This month, N.K. Jemisin made all kinds of SFF history by winning her third straight Hugo Award for Best Novel for The Stone Sky, the third book in the Broken Earth trilogy. That means all three books in the series have won the Hugo, which is pretty huge—but The Stone Sky also won the Nebula Award, which puts Jemisin into even more rarefied territory: only 24 books have won both major SFF awards over the years. If you had any doubts Jemisin is changing science fiction, as Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, or Ursula K. Le Guin did before her, this is your wake up call.
Stipulating that any novel that wins both awards can’t, by definition, be a bad book, we decided to honor Jemisin’s achievement by taking a deep dive into past double-dippers with a ranking that goes from least best to best—keeping in mind that the “worst” Nebula- and Hugo-winning novel is still, you know, pretty darn good.
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre (1978)
Try to think of another book that won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus Award for best novel that is as obscure today as Dreamsnake. Unfortunately, despite solid reviews and a passionate defense from Ursula K. Le Guin, it’s hard to argue this one hasn’t been lost to the mists of time—notably, it’s the only book on this list not readily available in print. Set in a future Earth far removed from a nuclear apocalypse, where society has rebuilt itself along completely different lines, the main character is a healer who specializes in snake venom and other bioengineered techniques. On a mission to replace her Dreamsnake, a serpent engineered to produce powerful hallucinogens, she travels through isolated settlements, healing as she goes. The novel sprung from the Nebula-winning novella “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand,” and though it was heralded at the time for its spiky worldbuilding and feminist overtones (it was, in 1979, only the third Hugo-winning novel to feature a female protagonist), today it reads more like an important foundational work that a vital, living one. Still, the fact that it is only available as an ebook purchased directly from the author is a damn shame. Despite its deceptive ranking at the bottom of our Hugo/Nebula canon, it’s a book well worth reading.
Among Others, by Jo Walton (2011)
Walton’s 2011 diary-as-novel presents a thoroughly charming story about Morwenna, a young girl who can commune with faeries, and who, along with her sister, uses that power to prevent her insane mother from using magic to dark ends. The girl, who narrates via her diary, suffers dark repercussions for her bravery—but most of the action is backstory, revealed in fits and starts as Morwenna adjusts to a new life, away from her mother, and finds her tribe among the members of a science fiction book club that meets at the local library. “Charming” is the best word for this one: Walton pushes a finger directly into the pleasure center of SFF fans’ brains with constant references to the SFF novels Morwenna reads and reacts to as the story goes on. It’s a lovely coming-of-age tale, but it’s also in conflict and surprise and murky in its worldbuilding (if intentionally so; it’s patently unclear whether magic even exists in Morwenna’s world, or only in her mind). For readers attuned to its charms, it’s worth revisiting, if only to be welcomed into the warm embrace of nascent fandom. Meanwhile, readers at a remove from the culture depicted might find themselves scratching their heads at all the Robert Silverberg references.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon (2007)
Chabon is a great writer, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a good book, but isn’t one of his best books. Furthermore, it’s arguable that it’s not so much science fiction as a literary novel that uses a few sci-fi tropes like tools. That’s a subtle distinction, and normally not important, but when it comes to the two biggest SFF awards in the world, those distinctions matter. The real problem with this story, which depicts the plight of a Jewish community in a remote Alaskan town in a timeline in which a Jewish state wasnever established in Isreal, is the way Chabon uses those tropes—as well as others from detective fiction—always with a wink and a nod to readers; he intentionally leans into the cliché, and his curious decision to pretend all the dialogue is actually in Yiddish lends it a strange clumsiness that works alternately as a charm or a turn-off, depending on the reader.
Forever Peace, by Joe Haldeman (1998)
Commonly mistaken for a sequel to Haldeman’s other dual-award winner, The Forever War (more on that one later), this 1997 novel is actually a completely separate story—and suffers a lot in comparison to that earlier book. It begins as a work of military SF exploring themes of racial supremacy and economic disparity in a near-future world where asymmetrical war is fought by “mechanics” jacked into mechas called “soldierboys,” then segues into a thriller narrative concerning a technology that could trigger a universe-ending big bang; a side-effect of said tech allows the soldierboys to be controlled, and might just bring about lasting world peace. Glued together, these twin narratives are a bit disjointed, but they do contain some splendid sci-fi concepts, and on any other list, it would rank much higher.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)
If I may get a bit defensive: many would rank this book much higher on this list—some even at the top spot. For me, Bacigalupi’s breakthrough book (which single-handedly put Nightshade Books on the map) combines a fantastic premise (one that helped established the modern cli-fi subgenre) with some truly great ideas (the windup people created by the Japanese in the wake of the “great contraction” that leaves humanity without fossil fuels or a reliable food source), but gets bogged down in obtuse plotting and endless repetition of the author’s Big Themes—we get it, the future is hot. Those issues, taken alongside the detached tone of the prose, elements of cultural appropriation that read as more problematic today than they did even a decade ago, and the fact that it is, generally, a damn depressing read, push it down the list.
Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis (2010)
Even great writers have flaws, and every now and then they get the opportunity to combine all of them into a single book. Although technically, this one is two books. The third or fourth entry in Willis’ beloved series about time-traveling Oxford historians (in this one, they go back to WWII-era Britain and get stuck there, forced to live out their days in wartime), this two-volume novel is Willis’ Waterloo in some ways; readers came away either lamenting its end, or convinced that it could have been edited down to a single, much more powerful book. It’s also one of those books where you suspect the author was so enamored of her research, she was determined to cram every. single. bit. of. it. into the story. Your mileage may vary, of course; Willis die-hards love these books, which is why it won the Hugo, and the Nebula, and the Locus in 2010. Even if you agree it could use a brisk edit, it’s still packed with marvelous ideas, lovable characters, and a fascinating time-travel story.
Ringworld, by Larry Niven (1970)
Although still incredibly influential in the field, Ringworld hasn’t aged particularly well over the last five decades, especially with regard to Niven’s sexual politics—the female characters are presented as, by turns, dumb-but-lucky and sex objects, with almost no exceptions. While the concept of the “big dumb object” (in this case, the titular artificial planet, which a group of scientists from Earth set out to explore) remains a powerful one, but once we actually get to Ringworld, it’s found to be really big and really dumb, in the sense that it’s largely empty, making the book more of a what-if? scientific exercise than a compelling narrative. These are nit-picks, of course; the book is packed with fantastic ideas, and if some of the science Niven was riffing on has shifted in the years since, that doesn’t make ruminating on it any less wonderful. And nny book that opens with a 200-year-old character teleporting in order to extend his birthday is worth reading.
The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke (1979)
If there’s a complaint to be had about this novel, it is its lack of compelling stakes. There are certainly things at stake in the story, but they’re never presented as anything more urgent than a good problem to solve. Build a space elevator? Why not. Evict a crew of monks from their ancient home in order to do so? There are ways. Clarke’s delight in the engineering and solving the scientific challenges he’s exploring is clear, and the story is a great read, but the tone is a bit less “wow, this is cool” and bit more “please turn to page 500 as we discuss the kind of ultrathin filament necessary for a space elevator of this scale.”
The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis (1992)
The other of Willis’ Oxford Time Travel books to pick up both awards (the third, the farcical Victorian-era romp To Say Nothing of the Dog, had to settle for just a Hugo, losing the Nebula to the aforementioned Forever Peace due to the awards’ differing eligibility periods) is the best of the three, and ranks with the best-loved sci-fi novels ever written. It’s a enormously affecting use of time travel, with a young historian traveling mistakenly back to the time of the black death and witnessing the dissolution of an entire community, even as a new health crisis unfolds in the future. It features scenes so heart-wrenching, you’ll read them through tears. So why is it relatively low on this list? Because so much of the plot (in both timelines) is dependent on missed calls and other forms of miscommunication. So much. It doesn’t detract too terribly from the amazing ideas, the relatable characters, and the real sense of tragedy and loss at the heart of the story, but it’s a little distracting to keep thinking that if only humanity hadn’t traded all of their communications technology in exchange for time travel, much suffering could have been avoided.
Startide Rising, by David Brin (1983)
Startide Rising is a great book, in that it is enormously fun to read, if not particularly well written. It’s the second in Brin’s Uplift series, in which species like dolphins and chimpanzees are given enhanced intelligence and crew spaceships alongside humans. The dolphin/human crew of one vessel encounters what might be a derelict fleet of ships belonging to the Progenitors, the alien race that has uplifted species from myriad planets across the galaxies across millennia (it’s worth noting that humanity is the only species to reach the stars without a helping hand). In the wake of this discovery, all heck breaks loose, as it is wont to do in sci-fi stories, as ships from every planet in the galaxy try to claim the technological treasure for themselves. This is relatively early Brin; the fact that he released a corrected and revised version a few years later testifies to that. It’s deserving of its awards, but outclassed by those below. (Also, I wasn’t sure whether to add points or detract them for all the scenes featuring, er, amorous dolphins.)
Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card (1986)
Whether you regard the vastly different sequel to Ender’s Game as a brilliant subversion of expectations or clear evidence that Card needed an epic twist for the first book to achieve brilliance, the fact is, this novel is just not as memorable as Ender’s Game—but it is still pretty great, even if it reads like a separate novel Card search-and-replaced into the Enderverse in some ways. The main sin is Card’s tendency to have his characters engage in lengthy lectures that are pretty clearly his own opinions or reveries on subjects, which detracts a bit from the excellent story being spun here, as Ender Wiggin is reinvented as the titular Speaker, atoning for the xenocide he committed in the first book.
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
We’re now at the point in this list where the precise ranking gets really tough, because we’re talking about some of the most influential sci-fi novels ever written. Are we really suggesting that there are twelve novels superior to The Left Hand of Darkness? Not exactly. But this early work from Grandmaster Ursula K. Le Guin does require a bit of effort to read, and is more interested in its—admittedly provoking, if a bit out of date—ideas of gender, sexuality, and society than in telling an exciting story or building fascinating characters. In other words, your mileage may vary on your enjoyment of this book, although your appreciation of it might be off the charts.
Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
Some have argued that Clarke got both awards for Rama because everyone kind of liked him, but that can’t be true—this is a fantastic book in terms of both ideas and story. OK, in terms of characterization… not so much, but that’s not terribly unusual for Clarke, who was ever more interested in the concepts and storytelling than the people and creatures who populated them. The fact that Rama, another signature “BDO” novel, has remained popular so long after its initial publication is a testament to the primal sense of wonder Clarke manages to embue it with. If only he’d done a better job of conveying that wonder through characters who coalesced into real people on the page…
The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov (1972)
Asimov deserves all the awards basically as lifetime achievements, and The Gods Themselves is an amazing achievement—or at least its middle section, set in a parallel universe where the laws of physics operate a bit differently, is. The other two parts of the story (set at various times in our own dimension) are “merely” great. Even if we stipulate that small variation in genius, that middle section remains one of the most effective and well-constructed depictions of an alien mindset and society, and the whole story grapples with the sort of science that should be more common in the genre—real science involving the laws of physics, quasars, and supernovae, fused with a peerless sci-fi imagination.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984)
Gibson’s prescient cyberpunk novel defined a whole sub-genre and gifted us with many of the terms and imagery we use to describe computers and the internet even today. It is a bit rusty, though, as Gibson was able to imagine the future of hacking but unable to imagine a world where things were measured in terabytes instead of megabytes. Still, this is one of the most influential novels of the last few decades, and still forms the bedrock of much of modern sci-fi (without Neuromancer, there would be no The Matrix). Despite its age, its dense, edgy prose still excites, and its highly stylized characters are the height of cool (Molly Millions makes Trinity look like Lucy Van Pelt). If you can overlook the distance between the tech Gibson imagines and the world we live in today, it’s still a fantastic read.
Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (2014)
Innovative and deeply-imagined, Leckie’s space opera takes its time introducing a universe where an incredibly advanced AI controls not just a huge warship, but thousands of biological “ancillaries,” human hosts who’ve suffered the rather horrid fate of having their personalities overwritten so they can serve as glorified, expendable drones. Leckie’s depiction of the many points of view (which are really one point of view) and the complex multiple cultures of her universe offers readers very little hand-holding, which makes the book a bit challenging to first-time readers , not to mention readers bothered by not knowing explicitly what a character’s gender is (all the pronouns in the novel are feminine, for reasons that make sense internally, though the author is also obviously Making A Point)—but that’s refreshing, isn’t it? Leckie is an author who treats her readers as intelligent folks perfectly capable of figuring these things out in due time,; the result is a remarkable book that’s still sending ripples through SFF literature.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (2001)
For the premise alone, Gaiman’s 2001 novel deserves its many accolades. Combine it with his sing-songy, often downright hilarious prose, and you’ve got the ingredients of a brilliant novel. Gaiman’s not the first writer to imagine Odin and other ancient gods limping along in the modern day, but his twin ideas of a plot by “Mr. Wednesday” to battle the emerging new gods (of Media, Technology, etc.) and restore himself to supremacy, and the concept of the new gods themselves, is so damn good, the book found a wide crossover audience among non-genre readers. It’s a bit of a bulbous, rambling thing, but then again, you’d ask nothing less of a road novel. Odd for an Englishman to write a definitive American fantasy, a nightmarish view of hegemony in the modern age that never once skimps on the story.
Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold (2004)
While technically a sequel to The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls stands alone quite well as a richly written, character-based epic. Bujold constructs a wonderfully detailed fantasy setting and then does something remarkably subversive with it, at least within the realm of the 21st century of epic fantasy: she makes her protagonist a middle-aged woman who isn’t terribly interested in adventure or heroism. Cursed with magical insanity for years, Ista finds herself regarded as useless due to being in her forties, and has to fight just to be able to make her own decisions. The true impact of the book comes from the emotional power Bujold generates from her central character. It’s a book to love as much for the writing as the tropes and trappings of the genre it celebrates or subverts.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman (1975)
This is one of those novels that gets taught in college classes by professors who want to prove sci-fi can be art. Haldeman’s story of super soldiers suffering from the increasingly drastic culture shock caused by time dilation as they travel the galaxy fighting an endless war wears its Vietnam inspiration on its sleeves, but it doesn’t feel dated in the least, because the sci-fi ideas it contains are epic and consistent and keep branching off into new, amazing territory. What starts off as a purposeful riff on Starship Troopers morphs into the tragic story of men and women used by society and made to suffer as the world changes around them, leaving them increasingly isolated and alone. On a first read, it’s still a sock to the gut.
Gateway, by Frederick Pohl (1977)
Pohl’s most famous creation shows some rust these days, but its central ideas still resonate—including the debate over universal healthcare and the inequities of a capitalist society, which Pohl somehow makes organic to the story. Yet it’s the central concept—a massive, abandoned, ancient alien space station is discovered, filled with ships controlled by instruments no one can figure out, and the desperate people who climb aboard them to press the button and risk their lives to see where they go in hopes of earning untold riches—that keeps it high on this list (provided you ignore the sequels, which ruin the fun by providing too many answers). Pohl creates a believably terrible future for humanity and populates it with interestingly conflicted, often contemptible characters who slowly grow from exclusively self-interested to something greater, even as he constructs a fascinating mystery around them.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
Complex, intricate, and somehow incorporating far-ranging concepts of society, science, and economics without resorting to infodumps or heavy-handed soliloquies, some people regard The Dispossessed as more literature than sci-fi; the skiffy elements—twinned planets with vastly different cultures—serve mainly to set up the precise existential model Le Guin wants to explore (although the events of the novel have consequences throughout the rest of her Hainish Cycle, via the development of the key fictional technology known as the ansible, which allows for instantaneous communication across spacetime). This is a book people write have written academic papers on, and on a different day, it could claim the top spot on this list.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (1985)
Card’s singular achievement is many things at once: a classic sci-fi premise, an intricate character study, and party to one of the best plot twists even conceived. If the author never quite attained the heights of this book again in his career, there’s no shame in that; this is in many ways an almost perfect piece of pop sci-fi—so much so that you can see its echoes in everything from Halo to The Maze Runner. Very few books are iconic enough to be referred to in shorthand, but you can describe something as being similar to this one and most every reader will know precisely what you are talking about..
Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)
Dune. One of the most original and complex fictional universes ever conceived, featuring realistic motivations and brutal violence and a dense history and mythology on par with Tolkien. Importantly, the story of the epic battle for the control of the galaxy’s most essential resource, coupled with the spiritual ascendance of a revolutionary figure, is a sci-fi novel that is aggressively disinterested in explaining its science, blurring the genre lines in a way that arguably encouraged a merging of genres that’s still going on today. It’s also one of the earliest sci-fi novels to incorporate ecological and environmental concepts seriously into its worldbuilding. There’s so much going on in Dune it’s very simply one of those novels that is much larger on the inside than it initially appears.
The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin (2017)
We’re calling it: Jemisin is the most important sci-fi writer working today. Her work incorporates epic science fiction and fantasy concepts with gritty and realistically-portrayed personal relationships in a way that is thoroughly modern, while her technical flourishes—playing with point-of-view and second person narration—are used so confidently, readers don’t even realize just how hard they are to pull off well. Standing in for the entire Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky is a book that doesn’t rely on cheap violence to create a sense of modernity, nor does it eschew the traditions that came before. This is the capper to a trilogy written by someone who loves speculative fiction but works in a unique and powerful way; all three of them deserve their awards.
What’s your favorite joint Hugo and Nebula winner?