Reading the Hugos: the short stories

An admission up front: I don’t read short fiction (unless it’s fanfic). I’ve just never found a short piece – even a novella – that I found overall satisfying. If the characters and world are interesting, I want to dig deeper, see more, explore further. If they aren’t, I’m not interested at all. So a strong argument could be made that I just don’t “get” short fiction. But I do get a vote, and all I have to make that vote with is my opinion, so here we go.

  • “On A Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli – I felt like this didn’t really go anywhere or do anything. We’re given the setup, and then that’s what happens, without twist or surprise. Perhaps the point is meant to be the “spiritual” (ho ho?) journey of the narrator-protagonist, but I didn’t really feel like there was much of that either. There could have been. This could have been a confirmation of his faith, or a chance to really explore humanity’s complex and multi-varied relationship with souls, spirits, ghosts and ancestors. But the story didn’t do that. In addition, the style profoundly lacked grace or felicity. I don’t believe this deserves to be in contention for a Hugo.
  • “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright – Such an amazing yawn that I didn’t even finish it. The world’s a mash – the description of the city rings heavy classical-Roman bells, but later on a horse bitches about Napoleon eating him. Everything is, I assume, supposed to stand in stark allegorical silhouette, but for me that mostly just feels like generic. I’m not a fan of talking animals to start with, so endless paragraphs of them striking heroic poses and woffling with referential verbosity tried my patience beyond what this little black duck will endure from fiction. Obviously, I don’t think this deserves to be in contention.
  • “A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond – While there’s a nice shape to the plot arc, there’s nothing in terms of character and emotion packing it into place. The little glimpses of personal history here and there are far more interesting than the – sometimes confusing – slogging through “wilderness” in pursuit of a definite but fuzzy goal (kill the kaiju… “somehow”). Things happen to fall out well for our nameless, unknown samurai, and I suppose that’s nice, but it’s not a story that’s going to stay with me.
  • “Totaled” by Kary English – A good story. I liked Maggie, and enjoyed following her inventive exploration and problem-solving, and if the ending made me want to watch Source Code all over again, it was a good similarity. It could have plucked that note of “how much can you ask of me?” a little more fulsomely, and the Algernon-esque decline could have been paced a little more elegantly, but overall, this was a story that delivered in a satisfying manner.
  • “Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa – A sentient spaceship learns to be a cowboy. The unavoidable comparison to the work of Ann Leckie isn’t favourable; this lacks subtlety and ambiguity, and the style is overblown and riddled with human-voiced niggles. Moreover, the inconsistency of numbers as words or numerals gave me the right irrits (not the author’s fault so much as the editor’s). If I’m supposed to be considering this for best short story of the year, I expect better.

Really, now, the only question remaining for me in this category is whether a story deserves to win a Hugo Award just because it doesn’t actively suck. Surely the bar should be a little higher? The competition a little more… well, present?

Reading the Hugos: Goblin Emperor

First up in my reading of the Hugo shortlist is Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. It’s been on my to-read list for ages, and as the only straight-up fantasy on the best novel shortlist, I thought I’d start with something I’m most likely to enjoy. Also, my library had it available.

And enjoy it I did. It’s a very charming, intimate and political story, full of intricate details of society, politics and etiquette and bound very closely around the journey undertaken by the main character. That character – Maia – was the neglected, exiled and disregarded fourth son of a strict monarch, until an airship disaster leaves him the only surviving son and therefore Emperor. From here, the book covers the first fraught months of his reign, as Maia attempts to take on a role he has never been prepared for amidst the machinations of the court.

A highlight, for me, was the social worldbuilding, and the delightful use of language it prompted. The careful use of levels of formality in interaction – and the dance of pronouns – was particularly delicious, and given an extra layer of poignancy through Maia’s previous extreme isolation; as he negotiates society, so he introduces it to us. However, politically, I was a little underwhelmed by proceedings. Things work a little too smoothly for Maia, and a combination of his good intentions shining through, and the fortuitously correct selection of trustworthy assistants, means things never get as twisty, backstabby or ambiguous as I really like in my political fantasy.

But all of that is trumped by Maia’s emotional journey and how strongly connected to him we become through the course of the novel. He is both sincerely earnest, and gently self-mocking, and the combination is so terribly endearing that despite my political druthers, I found myself consistently hoping that everything would turn out well for him, and being delighted when it did. And so the almost fairytale realisation of it all – that the good end well because their goodness prompts and draws goodness in others – somehow works to make the book overall very satisfying.

I gave this four stars on GoodReads (because I enjoyed it a great deal, but didn’t love it outrageously) and I think it’s an extremely well crafted novel with interesting, true things to say about being human.

Reading the Hugos

For the first time ever, I’ve bought myself the right to vote in the Hugos. There have been a variety of reasons why I haven’t previously. For most of my life, lack of money was chief, but also the fact that I generally don’t like sci-fi even slightly, and the Hugos are a very, very sci-fi set of awards. I also don’t much like short fiction – however excellent the story, I always get to the end of it dissatisfied that that’s all there is; I’m a sprawling-novels sort of girl.

But I have enjoyed looking at the Hugo shortlists in previous years to see what interesting things might have slipped under my radar that were making other fans excited, and it makes me sad this year that I cannot trust that the nominations were made in excitement. Also, given the broad, sweeping statements various Puppy-types have been making about what readers of speculative fiction do, don’t, should or shouldn’t want in their fiction (statements completely opposite to what I like in my speculative fiction) and given that I can afford a supporting membership at present, I figured it was time to stand up and be counted.

So here I am, an eligible Hugo voter. Now I have to figure out what to do with this vote.

I must say, it’s very tempting to just read everything not on a Puppy-plate, and draw a No-Award line under that. I don’t like what the slates have done, and I dislike the rhetoric many of the supporters have used loudly, often, and without censure – indeed often with explicit support – from the slatemakers.

But my point here is about what I – a reader and fan of speculative fiction – do and don’t want in my speculative fiction. So to make that point abundantly clear, I’m going to try and read the entire Hugo shortlist. I am going to read, and I am going to blog about it – not necessarily to influence anyone else but to make my thoughts, feelings and reasons explicit and transparent.

Some provisos:

  • I will not be spending money on this. My policy – for reasons of thrift, bookshelf space and self-respect – is that I only buy books that I know I enjoy (i.e. have already read) or that I have a significant belief that I will enjoy (i.e. from a known author, or just looks so damn amazing the dollars won’t stay in my pocket). None of the material on the shortlist fits that criteria (yet) so I will only be able to read material that is in the voting packet, available from my library, or that I can otherwise lay hands on (e.g. loans from friends). When there is a piece that I cannot get hold of in any way, I will make do with evaluating it from available material, and this will most likely mean it doesn’t make it onto my ballot. Them’s the breaks.
  • I will be reading the way I usually do. Those who follow my reading habits (on GoodReads) are probably aware that I am pretty demanding, and have little compunction about putting down a book that is annoying, boring or elsewise aggravating me. Hugo nominations get no greater leniency. If I wouldn’t read a book ordinarily, there are lots and lots of books that I did read and enjoy that I think are more worthy of the award than it is. When I blog about a story I put down, I will be discussing where and why.
  • The one rule of my regular reading habits that I will be bending is the one where I currently don’t even bother picking up a book unless it mentions a female character by name in the jacket copy. For this once, a Hugo nomination enables a bypass. But I have a reason for that rule, and books that don’t meet it are going to be starting with a handicap.
  • Relatedly: I’m a reader reading. I get to have my own opinion on the things I read. (You get to have your own opinion on the things you read.)
  • At the end of the day, I might find there are things on the Puppy-plates that I enjoyed. I will still be measuring whether those things are better than – or at least comparable to – everything I read last year that didn’t make it into the nominations before I consider where to place them on my ballot. Considering some of the amazing things that came out last year, this is going to be a tough one, but that is just what the slates have bought for these stories by raising questions as to the authenticity of their nomination.