to read it in its entirety, and if reading its first half is made harder on purpose (while a Kindle friendly version is generally available for sale), then what reason do I have for showing the publisher any respect?

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