Hugo Ballot Reviews: Short Stories
The awards are supposed to be about the artistic merits of the nominated pieces, right?
The WorldCon committee hosting each year’s awards traditionally assembles packets of either electronic copies of the nominated works, or excerpts (whichever the publisher will allow) to send to all voters. The Hugo Packets have not been sent out yet (but may show up any moment) so I’ve been locating the short stories that are available on-line to read (Much thanks to the Adventures in Reading blog for gathering all the links in one place; I wish I’d found this list much earlier). Other folks have been posting reviews as they read the stories.
So in this post, I write a short review of each of the short stories available on-line…
First up, “On A Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2, Nov 2014).
Most of my sci fi/fantasy editorial work has been in fanzines, rather than prozines. But let me just say that when stories of this quality were submitted to any of the amateur ‘zines I worked on, they were sent back with massive notes about what would have to be fixed in a re-write before we would consider it for publication.
The story does not begin with a hook. If I didn’t feel an moral obligation to read the tale before casting my Hugo ballot, I would not have read past the third paragraph. The entire first third of the story is an expository dump about the planet and the small human base on it, but not even that much is explained. All we really know is that there are big aliens, a very powerful magnetic field, and when a sentient being dies on the planet, the ghost is trapped by the magnetic field.
There is also no dramatic conflict. Which is the very minimal ingredient for something to be a story. This is deeply ironic, since one of the propaganda lines frequently repeated by the Sad Puppies is that they just wish the award would go to “cracking good tales.” In actual cracking good tales, a dramatic conflict is a problem or obstacle that confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, that is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end, and is that thread the ties the events that happen between the beginning and the end together. The only conflict the protagonist ever faces is a very brief reluctance by the base commander to let him requisition a piece of equipment. And that is overcome about three lines later, not by the protagonist’s actions, but by the ghost scaring the commander (by knocking a file folder off her desk).
The situation has all sorts of opportunity for conflict. The protagonist (the chaplain for this remote military space settlement) could wrestle with the moral implications of dissipating a sentient being. Not that we have much evidence that the ghosts are sentient. We are told it responded by nodding its head to indicate yes or no to the protagonist’s questions. The alien claims to tell us things the ghost is communicating.
The protagonist never makes a convincing case for dissipating the ghost. It seems to be the case that the protagonist thinks that maybe the human’s soul won’t get to heaven if this isn’t done, but the very wordy exposition leading early on made a compelling argument that the ghost is not the same thing that the protagonist’s religion would call a soul. I was much more bothered by the alien cleric urging our protagonist not to let the ghost know that they were taking him to be dissipated. Why wouldn’t you tell the ghost? Maybe because he wouldn’t want to be annihilated?
I have no trouble putting “On A Spiritual Plain” below No Award. Not only is it not a Hugo-worthy story, it doesn’t rise to the level of bad fanfic. It is not even a story.
Next up: “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House).
Okay, this one is a fable, which have different conventions than the classic “cracking good yarn.” Specifically, the dramatic conflict takes the form of a mystery for the reader to uncover, rather than necessarily one that is resolved by the characters in the story. The allegorical animals in this story are confronted with a mystery, and they do eventually solve it, after a fashion. Long, long after I had, which made it heavy going to get to the end only to confirm I had guessed correctly.
This kind of story seldom appeals to me, no matter who writes it—unless it is very brief. Rudyard Kipling’s just-so stories come to mind. I’m going to extend a bit more generosity in acknowledging that this story was part of an anthology that Wright put together to illustrate the various parts of the calendar, so he had placed himself in something of a straightjacket.
Even with those mitigating circumstances I can’t say this is a good story. The story is not brief; it is the opposite of brief. At several points during the story I was impatiently waiting for the author to quite finding more flowery ways to say what had just said a sentence or to earlier and move to the next point. The appeal of this sort of story for some is the mood and the atmosphere with all of the details building up to a dramatic revelation. A lot of H.P. Lovecraft stories are like that, and I get very impatient with those, as well.
The story makes an enormous number of allusions to biblical mythology (some of them fairly obscure). But the number of allusions had piled up to the point of giving the ending away by about the middle of the story to even a former Southern Baptist like myself. While in this sort of puzzle story you, the reader, want to guess the ending before the characters do, you also want to be uncertain you are right until almost the very end. And the only thing I was certain of by the time I reached the ending was that this story had not been worth my time. And it certainly is not worthy of being above No Award.
So next up is: “Totaled” by Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, July 2014).
Thank goodness! Finally a story that has a hook. The opening drew me in and made me want to know what happens next. Big improvement. If I had read this story earlier in the year, I would not have liked it well enough to nominate, but I can’t say it is a horrible story.
I also can’t say it’s a great story. It dragged a bit in the middle. Not a single turn of the plot caught me by surprise. Not to mention the Saturday morning cartoon’s notion of how science and scientists work. Still, not horrible, and compared to the other others I’d read, that in itself was an enormous relief.
And then we have: “Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House).
This one did have a dramatic conflict, although it wasn’t introduced until more than 1900 words in. That’s not good in a 6000-word tale. And even then, when the moral dilemma is introduced, the narrator/protagonist shrugs it off with a comment that, “it’s technically illegal, but we don’t recognize galactic law.” And proceeds to commit mass murder.
The story has a hook, again giving it a leg up over Wright’s and Antonelli’s entries, but it has an annoying tendency to long infodumps. The protagonist barely interacts with any characters until another thousand or so words into the story. The dialog that ensues doesn’t reveal the protagonist’s personality, and the other character is a caricature of a villainous commanding officer. The protagonist, who is the narrator, comes across as a cardboard cut-out of a by-the-book order-following soldier through the first two-thirds of the story, then transforms into a cliché action hero who gets the job done by cutting corners and bucking authority—with only the barest of hints why. The transformation from obedient soldier to rebel just happens in between a pair of sentences, with no set up.
There were also a number of places where clumsy writing bounced me out of the narrative. When the secret communique comes in from headquarters, for instance, it is rendered as a dialog, but I had to read it all the way to the end, and then literally count back “the last line is the narrator, so the one before is headquarters, so the one before that is narrator…” and so on to figure out who was talking to whom. There was no identifier as to who was speaking until the end. Well, there is. The first line uses the narrator’s name, except that is the first time we are told his name.
It doesn’t help that this story repeats a problem that used to drive me crazy in the writing of an aspiring writer I knew a long time ago. This other writer had almost a fetish for ethnological names, so she would have her protagonist introduce herself to another character with a line something like, “My name is Supercalifragilisticespaladocious Steinmiller-LaGravenese Chasseur. The surname is 18th Century Hugenot. But you can call me Sue.”
Similarly, the narrator in this story (who is an artificial intelligence) has an incredibly long string of digits and letters as his full name. Which we are not told until almost the very end. He is called by a sort of nickname throughout the middle. But, as I mentioned, it is introduced in a way that causes confusion.
There were a few mistakes of a physics/science nature, though one is a common cliché mistake made in countless space opera-ish movies and TV shows. But those things always bounce me out of the narrative for a moment.
I have absolutely no problem placing this one behind No Award.
Summary of the Short Story Category
I can’t find “A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen) on line, so that will have to wait for the packet. But of the others, three are dreadful in one way or another, and the fourth isn’t bad, but I have a hard time saying it represents “excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy.”
Unless “A Single Samurai” is significantly better than all these others, I suspect I’m going to vote No Award for this entire category.
Update: And of course, the day I post this, the Hugo Packets become available to download…
Update 2: “A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond was in the packet, so I got to read it.
The story was not bad. The premise is that a giant monster is attacking Japan, crushing everything sent to stop it, and one solitary samurai is climbing the monster’s back hoping to find a means to stop it. The monster is not described, other than to mention that it is the size of a mountain, literally. There are forests and creatures of many kinds living on the monster’s back.
The story does have a clear obstacle or problem facing the protagonist at the beginning of the tale. Unfortunately, the hero wins the day by accidentally falling into a hole inside the monster’s skull and then, for absolutely no discernible reason, decides that if he kills himself while next to the brain the monster will die with him? Technically the plot is resolved by the hero’s actions, but the author never makes us believe that it makes sense for it to work. There’s also a completely pointless battle with some other creatures whose only purpose seems to be to up the word count a little.
The story never made me believe in the character or understand his personality enough to actually care whether he was the one who defeated the monster. Like many of the others, the only reason I kept reading it until the end was that I felt obligated to read it before casting my ballot.
Hardly an award-worthy story, in other words.