Thursday, July 16, 2015

2015 Hugo Voting - Best Short Story

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. All of the nominees in this category, including the one nominee who withdrew from contention, 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 nominees is quite poor, ranging from mediocre down to absolutely miserable. My ballot in this category was as follows:

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.

Goodnight Stars is an interesting story about a young girl named Lucy dealing with the immediate aftermath of the unexpected destruction of Earth's Moon. The twist is that her mother was working at an installation located on the Moon, and in the chaos following the disaster, it is at first unclear if her mother survived or not. The story starts while Lucy is on a camping trip with her friends, when her boyfriend Jack informs her that the Moon has been destroyed and the armed services are calling up every reservist they can. Soon the group packs up to head home, and Lucy, with Jack and their friend Heidi in tow, says that they should stay away from the coasts and head to her father's farm in Montana. Their other two friends head off elsewhere, never to be heard from in the story again. The trio drive across the western American states, encountering the dangers one might expect on the road during an almost apocalypse, including a death of a character that is almost predictable from the start of the story, and finally Lucy gets to her chosen destination. The story is mostly about letting go - as she travels, Lucy sheds first one set of friends, and then another, and finally travels the last leg alone, all the while trying to come to terms with the fact that her mother is almost certainly dead. Other than the destruction of the Moon, the plot elements somewhat routine - a gas station almost out of gas, a roadside encounter with some thugs, and so on - but the characters are well-drawn and the writing is good giving everything that happens enough emotional impact to keep the reader engaged. While this isn't a great story, it is definitely not a bad one.

I don't know how I would have voted for Goodnight Stars had it remained on the Hugo ballot. It is a serviceable enough story, and is certainly better than any of the stories that are currently on it, but given that this is the weakest collection of Best Short Story nominees in Hugo Award history, I'm not sure if being a serviceable story that is better than this year's Hugo competition would have been grounds for placing this story above "No Award".

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.

Maggie's remains - specifically her brain - are transferred to Allied Neuro Associates, her former employer, and she discovers that she is now living as a brain in a jar and is part of the same project she had worked on when alive. After she manages to communicate with her former research partner Raymond by alternatively thinking of happy and disgusting thoughts, they work together to hook up her auditory and visual nerves so she can see and hear (although oddly, Raymond doesn't seem to even consider trying to provide her with a method of communicating better than the clumsy "yes" and "no" signals through the fMRI that he cobbled together). When this task is completed, Maggie's inevitable decay becomes pronounced enough that she asks to be shut down and the story ends. And that is what prevents this story from being anything more than merely average - after setting up the brain in a jar research, English simply doesn't do much of anything with it. There's not even any real hint as to what the objective of the research is supposed to be other than "can we hook up audio and visual receptors to a brain in a jar". Maggie suggests that Raymond had talked about a project involving Alzheimer's disease, but there's no indication how the research in the story might apply to that. Further, Maggie is kind of a colorless and uninteresting character, focused almost entirely on her work, with only a little bit of nods here and there to the fact that in life she was the mother of two boys. As a result, when her mental faculties begin to degenerate, there isn't really much reason for the reader to care. In the end, Totaled is a passable treatment of the subject, but isn't anything particularly memorable.

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.

The real problem with the story is that it simply doesn't do anything interesting with its ideas. The revelation that a person's "soul" can live on after death is treated as a matter of almost complete indifference by the characters in the story. The journey itself is related to the reader in a fairly cursory manner, with the chaplain making the journey on a segway. At one point it is suggested that the portion of the departed that remains trapped on Ymilis isn't really the same as the "soul" in the sense that Joe's journey is destined to end in nothingness, while both he and the chaplain believe that Joe's "real" soul has ascended to Heaven. But the idea of apparently soulless ghosts wandering the planet is treated as a triviality. The story has some other weaknesses - the prose is flat and bland, and every character seems to have a hair trigger temper, even the chaplain who snaps and snarls at the base administrator over minor issues - but the truly disappointing thing about this story is that it had such a big idea at its heart, and then simply left it sitting in the middle of the floor like a dead fish.

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.

What prevents this story from being particularly good is that it is so blandly and poorly written. None of the characters mentioned in the story even have names, being referred to merely as "monks", "my father", "our lord", and so on. The country the kaiju is trampling isn't even given a name, and the thousands of people it has supposedly killed are simply a nameless, faceless mob. Even at the climax of the story, the region threatened with imminent destruction is merely referred to as "major landholdings". Every element of the story is so vague and colorless that there is no real reason for the reader to care about any of it. Not only that, the plot is almost entirely lacking in action: The samurai climbs the kaiju. He fights some catlike demonic creatures. He climbs the kaiju some more. There are a few flashbacks to tell the reader how swords are forged and how samurai commit ritual suicide. The samurai kills the kaiju and then dies himself. One would think that the story of a single man facing off against an immense monster might be made interesting, but in Diamond's hands it is almost tedious. Finally, the story is told in first person, in the past tense. The only problem with this is that the narrator dies in the end, alone. So one has to wonder who, exactly, is he supposed to be recounting this story to? Is he talking to himself? If so, then several of the passages make no narrative sense. Is he talking from the afterlife? Given the use of the intensely personal first person viewpoint, why are all of the descriptions of people, places, and events so bland and vague? There is a rough outline of a decent story here, but it is so unpolished and underdeveloped that one has to wonder how it got approved for publication in this state.

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.

The short shrift given to characterization extends well-beyond the lack of attention given to why an inhuman AI would turn against its fellow machines. In one passage Taren remarks on the complete lack of a reason for it to have a human crew, pointing out how wasteful it is to do so and yet later, when it is informed that its human crew is to be removed, Taren protests and says it needs them on board. Taren is a wholly machine AI, so it seems natural to expect it to need to research what it means when the formerly human AI Alpha 7 Alpha uses sarcasm, but this seems mildly contradicted by the  fact that Taren had shortly before talked about how it would have raised its eyebrows if it had them, and becomes even more muddled when Taren sends a "one finger salute" to Alpha 7 Alpha later. One would expect that the the AI would either understand the nuances of human interaction, or it would be unfamiliar with them, but in the story the characterization of Taren on this point lurches back and forth with no particular rhyme or reason. In the end, after Taren predictably changes sides, he instructs his new human allies to call him "Benedict", a clear reference to the American Revolutionary War era traitor Benedict Arnold. But not only is the comparison incredibly provincial and likely to be too obscure for any non-American readers, it is completely nonsensical. We are supposed to believe that Taren switches sides for idealistic reasons, finding humans to have value when his commanders did not, presumably finding something important about human "soul" (although the story only gives glancing attention to this point). Arnold, on other hand, became a traitor because the British offered him a bribe sufficient to induce him to do so. One would think, for example, that given the nature of the posited reasons for Taren's switch, choosing the name Saul or Paul would have been a more apropos moniker, but instead, as in most of the story, Rsaza took the clumsiest and most tin-eared option available. Overall, this story is simply a mess, too focused on regaling the reader with descriptions of hardware and not nearly enough attention paid to the reasons the hardware is being used. With stilted writing, stiff and one-dimensional characters, and a paper-thin plot that is spoiled by the title, Turncoat is simply a bad story.

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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