Sunday, April 09, 2006

The 2006 Hugo Award: The Novelette Shortlist

It's was bound to happen sooner or later, but I have almost nothing to say about this year's nominees for the novelette Hugo. There's a single stinker in the bunch--and I'm sure it'll surprise no one when I say that it's Michael A. Burstein's "TelePresence", for largely the same reasons that made his nominated short, "Seventy-Five Years", such a waste of space, plus a heavy dollop of technobabble and preachiness (and notice how I'm not even bursting into an incandescent rage over the fact that Burstein has two nominated stories on the ballot--I'm gone numb, folks). As for the rest of the nominees, they're a harmless bunch--pleasant, readable, nice. And absolutely forgettable.

You've got your fan favorites, such as Cory Doctorow, who, in his nominated novelette "I, Robot", revisits the same theme--centralized, code-protected, government-controlled software bad; open-source, distributed, hacker-designed software good--that was already getting tired two short stories and one novel ago. Granted, there's an added twist in that, according to the liner notes, "I, Robot" is part of "a series of stories with the same titles as famous sf shorts, which would pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of sf's classic narratives." Which is a neat idea, for a while--in Doctorow's version of Asimov's future, hardwiring the three laws into a positronic brain takes so much hardware and so thoroughly cripples the robot that the entire field of robotics and artificial intelligence is held back. The protagonist's society rigidly enforces the use of three-law-compliant technology, becoming a totalitarian state in the process, whereas the more enlightened Eurasia (Doctorow really couldn't stop himself from this embarrassing 1984 riff--"though now that they'd been at war with Eurasia for so long, it was hard to even find someone who didn't think that the war had always been with Eurasia, that Oceania hadn't always been UNATS's ally"--I mean, come on) is a paradise where human and AI live side by side, everyone is happy, and there's no crime (I'm quoting verbatim on that last point). We get the point, we got it back in "0wnz0red". Might this not be a good time for a new shtick?

And then there's Peter S. Beagle, and if you're a big fan of his novel The Last Unicorn you'll probably love "Two Hearts", which returns to that same world many years later and describes the last days in the life of Lir the hero. If, like myself, you found The Last Unicorn pleasant but ultimately unrewarding, an unsuccessful attempt at writing Gaiman-esque fiction which merges high-falutin' epic fantasy with a knowing, modern perspective (when, let's face it, even Gaiman more often then not overshoots 'clever' and lands on 'twee') that ultimately loses out on the best of both voices, you'll probably feel the same about "Two Hearts". Only, in this case, there's a Mary-Sue-ish main character to contend with as well, a brave little girl who travels to Lir's castle to get him to rescue her village from a ravenous griffin, who captures Lir's, and Molly's and Shmendrick's, affections, who is kind to small animals and the disenfranchised, who plays a pivotal role in slaying the griffin, and who is constantly told how special she is, how brave she is, how interesting she is. The Last Unicorn is a fan favorite, however, and I suspect that residual affection for the book will put the Hugo safely in Beagle's hands.

Then there are the smaller names--Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Calorie Man" and Howard Waldrop's "The King of Where-I-Go". Not bad stories, either of them. Bacigalupi does a good job of extrapolating a future in which biological weapons have killed off natural crops, leaving humanity's fate in the hands of mega-corporations, who zealously guard their sterile, bio-engineered seeds. Waldrop convincingly describes a sun-drenched childhood in 1950s Texas and Alabama, and a close relationship between the protagonist and his sister. There's also a plot, in both cases, but I just couldn't make myself care. In Bacigalupi's story, the protagonist is trying to smuggle a scientist who knows how to create fertile yet healthy crops. There's a lot of action and even gunplay, but given the high stakes of his story, Bacigalupi never gave me any reason to care about his characters or their world's problems. Waldrop can't stop drenching the reader in infodumps--half the story is made up of more information than we ever really needed about the workings of linotype machines or the rules of croquet. The time travel plot gets swallowed up in all that extraneous information, and as I said I found the entire experience so boring that by the end, I was barely willing to expend the effort. Bacigalupi's story is probably the best of the bunch (although you'd need an electron microscope to know for certain) but neither he nor Waldrop were able to keep me interested.

I have to say, I found the experience of reviewing this year's Hugo- and Nebula-nominated short fiction a dispiriting one. I've been doing this for three years (in previous years, I posted my thoughts on Readerville), and I am so tired of coming across the same names, the same ideas, the same bad writing, when all the time truly deserving fiction is being ignored. I could spend hours going back and forth about the Best Dramatic Presentation - Short Form nominees, and still not come up with a definitive winner, but with the short fiction categories, I'm lucky if there's one standout piece. When I reviewed the Hugo-nominated short stories, I mentioned offhand that M. Rickert's "Anyway" and Joe Hill's "Best New Horror" were eligible for the Hugo in that category. It's a thought that's been haunting me. Imagine it--a shortlist with Rickert, Hill, and Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" on it. How would you ever choose the winner? I don't think I've ever seen a shortlist that gave me such pause, and from what I've seen in the past three years, I have trouble believing that either the Hugo or the Nebula voters will ever come up with one.


chance said...

If, like myself, you found The Last Unicorn pleasant but ultimately unrewarding, an unsuccessful attempt at writing Gaiman-esque fiction which merges high-falutin' epic fantasy with a knowing, modern perspective

I am amused that you called something published when Gaiman was eight "Gaiman-esque" ;) (And, of course, they are both ripoff artists of Dunsany anyway.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, Gaiman's better at it :-)

I'm not sure I see the Dunsany connection. That is to say, I see that both Gaiman and Beagle are riffing off Dunsany in their use of the high poetic style and setting, but the more modern aspects of their fiction don't seem to me to come from Dunsany. There's a bit of knowing humor in The King of Elfland's Daughter, but it's pretty faint.

But then, I haven't read a lot of Dunsany.

chance said...

I think the "knowing" bit is more evident in Dunsany's shorter fiction. (Though sure there are others to pick as inspiration on that part - there is a lot of obvious derivativeness of them both from Dunsany that really I just wanted to snark, and also comment on how you made me laugh.)

(Though personally, I'm not all that impressed with Gaiman or Beagle generally, so it is a bit of a wash overall.)

connorfc said...

Peter has spoken at some length in various forums about his influences. Dunsany is one, but hardly the greatest. The Last Unicorn owes far more to James Thurber, James Stephens, T. H. White, and Robert Nathan (and right toward the end, a touch of E. R. Eddison) than it does to Dunsany. And for all of that, it is still a matter of literary influence, not theft. Neither Peter nor Neil have ever done anything which justifies a comment as scathing as "ripoff artists."

Anonymous said...

Riffing off Dunsany, Mr. Cochran, not ripping off Dunsany. Slightly different, there. Did you get my e-mail, incidentally? Not that it matters much now.

Personally, I prefer Mr. Beagle to Mr. Gaiman, but it's all a matter of personal preference.

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