Tuesday, July 26, 2016

2016 Hugo Voting - Best Short Story

I am a supporting member of MidAmeriCon II, 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 but one of the finalists in this category, including the one finalist who withdrew from contention, were drawn from with the Rabid Puppy slate. Continuing with their usual pattern, 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 their selections is quite poor, ranging from mediocre down to a story that is in contention for the title of worst Hugo finalist of all time. Fortunately, the one non-Puppy finalist is a delightful breath of fresh air in comparison. My ballot in this category was as follows:

1. Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer (reviewed in Clarkesworld: Issue 100 (January 2015)): Stories about spontaneously developing artificial intelligence are not new, and are, in fact, a well established science fiction trope that has been written about dozens, if not hundreds, of times. However, most such stories are about malevolent manifestations of artificial intelligence such as that found in Ellison's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, or infallible and benevolent artificial intelligence, such as that found in Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress or Asimov's The Last Question. In Krizter's story, the artificial intelligence is benevolent, but it is a bumbling, somewhat clueless kind of benevolence that tries to help the people it likes. Unfortunately, it does so awkwardly and often unsuccessfully due to its inability to understand that what humans say they want is not always what they are willing to put effort into getting, or even what they actually want at all. The persistent misunderstandings are played up to humorous effect, resulting in a story that is both insightful and comic. Humor is hard to pull off well in genre fiction - efforts to write funny genre fiction stories often simply fall flat when saddled with all of the other elements that such tales have to include, but Kritzer executes this adorable and quirky story perfectly.

2. No Award: Every story below this mark is being left off my ballot entirely. I considered putting Space Raptor Butt Invasion on my ballot after No Award based upon how the online persona Chuck Tingle has embraced the controversy over the story's nomination and turned the narrative against the Rabid Puppies, but the more I thought about this, the more I realized that this was not a particularly good reason to elevate a mediocre story onto my ballot. One should be clear that the stories I have ranked third and fourth here are merely mediocre, while the story I have ranked fifth falls well behind them in terms of quality. The story ranked sixth is absolutely terrible, and ranks with some of last year's Puppy choices as one of the worst finalists in Hugo history. Not only should it have never been voted onto the Hugo ballot, but it should have never been published and both of its authors and its publisher should be sent to bed without supper and grounded for a month like the petulant children they obviously are.

3. Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle: Half of Space Raptor Butt Invasion is a moderately interesting science fiction story. The other half is a pretty dull piece of erotica that three decades ago would have been an inventive but ultimately bland Penthouse Forum entry. Told in the first person, the story focuses on a narrator named Lance, who along with his partner Officer Pike is one of a pair of astronauts on the distant moon of Zorbus charged with overseeing a terraforming project. In a casual mention, the two reveal that Earth is dying and the projects they and other similar teams are engaged in are the hope for mankind's continued survival. Unfortunately, budget cuts mean that Pike is to return to Earth, leaving the narrator on his own to care for the installation.

Pretty much as soon as Officer Pike has left Zorbus, Lance sees another space-suited figure. Given that he is supposed to be the only human on the moon, this causes some concern, but he puts his observation aside as a hallucination until the mysterious stranger shows up outside the station's airlock. Once he lets the newcomer inside, he discovers that his surprise companion is named Orion and is actually a velociraptor. Orion explains that dinosaurs didn't die off, but rather left Earth for more friendly environs, eventually settling on Earth Two. With nothing better to do, the two decide to spend some time together, and eventually end up having a fairly by-the-numbers sexual encounter, with the only thing that makes it even remotely interesting being that one of the pair is an intelligent dinosaur. Oddly, the two have a brief discussion before the sex scene in which they agree that because it is a cross-species encounter it isn't actually gay for the two to have sex. Overall, the story hints at a background that seems far more interesting than the rather desultory erotica that was actually delivered.

4. Asymmetrical Warfare by S.R. Algernon: Told as a series of dispatches from the perplexed perspective of an alien commander leading a war against humanity, Asymmetrical Warfare relates the confusion of the regenerating apparently starfish-like aliens when confronted by the non-regenerating humans. In transmission after transmission, the unnamed commander describes the course of the war, and their ever-failing attempts to cajole the human corpses into regenerating: First strewing them on the beaches, then observing human funeral services to determine that humans might regenerate when buried, or perhaps regeneration is triggered by a musical cue. The invaders eventually figure out what they are getting wrong, but it seems to take them a ridiculously long time to come to the correct conclusion. Some stories expect the reader to accept that one or more characters are simply dim in order to make the plot work, but Asymmetrical Warfare expects the reader to accept that an entire race sophisticated enough to cross interstellar space and successfully invade the Earth is too dim to bring some biologists along to study the opposition. Aside from requiring this somewhat large leap of faith, there isn't anything particularly wrong with this story, but there isn't much substance to it either. Asymmetrical Warfare doesn't seem like a story in itself so much as it feels like the a prologue providing backstory for the actual story.

5. Seven Kill Tiger by Charles W. Shao: In Seven Kill Tiger, Zhang Zedong, a horribly racist Chinese corporate manager, decides that the problem with the operation he manages in Zambia is that the local populace is, in his opinion, made up almost entirely of lazy criminals. His own criminal behavior is, of course, excused as being just the normal kind of criminality that is acceptable, but crime committed by black Africans is presented as an indictment of the entire race. To solve this "problem", Zedong cooks up a plan to create a targeted virus that will kill only black Africans, because as our racist protagonist muses early in the story "Africa would be a glorious place were it not for the Africans". As offensive as this story is, the weakest part is the bland writing. Other than his venal greed and racism, Zedong has no discernible personality. None of the other characters who show up in the story are well developed enough to really justify being referred to as a "character". In a story entirely focused on dehumanizing black Africans to stigmatize them as a gang of criminals and rapists, there isn't even a specific African character mentioned, let alone given a name.

Even that doesn't fully account for how weak this story really is: The science and economics as presented is pretty much nonsense. Despite Zedong's "problem" being essentially local to Zambia, the virus he arranges to be created is intended to kill off most of the population of the African continent, which seems like quite a bit of overkill to say the least. The problem is, black Africans are the most genetically diverse collection of humans in the world, so creating a virus genetically engineered to  only target black Africans seems somewhat implausible - and that is without even considering the possibility that such a virus would mutate in unexpected ways once it was released into the populace. An American researcher is assured that this virus poses no threat to the majority of the U.S. population while being threatened into cooperation, but one has to wonder what sort of social and economic chaos would result from the death of eighty percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, and how that would negatively affect the entire world even if one accepts the ridiculously optimistic Chinese view that the virus could be contained to the black African population. This story is so poorly thought out, and so weakly written, that the only thing it contains of note is the nakedly racist protagonist at its heart, and one has to wonder at the incompetence of an editor who thought this was worth publishing.

6. If You Were an Award, My Love by Juan Tabo and S. Harris: It seems somewhat odd not to have a blandly written story in which an explicitly racist protagonist executes a plan to commit racist genocide at the bottom of my rankings, but as clumsy and poorly written as it is, Seven Kill Tiger actually makes a stab at being a story. If You Were an Award, My Love doesn't even make the effort to be a story, but is rather the equivalent of a group of poorly socialized seventh-grade boys scrawling childish and obscene graffiti on a locker room wall. Ostensibly this is a parody of Rachel Swirsky's If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, a beautifully written prose poem that was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2014, but Tabo and Harris' effort is so badly written, and so misses the point of Swirsky's story that dignifying it with the title of "parody" is entirely misleading. There are the obligatory mean-spirited jabs at the usual targets of the Rabid Puppies, but there is nothing here except mean-spiritedness - no humor, no satire, and no point. This "story" is trash, and nothing more.

2014 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere by John Chu (reviewed in 2014 Hugo Voting - Best Short Story)
2015 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: No Award
2017 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: TBD

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Short Story

2016 Hugo Award Finalists     Book Award Reviews     Home

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