Monday, January 6, 2020

The Hugo Initiative: Blogtable (1983, Novelette)

Adri: Hello, and welcome to another Hugo short fiction category round-up! This time, we’re moving forward into the 1980s and into a longer category, with the 1983 Best Novelette nominees all up for our [re]-consideration. With Paul returned from the roof of the world to join Joe and me, it’s time to get stuck in to this intriguing line-up...
  • “Fire Watch” by Connie Willis [Asimov’s Feb 1982]
  • “Nightlife” by Phyllis Eisenstein [F&SF Feb 1982]
  • “Pawn’s Gambit” by Timothy Zahn [Analog Mar 1982]
  • “Aquila” by Somtow Sucharitkul [Asimov’s Jan 1982]
  • “Swarm” by Bruce Sterling [F&SF Apr 1982]
Joe: I’d like to start off by looking at Somtow Sucharitkul’s “Aquila”.

Adri: I suppose we have to, don’t we?

"Aquila" is the first story in Somtow Sucharitkul (who later wrote as S.P Somtow)’s Aquiliad universe. On the surface, it's a story which takes all the cultural touchstones of violence and excess from the Roman Empire (crucifictions as public entertainment, snacking on peacock brains, fixation on the legion and military campaigns) and transposes them into a context whose time period is hard to pin down, and whose characters all speak more or less like Bertie Wooster, for reasons which seem unrelated to their Romanness.

The narrator of "Aquila" is Titus, a disgraced official who is sent off on a doomed campaign, and ends up being reinforced by a group of New World “savages” - that is, Native Americans led by the titular Aquila. Aquila is introduced with “it” pronouns for several lines, then goes about destroying the narrator’s pro empire ideology and espousing the importance of Disney’s-Pocahontas style Native American cliche traditions. But, wouldn’t you know it, despite not fitting in with the regimented Roman way of life, Aquila and his men save the day! And if you’re noticing a hint of disapproval in this allegedly objective story wrap-up… well done.

Joe: I just want to see what Paul has to say because everything about “Aquila” on the surface is right up Paul’s alley. We had a bit of an offline conversation about the story several weeks ago and I’m just baffled by “Aquila”. It seems like it is set in an 18th or 19th century alternate history, but Paul read ahead and doesn’t think that’s what Somtow is doing here.

My thoughts can really be summed up as follows: “Oh, what the everlasting fuck was that?”

My even shorter response is: Not for me.

Paul: Oh boy. Both of you thought that this was up my alley...but this was not what I expected.

To read this story, I read the collection “The Aquiliad”, which includes three subsequent Aquila stories, “Aquila the God”, “Aquila versus Bigfoot” and “Aquila the Final Conflict”. To try and understand just what was happening in “Aquila”, I read them all.

But let me talk about this story first and what we have in it. I was flat footed from the get-go, because the name of the Emperor (Domitian) really was at odds with the relatively advanced technology that we were seeing (not to mention the whole New World angle) . I wondered for a bit as I was reading if the Domitian wasn’t just another Domitian, a future Roman Emperor who was using that as part of his name. But, no, I caught a reference that the high technology was invented by one person and that there was a limited amount of it. So I began to wonder even in this story just what the setup was.

And then there is the titular Aquila himself. Oh, we can and have done better with cultural depictions since 1983, yes we have. I cringed every time Aquila appeared on the page, and while Titus is putatively the incompetent hero, it is Aquila and his men who saves him from the Parthians. (And I think the Bertie Wooster observation is spot on, Adri.)

And that’s what is really strange about this story. It’s meant itself to be a satire on Romans and Roman ideas and beliefs, especially in regards to how they regarded “savages”. (Side note: that itself is a stereotype of lazy scholarship, the relations between Romans and their neighbors was complex from the get go). The story is supposed to have us identify with Aquila, seeing how he shows up the glory hogging Romans who couldn’t get along without him and his men. And, in the same hand, Aquila himself is a stereotype and an example of bad characterization of Native Americans that we have (I think for the most part) have moved far past.

So, having read this thing, I was bugged and wanted to know more. So for my sins, I read all of the subsequent stories to make sense of the world and what was happening. They make it absolutely clear that it is late 1st Century, early 2nd Century A.D. Rome. Why does Rome have some motorcars and “better ships” so that they can conquer Terra Nova? It turns out that Interdimensional travelers are a thing, with Titus and Aquila running into them again and again in later stories. They travel in flying saucers, and meta-comment that the world Titus inhabits is all screwed up from a historical point of view, and that is actually a problem thanks to a cross-dimensional villain. But it gets even sillier and more satirical as things happen, including Jews transformed into Sasquatches with a liking for circular bread with cream cheese and smoked salmon. Yeah. Oh, and a female character does show up in the third story, but she is not written well at all.

Adri: Yikes. I agree that this story hasn’t aged well, if it was ever a good idea in the first place. Clearly there’s an effort to separate the textual racism and Roman-centric views of the narrator from the actual views of the author, but the stereotyping means that doesn’t work well at all. Beyond that, I’m struggling to see what even voters of the time would have found in this story beyond some confusing initial worldbuilding, and a fun but silly plot. I don’t think any of us found our favourite series here.

Joe: It’s pretty awful.

Adri: From Aquila, let’s move on to Nightlife, by Phyllis Eisenstein. Featuring Jane, a 32-year-old 80s Power Exec Shoulderpad Lady who goes home alone every night in order to live our her uniquely fulfilling dream life, Nightlife becomes a romance when Jane meets a young man called John (during a sexy saved-by-cowboys scenario) and discovers that he may be real, able to control his dreams in the same way as she is. The rest of the novelette is dedicated to Jane finding John in reality and trying to find the best way to be with him, given the complex circumstances they uncovered.

Adri: So, maybe I spend too much time on the r/relationships Twitter account, where a significant age gap between romantic partners is almost always a red flag for the problem being discussed to involve creepy power dynamics, but the way the romance plays out here between Jane and 20-year-old John, who she watches in dreams from the age of 8 so that she can seduce him at 16… actually, you know what, I’m not going to pretend that’s just me being judgemental about these people. It’s weird. The whole romance is unbalanced and uncomfortable and nothing makes it less creepy just because it’s a reversed power dynamic with a stronger woman.

I also had a problem with how boring Jane is. The perfect exec career woman by day, early bedtime by night thing is bearable, but Nightlife also doesn’t pull off anything that makes her actual dreams into interesting adventures which are worth passing up the rest of her life for. Her initial desert dream is obviously intended to be sexy wish fulfilment but the story barely commits to it, and the less said about her slice-of-life stalking mission, the better. Perhaps the issue here is that the concept of dreaming is really hard to make interesting in this way - we all know how weird and boring it is to listen to other people’s actual dreams - but there’s nothing which makes it really seem worth letting go of engaging with the rest of the world for?

Joe: I think it’s more that she seems to view her job as less than just a job, it’s the bare minimum of what she need to do to have that comfortable and vivid dream life. I was more willing to accept that Jane’s dreamlife was so vivid to *her* and given that we’re talking magic dreamworld here….sure.

Adri: Likewise, when Jane realises that John is also a real person, the story becomes entirely about how they get together and whether that uniting takes place in the real world or in the dreams that they control. My problem with romance in these contexts is that the question of whether or not two particular people end up together really doesn't seem more important than the literal rest of their lives? Maybe it's because I’m not big on the wish fulfilment element of romance plots, and I understand that it may not be intended as a "happy" ending, but there's nothing in the text that indicates the resolution is about anything other than them finding a way to be together in dreams without John dying. There's also a HUGE ableist element to the resolution, and to the fact that Jane accepts his reasoning and does nothing to argue his mother's points of view or bring anyone else into the conversation other than the two of them.

Joe: It’s not that “Nightlife” is *good*, per se, but it was the last story of the five which I read and it was far more interesting and compelling to me than either “Aquila” or “Swarm” - which probably says more about the state of this ballot viewed from 2019 than it does the relative merit of “Nightlife”.

Paul: Okay. This one was not really to my taste and I am not sure why. The narrator has an active dream life, and manages to connect to someone through those dreams, and finds what is missing in her life all this time and rearranges her real life so that she can continue the nightly dream life with the man he loves. It felt and feels really shallow even to summarize it in that way, but that’s basically how this goes.

So the speculative element is the sharing of the dream? I can’t seem to find anything else that makes this a genre story. Unless of course you go with the idea that a genre writer’s story is by definition a genre story. I don’t buy that argument but I have seen it as an argument for people classifying and filing books before.

Joe: I’d call the sharing of the dream the speculative element - but I think because “Nightlife” was published in a speculative magazine and was on the Hugo ballot, I also assumed from the start that there was *something* going on with Jane’s dreams that made them more than just a dream.

Paul: I was reminded of better versions of this idea, particularly the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”. Maybe my heart is too hard but the love story did not really compel me. Or am I missing something key here and I am missing the subversion here--this sort of story would usually have the genders reversed--the male being the active character, the female the relatively passive one, and the man traveling to meet the woman he loves. The past is a different country, and maybe in 1983, having a female protagonist take the lead as she does in this story was mind blowing enough to launch the story into the top tier of interest for awards. Which is a damning environment of past genre readers, to be honest.

Adri: Yeah, I didn’t see much in Nightlife, although the proto-”San Junipero” is an interesting comparison.

Next up, we’ve got a story that definitely isn’t about prawns: “Pawn’s Gambit” by Timothy Zahn.

Joe: I primarily think of Timothy Zahn as a Star Wars writer because Heir to the Empire launched the Star Wars Expanded Universe (RIP) and he has been such a prominent part of that for almost thirty years with his Thrawn novels and introduction of Mara Jade and this is about to turn into an entirely different conversation, so I’m going to have to step back. Anway, his prominence within Star Wars has me continually forget that he had a notable career outside of those tie-in novels. “Pawn’s Gambit” was the first of three Hugo Award nominations, and in successive years at that! Not bad.

Paul: Definitely went “Wait, the Star Wars writer?” when I saw this was slated for us. The ebook I read mentioned in the afterword that Zahn did win a Hugo the following year for the novella “Cascade Point”, which takes a different classic SF trope, the FTL drive, and works it over as he does with this one.

Adri: I didn’t know that Zahn was a Hugo winner! He’s definitely a rare example of a writer who is not just well known, but generally most well regarded, for his work in a tie-in space, with Thrawn being one of relatively few Legends-only characters to make the jump to Disney canon.

Joe: “Pawn’s Gambit” is the story of an alien race which abducts other races and tests them to find out how dangerous they might be. It’s told through memos regarding the experiments and through the perspective of a human, we see the gamesmanship which the aliens are looking for and what the true purposes of the abductions are and what the consequences of their tests truly are. It’s an apt title, really - though I did think the ending was bit too neat with the Scooby Doo explanation for how everything came together.

Paul: The “aliens test us to see if we are worthy” is a trope that goes all the way back to the 1950’s, and probably earlier in the pulps as well. I was pleased to see that Zahn put a then-fresh spin on it--to test humans to see how dangerous they were, rather than if they were worthy for inclusion in a Galactic civilization.

I did like the variety of games--humans are the species that invents and makes games at the drop of a hat. And you can learn a lot about someone by the way one plays. This was a not very subtle lesson that goes as a throughline in the story, but it worked for me. I wouldn’t mind trying a game of Four-Ply or especially Skymarch. The reversible pawns bit was an interesting addition to Chess, too.

Adri: I do love speculation on “in a world of diverse species, what is humanity’s One Defining Trait?”, and “Pawn’s Gambit” is a fun take on that, especially with the memos from the Stryfkar which go from a sort of understandable concern about humanity’s capabilities, to pre-emptive genocide. I was also pleasantly surprised by Kelly: I’m predisposed to dislike or at least be sceptical of the “everyman” protagonist type figure but Kelly came across as smart and confident but without overrating his abilities and his thought processes are explained in a way that makes sense, even if we might not personally take the same risks that he does. The way that the history of the Stryfkar’s experiment and its impact on other races unfolds to the audience and Kelly is satisfying and while, as Joe says, the ending is a little convenient, it didn’t dent my overall positive experience with this story.

Joe: On the whole, I liked “Pawn’s Gambit”, but there’s an aspect to this type of story that I’m just drawn to whether or not it is a top tier story. It’s just one of my things.

Paul: I did notice, though, that younger me might not have noticed or complained, but dismissing what Kelly was eating while captured as “the food was bland but comfortably filling” felt way too anachronistic in this day and age. How DO the Stryfkar feed their human, or their other subjects and keep them alive for any period of time. Biology degree me was screaming inside about that one throwaway line.

Adri: The fourth story is "Swarm "by Bruce Sterling. Set in Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist universe, which features two rival factions of advanced humanity. The protagonists here are the Shapers, who seem to use genetic editing to make themselves into “perfect” humans, with very high IQs and other state-of-the-art modifications (like… not having an appendix, which, OK). The protagonist of the story is Captain-Doctor Afriel, who joins his Shaper colleague Mirni in researching an ancient alien object called the Swarm, a colony of non-sentient creatures who adapt into niche roles to keep their society going. Against the requirements of his trip, Afriel has devised a way to smuggle out some of the alien pheremones for use in the war against the Mechanists - but his plans come to an abrupt halt when he discovers the Swarm’s defence mechanism against creatures of his type.

Joe: I first encountered “Swarm” more than a decade ago when I read Schismatrix Plus for a book club. I didn’t much care for it then, and I sure don’t care for it now. Nor anything else in the Shaper / Mechanist Universe.

The story is something something about the humans meeting particular alien race and trying to infiltrate the alien “hive” and the aliens are semi accepting of this because they are each working for the advantage of their own race but things go weird and sideways and I really don’t know what the what any of this is.

I know that Bruce Sterling had a strong run on the Hugo and Nebula Awards but I’ve read a small handful of his stories and he’s just not for me.

Paul: I read Shaper/Mechanist stuff years and years ago, and had forgotten all the details in this one, which is pretty early in the sequence, because what I kept focusing on was the anachronisms or the ideas that Sterling discarded as he went through the sequence. In this story, the Shapers and Mechanists are not the only two factions, none others are mentioned by name, but its clear that there are a swarm (pun intended) of factions that the Shapers and Mechanists are just far and away the top tier of. That surprised me, and it definitely did not correspond with my memory.

This story does and did feel like pulling the curtain to show that the aliens were not what they seemed and had the upper hand all this time because they have engineered themselves to last hundreds of millions of years(!) which feels really not a possible thing. That seemed to be a thought back then, because I recall that Niven has some aliens in his stories having been around for really implausible lengths of time. I think the “aliens have the upper hand” is better executed, much later on, in Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. Here it feels like pulling the rug out from under the reader.

Adri: I liked "Swarm"  OK - clearly better than Joe did - and I actually appreciated Sterling’s style, which is a mix of terrible and also rather evocative. An example from early in the text:

"No doubt you are right," Afriel said, despising him. "We humans are as children to other races, however; so a certain immaturity seems natural to us." Afriel pulled off his sunglasses to rub the bridge of his nose."

That "despising him" slipped into the speech tags is really direct and shouldn't work, but somehow brings the scene into focus - and then you've got the repetition of the name in two sentences which to my ear sounds irredeemably clunky. It’s bad, but it’s also kind of the opposite? Anyway.

I agree that the contrivances of Afriel and Mirni’s mission are all a bit weird and arbitrary, and things like their two-year mission and the realities of their life in the Swarm with no human comforts whatsoever are glossed over in an unsatisfactory way. There’s also plenty of gender nonsense going on here, particularly the fact that Afriel’s agenda immediately takes precedence even though Mirni is considered the better Shaper (with a higher IQ… and yes, let’s not go into the problems with using IQ as a proxy for human evolution), and that she’s ultimately killed in order to further his development.

As Paul says, though, I ultimately feel like unknowable aliens come in more compelling forms than this.

Paul: Also, this bit made me think that Babylon 5’s elder races were inspired by a note in this story:

"They have passed beyond my ken. They have all discovered something, learned something, that has caused them to transcend my understanding. It may be that they even transcend being...for all intents and purposes, they seem to be dead. Vanished. They may have become gods, or ghosts."

Adri: The final story on our list is the category winner: "Fire Watch" by Connie Willis.

Now, I really like Willis but I have to be increasingly careful to be in the right mood for her version of England, which can be generously described as "have you actually had this read by an English person before publishing, Connie". Everything seems to be going fine, but then the weird references to the Tube by Oxford-based characters start piling up (Bertie Wooster-voice is back, incidentally), and before you know it the characters are “taking the Tube” from Oxford to London and you know she doesn’t mean the very specific bus route (which was three years away at the point of this story) and there’s already a perfectly serviceable overground train line which is called “the train” and would have no reason to be underground in future, and it all gets a bit distracting to say the least. It hasn’t got much better by Blackout/All Clear, either, despite the author’s status as a multiple-Hugo winning master by that stage.

Joe: I’ve been an on and off reader of Connie Willis for years, but never read “Fire Watch” until now and I might not have done that if I hadn’t also read Doomsday Book for The Hugo Initiative.

“Fire Watch” is the first of Willis’s Oxford Time Travel stories and this one introduces the whole concept, though verrrrrry loosely. A historian travels back in time to “The Blitz”, the bombing of London in 1940 and 1941 by Germany, to help save St Paul’s Cathedral - except that he’s not really sure why he’s been sent to this location since he’s spent 4 years preparing to travel with St Paul. Oh, time travel jokes.

Adri: Bartholomew - who despite studying at the time travel department at Balliol, reputationally one of the most champaign-socialist Oxford colleges, has never heard the word “bourgeois” before - finds himself out of his depth thanks to being given vague and inadequate, and entirely personality-driven, instruction for a life-changing exam, due to the whims of the academic system… which is actually very believable. He also doesn't know about cats, because in the future all the cats are gone, and the fun asides about interacting with the one that lives with them (trying to lure it with water, complaining it "makes a noise like a siren") are wonderful.

Joe: “Fire Watch” is a somewhat pyrrhic story, because the protagonist knows that St. Paul’s Cathedral will be saved by the Fire Watch (they put out fires and smother bombs that get too close to the cathedral), only to be destroyed decades later in a terrorist attack. You know, I don’t know if this gets covered in later novels, but I want to know more about this future history.

Adri: Yes, this is a key element of Blackout and All Clear!

Joe: Anyway, one aspect of the story that reads very much “of its time” is that Communist is used as a nasty epithet regarding the rise and domination of the USSR and the atrocities performed on a global scale by the USSR and Communists - suggesting that the timeline in “Fire Watch” goes in a very different direction past the mid-1980s (and by extension 2019) than what we actually saw happen. That’s one of the perils of a story written in the midst of the Cold War.

Paul: I agree with you, Joe, that the Communist as epithet and danger felt really anachronistic in this day and age. I saw her resonance with how a future Brit in a world where Communism exists would have a horror of being called a Communist and worse, being thought as the threat himself to St. Paul’s.

Adri: If Bartholomew lives in a Britain that’s still indelibly shaped by hatred of Communism, that’s even more reason for him to have known the word “bourgeois” though, isn’t it? I feel the reason this moment felt so anachronistic was the combination of a very Cold War sensibility with the lack of a really fleshed out vision of what’s happening in the future to make that feel like a logical continuation, right up until the end. It reflects a general sense of fluidity in “Fire Watch” that’s not present by Doomsday Book, with the rules of time travel still up for debate in a way that they aren’t in later stories. Having read the novels in which things are clearer, it becomes hard to separate out the unknowns in this prototype version of the world from the constant niggles of implausibility around Bartholomew’s knowledge and understanding as a mid-21st century British history student. (Other words he doesn’t know include “tart” and “Tommy”, and no I'm not going to let this go.)

Joe: “Fire Watch” is a little looser than Doomsday Book, with more flitting back and forth between the protagonist’s memory and his time directly in London. Doomsday Book puts together more of the ideas Willis introduces here. It feels like the time between this story and the novel gave Willis time to more solidify the ideas she’s working with.

Paul: Yes, this definitely felt like a “dry run” for Doomsday Book, which is not fair to Doomsday, but in retrospect, it does feel like its set up. I misread and perhaps had the false expectation that it occurred before, but it seems more like that Willis decided to expand Kivrin’s experience into the novel qua novel, although she does retcon a few things in the process.

I also do see some Blackout/All Clear notes here as well, not only with the wartime London setting but also the questions of making sure history happens as it should and the efforts of someone to make sure it does, and also the unreliability of knowing when things happen when. The whole question of when the Marble Arch bomb hits kind of reminded me, oddly, of Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, and Lazarus Long trying to figure out how much longer World War One had yet to run.

Adri: A lot of the time, “Fire Watch” reads more as a historical story, and it’s not always clear what the value is of having a time-travelling protagonist rather than someone of the time, event uncertainties aside. Aside from his little linguistic trouble, Bartholomew doesn't seem to have had trouble convincing others he's supposed to be there, and being positioned in the Blitz doesn't actually offer much scope for exploring the morality behind time travel: regardless of one's position on killing Hitler, burning down cathedrals is something people generally feel is not a good thing and would want to prevent. Where the story starts to excel, though is in the slice-of-life elements of a character trying to live through bombardment and fear - the sleep deprivation and fear, the things it does to Bartholomew’s memory and priorities, and what that means on his return, are all very well realised and it’s ultimately his growth as a character and the realisations he comes to thanks to his time in the past that turned this story around for me.

Paul: I found the small note that St. Paul’s would eventually be destroyed to be poignant and reminded me particularly of the recent damage to Notre Dame.

Adri: Now that we’ve gone through the entire ballot, it’s decision time. this is a tough set of stories to make a decision on, mostly because none of them did as much for me as I’d have hoped. While we’ve had some duds in our previous chats, part of me expected as we got a bit closer to the present day and to still-writing authors, we’d end up more in line with the tastes and aesthetics of current Hugos, but I guess that’s a lot to ask when this selection is still over 30 years behind where we are now.

At the top of the heap for me are “Fire Watch” and “Pawn’s Gambit”, both of which were enjoyable diversions, if not stories that set my world on fire. Of the two, I think I prefer the science fictional aspects of "Pawn’s Gambit" to the historical diary of "Fire Watch", which doesn’t fully tap into the potential for connection between the past and the near future that the later novels of the Oxford Time Travel series capitalise on. “Spawn” doesn’t really trouble those two, but I liked it well enough and I’d rank it third on a hypothetical ballot.

On the other side, while of course I can’t predict how I’d feel if I was voting back in 1983, but I hope that neither "Aquila" or "Nightlife" would have been above “No Award”. "Aquila"’s bizarre storytelling and casual racism was a real let-down for me from an author of colour whose work I’ve been interested in trying for a while; I had fewer expectations about “Nightlife” but its dream romance came across as more creepy than anything else.

Paul: None of these really set the world on fire, sadly. Today me, I think that Pawn’s Gambit is the best of breed, with the Fire Watch (the actual winner) in second place. Swarm would get third, Aquila fourth (only because there were Romans) and then Nightlife in fifth. I would not No Award any of them--that’s a tactical nuclear weapon I only really use with care.

13-year-old me (as I would have been at the time). I had just seen Return of the Jedi in the movie theaters that previous summer, the second movie I ever saw in a theater (the first being, weirdly, Metalstorm 3d: The Destruction of Jared-Syn”). I would have voted Pawn’s Gambit, then Swarm, Aquila (since 13-year-old me would have missed the problematic elements and went for ROMANS), Fire Watch and then Nightlife.

Joe: Depending on the year, my mood, the moon, and what’s going on in the genre - I tend to only use No Award very surgically, where I reacted very strongly against a particular work. Otherwise, I rank a category in order and leave No Award off my ballot.

With that said, “Aquila” would have fallen below No Award on my ballot. I can’t say if I would have been as refined in 1983 as I like to pretend I am now - but that story fails me on almost any measure I’m willing to consider.

I suspect at the time, I’d have voted “Pawn’s Gambit” as my top pick with “Fire Watch” second. Today I would reverse that. “Fire Watch” is the class of this field, though I was very pleasantly surprised by “Pawn’s Gambit”. Given my general dislike of Bruce Sterling’s Shaper / Mechanist stories, I’d honestly place “Nightlife” third, followed by “Swarm”, No Award, and “Aquila” in that order.

Adri: On that note, it’s time to bring our conversation to a close, and with it our Hugo category round-ups - for now, at least. Thanks, friends, it’s been fun!

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

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.   

Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.