Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hugo Thoughts: Short Fiction

I've been working my way through the gigantic 2011 Hugo Packet over the past few weeks -- since, if I'm going to grab the thing, I might as well use it -- which has left me fairly quiet here. (I didn't want to post thoughts about individual stories in isolation, for various reasons.)

I just finished the short fiction the other day, and I have to wonder if this is a particularly weak year, or if these are the kind of stories that Hugo nominators are generally choosing to honor these days. I hope it's the former, since many of this year's nominees don't rise above "No Award" for me.

This is not my mostly-annual "Handicapping the Hugos" post, which I hope will follow once the voting period closes. It's, instead, the first in what I plan will be a series of posts looking at the nominees this year from my own perspective -- and, as I usually do, finding everything inadequate. There will certainly be discussion of plot points, for those who are grumpy about such things.

Best Short Story:
  • “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn (Lightspeed, June 2010)
  • “For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s, September 2010)
  • “Ponies” by Kij Johnson (Tor.com, November 17, 2010)
  • “The Things” by Peter Watts (Clarkesworld, January 2010)
The Vaughan is a pleasant but (I thought) minor story set in a world that makes no sense at all -- given all of the buried assumptions in it, the population in that world should be crashing hard, and have been aging and crashing for two or three generations. And that demographic pressure could have informed this story, and driven it in slightly different ways -- but it didn't.

Kowal's story is another sentimental piece (like Vaughan), but doesn't have any buried landmines trying to blow it up. I didn't love it, but it was smart and professional at a high level.

The Johnson is a taut, spiky piece that makes great use of the length of the form, and I respected it the most of the stories in this category.  I think you have to have been a teenage girl for it to be really visceral, though.

And the Watts is our first backwards-looking story of this year -- there have been far too many backwards-looking SF stories over the last two decades -- which retells a famous old story in a new way. Watts is an essentially contemporary writer, unlike most of the SF folks peddling old wares in new bottles, so his backwards looks aren't as egregious as those by some others. But it's still more clever than smart, especially with it's look-how-far-over-the-top-I-am last line.

Best Novellette:
  • “Eight Miles” by Sean McMullen (Analog, September 2010)
  • “The Emperor of Mars” by Allen M. Steele (Asimov’s, June 2010)
  • “The Jaguar House, in Shadow” by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s, July 2010)
  • “Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s, December 2010)
  • “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone (Analog, September 2010)
The McMullen was a fine, worthy story, with both decent science and interesting ideas. And I don't mind historical SF as long as it's not special pleading about the space program. So this was the first story I hit in this year's reading that I was entirely in favor of.

Steele, on the other hand, recycles a title from Kage Baker and an idea from himself (the much better, though still backward-looking and self-indulgent "Days Between") into a story that I've seen done a dozen times before. Steele tells it well, as always -- he's a smooth, facile writer with a good ear for dialogue and a knack for grounded characters -- but I nearly always feel like he's just not trying hard enough, and that came out here, as well. This is the first really egregiously "gosh, wasn't yesterday's future so much better than ours" story this year, flattering all of those aging Boomer SF readers who didn't become the space-station jockeys and planet-hopping businessmen they all thought they'd be when they were twelve.

de Boddard's story is possibly the best thing on the entire ballot this year, despite a background world I couldn't quite piece together in my head: tight, dramatic, strongly structured and working hard from the very first page to the last. This is what short SF is supposed to be.

The Kelly story is another medium-future grunts-in-near-space story, which made it immediately feel dated -- monkeys in cans is so 1970, and even "Plus Or Minus" realizes that -- but Kelly, as always, drives his story through his characters and their interactions. It's a good story well-told, but Kelly has done much better a number of times before, so it was very slightly disappointing to hit the end and realize that was it.

Stone's story has attracted criticism online for being particularly Mormon, but the bigger problem is that its main character is a catalyst for events that aren't adequately explained or described. Stone posits a great SFnal idea -- a galaxies-spanning civilization of gigantic, vastly long-lived star-dwelling "swales" -- and then cheats at every turn to tell a roadshow "Case of Conscience" with added woe-is-me over the narrator's inability to find a suitable wife. And the fact that the narrator, when faced with a creature that plausibly claims to be the creator of all life in the universe, doesn't even have a twinge of doubt over his faith makes the whole thing insufferably smug and hermetic.

Best Novella:
  • “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2010)
  • The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
  • “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand (Stories: All New Tales, William Morrow)
    “The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov’s, September 2010)
  • “Troika” by Alastair Reynolds (Godlike Machines, Science Fiction Book Club)
Swirsky's story struck me as trying to do something very SFnal -- the leap-forward story, in which a single character moves from a base situation further and further onward through time until finally reaching the end of time, as in Sheffield's "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" -- and to start from a very SFnal feminist position (reminiscent of Tepper), but all cloaked in fantasy terms. (I don't want to get into the general argument of whether fantasy is "easier" than SF here, but this particular story took some ideas and forms strongly associated with SF and put them into fantasy terms that allowed Swirsky to drive her plot via a kind of magic she could define entirely.) I liked its ambition and reach, and thought it achieved pretty much what it set out to do -- it's a strong long piece.

Chiang's story, though, was the first disappointing piece by him that I've read: it plods along in a bland, pedestrian manner, making the point that developing real AI personalities will be very much like raising children over and over and over without any leavening humor or self-consciousness about its "and" plot. It also stops at an odd place, with the "software objects" about to enter their equivalent of adolescence -- as the father of a thirteen-year-old boy, I can say that's no kind of ending at all.

I wrote about the Hand novella briefly when I reviewed Stories back in October, so, this time, I'll just note that it's both smartly professional and yet another look backwards at failed 20th century space programs. (I could do with a ten-year moratorium on historical SF stories about NASA and the Russian space program.)

Landis's story has great scenery -- it's mostly set in a flotilla of cities drifting in Venus's atmosphere a few centuries forward -- but its characters are almost entirely cyphers, and their motivations either aren't clear or don't make sense. Its plot -- essentially "vaguely sinister all-powerful despot sets his sights on random foreign woman for inadequate reasons," which has been executed much better a thousand times in airport romances and thrillers -- is just an excuse for the tour of Venus, but Landis needed a better excuse, and characters who interacted with each other on some level. Also, a story that claims it's about sex in its last lines should have made some effort to be sexier than 1939 Astounding at some point along the way.

I should mention that Reynolds's story "Troika" exists because of me (in a very, very small way), since I commissioned the book that became Godlike Machines several years ago, in my prior life, and that editor Jonathan Strahan thanked me in his acknowledgements for that book. But that won't stop me from mildly grousing that "Troika" is another retro-future, with a reborn Soviet Union somehow lording it over a declining mid-21st century Earth and their sputtering space program a clear sign that Things Are All Going to Hell. And "Troika" is yet another Reynolds story about an enigmatic alien artifact -- after "Diamond Dogs" and "Nightingale" and others -- that transforms the people who enter it. Given that thematic repetition, Reynolds has a lot of work to do to make "Troika" stand out as its own story -- I think he does so, but I'm a fan of Reynolds's work, and may not be entirely reliable on that point.


All in all, though, this is not a line-up of stories that impresses me. There have been past years even more thoroughly steeped in space-program nostalgia, true, but there's not a whole lot here that really excites me. Filling out a Hugo ballot should be a wrenching process, forcing the voter to decide between several excellent candidates, and these categories will not make this voter make any difficult choices at all. But this could have been a quiet year for short fiction -- I read so little of it now that I have no independent idea -- and the only story that I should have nominated that didn't make it onto the ballot is Neil Gaiman's harrowing "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains." (And Gaiman has so many awards that either the nominators or he could easily have left him off this year.)

Next I have to dive into the novels -- I've already read Blackout and All Clear (which, if you've read my review, you might guess I do not think should be on this ballot) and Cryoburn (also reviewed; also a minor book by a major writer), which leaves The Dervish House and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, both of which I wanted to read anyway, and Feed, which I guess I do have to read to vote honestly. (I don't care at all for zombies, I'm afraid.) Look for writings on those within the next few weeks, if I don't decide to read Swamplandia! (which my library just told me is now available) first.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent short review of the nominees. I thought less of "Ponies" than you did and more of "The Things" but on the whole I agree entirely. The only two nominees I really enjoyed were Rachel Swirsky's novella and Aliette de Bodard's novelette. I am a critic with Tangent Online and read an awful lot of stories this year - I felt the novelettes were the weakest category while the short story had a brilliant resurgence - just none of the particular short stories I liked were nominated. Novellas had an OK year - I would have gone with the Sean Williams novella out of Godlike Machines instead of the Reynolds.

Oh,and I felt the same way about having to read Feed. It turned out to be an excellent SF novel - more about the society that has been formed 40 years after two "cures" (one for cancer and one for the common cold) went airborn at the same time and mutated to create the zombies - than a real zombie novel (although there is a lot of zombie fighting). I dislike zombie stories but this was a meticulously thought out scenario with strongly defined characters. Dervish House, however is the best novel of the year.

Bob Blough

nwhyte said...

Hi Andrew, have linked to this post from http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/1786958.html for comparative purposes!

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