Thursday, August 04, 2005

What. The Fuck. Or, The 2005 Short Story Hugo Nominees

I don't pretend to understand science fiction awards. I don't see how Doomsday Book or Speaker for the Dead could have received one award, much less the top two in the field. I don't understand why the people who hand out the World Fantasy Award keep giving it to boring, badly written, unambitious novels. How the 2003 Arthur C. Clarke jury, faced with a shortlist that included such novels as Kiln People, The Speed of Dark, The Scar, The Years of Rice and Salt and, for the love of all that is good and holy, Light, could have chosen to bestow the award on Christopher Priest's soporific The Separation is a dark and disturbing mystery to me (and while we're on the subject of the Clarkes, we could also point out that if you're going to define David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas--one of the finest novels of the last decade--as science fiction and put it on your ballot, you have no excuse for not giving it the bloody award. But then we'd have to start talking about the Bookers and no one wants that).
So it probably shouldn't surprise me that between them, the five nominees for this year's Hugo award in the short story category don't have enough literary merit, innovative ideas, and interesting characters to make a fourth grader's English assignment. It probably shouldn't, but it does. I don't read as much SF short fiction as I'd like, but I can't believe that these stories represent the best, or even close to the best, that the genre had to offer in the last year.

(You can read all five nominated short stories, as well as the novelette and novella ballots, here.)

Take, for example, Mike Resnick's two nominated stories, "Travels With My Cats" and "A Princess of Earth". Surely the ballot didn't need two badly written, mawkishly sentimental stories about a broken down person who is taught the importance of taking risks, living life to the fullest, and risking everything for love by a mysterious, yet apparently solid, apparition (the ghost of the narrator's favorite author and Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter from Mars, respectively) before they set off on an impossible quest that gives them purpose and hope. I honestly don't know what disturbs me the most--that Resnick is writing his stories from a template or that the Hugo voters were taken in by this approach.

It's painfully clear that Robert J. Sawyer started writing "Shed Skin" with only the ending--in which a human who's been downloaded into an immortal robotic body kills himself to prove his humanity--in mind. In order to get to that ending, he came up with a preposterous premise--after their consciousness is copied into the robot body, the human versions left behind are denied all rights of personhood and citizenship in order to avoid confusion and legal entanglements--and a boring plot, about a human 'leftover' who tries to regain his real life by taking a woman hostage.

Michael A. Burstein's "Decisions" has a promising beginning--an astronaut returning from a lengthy mission is shocked to find himself imprisoned and kept in solitary confinement, until his captors reveal that he has somehow traveled in time, returning to Earth months before he left it. Unfortunately, the time travel angle is quickly abandoned for that hoary cliché of God-like aliens testing the human race before allowing them into deep space. Essentially, "Decisions" is a retelling of the Farscape episode "A Human Reaction", without the excellent writing, interesting characters, clever dialogue and sex between John Crichton and Aeryn Sun.

The best entry in a very weak bunch, James Patrick Kelly's "The Best Christmas Ever", about well-meaning robots attempting to keep the last human beings on Earth alive, has a good premise and some moments of genuine emotion. However, the last human on Earth plot has been done many times before, and Kelly's story goes on for too long and has very little that's new to say. If there's any justice, Kelly will win the Hugo, but his story has no place in a collection of the year's best short fiction.

I can't honestly understand how such a weak, uninteresting shortlist came into being. It's clear from the nominees for the novelette prize that Hugo voters can recognize quality. Each of the five noveletes nominated is original both in tone and in concept. I would have traded Paolo Bacigalupi's slot for Jason Roberts' "7C" (probably the best story in McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories), but there's no denying that Bacigalupi's story, "The People of Sand and Fog", packs a serious wallop and asks interesting questions about human nature. I suspect that Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State" will win the Hugo, but none of the other stories are undeserving.

This isn't the first time in recent years that the short story nominees for the Hugo or the Nebula have disappointed me and the novelette nominees have interested me. I'm beginning to wonder if there's something about the smaller canvas that inhibits authors. Books, after all, have been getting longer and longer for decades, with stories that would have spanned less than 200 pages in 40s and 50s being told in 400 and 500 pages today. Maybe the same is true for short fiction.

UPDATE: For a bit of perspective, check out this short story by Neil Gaiman, "Four and Twenty Blackbirds". It was only the third story he published, and apparently he thought so little of it that he didn't include it in Smoke and Mirrors, but while it's hardly got the most original premise in the world, there's no denying that Gaiman crams more quality into less than 4,000 words than all the 2005 nominees put together.

UPDATE 2: A cursory examination of "7C" makes it clear that it belongs in the short story, not novelette, category. This, of course, means that anyone who didn't vote for it needs to be taken out back and whipped with a wet noodle until they see the error of their ways.


Dotan Dimet said...

I rather liked The Prestige. Maybe I was just predisposed favorably towards it, or maybe it was the kid with the Magic Roundabout T-Shirt. I loved the imagery, although I'll conceed it may have been a bit slow, and it was hampered with narrators who seem to constantly remain one step behind the reader.

I suspect you're right about the general decline in the quality of short fiction, I recall lasy tear the Hugo shortlist short stories were similarly ho-hum, while the Novellettes and Novellas were better. I guess that most writers try to stretch a god idea as far as it can take them, and a poor one likewise.

Dotan Dimet said...

3 typos. Umm, new keyboard.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I certainly can't fault The Prestige too much when I compare it with The Separation. In both books, however, one gets the impression that Priest was so excited by his chosen format - multiple timelines, telling the story through documents, letters and journals - that he forgot to come up with stories that justified it.

If you enjoyed the stage magic aspect of The Prestige, Dotan, you might want to take a look at Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil. It does a great job of describing the life of a vaudeville magician, and is a funny and exuberant adventure.

Hebdomeros said...

A lot of it I think has to do with what mags Hugo bothers to look at. I liked Analog and Asimov in high school, but haven't cared for it in some time.

The better stories, at least in my opinion, seem to flow from smaller mags like Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet or even lit journals that publish the odd sf/fantasy piece (Fence, Gargoyle, Black Clock, Conjunctions). I'm not sure how Hugo chooses it's nominees...if publications submit or if judges just choose based on what they read over the year. But the quality probably won't change until they start expanding the base of what they see.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Ah, but now you're passing the blame on to the bigger SF magazines - it isn't the Hugo voters who can't find quality, but the editors of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's and Analog who can't pick it out of their pile of submissions.

Which, given that at least two of the nominated stories probably shouldn't have been published in the first place, might not be far from the truth.

The nominations and the winners, by the way, are voted on by members of convention - in this case, Worldcon. Cheryl Morgan has linked to breakdowns of the nominations and votes for winners, and it turns out that the Hugos are decided by maybe 500 voters.

Which means there might be an issue of cliquishness here as well.

Anonymous said...

"Which means there might be an issue of cliquishness here as well."

In science fiction prices? Never!

Anonymous said...

In my extremely biased opinion, there hasn't been an overall decline in the quality of short fiction. If you're looking for good short stories that weren't nominated, you could do worse than the list of Hugo recommendations that Cheryl maintained.


Didi said...

I strongly feel that Cory Doctorow's story Anda's Game was the best of the bunch this year... and it wasn't even nominated.

You can read it here:

I'll have a lot more to say about this in my blog, when my cold passes and I can concentrate.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I liked "Anda's Game", but I felt that Doctorow was repeating himself with it. He does seem to have a bit of a one-track mind when it comes to his writing, and the more of it you read, the more his stories seem like thin excuses for his politics and musings about the shape of the future.

The Doctorow story I really liked was "0wnz0red" (also available from Salon), and I was crushed when it lost the Nebula last year to Jeffrey Ford's execrable "The Empire of Ice Cream".

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