03 August 2018

My 2018 Hugo Awards Ballot: Short Fiction Categories

My write-ups for the Hugos continue with the ballots I submitted to Worldcon 76 San Jose in the three short fiction categories, with commentary. 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, or to longer reviews when I wrote them.

Best Short Story

6. "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" by Fran Wilde
Open the drawers of Items We've Let You Touch Because Someone Just Like You Said It Would Make Us Well. The hooks and saws, the foul tastes and that stuff that made us gag and didn't make us any better. You all wrote neat words down about each experiment anyway and that made you better.
This story is about someone going to a strange exhibit, with rooms like "A Hallway of Things People Have Swallowed," "A Radium Room," "A Room of Objects That Are Really People," "A Room of Objects That Are Very Sharp," and so on, narrated by the exhibitor. I didn't really get what the exhibit was or what the visitor to the exhibit was, or really what was going on at all. Googling reveals that I'm not alone in this standpoint, which is kind of reassuring. But it was really well written from a prose standpoint, and occasionally really insightful. But ultimately I found it unsuccessful as a story.

5. "The Martian Obelisk" by Linda Nagata
[T]he obelisk would still be standing a hundred thousand years hence and likely far longer. It would outlast all buildings on Earth. It would outlast her bloodline, and all bloodlines. It would still be standing long after the last human had gone the way of the passenger pigeon, the right whale, the dire wolf. In time, the restless Earth would swallow up all evidence of human existence, but the Martian Obelisk would remain—a last monument marking the existence of humankind[...]
This story had a great concept-- humanity is dying off, not with a massive apocalypse, but in a slow yet inevitable fading away. An architect is remotely building a monument to humanity on Mars, using the materials sent there for a colony that was never settled. It's an arresting idea, but I didn't think the story told about it quite lived up to it. The end took a swerve into optimism that felt unearned and dissonant.

4. "Fandom for Robots" by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Pyro: Okay, is it just me, or is Cyro starting to get REALLY attractive? I swear I’m not gay (is it gay if it’s a robot) but when he slung Ellison over his shoulder and used his claw to block the Sixth Saber at the same time
This story is about a sentient robot from the 1950s named Computron that spends his time in a museum exhibit finding community when he joins anime fandom after learning there's a new anime that features a robot of similar design named Cyro. He writes fanfic and soon becomes a collaborator on a fan comic for a show called Hyperdimension Warp Record. The story is pretty slight, but it was cute and funny, though sometimes too cute. I'm glad I read it, though I would never have nominated it for a Hugo myself. I waffled on how to rank it versus "Martian Obelisk," but even though I think "Martian Obelisk" is trying to do more, "Fandom for Robots" unequivocally succeeds more at what it attempts.

3. "Carnival Nine" by Caroline M. Yoachim
My spring is on the verge of breaking, I can feel it. The maker gave my son and me the same number of turns today. Ten turns. Fewer than I’ve ever had, and the most my son has ever been given.
This was an enjoyable, captivating story, about clockwork robots whose daily actions are limited by how many turns their spring can sustain in a day, and whose lives are limited by how many times their springs can be wound. Most live for a thousand days at most. The society Caroline Yoachim describes here is fascinating, and like a lot of the best sf, it has the double effect of telling us about an alien world and telling us about ourselves. The main character has a son who is essentially disabled or maybe has a terminal illness-- his spring can sustain many fewer turns than most. A sad-but-poignant tale, well told.

2. "Sun, Moon, Dust" by Ursula Vernon
“I mean, we could conquer the neighbors, but that seems a little unkind. I trade seeds with them every spring. Their goat covered mine last month, and they didn’t ask for payment because I’m just getting started here. Well, and you can’t really keep goats from doing that, but…” He trailed off. Something about the angle of Dust’s head made him think that the warrior was not interested in the details of goat husbandry.
A really simple story: a farmer inherits an enchanted sword from his grandmother. It carries the spirits of three ancient warriors within it (the Sun, Moon, and Dust of the title), who give him advice, but as the above excerpt shows, the kind of advice three ancient warriors give is not the kind of advice a farmer needs. It's beautifully told, both funny and touching, and it has something to say about how we find nobility in what we choose to do. It didn't feel quite as substantial as Ursula Vernon's novelette winning novelette was last year, but it was still excellent.

1. "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™" by Rebecca Roanhorse
“Our last name’s not Trueblood,” she complains when you tell her about your nom de rêve.

“Nobody wants to buy a Vision Quest from a Jesse Turnblatt,” you explain. “I need to sound more Indian.”
I waffled here. Sometimes the top story makes itself obvious; sometimes less so. I probably could have placed this anywhere in the top three. This second-person story is about an Indigenous man who guides tourists through VR "vision quests" or whatever other "Indian" experience they desire; as the quotation above alludes to, he's forced to perform his own self, to fake aspects of himself to be more "authentic." This had a little bit of a sting in the tale that gave it some added pizazz, and eventually caused me to elevate it above "Sun, Moon, Dust," which was good but maybe a little too... proper? I dunno.

Best Novelette

6. "The Secret Life of Bots" by Suzanne Palmer
“Your logics are intact?”

“I believe so. But if they were not, would I know? It is a conundrum,” 4340 said.
In this cute but predictable story, a maintenance robot chases down a malfunction on a warship and ends up proving its heroism. Like I said, it's cute, but like I said, it's predictable, and I do not find cute but predictable stories particularly award-worthy-- this doesn't really do anything noteworthy or unexpected with its premise, as well-executed as it is. There are a lot of cute robot stories on the ballot this year (cf. "Fandom for Robots" above and All Systems Red below) for some reason.

5. "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" by Aliette de Bodard
A child. The shape of a child. And—Thuan’s memory was unfortunately excellent on details like this—not something made of flesh and muscles and bones, but a construct of parquet wood, prickling with the thorns of brambles
If I've learned anything from reading Hugo finalists, it's that short fantasy fiction without much exposition is not for me. This reminded me a lot of last year's The Jewel and Her Lapidary, in that I never quite understood what was going on or what was at stake, and therefore it was impossible for me to get into the story. I ranked this above "Secret Life of Bots," though, because I felt like it was aiming for something interesting, even if I didn't understand what that was, although as a reading experience, I probably got more out of "Secret Life."

4. "Wind Will Rove" by Sarah Pinsker
People on Earth wrote about blue skies because they'd stood under grey ones. They wrote about night because there was such a thing as day. Songs about prison are poignant because the character knew something else beforehand and dreamed of other things ahead. Past and future are both abstractions now.
In contrast to many other stories on the ballot, this felt like very traditional sf in some ways. It's about a generation ship, which I feel like is a classic staple of the genre that people rarely write stories about anymore, perhaps because we ceased to believe in them. Pinsker's story explores the idea of cultural memory in an environment where people work really hard to remember the past, arguably at the expense of the present. Some good writing and good scenes and good details, but I felt like it was too long, in that I got the point long before the narrator did. Also I'm not convinced fiddling will really be this important in the space future.

3. "A Series of Steaks" by Vina Jae-Min Prasad
Forging beef is similar to printmaking—every step of the process has to be done with the final print in mind.
I enjoyed this story, which has an intriguing premise: in a world where meat and other organic compounds can be printed, you get people devoted to "forging" meat, to making it seem like you're eating meat from a real animal when in fact it has been printed as well. It's an enjoyable story, but it didn't completely grab me; I kind of wanted more to be done with the premise, as it felt like there were sections of the story when the protagonist could have been forging basically anything. But I did really enjoy how it all came together in the end.

2. "Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time" by K. M. Szpara
“I’m old, Finley. Too old. I’ve followed human history for millennia. I’ve met believers and skeptics. Warm beds and pitchforks. Somehow, I never expected assimilation.” He relaxes onto his side, rests his head on his hand. “Never expected to go mainstream.”
This is a story of a man becoming a vampire, seduced by an elder vampire in a somewhat-in-the-future society where vampirism is a legally recognized condition. The other wrinkle here is that the man is trans, and the revitalizing effects of vampire blood begin to bring out his female sexual characteristics once more-- though some of his male ones are enhanced, too. It's well written, occasionally funny, often very dark with a streak of amorality, but that's a mark of its genre, I think. I didn't quite get the ending, otherwise I might have rated it higher.

1. "Extracurricular Activities" by Yoon Ha Lee
Since I expect your eating options will be dismal, I have sent you goose fat rendered from the great-great-great-etc.-grandgosling of your pet goose when you were a child. (She was delicious, by the way.) Let me know if you run out and I’ll send more.
This story is a prequel to Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire series; Shuos Jedai goes on an undercover mission to rescue captured soldiers. Compared to the grim Machineries stories, it's surprisingly breezy and fun. It's a pretty straightforward action story, albeit with Lee's attention to cultural and character detail. (We don't learn much about the heptarchate or its calendar, except by implication, though, because Jedai spends most of his time outside of it. There's an implication the alien race has an unusual conception of reality, but not much is done with it.) Like in Raven Stratagem, flashbacks to training sessions are used to reveal much of this. I don't know how much the story would do for a novice reader, but if you've read the Machineries stories there's some real charm in seeing Jedai-- a notorious genocidal maniac by the time those stories are set-- being sent care packages by a doting mother.

Best Novella

7. River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

The best part of this novella is the two-page foreword by the author that explains that there once was an idea to import hippopotamuses into the Louisiana bayou to relieve a meat shortage and also fight an invasive aquatic plant. This book takes place in an alternate timeline where that really happened. Alas, the actual book is not particularly good. For some reason Gailey transposes the hippo plan from 1910 to 1857, and introduces a number of anachronisms into the book's setting of 1889. The book's characters never grabbed me-- I feel like the characterization came from the this-will-be-good-as-a-movie school of writing-- and the plotting was murky to me.

6. No Award

Everything else on this list was engaging and interesting on some level even if I didn't like it as much as I wanted to, but stories I consider "not particularly good" don't seem like stories that ought to be winning Hugo Awards.

5. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

The Binti books, as I've alluded to in my reviews of them, are a little frustrating, as I feel like I'm reading the foundation of a great story, but in actuality a mediocre story, leaving me with something of an in-between tale. I like the milieu a lot, but Home is a kind-of-cliché the-estranged-child-returns-home story crossed with a lot of exposition about Binti's secret heritage, then it ends on a cliffhanger. I hoped for more out of this book and this series based on what I'd heard.

4. Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Last year, Seanan McGuire's Every Heart a Doorway came in first for Best Novella, and I myself ranked it second. It was one of those books that puts a clever spin on a genre, about a boarding school for children who had participated in portal fantasy stories and then returned to the real world and were having trouble adjusting. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel to Every Heart, about two of the characters and their adventures. As a result, I found it considerably less interesting-- Every Heart plays with the genre, but Down Among just is the genre, just is a portal fantasy. That's not necessarily bad, but it does mean the story has to do something else interesting instead, and I didn't really see that here. (Plus a lot of what happens we were already told in Every Heart.) I think portal fantasies work well as tantalizing backstories for the characters in the "Wayward Children" series, but I'm not sure I'm interested in actually seeing those backstories play out. I hope future installments of this series return to the school itself as a setting. The very self-conscious narrative voice McGuire uses eventually began to grate on me, as well. A bit too precious.

3. The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

I struggled to rank this versus All Systems Red. The Black Tides of Heaven is certainly more ambitious, providing an overview of the lives of a pair of identical twins in a fantasy world, both with magical powers, one with the gift of prophecy. I enjoyed it... but I never felt myself drawn into the characters or their world. So while I think on concept it's probably worthier than a pretty straightforward action thriller, on execution, All Systems Red is the more successful novella.

2. All Systems Red by Martha Wells

This was fun. Written from the first-person perspective of a security cyborg, it's a quick but well-done action story with a distinct narrative voice. The security cyborg calls itself a "Murderbot," but all it really wants to do is watch crappy television and avoid human contact. So basically it's an introvert millennial with super-strength. The voice of the main character is the basic selling point of the book-- I read it while waiting with my wife for an oil change and I kept reading her little bits of it-- but the action/conspiracy story is pretty good, too, and there's a genuine sense of suspense, struggle, and consequently perseverance at the climax. Perhaps nothing groundbreaking, but on the other hand, almost exactly what you might want out of Tor.com's novella program. (Martha Wells used to write Stargate Atlantis and Star Wars tie-in novels; as a former tie-in author myself, I always find it nice when one makes good.)

1. "And Then There Were (N-One)" by Sarah Pinsker

This was the only thing on this whole page I read before it became a Hugo nominee, thanks to a recommendation on the blog Rocket Stack Rank. I loved it, from the clever title onwards. Sarah Pinsker goes to a convention-- only all the participants are versions of her from various alternate universes. And then there's a murder, so she's the victim and all the suspects! It's clever, fun, funny (satire on conventions always goes over well for me), ruminative, and kind of deep. I was surprised to realize it was a novella, because I devoured it in one sitting and then immediately began recommending it to everyone I know. I even ended up doing a guest lecture on it to a colleague's class, when she asked if I could recommend a story that was 1) sf, 2) postmodern, 3) American, and 4) short, for her literature survey course.

Overall Thoughts

Last year I wrote, "I was probably more frustrated with Short Story and Novelette than any other Hugo categories." I wouldn't call myself "frustrated" per se, but I did find the short fiction categories kind of weak. Though I liked my top three in Short Story, I don't think any of them nailed it, and I think the hit rate in Novelette was slightly worse. "And Then There Were (N-One)" did nail it in Novella, but beneath that, I felt that this batch of novellas was of lower quality than last year's.

All of the finalists bar one came from either free Internet magazines or the Tor.com novellas program. I do have a suspicion that the advantages both have in the popularly-voted Hugos lead to the omission of other quality work from the ballot. "Wind Will Rove" is the only story on this page from a traditional print publication. Like, River of Teeth cannot be among the best six novellas of the year. Though, Uncanny is clearly doing something right, with six finalists across the eighteen stories here originating from their "pages." (Of course, I'm part of the problem here; the only contemporary short sf I read are Hugo finalists, so I'm sure not nominating stuff published in Asimov's or Analog!)

Even with Nicholas Whyte's strawpoll, I find it hard to gauge what will win in any of these categories. I don't quite buy that it will be "Fandom for Robots" in Short Story-- it's too cute-- but then I don't know what it will be instead. I will tentatively guess "Wind Will Rove" for Novelette based on Nicholas's strawpoll. It will certainly be All Systems Red (it's very popular) or "N-One" (it's very good) for Novella. I don't know which of those two it will be, but by God it ought be "N-One."

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