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Do the Hugo Awards have a short fiction problem?

At least one person complained that the Sad/Rabid Puppy nominees kept award-worthy short stories off the 2015 Hugo ballot… So I was curious. Was this true? Were these stories better than the stuff I’d read? An experiment was in order. I’ve now read the nominees on io9’s Puppy-free ballot. Here’s how I’d have voted.

#1 WINNERWhen it Ends, He Catches Her, Eugie Foster

When It Ends, He Catches Her has a tale behind it, and it’s the saddest in the Hugos. The day after Daily Science Fiction published the story, Eugie Foster died. It was her last chance to win the award.

There is no doubt – to me – that When It Ends, He Catches Her should have won Best Short Story. It is a story I wish I could have written. That – to me – is the purpose of the Hugos, to showcase work that I know I can’t… Perhaps can never write.

It’s a tale of a zombie who dances alone in a deserted theatre, long after humanity has died in an apocalypse. A tale of memory and of loss, it depends wholly on its fantasy setting to give it meaning. Beautifully constructed, it neither wastes words nor outstays its welcome. Utterly apolitical, it addresses human universals – death, love… life itself. Were I to make one criticism, it would be that the story depends heavily on the literary trick of the dancer not remembering she’s a zombie until the end. I can’t complain too much, however, as Eugie carefully foreshadows the kicker in the first paragraph.

Sadly, despite appearing on the io9 list, When It Ends would have been disqualified from the Hugos. It only received 44 nominations, less than the 5% needed to become a nominee (Section 3.8.5 of the WSFS constitution) . A big shame… And perhaps a reflection of a problem with the awards. A small crowd of superfans can’t read everything, and this story wasn’t published in one of the big professional magazines.

#2 NO AWARD – Nothing below this point was bad… It was all competent.  Good, but not great.

#3 RUNNER-UP. The Breath of War, Aliette de Bodard

I feel bad that I would have No Awarded The Breath of War. It’s a cute  story about a heavily-pregnant woman travelling through a war zone to find her  ‘breath-sibling’, the stone starship  she carved as a teenager and now needs to give birth. Will she find the starship before she goes into labour and her child is stillborn?

My problem with this story is twofold. First, the worldbuilding. The author has created a universe with sentient stone that humans carve into living creatures (including warships) and need to reproduce successfully. Yet there’s no evidence – in the story, at least – that Aliette had fully considered the enormous economic, social, and political effects of this magic material.

  • Why don’t the rebels simply confiscate the stone and send their enemies extinct?
  • Why are there science fiction elements like aircars and drones, but everything else seems near-medieval?
  • Why do the locals seem to have only one use for the stone – the traditional carving of breath siblings? Why don’t they use it for robots, drones and fliers?
  • Why – when Rehan can create a warship from stone – is she messing around being oppressed, pregnant and single? Why not loan out her services to whoever is in charge, meet some family-orientated dude (or gal) impressed by her panache, and end the war she hates so much? Maybe I missed that bit…

In fact, why is Rehan so infuriatingly passive full stop? The newly-carved warship invites her to explore the galaxy (or similar). She turns it down. She inseminates herself, knowing there’s a war on, and waits until the last possible moment to journey to the mountains – vulnerable and pregnant. At the end of the story, she again bottles her decision to go with the warship but – instead – opts to stay home and give birth. Bear in mind, she doesn’t have a lover waiting  in the wings.

The story feels as if she’s accultured to war and oppression… She almost displays Stockholm syndrome. And unrealistically so. Real refugees risk their lives to escape wars. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat despite being oppressed. In short, Rehan is a passive patsy. In a universe where the worldbuilding raises more questions than it answers.

The stone spaceship doesn’t behave believably either.  It spends at least a decade fighting for Rehan and then – at the end of the story-  chooses to fly into  space.  It’s almost like an accountant who abruptly decides to become a lion tamer. In reality, after several years, it would probably have drifted into being a soldier of fortune – and sought another war – or become psychologically part of Rehan’s family.

For me, The Breath of War would have been neck-and-neck with Turncoat from the Rabid Puppy slate. But maybe I’m being harsher on The Breath of War than Turncoat. My husband was intensely moved by Aliette’s story. He read it as a metaphor for a person who wastes a decade of their life, only to discover they’re infertile when they want children. I don’t have baby hunger so I guess The Breath of War didn’t work for me.

#4 Jackalope Wives, Ursula Vernon

It was a ‘call of the wild’ myth. It was prettily written, but far, far too long for what it was. As magical creatures, the jackalope wives were never explained, or developed. I skimread thinking,  as with A Single Samurai from the Puppy list“Aren’t jackalope wives just a re-skin of the sirens in the Odyssey? And Homer had 2,000-year head start…”

If you want to write award-worthy traditional myth (or overcoming the monster) then – for me – you’ve got to REALLY hit it outside the park.  And Jackalope Wives doesn’t break any new ground.

#5 A Kiss with Teeth, Max Gladstone

An immortal vampire tackles the banality of contemporary Western parenthood. I liked the beginning of A Kiss with Teeth and I liked the end… The problem was the middle. Vlad spent far too long stalking his son’s teacher, so long that I got bored and skipped off the story to read a blogpost. I had to wonder if the author wasn’t being paid by the word and, in a short story, I should never wonder that.

#6 The Truth About Owls, Amal El-Mohtar

The Truth About Owls was among the best stories on the non-Puppy list. Unfortunately, it wasn’t science fiction or fantasy and – as such – ineligible for a Hugo (in my opinion). That may be a little harsh, but if The Truth About Owls can get a Hugo, then Haruki Murakami should win a Hugo. As should all magical realism. As should the story of – say – a Hampstead literary critic who gets over their husband’s affair by watching the third Hobbit film. You’ve got to draw genre boundaries somewhere…

The Truth About Owls is a literary short story about a girl who overcomes her demons by her love of owls and her passion for the Welsh myth about the flower maiden, Blodeuwedd. Judged as a literary story, it’s above average, but it doesn’t hold a candle to – say – Hilary Mantel. And, as such, it shouldn’t be winning ‘science fiction’s most prestigious award’. The purpose of SF&F is scientific, fantastical and social speculation – not to be a dumping ground for fandom’s literary fiction.

All that said, The Truth About Owls was  cute, I quite liked it and I’d be happy to share it with friends

***

It’s noteworthy that The Breath of War,  Jackalope Wives and When it Ends, He Catches Her were  shortlisted for the 2014 Nebula Award.  Given the number of short stories published annually, it seems incredible that only three or four are award-worthy.  Either that or Hugo-nominating voters are interchangeable with SFWA members – the same people or they share the same literary tastes. Neither is a good sign…

[UPDATE: 23/09/2015. I’ve sent Aliette a friendly (hopefully) email to let her know, out of politeness, that I blogged about her story as I wrote so much about it… It’s how I  try to walk the fine line between making sincere, passionate, but sometimes negative, comments, and being an asshat].

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