Monday, November 25, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: Blogtable (1974, Best Short Story)

Adri: Welcome back to another installment of our Hugo short fiction retrospectives! We lost Paul to the Himalayas for this round but Joe and I are undeterred, and this time we’re moving ahead into the 1970s and specifically the short story category, with four interesting stories on the final list:
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, Ursula K. Le Guin (New Dimensions #3)
“With Morning Comes Mistfall” George R. R. Martin (Analog, May 1973)
“Wings”, Vonda N. McIntyre (The Alien Condition)
“Construction Shack”, Clifford D. Simak (If, Jan-Feb 1973)
Joe: Going into the 1974 Hugo Awards, Clifford Simak was a 7 time Hugo Award finalist (with two wins, including the novel Way Station) and Ursula K. Le Guin was a 5 time Hugo Award finalist (also with two wins for The Left Hand of Darkness and The Word for World is Forest). George R.R. Martin and Vonda McIntyre were relative newcomers. “With Morning Comes Mistfall” was Martin’s first time on the Hugo ballot (he would go on to win the next year for his novella “A Song for Lya”), though he had also been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award (now the Astounding Award) for Best New Writer in 1973. Vonda McIntyre was a two time finalist in 1974, winning for her novelette “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand”, the precursor to Dreamsnake (1979, Best Novel).

1974’s Short Story was a blend of well established writers and exciting writers new to the field. Simak had been publishing for some forty years, Le Guin was at the height of her powers, while Martin and McIntyre were just starting out.

Adri: Agreed - and what’s interesting is that these are all authors who are known primarily, at least now, for novels rather than for short fiction (though of course all have written plenty of both). It’s definitely interesting to see the overlap of different eras, with George R. R. Martin and Vonda N. McIntyre entering for the first time and Simak and Le Guin being more established (though Simak’s career did start long before Le Guin’s!)

Joe: I’d like to start with Clifford Simak’s story “Construction Shack”, because the story is a bit of an outlier and in a way, it impacts how I think of the rest of the finalists and of the genre as a whole.

After years of puzzling over the differences between measurements made of Pluto and photographic evidence sent back from uncrewed probes, a crewed probe is sent to Pluto to investigate the distant planet. We could use the now outdated term “manned” when talking about “Construction Shack” as there is nary a woman to be seen in Simak’s story.

Upon arrival, the three astronauts (a chemist, engineer, and a geologist) discover that Pluto is even stranger than they had believed...

Even in 1974, “Construction Shack” feels like a throwback to an earlier time in science fiction. I’d believe you if you told me the story was published in 1953. The story just doesn’t come across as sophisticated or as modern as the other three stories on the ballot.

“Construction Shack” both benefits and suffers from the story being written before more information and more facts were known about the dwarf planet (heck, Pluto’s moon wasn’t even discovered until 1978) because Pluto being significantly lighter than estimated, being made out of steel, and functionally being the titular construction shack of the solar system just does NOT work today. It’s interesting enough, don’t get me wrong, but it severely dates the story in ways that makes it impossible to write today - similar to how stories of Venus being a steamy jungle world work as intentional throwbacks rather than truly modern stories now. Of course, a new story wouldn’t have to be Pluto. It could be anything. Pluto just adds a touch of “what if one of OUR planets wasn’t actually a planet?”, and that’s fun, as far as the story goes.

I am also slightly annoyed by the ending shout of what else the “bunglers” did that was found in the blueprints and what it might mean because Simak ends the story before that sort of reveal. I’m not the reader that needs everything spelled out, but the most fun bit of the story was the speculation that the whole solar system was manufactured and possibly manufactured poorly. Ending on the shout is a tease and a gimmick that comes across as older and more tired than other prominent stories of the 1970’s.

Adri: I don’t think that the “datedness” of the premise in a story like this is inherently a problem; while most of the time, reading about steamy jungle Venus or earth-but-red Mars tells you when a story was written, SF in space has such an ingrained element of the fantastic even when set in places that don’t challenge modern suspension of disbelief that having to accept a particular version of a solar system is fairly easy (see, for example, Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance for a recent example). That said, this is an odd, shallow story, and not the type of fiction I expected to be reading from a 1974 shortlist. Simak’s prolific writing career spanned decades and this nomination comes towards the end, although he’ll win the 1981 Hugo (and Nebula and Locus) awards for one of his very last short stories. It’s therefore hard to see what exactly drew voters to this cursory-feeling space exploration story

Joe: Knowing what we do about the process, presumably a large enough contingent of Simak fans voted to get it on the ballot. It’s clearly out of step with the rest of the finalists.

Adri: The basic premise of Construction Shack is fun, but it’s hard not to imagine what the idea might achieve in different hands. We’re five years before the publication of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at this point, but here the “galaxy developed by sub-par bureaucrats and their contractors” bit gets very little time to shine, and when it does its hampered by the utter lack of personality in the narrative as a whole. The narrator- who gives his name, but the sentence that it was in was so boring that I forgot it and frankly don’t care to go back - is nothing more than a vehicle for plot, and his one defining trait (“useless geologist”) is left completely unexplored. The other two members of the crew also have extremely boring names (Orson and Tyler) and one defining characteristic (“a bit shouty when provoked”) between them.

Also, I’m not usually one to get into writing style and quality, but the switches between first, second and third person in a story this length are really jarring and add nothing to the story being told. It also uses the word “lostness” instead of “loss” which… I got nothing, people. In short, I don’t have anything good to say about this and I don’t even feel like the bad things I have to say are particularly interesting - so let’s move on!

Joe: Moving on!

Adri: “With Morning Comes Mistfall”, Martin’s debut Hugo appearance (I think this may even be pre Hugo losers’ party, but let’s not get into that...) concerns a journalist accompanying an expedition to a mostly-uncolonised planet finds himself in the middle of an ideological battle between Sanders, the owner of a mountaintop hotel which derives its attraction from the myth of "wraiths" living on the world, and Dubowski, the leader of the expedition, who is interested only in finding practical answers to the planet's mysteries. All of this takes place against a backdrop of otherworldly beauty, as the planet gets covered in mist at sunset that then gradually burns off during the day, and as well as the element of unsolved mystery there's also an attitude clash between Sanders and the narrator, who appreciate the natural beauty of the planet for what it is, and Dubowski's complete disinterest.

Joe: This was my second time reading George R. R. Martin’s “With Morning Comes Mistfall” and I rather like it. It’s a wistful story, not quite of the longing for a better or a different day, but more the wist of knowing that something you love and treasure is going to disappear.

Adri: I approve of the word “wist” in that sentence!

Joe: It’s also a story of the quiet war between a scientific fact that can be proved and the belief in something otherworldly, where it doesn’t quite matter if that something is true - it matters because of the belief, of the mystery and magic of something that could be true and it is that possibility that makes the exploration and the mystery meaningful. The behind the scenes of the story is the scientific expedition that’s going to take that magic and mystery away. The story itself is a series of conversations between a reporter and the owner of a resort who is angry that his way of life is going to disappear whether or not anything is found in the mists of his world.

Adri: While the personalities involved in these conversations feel somewhat two-dimensional, the overall result is a story which packs a lot of layers for what initially comes across as a straightforward set-up. Sanders and, increasingly, the narrator claim to appreciate the planet for the unanswered question of the wraiths, and are dismayed when Dubowski "definitively" resolves the issue by finding natural causes behind all of the sightings and disappearances which have taken place in the mist (the future, apparently, is free of random conspiracy theorists and spiritualists who keep believing and constructing their own evidence even in the fact of such facts), paving the way for mediocre capitalism to win out over the sublime. But the reader can't help noting that it's not the wraiths which the pair want to celebrate about the planet, but its spectacular scenery - the wraiths just serve as an excuse for people to visit, and even then the narrator's interest in the natural world appears to be unusual enough to draw Sanders to him as a potential kindred spirit. Then again, the fact that the spectacular scenery is literally composed of obfuscating mist means that it all fits well as an overall metaphor for things best left hidden. Also, the contrast between Simak's flat but serviceable blokes and the ones deployed here is very telling, with Morning Comes Mistfall coming off far better in the comparison.

Joe: Ignoring the cost of interplanetary travel, you’d think that a place as spectacular as Wraithworld would still get more visitors on general tourism - but maybe it really is just the hook of the wraiths that brought people and once that was gone from the general galactic consciousness - ghost tourism wasn’t enough to sustain the resort. I do think there were still conspiracy theorists and true believers, but sometimes that’s not enough.

“With Morning Comes Mistfall” is a lovely story, but I think that Vonda McIntyre’s “Wings” is closer to what I expected when we started on this category.

Adri:“Wings” is the story of two members of a winged species, one older and disabled, one younger and injured, and their relationship to each other in a world that has otherwise become empty. The "Keeper", who takes in and nurses the younger back to health, also has to deal with romantic and sexual thoughts about the "Youth" - and is unable to conceal this from his unconsenting charge. We find out fairly late in the story that this isn't because of the age gap, and the characters' species has an intergenerational mating pattern: during their youth, individuals take on a significantly older mate (and a binary sex), until the older dies; they then seek out a younger partner later in life. Instead, the Youth's rejection of the Keeper appears to stem from a taboo around disability, as well as a fear of not being able to leave and find out whether anything is left of the society they have both been separated from.

Wings is a slow, dreamlike story, which draws its strengths from the interactions between two very alien and yet relatable protagonists and their loneliness and unfulfilled needs even around each other - a story which I went straight back to reread to figure out if I'd really taken it all in.

Joe: I liked it. I wanted more from this story, whether it was a novelette, a novella, or just more set in this world. The setting is rich, though so quickly drawn. “Wings” deals with death and connection and mortality. It’s a science fiction story that reads as fantasy, or at least some light blending of the two.

Adri: You’re right that there's not much in the world itself, but what there is is something that could easily fill out stories way beyond these two specific characters - indeed, I understand that there’s at least one more story in this world, which I assume fleshes out the disappearance of the rest of the characters’ race a bit more.

It's interesting that you say it fits in with the time period, because I think this is the story I could most see being published today - its glimpse at epic worldbuilding through a short story lens would fit right in at Beneath Ceaseless Skies despite the slightly alien nature of the protagonists.

Joe: I can see that. I just happened to read the story very shortly after finishing “Construction Shack” and considering both stories in context of this category, “Wings” was refreshing in that it felt like it belonged and that the short fiction 1970’s were far more modern than the short fiction of the 1950’s - or even of 1968 when we discussed that year’s short story finalists. But you’re right, “Wings” does feel the most modern of all four.

Adri: My only niggle in this story is with the portrayal of disability, and of the inability to move as something to die for. It is somewhat called out in the story, as we see the Youth’s rejections of the Keeper, and the Keeper’s own negative self-identity, are shaped by his lack of flight in ways that the story implies are unfair and have negative impacts on the characters. However, the ending, and the emphasis on the cultural importance of what basically amounts to ritual suicide by flying into the sun (a metaphor that never gets old), is sort of portrayed as something that excuses the prejudice, and the characters basically overcome it by finding a way to commit ritual suicide together which I didn’t love. Its a story which draws tragedy from characters with disability not having a place, rather than allowing them to push to find a place together.

Finally, we come to the winner, and the story of this quartet that has probably had the most cultural resonance to date: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”.

Joe: Though ostensibly describing a “Festival of Summer”, an unnamed narrator describes what he or she knows of the city of Omelas, a city that initially feels utopic but is revealed to have an underlying horror which permits the “utopia” to exist. Many of the initial details are vague, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks but to assume that what the reader imagines could be possible and that whatever it is, it is the best of all things - except that the driver of all of that goodness is the absolute isolation and degradation of a child.

The story is a thought experiment and a philosophical challenge.

I *may* have read this before, though if pushed I’d probably tell you that I have not. It’s familiar, but I’ve recently read N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” and I’m sure I’ve read one or two others that play with Le Guin’s form, so it may be that I’ve read enough around Omelas that it’s imprinted on me. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is somewhat of a foundational science fiction story at this point and it has shaped some of the genre around it.

Unsurprisingly, Omelas is an increasingly unpleasant story (as it should be) because it raises questions (and points a finger) at how easy it is to look away, to make excuses, and accept that our comfort in the aggregate is more important than a single individual. There are plenty of stories that use the idea of the importance of the group over that of the individual, but it’s so stark here.

Adri: Yes, it’s been a couple of years since I last read “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” in its entirety, and it was interesting to revisit it in light of some of the recent stories that respond to it - as well as the Jemisin, I’m thinking of P.H. Lee’s “In The House By the Sea”, which interrogates what we will and won’t believe about the fate of the children themselves, and is also well worth a look. I think I appreciated it even more this time around, in the context of this particular category: the tone, the way the speculative city is set up and the role of the narrator in doing so, the constant needling at audience disbelief, all come together for a thought experiment that rises far above its simple utilitarian roots, hitting at the stories we tell ourselves about our societies and how they are organised and who needs, and deserves, dignity and comfort.

I could spend an entire essay picking apart the different elements here (given a time machine so I could make the time to write, of course), but for now I particularly want to draw attention to the last line of the story: “They seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas”. I think, given the differences between when this story was written and the moment we’re living now, its important to interrogate why the story focuses on individuals who opt out from a system, rather than trying to change it - but I was struck, on this readthrough, by the fact that these aren’t portrayed as people throwing in the towel to go and aimlessly wander the wilderness: they know where they’re going, and it doesn’t involve this particular system. Then again, I do feel much more sympathetic to the people and the mindset of Jemisin’s Um-Helat than I do to the ones who walk away from Omelas - even while it doesn’t change my opinion on how brilliant and important the story that sparked them both is.

Joe: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is not a story I want to read all that often, but I’m not surprised that it won the Hugo. It’s a story with wide ranging importance that I think would have been evident when it was first published (it *did* win the Hugo). Interestingly, Omelas was not on the Nebula ballot, though the Martin and McIntyre stories were.

Adri: So, now we’ve read all four of 1974s short story ballot entries, what do you think should have won? Or rather, what would you have voted for?

Of the stories here, I think I liked the McIntyre most - its got a beautiful tone to it and offers a window into a very strange world that nevertheless makes sense within the story. However, for all the limitations of its thought experiment - and is just one thought experiment - I can’t fault the voters of 1974 for opting for The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. It’s a big idea story whose big idea is about ethics and anthropology and even about the nature of story itself, and it does what all the best Le Guin stories do by offering a deceptively simple outer layer to suck you into something much deeper and highly thought provoking.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Simak, which didn’t do much for either of us, and which I can’t really understand being award worthy in any year, and a Martin story which is highly readable enjoyable, but probably isn’t going to stay with me. So my vote at Discon II (if I’d been alive and reading science fiction) would have gone to Le Guin, then McIntyre, then Martin, then Simak, with clear water between all four and possibly even No Award above Simak if I was feeling especially grumpy on ballot submission day.

Joe: I like the double layer of the question because it’s the push and pull between how I think I would have voted then compared to how I would vote today if these four stories were put in front of me.

I sort of wish we had a big disagreement here, but we don’t. “Wings” is the story I like best, but “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is the most important and I think that would have come across to me back in 1974 when I was negative five years old. The power and the depth of Omelas still very much resonates today, and it is a story that can spark conversation today.

I think my vote would have been tighter than yours, at least for Le Guin - McIntyre - Martin in that order, but it would be a distant fourth for Simak and like you, “Construction Shack”’s placement above No Award would depend entirely on my generosity when I mailed in my ballot.

I wish I could find something definitive about how the stories placed on the final ballot. ISFDB suggests it was Le Guin - Martin - Simak - McIntyre, but I don’t see a link to the actual voting details anywhere and that would be really nice to have for confirmation purposes.

Adri: Ah well, we shall have to agree to agree this time...

Regardless of my feelings about Construction Shack, I’m glad to have taken a look at this category: Wings was a great find, and With Morning Comes Mistfall was also an enjoyable look at an author who I’ve never previously read outside of (very very) longform. And the opportunity to reread “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was, if not exactly a pleasure, then a welcome engagement with a pretty masterful piece of writing.

Thanks as always for the chat.

Joe: Thank you!

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan

Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.