Thursday, July 31, 2014

2014 Hugo Voting - Best Novelette

I am a supporting member of Loncon 3, which is the location of this year's World Science Fiction Convention. Because of this, I was eligible to vote in this year's Hugo Awards. The Best Novelette category had the widest disparity between the best nominee and the weakest nominee, with three very good nominees clustered together at the top of the quality scale, a mediocre entry well behind them, and a really awful entry bringing up the rear. My ballot in this category was as follows:

1. I debated with myself for a long time before picking The Waiting Stars by Aliette de Bodard as my top choice (actual finish, 3rd), because while it is an excellent story, so are the next two nominees on this list. In the end, however, de Bodard's tale of misguided benevolent imperialism, and the reaction to it, won out over the competition. The story is actually two stories, woven together that eventually dovetail together at the very end. In one, two Dai Vet named Lhan Nen and Cuc seek to recover the mind ship that held their great-aunt's mind, braving the automated defenses of the Galactic Federation's trophy graveyard that all of the destroyed mind ships were cast into after the Dai Vet lost a war to the Galactics. In the other, a young girl named Catherine grows up in an Institution run by the Galactics along with dozens of other Dai Vet children, apparently displaced by the war between their cultures. The story makes clear that the Galactics think they are doing what is best for Catherine and her classmates, but at the same time, the story makes clear that the Galactics are destroying their charges despite their best intentions. As the story comes to a close, it becomes clear that the Galactics not only hid Catherine's past from her by erasing her prior memories, they deprived her of a family, and her place in her own society, and wrapped it in a collection of lies to convince the children, and apparently themselves, that what they were doing was justified. Even to the end, Catherine's boyfriend Jason desperately tried to justify the erasure of her memory by saying it was necessary to save her life, to save her body. And de Bodard pulls no punches here: Despite the fact that Jason clearly loves Catherine and thinks that what was done was the best of a collection of bad options, the magnitude of the monstrosity that Jason is excusing is brutally apparent. And the brilliance of the story is that this sneaks up on the reader - I couldn't even see how the two story lines related to one another for much of the novelette until they forcefully crashed into one another, and then their connection seemed like it should have been obvious all along. The actions of the adults running the Institute seem suspect from the start, but when the duplicity and immorality of their program is finally revealed, it is something of a shock. This is an unsettling story, but it is unsettling in the best possible way.

2. The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal (actual finish 1st) is a devastating and yet uplifting story that focuses on aging, loss, and hope. Elma York is the titular lady astronaut, long past her glory days who now lives on Mars with her dying, beloved husband Nathaniel. Elma still keeps her name on the astronaut roster despite her advanced age, and thus she needs regular physicals, which puts her in contact with a doctor named Dorothy who Elma had briefly met in Kansas when Dorothy was a young girl living on a farm with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. Dorothy seems to have been inspired to travel to Mars by her meeting with Elma, and the paper eagle Elma gave her. But when the story takes place, both Elma's youthful triumphs and Dorothy's childhood misfortunes are far in the past. Just when Elma has resigned herself to never traveling in space again and it seems as though she will be left with nothing but her memories, she is approached with an opportunity that poses and agonizing choice: Travel in space again on a dangerous but critical mission, or stay with Nathaniel as he slowly withers away. Elma ends up making the choice that everyone, including the reader, knew she would make- pointing herself towards the future rather than the past, heading for new adventures rather than drowning in old memories. At times the interweaving of references to the Wizard of Oz is a bit too precious, but even so The Lady Astronaut of Mars is a sublime story that reminds us that even if we get old, we don't have to give up the things that fuel our dreams.

3. Of all of the stories nominated in this category, The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling by Ted Chiang (actual finish 2nd) has the most interesting science fiction idea. Or rather, the most interesting long-running idea that we treat as being uniquely a feature of the modern world: How technology changes not only the way we view the world, but us as well. The story is set in a world in which the use of technology similar to the Google glass is nearly ubiquitous and people use it to record the everyday events of their own lives. A new product is being introduced, titled Remem which will allow the user to quickly and easily locate portions of their "lifelog" and replay them. This leads to fears that such technology will allow people to effectively outsource their memories, with presumably bad effects. The main character is a journalist researching for a story about this new technology, and his efforts are interwoven with the story of Jijingi, a Tiv tribesman whose village has welcomed its first European resident, and with the newcomer, the technology of writing. In the first story, our journalist approaches his project with a set of assumptions about what Remem does and what it can be useful for until he runs into something he didn't expect: A recording that directly contradicts what he had thought to be one of his most important memories. In Jijingi's story, Jijingi first resists and then becomes fascinated with writing, eventually trying to use written records to settle a dispute over which side of an argument his tribe should take. Jijingi's efforts are rebuffed, as he is told that the written records might be accurate, but they don't comport with the memory that the tribe considers to be right - an interesting distinction between veracity and correctness. On the other hand, our journalist, faced with the records dredged up by Remem, has to confront the fact that the image of himself that he has constructed doesn't match the reality of his past, and doesn't match the image others around him have. The story delves into the dueling subjects of records and memory and shows how they conflict, and more importantly, how each are necessary to human existence.

4. No Award (actual finish 5th): For reasons that will become apparent below, if none of the three stories listed above wins the Best Novelette award, then I don't think either of the two remaining nominees should.

5. There's nothing much wrong with The Exchange Officers by Brad R. Torgersen, (actual finish 4th) but there's nothing particularly memorable or original about it either. The story takes place in a future where NASA has been shut down and the United States' interests in space are protected by a joint program run by the U.S. Navy and Air Force. Warrant Officers Dan Jaraczuk and Mavy Stoddard, from the U.S. Army and Marine Corps respectively, are part of an exchange program placing officers from those services into the joint Navy and Air Force space program. The story bounces back and forth between showing Jaraczuk and Stoddard training to operate the robots that they will use to do orbital construction all the while marveling that these sorts of jobs were done by Ph.D.'s when NASA was putting Americans in space, and using those robots to fight off a Chinese attack on a partially completed American orbital installation. Eventually Jaraczuk figures that he and Stoddard cannot win the fight and puts the platform on a collision course with Earth so as to deny the Chinese their prize. The story is competent and reasonably good, but it doesn't have anything that makes it stand out from the dozens of other stories that feature in magazines like Asimov's Science Fiction or Analog Science Fiction and Fact every year. The story essentially amounts to standard issue military characters having standard issue conversations before dealing with a standard issue military situation in a standard issue manner. Torgersen executes the story well, but there really isn't anything here that is substantially different from what authors like Heinlein, Drake, and Pournelle were doing thirty or forty years ago, and they weren't getting nominated for awards for those stories. The upshot of this is that while The Exchange Officers is a decent enough story, it is not a Hugo-worthy one.

6. While The Exchange Officers is merely mediocre, Opera Vita Aeterna by Theodore Beale (writing as Vox Day) is truly awful (actual finish 6th, behind "No Award"). Beale manages to combine writing that lurches between clumsy and over the top purple prose and turgid tedium with characters that are little more than bland stereotypes who inhabit about as generic a fantasy world as one can imagine. Not only that, the story is almost nonexistent, serving as little more than an excuse for Beale to fumble about trying to make what I'm sure he considers to be philosophical points. The primary problem is that even (or perhaps especially) when he is putting the words in the mouths of characters who are supposed to be on both sides of a theological debate, Beale can't manage to make the result anything other than incoherent mush. The story, such as it is, involves an elf who shows up at a pseudo-Catholic monastery in a generic fantasy world looking for religious enlightenment. Despite everyone being certain the elf has no soul, he decides to stick around and learn the scriptures of the pseudo-Catholic church by making an illuminated copy of them. After laboring for decades, the elf goes on a short trip to buy some more writing supplies and wine only to discover that the monks have been slaughtered by goblins in his absence. Things then jump forward centuries where a new initiate marvels at the anonymously made illuminated copy and the story ends. It is clear that the author thinks he is making insightful points throughout, but these range from laughably silly to merely uninteresting, in no small part because the characters are so one-dimensional that there's simply no reason to care. To sum up, this story is badly written, has a soap-bubble flimsy plot, and features characters who aspire to be uni-dimensional. This story should have never come within light years of the Hugo Awards, and it rests quite securely at the bottom of my ballot.

2013 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi by Pat Cadigan
2015 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Day the World Turned Upside Down by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (translated by Lia Belt) (reviewed in 2015 Hugo Voting - Best Novelette)

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novelette

2014 Hugo Award Nominees     Book Award Reviews     Home

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