Wednesday, August 23, 2017

2017 WSFA Small Press Award Voting

As a member of the Washington Science Fiction Association, I may vote on the WSFA Small Press Award. Although the stories are presented to members of WSFA anonymously, with the intent being that all of the members vote based solely on the text of the story, as uninfluenced by the identities of the authors as possible. Unfortunately, as one of the stories was nominated for a Hugo Award this year (which seems to be a pattern for the nominees for this award), I went into the voting already knowing who had written it. Nine stories were nominated this year, and as usual with the WSFA Small Press Award nominees, the overall level of quality for the field as a whole was quite high, making voting fairly difficult. Most of these stories are quite good, even the stories I ranked sixth or seventh are still pretty good stories, I just thought that the ones in the higher slots were simply better. My rankings of the stories are as follows:

1. Radio Silence by Walter H. Hunt: This is a story about the world not ending. Two scientists working at the Solar Observatory notice the Sun giving off an unusual burst of neutrinos normally associated with stars that are just about to turn nova, and then a countervailing change to the cosmic background radiation that seemingly stops the Sun from self-destructing. Their subsequent inquiries lead them to identify an unusual pattern of stellar activity and a strange anomaly in the asteroid belt, which leads to an expedition that has some fairly unexpected results. Radio Silence has the feel of a classic science mystery from the Golden Age of science fiction, and packs an investigation, a space voyage, an alien encounter, and a revelation concerning the nature of stars all within the length of a work of short fiction. In the hands of many authors, having as much going on in a story as takes place in this one would make the resulting narrative seem uncomfortably crowded, but this story manages to include all of this and feel almost roomy. The only weakness in the story is that the starship captain is something of a caricature of a military officer and has an almost entirely unexplained and out of character change of heart that seems pretty serendipitous. Other than that one element, Radio Silence is a well-written science fiction story with a good old-fashioned science mystery at its core.

2. The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon: As I mentioned earlier, I went into the voting already knowing the identity of the author of one of the stories. This is that story. Not only had this story been nominated for the Hugo Award (among other honors), it is also pretty much a direct sequel to Vernon's 2015 WSFA Small Press Award winning story Jackalope Wives. Grandma Harken returns in this tale featuring tomato sandwiches, enchanted thieves, a train god, and an evil sorcerer and is just as cranky, irascible, and ultimately kind-hearted as she was before. Even though I knew who wrote this story, and even though it is set in the same fictional world that Jackalope Wives was set in, I don't think that the familiarity particularly helped the story much, as I was continually mentally comparing this story with its predecessor, and to be honest, this story is not quite as good as Grandma Harken's first adventure. That isn't to say that this is anything less than an excellent story, it just doesn't have the almost mythic feel that Jackalope Wives had. This story feels like a constructed fantasy story, with the little stitches that hold it together poking through at times. Even though this is the longest story among the nominees, it feels rushed in places, as if Vernon felt the need to pack all of the background mythology into too few pages to hold it and denouement feels like it was cut a bit short. Some stories manage to be good, while at the same time feeling like they should have been expended into a longer format. This is one of those stories.

3. The Mytilenian Delay by Neil James Hudson: Even though they are a staple of science fiction stories, interstellar empires are really quite silly. In any story that confines itself to our understanding of physics, the vast distances between the stars coupled with the relative slowness of communications and travel make such an empire not only impractical, but entirely implausible. Alternatively, authors that want to feature such governments include some hand-waving magic technology to overcome the practical limitations of reality. In The Mytilenian Delay, the author takes the inherent contradictions in a vast star-spanning empire and plays with them, carrying them to a potentially deadly but decidedly absurdist conclusion. In the hypothetical empire, individual star systems annexed by the empire are forced to have a device placed into their planet that can be used to destroy the entire world if that planet rebels. In the story, a starship captain has been given the order to destroy a rebellious planet, and spends the entire story waiting for the Myletenian Delay to elapse, which will mark the point of no return after which the order cannot be countermanded. The fact that, so far as anyone knows, this is the first time this order has been given yields a bit of tension and uncertainty to the process, which the characters stoke into a raging bonfire of doubt by the end of the convoluted twists and turns of the plot.

4. Foxfire, Foxfire by Yoon Ha Lee: This story, itself an unlikely blend of magical fantasy and hard-edged science fiction, tells the tale of an unlikely alliance between a murderous magical fox and a deserter from a civil war who drives a "cataphract" high-tech war machine. Told from the point of view of Baekdo, a mischievous and utterly selfish fox, the story follows as the creature attempts to complete the final step to becoming fully human - killing his one-hundredth human victim. The fox's efforts are complicated by the fact that the human world around him has descended into the chaos of war and his control over the form-changing magic that allows him to shift between fox and human shape is slipping. Intending to kill the driver of the disabled machine, Baekdo finds himself at a disadvantage when the pilot turns out to be more capable then he thought, and the two enter into an uneasy accord secured by an oath on the blood of the tiger-sages that soon has them battling their way out of the city to what they hope is freedom using both technical skills and magical invocations to get them through the various dangers that interpose themselves in their way. Things don't go as planned, and the two find themselves in desperate straits with no good solutions. There is a bit of a twist at the end, an ominous and ambiguous finale, and just enough mythic background to tie everything together in a fairly satisfying manner. The only real flaw in the story is that most of the details concerning human culture are essentially hand-waved, although given that the story is told from the perspective of a magical fox, this is somewhat understandable. Like The Tomato Thief, this story probably could have been better if it had been expanded into a longer format so as to more fully flesh out the mythology and the setting, but it is still an interesting and engaging tale.

5. A Salvaging of Ghosts by Aliette de Bodard: While I knew for certain that Ursula Vernon had written The Tomato Thief, I merely suspected that Aliette de Bodard had written A Salvaging of Ghosts, mostly because thematically it fits so very neatly into her ongoing Xuya series of stories. A story of loss, regret, and coming to terms with grief, this tale features Thuy, a diver who works in the dangerous places in deep space salvaging gems from shipwrecks. Except it turns out that the gems are actually the remains of the human crews of the ships compressed into tiny crystals and one of the sets of tiny crystals that is out there belongs to Thuy's dead daughter Kim Anh (which makes the practice of dissolving gems into rice wine and drinking them a form of ritualistic cannibalism that is creepy and weird and never commented upon by anyone). The story has an ethereal, almost underwater feel throughout, as Thuy tries to grapple with both the loss of her child and the stirred up memories of the almost as tragic story of the death of her own parents. Thuy's despondency is somewhat out of step with her fellow divers, who all seem to display a fatalistic attitude concerning their deadly profession. Somewhat predictably, Thuy goes on an almost foolhardy dive, and somewhat unexpectedly she finds something there she did not anticipate. Unfortunately, after setting the stage so beautifully, the story seems to almost rush through the payoff, as if trying to wrap everything up as quickly as possible although this is a minor flaw on an otherwise beautiful story.

6. Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left by Fran Wilde: This is a lovely little magical realist tale involving people who turn into plants when they dream. It is beautifully written, with the language giving each of the loosely connected vignettes that make it up an almost dreamlike feel as the story flows languorously from one vividly painted scene to the next. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the phenomenon is world-wide, with some embracing the change and others desperately doing everything they can to stave off sleep. The tale eventually circles back to the initial protagonist in the final paragraphs, showing a last lingering look at a world that has transformed into a verdant wilderness. The frustrating thing about this story is that just about sums everything up. No reason is given for the change, and there is no real conflict or character development. People start turning into trees and bushes, and they keep turning into trees and bushes until in the end everyone has transformed. To a certain extent this feels almost like a prose poem, but even taking it in that form, there just doesn't seem to be enough in the way of character or plot despite the exquisite writing.

7. Vengeance Sewn with Fey Cord by Christine Lucas: This is an almost by-the-numbers fantasy story of revenge, with the only real twist being that the central character plotting the bloody demise of the evil monarch is a seamstress. There is nothing really wrong with the story, but there isn't a whole lot that makes it stand out either. The evil Queen Thelda is a pretty standard issue evil queen with a fairly standard issue evil Lord Commander who pops up into the story a number of times. At the outset of the story Saya, the vengeance-seeking seamstress, informs the reader that she is going to secure her revenge by making a suit constructed from stitched-together animal parts and fueled by fairy magic and then she proceeds to do so. There is even a prophecy provided to guide her in the suit's construction. As far as vengeance-seeking goes, "sewing a terrifying magical animal suit" is moderately original, but given that Saya explains what she is doing in the early going, the actual execution of the rest of the story feels fairly predictable.

8. The Witch's Knives by Margaret Ronald: The shortest of the stories nominated, The Witch's Knives is a fairy-tale inspired piece about love, curses, abuse, and knives. Told from the perspective of Leah, a woman married to a man under a Beauty and the Beast-like curse, the story itself details the final scene in Leah's months-long odyssey to track down the witch responsible for her husband's malady. When she confronts the witch, Leah is convinced that she must only show her love for her husband and the witch will relent, but the conversation doesn't go the way she was expecting, and by the end it turns out that what Leah thought she wanted wasn't actually what she wanted at all. The story uses the curse as a metaphor for an abusive spouse, or at least an incompatible spouse, and the knives in the title feature as a metaphor for letting go of unhealthy relationships. The story's themes are presented alternatively either in much too heavy-handed a manner or much too opaquely, and despite being so brief, the whole never really quite comes together in a satisfying manner.

9. Jupiter or Bust by Brad R. Torgersen: Most of the nominees for the WSFA Small Press award were quite good, with most of the exceptions being stories that one can see what the author was trying to do, even if they weren't able to pull it off in the end. This story, on the other hand, can only be described as lazy and sloppy. The idea behind the story seems to have been an updated version of Robert A. Heinlein's story The Man Who Sold the Moon, only this time the goal of the commercial venture featured in the story is Jupiter rather than the Moon. The story can be broadly divided into two parts. The first part is essentially a meeting, told in excruciating detail. Actually, much of this section isn't even the meeting, it is just the preparations for the meeting, as Debra Galston, the inventor of a revolutionary new thruster, is set to meet with a pointlessly mysterious potential benefactor. After a midnight telephone call that begins with an entire paragraph describing someone picking up a telephone, the story lurches into detailing just how many seats there are in the conference room and the arrangement of the pads of yellow paper and pens on the table. At one point Galston inquires as to whether she might ask who she is meeting with and is met with a smirk and a "you may ask" in response. The big reveal is that the benefactor is a Ted Turner analogue who wants to finance Galston's new space ship with a reality television show. This is kind of an interesting idea, but it is presented in the middle of so much pointless fluff that it almost gets lost. The second part of the story is the construction and launch of the Jupiter-bound ship. This part comes complete with the requisite number of jabs at NASA and ESA, but the real let-down here is that the science in this somewhat hard-science story is so sloppy: As an example, at one point a basic high-school level error crops up in the text in a description of the effects of constant thrust. These sorts of signs of simply sloppy work crop up at a number of points in the story, and give the feel that the writer just didn't care enough to check. This is where the comparison to The Man Who Sold the Moon really hurts this story, because no matter what other flaws one might think Heinlein had as a writer, he would never have mailed in the details of a story like that. The mission turns out to be a failure, which is something of an interesting twist, although it fails due to a pretty basic engineering oversight and by the time I got to that part of the story all of my interest had already been dissolved away by the author's apparent indifference. There is a good story to be had with the idea of the commercial exploration of space, but this isn't it.

2016 WSFA Small Press Award Winner: Today I Am Paul by Martin L. Shoemaker (reviewed in 2016 WSFA Small Press Award Voting)
2018 WSFA Small Press Award Winner: TBD

2017 Hugo Award Finalists

2017 WSFA Small Press Award Nominees     Book Award Reviews     Home

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