Saturday, May 22, 2010

The 2010 Hugo Awards: The Short Story Shortlist

After two years of being a Hugo nominator, I've come to the conclusion that you can have interesting, in-depth discussions of this award and its nominees before they're announced or after, but that there isn't really enough to say to justify doing both.  For example, I've already written at some length about two of the stories on the short story ballot.  Which leaves me not only with less to say but also feeling a little tired of the topic.  After spending several months trawling through a sizable portion of the year's short fiction output, the actual announcement of the shortlists felt like a bit of a letdown.  Even though I have little to complain about, quality-wise, in the short story and novelette categories, the fact that a consensus had been reached about the stories that would be on them some time before the shortlists were announced, and that the shortlists mostly reflect this consensus, takes some of the fun out of writing these reviews.  (The exception, of course, is the novella shortlist, in which I've read only one nominee, but right now the easiest and perhaps only way of getting hold of all the nominated stories is the Hugo voter packet, which would involve becoming a Hugo nominator again next year.  To be honest, I was looking forward to a break, so it's possible that I'll give this shortlist a pass.)  So this year's short story post is going to be shorter than usual, starting with this change: I am not writing about the Mike Resnick story (PDF).  For years I've felt honor-bound to read Resnick's nominated stories, only to end up making the same criticism and expressing the same exasperation at their presence on the ballot, and this year I just haven't got the energy.  So let's just take it as read that I'm going to like least of all the nominees and move on to the others.

The one big surprise on the short story ballot--on any of the short fiction ballots, actually--is Lawrence M. Schoen's "The Moment."  Published in Footprints, a small-press anthology edited by Jay Lake and Eric T. Reynolds, as far as I was aware neither the story nor the anthology had garnered much in the way of buzz or critical attention, and its nomination seemed to come entirely out of the blue.  It would be nice to be able to report that "The Moment" is not only a surprise but a delightful one, but unfortunately reading the story only deepens my confusion at its presence on the ballot.  Footprints's theme is the discovery of the remnants of human civilization by aliens, long after we've died out or left the planet.  It's a neat concept, but Schoen's treatment of it doesn't extend much beyond neatness.  "The Moment" is made of up of a series of vignettes, each describing a stranger and more advanced form of alien life discovering a footprint on the moon, and at some point discovering the remnants of those who have discovered it before them.  There's some potential here, as the story extends to a futuristic setting a known and slightly disorienting fact of archeology--that what's left to us of the vast and complicated civilizations of the distant past is only the faintest and most inscrutable of evidence, which is often obscured by those civilizations' descendants--and Schoen's execution is, for a time, enjoyable, a riot of inventive descriptions as the aliens visiting the moon change and evolve, from a minuscule generation ship populated by identical clones who populate the grooves of the lunar footprint to an empire of sentient plants.  After a while, though, the parade of ever-stranger beings starts to pall and Schoen's inventiveness begins to seem a bit twee, and then comes the very ending, in which the purpose of the entire story turns out to be a mawkish paean to humanity's spirit of exploration.  Hugo nominated short stories are often not much more than vignettes, meant to capture a single impression or idea--a moment--but Schoen tries to sustain this single note for too long, and for too insipid a reason.

Will McIntosh's "Bridesicle" (PDF) is told from the point of view of Mira, who has woken up after her death in a car accident in a "dating center," where lonely men offer to pay for her resurrection from cryogenic suspension in exchange for her hand in marriage.  As I wrote in my Strange Horizons short fiction review, this premise doesn't quite work:
Why doesn't Mira know about the dating centers if she's got cryogenic insurance? Why buy cryogenic insurance at all if she can't afford to be revived? Why, most of all, go to all the trouble of storing and then reviving dead women in a world in which live ones sell themselves into marriage all too often? For that matter, why are there only women in the "dating center"? "Bridesicle" works because it's not at all subtle about paralleling real-world mercenary marriage arrangements, and because, no matter how contrived and manipulative it is, Mira's predicament is too stark and too horrifying to be denied. The bulk of the story is spent in her brief respites from oblivion, which are often decades apart, in which she desperately tries to please her current wife-seeker. Along the way, we learn more about Mira's life before her accident, itself no picnic—guilt-tripped into integrating the preserved consciousness of her domineering, homophobic mother into her own, Mira was unable to mourn the death of her partner or try to find a new one. Again, there's a lot of obvious manipulation going on here, and again, that manipulation is effective despite its obviousness. The story's ending is perhaps a little too neat, with Mira having found a way not only to be revived without selling too much of herself, but to be reunited with her lover, but it's a victory that is just partial and just costly enough to be believable.
For the third year running, Kij Johnson is the author of one of the most talked-about genre short stories of the year, and for the third year running, I find myself left out of the party.  The difference being that in previous years, Johnson's stories--"The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" in 2008 and "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" in 2009--left me cold because I found them both charming but effervescent, and I certainly can't apply either of those adjectives to "Spar," her story on the 2010 Hugo ballot.  The story's first sentence--"In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly."--sets the tone.  "Spar" is the story of a nameless woman who is stuck on alien lifeboat with an alien passenger, the sole survivors of a collision between their spaceships, and its entire narrative is the description of how she and the alien--a non-humanoid, boneless, slimy blob--have nonstop sex.  But is it sex, or rape, or assault, or masturbation?  There is no possibility of communication between the woman and the alien, no way to know if it is responding to her actions, seeking her pleasure or pain, if it recognizes her sentience or even existence, or if it is sentient itself.  I like "Spar" a great deal better than either "Dogs" or "Monkeys" because it is such a well-done, concentrated bit disturbing and disorienting writing (Alvaro Zinos-Amaro has a nice write-up of it in Strange Horizons), but like those two stories, I find myself hesitant to join in the near-unanimous praise of it (it has already won this year's Nebula award) because really, there's so little here.  I'm honestly of two minds here, because on the one hand, "Spar" knows what it wants to do--to disturb and unsettle--and does that job very well--and on the other hand these strike me as if not modest then at least very narrow ambitions, and I'm more interested in stories whose scope is a bit wider.

N.K. Jemisin's "Non-Zero Probabilities" is the perfect antidote to the creepiness of the McIntosh and Johnson stories.  A low-key, deliberately mundane story about a woman trying to live an ordinary life in the shadow of an extraordinary event, the story sometimes seems to go out of its way to be pleasant, an effect it achieves through the character of its protagonist, Adele, a no-nonsense young woman who knows how to protect herself--in this case, from the never-explained transformation of New York into a realm where one in a million chances crop up nine times out of ten--but who is also open to new experiences and new relationships.  As I wrote in Strange Horizons,
"Non-Zero Probabilities" is more a character piece, studying Adele's adaptation to her altered landscape, than a worldbuilding piece, but nevertheless Jemisin does a good job constructing that landscape, outlining the dangers and wonders of this new world—Adele waits for an auspicious day to hire a car to go to Ikea, but on the other hand, cancer and AIDS patients have experienced miraculous recoveries. What's most enjoyable and refreshing about "Non-Zero Probabilities" is that despite describing a New York that has reverted to A Simpler Time—no one drives, everyone eats locally because out of town food supplies are sporadic, people know their neighbors—it is decidedly unsentimental about the city's transformation. It ends with Adele weighing both the good and bad aspects of her altered life, and leaves it to us to decide whether a return to normal would be a good thing.
Given the attention that both have received, I'm guessing that the Hugo will go to either Johnson or Jemisin.  I prefer the latter, but can certainly see arguments for the former.  Either way, there's no denying that these two stories, and the McIntosh, make for an interesting shortlist.  They're very different--two are SFnal, one a fantasy; two are futuristic, one contemporary; two do a lot of worldbuilding, one is a chamber piece; two set out to unsettle, one to make the unsettling mundane--but all three are women's stories, and all are imbued with an ambivalence towards wonder--be it technological or magical--and with a deep-seated doubt about its ability to better our lives, that I'm not used to finding on Hugo shortlists.  I'm not saying that this is the direction I'd like to see the award move in exclusively, but it's a refreshing change, and so long as I can count on Mike Resnick continuing to show up on award shortlists, it's nice to know that other, more thoughtful kinds of genre work also have a place on the Hugo ballot.

2 comments:

Kate Nepveu said...

"Spar" knows what it wants to do--to disturb and unsettle--and does that job very well--and on the other hand these strike me as if not modest then at least very narrow ambitions

Oh thank goodness, I thought it was just me.

I'm disappointed that only 2/5 of the novellas seem to be online, though given the others' status as chapbooks, I suppose it's a bit more understandable.

Jakob Schmidt said...

I liked "Spar" for what it is - a tight, controlled, disturbing little story with a metaphor that may not be that original in itself, but cuts two ways in an interesting way. There's a vivid rendering of the classic motive of the inability to communicate with the alien, and there's also something about the deep and unsettling elements of insecurity that can occur in any kind of intimate relationship between two human beings - am I just a means to him/her, is he/she really important to me as a person? And it provides just the right amount of icky imagery!

It might not be an overly ambitious story, but it is highly effective. I haven't read anything else by Kij Johnson, but I just found out that I have about three or four more of her stories scattered through Year's-Best-Of-Anthologies, and I'll definitely check them out.

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