Friday, August 31, 2018

2018 WSFA Small Press Award Voting

As a member of the Washington Science Fiction Association, I may vote on the WSFA Small Press Award. 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 (which seems to be a pattern for the nominees for this award), I went into the voting already knowing who had written it. Eight stories were nominated this year, and as usual with the WSFA Small Press Award nominees, the overall level of quality for the field as a whole was quite high, making voting fairly difficult. Most of these stories are quite good, even the stories I ranked sixth or seventh are still pretty good stories, I just thought that the ones in the higher slots were simply better. My rankings of the stories are as follows:

1. Probably Still the Chosen One by Kelly Barnhill: This story seems thematically aligned with Seanan McGuire's recent novella series that started with Every Heart a Doorway insofar as it focuses on a child who was whisked away to a magical land and then returned to mundane reality. despite the thematic similarity, Barnhill's story takes the idea in a fairly different direction - among other things, Corrina was specifically selected to journey into Nibiru by its High Priests because she was the "Chosen One" who would save them from their enemies the Zonniers, and she was returned to our world in order to protect her from some setbacks suffered by the forces of Nibiru.

The story starts off immediately after Corrina has been returned to our world, and most of the remaining pages detail Corrina's wait until the High Priests of Nibiru return for her and all of the ways she basically schemed and sacrificed to make sure she could stay near the door under the kitchen sink that only she could see. What sets this story apart is how it delves into a deeper issue when it explores exactly what happens when the eleven year old Chosen One grows to adulthood and gains in wisdom and judgment as she ages. This sends the story in an unexpected direction, or at least a direction that the High Priests didn't expect, but it ends up in a very satisfying place. In the end, this is the story of what would happen if the protagonist in a young adult fantasy novel was allowed to grow up and approach the problems they face with an adult perspective, and the end result is a story that is absolutely fantastic.

2. Floaters Can’t Float by Pip Coen: This is a time travel story in which time travel works only one way – into the future. This sounds like something rather mundane, after all everyone is always time traveling forward through time, but in Floaters Can’t Float, the travelers are flinging themselves forward, skipping past the intervening years and landing in the New York of the future. Unfortunately, jumping blindly into the future means that you are likely to end up running into something that wasn’t there when you left, resulting in dead arrivals called variously “floaters”, “clovers”, and “moles” depending upon their method of dying. These time travelers have made New York, now known as the “T-Zone”, uninhabitable save for the handful of archivists who have undertaken the job of cataloguing and cleaning up the incoming wave of corpses and handful of live refugees from the past.

The story itself centers upon Brix, one of the oldest and longest serving archivists who is being interviewed while on the job by reporter Kate Nolan. Brix is cranky and short-tempered, but through Brix's interactions with Kate, Coen paints a picture of the people desperate enough to hurl themselves into the void in the hope of a better future, and the decidedly unsympathetic attitude of the people at their destination. One can sympathize with those who dislike the newcomers – after all the influx of time travelers has rendered New York uninhabitable, but since time travel only works one direction, there is literally no way to warn the voyagers that their journey is hazardous to themselves and others, making the new arrivals morally innocent as well. In an era in which xenophobia seems to be on the rise, this story about time-displaced immigrants looking for a better future and the reactions of those who inhabit the time they are migrating to cuts even deeper than it otherwise might have.

Floaters Can’t Float is ultimately about Brix, but it is also larger than that. There are a couple of twists that seem both unexpected and entirely foreseeable at the same time. At the end, Coen throws in a final curveball that will send the reader back to the beginning of the story as they realize that what they thought they were reading wasn’t exactly what they had read. This is an intriguing, multilayered story that offers much more depth than most stories of this length.

3. The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer: Following the travails of a tiny maintenance bot on a starship, this story unfolds piece by piece, with the scope of the action slowly increasing starting with just the bot, and then its mission, and then some other bots, and then the mission of the other bots, and finally to the human crew and their mission. Each step along the way flows naturally from the last, with the reader’s understanding of the situation growing alongside that of the tiny hardworking bot.

There are some stories that hint at an enticing wider world outside the narrative. The Secret Life of Bots is one of those stories. From the moment the protagonist bot awakens and recites the Mantra Upon Waking, the reader is drawn into the world of the bots and left to wonder about the full extent of the hidden bot culture of which the humans on board the ship appear to be blissfully unaware. Once the story expands to include the human concerns, the reader is left to wonder at the larger conflict that the battered ship is part of: Who the aliens are, why humanity is at war with them, and is there any hope of victory, or at least survival. And finally, the reader is left to wonder about the emerging creativity of the bots, and what that might mean for the future of this fictional world.

In the end, this is an adorable little story about an adorable little bot that just wants to do its best. The element that sets this story apart from so many others is that the painting Palmer has crafted here suggests a much larger world surrounding this story that is both intriguing and inviting.

4. The Cat of Five Virtues by Richard Parks: This is a Japanese inspired fable involving a samurai, his son, a magical cat, luck, and fortune. The story focuses mostly on the young boy Taro, later named Masatoki, and his luck, which extends to benefit his entire family. Taro is guided in the rules concerning his luck by the usually invisible cat, and when the boy suffers a reversal, the cat reappears to give him advice as to how to rectify the situation.

Some stories are pleasant and enjoyable to read, but not really anything more than that. The Cat of Five Virtues is one of those stories. The plot is more or less straightforward: A child is born, favored by the gods. The child is blessed with a gift with restrictions. The restrictions, predictably prove to be too much to sustain the gift, and the child (now an adolescent) embarks on a journey to recover from the setback. There simply doesn't seem to really be anything more to this story other than serving as a pleasant diversion. That's perfectly a okay thing for a story to be, but that alone isn't enough to make a story award-worthy.

5. A Vague Inclination to Please by Brandon Daubs: Told in the form of an extended monologue, this story is essentially an extended confession by an android as it recounts the story of its artificial life. Short fiction must walk a fine line between providing sufficient background information so as to draw the reader into the world being presented, and avoiding overwhelming the reader with so much dry exposition that they get bored. A Vague Inclination to Please teeters off of this fine line in the direction of providing too little background, or rather provides expositional detail too late, meaning that story elements seem to crop up out of left field, blindsiding the reader with twists for which their was no foundation laid. The android, named Amaya, was originally owned by a genius researcher named Mayato, who was working in artificial intelligence. That detail, which motivates almost all of the action in the story, is left out until well after Mayato is dead - until the story is almost over, in fact. The fact that Mayato had disagreements with his former employer, and the nature of those disagreements, are also details that are not mentioned until the story is almost over. In some cases, material like this is left out because the viewpoint character does not know them until later in the story, but in this case, these details comprise most of the motivation Amaya has for all of her actions. Because these tidbits of information weren't introduced earlier in the story, when they do crop up, they feel like they were just thrown in almost haphazardly to justify the flow of the action. There are all of the elements of a pretty interesting story here, but the execution was so flawed that it doesn't really rise above mediocrity.

6. Oba Oyinbo by Jonathan Edelstein: I really wanted to like this story more than I actually did. I lived in Nigeria years ago, in Lagos specifically, so when a science fiction or fantasy story is set there, I always hope that it is a good one. In the case of Oba Oyinbo, this hope was not to pay off. The story, featuring a central character named Mary Ejiofor who is a lawyer and a witch, is serviceable but not really much more than that. The plot is fairly ordinary, involving a murder mystery that leads to a conspiracy to commit a politically motivated assassination, so what marks this story as unique is its setting.

I spent a fair amount of time in Africa, living in three different African countries and travelling to a handful of others, and one of the things about stories set on the continent is that they have to feel right. I can’t really describe the feeling more specifically, but Africa as a whole has a particular feel to it, and each country within Africa has its own particular flavor of that feel. Lagos, Nigeria has a particular feel to it that is recognizable to anyone who has been there, and to Edelstein’s credit, Oba Oyinbo feels fairly close to authentic in this regard as far as I can tell. The only real problem with this is that I lived in Lagos in the 1980s, and the story is set in 1937, so unless Lagos essentially stagnated for fifty years, this shouldn’t be the case. The incongruity is more or less equivalent to that which would result from a film about Al Capone that had the same feeling as Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The story is wrapped up in issues related to colonialism – the one major nod towards the fact that it is set in 1937, when Nigeria was still a colonial possession of the United Kingdom, but even that feels a bit off in the narrative. When the issue comes up directly in the story, the text seems as though the American author of the work is explaining to the African characters how they should respond to colonial occupation. I realize that all of these criticisms are extremely idiosyncratic and specific to me, but they threw me out of the story every time they cropped up.

7. Through Milkweed and Gloom by Wendy Nikel: This is a beautifully atmospheric story about a search for a missing person in a swamp in which people seem to mysteriously go missing on a frequent basis. Hilly, the story's protagonist, lives on the edge of this foreboding bog, and joins in an expedition to search for a missing child, which all of the locals take as a chance to search for all of the people who have gone missing over the years. Though it starts with what amounts to an organizational meeting, with its clipped and efficient cadences, the story assumes a dreamlike quality as the searchers enter the marsh and before too long everything is drenched in the gloomy caprice of faery. The tension and sense of impending doom ramps up over the course of the narrative until everything seems lost. Unfortunately, after this superb build-up, the story kind of fizzles, seemingly skipping ahead to the end of the story in such a hurried manner that one gets the sense that the author just got tired of it and wanted to wrap things up. Through Milkweed and Gloom is a great story for the first eighty percent or so of its run, but that excellence is betrayed by the rushed final act.

8. The Oracle and the Warlord by Karina Sumner-Smith: Even though this story ranked last in my voting, it isn't really a bad story so much as it is a story that feels maddeningly incomplete. The framework of the story is fairly straightforward - a new Warlord comes to the Oracle Sayenne to seek the answer to the perpetual question posed by the ravages of the blight that plagues the land. The entire story is told from the perspective of Andra, Sayenne's assistant and lover. The Warlord arrives, makes gifts, asks her question, and then Sayenne retreats to the waters to find the prophecy, gets rescued by Andra, and then offers her response to the Warlord while Andra contemplates the prophecy she received when she went into the waters to save Sayenne.

The issue is that there really isn't much more substance to the story than that summary. The only real character in the story is Andra: The Warlord is the catalyst for the action in the story, but doesn't even have a name and her only real character trait is that she carries a sword and laser rifle. Sayenne is defined in the story by what she has given up to the waters in order to make prophecies, but doesn't really have much more substance than that. The Blight is described as an omnipresent threat, but it is so ill-defined as to be nothing more than a vague and undefined evil without any real menace to it. Even the temple and the waters that form the heart of the plot are cursorily described. There just isn't anything in this story that gives the world it takes place in any real definition or makes the characters who inhabit it anything more than empty shells.

On a kind of minor note, one element of this story that was bothersome was the persistent use of the word "prophecy" to describe responses that weren't actually prophecies, but were instead answers. This is a fairly petty complaint, especially given the other larger issues I had with this story, but it bothered me every time it came up.

Note: The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer won the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

2017 WSFA Small Press Award Winner: The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon (reviewed in 2017 WSFA Small Press Award Voting)
2019 WSFA Small Press Award Winner: TBD

2017 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon (reviewed in 2017 WSFA Small Press Award Voting)
2019 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: TBD

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novelette
List of WSFA Small Press Award Winners

2018 Hugo Award Finalists

2018 WSFA Small Press Award Nominees     Book Award Reviews     Home


  1. Thanks for your comments on the nominees. Readers might not know that the deadline for WSFA member votes are *before* the announcement of the Hugo winners. So if a story wins both it is due to WSFA members having similar taste with Hugo voters (who are also mostly fans).

    1. @Samuel: That is true. So, for the edification of anyone reading this - the deadline for voting for the WFSA Small Press Award was August 5th this year, which was after the deadline to vote for the Hugo Awards, but before the Hugo Award results were announced.