Hugo Thoughts: Short Stories
Next on the Hugo ballot, I thought I’d look at the short fiction nominees. Four of the five stories are available online, and the fifth is included in the just-released Hugo Voters Packet.
There are no nominees who weren’t part of the puppy slates/bloc voting. As before, I’ve noted where each nominee was part of the Sad Puppies (S), Rabid Puppies (R), or both slates (SR).
- “On A Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli (SR): The strong magnetic field of the planet Ymilas preserves human and Ymilan souls. The infodumping of the first three scenes felt like it needed some serious rewriting. The dialogue was also rather stiff. Our protagonist takes the first human colonist’s ghost on a pilgrimage to help him move on in the afterlife. There’s reference to the polar magnetic field looking like the eye of God, a temple built like Stonehenge “with the dimensional ratio of 1: 4: 9–the Golden Mean.” Heavy-handed (and in that last quote, factually incorrect), but a nice sense of closure at the end as our protagonist settles into his new role of guiding human souls on their final journey. Also, Antonelli introduces the idea of a Faraday Segway, which is a potentially fun idea.
- “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright (R): A tale of talking animals, Christian myth, and the end of Man, all presented in a rather stilted formal style. (The Lion greets his fellow animals with a “Twilight of Man, forsooth?”) There’s nothing in the way of action, and the plot is basically the animals trying to figure out what happened to Man’s last city, and what they should do and become now. There are a few nice lines, but it feels like Wright was trying way too hard on this, and ended up with a pale imitation of C. S. Lewis.
- “A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond (S): A samurai has to find a way to kill a kaiju the size of a mountain. I liked the core idea here, the lone warrior who’s less than a mite on a giant, slowly scaling the monster’s body and searching for a way to stop said monster from destroying his homeland. But it didn’t have the depth I look for in an award-worthy story. Nor did I get a real sense of the character or world. Our samurai could have been any samurai, with special swords, references to honor and duty and hara-kiri, and a contraction-averse voice to denote formality.
- “Totaled” by Kary English (SR): This was one of the most original ideas/stories on the ballot, about a researcher named Maggie, whose brain is preserved following the death of her body. We follow her “awakening” and realization that she’s in her own lab, and her efforts to communicate her awareness to her partner Randy, and to help complete their work on the bionet. Maggie’s brain is slowly giving out, and we get a kind of Flowers for Algernon decline over the course of the story. It’s better than most of what’s on the ballot this year, but I’ll have to read it again to decide whether I think it’s Hugo-worthy.
- “Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa (R): The first two sentences give a good sense of what you’re in for with this one. “I am a knight riding to war. My suit of armor is a single Mark III frigate, a body of polysteel three hundred meters long with a skin of ceramic armor plating one point six meters thick.” I ended up skimming much of this story about posthuman warships moving to wipe out humanity, and Taren X 45 Delta’s choice to turn against his(?) kind to protect the humans: “Our superiority is certain. However, we are the side killing those who have surrendered and laid down their arms. Are we zealots purified by the righteousness of our cause? Or are we ungrateful children, jealous to the point of patricide?” The ending picked up a bit, but the whole thing feels overwritten, and there’s not much new here. The Message is blunt and unoriginal.
No Award will be scoring pretty high in this category. That doesn’t mean I think all of the stories are bad. (Though I don’t think they’re all good, either.) But it’s one thing for a story to be competent or interesting or fun. It’s another thing for that story to be award-worthy, for me to consider it one of the best things published in the past year. Four of these stories don’t clear that bar for me, and the fifth I’ll have to think about a little more.
May 19, 2015 @ 10:03 am
Your description of “A Single Samurai” sounds like a novelization (storyization?) of “Shadow of the Colossus.” Great game, but your character is opaque, there’s no real world-building, and you are a tiny warrior climbing giant beasts looking for the vulnerable spot.
I could read the story out of morbid curiosity to see if I’m right, but eh, lotta work for Puppies.
May 19, 2015 @ 11:52 am
I tried to read all 4 of the stories that were available before the Voter’s Packet came out. IMO, “Totaled” was the best of those 4, and well written enough that I actually choked up at a couple of points while reading it. “On a Spiritual Plain” was OK; I thought the concept of the ghosts sticking around interesting, but all in all the story didn’t really draw me into it. I found myself skimming dialogue initially and then having to go back and reread, and that’s never a good sign.
“Turncoat” and “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” I attempted to read but couldn’t finish. “A Single Samurai” I haven’t read yet, since it wasn’t available prior to the packet. I’ll take a look at it tonight.
May 19, 2015 @ 3:18 pm
That was exactly what I was thinking. Video game fanfic. Although the game probably causes more genuine emotion than the story.
May 19, 2015 @ 3:21 pm
“Totaled” was pretty good. There were a few really touching moments. But I don’t know as it’s Hugo-worthy, or even nomination-worthy.
May 19, 2015 @ 5:08 pm
“Totaled” would have been more interesting if written before “Flowers for Algernon.” I thought of two possible things she could have done with the story when I was a few paragraphs in, and she did one of them (I prefer it when I cannot do that). It is professionally written, it has no surprises, and no new insights. It feels like something I’d have found in 1970. Not bad, but on The Hugo ballot? For the others, I think you are harsher toward “Turncoat” then toward the others (or perhaps I should say, kinder to the others than toward it), but I would agree, they do not clear the bar.
May 19, 2015 @ 5:53 pm
I also thought Totaled was the best of the lot, though I haven’t read the samurai story yet.
But I wouldn’t put Totaled above No Award. 1) It’s a Puppy pick–it didn’t get on the ballot fairly and 2) it won’t be facing four Hugo-worthy stories, the way it would have if it had made the ballot in a normal year. It seems to me that putting it above No Award is voting to give it a Hugo in spite of the fact that it has no decent competition.
It’s like _The Day The World Turned Upside-Down_. I don’t like it that much but in a normal year I don’t know that I’d have voted it below No Award. If it won, that would mean the Hugo Voters Had Spoken. As it is, it is facing only Puppy Picks, not four Hugo-worthy competitors. That’s not a fair contest. If I thought it was truly excellent I’d put it above No Award regardless, but I don’t.
May 19, 2015 @ 7:58 pm
I agree with Cat Sittingstill. I had the same thought about “The Day The World Turned Upside-Down.”
Jim C. Hines
May 19, 2015 @ 8:02 pm
I think Turncoat is partly a matter of personal taste. I figured sharing those lines would give a good idea what the story was like, and if that’s the kind of thing someone enjoys, great! But for me, it’s not.
I was struggling a bit with how to talk about these stories. I don’t have the time and energy to do a full-fledged review of everything, but I wanted to get some thoughts and info down about each one. Hm … I’ll just say I wasn’t *intentionally* being harsher toward “Turncoat” than certain other stories.
Jim C. Hines
May 19, 2015 @ 8:05 pm
Haven’t read “The Day the World Turned Upside-Down” yet, but I definitely get what you’re saying. Part of my struggle is going to be deciding for myself what nominees, if any, actually earned their place on the ballot through their own merits and strengths. And not only that, but like you said–is it excellent enough to deserve to win?
May 20, 2015 @ 1:28 am
I can’t say I know much about Hugo Awards and their politics and whatnot, but I can say that holy crap the first two stories bored me to tears. Totaled, however, I enjoyed very VERY much. I don’t know what deems something worthy of an award or not, but I do know that Totaled had me riveted and entertained, and I flat out cried at the end.
Turncoat reminds me of the sorts of crap my crappy ex-stepfather liked to write in his free time: super militaristic extreme sci-fi that’s impossible to relate on a human level to (intentionally!). I couldn’t finish it, it was too triggering to read it because of those memories.
To Sail Beyond the Doghouse 5/19 | File 770
May 20, 2015 @ 3:10 am
[…] “Hugo Thoughts: Short Fiction” – May 19 […]
May 20, 2015 @ 7:15 am
Fair enough. Every Hugo voter will be making their own choices in this and I didn’t intend to suggest that your reactions must track with mine.
It’s a more difficult year than usual when it comes to voting “okay but my socks remain on” work above No Award.
Jim C. Hines
May 20, 2015 @ 7:31 am
Likewise. I’m sorting through my own decisions about how to vote, but I’m not going to try to tell anyone else how they should or shouldn’t vote, especially this year.
May 20, 2015 @ 10:23 am
please remember if you think that a story should be “below NO AWARD” then you need to make sure those stories do not appear on your ballot at all.
1. NO AWARD
2. ” Totaled”
That’s it! If NO AWARD doesn’t win the category by getting a majority of votes then your vote will go for “Totaled.” If that doesn’t win then you will not have contributed a vote to any story that you feel does not deserve to win from doing so.
Jim C. Hines
May 20, 2015 @ 10:34 am
Not exactly. Whether or not you include other stories below NO AWARD depends on whether you have a preference as to which of those stories wins, assuming an award is given out. Your example would vote first for NO AWARD, and if that doesn’t win, then for “Totaled,” and if neither of those win, then it’s basically saying you have no opinion among the remaining nominees. Which is fine, but if you do still have a preference, you can note that as well.
Kevin Standlee has a good summary at http://kevin-standlee.livejournal.com/1440530.html
May 20, 2015 @ 11:11 am
A minor nitpick: This is the Short *Story* category. Short *Fiction* is a broader term usually used to describe all three of the shorter categories: SS, Novelette and Novella.
Jim C. Hines
May 20, 2015 @ 11:13 am
You’re right. Tweaking the title now…
May 20, 2015 @ 12:16 pm
I found “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” sticky and unpleasant reading, a heavy, languid, overwrought, self-important, heavy-handed action-free Sunday school lesson with only a single female character who was a metaphor for inconstancy.
Good grief, give me Harlan Ellison again.
May 20, 2015 @ 12:32 pm
My approach for the short fiction, which I recall seeing at least one person mention previously, is going to be to assume anything I think isn’t better than my favourite works of comparable length in Gardner Dozois’ Best of the Year anthology that weren’t nominated doesn’t deserve it’s place on the ballot and should go below No Award. Going by past anthologies, that will be a high standard but in the situation the puppies have brought about, I can’t simply assume everything on the ballot got there on merit.
May 20, 2015 @ 2:40 pm
Heh, I came here to say the same thing. It reads exactly like that, only less… exciting? The game has a real sense of inevitable doom to it.
May 20, 2015 @ 2:42 pm
I agree that “Totaled” is the best of the lot, but I don’t think it’s really up to getting a Hugo. I found a short story that I’m using as my 2014 standard. It not only has emotional impact, it has excellent wordsmithing, pacing, characterization, plot, suspence, etc. Here’s a link to “Covenant” by Elizabeth Bear
Richard A. Lovett
May 20, 2015 @ 7:13 pm
Read the story that was pulled from the ballot. “Goodnight Stars,” I think it was called. I’ve not read the Samurai story yet, but “Goodnight Stars” was the best of the original lot.
“Parliament” suffers not just from comparison to C.S. Lewis. I’m not really sure what theological point Wright was trying to make with it. I like theology, but came away with a sense that he’d taken a semi-intriguing concept and gone nowhere with it. Just an example: there comes a time when the animals feel naked, and ashamed of it. That’s a direct allusion to the story of the Fall, but in Genesis, that comes after the Fall. So Wright is saying the animals are now fallen…but it’s not at all clear why.
The story is full of things like that.
Sorry if there are typos. iPhone–hard to edit.
May 22, 2015 @ 4:52 pm
I haven’t read any of these, won’t. (Not a Hugo voter and short stories aren’t my bag.) From the capsule, I thought “Totaled” would probably be the least unreadable – and at least it had a female protagonist – EXCEPT that (holy women in refrigerators, Batman) she is not just bodily dead, she is *disembodied.* I am inclined to flip the whole concept and make it a MAN who is disembodied, with a female scientist trying to pin his consciousness to the wall.
May 24, 2015 @ 3:07 pm
I will compare “Totaled” and “On a Spiritual Plain” to the stories I nominated and if they are not equal in quality it seems fair to put them below no award. Look at the Locus Award nominees and compare quality, the Puppies don’t seem to have it. The three others on the ballot obviously don’t make it.
May 24, 2015 @ 3:13 pm
Not quite. No Award also has a second chance. The final process of elimination winner has to rank higher than No Award on all the ballots. See the Standlee and other explanations.