Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hugo Awards 2014/1939: Shorts to Novels

It's only a month since the 2014 Hugo Awards and the 1939 Retro-Hugos were announced, so at least I'm doing better than last year with this final segment of my rundown on the nominees. There was quite a lot of controversy this year about a slate of nominations that some people pushed for reactionary reasons, but luckily for me I didn't have to decide whether or not to vote for the nominees on their own merits, or against because of their politics, because I didn't think any of them merited the awards anyway.  Onward:

Best Short Story:
1939 nominees were "How We Went to Mars" by Arthur C. Clarke, "The Faithful" by Lester del Rey, "Hellerbochen’s Dilemma" by Ray Bradbury, "Hyperpilosity" by L. Sprague de Camp, and "Helen O’Loy" by Lester del Rey.
"How We Went to Mars" wasn't in the packet, but I remember reading it in a collection some years ago as an enjoyable, humorous tale about a competition between rocket clubs that ended up overvaulting everyone's ambitions. None of the other stories impressed me much. Maybe I should have voted for this and then No Award, but my ranking was How We Went to Mars, The Faithful, Hellerbochen’s Dilemma, Hyperpilosity, and Helen O’Loy. (My first pick won!)
2014 nominees were "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky; "The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt; "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" by Sofia Samatar; and "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" by John Chu.
I linked the two stories that I actually liked. In fact, I loved both of them.
"If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" has been compared to a children's story in the form of "If this, then that; if that, then so-and-so; if so-and-so, then such-and-such... It was a really short story, in fact a 12-stanza poem. I'm not quoting because I don't want to spoil it for anyone; if you haven't read it yet, go!
Did your eyes tear up? Mine still do after multiple readings. It's a beautifully crafted dark jewel of a story. Some people say it's neither science fiction nor fantasy so it's not really Hugo-eligible, but I assert vehemently that it IS speculative fiction. The narrator says "If," not "Is," but that just means it's like a simile, not a metaphor; it's certainly not mundane fiction. The writer uses the if-SFF structure to tell about love and grief, and if a non-fan asked me to recommend just one piece of fiction from 2013, this would be it.
"Selkie Stories Are for Losers" was a very close second for me. This is a daughter telling about how she was affected after her mother disappeared, in her relationships with others and in how she explains things to herself, including various forms of selkie stories. She never actually saw her mother transform into a seal and swim away, though, so once again, some people say this isn't a real SFF story. I say that their definitions are too limited. All good SFF stories should contain, besides the speculative, the ring or the sting of truth:
In selkie stories, kissing never solves anything. No transformation happens because of a kiss. No one loves you just because you love them. What kind of fairy tale is that?
TIRODS was a mildly interesting sort of fairy tale.
TWTFOYFN read much more like an absurdist comedy to me than speculative fiction. It's the heart-warming tale of a man who finds it too difficult to lie, because of TWTFOYFN when that happens, so he decides to come out to his parents. I guess technically it's fantasy, but if you remove the fantastic element from the story, it's still coherent and is in fact just about the same story.
My vote: IYWADML, SSAFL, blank. (Winner: TWTFOYFN)

1939 nominees were "Rule 18" by Clifford D. Simak, "Pigeons from Hell" by Robert E. Howard, "Werewoman" by C.L. Moore, "Hollywood on the Moon" by Henry Kuttner, and "Dead Knowledge" by Don A. Stuart (John Campbell). 
The packet included Werewoman, Pigeons from Hell, and a link to Hollywood on the Moon. I voted anyway because if heirs won't turn a story loose for voters 75 years later, too bad.
"Pigeons from Hell" was a pretty good yarn about people staying in a haunted house where the chickens had come home to roost for a slaveowner many years ago, and the ghosts were still angry.
"Hollywood on the Moon" was quite dated, but I tried to look at it as if reading in 1939. On that level, it was amusingly cynical and fairly creative, full of ideas.
I wanted to like "Werewoman" because C.L. Moore was a woman, and there were very few of those on the 1939 ballot, but this story was disappointingly monotonous. I kept waiting for something interesting to happen, and nothing struck me. 
My vote: Hollywood on the Moon, Pigeons from Hell. (Winner: Rule 18)
2014 nominees were "Opera Vita Aeterna" by Vox Day; "The Exchange Officers" by Brad Torgersen; "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal; "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang; and "The Waiting Stars" by Aliette de Bodard.
OVA would have been boring and disappointing in the back of an old gaming magazine (a number of those had quite interesting, tight, humorous little stories!). As a 2014 Hugo nominee, it was worse than laughable. Of all the items in all the categories in the 2014 and 1939 nominees, it's the only one that I decided deserved to lose to No Award.
TEO was a fun, fast read about Americans on a space station trying to fend off a Chinese takeover.
TLAOM initially received enough votes to be nominated for a 2013 Hugo, but then was scratched because it came out as an audio story instead of text. Many people viewed this as an injustice, but as the text was published online in 2013, it was eligible and renominated for a 2014 award. Anyway, the story is about a former astronaut and Mars colonist who's asked to go on a new, important mission, but her husband is dying and she doesn't want to leave him. Great characterization and writing.
TTOFTTOF explored some really interesting topics: the nature of language, memory as foundation and friction in relationships, communal truth, and how technology has affected/is affecting/will affect all of these things. For instance, a wife uses the Remem app to prove that her husband was misremembering events, he says she shouldn't have corrected him in front of friends, she says he does that to her all the time, and someone else says they had a bickering relationship before that technology ever came along. The narrator thinks, "If someone’s marriage was built on—as ironic as it might sound—a cornerstone of forgetfulness, what right did Whetstone have to shatter that?"
I had an interesting conversation with someone about whether this part of the story was an example of erasure, with the woman apparently being supposed to forgive and forget (or forget and forgive), and whether the implied sexism was the narrator's or the author's. Other parts of the story included the introduction of writing to an illiterate culture, and how record-keeping affects relations between clans, and the narrator's difficult relationship with his daughter, and how technology reveals problems he hadn't even known about, making things initially more difficult but possibly healthier later. This is a story I'm still thinking about long afterward.
TWS is about a conflict between cultures, and a woman from one who was made over into a woman from the other, and her struggles with this. Beautiful writing.
My vote: TTOFTTOF, TLAOM, TWS, TEO, No Award. (Winner: TLAOM)

1939 nominees were "Who Goes There?" by Don A Stuart (John Campbell), "The Time Trap" by Henry Kuttner, "Sleepers of Mars" by John Beynon, "A Matter of Form" by H.L. Gold, and "Anthem" by Ayn Rand.
The packet included Anthem and The Time Trap.
"Who Goes There?" was a tight, suspenseful, grittily atmospheric story about scientists at an Antarctic base who stumbled into a discovery that was almost more than they can handle. It has inspired 3 movie versions of "The Thing" so far, plus Randall Garrett's parody poem, and has doubtlessly influenced many later writers.
"The Time Trap" read like a hack trying to imitate Edgar Rice Burroughs.
"Anthem" -- I read it in junior high or high school and thought it was a reasonably good story (not bloated like some of Rand's other work), but didn't feel any urge to reread it.
I really wanted Who Goes There to win this, so I voted for it and nothing else. (It won!)
2014 nominees were "The Butcher of Khardov" by Dan Wells, "The Chaplain’s Legacy" by Brad Torgersen, "Equoid" by Charles Stross, "Six-Gun Snow White" by Catherynne M. Valente, and "Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages.
"The Butcher of Khardov" had a twist that I wasn't expecting, but the story was longer than it needed to be, and not terribly memorable.

"The Chaplain’s Legacy" was a mildly interesting story about a human-alien war and trying to establish communication and trust.
"Equoid" was a surprise for me in that I usually love stories about The Laundry (British bureaucracy fighting Lovecraftian horrors), but not this one. It was really nasty, gratuitously gross, and I've read the backstory about how it arose but I just don't care.
"Six-Gun Snow White" was a sort of combined fairy tale and Western tall tale. It's told in a distant way, so I never felt an emotional connection. It does some interesting things, although I think it took too long to get there.
In "Wakulla Springs," I loved the progression of connections, the interesting characters and their choices and looking at how different people perceived the same events, the sometimes simply direct and sometimes richly evocative language, really everything about it. I suppose some voters may have thought there was very little of the fantastic about it -- and that what there was could easily be excised without changing the story much -- but as a story about fans and about reaching for dreams (and adapting when they don't work out as expected), I thought it was just wonderful.
My vote: Wakulla Springs, Six-Gun Snow White, blank. (Winner: Equoid)

1939 nominees were "The Sword in the Stone" by T.H. White, "Out of the Silent Planet" by C.S. Lewis, "Galactic Patrol" by E.E. Smith, "The Legion of Time" by Jack Williamson, and "Carson of Venus" by Edgar Rice Burroughs. 
The voter packet included Carson of Venus, Galactic Patrol, and The Legion of Time. I didn't find any of these particularly interesting. I know Galactic Patrol was the start of the Lensman series and was tremendously influential, but it didn't do anything for me.
I read "Out of the Silent Planet" quite a few years ago. It was an interesting book, started off grippingly and continued as more than the travelogue it might have seemed, and I loved the twist on the trope of how the narrator enlisted the author (we'll tell this true story as fiction to warn others!).
"The Sword in the Stone" was another I'd read before, and I'd seen the animated Disney movie years ago, too, about Merlin's education of the young Arthur.  The book rambles a bit, but I actually loved the tangents; it's often funny, often wistful, and also has quite a few serious concepts to ponder. It also has the wonderful idea of explaining Merlin's abilities as a seer by saying that he's a man who lives backward through time.
My vote: I really wanted "The Sword in the Stone" to win, so I voted for it alone. (It won!)
2014 nominees were "Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie, "Neptune's Brood" by Charles Stross, "Parasite" by Mira Grant, "Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles" by Larry Correia, and "The Wheel of Time" (from "The Eye of the World" through "A Memory of Light") by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.
The voter packet included samplings from Ancillary Justice, Neptune's Brood and Parasite, the nominated Warbound by Correia plus the first two books in that series, and the full 14-book cycle of The Wheel of Time. Luckily for me, I had already read the complete Ancillary Justice and Neptune's Brood.
Ancillary Justice was one of the most hyped books of 2013; I read glowing review after glowing review. When I finally got to read it, I was a bit let down. The narrative started off with a rather unlikely circumstance, and some other plot elements seemed a little simplistic. The beginning was pretty hard going, until I absorbed enough of what was going on to process it more easily, eventually hurtling along toward the climax. But! The book was chock-full of ideas (female as the language-default gender, one mind in multiple bodies, etc.). The clashing cultures were fascinating, and when I finally realized where the ship-soldiers actually came from (I'd thought they were clones or something), a little scream escaped my lips. The protagonist's dilemmas were absorbing. The person who thought she was the protagonist provided a leavening counterbalance. The book was interesting enough to provide ground for long conversations with a couple of relatives. I highly recommend it.
Neptune's Brood is set in the same universe as Saturn's Children, but here the protagonist is a sort of forensic accountant. Speculations about how interstellar banking would work in a slower-than-light civilization are interspersed throughout a spy-and-suspense sort of tale, and I found it interesting and enjoyable.
Parasite was also interesting, and the main character was engaging in her way, but the excerpt didn't give me enough of a sense of the full story for me to rate it higher than third.
Warbound was the conclusion of the Grimnoir trilogy, which I thought was mildly entertaining. The basic idea is pretty similar to a concept from Piers Anthony's Xanth books -- magic (or tech, maybe, in a handwavy way) appears because a super-magic critter from beyond flees to Earth and it leaks. It's set in the 1930s, which allows dirigible fights, faceoffs with politicians of the time, and a ripe geopolitical situation. The characters are engaging, and the plot moves along nicely, but it's not exactly substantial.
I had started the Eye of the World back when it came out, and dropped it because I thought it was really derivative. The next couple of books didn't grab me enough to try again. I'm told that the series gets better as you go along, but by then it was too late for me.   
My vote: Ancillary Justice, Neptune’s Brood, Parasite. (Winner: Ancillary Justice, which also won Nebula, Locus, Clarke, and a couple of other awards. Try it!) 

The Campbell Award for new writers did not, of course, exist in 1939, given whom it's named after. The 2014 nominees are Wesley Chu, Max Gladstone, Ramez Naan, Sofia Samatar, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew. I loved Samatar's "Selkie Stories Are for Losers," but I ran out of reading time and didn't read the other nominees, so I didn't vote in this category. We keep being reminded that the Campbell is Not a Hugo, so I don't feel too bad about that. But I have a little treasure trove of samples from Campbell-nominated authors waiting for me! (Winner: Samatar)


  1. I didn't talk much about SFF fan politics, but the ADA Initiative recently posted a brief history of the issues that the community has been grappling with, including sexism, racism, and diversity in general.

    1. Thanks for the link to the Ada Initiative.

  2. Further exploring what speculative fiction is, I'm reposting some of my comments from the Escape Pod forum:

    It's true that the poem says IF this speculative thing were so, rather than IT IS, and it's true that Selkie Stories' protagonist never actually saw her mom change into a seal and swim away, so technically she could just be constructing an illusory worldview that lets her transform the inexplicability of loss and heartache into the inexplicability of magic. However, isn't the element of uncertainty integral to speculative fiction? Maybe even the uncertainty of our definitions, and where we draw the lines? So, even if a protagonist KNOWS that she's just building castles in the air, I'm enchanted to be invited to lend a figurative hand with my suspension of disbelief, especially when the writing is beautiful and/or the character is well drawn.

    What's the opposite of speculative -- mundane? As far as I'm concerned, these two stories are not the least bit mundane, in either sense of the word -- neither too worldly and un-speculative for inclusion here, nor too dull or lacking in interest and excitement. The conflicts may be internal, and the speculative elements may be primarily in the characters' heads, but in my opinion, that makes them no less worthy of our attention and discussion.


Let me know what you think about this!