The only story on the shortlist I hadn't read before the nominees were announced was Mike Resnick's "Alastair Baffle's Emporium of Wonders," which might go some way towards explaining why I took so long getting around to this shortlist review, but when I did finally read the story I was, relatively speaking, pleasantly surprised. In the Torque Control discussion of this story, commenters split their time between being baffled by its presence on the shortlist and being baffled by the effusive praise for it in the quoted reviews, but I think Rich Horton (who spoke warmly about the story in his own shortlist review, then backtracked somewhat in the Torque Control comments) gets it about right when he says that for a Mike Resnick story, "Alastair Baffle" is pretty decent. Sure, the story--in which two nonagenarians makes one last foray from their old age home to find the magic shop where they met as children--is mawkishly sentimental, blatantly manipulative and poorly written. But it isn't as mawkishly sentimental as "Travels With My Cats." And it isn't as blatantly manipulative as "Down Memory Lane." It certainly isn't as poorly written as "A Princess of Mars" or "All the Things You Are" or "Article of Faith." (If there's one compelling reason for me to stop writing these Hugo short fiction reviews, it is that because of them I have inadvertently become something of an expert on the short fiction of Mike Resnick.) "Alastair Baffle" is merely somewhat less than mediocre, and though obviously this means that in a sane world it never should have made it onto the Hugo ballot, the fact is that Mike Resnick stories are going to make it onto the ballot. Like the sandwiches in British train station cafes, they are how SF fandom pays for its sins, and this particular nomination is a great deal less embarrassing than many others, some of which have even earned Resnick a win.
Like the Kij Johnson story on the short story ballot, James Alan Gardner's "The Ray-Gun: A Love Story" was getting a lot of positive buzz in the final months of 2008, including appearances on several best of year lists and the Nebula final ballot. And as with the Johnson story, I find myself left out of the party. "The Ray-Gun" is a sweet, nicely done story about a boy who finds a ray gun, the relic of a distant, alien war which has fallen to Earth. Being a science fiction fan, he's convinced that having found the ray gun makes him special, and destines him to a future as a superhero or an interstellar warrior. But for all his preparations, and all the sacrifices he makes for the sake of his special destiny, Jack's life is thoroughly ordinary, and the secrets he keeps damage his relationships until he finally has to choose between the ray gun and an ordinary life. This description makes "The Ray-Gun" sound angsty and dramatic, but as the subtitle says this is a love story, and its tone is light, bordering on fairy tale-like, with short, declarative sentences ("Jack wondered where the weapon had come from. Had aliens visited these woods? Or was the gun created by a secret government project?") defusing most of the potential for high emotion.
The result is pleasant but not very exciting. If I had to guess, I'd say that it's the appeal to so many readers' own experiences as young science fiction fans, convinced that any minute their life was going to transform into something out of their favorite stories, that is at the root of "The Ray-Gun"'s appeal (though by the same token it's not much of a stretch to view the ray gun as a metaphor for being an SF fan, and the story's ending, in which Jack and his new girlfriend send the gun to the bottom of the ocean, as saying that if you want to get a girl, you'll have to give up that creepy science fiction habit). I can't say that I think nostalgia and sentimentality are, on their own, good enough reasons to give a story a Hugo nomination, or indeed to lavish it with all the praise that "The Ray-Gun" has received.
Metafictionality rears its head again, somewhat more successfully, in Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom." On the eve of WWII a black university professor comes to Maine to study the shoggoths, Lovecraftian monsters which seem to defy the fundamental laws of biology and evolution. It's a nicely atmospheric piece, and does a good job tying together the protagonist's investigation of the shoggoths and his dark musings about racial prejudice--which is expressed genteelly in the behavior of the local fishermen and violently in the Kristallnacht riots, which take place shortly after the story's beginning--most particularly in the choice the protagonist faces in the story's end, between the freedom of one persecuted minority and another. I liked "Shoggoths in Bloom," but unlike other Lovecraft pastiches such as Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald" (PDF) or Charles Stross's "A Colder War," I also can't help but feel that my never having read Lovecraft is a barrier to fully appreciating it. For example, I assume that the story's emphasis on racism is supposed to be intensified by knowledge of Lovecraft's own well-document racism, and I'm wondering if there are other nuances that have gone over my head because I lack the proper grounding. I'm not sure how fair a criticism this is--and maybe the distance I feel from the story has nothing to do with Lovecraft and everything to do with the story itself--but the bottom line is that "Shoggoths in Bloom" leaves me somewhat cold, impressed by Bear's technical achievement in creating her pastiche and grafting it to the real world, but not genuinely moved.
Our final foray into metafiction comes from John Kessel with "Pride and Prometheus," (PDF) which melds together Jane Austen and Mary Shelley's most famous novels when it tells the story of the meeting between Mary Bennet, the priggish, know-it-all sister from Pride and Prejudice, and Victor Frankenstein, escaping his creation to England in one of the interludes in Frankenstein. It's a neat premise, and Kessel gets a lot of mileage out of it, playing clever metafictional games by mashing together two novels which respectively represent the genesis of realism and romanticism, naturalistic fiction and genre, and drawing comparisons between the proscribed position of women in the period he's writing about (and it is surely no coincidence that the two novels he's chosen were both written by women) and the reprehensible manner in which Frankenstein treats his creation. Though she's initially drawn in by his grief and mysterious manner, Mary, who in Kessel's hands becomes wise and level-headed (which will be very gratifying to Austen fans like myself, who feel a little guilty for laughing with her creator at the bookish, socially awkward Mary), ultimately sees Victor as a user, with the story drawing a parallel between his abandonment of his creation and Kitty's abandonment by a local cad.
If I have any complaints against "Pride and Prometheus" they are first that Kessel hasn't really got the Austen-ish voice right. His pastiche rings hollow, emulating Austen's grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure but lacking the spark that imbued her writing with so much humor. Perhaps more importantly, there's the plain fact that "Pride and Prometheus" is barely even a genre story. That's not always a problem--Kessel's story is a hell of a lot more SFnal than Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See," which quite rightly won the Nebula in 2004--and if nothing else "Pride and Prometheus" has once again reminded me to be grateful for the broadness and inclusiveness of the genre short fiction scene, since I can't for the life of me imagine what mainstream short fiction magazine would publish this story. But with a shortlist already stacked to the rafters with metafictional games, literary pastiches, and appeals to the reader's nostalgia and fannish affection, Kessel's story, which unlike "Shoggoths in Bloom" doesn't do much besides be metafictional, is somewhat devalued. Finally, given my chilly response to Bear's story, I can't help but wonder how much of my positive response to "Pride and Prometheus" has to do with my previous familiarity with the novels Kessel is drawing on.
Thankfully, we have Paolo Bacigalupi on the ballot to give us a much-needed dose of actual, future-set science fiction. "The Gambler" is narrated by Ong, a refugee of Laos's totalitarian regime now living in the US and working as a journalist. His narrative alternates between the present, in which he is in danger of losing his job because his stories, about government corruption, looming environmental collapse, and the plight of the people of Laos, don't generate even a fraction of the hits on stories about celebrity scandals, and the past, in which his father is hounded to death for printing pamphlets which tell the truth about Laotian regime. What I liked best about "The Gambler" was the comparison it drew between the two situations--in totalitarian Laos, bad news is suppressed; in the free West, it's ignored. There's a distinctly Bacigalupian nastiness to this comparison which is absent from the rest of the story, in which Ong is faced with a choice between compromising his principles and writing fluff, and continuing to write the stories he thinks are important and risk losing his job and visa. For all the harshness of this choice, "The Gambler" is atypically gentle and low-key, and its ending holds out hope for a miraculous reversal of Ong's predicament.
Writing about the story a few months ago at Torque Control, Niall Harrison suggested that Ong's dilemma in "The Gambler" represents Bacigalupi "[dealing] with his reputation for miserablism," but I sincerely hope this isn't the case since, while Ong is on the verge of losing his job, Bacigalupi's miserablism has made him one of the most celebrated writers of genre shorts of the last few years. Instead, I suspect that Bacigalupi is trying on new styles after becoming almost synonymous with the angry, confrontational tone of stories like "Pop Squad" or "Yellow Card Man," but I'm not sure this one works for him. Or maybe my problem has less to do with the story's tone and more to do with the simplicity of its plot, which establishes Ong's situation but doesn't go any further with it. I was blown away by "Yellow Card Man" because after introducing us to its protagonist's difficult situation, it changed that situation by having the protagonist make a choice that simultaneously reaffirmed his will to live and tarnished his soul. "The Gambler" is more delicate than that, which I think might be the reason why, as Niall observed yesterday, it didn't arouse much discussion. Everyone likes it--as well they should, since it's a very good story--but beyond the fact that they like it there's really not much to say.
Once again, my ballot for this category:
- "The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi
- "Pride and Prometheus" by John Kessel
- "Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear
- "The Ray-Gun: A Love Story" by James Alan Gardner
- No Award