The 2008 Hugo Award: The Novella Shortlist

So, we've had a not-so-great short story ballot, and an excellent novelette ballot--both as expected. The novella ballot, as I've already said, is the wild card. Though I've never read an excellent one, some years offer an impressive crop. This year, sadly, is not one of them. There's only a single story on this ballot that I'd like to see win the award, and it almost certainly won't. Of the remaining four, I found two completely unengaging and two actively bad, and it's in the latter camp that we find the story that is, I'll be any amount of money, going to walk away with the statue. At the beginning of this year's Hugo roundup I wrote that I couldn't imagine feeling the same level of aggravation and rage towards a shortlist that I once felt towards the 2005 short story ballot, but this year's novella shortlist came close to proving me wrong. I suppose that's something to be pleased about.

"All Seated on the Ground" is a Connie Willis story. A Connie Willis Christmas story, to be precise. Which, if you've read her short fiction, and specifically her Christmas stories (and if you follow the Hugo and Nebula nominees, you will have, as they inevitably receive nods), tells you everything you need to know about it. All of the standard Willis elements are here: the no-nonsense protagonist forced to deal with many, many foolish people who don't appreciate her, the cute love interest who does, the secondary characters who are each obsessed with a specific topic, won't stop talking about it, and keep cutting the protagonist off mid-sentence when she tries to tell them something important, a plot which is driven (and made an order of magnitude longer than it needs to be) primarily by this failure to listen, and, most importantly, an obsession with a specific area of knowledge which is expressed through a seemingly endless barrage of details about it. In the case of "All Seated on the Ground," this area of knowledge is Christmas carols. The narrator is part of a committee attempting to communicate with alien visitors who have arrived on the planet but refused to respond to human overtures, until one day they're taken to a mall and promptly sit on the ground. The narrator, with the help of a cute choir-master (check), figures out that the aliens responded to a verse being sung by his choir, but the other members of her committee ignore her findings (check) and each run around trying to prove that the aliens responded to their pet subject (check).

Realizing that many Christmas carols describe murder and mayhem and fearing that the aliens might respond to those lyrics as if they were suggestions, the narrator and her love interest scour the annals of Christmas choir music. And that is what "All Seated on the Ground" primarily consists of--paragraph upon paragraph of one of them offering up the title of a Christmas carol and the other one coming up with an inappropriate action verb that appears in it. And, you know, I get that I don't get Connie Willis. I get that her fiction is Not For Me. I get that there are people who find her idea of humor hilarious rather than tedious (actually, it was tedious in the mid-90s; by now it physically makes me squirm) and her romances affecting rather than predictable and trite. I certainly get that there are people for whom Christmas is a big deal and Christmas stories a pleasant tradition. But I simply do not get how a story made up almost entirely of lists of Christmas carol titles gets published, much less nominated for the most respected literary award in the field. Still, this is a Connie Willis story, and as they say if you like that sort of thing then this is the sort of thing you will like. A lot of people do, which is why Willis keeps getting nominated for awards and why she'll probably win the Hugo this year.

Much as I might wish otherwise, I can't deny that Connie Willis is an SFnal institution, but what's Kristine Kathryn Rusch's excuse? "Recovering Apollo 8" isn't quite as tedious as "All Seated on the Ground," but certainly not for lack of trying. Apollo 8, for those of you who weren't glued to the screen by the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, was the first lunar mission to orbit the moon, a maneuver that carried with it the risk, should the astronauts' calculations be even a little bit off, of the capsule crashing into the moon or being flung off into space. In the alternate universe in which Rusch's story takes place, the latter happens--Apollo 8 drifts irretrievably away from Earth as its inhabitants use their last breaths to exhort those on the planet to continue its exploration. Which, in that universe, is exactly what happens, as manned habitats are erected in orbit, on the moon, and on Mars. The protagonist, Richard, is an industrialist at the forefront of this movement, and since childhood he has nursed an obsession with Apollo 8. When the capsule's orbit brings it back into Earth's reach, Richard launches a mission to retrieve it, and, upon discovering that the doomed astronauts launched themselves into space rather than die in in a tiny tin can, resolves to retrieve their bodies as well. Which he does. "Recovering Apollo 8" boils down to four repetitions of the same sequence: Richard discovers the location of the capsule or one of the bodies; Richard retrieves the capsule or one of the bodies in a delicate and complex operation; Richard feels inexpressibly moved. At a few thousand words, "Recovering Apollo 8" might have been a sad and stirring piece about bringing fallen heroes to their final resting place, but as the word-count mounts, the story comes to seem maudlin, and then macabre--as though space were nothing but a vast mausoleum, and the only value of exploring it lay in the possibility of discovering the astronauts' bodies--and finally simply tedious.

Well, actually, I'm not sure I would have cared even for the drastically shortened version of "Recovering Apollo 8," not so long as it still centered around a real event. In real life, Apollo 8 and its crew of three--Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders--completed its mission and returned safely to Earth, and yet the more Richard rhapsodizes about the story's fictional alternative, about the astronauts' courage, their willingness to lay down their lives, and their calm stoicism in the face of death, the more difficult it becomes to avoid the conclusion that for Rusch, the real, happy, ending is just not good enough, not heroic enough, not poetically satisfying, not good fiction. Borman, Lovell, and Anders are real, living people, who forty years ago risked a terrible, lonely death in order to advance the cause of human knowledge and human endeavor. Rusch seems to feel that this does not make for a good enough story, and prefers to imagine, with a fascination that borders on prurience, that they did die that terrible and lonely death, and that that death helped launch humanity to the stars. I'm by no means a stranger to the appeal of the detached sadness of memorials and heroes' funerals, but "Recovering Apollo 8" is melancholy-porn, and all the more abhorrent for concealing that fetishization of death under the guise of Apollo Program fannishness.

I read Nancy Kress's "Fountain of Age" a few months ago when it was nominated for this year's Nebula award (which it went on to win). When the time came to review the Hugo-nominated novellas, I found that I could remember very little about it beyond the barest outline of its plot. Having gone back to review it, I can report that "Fountain of Age" is narrated by an old man, Max, who for his entire life has pined for a young prostitute named Daria with whom he had an affair while stationed on Cyprus during his tour with the military. Years later, discharged and unhappily married, Max discovers that Daria is the wife of a millionaire. When he finally manages to see her and tries to convince her to run away with him she refuses, and instead gives him money and a stock tip that turn him overnight into a rich man. In the decades that follow, Max becomes a shady businessman while Daria becomes humanity's cure for aging--tissue from a tumor discovered in her body freezes its recipient at their present age for twenty years, at the end of which they die. At the age of 86 Max, having lost his only memento of Daria, decides to procure another one, and signs up for the treatment.

I'm at an utter loss to determine what "Fountain of Age" is actually about. A lot of time is spent on Max's career as a crook, and on his relationship with some rather stereotypically sketched gypsies, but this seems to be not much more than filler. Of more interest is his difficult relationship with his wife and son, though this too is rather by the numbers. In between, Max details the reactions--generally violent--to Daria's promise of eternal youth (or eternal whatever-age-you-are-presently), but there's no real exploration of how D-treatment, as Kress calls it, affects human society. Most obviously, "Fountain of Age" is a tragic love story, at the end of which Daria is more lost to Max than she ever was. It's only on this level that Kress's story comes alive, but that's not much payoff (and certainly not much SFnal payoff) for tens of thousands of words of story.

Gene Wolfe's "Memorare" (and his fiction in general) has been highly praised by people whose tastes I respect. I was surprised, therefore, at how unpleasant I found "Memorare," and can't help but wonder if I'm missing something. Set among the asteroids and space debris orbiting Jupiter, "Memorare" is the story of March, a documentary filmmaker chronicling the phenomenon of space mausoleums, erected in memory of those who died in space. Some of these are simple floating monuments. Others house holograms of the dead who tell visitors about their lives and the manner of their deaths. Some are death-traps, erected by cults who believe that those who die in their tombs will serve the dead in the afterlife. It's an intriguing setting, but it's soon shunted aside by the arrival of Kit, March's girlfriend and a TV personality whom he has hired to narrate his film, and her friend Robin, who claims to be fleeing an abusive husband and turns out to be March's first wife, from whom he had a bitter divorce marked, so he claims, by false accusations of abuse on her part. What follows, especially when Robin's husband, determined to win her back through words or strength of arms, arrives on the scene, is not just a soap opera but a trailer park soap opera (it's surely no accident that the characters' spaceships are repeatedly compared to mobile homes), full of rough men, simpering women, and repeated threats of violence by both.

It's hard to imagine that Wolfe isn't deliberately catering to every stereotype of trailer trash life in existence, but this knowledge does not make his pastiche any easier to read. His prose is cloying and consciously folksy--" You're a star, and I'm a washed-up producer who was never terribly big anyway. Knowing all that—because I know you know it, too—will you marry me?"--and his characters are shrill and crudely drawn. It is particularly difficult to read about Robin the harridan, who hounded March during their marriage, drove him to bankruptcy, and is now driving her new husband to distraction as well, or about Kit's lapse into infidelity with that same husband as soon as March's back is turned. For all that, I can't dismiss "Memorare," and not simply because of Wolfe's and the story's fervent admirers. Reading the story, most particularly its latter part in which the four characters venture into a large tomb which March has noted as particularly dangerous and find within it a seductive paradise, it's clear that there's a layer to it that I'm not getting, an extended metaphor to which I do not have the key. If anyone would like to make an argument for "Memorare" being more than the mean-spirited, misogynistic, indifferently written mess it appears to be, I'd be happy to hear it, but I found the experience of reading the story too unpleasant to try to find that second level myself by delving into it again.

Like "Memorare," Lucius Shepard's "Stars Seen Through Stone" is primarily concerned with a soap opera-derived story. This time, it's the small Pennsylvania mining town full of curdled ambitions, populated by has-beens and future has-beens, where every generation promises themselves that they'll be the ones to get out of Dodge, but only a few ever do. Unlike Wolfe, and every other author on the novella shortlist, Shepard transcends the cliché, and produces a touching piece of work whose characters are not only believable but lovable. The narrator, Vernon, is a small-time music producer who sifts through piles of crude and derivative demo tapes for the occasional diamond in the rough. At the story's beginning, he seems to have found one, a blues musician called Joe Stanky who comes to live with Vernon as they work on his sound and cut a CD. Stanky soon reveals himself to be the worst variant of geek--unpleasant, socially maladjusted, made bitter and mean by his frustrated sense of superiority--but he appears to be a musical genius. Genius, in fact, seems to be in the air as the frustrated ambitions of Vernon's friends and neighbors begin bearing fruit--the wannabe cartoonist who begins drawing a new, hilarious strip; the woman who finally writes her novel; the aimless young girl who discovers her intellectual focus--and Vernon himself seems to be touched with the genius of love, as he and his ex-wife Andrea rekindle their relationship. At the same time, mysterious artifacts begin to appear in town--the titular stars--and some townspeople seem to be driven not to genius but to suicide or madness.

While it isn't exactly true to say that Shepard prioritizes the soapy, relationship aspects of his story over the SFnal ones--the two are, after all, inextricably linked, and Vernon and Andrea, for example, spend much of their time together musing about the outside influence that may have been the cause of their renewed affections, and wondering whether that makes their love less real or more transient--"Stars Seen Through Stone" is a great deal more interesting when dealing with the mundane. Shepard's characters feel real--Vernon and Andrea are sweet; Stanky is disgusting; the frustrated cartoonist, who realizes the truth of what's happening to the town and is driven insane by it, is pitiable. What's more, their predicament is familiar. We all know what it feels like to give up on our dream of stardom and renown because it's too hard, because we can't afford it, because we're not good enough, and the idea of an outside force unleashing that bottled up well of creativity is both seductive and terrifying. It was a particular stroke of brilliance on Shepard's part to choose a setting that is, as I said, synonymous with shattered dreams, and then imagine the effects on it of those dreams coming true. Even Shepard's narrative voice seems better suited to the story's naturalistic aspects--he develops an irresistible rhythm when describing, for example, Stanky's music, or Vernon's fishing expeditions in the town's polluted river, or his and Andrea's conversations, but his prose turns purple when describing the otherworldly apparitions. It is therefore unsurprising that "Stars Seen Through Stone" ends on a slightly unsatisfactory note, as the supernatural element is foregrounded. Shepard is skilled enough, however, to knit the SFnal and mundane together even at the very end, and though the end result isn't perfect it is nevertheless extremely fine.

In a perfect world, Lucius Shepard would win this year's Hugo. In an even more perfect world, he'd win over competitors who deserve to be on the shortlist. But we don't live in a perfect world and Connie Willis's "All Seated on the Ground" is going to take the prize. This is a very dispiriting note on which to close an award overview that had previously been going quite well. Here's hoping that next year's novella shortlist makes for a more pleasant surprise.


Anonymous said…
Well, in a perfect world the best hope for "Stars Seen Through Stone", a decent Lucius Shepard story but not a great one, would be to have a spot on a ballot but no chance to win.

I liked "Memorare" more than you did but I can see the shortcomings -- it is misogynistic on the surface but I think at some level this is a strategy -- and the dialogue is extremely forced and artificial but this too -- I am even more sure -- is a strategy. My support of it for the award is distinctly a matter of "it's better than the rest" rather than enthusiastic.

I can only echo your comments about the rest of the stories (except to say that I greatly enjoy Connie Willis's humorous stories when they are GOOD -- "All Seated on the Ground" just isn't good).

A big problem, really, is that this just wasn't a good year for novellas. Ian MacLeod's "The Master Miller's Tale" is an obvious choice that would be better than anything on the ballot. Slightly more obscure, due to place of publication, are Dan Simmons's "Muse of Fire" (from THE NEW SPACE OPERA) and Elizabeth Hand's ILLYRIA (a PS Publishing chapbook).


Yes, ideally every year would yield a crop of stories so perfect as to make the chances of a good but flawed piece like "Stars Seen Through Stone" negligible :-)

As I said, I definitely believe that the elements I found so unpleasant about "Memorare" are, as you say, a strategy, but a strategy in service of what? What is Wolfe trying to say or accomplish with the story?

The last Connie Willis story I found both good and funny was To Say Nothing of the Dog. I can't think of anything by her from the last decade that I'd consider worth my time.
Kellie said…
I'm by no means a stranger to the appeal of the detached sadness of memorials and heroes' funerals, but "Recovering Apollo 8" is melancholy-porn, and all the more abhorrent for concealing that fetishization of death under the guise of Apollo Program fannishness.

I enjoy reading your reviews regardless of whether I've read the work in question or not for such fabulous gems as this. I haven't read this piece, but the sentiment you expressed here resonated so much that I know I've seen a similar effect elsewhere. There ought to be a word for it.
Alison said…
I've never heard anyone else say this but I think Gene Wolfe might be going a bit bonkers in the style of Dave Sim. His early work was transcendent but when I turn to recent short stories they seem to be religious in a nasty woman-hating vein. But then, as a result of this, I've just been avoiding reading his stuff lately so perhaps I'm mistaken.

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