Solitair vs. The Hugos 3: Short Stories

“Heart attack far too young; poor kid, should’ve eaten more organic; should’ve taken it easy and not been so angry; the world can’t hurt you if you just ignore everything that’s wrong with it; well, not until it kills you anyway.”

There’s no long introduction for awards season this time. I figured I already covered all of my feelings regarding the Hugos and the controversy they’ve been mired in before, plus I was too busy to nominate anything from 2016. There are two things I wanted to point out before I cut to the chase.

First of all, I neglected to cover Stephen King’s “Obits” last year, when it was nominated for Best Novelettes. I didn’t want to buy an entire short story collection just for that one story, but it turns out that story was included in my voter packet and I didn’t notice it in the shuffle. Sorry, Stephen. I still really like The Dark Tower books and 11/22/63.

Secondly, it looks like Worldcon finally found a way to keep VD from ruining everybody else’s fun. No longer will entire categories of the ballot be held hostage to the whims of a white supremacist, which is more than welcome news in a world where white supremacy and similar forms of toxic thinking are more mainstream than they’ve been in decades. Now there are six entries on each ballot, and I presume you could only vote for four of them during the nomination phase. There’s barely anything I have to skip over now!

My rules are as follows: I limit myself to actual prose fiction because of time constraints and will not touch anything VD or Castalia House’s names next to it. Everything else, even oo-rah mil-sci-fi from Baen if that should squeak onto the ballot, gets a fair shot. Each novel and novelette gets its own page, while short stories and novelettes have to share, and each is covered in ascending order of length. I’m putting what I’m voting at the bottom, but I encourage you to vote according to what you like if you want to give Worldcon money for the privilege.

Brief thoughts on other categories: Arrival is easily the most award-worthy of the movies (and season of TV) on the ballot and I’m hoping it overcomes geek gratitude at seeing Star Wars back in theaters. I’m stoked to see a music album get in Dramatic Presentation and hope it does well against the old guard of TV shows. I might cover the comics category later because I know Paper Girls is good, I’m really interested in Monstress, Coates’ Black Panther, and the new Vision series, and it’s been way too long since I caught up with Saga. The new Best Series category makes me laugh, because there’s no way you can get caught up on it in time if you’re not already familiar with the entrants. Either way, The Vorkosigan Saga will probably win based on seniority and the Hugos it already racked up in the past.

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander

Last year, Brooke Bolander’s entry on the ballot was an in-your-face attitude fest that had a functional narrative buried beneath and ultimately hindered by its confrontational crust. This time around, the anger is not just the point, but the entirety of the story. The narrator spells out her reasons for it loud and clear, turning what could have been a traditional story into a didactic lecture on what she’s sick and tired of seeing in stories. It’s withholding, anti-voyeur, and political, plus it knows what it wants to be more than “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead.”

I’m guessing that this will be the most contentious, if not controversial, story in the short story category. Because it’s highly concerned with what information people focus on in the cases of gruesome violence against women (rape is never mentioned but I think the subtext is intentional) versus what they ignore, it keeps the reader at an arm’s length, pushing them away so that they can’t get too wrapped up in gruesome, humiliating, dehumanizing details. On the other hand, they can’t get wrapped up in the catharsis she gets by enacting vengeance on the man who disfigured her, either, even though she explicitly says that’s the story she wanted to tell.

That’s where Bolander’s intentions confuse me. Does she want to shame the reader for having an interest in this sort of story, or does she want to redefine how these stories should be told? Did she intend for this story to become so well-known that it got nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, or was this just a quick lark written when she’d lost patience with some asshole in her life who just wouldn’t get something through his thick skull? Is it, as someone who pointed out the irony of the main character being a literal harpy, tongue in cheek? I doubt that last one, because I know Bolander believes in all the points her character makes and it’s hard for me to imagine her pushing them with a wink and a smile.

Once again, I feel like a heel for saying that a Hugo-nominated Brooke Bolander story didn’t win me over. It’s better than the last one and its heart is absolutely in the right place, plus it made me think about responsible storytelling and question why we tell stories like this to begin with. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop me from feeling almost nothing reading this outside of intellectual curiosity. Is it really impossible to achieve this effect while also engrossing an audience and affecting them on a deeper, subconscious level? I doubt it.

“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong

This is a portrait of grief held in stasis, unnaturally prolonged by fantasy powers so that healing is essentially impossible. The stark emotional landscape on display is aided by the chronology of events is jumbled and fragmented even without factoring in Hannah’s desperate attempts to rewrite time over and over again for the desired result. The only details that seem to stick are the most important ones: Hannah’s sister died because Hannah wasn’t there for her. That’s what Hannah thinks, at least; the story is lodged deep in her perspective, despite her sister warning her to stop what she’s doing. I don’t know, for instance, if the world literally ends in every timeline she fails to save her sister’s life or if that’s just how it feels to Hannah. The fact that the metaphorical and literal are so closely tied together in this show would make things frustrating if this was more of a plot-based instead of emotion-based story, but as it stands it’s pretty good at portraying that emotion. A lot of people in my flash-fiction group would do well to learn from this one.

“The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin

An acquaintance of mine with strong, negative opinions on modern fantasy cited Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and especially The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as case studies on why the genre’s fallen apart. In their eyes, fantasy prose should have a fantastical or mythic feel to it, or else it fails to work as fantasy. Either this person is pretentious and narrow-minded, or I’m just not as much of a stickler for this sort of thing, or both. Maybe the fact that this Jemisin story has a prose style that is a perfect match for the feel it’s going for will make them admit that Jemisin isn’t all bad, but I doubt it.

“The City Born Great” is a rare urban fantasy where the urban part stands loud and proud, utterly necessary to its workings as opposed to a quirky marketing label. The protagonist knows the city like the back of his hand and has the kind of homeless, desperate lifestyle that can only work in the city. The way he narrates the story’s events has the rushed feel of someone in a panic when the story calls for it, with haphazard use of the enter key at its highest moment of tension. In order to match the narrator’s lack of higher education thanks to his poverty, the exposition on the fantasy metaphor that forms the story’s backbone is dumbed down to the point that anyone with poetic inclination can understand it. The narration feels ‘street’ without having to affect a risky, potentially embarrassing patois.

That alone is enough to recommend the story on its own merits, though there are lesser merits to be found. It’s more satisfying in a narrative sense (if also more indulgent in the ending) than Bolander and Wong’s stories, and turning a police officer into a literal monster is effective and enhances the story’s tension, even though it seems ham-fisted when compared to something like Get Out. There’s a scene where the narrator contemplates the idea of giving his new benefactor a blowjob, shattering my assumption that he was a child much like “The Slow Regard of Silent Things” did. This time, though, it served as another painful reminder of what the narrator has to endure living on the lowest class of society, rather than a reason to give Patrick Rothfuss an incredulous look like he ripped a loud, pungent fart. All in all, Jemisin put up another decent entry, and I wouldn’t mind if she applied this approach to a novel-length work once she’s done writing Broken Earth books.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar

This is a nice spin on the classic fairy tale structure, using the tone and imagery of some obscure fairy tales to convey a moral much more uplifting and relevant to our modern life than the originals. Not only can I compare it favorable with “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” in that it tells a better story in addition to making a necessary point, it looks good in comparison to the Fables comic book series. Fables was a huge crossover between all of the fairy tales and public domain stories Bill Willingham could fit in, but it felt like a modern comic book series and only very occasionally like a fairy tale. This is much simpler, more surprising because it’s not trying to be familiar, and is still fully in the realm of fairy tale tone and logic instead of trying to be cosmopolitan and hip. Instead of just being a crossover in order to see what happens when these disparate characters come together, the protagonists provide each other with perspective missing from their lives, and form a strong, touching bond with each other, dealing with some uncomfortable things that women get used to but shouldn’t have to put up with. Good stuff.

“That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn

The game is chess and the war is between a telepaths and non-telepaths. In theory, the conceit is that finding a new way to play a game that would normally be ruined by the ability to read your opponent’s mind and know all of their moves ahead of time, using the relationship between two players who come across battle lines as the first step to peace. Unfortunately, the whole thing fell flat for me. It tells me nothing about what it might be like to live as a telepath that I haven’t seen in many other stories, and the relationship didn’t feel nearly as genuine as the one from “Seasons of Glass and Iron.” It felt way too light and fluffy for a story about war, and having the scenes told out of chronological order does nothing for the story except prevent it from developing any tension or suspense over whether these crazy kids will be able to make their dream come true. The only parts I liked were the contrast of propaganda versus the reality that the telepathic race can’t shut off the thoughts of the non-telepaths and so guarding POWs is harsh on the psyche even without torture.

FINAL BALLOT:

  1. “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar
  2. “The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin
  3. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong
  4. NO AWARD
  5. “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander
  6. “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn
  7. “An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright

 

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