Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Aaron's Take on the Short Fiction Hugo Nominees :: SHORT STORIES

I hate to emphasize the negative, but my main reaction to reading all of this year’s short fiction Hugo nominees is disbelief at the number of outright turkeys that have been short-listed for science fiction’s most prestigious award. The short story nominees are a particularly weak group.

Let’s begin with the adequate and work our way down. “Tk’tk’tk” by David D. Levine, about a traveling salesman sent to an alien world that has no use for his products, is not a story I would have picked out in advance as award-caliber, but at least it is clever and amusing. That’s all it takes to be my hands-down #1 pick out of this disturbingly feeble list of nominees.

The only other nominee I can stomach is “The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green, which shows how technology can provide simple solutions to problems while at the same time creating much bigger ones – say, a waste disposal system that could end up disposing of the whole world. After these two solid if unremarkable stories, things go downhill fast.

You know how in Hollywood disaster movies, they put a little child in jeopardy as a cheap way of tugging at your heartstrings? That’s all there is to Margo Lanagan’s “Singing My Sister Down”. The story consists entirely of the slow, cruel execution of a young woman, about whom we know next to nothing, for a crime we are told of only in the most vague terms. “Singing My Sister Down” is written with style and craft, enough so that I won’t be surprised if it wins the award, but there is just something missing here.

Despite my problems with “Singing My Sister Down”, I have to rank it ahead of Mike Resnick’s “Down Memory Lane”, ostensibly a story about Alzheimer ’s disease. Like much of Resnick’s short fiction, “Down Memory Lane” is heavily sentimental, but it lacks the skillful prose that often allows Resnick to pull such sentimentality off. Instead, Resnick gives us six pages of tired clichés and platitudes ("Physical beauty fades, but inner beauty never does."), followed by two pages of journal entries that read like a dumbed-down condensed version of Daniel Keyes’s brilliant “Flowers for Algernon”. This is a shockingly weak effort by an experienced, usually capable author.

But there are even further depths to this barrel. “Seventy-Five Years” by Michael A. Burstein is a flat-out bad story on every level. Burstein’s writing is awkward as always, comprised mostly of solid oak dialogue between characters telling each other things they already know. The story consists of our protagonist confronting her ex-husband senator and threatening to expose a secret that will ruin his presidential aspirations. Why? Because he has proposed changing the release date of census data from 72 years after the census to 75 years after the census, and as an historian she thinks this would set a bad precedent. Even if historians actually give a damn about the release date of census data, which I find hard to believe, Burstein cannot possibly expect his readers to.

Where has the Hugo nomination process gone wrong? “Seventy-Five Years” should not have been nominated for a Hugo Award. It is not one of the five best short stories published last year. It is not one of the 100 best short stories published last year. I suspect there are more than 100 stories from last year that were not published – slushpile rejects and rough drafts abandoned in writers’ workshops – that could top “Seventy-Five Years”. I am sorry to be so harsh, but the trend of nominating crap for Hugo Awards has got to stop.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Short Story:
1. David D. Levine – Tk’tk’tk
2. Dominic Green – The Clockwork Atom Bomb
3. Margo Lanagan – Singing My Sister Down
5. Mike Resnick – Down Memory Lane
6. Michael A. Burstein – Seventy-Five Years

Predicted Winner:
Margo Lanagan – Singing My Sister Down

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