21 July 2017

My Hugo Awards 2017 Votes: Short Fiction Categories

My votes for the 2017 Hugo Awards were due last week; over the next few weeks, I'll be going over what I voted in all the various categories (at least, those ones where I did vote). First up is the various short fiction categories. In each category, I'll start with the story I placed the lowest and move up to the highest. I'll provide links when the stories are freely and legally available on-line.

Best Short Story

7. "An Unimaginable Light" by John C. Wright
“To utter certain types of truth is a micro-aggression. It creates a hostile environment we humans find uncomfortable.”
I thought I had a bead on what this story was at first: using Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics to explore how difficult the concept of "harm" actual is to parse in human reactions, even if (as the above quotation shows) it's being written by someone who cares more about agenda than storytelling, and who doesn't try to understand the viewpoints of his opponents. But then in the last few pages it piled on some bizarre, meaningless, incomprehensible twist, and I was like, "Nope, not even misguidedly interesting, just poorly written."

6. "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" by Brooke Bolander
This is my story, not his. It belongs to me and is mine alone. I will sing it from the last withered tree on the last star–blasted planet when entropy has wound down all the worlds and all the wheres, and nothing is left but faded candy wrappers.
This isn't really a story, it's a revenge fantasy: a man kills a woman, but it turns out the woman is some kind of immortal angelic cosmic force, and so she destroys him utterly. I find it weird that the beginning of the story sets itself as rectifying some kind of literary injustice, where heroes and  villains (usually male) get names everyone knows, and victims (usually women) get loving descriptions of their suffering and no names or stories anyone remembers, because our narrator has no name and no story, and is clearly just a fantasy, leaving real victims as anonymous as ever. The story doesn't really fulfill its own mandate.

5. No Award

One criterion I've been using for No Award is considering even if I don't like a thing, to what extent does it make sense to me that someone else would like a thing? So, for example, I didn't get much out of "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers," but I can see how someone else would, so it goes above No Award. But the two worst short stories on the ballot were both things I feel like I would be hard-pressed to understand why someone else likes it. (Even though, intellectually, I know they must, or they wouldn't be on the ballot.) 

4. "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers" by Alyssa Wong
In my grief, I’d nearly forgotten about my sister, and in my absence, my apocalypse had shifted course without me.
The second of the two finalists by Alyssa Wong I read (see "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" below, under Best Novelette), this didn't do much for me, either. A pair of sisters have the power to manipulate the weather and the timelines; when one (who is trans) dies, the other works to change things to save her, but can never get it to work out. Better than the other Wong story, but mostly unmoving. Nice moments here and there in detailing the relationships, and once again, good imagery but it didn't touch me, and the affect of this was clearly supposed to be emotional.

3. "The City Born Great" by N. K. Jemisin
And just to add insult to injury? I backhand its ass with Hoboken, raining the drunk rage of ten thousand dudebros down on it like the hammer of God. Port Authority makes it honorary New York, motherfucker; you just got Jerseyed.
I didn't love this story itself, which was a little too straightforward plotwise, but I loved the concepts it played with. The narrator discovers he's going to be the living embodiment of a city: when cities reach a certain level of complexity, they come to life. The narrator compares it to increasing mass-- a weight on the world, like how a black hole works-- but it made me think of ant colonies and brain cells and flocks of birds and other systems where irreducible complexity emerges from individually simple interactions. The narrator's enemy at one point is a monster made of policemen, which was a potent metaphor for how we try to impose order on complexity we don't like, so that control becomes easier, all James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State-style. (The way the police monster is dispatched is thus particularly apt.) I wish I liked this story more, because I loved Jemisin's concepts.

2. "That Game We Played During the War" by Carrie Vaughn
“The point,” Valk said [...], “is to fight little wars without hurting anyone.”

And there was silence then, because yes, they all had stories.
At first I found it difficult to decide between this and the next story, because they were both pretty good executions of potentially fascinating premises, both of which I just wanted something a little bit more. This story is set after the conclusion of a war between two nations, one where everyone is telepathic and one where everyone is not. A man and a woman who were on opposite sides of the war but forged a friendship in two different prisons (each had a turn as prisoner and as warder) resume a chess game-- a chess game complicated by the fact that the one always know what the other is planning. There are a lot of neat moments, particularly as the chess game draws the attention of those in the hospital where the telepath is recuperating. The last couple scenes is where it really sings.

1. "Seasons of Glass and Iron" by Amal El-Mohtar
“Falling’s easy—it's keeping still that’s hard.”
Two women, both seeming riffs on fairy tale protagonists, meet. One is cursed to keep moving, wearing out magic iron boots to rid her abusive husband of a curse. The other is cursed to immobility, staying on top of a glass mountain because she's so attractive men can't control themselves around her, awaiting the suitor who climbs to the top and wins her hand. The women are both damaged and private, and slowly open up to each other across the course of the story. A little inevitable in what happens (you can probably guess it just from my description), but I like how it shows we can internalize that which oppresses us, and it's beautifully written. At first I though it and "The Game We Played" were pretty much on par, but this story lingered with me in a way the others did not, so the more time I passed, the more certain I was of its placing.

Best Novelette

7. Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex by Stix Hiscock
     A last shriek of pleasure, and my glowing nipples suddenly began to discharge, shooting hot beams of light out from between my fingers and tongue. Blast after blast of energy went bouncing around the room, the crowd roaring even as they scrambled to dodge my sizzling nipple ejaculations.
This is neither a good piece of erotica, nor a good piece of parody erotica (there are times it seems to want to be funny, such as the above, but it doesn't land often enough to be interesting), nor even so bad that it becomes amusing. I do know why this novelette was nominated, but I don't know why it exists to begin with.

6. No Award

I feel pretty comfortable saying that if Alien Stripper won a Hugo, I'd be embarrassed as a voter, which seems like a good criterion for which to rank something below No Award.

5. The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde
     The kingdom is your setting. You are its light.
I could never really figure out how the magic system in this story worked, which is based around magical gems, royalty called Jewels, and faithful servants called lapidaries. The way the magic flowed between these two types of people and the gems remained obscure, which meant the whole story remained obscure, as it meant I could never fully comprehend the relationship of the two principal characters.

4. "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" by Alyssa Wong
This town is just a field of bodies to use as he pleases.
An okay fantasy story about a boy with the power to reanimate dead objects, set in an alternate version of the Old West. The description of the desert is evocative, as is the occasional encounter with the living dead, but this story never really came to life for me (heh heh) for reasons I can't really pin my fingers on. Things seemed to tie up a little too neatly at the end, in ways I found a little too cliché. The emotional relationships the story hinges on never really mattered.

3. "The Art of Space Travel" by Nina Allan
Sometimes I believe it’s the airport itself, and Sipson, both the kind of non-places that keep you addicted to transience, the restless half-life of the perpetual traveller who never goes anywhere.

The idea of settling for anything too concrete begins to seem like death, so you settle for nothing.
An employee at the hotel where the crew of the second manned Mars mission is staying before they head off into space has the opportunity to reflect on her life, especially her relationship with her mother (who is having health problems) and her father (who she never knew). The sfnal elements are pretty minor: the Mars mission is just a backdrop for her story, and I didn't find a very compelling thematic or metaphorical resonance either. Okay for what it is, but it's not trying to do very much within the genre of science fiction.

2. "Touring with the Alien" by Carolyn Ives Gilman
“Your unconscious . . . it’s unreliable. You can’t control it. It can lead you wrong.”

“That’s absurd,” he said. “It’s not some outside entity; it’s you. It’s your conscious mind that’s the slave master, always worrying about control. Your unconscious only wants to preserve you.”
A women with a commercial driver's license and security clearance ends up taking an unusual cargo from Washington, D.C. to points west: an alien visitor to Earth and its human interpreter. The aliens in question lack conscious thought but are still immensely intelligent. It's a little slow to start, but it's in the complications of consciousness that the story really comes to life: Gilman has constructed genuinely alien aliens here, but ones that feel entirely plausible at the same time, and she links them adroitly into the dilemmas that all us humans face, while resisting easy answers. Cool concepts, competently executed.

1. "The Tomato Thief" by Ursula Vernon
(Grandma Harken thought of herself as an old lady, because she was one. That she was tougher than tree roots and barbed wire did not matter. You did not steal an old lady's tomatoes. It was rude, and also, she would destroy you.)
This was the very last thing I read for the Hugos, and as I hadn't enjoyed the last few prose works before it ("An Unimaginable Light," Penric and the Shama, Death's End, Ninefox Gambit), I was beginning to worry I'd burnt out on Hugo reading. Well it wasn't me, it was them, because I loved this. An old lady in a magical version of the American West aims to catch whoever is stealing her prize tomatoes, and ends up discovering more than she expects. A tale with a strong sense of both voice and place, meticulously told down to the smallest detail, both real and imagined. Far and away the best of the novelettes.

Best Novella

6. Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
“He is very patient. Well, he would have to be, wouldn’t he, to work his art in a medium that takes more than a man's lifetime to complete.”
I never got into this story. Partially, there's a lot of backstory to absorb at the beginning, as this is the second is a series, and Bujold isn't very new reader friendly; it took a lot of (confusing) time for me to work out the relationship between Penric and his demon. Partially, the mechanics of magic in this world are very complicated, which might be useful if you're writing a series, but I felt like I was drowning in technical detail sometimes. Unfortunately, the plot is really based in such magical minutiae more than anything else. And partially, the characters just didn't ever grab me. I'm not sure why I am supposed to care about Penric based on this story in itself. He didn't really face any interesting challenges or do anything particularly noteworthy.

5. A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
     Aqib felt now as he had all throughout childhood: that everyone was moving deftly within norms long established, confidently speaking in terms already defined, but that no one had remembered to clue in poor little Aqib.
This started very strongly, with a romance between two men, one a minor royal from a homophobic vaguely Arabic culture, the other a legionnaire in a somewhat more open vaguely Roman visiting society. Wilson's writing is evocative, both culturally and characterfully, and the romance is very sweet, very convincing, and very real. After the first third, though, I started to lose the thread of it all and got confused as it became very jumpy. I think I worked it all out by the end, but my emotional investment had been damaged too much to recover. It's possible this is my fault, not the story's (I was a little distracted while reading parts of it), but that's the reaction I had and it's too late to change it.

4. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaVelle
What was indifference compared to malice?
Like the next story on this list, The Ballad of Black Tom is a rewriting of an H. P. Lovecraft story from the perspective of an Other, in this case a black man from Harlem. I guess there's a bit of a Moment right now? I enjoyed the first half of the story a lot, despite that a number of the details remained frustratingly obscure (and I don't think they were meant to, though maybe I wasn't reading carefully enough, as I did read most of it on a plane). Tommy himself, the world he comes from, and the world he enters into are all sketched out very compellingly, and I liked the contrast of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the horror of being black in a racist world. The second half of the book I found less interesting, though the climax was pretty strong. Perhaps, like Dream-Quest, if I'd read Lovecraft's original I'd've been more into it, but I still enjoyed it.

3. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
     “Our world has no sweep, no scale,” Carter said. “No dark poetry. We can't get to the stars, and even the moon is hundreds of thousands of miles away. There is no meaning to any of it.”
     “Do stars have to mean anything?”
In an alternate world, a world that is a dream of our world, a middle-aged professor at a women's college goes on a quest to find a runaway student, one who's run off with a man with the intention of getting into our world, and whose flight endangers the stability of the college. There are some bits of this that are quite good, as Johnson is an evocative writer, and I really liked how the end came together, but even for a journey narrative, there's a big chunk of the middle that is very free of incident. I may have gotten more out of it if I'd read the Lovecraft which it is reworking, but I still enjoyed it and got a lot out of it, just not enough to rank it highest.

2. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
     “Going back” had two distinct meanings at the school, depending on how it was said. [...] The duality of the phrase was like the duality of the doors: they changed lives, and they destroyed them, all with the same, simple invitation. Come through, and see.
If this book had been as good as its premise, it would have been amazing; it might have got the top spot. The book is about a boarding school for kids who have traveled to fantasy worlds through portals (think Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in Oz, the Pevensies in Narnia) and returned home and are having trouble adjusting. The first third of the novel is just a delight, as Nancy (our protagonist) settles into the school and meets the other characters, and we as readers learn how this milieu work. There are a lot of nice touches, such as what happens when fairies abduct a girl to fairly land, but that "girl" turns out to be a trans boy assigned female at birth. But one-third of the way through, the plot turns up, and it's a murder mystery, and the book turns a bit wobbly: some details didn't quite line up, some information is belabored, and I didn't buy the actions of the headmaster. (It felt like the book needed another edit.) It was still enjoyable, and I zipped through it because I couldn't put it down, but I wanted the whole book to be as good as the bit before the plot began. A somewhat mundane story with a compelling premise. I'd read more books with this premise, though (and they are coming).

1. This Census-Taker by China Miéville
“This”–he tapped the broad gauge tube–“a shotgun. It spreads possibilities.”
This inscrutable novella is about the son of a man who makes magic keys, and whose father may have killed his mother, but no one knows for sure-- not the authorities, who only have his word for it, and not the narrator, who thought he may have seen his father dying or someone else entirely. The novella chronicles the time before and after the murder, with occasional glimpses of the present day, where the narrator is writing the whole incident up in the second of three books he owns. The first is facts, which everyone can read but few will. The second is stories, written for readers even though they might not come. The third is secrets, which only he is supposed to read but others might. As maybe you can tell from what I've said so far, the book is partially about truths and how we capture them-- the kid is fascinated by creatures in bottles as a kid, because it makes him imagine an entirely contained world, and of course the census-taker who comes to the village is all about the capturing of (a form of) truth. Anyway, there are significant aspects of this book I did not comprehend, and I did not expect it to end where it did, but I greatly enjoyed reading it.

Overall Thoughts

I was probably more frustrated with Short Story and Novelette than any other Hugo categories (of those I voted in; I skipped many). There was one great short story, and everything else ranged from pretty good to No Award-- contrast that with there being four great novels, or three great graphic stories. There was one great novelette, too, but two I really bounced off of (plus the one I No Awarded). I don't know what the deal here is exactly. Just that people's tastes differ from mine? I note that almost all the finalists come from free-to-read web magazines (or "emags" as the L.A. Times crossword calls them), which makes me feel like availability might give these otherwise mediocre stories boosts.

On the other hand, the novellas were a fascinating bunch. Though I had some kind of reservation about each one, I felt #1-3 were all really good stories, and really different from each other, and all very inventive. And #4-5 both had some great writing, too. I may not like everything it produces, but the Tor.com novellas program (responsible for Jewel and Her Lapidary, Taste of Honey, Ballad of Black Tom, Dream-Quest, and Every Heart) is clearly very strong. And most of them are just $2.99 on Kindle!

I have no sense what will win any of these categories, except I feel pretty confident in "Tomato Thief." And if push came to shove, I'd guess short story will be either "Seasons of Glass" or "The Game We Played." But all I can tell you about novella is that it won't be This Census-Taker.

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