Tuesday, July 28, 2015

NO AWARD for Short Story :: Aaron's Take on the 2015 Hugo Nominees

Hugo votes are due July 31. I (Aaron) have already expressed my contempt here for how the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies used bloc voting for a slate to game the Hugo nomination process and nullify the preferences of the majority of Hugo voters. In my view, the Puppy nominees are not legitimate nominees, and I will not vote for them for that reason alone. Others disagree and say we should vote for any deserving nominees, regardless of how they got on the ballot. In all of the fiction categories, the question is academic, since none of the Puppy choices are deserving nominees.

In the short story category, each of the nominees was a Puppy choice, resulting in surely the weakest Hugo ballot ever for short story. I urge you to vote "No Award" for Best Short Story, because we should try to discourage the Puppies and other potential voting blocs from attempting this kind of ballot-stuffing again, and because none of these stories deserves a Hugo Award.

(As an aside, let me say I don't much enjoy trashing the Puppy-nominated stories. Some of these stories were written by folks like me, fairly new authors still learning the craft. But if we're going to be honest, none of these stories is entirely successful, let alone award-worthy. To me, this is yet another unfortunate result of the Puppies' bloc voting: by forcing a slate of underserving nominees onto the ballot, the Puppies end up inevitably subjecting their own nominees to derision.)

Aaron's Ballot for Best Short Story:
2. Kary English - Totaled
3. Steven Diamond - A Single Samurai
4. Lou Antonelli - On A Spiritual Plain
5. Steve Rzasa - Turncoat
6. John C. Wright - The Parliament of Beasts and Birds

Starting from the bottom, John C. Wright is perhaps the most accomplished author in this group. But "The Parliament of Beasts and Birds" is not science fiction, not fantasy, not even really a story. It is a biblical parable, the sole purpose of which is to analyze the story of creation in the Book of Genesis. It might make for a fine discussion in a Bible study group, but it has no business on the Hugo ballot. It also renders laughable the Sad Puppies' complaints about message-oriented fiction on prior Hugo ballots. "The Parliament of Beasts and Birds" is nothing but message, every bit as heavy-handed as last year's "If You Were a Dinoaur, My Love" (a story with which the Puppies are strangely obsessed), but without that story's artistry or emotional impact.

"Turncoat" involves AI spaceships crewed by post-humans and a couple perfunctory laser battles, so I suppose you could squint and say it's the kind of old-fashioned space opera the Puppies claim to favor. But the writing is so awkward and the plot so simple and tired, the story is impossible to take seriously. It's possible this story could have found a home in Astounding magazine in the 1950s, but it would not have stood out, and it certainly would not have been nominated for a major award.

"On a Spiritual Plain" has a pseudoscientific premise — the strong magnetic field of an alien planet has the effect of trapping the souls of the dead — that could have been used to tell a moving story. It would be heartbreaking to learn that the soul of a person you care about has been denied a peaceful release. But this story features no such person. There is nobody here who cares for each other and nobody for us to care about, since the story features zero characterization. The person whose soul gets trapped is described simply as "an average Service 'grunt,' just another face under the dome." The apparently deliberate lack of characterization prevents the trip to release this fellow's soul from having any poignancy.

As far as I'm aware, "A Single Samurai" was Steven Diamond's first professional sale, and it reads like it: awkward writing (a crossing is "treacherous, but of no great challenge"), internal contradictions ("I feel no pain. I do not just ignore it, for that implies a recognition that it was there to begin with." Later: "The pain was the worst I had ever felt previously. It was a pain that, even as a samurai, I was unable to ignore."), POV errors (the protagonist is climbing the back of a mountain-sized beast, yet he can look it in the eye), etc. Yet I rate it as the second-best of this group of nominees, because at least it tells a story. There's a beginning, middle, and end, and at the end the protagonist does something meaningful. This is not the standard I should have to apply in rating Hugo Award nominees.

"Totaled" by Kary English is the only story in this category that is well-written, on a sentence-by-sentence level. The prose is effective and there is an actual character for us to care about. I suspect this story will win the Hugo Award, which will be preferable to any of the others winning, but still a shame. English has real ability, and may well write a Hugo-caliber story (or several) in the next few years. But "Totaled," a deeply flawed story, isn't it.

The problems with "Totaled" begin on the very fist page. Our narrator was grievously injured in a car crash, and now she is a disembodied brain. On the first page, she describes the accident. She says her sons were in the car, but they're fine; however, she was totaled. Ask yourself, How could she possibly know her sons are fine? She was effectively killed in the accident, and she hasn't yet learned to communicate as a brain. She couldn't know that. This is a rookie mistake by Kary English: reassuring her own protagonist that the boys are fine to go easy on her. But writing fiction is all about being cruel to your characters, not nice. English should have let her character agonize about her boys through the first section of the story.

This mistake threw me out of the story at the outset of "Totaled," and I could never get back in, because the story is missing something. The main character never changes, she never realizes anything meaningful, she never accomplishes anything important. (She helps someone get a project done at work, but if that's vitally important, the story fails to tell us so.) There's no urgency, no significance to her extra time as a brain. She could have died on the first page and nothing would be different. So despite Kary English's nice writing style, I have to rate this story a miss.

Having read all these pieces, it's impossible to take any of the Puppies' complaints about past Hugo nominations seriously. The Puppies say they like action-oriented adventures, but there's little such to be found on this list; most of these pieces are quite slow and dry. The Puppies express disdain for message fiction, but there's plenty of that here. The only thing distinguishing this list from past Hugo nominees is the poor writing. A random sample of stories from, say, last year's issues of Asimov's or F&SF or Lightspeed would be far superior to this group of nominees.

I do not believe this list of nominees represents a good faith effort by anyone to identify the best SF/F short stories published last year. Rather, this is a list assembled by two or three people who used a group of gullible followers to hijack the Hugo nominating system to throw award nominations to some of their friends, with little regard for the quality of the work being nominated.

This ballot is a sham. No Hugo Award should be presented for Best Short Story this year.


Dan Paddock said...

I'd be interested to hear if you thought Annie Bellet's Goodbye Stars was Hugo worthy, since it was a victim of the post announcement furor.

Fantastic Reviews said...

I think Annie is a good writer, and I enjoyed her preceding story "Goodnight Moon." I haven't yet read "Goodnight Stars," but I suspect the ballot would have been stronger with her story on it.

I also respect her for withdrawing, which I know was a difficult decision for her. I've tried to avoid criticizing the authors remaining on the ballot for not doing the same, because that was a personal decision. I can't even say to a certainty that I would have done what Annie (and several others) did if Brad had put me on his list, but I hope I would have.

RALovett said...

Goodnight Stars was quite good. Dave Creek also withdrew a story that I would have been a strong contender. There were also there really strong stories in the December issue of Analog (which the Puppies like) by Ken Liu, David Levine and … darn, forgetting who, that, with English and Bellet would have made a decent ballot. The last was called "Racing the Tide." Darn, memory fails with age. Craig DeLancey, that was it. Apparently the Puppies didn't even read them.

Fantastic Reviews said...

Yes, that's part of what's so disappointing here. You could easily put together a list of 2014 stories that are the kind of thing the Puppies say they like that would be far superior to this ballot.