Tuesday, July 21, 2015

2015 Hugo Voting - Best Novelette

I am a supporting member of Sasquan, which is the location of this year's World Science Fiction Convention. Because of this, I am eligible to vote in this year's Hugo Awards. Four of the nominees in this category were drawn from with the Sad Puppy or Rabid Puppy slates. The Puppy slate-makers seem to have not particularly cared about how good the stories they were promoting were, and consequently the overall quality of the Puppy nominees is quite poor, ranging from bland and mediocre down to bland and terrible. The remaining non-Puppy nominee is merely mediocre. My ballot in this category was as follows:

1. No Award (actual finish 2nd): As with the other short fiction categories in the 2015 Hugo ballot, the Best Novelette category simply does not have any nominees that are worth voting for. The most damning evidence against the quality of the stories in this category is that several of them were drawn from Analog magazine, and none of those stories were even the best story in the issue in which they appeared. Quite bluntly, if a story isn't the best story in the publication it appears in, it has no business being on the Hugo ballot. The only story I actually bothered to rank after putting "No Award" down was The Day the World Turned Upside Down, which took the number two spot. The remaining stories weren't even good enough to be worth ranking on my Hugo ballot.

2. The Day the World Turned Upside Down by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (translated by Lia Belt) (actual finish 1st): A magical realist story with metaphors that strike the reader like large heavy objects, this is the best of the 2015 novelette crop of Hugo nominees, and yet it is still sadly disappointing. After the callow protagonist Toby breaks up with the love of his life Sophie, he is lying about moping on his couch when gravity reverses itself and everything begins falling upwards. The world turning upside down is a brutally heavy-handed metaphor for Toby's own love-life, but as the story progresses, just how much of an awful person Toby is become more and more apparent, making the metaphor seem terribly out of place. Much of the story revolves around Toby's attempts to prove his love by returning Sophie's pet goldfish to her, although some of the specifics of his efforts show that Heuvelt really has no idea how to take care of a goldfish since, for example, immersing one in 7-Up as Toby does would certainly kill the creature in short order. The goldfish is also a metaphor - this time for Toby's love for Sophie, but it is rather too apt, as it is something that Toby can possess and cling to, much as he tries to possess and cling to Sophie. After he completes his journey, Toby reveals himself to be a pretty nasty person who doesn't actually regard Sophie as a person, but rather an object to claim for his own. Sophie's feelings aren't important, in his view she owes it to Toby love him, because he worked so hard to get her goldfish to her. Eventually, he slinks away while sulking and in a decision laden with symbolism, sets Sophie's goldfish free and then sets out to climb down a rope ladder in search of a new life.

Toby's entirely objectionable character is not the only problem with this story. The science of gravity's reversal is inconsistently applied in ways that simply make no sense. Anything that isn't nailed down falls into the sky when gravity turns, but somehow the Earth's atmosphere stays. Buildings and trees improbably cling to the Earth's surface, their foundations and roots somehow able to support their great weight while upside down. Somehow there are thermals to hold up a hang glider, which seems odd since there is nowhere for a thermal to come from. And so on. Some elements are clearly meant to be magical, such as the fact that rivers and lakes seem unaffected by the changed gravity. Others, however, seem to fall into the same category as the goldfish dumped into a bottle of 7-Up: Heuvelt simply didn't bother to think through the implication of his story and ask the next question. The end result is an unpleasant and silly mess of a story centered on a jerk of a protagonist who spends almost the entire story doing little but whining.

3. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium by Gray Rinehart (actual finish 4th): Some stories only work because almost everyone in them is an idiot, with one person being very slightly less of an idiot, and as a result figuring something out and becoming the hero. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium is almost the Platonic ideal of this kind of story. Set on a planet humans have chosen to call Alluvium, the story focuses on the elderly Keller and his friend Cerna, both of whom live in the human colony that twenty years before was taken over by the lizard-like alien Peshari who treat the humans more or less like intelligent pets. Keller is dying and has hatched a secret plan to infuriate the Peshari in the hope that this will cause them to abandon Alluvium, or at least leave the human colony to its own devices. After evaluating some rather obvious clues from Peshari architecture, folklore, history, and mortuary practices, as well as how they react to certain things humans do as a matter of routine daily life, Keller determines that the Peshari have a taboo about being underground, and sets about making his own funeral arrangements to violate Peshari sensibilities. The problem is that the trail of clues Keller follows is so clearly marked that one has to wonder how it is that no one else figured this out in the two decades since the Peshari arrived to subjugate the humans. In short, the story only works by assuming that all of the other settlers in the human colony are incredibly dumb and incurious. This isn't the only issue the story has - one is left wondering how a human colony has been allowed to be out of touch with Earth (or any other human settlement) for twenty years without anyone checking up to see if anything is wrong, or why the Peshari had killed Jean Lynn, the person who had made first contact with them, and why they regarded her death as making her someone worthy of bestowing high honors upon. Having unanswered mysteries in a story is not a problem in itself, but having unanswered mysteries in a story that seem much more interesting than the mystery that is the core of the story is a substantial distraction, making the reader think about how much better the story could have been, as opposed to how bland and gray the story being told actually is.

4. The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale by Rajnar Vajra (reviewed in Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXXIV, Nos. 7 & 8 (July/August 2014)) (actual finish 3rd): Another story that only works because every character in it but the protagonist is an idiot, Triple Sun has the advantage of being an actual story. Unfortunately, it is not really a very good story. As I noted when I reviewed it as part of the July/August 2014 issue of Analog, the central mystery of the story seems so ludicrously easy for the main character to solve that it seems implausible that it eluded the explorers who had been studying the issue for twenty years. Triple Sun also includes several attempts to raise the stakes of the story, but they fall completely flat, serving only to fill pages without actually increasing the narrative tension. Although this is a moderately diverting story, it simply isn't anything more than that, and that just isn't good enough for the Hugo Award.

5. Championship B’tok by Edward M Lerner (reviewed in Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXXIV, No. 9 (September 2014)) (actual finish 6th): Unlike the stories ranked above, this story isn't actually a story. It is, instead, a fragment of a larger story that has no real beginning, no real plot, and no real ending. The only thing this story has going for it is Lerner himself, as he can write fairly well and is able to come up with some interesting ideas. The villainous snake-aliens, their customs, and culture are interesting, and their briefly mentioned attempt to invade the Solar System seems like it could have made for an enjoyable story, but Lerner doesn't make effective use of these elements nearly often enough to make up for the disjointed and incomplete plot. Had Championship B'tok been a complete story, it might have been able to rank higher, possibly even above "No Award", but given that it was presented as the dismembered remnant of an actual story, it is simply not good enough to be worthy of a Hugo nomination, let alone a Hugo vote.

6. The Journeyman: In the Stone House by Michael F. Flynn (reviewed in Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXXIV, No. 6 (June 2014)) (actual finish 5th): Like Championship B'Tok, this story is an incomplete fragment of a larger story. Unlike Championship B'tok, this story is not particularly well-written and doesn't have any particularly interesting ideas. Featuring an incredibly macho but terribly bland and boring protagonist who is disinterested in the events taking place around him, there is not really much reason for the reader to care what is happening either. There isn't much to say about this tedious exercise in padding out some pages with pointless recitations of historical military tactics other than it is a pointless and plotless fragment that doesn't make the reader want to find and read the missing portion of the story.

2014 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal (reviewed in 2014 Hugo Voting - Best Novelette)
2016 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu)

2015 Hugo Award Nominees     Book Award Reviews     Home

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