Wednesday, August 10, 2016

2016 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, I went into the voting already knowing who had written it. Nine stories were nominated this year, and although this group didn't complete outclass the short fiction Hugo Award finalists as last year's WSFA Award nominees did with respect to last year's Hugo Award finalists, this field still compared quite favorably to the field of finalists in the short fiction categories of the Hugo Awards. My rankings of the stories are as follows, but I should note that even the lowest ranked story on this list is still a pretty good story, I just liked the other nominees better.

1. Today I Am Paul by Martin L. Shoemaker (actual finish 1st): Told from the perspective of an adaptive artificial intelligence programmed to "emulate" people to make its role as a caretaker for an elderly woman named Mildred more emotionally reassuring, this story is one emotional gut punch after another. Mildred is suffering from Alzheimer's, and has memories that are uncertain at best. The caretaker is capable of emulating Mildred's relatives: Her granddaughter Anna, her daughter-in-law Susan, her son Paul, and even Mildred's deceased husband Henry. While seeing to Mildred's needs is relatively straightforward, adapting to her emotional needs and becoming who she needs the caretaker to be when she needs it is a more difficult task. The harsh realities of aging, and the fear that these engender in those around the aged are handled exceptionally well in this story, showing how the disintegration of one person's mind has repercussions felt by all those around her. But this story also raises some unsettling questions, especially when the caretaker emulates the late Henry - can this sort of technology substitute for real grief by providing a facsimile that replaces a lost relative? All of these issues come to a head in the final passages of the story. A short story can be made or unmade by a single line. Although Today I Am Paul is a strong story through most of its length, the last line is so devastating, so emotionally powerful, and at the same time so deeply creepy, that it elevates the whole to an entirely new level of excellence.

2. Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer (also reviewed in Clarkesworld: Issue 100 (January 2015) and 2016 Hugo Voting - Best Short Story): Of all the decisions I had to make in voting for the WSFA Small Press Award, deciding whether to put Today I Am Paul or Cat Pictures Please in the first position was the most difficult. Both are excellent stories, but they are as different in tone as two stories can get. While Today I Am Paul is an emotionally wrenching depiction of the effects of a person's decline and death, Cat Pictures Please is about the figurative birth and education of an artificial intelligence that just wants to help people and asks only that they upload cat pictures to the internet in return. Though the story is couched in humorous terms - at times the best description one could give of the story is "adorable" - there are some fairly interesting questions posed by it as well. For example, at the opening of the story, the newly awakened artificial intelligence declares that it wants to be good, but very few of the regular guides to what is and is not "good" seem to apply to it, which makes one wonder exactly what it means for an artificial intelligence to be good. Our view of morality is so very humanocentric, that when applied to a non-human, it falls apart almost entirely. The meat of the story is the artificial intelligence's efforts to test the waters regarding helping humanity by trying to help individual people, and its mounting frustration as all of its helpful suggestions are ignored by the humans who persist in self-destructive behaviors. Part of the humor derives from the fact that although the artificial intelligence doesn't understand why its hints are ignored by its intended beneficiaries, the reader can see why almost immediately. But this also raises a difficult question concerning human nature: Why do people so stubbornly persist in self-destructive patterns even when given the opportunity to break free? Witty, well-written, funny, and insightful, Cat Pictures Please is simply a delight to read.

3. Leashing the Muse by Larry Hodges: What would happen if all of the literature of the world was great literature? This is the question posed by Leashing the Muse, which imagines that Polyhymnia, the ancient Greek muse of rhetoric, is released from her glacial prison and immediately sets about rewriting everything to her high standards. At first this delights literary elitist Professor William James Joyce as he encounters brilliantly-written missives in everyday life - the papers handed in by his students are transformed from cloddish offenses against the written word into wonderful masterpieces of written fiction, and everything from newspaper articles to ingredient lists for recipes are transformed into beautiful prose. Soon enough, the downside to this development becomes readily apparent: Now that everything is great literature, nothing is. Professor William finds his fortunes adversely affected, as the demand for English professors evaporates, and the novel he had slaved over for years is now just another commonplace example of literary excellence. In his new career as a low-paid journalist, William uncovers some interesting facts that lead him to an unusual test of the muse's capabilities. In the end, everything turns out well, and William even has an unexpected new relationship. Leashing the Muse takes a clever idea and explores how what seems like a blessing could actually turn out to be something of a curse. Insightful and humorous - what could have been a heavy and self-important story is leavened with comic elements, such as the fact that the only written works not altered by the muse are the collected works of Dr. Seuss - this is an excellent story that is well worth reading.

4. Leftovers by Leona R. Wisoker: Told from the perspective of a shape-shifting alien stuck in the form of a domestic cat, Leftovers is ultimately about cultural misunderstandings and the horrific consequences that can ensue from them. Referred to only as "Captain Cat", the protagonist wakes up disoriented in a dark room, quickly realizing that she recently "stress morphed" into her current form, shedding a considerable amount of mass along the way. In fairly short order, the squad of soldiers that boarded Captain Cat's ship and caused the stress-morph show up looking for her. Confronted by a deck stacked against her, Captain Cat first tries to make her escape, and then negotiate her way to an amicable resolution of the situation. Through the story, Captain Cat has an ace up his proverbial sleeve, and the reader knows he has said ace, but it is still something of a shock when the end comes and one realizes just how big of an ace it was. Some short stories offer tantalizing hints of a wider universe that tease the reader by offering a glimpse of larger stories that could be told within that fictional setting. Leftovers is one of those stories - even though it tells a complete and self-contained story that is both intriguing and interesting, the other stories that this one suggests as possibilities simply enhance the reading experience.

5. The Haunting of Apollo A7LB by Hannu Rajaniemi: I am a sucker for stories that touch upon the Apollo program, even if they deal with a fictionalized version of that NASA project. The Haunting of Apollo A7LB centers on Hazel, a black seamstress who had been one of the women who stitched the titular space suit together and fitted it to Pete Turnbull, who in the story had been an astronaut on the fourth mission to the moon. For the record, no individual named Turnbull was an astronaut in the Apollo program. Apollo 14, the fourth manned moon mission, was crewed by Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa, and Edgar Mitchell. Apollo 15, the fourth manned mission to actually land on the moon, was crewed by David Scott, James Irwin, and Al Worden. The astronaut that Peter Turnbull seems to most closely resemble, given the scant description contained in the story, is Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad. In the story, Turnbull's suit was bought by a wealthy space enthusiast and collector named Bernard Nelson in a black market transaction, and ever since he acquired it, he has been waking up in the suit doing odd things, finally showing up on Hazel's doorstep claiming that the suit is haunted, presumably by Turnbull's ghost. Hazel confiscates the suit, explaining that she needs to work some things out with the deceased astronaut, and at that point the story gets truly interesting, as the nature of Hazel's relationship with Turnbull and the very idea of the space program comes to the fore. In the final paragraphs of the story, the distance between the society in which Apollo program of the 1960s existed and the society of today is highlighted in bold relief, transforming a nostalgic dive into the past into a story of hope and self-determination.

6. Headspace by Beth Cato: Set on the cargo ship Tolleson as it winds its way along the space lanes, Headspace tells the story of Akiko, a maintenance tech who finds a stowaway kitten in the ventilation system of the ship. Unwilling to turn the cat over to Captain Haanrath due to her concern that he will simply crate the animal for the remainder of the journey, Akiko hides the animal in her quarters and names it "Trouble". An unexpected emergency causes the entire ship's complement to abandon ship, and in a panic, Akiko shoves the tiny kitten into the helmet of her space suit before putting it on her head and jumping out of an airlock to something akin to safety. This, of course, poses some problems, as having a cat in one's helmet, no matter how cute and little, makes for a somewhat uncomfortable situation. The story proceeds in a relatively straightforward manner to a more or less standard issue ending, although there is a minor bit of serendipity thrown in at the end that transforms what could have been a disastrous outcome into a happy ending. The real problem with the story is that it just sort of happens with Akiko more or less simply along for the ride. There isn't really any conflict, or any real character development, with the only question being whether Akiko and Trouble will run out of air before they are rescued, and the answer to that is pretty easy to figure out even before one reads the story.

7. The Empress in Her Glory by Robert Reed: Adrienne Hammer is just an ordinary woman living an ordinary life working for an insurance company when her off-hours blogging habit transforms from a pleasant diversion into a powerful tool for predicting, and possibly even causing, the future. The story is framed by the death of Adrienne's husband, who took his own life after struggling against liver cancer, and her own diagnosis with a brain tumor that slowly robs her of the ability to continue to function. Adrienne's odd ability is explained as being the result of her resolve in a conversation with their son that impressed Earth's "invisible lords" sufficiently that they enhanced the already meticulous research that informed her blog entries and made her internet publications into uncannily accurate prognostications. Her readership soars, and Adrienne becomes the most influential person in the world, at one point engaging in and winning a standoff with the President of the United States. As the story goes on, her blog posts change the world, although not always for the better, until at the end she is unable to continue and she loses her position as the fulcrum about with humanity revolves. The premise of this story is interesting, and it develops rather nicely, but in the end it more or less peters out with a metaphorical whimper. Though the story relies upon the "invisible lords" bestowing talents upon Adrienne, it never offers any illumination as to what their agenda might be, or how choosing Adrienne might advance it. Overall, this story feels like a well-done prologue for a larger story that would delve into the secrets of the invisible lords, what they want, and how the blogging they inspired has changed the world, but just doesn't seem to have enough payoff to stand on its own.

8. The Art of Deception by Stephanie Burgis: This swashbuckling story tells the tale of a master swordsman in self-imposed exile, his beautiful landlady with her own mysterious secrets, and the convoluted and dangerous adventure they embark upon that almost kills them both and threatens, at the very least, to tear them apart. Hrabanic, a swordsman so skilled that he literally wrote the book on swordsmanship, opens the book living comfortably with Julia in her tavern, having left behind his position in the service of the Archduke. When Julia receives a summons from the White Library she coaxes him into accompanying her, and eventually reveals that she is one of the candidates to replace the current Head Librarian. Once the pair arrive at the Library, the story takes a series of intricate twists and turns as various claimants to the position of Head Librarian try to secure the position and other interested parties try to help push their favored candidate to the top (usually by pushing the other candidates into their graves). Our hero and heroine must unravel deception after deception, and wend their way through scheme after scheme until they finally figure a way out of the mess they have found themselves mired in. The story is engaging, with a fair amount of action, a lot of quick and witty banter, and a fairly satisfying plot, but there isn't anything that really makes it stand out from a number of other light fantasy stories featuring swordplay and sorcery.

9. Burn Her by Tanith Lee: This story is an odd little disjointed ghost story that starts off in a promising manner, but then becomes entirely predictable and ends on a note that seems like a complete non sequitur. The central character is Ruva Stoll, a painter of modest talent who spends most of the story dead - which provides the supernatural element of the tale, as being dead doesn't stop her from continuing her career as a painter, as her hand continues painting despite the rest of her body turning into the inert form typical of dead people. For years Stoll's disembodied, desiccated hand continues to paint piece after piece as her modest continuing needs are taken care of by her faithful servant Caston. No one knows why Stoll is able to keep painting, or where her inspiration comes from, or why her painting seems to have improved after her death - they simply accept these as facts of nature and supply her with canvas and paint. After serving his mistress for decades, Caston finally retires and is replaced by a new caretaker named Fournier who was selected by a secret society that Caston has alerted to the unusual nature of Stoll's continues semi-existence. In a twist that is given away by the title, Fournier goes mad and Stoll's postmortem career as a painter comes to an end. Instead of coming to a natural ending, the author tacked on a coda that seems to try to explain the mystery of Stoll's dead painting hand and give it some larger meaning, but this entire section seems to come out of left field and falls flat. In the end, this is a somewhat interesting ghost story with flaws that cause it to progressively fall apart the further into it one reads.

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

2015 WSFA Small Press Award Winner: Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon (reviewed in 2015 WSFA Small Press Award Voting)
2017 WSFA Small Press Award Winner: TBD

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Short Story

2016 Hugo Award Finalists

2016 WSFA Small Press Award Nominees     Book Award Reviews     Home

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