Friday, April 07, 2006

The 2006 Hugo Award: The Short Story Shortlist

What to say about the short story Hugo ballot? Is it better than last year's monstrosity? On the one hand, yes--I actually care who wins this year, and the shortlist's overall quality has improved. On the other hand, not quite. With the exception of the one truly deserving story on the ballot--oh, why be coy? It's Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down", which as I have already written is a beautifully written and harrowing story--there isn't another nominee that I wouldn't happily drop for a more deserving piece. While it's true that only two of the five shortlisted pieces are genuinely terrible, that's two too many, and the other nominees are not much more than decent. I don't read a lot of short fiction over the year, but even I know that M. Rickert's "Anyway" should have been on this shortlist, and about half the stories in Joe Hill's collection, 20th Century Ghosts, including the sublime "Best New Horror", are eligible for the Hugo this year. I'm sure that there are other fine stories that have been cast aside in favor of a disappointing and unexceptional list of nominees.

Given the two winners (one of them, unbelievably enough, literally) that he had on last year's short story ballot, I expected that this year's worst story would come from Mike Resnick. To my very great surprise, that dubious honor goes to Michael A. Burstein, whose "Seventy-Five Years" may very well be the worst written piece of fiction I've ever read, and I used to read fanfic. To be honest, when I finished "Seventy-Five Years", I was sure that its nomination was some sort of Dada-esque joke, a piece of performance art or a protest against inattentive Hugo voters--an attempt to see just how low a nominated story would have to sink before the entire convention rose up in unison and announced that the emperor has no clothes. There's the writing, to begin with: ineffective description ("She walked quickly past the Alexander Calder sculpture "Mountains and Clouds" that filled the cavernous atrium. The black aluminum sheets of the suspended "clouds" and the standing "mountains" contrasted with the white marble of the floor and walls"), clunky exposition ("A calendar on the wall displayed today's date: Thursday, February 27, 2098"), terrible dialogue ("You haven't changed, Isabel. You're still as blunt as ever"), and unconvincing characterization ("She looked into his eyes, and for the first time in years, saw in his soul the man she remembered"). Then there's the plot--Isabel comes to visit her senator ex-husband in order to convince him to drop a bill. The bill's purpose is--wait for it--to extend the date of release of individual census forms from seventy-two to seventy-five years. But wait, there's more--turns out the senator is a clone, and he's afraid that if his census form is released he won't be able to run for President. Isabel convinces him to come clean in order to promote clones' rights (in a stirring debate that goes something like: "Do this thing!" "Shan't!" "Pleeeeeease!" "Oh, OK"). Really, that's it, and in case you were wondering, the whole thing is actually a lot more exciting in three sentences than it is in several thousand words. I've been wondering why Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction have been so lax in posting their nominated stories online (F&SF finally got its act together today, which means the novelette review will be up some time in the near future), but now I suspect that for Analog at least, this is a deliberate strategy. Its editors know that a lot of Hugo voters vote out of loyalty to an author or a magazine, and I suspect that they actually have a much better chance of winning with "Seventy-Five Years" if they make sure that as few people as possible actually read it.

Hey, want to read a really good story about dealing with a spouse's Alzheimer's? Want to read a story that really brings across the heartbreak of watching someone you love slowly disappear, and the frustration of becoming your helpmate's parent? If so, you should buy Maureen F. McHugh's excellent collection, Mothers and Other Monsters, and read "Presence" (and all the other stories too). On the Hugo shortlist, unfortunately, you'll have to suffice yourself with Mike Resnick's "Down Memory Lane", and I know I said that Resnick hasn't written the worst story on the ballot this year, but it certainly wasn't for lack of trying. I thought I had properly steeled myself for Resnick's diabetes-inducing flavor of mawkish sentimentality, but I was still thrown by the way that his protagonists, Gwendolyn and Paul, deal with Gwendolyn's deteriorating condition. These aren't human beings--they're saints, and their reactions are appropriately inhuman. Gwendolyn, after receiving a terrible death sentence: "Well, Paul, it looks like we have a lot of living to cram into the next few months. I’ve always wanted to take a Caribbean cruise. We’ll stop at the travel agency on the way home." Paul, contemplating a murder-suicide: "I knew that I couldn’t. Myself, yes; the woman who’d been my life, never." Gwendolyn never rages, never sinks into depression, never becomes more than Paul can handle. Paul is never frustrated, never angry at Gwendolyn for more than an instant, never exhausted by the burden of caring for her. The couple allegedly have two grown children, but they are nowhere in sight as their father deals with their mother's disease. Eventually, Paul decides to travel to an illegal South American clinic where he can be infected with Alzheimer's (this, apparently, helps the cause of Alzheimer's study) so that he can be with Gwendolyn in her nursing home. At this point, the story transitions into a diary format, with Paul's entries becoming increasingly childish and poorly-spelled ("Boy am I lucky. At the last minute I remembered why I went there in the furst place"). Surely even an editor willing to turn a blind eye to Resnick's poor writing and even poorer characterization should have reached for their red pencil when confronted with this seventeenth-rate Flowers for Algernon rip-off?

I enjoyed David D. Levine's "The Tale of the Golden Eagle", which was nominated for a Hugo in 2004. Levine has a gift for description, especially of the ornate and the opulent. He uses this same gift in this year's nominated short, "Tk'tk'tk". Walker is a salesman trying to peddle Earth technology to an alien culture, but constantly finds himself being brought up short by the cultural differences between himself and his potential customers. Levine does an excellent job of describing the alien city--their near-organic clay architecture, the baking heat in the streets, the smells of this alien place. The aliens' society, however, is too familiar--bog-standard Eastern, complete with an emphasis on manners and face-saving and a self-effacing way of speaking ("Perhaps the honored visitor might wish to partake of a cup of thshsh?" "This-humble-one-accepts-your-most-generous-offer"). "Tk'tk'tk" essentially boils down to the familiar story of the materialistic Westerner who has a mid-life crisis while visiting the more spiritual East, and eventually goes native. Which in itself might be alright, were it not for the fact that the two stories--the alien and the familiar--work against each other. Walker learns how to make business deals with the aliens, but Levine doesn't explore the ramifications of this discovery--what it tells us about the alien culture and their philosophy of life. On the other hand, we don't get to know Walker well enough to care about his problems. As a character he is never much more than a cliché (and a rather unpleasant one at that--his distaste for the aliens and their culture is at times a little hard to take), and his transformation is equally flat and unconvincing. Lovely as it is, "Tk'tk'tk" is neither a believable character exploration nor a credible exploration of an imaginary world.

There's nothing overtly wrong with Dominic Green's "The Clockwork Atom Bomb"--certainly nothing that would explain why I had such a non-reaction to it. True, Green's use of humor in his tale of a UN aid worker trying to disarm leftover weapons in war-ravaged Africa is haphazard. Green sprinkles his dark jokes into a relatively earnest narrative, and the first time I encountered one of them, I didn't quite know what to make of it. But this is a minor complaint. "The Clockwork Atom Bomb" is well-written, the science is neat and elegantly explained, the premise is interesting and not a bit creepy, the characters are, if not terribly deep, at least pleasant and believable. Even the humor works once you start expecting it. It's possible that I was underwhelmed with "The Clockwork Atom Bomb" for reasons that have nothing to do with the story itself--I just finished reading Simon Ings' superb novel, The Weight of Numbers (which you should all read because I need people to talk to about it), which also describes the depredations of civil war in Africa, and does a much better and more affecting job of bringing across the horror of the situation there and the absurdity of the Western world's piddling attempts to make things better. But I think the real problem is that Green's story is very nice, but not remarkable in any way. I'm glad I read it, but under no circumstances does it belong on a major award shortlist.

I didn't give a damn about last year's short story Hugo winner. James Patrick Kelly's "The Best Christmas Ever" was the best story on the ballot, but not so good that I was genuinely bothered by the fact that it lost. This year, I'm already preparing myself for disappointment. The same voters who created this uneven, ridiculous shortlist could very easily fail to recognize the one deserving story on it, and bestow the Hugo on someone other than Margo Lanagan. What truly scares me is that if Lanagan loses, it'll almost certainly be because the votes were cast out of loyalty, not any consideration of literary quality, which means that she'll lose to either Burstein or Resnick. In which case, I would consider her to be perfectly within her rights to set fire to the room.


Anonymous said...

Hi Abigail.

I find myself largely in agreement with your post, with one caveat.

How truly SFnal is Margo Lanagan's story?

Is it the best written story on the ballot? Yes. But are we not choosing the best SF/Fantasy story?

Now, that makes things difficult. Because Lanagan's story is, I suppose, fantasy. But not in any important or interesting way. Still -- it's not set in our world. And it is really good. So perhaps it should win.

But darn it, sometimes I just want a realio trulio SF (or Fantasy) story! A story where the speculative element is central! Among the nominees, the only stories that are both good and SFnal (in a significant fashion) are Green's and Levine's. And among those I prefer "The Clockwork Atom Bomb".

But I have no argument with anyone who says, dammit, "Singing My Sister Down" is a better story, SF/Fantasy or not, so I'm voting for it.

My real question is: where's Leah Bobet's "Bliss"? Where's Robert Reed's "Finished"? Where's Theodora Goss's "Pip and the Fairies"? Where's Joe Hill's "Best New Horror"? (though that, to be fair, may be just barely a novelette in length) Where's Michael Swanwick's "Triceratops Summer"?

Rich Horton

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Rich,

How SFnal is "Singing My Sister Down"? Well, there are textual clues that suggest that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic future (the narrator mentions a neighbor's tractor getting caught in the tar) but to be honest that's not a real issue for me. It's clearly genre. It's clearly awesome. Therefore it should win.

Have you read the rest of Lanagan's collection, Black Juice? By and large, the stories in it focus on strongly ritual- and tradition-oriented societies, and on the ways that human beings can still be human beings within the strict confines of those often heartless rituals and traditions. Which may not be a theme that's particular to genre, but Lanagan's extrapolation of future/past/alternate societies is certainly within genre tradition if not downright SFnal.

With the exception of "Best New Horror" (which, according to my rough estimate, should qualify as a short story), I haven't read the stories you mention - as I said, I don't tend to read a lot of short fiction over the year. I'm sure, however, that any one of them would have made the short story ballot a much stronger one than it currently is.

chance said...

I've been wondering why Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction have been so lax in posting their nominated stories online (F&SF finally got its act together today, which means the novelette review will be up some time in the near future), but now I suspect that for Analog at least, this is a deliberate strategy.

Here's the actual deal on that - first they have to get permission from the authors, and get an electronic copy from the author. Sometimes not all the final edits were entered into the author's electronic copy and they have to be manually edited before the author can send it off (which happened to a friend of mind who had to hand enter loads of changes to his novella.)

Then of course it needs to be HTML coded and someone has to post it online. Of course in a magazine like F&SF it is just Gordon and JJA part-time and putting out the actual magazine takes priority, so the lag time can be more than optimal, especially if the author is a bit of a laggard about getting a file to them because they have a life and kids and whatnot.

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