Not Ranked: Goodnight Stars by Annie Bellet: This story is not on the Hugo ballot, but at one point it was, having been placed there as part of the "Sad Puppy" slate. Following the announcement of the Hugo ballot, Bellet withdrew her story from consideration, stating that she did not want to be used as an involuntary political football. There have been numerous speculations concerning the "real" reason for her withdrawal, but I will not do so, instead letting her speak for herself. In any event, this is not a ranking of her story, but merely a review to place the remaining nominees in context.
1. No Award (actual finish 1st): The overall quality of the stories nominated for the Hugo Award in the Best Short Story category is so low that I simply cannot see any of them being a worthy Hugo winner. I am a member of the Washington Science Fiction Association, and while reading the stories in this category, I read the nominees for the SWFA Small Press Award at the same time. Reading the two sets of nominees in parallel really highlighted in stark relief the wide gulf in quality between the Puppy-nominated works on the Hugo ballot and the nine works nominated for the SFWA Small Press Award. In blunt terms: Even the best of the Hugo nominated works wasn't anywhere near as good as the worst story on the SFWA ballot. In short, none of the works in this category are even close to being good enough to be considered one of the best five stories of the year, let alone the best one.
2. Totaled by Kary English (actual finish 2nd): Totaled is the best of this year's Hugo short story nominees, and that is damming it with faint praise. The story isn't terrible, but there isn't really anything that makes it stand out either. The central character is a neuroscientist named Maggie, and she starts the story already dead, or as the narrative tells us "totaled" by her insurance company after a car accident. Oddly, despite the fact that she died in the car accident, she knows who survived and who didn't even though there is really no way she could know, which is a detail that is indicative of the fact that the storytelling is kind of sloppy in some areas. In addition, the aside explaining how the process of declaring a person to be "totaled" cane into existence is almost entirely extraneous to the story. All the reader really needs to know is that Maggie died, the time spent explaining the political genesis of insurance companies deciding people's medical care was too expensive for them to continue to live is pretty much just wasted verbiage in a story that is too short to afford it.
3. On A Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli (actual finish 5th): The central conceit of this story is an interesting one - humankind has established an outpost on the planet Ymilas on which the local magnetism captures a version of a dead person's psyche which continues to be able to interact with the living. For the native Ymilans, this is simply a mundane fact of their lives, but when Joe McDonald becomes the first human to die on the planet, the base chaplain is confronted with the question of what to do with the wayward spirit. The chaplain's friend, the native chief priest Dergec offers to help, leading the chaplain and Joe on a pilgrimage to the polar regions of the planet where the magnetic field is weak enough that spirits can dissipate. So the trio head off, accompanied by other Ymilans who are escorting the spirits of their own departed ancestors, Joe's spirit vanishes, and the story ends.
4. A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond (actual finish 3rd): I'll begin with the obvious - A Single Samurai is quite clearly Shadow of the Colossus fanfic with the serial numbers filed off and a healthy side-helping of anime influenced cartoon samurai fanboyism. The plot of the story involves an unnamed samurai climbing a giant kajiu - a Japanese movie monster the size of an entire mountain - until he locates the creature's weak spot and can kill it. Along the way, the titular samurai pontificates on what it means to be a samurai, revealing that other than the name "samurai" and the fact that he carries a katana, this character has essentially no relationship to anything resembling an actual samurai, but is instead more akin to a cartoon. None of this necessarily means that the story is bad - after all, this is a story with mountain-sized monsters and demon-cats, so having the title samurai redefined to mean a demon-fighting warrior with magical swords that hold a portion of his soul isn't entirely out of bounds.
5. Turncoat by Steve Rzasa (actual finish 4th): This story is basically badly written military science fiction with a thin veneer of weak philosophy glossed over it. The story is also deadly dull, with an ending completely telegraphed by the title, a message that beats the reader over the head with a club (or rather an array of a dozen molybdenum-coated ceramic-plated long-range deep space torpedoes with fission warheads), and a historical reference that makes almost no sense at all. The story, such as it is, focuses on Taren X 45 Delta, an AI at the heart of a cruiser for the Man-Machine Integration helping fight their war against the human Ascendancy. After Taren's commander, the human-downloaded AI Alpha 7 Alpha commands Taren to start killing prisoners and takes away his integrated human crew, Taren does some research and discovers the Bible, or at least one passage from Isaiah, and decides to switch sides. While the various weapon systems carried by the various ships in the story are described in loving detail, and the space battles are reported at great and tedious length with excruciating precision and nonsensical details, subtle things like the character development and motivations for both the protagonist and the ridiculous mustache-twirling antagonist are dealt with in an almost perfunctory manner. Despite spending great lengths telling the reader exactly how many torpedoes and lasers the ships have, Rzasa reports on how Taren came to its philosophical revelation in little more than two brief paragraphs - and that includes the passage quoted from Isaiah.
6. The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright (actual finish 6th): This story isn't actually science fiction, or fantasy, or even really a story. It is, instead, a religious parable dressed up in the very slightest amount of Jungle Book and Narnia clothing - essentially a blunt force message delivered in a package that only vaguely resembles a story. The story takes place after Man has disappeared, and all of the animals of the world (or at least the ones that can be crammed into a quasi-Biblical parable) gather together first to try to cajole one of their number into venturing into the abandoned city to determine if man is actually gone, and then after receiving a report from Cat, start debating who should claim rulership of the world now that man is gone. Eventually, they all realize they have been talking in human language (something they previously had been unable to do), a pair of angels show up, and a handful of animals choose to change into men to start the cycle again. The entirely tale is told in droning, adjective-heavy prose that makes even talking animals seem tedious and stuffy. The various animal "characters" aren't really characters so much as archetypes serving as mouthpieces for the author to shuffle around while beating the reader about the head and shoulders with the incredibly heavy-handed but incredibly silly theological message. Almost nothing any of the characters do for most of the story matters much - the extended debates serve merely to fill up space before the two angelic beings come down and explain everything to the animals and the choice is made. To be perfectly blunt, the extent of the "story" contained in this work could have been told in about a half page worth of text, and been a much more enjoyable read as a result.Because the animal characters aren't really characters, they are given no character development or even much characterization, and the story give the reader no real reason to care what happens to them. The end result is a dull pile of exposition that sluggishly drifts along for a bit until it comes to its uninteresting conclusion.
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