SF/F Review – 2014 Hugo Short Stories & Novelettes (or: A Love Letter to Samatar and Chiang)
Book Review: Every year my book club reads all the short stories and novelletes nominated for Hugo Awards and discusses those at a meeting, rather than reading a novel. So this will be more of a quick review of a bunch of stories, rather than of a single work.
‘‘The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere’’, John Chu
I don’t see why this is considered Speculative Fiction. There’s basically nothing SF in here (and the water doesn’t count). This is a plain ol’ coming-out story. More than that, it’s a boring coming out story. And maybe worst of all, there wouldn’t even be a story if the protagonist had even a single vertebrae worth of backbone. I have no interest in reading about a complete wus being so much of a loser that it hurt my eyes to read about it. Jesus, ovary up!
‘‘The Ink Readers of Doi Saket’’, Thomas Olde Heuvelt
A delightful fairy tale, with a beautiful cadence. It’s fun to read, but it won’t leave your life changed, or your week altered. Fun, but light.
‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers’’, Sofia Samatar (audio)
I first heard this in audio, so I almost didn’t read it, which would have been a huge mistake. Something is lost in the audio, I don’t know what it is. The meter of the words maybe. The breaks are very important too. I didn’t get anything from it when I heard it.
Then I read it.
This story is amazing. It hits one of my favorite themes, the same theme that Comes The Huntsman and Evangelion and Vellum and all sorts of things I love portray well – People Will Leave You. Whether by choice or accident or death, eventually everyone you know will leave your life in some way, and it will fucking hurt. But trying to shield yourself by not forming attachments ends up hurting even more, because human psychology sucks and isolation is awful. Putting it in crass words like this is terrible and doesn’t convey any of the emotion, which is why you’ll never see it put in this way in anything worth reading/watching. Read this story. It’s amazing.
The fear and pain of abandonment drips from every single sentence. And let me say this is one of the best written works I’ve read in a long time. The craft of the wordsmithing is breath-taking. It flows like a song, tugging you where it wants you to be with the rhythm of the words and the tension of the voice. Tugging is the wrong word to use, it embraces and guides you.
And the protagonist! Holy god! It’s been said that Superman isn’t brave when he jumps in front of a bullet, because he knows it won’t hurt him. Actual bravery is a normal human who does so, because he knows he could be maimed, or killed, and maybe it won’t even matter. This protagonist is the bravest fucking person I’ve read about in ages. You feel her bowel-liquidating fear and yet she goes forward with what terrifies her. She refuses to live cringing from life for fear of pain, she grabs onto life and screams in defiance and accepts that maybe she’ll be thrown off and it’ll hurt and it’ll be awful but fuck it all, that’s no way to live. It’s exhilarating and moving and terrifying and inspiring.
This story deserves to win SO HARD it’s ridiculous.
‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love’’, Rachel Swirsky
This isn’t a short story, it’s a poem, but let’s let that slide since there’s no poetry category. It is technically magnificent. It does exactly what it sets out to do with skill so precise it’s scary. Every bit as amazingly written as Selkie Stories. However, what it sets out to do is hurt you. This is a sad-fic. It describes something so unutterably tragic and terrible in such a perfect way that you feel every bit of that pain. And unlike Selkie Stories, there is no brave protagonist pushing forward and being amazing. There is just the pain. This is the literary equivalent of taking a straight razor, dulling it just slightly, and then running it over your skin just hard enough to cut it without drawing much blood. If that’s what you want in your fiction, this is perfect for you and you will fall in love with it instantly. Me, I left my cutting days back in my teen years. I don’t like stories that exist just for the catharsis of experiencing pain. I feel this story would have been better off in a Literary Fiction magazine.
‘‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’’, Ted Chiang
When he writes, Ted Chiang dissects our universe. He keeps cutting until he finds something interesting, one little bit of reality that captures his interest. He then removes this piece, studies it, and alters it ever so slightly to create a unique and fascinating premise for a story. Then he surgically re-inserts this altered bit, re-composes reality, and finally creates the story that would arise naturally from that little bit of the universe being different. And as you examine this story, you can see reflected in its surfaces and vertices what the original piece of our world was. By presenting us a story where that piece is different, it brings light to how that original piece shapes our own reality.
Which is to say (again) Ted Chiang is the best short-fiction writer of the present day.
He does that again with this story. This time the piece is literacy. Obviously this was my favorite novelette, and you should read it. :)
‘‘Opera Vita Aeterna’’, Vox Day
I tried to give this a chance. I really did. I read Warbound with an open mind, and Correia himself seemed quite happy with my attempt at fairness. So I went in thinking this could be a good work, even if I think Vox Day himself is an insufferable douchebag. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time a great artist has been personally reprehensible.
I kept waiting for the story to start. It never did. Seriously, there is nothing here. The writing itself isn’t bad (a bit amateurish, but we all gotta start somewhere), but this isn’t a story. As one of our book club said “If this was presented to our writing group, we’d return it without comment, saying it’s not worth our time to critique.” It is purely a finger-in-the-eye to the Hugos. All I can say is… well played Correia.
Needless to say, this isn’t worth your time.
‘‘The Waiting Stars’’, Aliette de Bodard
Everyone else seemed to love this, but I don’t know why. It’s a retelling of The Matrix that doesn’t add anything. Meh.
‘‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’’, Mary Robinette Kowal
A very good story about aging. The conflict between being true to your calling and what you view as your duty. And what it means to grow old and useless to society. This speaks directly to me. It was very moving, and the resolution made me a bit misty-eyed. Let’s never get old, OK?
‘‘The Exchange Officers’’, Brad Torgersen
This starts with the line “Does technology change the nature–and meaning–of sacrifice?” as a teaser. The answer is yes. Trashing some government agency’s expensive hardware from a safe bunker hundreds of miles away is not at all as compelling as sacrificing your own life. One might say that applying the word “sacrifice” to the first scenario is an abuse of the reader’s trust. This was more like the power-fantasy that boys write in early high school (I would know). It was boring, and bad.
Book Club Review: Despite some of these stories sucking (which happens every year), I cannot do anything less but heartily recommend the “reading stories/novelettes” practice to all book clubs. It’s a different form of story-telling, and the scattershot approach exposes you to a variety of styles and authors you probably wouldn’t normally read. It’s a very refreshing change of pace, and it’s fun to compare stories to each other directly, rather than discussing a single work in isolation as is generally done. It gives you a ton of subject matter to talk about. And it’s ok if some of it sucks, it lets you vent, and you move on to the good stuff. This is great fun, and I hope more people get into it!
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