Hugo Ballot Reviews: Novella
This time I’m looking at the nominees for Best Novella. This category is awarded for a science fiction or fantasy story of between 17,500 and 40,000 words. Click to see what I thought…
John C. Wright, unabashed member of the Sad Puppies, wound up with three stories in this category. The first I read was One Bright Star to Guide Them. The story introduces us to Thomas Robertson, a 40-something year old man who is home from a night at the pubs on the night before he is to move to London to accept a promotion he isn’t certain he wants when he loses his keys in the shrubby by his front door. While searching for them he finds a black cat with an intricate silver key around its neck. This causes him to recall that as a child he and three of his friends were whisked away to an enchanted land where they had adventures, each became the bearer of a magic item, and defeated the dark lord. He had been the Key-Bearer, so he takes up the key again, and soon the cat is talking and explaining the the forces of evil they defeated in the other world have invaded this one, and he must take up the quest again.
I wanted to like this story. No, scratch that, I wanted to love it. As a child I adored books about children who had such magical adventures (The Phoenix and the Carpet, Knee Deep in Thunder, The Weirdstone of Brinsingamen, Half Magic, The Time Garden, not to mention all the Narnia books), and I also like tales that take fairy tales and look at them from an adult perspective (Wicked, Fables, The Stepsister Scheme, et cetera). So if there ever was an audience for this story, it would be me.
If someone didn’t know about the whole business of the Sad/Rabid Puppies stealing* much of the Hugo ballot, they might expect from seeing John C. Wright with three stories nominated in this category alone that he must be a really talented writer! Wright has a talent or two, all right. One is an incredible gift for composing a clunky sentence—particularly in dialogue. “A little drunk I may be, but I am not mad.” What middle-aged English business man in 2014 (which is when the story is set) talks like that?
He also has a talent for lecturing. No, scratch that, outright preaching. And this story does a lot of that. Clearly C.S. Lewis’ Narnia was a major inspiration for this piece (though not the only), and I know some people think the Biblical allegory can be a bit much in Lewis’s work, but it doesn’t compare to the lecturing here. Making one of the evil forces in the modern world be Starbucks (he doesn’t name the company, but he describes the demonic logo of the mermaid with two tails, which was apparently the form of one of the dark gods they fought as children in the other world), with the dialogue of the former child hero who has since defected to the dark side was just a bit on the nose, once you know that about the time this story was written, certain anti-gay organizations Wright has been associated with were having very public hissy fits and calling for a boycott of Starbucks because of the company’s support of Marriage Equality.
Despite the obstacles before him, Thomas does win in the end, though some of the turning points which I think are supposed to be deeply moving were just confusing. And Wright’s penchant for telling everything twice (and almost never showing) didn’t help.
This one is a real stinker. And it’s too bad, too.
Let’s move on to Pale Realms of Shade, also by John C. Wright. This is a ghost story, a ghost story set in the early fifties, that at first seems to be a take on noir detective novels. But it’s not. It’s a sermon. It’s a sermon about forgiveness and guilt. With a lot of really clunky dialog. Whose ending I had figured out by about the fourth page. I also wasn’t able to read it in a single sitting. I couldn’t, it’s just so bad. But I came back to it and made myself read to the end.
Again, not in the slightest bit award worthy!
Let’s move on to The Plural of Helen of Troy, again by John C. Wright. This is a hard-boiled detective story set in a city that exists outside of time. The premise is that time travel happens and creates time paradoxes so often that an entire civilization of time manipulators have evolved. This might sound like an interesting mash-up of Dr. Who, Timecop, and The Dancers at the End of Time, but it’s really just a trainwreck. There are multiple contradictory rules for traveling through time, and that’s important to the plot. And everytime the author write’s himself into a dead-end, the main character pulls an impossible device out of his pocket, gives us a long (sometimes very long) expository dump about it, and uses it to move the story along.
Oh, and as if the moving back and forth in time and the impossible gimmicks weren’t confusing enough? He writes the story backwards, starting with the Afterward, then moving to the End, through some intermissions, until you finally reach the Beginning… but he’s not through, yet, because of course there’s a Prologue!
This could have been a really funny story. I think that’s what he was going for. But, again, incredibly bad sentences and even worse dialogue seems to be Wright’s primary forté. I will say one positive thing about this story: unlike every other piece of Wright’s fiction I’ve read during this endeavor, this is the first one that doesn’t included the phrases “daughter of Eve” and “son of Adam.”
And so I conclude that this is yet another one not worthy of an award.
Getting out of the Wright stories, let’s move on to Big Boys Don’t Cry, by Tom Kratman. This is military fic of a specific sort, hailing back to the bolo stories written by Keith Laumer back in the sixties. In Laumer’s stories, bolos were super tanks equipped with artificial intelligence. The machines were meant to be unstoppable, and they usually were, which made reading a collection of the stories (as I did, since I was too young to have read them individually when they were being printed in magazines) a bit tedious.
But that’s old history, what about this story? Unlike the above reviewed stories, this one wasn’t awful. Which isn’t to say that it’s good. There are a few points where it shows glimmers of being good. One of the problems is that there are three distinct viewpoints in the story: the AI (the self-aware tank in question is named Magnolia, and was called Maggie by her troops in the earlier stages of the war when she carried human troops rather than drones); a fictitious history book written centuries later; and a third-person objective viewpoint. And each change of viewpoint tends to repeat some information you just got in the previous section. This means that a lot of pieces of information are given to you a minimum of three times each.
The history book excerpts spend far too much time explaining on things such as why one piece of technology or another was used. And I think every single excerpt included an anecdote supporting the notion that bureaucrats are often a bigger enemy of any war effort than the actual enemy.
Magnolia is damaged severely in combat, and after the battlefield has cleared, a salvage crew determines that she isn’t worth repairing and must be scrapped. Maggie is still aware during this, and as the crew begins the work of disassembling her, the flashbacks start. Maggie remembers various past battles, and after telling us a bit about them, the third-person narrator steps in and describes the incident in ever more tedious detail.
Another problem the story has that, thanks mostly to the flashbacks, we meet a very large number of military characters who sometimes appear only long enough to get killed. Not one single person in uniform that appears in the story is female. Not one. What? Did this story fall through a time loop from 1950?
The biggest problem is that there was no tension or plot. The problem that confronts Maggie at the beginning of the story is resolved when she is nearly destroyed in combat a few pages later. The event that happens at the end of the story is more of a punch line than a resolution of another problem which was introduced later. That’s why I say the story has no plot. The story has no tension because I knew exactly how it was going to end by the time I reached the bottom of page 7 of the PDF of the story (which, because the first page is a cover, the second page a copyright statement, and so on, is only the third page of the actual story). The story ends on page 60 of the PDF. That’s 53 pages of crap I waded through after the ending was telegraphed.
The reason I knew how it ends might not be entirely fair. Having edited for over 20 years a sci fi fanzine that accepted unsolicited manuscripts, I have read a metric tonne of mediocre military-themed science fiction written by guys (it’s always the guys) who either are still active duty military themselves, or are ex-military. There are only about three plots that any of those stories use, every one of them contains characters that represent a small number of stock mili-fic characters, and they often end with a “twist” that the story telegraphs multiple times long before you reach the end.
If I had received this story for my ‘zine, I would have sent it back asking for extensive rewrites. There are several glimmers of interesting ideas, but it is bogged down with too much detail, too much lecturing, and an utter lack of dramatic tension.
Not awful, but not worthy of an award.
Now we proceed to the final story in the novella category, Flow, written by Arlan Andrews, Sr.. This is another one that started out with some promise. Our young protagonist, Rist, is clinging to an iceberg with several companions (come of whom are family members) on their way somewhere. We learn fairly quickly that he has lived his entire live in a norther arctic like area where the sky is literally always overcast. So he has never seen the sun before the opening scene of the story. We learn that one of the companions is his twin brother, who is more of a thinker and philosopher, while Rist is someone who is much more interested in hunting and womanizing. Though that last part takes a while to confirm. The author is very fond of foreign and made-up words and we get a lot of them, so while the construction of one sentence seemed to imply that the word “wen” meant woman, it’s a while further into the story before it is confirmed.
And that brings me to one of my biggest gripes with the story, but I’ll come back to it. There’s a lot of world building that happens in this story. For the most part, Andrews manages to build his interesting, post-apocalyptic world without bogging the reader down in too many info dumps. Rist and his family are ice traders, and they are transporting an iceberg to the warmlands to trade. And various things happen. Mostly Rist learns about parts of the world he’s never seen before.
And one of those things he has never seen before are breasts. Seriously, this is where everything fell apart for me. A character who, in the opening paragraphs, boasts about how good he is at chasing—and catching!—attractive women. Other characters later comment on Rist’s prowess with the lady folks. Except they keep calling them wen and referring to them as if they are an exotic species of songbird. We learn later that the word for women is literally a shortening of the word “wench.” And once they reach the warmlands, our hero is very confused at the odd upper shape of the wens there, and asks a companion why they have such odd muscles. The companion laughs at his ignorance, and explains that the wens of the warmlands have many other secrets.
There is an argument that could be made that humans in this post-apocalyptic world had bifurcated into subspecies, one of which has become like most other mammals on the planet, where female members only have noticeable mammary glands while they are actually nursing. But in a pre-technological society as described in this story, women are going to breast feed their children until somewhat later ages than we tend to now, and there has to be a higher birthrate if the population is going to keep up with the higher death rate that comes with that lack of medical technology. So it is very difficult to believe that Rist has never seen a woman with breasts before. Particularly since, as mentioned before, he’s supposed to be such a womanizer!
The other problem is that a significant character point is that Rist feels “strangely attracted” to these odd upper body growths, and he doesn’t know why. Again, if his tribe/subspecies/what-have-you lacks female breasts, he will not have been conditioned to react to them. It just makes no sense, no matter how you look at it. At least not within the story.
Almost no female characters are given any dialogue throughout the tale, and no personalities to speak of. Besides the other issues mentioned before about how a womanizer doesn’t know that women have breasts, yet he immediately becomes obsessed with them once he knows. There’s a line of dialogue from one of the older men late in the story that sums up the way the women are treated throughout, “Tonight, it’s cold potato brew and warm wen for all.”
It reminded me of conversations I’ve had with some artist friends about certain other fan artists one sees in convention art shows and with big portfolios of prints for sale in dealer’s dens of said conventions. The only thing these other artists seem to draw are naked female characters, but it is clear when you look at their drawings that they have never seen a real live gal naked. One of the characteristics a lot of those artists share is that each breast of each woman they draw is much larger than that woman’s head. And they act more like helium-filled balloons that have been attached to the character’s body than real breasts do.
The final resolution of the story didn’t make sense to me. Rist’s decision to embrace the religion of the people who were trying to kill him just doesn’t add up. At least the resolution is due to the protagonists’ own actions, which has sadly not been the case for so many of the stories I’ve reviewed in this process.
The mechanics of the writing are not bad. There is a plot that is resolved by the protagonist. The extensive world-building is more interesting than distracting. There is a lot of potential here. But there is also so much that is deeply, deeply wrong.
Definitely not award worthy!
* The Sad/Rabid Puppies object to this characterization. They were just recommending entire slates, they say. Nothing they did was against the rules, they say. Which is exactly what cheats, grifters, and confidence men say when they are caught exploiting a system. Voting an entire slate clearly violates the spirit of the awards, which is supposed to be voting for the works you personally thought were the best of the year. Recruiting mens rights activists and Gamergators who aren’t regular readers of SF to vote these slates in order to stick it to the Social Justice Warriors pushes it even further into the dirty deed category.