The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Short Story Shortlist

I made a slight tactical error in my reading of this year's Hugo-nominated short stories when I prefaced it with a reading of Jhumpa Lahiri's recent collection, Unaccustomed Earth. The forced comparison with Lahiri's achingly immediate, scrupulously detailed prose would be unkind to almost any author, and the stories on this year's short story ballot--traditionally the weakest of the three short fiction categories--were no exception. Still, though it may be unfair to condemn the writers on the short story ballot for not giving Lahiri's limpid prose and deft characterization a run for their money, I do think it should count against the shortlist that none of the stories on it were able to remind me why, when all's said and done, I prefer genre shorts to mainstream ones. As astonishing as I found Lahiri's stories, I tend to grow rather weary of the New Yorker-friendly style of which she is so emblematic, and look to genre short fiction for qualities that mainstream short story writers often seem to disdain--plot, adventure, humor, any hint of the numinous or unusual, but mainly the willingness to look beyond the narrow confines of one's immediate environment. A good short story ballot should have reminded me that there are more stories to be told than the ones about unhappy, middle class families, and made me sigh with relief that there are still authors out there willing and able to do so, but this year's short story nominees just made me want to run right back to the suburbs.

We begin our odyssey with perennial Hugo nominee Mike Resnick. The narrator of "Article of Faith" is a priest who at the beginning of the story takes ownership of a new cleaning robot for his church, and, on a rather poorly explained lark, starts giving it religious instruction. When the robot asks to participate in church services the priest, and later his congregation, react with horror and confusion. The premise of "Article of Faith" begs comparison with a whole raft of Asimov robot shorts of a roughly similar ilk, and Resnick's construction of the robot character--anthropomorphic, human-named, soft-spoken, deferential but insistent on puzzling out the logical inconsistencies in the narrator's theology--is also heavily reminiscent of Asimov's robots. Which means that on top of failing in the traditional Resnick ways--plodding prose, obvious and predictable plot, shameless and blatant manipulation--"Article of Faith" fails by falling so very short of Asimov's standards.

Asimov was no great stylist, and his characters were paper-thin, but his robot stories had a lightness to them, an effervescent wit and gentle humor that are completely absent from Resnick's clomping, heavy-handed immitation of him. Add to this a simplistic and borderline reactionary treatment of religion--when arranging the wedding of a pregnant parishioner, the narrator muses that "it's not my job to judge them, only to help and comfort them," which sounds plenty judgmental to me; when the robot questions why services are held on Sundays instead of Tuesdays, the narrator's "first inclination was to say Force of habit, but that would negate everything I had done in my life," which, oh God, I don't even know where to start; then, of course, there's the blatantly telegraphed 'forgive them for they know not what they do' (no, really, he uses the actual quote) ending. There's been a discussion of Resnick's nominated novelette "Alastair Baffle's Emporium of Wonders" at Torque Control, during which there's been some attempt to pin down just what it is that makes him such a bad writer. A lot of good suggestions have been made, but to my mind his greatest failing is and has always been the one encapsulated by "Article of Faith"--his ability to take a subject that underpins some of science fiction's seminal works, write his own spin on it which is neither innovative nor unusual nor particularly good, and send it out into the world without a hint of embarrassment or self-awareness.

Misunderstood robots also appear in Mary Robinette Kowal's "Evil Robot Monkey," which beats "Article of Faith" hands down in terms of prose and its ability to elicit emotion, but which also isn't really a story at all but piece of one, a thousand-word vignette in which Sly, an uplifted monkey, rails against his handlers and their refusal to ackowledge his personhood. Kowal is a good enough writer that Sly's plight is compelling, but that doesn't change the fact that "Evil Robot Monkey" doesn't do anything beyond establishing that plight, or that it does so in ways that are both trite and familiar. Once again, this premise, of artificial creations gaining a measure of personhood only to see it, and their desires and aspirations, denied, has been at the heart of a significant portion of classic science fiction, and in order to be worthy of a Hugo nomination I think a story ought to do more than simply tip its hat to these works and then stop. In a way, I find Kowal's nomination even more baffling than Resnick's. Hugo voters either like him or his particular brand of sentimental pap, but as far as I know Kowal hasn't amassed that kind of following yet, and it's hard to imagine a non-story like "Evil Robot Monkey" arousing enough passion to make it onto the ballot on its own rather flimsy merits.

Kij Johnson, meanwhile, does seem to have something of a following. Last year, praise for her story "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" seemed to be on everybody's lips. I read "Trickster Stories" when it was nominated for the Nebula and found myself underwhelmed. It was charming and well-written. I was impressed with the way Johnson handled her inventive premise, neither shortchanging nor belaboring it, and couldn't help but be taken in by the gentle melancholy that suffused the story. But I didn't particularly like it, nor did I see why it had garnered such praise. I'm telling you all this because my reaction to "Trickster Stories" is also, word for word, my reaction to "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," Johnson's story on this year's short story ballot. It's a nice piece with a slightly surreal premise--Aimee owns a carnival act in which 26 monkeys disappear into a bathtub--but so gentle and unassuming that it's hard to believe that, once again, so many people have fallen in love with it. There's nothing wrong with "26 Monkeys," and Johnson's voice and style are unusual enough that I can sort of see how she might deserve recognition for them, but I can't help but think that there are much stronger, more interesting, more passionate stories out there that ought to have had her spot on the ballot. Still, I'm willing to admit that this is probably a case of me being the wrong reader for the story.

Johnson's story makes for an interesting counterpoint to Michael Swanwick's "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled," which is good old fashioned Proper SF, set in the far future and on an alien planet, and featuring interplanetary intrigue, cataclysmic destruction, fights to the death, a mad scramble across hostile, alien terrain, and bug people. Swanwick is a pro at this stuff, and "Babel" finds him very much on top of his game. It's exciting and well-done, cramming a hell of a lot of exposition, action and description into every single sentence until it draws a meticulously detailed portrait of two civilizations, their history, their cherished values, and the often fraught interactions between them. Still, given all the pyrotechnics and grand adventure involved in getting us to its end, "Babel" is somewhat underperforming.

Underpinning the story is a discussion of the economics of the two species--humans, represented by the diplomat Quivera, have an information-based economy, while that of the bug-like Gehennans, represented by the sole survivor of the recently destroyed Babel with whom Quivera flees its ruins, is based on trust--but Swanwick's descriptions of of these systems are messy and difficult to follow, and I found myself unpersuaded by his conclusions. "Babel" ends with one half of its unlikley partnership sacrificing himself to save the other, and in order to safeguard the precious (in many different senses) cargo they are carrying, but it's left to us to decide whether the survivor acted as an adventure hero would and honored his friend's dying wish, or whether he cashed in on an unexpected windfall. Obviously Swanwick is trying to undermine the adventure plot, and remind us that in the real world, it's cold hard numbers, profit and loss, that drive our decisions, but this feels like a petty sort of 'gotcha!' to the readers, whom Swanwick has worked hard to invest in the adventure aspect of his story only to snatch the rug out from under them at the last minute. I can't help but compare "Babel" to last year's Hugo-nominated novelette, "The Cambist and Lord Iron" by Daniel Abraham, which so much more intelligently and elegantly managed to fuse adventure and economics into a single, satisfying whole, without ever resorting to wagging its finger in the readers' faces as Swanwick seems to be doing.

Which brings us to Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," a story about which I've been going back and forth since I first read it some six months ago. Writing about it here, I called it "a chilly thought exercise of a story," but then concluded that Chiang's chilly thought exercises are "cooler, more inventive, and more interesting than just about anyone else's chilly thought exercises." That's still the dilemma I struggle with when it comes to this story--does the neatness of Chiang's SFnal invention counteract the story's chilliness? An interesting discussion centered roughly around this question developed in Torque Control's "Exhalation" post, with Niall Harrison passionately making the case for the story by arguing that
“Exhalation” feels to me like a kind of story that is truly unique to science fiction, and that that uniqueness, that taking advantage of its chosen form, is something to be celebrated. “Exhalation” tackles an idea that is inhuman in its remoteness by creating a literally inhuman world to express that idea — even second time through, I got a tingle from phrases such as, “every day we consume two lungs heavy with air”. If its plot and characters are subordinate to a different act of creation, I say: given how complete that act of creation is, so what?
And there is some truth to that. Certainly there are moments in "Exhalation" in which the sheer neatness of Chiang's ideas and the strangeness of the world he's created are almost overpowering--I'm thinking mainly of a scene in which the narrator dissects his own brain--but as a whole I can't say that the story swept me away as it did Niall. I appreciate it--indeed, I nominated it for this category--but I can't entirely love it, and I agree with the consensus in the Torque Control comment thread that as exceptional as it is, it is also a lesser Ted Chiang story. Whether that's a meaningful censure is something I'm still uncertain about, though I can't help but wish "Exhalation" was up against more worthy competition. That it is the best story on this year's short story ballot says more about the rather unimpressive raft of nominees than it does about Chiang's accomplishment.

Since I'm a Hugo voter this year, we might as well make this official. My votes for this category will be:
  1. "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang
  2. "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled" by Michael Swanwick
  3. "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson
  4. No Award
Honestly, the toughest decision I had to make when making up this ballot wasn't the order of stories on it, but deciding how high the No Award vote should go. This is a profoundly unimpressive list of nominees, and though I take some comfort in the knowledge that Chiang's victory is very nearly assured, it's hard not to feel that, once again, the short story category reflects poorly on the award as a whole, and casts a pall on nominees and winners in all categories.


Rich Horton said…
Obviously I liked "26 Monkeys" more than you did -- indeed I loved it. Seduced by the charm. Sometimes charm is enough, I think.

I liked last year's dog story by Johnson fine but not nearly as much as "26 Monkeys".

I think "Exhalation" is a worthy winner -- if it wins, as seems likely -- even against a really strong ballot. And I think "26 Monkeys, also the Abyss" fully worthy of being on the ballot. As for the rest -- I like "Evil Robot Monkey" quite a bit, and I'm reprinting it, but, yes, it's very short, somehow seems less substantial perhaps than many Hugo nominees. I wonder if it's the shortest Hugo nominee ever?

I think you're dead right about the other two -- the Swanwick story is very fine, but doesn't fully work, and your remarks about his "finger wagging" put the finger (as it were) on the problem.

And the Resnick is just as bad as you say.

Had the ballot included, say, Margo Lanagan's "The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross" and Rivka Galchen's "The Region of Unlikeness" (a New Yorker story, even!), and perhaps Peter Watts's "The Eyes of God", then it would be unreproachable. (As long as "Article of Faith" didn't remain!)

I haven't read Unaccustomed Earth, by the way, but I did read Lahiri's novel, The Namesake, and I liked it very much.
I haven't read the Lanagan story you mention, but I really would have liked to see "The Goosle" on this ballot, if only because I would have had a hard time choosing between it and the Chiang.

I actually think Lahiri is much better in the short form than as a novelist. If you enjoyed The Namesake - which despite beautiful writing I found too narrow in its scope and too staunch in its insistence on realism to truly engage with - you might want to check out either Unaccustomed Earth or her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies.
Anonymous said…
I agree with a lot of your comments, although I liked Evil Robot Monkey a lot more than you. I would say it is my top choice.

My reasons are two-fold: first, the author really gives a great sense of emotion throughout the story - you really feel the hate. She also does a great job of feeling what it's like to be alien and human at the same time.

Second, as you mention, she does it all in 1000 or so words. Impressive! Babel and Exhalation are good, but they take a lot more time to develop their story. I put those at two and three on my list, with no others worthy.

26 Monkeys failed for me because the real point of the story was emotional healing, but I never felt any emotion from Aimee, and I never felt invested in her character. Without that, it's just an empty bathtub.


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