Hugo Nominated Short Fiction: A Great Year for "No Award"

As previously noted, I'm going to the Wordlcon in London this August, and as such will be voting on this year's Hugo Awards. The publishers provided a packet with at least bits of all the fiction nominees, so I've been reading through them at bedtime, and over the weekend finished all the regular nominees-- I still have stuff that I may or may not read for the Campbell-that-is-not-a-Hugo-but-is-handed-out-at-the-same-time. I wouldn't really bother to say anything about them beyond the couple of comments I've already dropped on Twitter, but Kate quoted me in her recap of the Short Story category, so I probably ought to offer some additional context for that.

As you can guess from the post title, I haven't been terribly impressed with the short fiction part of the ballot. Out of the fourteen nominees in the short fiction categories, I only finished nine, and one of those was out of sheer stubbornness. The remaining six, I did the "red line" test with-- I started reading, and when I got to the point of saying "Oh, screw this..." I stopped. There was a lot of stuff on the ballot this year that just rubbed me the wrong way-- I hated the narrative voice, or the subject, or both. And life is too short to slog through stories I'm not enjoying, and thus won't vote for.

The one category where I finished everything was Short Story, and since that's the one Kate quoted me about, I'll expand a little about what I found disappointing both regarding the individual stories and the category in general. The tweet in question is this one:

As you know, even if your name isn't Bob, the The Gernsback Continuum is a famous William Gibson short story, whose narrator gets glimpses of a world where the pulp science fiction dreams of the Hugo Gernsback era are real-- flying cars, crystal cities, food pills. The narrator doesn't want to live in such an artificial utopia, and escapes by immersing himself in the grimiest details of current reality. At the end, he's fleeing the sight of a flying wing with a bunch of newspapers containing the worst news possible, a "bundle of condensed catastrophe" in Gibson's phrase.

The Short Story nominees were wholly lacking in anything optimistic that might lead to a Gernsback Continuum kind of situation-- to repeat a phrase I used in discussing this with somebody else on Twitter, they're mostly snapshots of domestic misery (the one arguable exception is trying to do a folk-tale thing). They're mostly well done on a technical level-- Rachel Swirsky's "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" is very moving-- but, Jesus, they're all depressing. They're brief glimpses into the lives of people who have lots of reasons to be unhappy, and they don't really go anywhere from that. There's a hint of a possibility of improvement in John Chu's "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere", but even that is undercut in a way that feels deliberate, and not particularly true to the shape of the story to that point.

They're also all very small stories, to the point of feeling almost claustrophobic. Admittedly, it's hard to do universe-spanning epic sweep within the confines of what the Hugo rules would consider a short story, but they're all pretty much confined to a narrow and unpleasant modern-ish reality. The Swirsky is the only one that has any kind of expansive quality to it, and that's revealed to be a desperate attempt to escape from the crushingly depressing reality the story returns to at the end. So, you know, yay.

But the biggest problem I end up having with them is that none of them are really doing the thing that's supposed to make SF unique, which is the working out of some kind of real idea. These stories are all doing the magic realist thing of introducing a fantastic element as a literalized metaphor for the (miserable) emotional state of the characters. None of the speculative elements of any of these have real consequences, or have thought through the implications of what those elements would mean. Again, the Swirsky story comes closest, through the detailed escapist fantasies of its narrator, but those are deliberately fanciful.

Any of these could fit comfortably in a mainstream literary fiction collection, and I could easily imagine someone leading a class discussion about how the selkies in Sofia Samatar's "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" aren't really selkies at all, but a projection of the narrator's blah, blah, blah. The impact of the story wouldn't really change either way.

Which, you know, is a thing I guess you can spin in a positive way-- a sign of the ultimate victory of genre tropes, with the inclusion of fantastic elements having become utterly accepted and mainstream. But if winning means everybody gets snapshots of domestic misery with the odd unicorn clumsily photoshopped into the background, well, whoopee.

Again, these are all well-done stories, worthy enough in their own way (though I'm kind of uneasy about Thomas Olde Heuvelt's "The Ink Readers of Doi Saket", mostly because it's a guy with a European name writing something folktale-ish about Thailand). But the things that they're doing well aren't the things that drew me into SF in the first place, or that make the genre unique. And I think the collective disappointment of not finding any of that in these stories magnifies the disappointment of the individual stories being so confined and miserable.


My complaints further up the ballot aren't as coherent, mostly because the longer categories all included stuff I found too annoying to finish. This is largely a matter of the "sad puppy slate" nonsense-- the only one of those I finished was Dan Wells's novella, purely out of stubborn curiosity as to whether it eventually developed redeeming qualities (SPOILER: no), because I liked his YA novels. But even some of the non-sad-puppy works ended up putting me off-- I got a third of the way through the Valente novella before deciding I hated the narrative voice too much to keep on, and the Duncan and Klages novella lost me at "Johnny Weissmuller." More of them are trying to do the SF thing I'm looking for, at least, though it's not always successful-- the Ted Chiang story thoroughly works out the implications of its speculative idea, but in a manner that ultimately feels kind of chilly and distant.

So, ultimately, there's nothing on the short fiction part of the ballot that really blew me away. Swirsky's short story is the best of a pretty disappointing lot. I may actually go "No Award" first in the Novella category, as the only one I managed to finish was the Stross, which was an okay Laundry story, but pointlessly gross. Mary Robinette Kowal's "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" is probably the next best of the bunch, and will get my vote there, trailed by Aliette de Bodard and Ted Chiang.

But all in all, this has been a really disappointing year in which to get the free Hugo voter packet...

(A large part of this is my idiosyncratic reaction, of course, and may not generalize to other readers or voters. And given that next to nobody reads or comments on my genre-fiction posts here, I probably wouldn't've bothered, but I agreed to do liquid nitrogen demos for 60-odd second graders this afternoon, and that prospect is kind of distracting me from being able to do the reviewing of copyedits that is my real task for the week...)

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I completely agree about the Dan Wells story. I kept waiting for it to get to the point and when I got to the end, I just couldn't see why I bothered. To a large extent, I feel that way about the whole sad puppy slate. The Torgersen contributions were just mediocre. The first Grimnoir book was decent fun, but didn't bring enough to the table to justify me pushing through to books 2 and 3.

I'm very much intrigued with your characterization of these stories as "...wholly lacking in anything optimistic... mostly snapshots of domestic misery... mostly well done on a technical level... they're all depressing... brief glimpses into the lives of people who have lots of reasons to be unhappy, and they don’t really go anywhere from that ...a hint of a possibility of improvement,... but even that is undercut... all very small stories, to the point of feeling almost claustrophobic...."

Describes the real world of today pretty well, doesn't it?

Economically-driven misery, the looming threat of climate catastrophe (including now the prospect of human extinction in a couple of centuries), friendships & families "disrupted" by an increasing number of "disruptors" notably the 24/7 work week, consumer baubles that are "well-done on a technical level" but ultimately soulless, and a culture that has become "small" with the absence of truly great goals such as live-crewed space exploration (plus or minus Elon Musk's Mars in a decade), and the loss of any sense of meaning & purpose beyond raw economic survival punctuated by more baubles.

That's life for an increasing number of people in the USA, and it makes complete sense that it would be reflected in similarly dreary and depressing stories.

What I value in SF is either an expansive sense of purpose and possibility, or the rendering of dystopia in epic terms where each act of resistance is a victory. The modern tone of pervasive ironic cynicism is a major turn-off precisely because it deprecates any deeper sense of meaning.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile for whatever-organization that sponsors such things, to issue a call for stories that are not so deeply stuck in a pessimistic present extrapolated into a dead-end future. Perhaps they should hand out prescriptions for antidepressants to all contestants before they begin to write their entries.

But there's something else they could do that would be highly worthwhile.

This, in light of the peer-reviewed papers about human extinction in two centuries as a result of runaway climate disruption.

Issue a call for stories that in some way express humanity's fight to save itself from that outcome, and that are specifically crafted to motivate readers to become engaged and active.

Methinks that would produce a decent number of stories deserving of awards.

Its been a decade or more since my last WorldCon, and the sci-fi I read now is mostly from a few favored and established authors.

I have though been doing alot of work in helping people prepare for that "dead end future" you lament about and you know what, its not that dead end. Harsh and certainly different, one where we have to give up the excessive consumerism we all seem to have now.

But your point about good stories that put forth some hope, I would recommend the two short story competitions that noted Peak Oil author John Michael Greer put up on his blog The Archdruid Report". The first being in 2011 which lead to the publication of the first "Post Peak Oil" anthology, and most recently the second which lead to not one but two near anthologies due to the quality of the entries.

A review of the first anthology can be found here on Resilence.Org.

You can read some of the 92 entries and see a wide collection of tales set in a bleak world that still have hope at the Green Wizard's website page for the contest HERE. There is an updated list of the entries that were chosen at the bottom of the page.

Chad, if you have a few hours, please consider reading some of the entries. The niche is called "eco-sci" and perhaps we'll see some of those offered up for your reading pleasure when next you attend WorldCon.

By David Trammel (not verified) on 25 Jun 2014 #permalink