Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Short Story

: So, how about those Hugos?

We’re starting with short story, which is unusual for us, and it also gives us a chance to dive into the category with the most Chinese works. All of these have been provided in translation, with two stories translated by humans (Regina Kanyu Wang’s Zhurong on Mars is translated by S. Qiouyi Lu and Ren Qing’s Resurrection is translated by Blake Stone Banks) and The White Cliff and On the Razor’s Edge translated by machine. Muddying the waters slightly, Resurrection is eligible on the basis of its translation being published in 2022, not the original story which was published in 2020. So we have three stories where the “definitive” text is in English, and three in Chinese, but both of us have read them all in English. Which immediately makes prose comparisons difficult, but at least we’ve been able to appreciate the whole ballot, for a given value of the word “appreciate”.

It’s also a great ballot for Hugo firsts - of the authors here, I’m pretty sure that only John Wiswell is a repeat nominee.

Joe: You are absolutely right, Wiswell is the only prior nominee. He was previously on the ballot in 2021 for the short story “Open House on Haunted Hill” and again last year for the novelette “That Story Isn’t the Story”. I feel like I’m a bit late on the John Wiswell train because I’ve been hearing great things about his fiction even before he really broke out a couple of years ago - but everything I’ve read from him has been absolutely top notch and “D.I.Y.” is no exception.

It’s not 100% my favorite Wiswell, but I think what works for me is the tone. I think “D.I.Y.” has something of what I think you’ll argue about when we get to Best Novel and Legends & Lattes - which is this really smooth tone that even in light of potentially serious subjects it reads really smooth and suggests that stuff is easier than it is (Legends & Lattes is a different conversation, of course) - but even though the water crisis of “D.I.Y.” and what is functionally a corporation only doing what is most profitable for the least good rather than what is less (but still) profitable for the most good - this is serious stuff, but Wiswell has a very light touch.

Adri: I wish I liked D.I.Y. more than I do, but I struggled with it on two levels. First, sadly, the more of Wiswell’s writing I read, the less I get on with his prose - everything seems to come in the same functional-but-not-spectacular conversational style, and there are some really weird word choices in here (one teen calling another a “chonky boi” as if he’s a large cat rather than a human being) that I didn’t really… get. Clearly I’m in a minority here, but this is increasingly not the kind of genre work that gets me excited.

Second, while I love the premise of this story - it’s great to see someone taking aim at the “some children are very, very special and get to go to special magic schools” concept - I found the execution quite shallow, especially since this is practically the only climate fiction on the Hugo ballot this year. The protagonists face hardship and discrimination, but the story shies away for showing that in any more direct way than having one of the kids refused a scholarship by a snooty wizard. There’s no weight behind the climate catastrophe, so the protagonists’ achievements in solving problems doesn’t land nearly as effectively as it should. Perhaps that’s the point, and it’s not the kind of story that’s “supposed” to hit hard, but there’s nothing else here that makes me go “oh this is why this story is more than just a cute diversion, awesome”. Alas.

Joe: Before we get to “Rabbit Test” from Samantha Mills, which - spoilers - is my favorite story (such as the word favorite can apply to that story and how hard it hits) on the ballot, let’s talk about the four Chinese language stories.

As you said, we’re reading these in translation and two of those translations were done by machine - so we really can’t have a true sense of how the stories would present to a native speaking audience and what could be said to be lost in translation. It’s impossible to know, but I’m rather happy that I have this opportunity to experience them at all and that the writers / publishers took the time to translate their work for us the English language fans.

Adri: We’ll never experience how well these works land in Chinese, so even for the human translated works I’m going to avoid talking too much about prose here, except to say that you can totally tell that one story was translated by an accomplished author in aer own right, a second was translated by a person going for maximum accuracy, and the others were translated by computers.

But there’s no getting around it: there are things here that sure didn’t land well with me. I want to start at the lowest point of my reading: “On the Razor’s Edge” by Jiang Bo. Either there’s a significant satirical edge getting lost in translation here, or we have a story on the ballot that would have been right at home in the Puppy era of short fiction nominees if it weren’t for its stridently pro-CCP protagonist. This is a space rescue, in which two astronauts aboard the Chinese space station receive a distress call from the ISS and are given permission by the appropriate committee to stage a daring rescue. The ISS astronauts are all Americans, foolishly still working aboard their crumbling station, and while most of the text focuses on the action of the rescue (a sort of mini-The Martian, complete with Andy Weir levels of geopolitical nuance), we do get to spend an infuriating amount of time helpless, passive female astronaut who spends the entire rescue weeping and being told what to do by men.

I’ve read a previous story of Jiang Bo’s as well: “Starship: Library” appears in translation in the Sinopticon anthology, and has an active, competent woman as its protagonist, so I can only hope that that story is a better indicator of the work he’s put out over a 20 year career. “Starship: Library” also has an edge of gentle humour, which adds to my hope that something is getting lost in translation, and this isn’t just a straight up “strong, patriotic man rescues helpless woman in space” throwback.

Joe: Now that we’re getting into it, “On the Razor’s Edge” is one of my problems (if that’s what I want to call it) with some of the Chinese language work on this year’s ballot. You say “Puppy Era” and you’re not completely wrong, but what I think of instead is that “On the Razor’s Edge” is one of several 1950’s-esque science fiction stories on the ballot.

I wish that someone could brain dump the last five years of Chinese science fiction into my head complete with the working knowledge of novels and the significant short fiction and the scope of what is on the ballots for the Galaxy and Chinese Nebula Awards. Just so I could know how representative “On the Razor’s Edge” and the other works on the ballot are.

There is a particular formality to the writing or to the translation that really feels like science fiction from another era. It’s not Asimov, per se, but it’s what you think about when you think about Asimov - the taking of an idea and playing with it, but doing so in fairly basic and straight forward terms. That’s what “On the Razor’s Edge” does for me and

That formality is also present in “Resurrection”, which I’ll admit doesn’t quite like a 1950’s American science fiction story, but it does have that weird formality to the writing (or translation) that doesn’t really work for me. But with that said. I think “Resurrection” may also be one of the most Chinese stories on the ballot in this category, at least in the idea that it relies more on a Chinese culture than an American one (or, presumably, a British one).

Adri: Resurrection is an intriguing idea: a synthetic version of a woman’s son is delivered to her upon her son’s death, and she has to make her peace with his loss while dealing with this weird, temporary technology and the unwanted attention it brings. But there was a lot hanging around in the margins of the actual story that I was more interested in than, say, the paragraph-long musings of the synthetic corpse about the infinite potential subdivisions of time. For a story that’s very grounded in a mother-son relationship, it’s hard to really grasp either the emotions of the characters or what either of them think about the repressive bureaucracy that resurrected Xinguang and what its agents might be trying to achieve. The effect left the story feeling somewhat hollow to me, and on a first reading I struggled to grasp the weight of the mother’s actions at the end and what her rebellion means in a wider sense.

Joe: It was a really cool idea, but I have it ranked last on my ballot - though I could easily swap spots between “Resurrection” and “The White Cliff” if it came to it.

Adri: I got on better with The White Cliff, and I’d love to see it get a proper translation, because I’d like to see how the story’s midway reveal works with intentional language, and what it intended to be obvious before the turning point. Like Resurrection, this is also a piece about the relationship between a parent and child, with a woman providing medical care for her terminally ill father. The technological innovation here isn’t mind-blowing, and there’s a lot left unexplored in terms of the ethics of use: the story seems to imply there’s a genuine answer to the question “what’s the most effective way to say goodbye to a dying loved one”, which I think is a non-starter. Still, I liked the imagery a lot and I felt a much stronger emotional connection to An and Yanli than to Xinguang and his mother in “Resurrection”.

Joe: Maybe it was the lack of proper translation for “The White Cliff”, as you said. It was deeply emotional but I think the translation held it back and kept me at a bit of a distance and kept the story from fully landing. As with all of the stories, I wanted to appreciate “The White Cliff” and I would love to know if it’s translation, storytelling, or cultural differences that is holding me back. The thing is - I’m a huge softie and stories that have those moments with parents and children and dealing with grief and letting go and acceptance really, really tend to work for me - even if just in the moment of catharsis, and usually it’s enough to overcome and flaws I found in a story. Here it wasn’t.

My favorite of the translated Chinese language stories is “Zhurong on Mars”, which is a fairly straight forward sentient AI / colonization story that reads like something I’ve seen before and I enjoyed it then and I enjoyed it now. I’m a basic science fiction sometimes and if there ever was a “core genre”, which is an entirely different conversation, “Zhurong on Mars” is straight up core genre.

Adri: This was also my favourite of the translated stories: as you say, it’s an idea that feels quite well trodden, but I liked the imagery and characterisation a lot and I think the way it handles self-actualisation and purpose in an emerging consciousness kept me firmly engaged. It still wouldn’t rate among my favourite stories of the year - there’s too much ponderous technological musing and not enough weird shit for me - but this story still spoke to me , and Regina Kanyu Wang is even more firmly on my radar now as an author to watch.

Which brings us, I think, to our joint favourite story: Rabbit Test by Samantha Mills. Do you want to kick off with your thoughts on this one?

Joe: I mentioned earlier that “Rabbit Test” was my favorite story on the ballot, though I’ll also note that the word “favorite” here is doing some work because it’s a really tough story to sit through.

It’s topical as hell, at least in the United States. I’m fairly US-centric when it comes to understanding what’s going on in other countries, but with the overturning of Roe v Wade last year and the end of a federally protected right to have an abortion this is something that’s been on my mind as it has with so many Americans (and likely others around the world, though I don’t want to assume that other people think about the United States nearly as often as folks who live here do).

The titular rabbit test was, somewhat to my surprise, a real thing and that makes sense, because of course women would want to know if they were pregnant as early as they could. I’m sure that’s common knowledge for people who aren’t me. As Mills wrote “all of those people just wanted to know, so they could plan either way. Because—” But, this isn’t a historical story about pregnancy tests. It’s a story of bodily autonomy, of government and societal control, of the fight to *choose* that has always been going on and maybe always will?

“Rabbit Test” jumps between times in glimpses and microstories within the macro story and it hits brutally hard. It’s not just the story Mills is telling, which is vital and immediate and important, it’s the power with which she tells it and even as the story ends it isn’t really over because it can’t be.
“It is 2084 and she is crying, “Our grandmothers fought so hard for this.”

It is 2206 and she is crying, “Our grandmothers fought so hard for this.”

It is 1878 and Madame Restell is bleeding to death in her bathtub rather than submit to another trial. It is 1821 and Asenath Smith is fleeing town in disgrace. It is 1972 and seven of the women of Jane have just been arrested in a raid. It is 2086 and Grace’s medical record has been officially upgraded to that most precarious of categories: potential to become pregnant.

It is 2022 and it isn’t over.

It is 2022 and it is never over.”
I certainly haven’t read most of the notable stories published last year but I have a difficult time imagining there are many that will have the impact and power of “Rabbit Test”

Adri: I have similar feelings about Rabbit Test: while it’s certainly very grounded in the Roe repeal and events in the USA, abortion rights are a pretty universal issue and threats to them are depressingly topical in a lot of places beyond America. As you say, this is a difficult story to “enjoy” in the traditional sense, but it’s extremely evocative and, while the central story takes a specific perspective, the “surrounding” stories brings out the multiplicity of experiences with pregnancy that vary by gender, race, class and family circumstances. It’s one of those rare short stories that felt like a shoo-in to me from the moment I read it (the buzz about it beforehand on social media helped), and it’s the absolute stand out for this category to me.

Joe: I agree. From my perspective, “Rabbit Test” is truly the class of the field here. The other stories are generally good to very good and we disagree on which are which, but “Rabbit Test” stands out as something special.

Do you have any final thoughts? Otherwise, I think we’re about ready to throw down and argue about the Best Novel finalists. I know we have some significant disagreements there.

Adri: Let’s do it!