Early immersion – I read a hell of a lot, and I find it very easy to become immersed in a piece. The earlier it drags me in, the better. If I don’t get the immersion, the interplay of the technical factors (prose quality, characterization, plotting, foreshadowing, etc.) isn’t handled well enough to do it. I’ve read pieces where I liked the premise and characters, but the craft wasn’t good enough to generate immersion. I’ve also read pieces that I hated but were well enough done to hold me despite that.
It goes on for a while like that, going through such controversial demands like “there is a plot” and “there are characters”, but it’s all a bit anodyne, a bit obvious, a bit dull and unchallenging. If that’s your standard for Hugo worthy science fiction, there’s a lot of it out there: it’s not exactly a high bar to clear. But there’s more:
The prose is invisible. This needs some explanation: the prose needs to be polished enough and reflective enough of the content and pacing that it helps maintain reader immersion instead of having clunky phrasing that throws a reader out of the story. The only really viable exceptions I’ve come across are in shorter works where the prose can sometimes serve as a character in itself.
That’s the sort of bollocks you hear a lot of science fiction readers talk about, that they want prose that’s transparent, “doesn’t get in the way of the story”, doesn’t demand any attention paid, doesn’t challenge. There’s of course a huge inferiority complex running through parts of science fiction, resulting in the dismissal of everything that smacks of the literary and difficult. That’s what you see here. It’s not bad persé, it’s just a bit unambitious.
And to be honest, the Hugos too often have been that already. There are plenty of middle of the road novels that have been nominated and won it. Do we really need more of that, or do we rather have something a bit more challenging? Certainly the Puppy nominees aren’t the answers: by all reports they mostly fail even Paulk’s rather low standards.