Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

Today we continue our journey through the Hugo Award finalists with a look at the Short Story category, but before we do so I would like to engage in a little bit of housekeeping first.

While I am clearly not blind to the controversy surrounding this year's Hugo Awards (nor is The G, for that matter), I have mostly chosen to cover each category on the relative subjective merits of the nominated works. I understand that this is something that not everyone can or will choose to do, but it is the way that I have elected to engage with the Hugo Awards. While the result of the Hugo Awards short list is not significantly different in regards to the Rabid Puppies straight up dominating most of the categories / finalists with their slate, the difference is that this year they have selected to bulk nominate a group that includes more works that might have otherwise had a reasonable chance of making the ballot and also that meets my subjective definition of "quality". That slate from the Rabid Puppies also includes a number of works that come across as little more than an extended middle finger to the people who care about the Hugo Awards. Feel free to argue with any or all of my opinions here.

The reason I bring this up here is that the Short Story category is one that contains works that one might easily construe as being that extended middle finger I mentioned previously.

With that said, let's take a look at the Hugo Award finalists for Short Story.

Asymmetrical Warfare”, by S. R. Algernon (Nature 3/15)
"Cat Pictures Please", by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld 1/15)
The Commuter, by Thomas A. Mays (Stealth)
“Seven Kill Tiger”, by Charles Shao (There Will Be War: Volume X)
If You Were an Award, My Love”, by Juan Tabo & S. Harris (Vox Populi 6/15)
Space Raptor Butt Invasion, by Chuck Tingle (self-published)

If You Were an Award, My Love: On the one hand, and this is worth mentioning but not reading all that much into, "If You Were an Award, My Love" may be the first piece of fan fiction to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award. Now, I suspect that the authors would argue the "fan" aspect of fan fiction in this case, but the fact remains that it is a clear reworking of Rachel Swirsky's wrenching and graceful, Hugo Award Nominated and Nebula Award winning story "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love". In a different year, with a different story, the fact that fan fiction made the Hugo ballot would be a fairly big deal and a major talking point. This is not that year.

"If You Were an Award, My Love" is a somewhat bitter parody of Swirsky's story and awkwardly and unsubtly pokes at the general response of those who were upset with the partial Hugo Award takeover last year by the combined Sad and Rabid Puppy slate campaigns. The story digs specifically at John Scalzi, one of the targets du jour of the Rabid Puppy supporters while also digging directly at Swirsky's story beyond simply aping its format. Taken solely as a piece of fiction and in consideration for an award, "If You Were an Award, My Love" is truly one of the worst stories I have encountered on an award's short list. While I don't consider the comments on a story as part of my consideration, I do have to consider the two "updates" to the story as part of the story itself - which are a picture of Swirsky and a personal attack on her appearance couched in an unsubtle joke.

I have spent far too many words already on this. "If You Were an Award, My Love" is unworthy of an award.

Space Raptor Butt Invasion: Speaking of unsubtle jokes, let's talk about Chuck Tingle's Space Raptor Butt Invasion. Let's be clear here, the story itself isn't the joke. This is another one of the "extended middle finger" nominees from the Rabid Puppies slate. There's no real way around that, except this time the middle finger is more about the title itself, which from a certain perspective can be used as another dig at Rachel Swirsky's "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love". Also, Space Raptor Butt Invasion is science fiction / fantasy dinosaur erotica, which is not historically the sort of work that is recognized for major genre awards, which is also a likely reason why this was selected by the Rabid Puppies.

The story itself is half of a science fiction story which begins with astronauts on a major shift change (one is leaving, the other is staying in space alone for a year) and proceeds to a surprise meeting with a dinosaur astronaut and continues on to an extended sexual encounter between the human and velociraptor astronauts. Space Raptor Butt Invasion is a very specific sort of story and independent of the unfortunate usage of the Rabid Puppies slate nomination, it likely has a strong audience which is looking for this specific sort of erotica. It does not, however, make it a good science fiction story (or a fantasy story, given that we have a dinosaur astronaut here).

I could easily spend several more paragraphs writing about Space Raptor Butt Invasion in terms of what it represents, how it is being used, the overall entertainment value of Chuck Tingle as performance art in light of his nomination and how he has flipped the script of how he was used as a joke nomination into something far cooler - but all of that, which for me is the most notable part of the nomination, is beside the point if we're really looking at how Space Raptor Butt Invasion stacks up as a piece of fiction. It doesn't.

No Award: As a general rule, I use No Award in a very surgical manner. I understand that not every work is to my personal taste and that simply because I do not like something does not mean that it is inherently bad or unworthy of a Hugo Award. I may prefer that something else would win and that a particular work was not on the ballot, but again, that does make the work bad. Unfortunately, there are also instances where my subjective view is that the work is so bad that it is also objectively bad and unworthy of receiving (or being considered for) an award. There may also be examples of a work being so bad it comes out the other side and is somehow entertaining.  In both of these instances No Award will be used.

Asymmetrical Warfare: "Asymmetrical Warfare" features an alien race attacking Earth with an initial set of assumptions about what humanity is and how humans might "renew", only to discover otherwise. It seems that the attacking race is similar to starfish and so regenerate when damaged. The story is told over a number of very short episodes time stamped months apart (but in galactic years). So here we have an example of a story that doesn't at all work for me, but I don't think it is inherently bad.While I appreciated the quiet desperation the narrator exhibits as it realizes humanity is the sort of species it thought we were, "Asymmetrical Warfare" does not hold together as enough of a coherent narrative due to how fragmented and short the story is. All of the pieces are there, and perhaps at twice or three times the length I'd have appreciated it more, but in its current form "Asymmetrical Warfare" is too disjointed to work.

Seven Kill Tiger: While "Seven Kill Tiger" is a more cohesive story than "Asymmetrical Warfare", it similarly suffers from being far too short of a story. The rising threat of a targeted virus which will wipe out most of the human population of Africa and at not insignificant percentage of the rest of the world as a way to forward Chinese business and investment is one which could build to be a supremely interesting and taut thriller. Being part of Jerry Pournelle's There Will Be War: Vol X anthology, Charles Shao addresses a possible demilitarized method of fighting a war of conquest, but the characterization and the storytelling comes across as flat and one note. "Seven Kill Tiger" is conceptually interesting, horrifying, and terrifying to consider. The idea is there. The execution is simplistic. The concept of "Seven Kill Tiger" expanded out to be a longer but still tighter thriller may not be the story Shao wished to tell, and we can all to easily fall into the trap of trying to review the story we, as readers, think the author should have written, but Shao's story has so much unrealized potential. The germ of a better story is there, but that's not the story Shao has written. As it stands, "Seven Kill Tiger" may be a stronger story than "Asymmetrical Warfare", but it suffers in comparison to the significantly stronger "Cat Pictures Please".

Cat Pictures Please: A story of an artificial intelligence which wants to help humanity. In another story, this premise would somehow lead to The Terminator and every one would die in nuclear explosions, but Kritzer has a much more pleasant story than that. Note the title. But humanity remains baffling to a benevolent AI. "Cat Pictures Please" is a sweet little story and was on my nomination ballot. It's also a relentlessly positive story, and that's not something that we see very often, especially when it comes to literary awards. I like the story, which is obvious from my nomination, but I'm not sure if I truly love it as much after reading it a second time as I did the first time. But with that said, it is easily the strongest of the finalists. I also now wonder if my computer is trying to tell me something.

By this point you've likely noticed The Commuter is listed above as one of the finalists, but is crossed out. There is a very good reason for that. Thomas Mays goes into greater detail on his website, but the shorter version is that Mays declined his nomination after the finalists were announced. This allowed the story with the next highest number of nominations to make the ballot, which was Naomi Kritzer's "Cat Pictures Please".

My Vote
1. Cat Pictures Please
2. Seven Kill Tiger
3. Asymmetrical Warfare
4. No Award

Also, feel free to look at the rest of our Hugo Awards coverage:
Dramatic Presentation: Long Form

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.