Hugo Reading: Unpleasant Short Fiction

I have now finished all of the short fiction on this year's Hugo Award ballot (links to most nominees are available here), and I have to say, the pickings here are pretty slim. The stories that aren't forgettable or preachy are deeply unpleasant, leaving me wanting to put a lot of stuff below "No Award." And there's one story that makes me want to bleach my frontal cortex.

More detailed comments, category-by-category, below the fold:

Best Novella

  • “Act One”, Nancy Kress (Asimov’s 3/09)
  • The God Engines, John Scalzi (Subterranean)
  • “Palimpsest”, Charles Stross (Wireless; Ace, Orbit)
  • Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon)
  • “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”, Ian McDonald (Cyberabad Days; Pyr, Gollancz)
  • The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker (Subterranean)

I like John Scalzi quite a bit, but The God Engines is just unpleasant and depressing. It's certainly inventive, but not in a good way. Shambling Towards Hiroshima is pretty amusing for the first two-thirds or so, but becomes almost unreadably preachy in the last section. I'm not sure how it should've ended, but the tone shift is just crashingly awful. "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" is longer than it needs to be, and would presumably make more sense if I had read McDonald's River of Gods, or some other work set in that universe, because it feels very much like the reader is supposed to recognize the background events. The Women of Nell Gwynne's is steampunk, and I'm pretty tired of steampunk.

That leaves Charlie Stross's "Palimpsest," and Nancy Kress's "Act One," both of which are marred by being crashingly obvious-- neither ending is much of a surprise. Stross probably gets the nod here, because he at least provides some old-school sense of wonder with a sprawling mess of time-travel paradoxes and galactic-scale engineering. Though the story does contain a little bit of "Aren't I clever?" mugging.

Best Novelette

  • “Eros, Philia, Agape”, Rachel Swirsky ( 3/09)
  • The Island”, Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2; Eos)
  • “It Takes Two”, Nicola Griffith (Eclipse Three; Night Shade Books)
  • “One of Our Bastards is Missing”, Paul Cornell (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume Three; Solaris)
  • “Overtime”, Charles Stross ( 12/09)
  • “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast”, Eugie Foster (Interzone 2/09)

Michael Fucking Resnick has forever ruined stories about emotional robots for me, bad luck for Rachel Swirsky. "Overtime" is an extended Santa Claus joke, and almost precious enough to knock "Palimpsest" off the Novella list, just for spite. "The Island" is less a story than an extended lecture about how all living things suck. It would be crashingly depressing if it weren't overwrought to the point of being almost funny. "One of Our Bastards Is Missing" is, according to the final page of the file from the Hugo Voter's Packet, the second story in a series featuring the same character, and it shows, because there are a lot of details left unexplained in that "as you recall from our last episode..." sort of way. "Sinner, Baker..." is well-done, but so high-concept that it ends up feeling like a completely formal exercise, with no real emotional kick to it.

That leaves "It Takes Two," which has an awfully obvious Point about biology and free will, but is also a pretty decent character study. Some details of the plot don't quite make sense, but I'm perfectly happy to vote for it.

Best Short Story

  • “The Bride of Frankenstein”, Mike Resnick (Asimov’s 12/09)
  • “Bridesicle”, Will McIntosh (Asimov's 1/09)
  • “The Moment”, Lawrence M. Schoen (Footprints; Hadley Rille Books)
  • “Non-Zero Probabilities”, N.K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld 9/09)
  • “Spar”, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 10/09)

After last year's debacle (not to mention the godawful crying robot story), I have sworn never to read another Michael Fucking Resnick story, even if it's on the Hugo ballot. Especially if it's on the Hugo ballot. "Bridesicle" is every bit as enjoyable as the name suggests. It was hard to read the last few paragraphs of "The Moment," because my eyes were rolling so hard it looked like the e-book reader was on a turntable.

And then there's "Spar." Which is certainly shocking and offensive, but has no discernible point beyond "Look at me, I can write something shocking and offensive." And, you know, that's great. Here's a cookie. Next time, just stab me with an icepick, and get it over with, ok? because, really, I'm never going to be able to use those neurons again without feeling dirty.

That leaves "Non-Zero Probabilities," which is... Enh. It's a perfectly nice slice-of-life story, but it doesn't really go anywhere, or do anything. I guess it gets my vote by virtue of being inoffensive in a category full of stories that fill me with rage, but that's kind of weak tea.

In summary: Bleagh. At least seven of these seventeen stories are going below "No Award" on my ballot, and it may be more than that, depending on how cranky I'm feeling when I sit down to fill it out. If this is really the best short fiction the field has to offer, maybe it's time to just shut down the magazines and call it a night. Eighty-odd years was a pretty good run.

I really kind of doubt that this is the best the field has to offer, though. And when we had dinner with Jo Walton last week, she assured me that the Jonathan Strahan "Year's Best" anthology contained a half-dozen stories of various lengths that were better than any of the crap that's on the ballot. In which case, the question becomes "Who is nominating these horrible, horrible stories, and how can we get them to stop?"

Because, really. Life is too short to have to read stuff like "Spar."

More like this

so no "must read" recommendations?

"Who is nominating these horrible, horrible stories, and how can we get them to stop?"

It costs money to nominate and to vote for the Hugos, so its a small and self selected group...

Not read any of the above - won't be making much effort to either based on that report! Just wanted to comment on the "unpleasant" though. Authors do seem increasingly prone to putting in some very, very nasty events in their stories and in many cases, this isn't a good thing.

Certainly in genre, this increase in graphic nastiness seems partly driven by a backlash against the stereotypes and clichés that have gone before. I remember reading an interview with China Mieville where he was highly scathing of genre precedents, and actively sought to de-construct and subvert their tropes in his work.

Mieville just about gets away with it due to his undoubted talent, but other authors aren't so fortunate. There seems to be a desire to be "gritty" and "realistic", but all too often this is interpreted as disturbing and grotesque.

I've got nothing against disturbing or grotesque - in its proper place - but there is a proper place, and it seems to have been forgotten. The reader should feel shock and disgust to strengthen character development, or to support the plot, or otherwise to fit in with the story that's being told. It shouldn't just be for it's own sake.

Of course that's true for any thematic tone in writing - overdoses of romance, or action, or infodumps, are just as off-putting. But it seems the nasty & grotesque is flavour of the month at the moment. Alistair Reynolds, Richard Morgan and Neal Asher all spring to mind as recent examples of where the nasty has got a bit out of control, but there's plenty more.

Don't know if it's just me that's noticed this? Maybe I've just got worse at pre-filtering out books I won't enjoy...

Chad. Please. I get the feeling you're a judge for the actual winners of the Hugo awards, otherwise WHY are you torturing yourself reading mediocre fiction?

Think of "The Law of Averages" Chad, which I put in quotes because I'm not sure it even is a "Law", but ...

The LoA practically DEMANDS that in any given year, the stories submitted for Hugos include as many as THREE wonderful timeless short stories/novellas/novels (in each category), and in other years all are mediocre, or since those are the two extremes, something in the middle. This may just be an off-year.

Personally? I don't have time to read everything I want, so it's a personal choice to be highly critical and carefully choose that which to read. The replies to a book at Amazon, for example, are very helpful in that regard.

They can't all be "Unaccompanied Sonata" by Orson Scott Card (my fav Short Story in SciFi), or "Sandkings" by George R.R. Martin (second fav, and damn near tied for first), or Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling (fav novel, with Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" a close 2nd, and just about everything by Niven, Card, Asimov, Clarke, Pohl, Anderson, Reynolds, Banks, Vinge, and Hamilton tied for third).

There are always going to be off years. Shrug.

And it's not like you have no time on your hands. Do you EVER have time for yourself?!

Check it out dude, the many hats you wear: Husband, Father, Teacher, Researcher, Canine Caretaker, Author, Marketeer, Conference Attendee, Expert Blog Manager, Household Maintainer ... and you have time to read Sci Fi as well?!

I don't know how you find the time. You're awesome. Ciao. ;-)

I think the point of "Non-Zero Probabilities" is to illustrate how people react to changing circumstances. (And to play with the concept of things becoming real when people believe them, a not very original thing but taken from a different angle this time.) I sort of liked it. If I could vote this year, I think I would vote for that one.

Of the current crop of stories, the only one that I would actively recommend reading as a general matter is "It Takes Two." "Act One" and Stross's "Palimpsest" are decent, and "Non-Zero Probabilities" is good but a bit aimless. There are a few more "Sure to be liked by people who like this sort of thing" stories, but that's about it.

I'm reading these stories because I'm a paid-up member of this year's Worldcon, and thus have voting rights for the Hugo-- I decided it's worth a little bit of cash to get to influence the outcome in a small way. Other than the Hugo ballot, I tend not to read much short fiction, for some reason-- I'm not really sure why. I should probably start picking up one of the Year's Best anthologies, in hopes of finding better stories to nominate, because this is the second year in a row that I've been underwhelmed by what's on the final ballot. Each of the (so far) four years that I've voted has featured at least one actively horrible story, too.

It's not that I've turned against SF in general, either-- I'm not quite halfway through Alastair Reynolds's House of Suns, and enjoying it quite a bit. It could still go horribly, horribly wrong, but it's at least a cool setting, and the narrators are reasonably likable (to this point).

I hate to pound on this, but, uh, the economy? Like most work, sf stories in aggregate tend to reflect the period in which they were written.

By ScentOfViolets (not verified) on 01 Jul 2010 #permalink

At least your review was fun to read.

House of Suns is just terrific, Chad. Hesperus is the coolest character and gets better all the way through right up until the surprise ending. Dr. Alastair Reynolds, PhD. in Astronomy and ESA veteran, has definitely crafted a fine tale. Very thought-provoking. The other cool thing about Reynolds, who pays due homage to Bruce Sterling, is his absolute insistence on NOT using FTL in his stories. There's plenty of drama in sci fi (and our future) without resorting to FTL via wormholes, et. al. and i.e., NON-scientific Physics.

Well, there's two exceptions. One is his excellent and haunting short short "Beyond the Aquila Rift", found in his excellent "Galactic North" story story collection, and the other is, I'm not going to tell you where else, until you finish House of Suns. ;-)

I really liked Eros, Philia, Agape.

By Jo Walton (not verified) on 06 Jul 2010 #permalink

I really liked Eros, Philia, Agape.

As I said, I blame Mike Fucking Resnick for my inability to like this story. I started reading this, and said "Oh, Gawd, it's a crying robot story," and even though it's much much better than Resnick's godawful crying robot story from a few Hugo ballots ago, I couldn't get past that association in my mind.