Our book club read and discussed all freely available Hugo-nominated Novelettes and Short Stories this week. As always, it was a refreshing change of pace, and I highly recommend it to everyone! Here’s my review, which is a bit different from how I normally do these.
“The Art of Space Travel”, by Nina Allan
— This is Lit Fic. It is an author examining the human condition via the day-to-day struggles of a normal working-class person. There is no plot, and the entire story consists of the author emoting on the page, showing that emotions are emotional and humans are complicated, and hoping we think this makes the work deep and noteworthy. Look, dammit, writing Lit Fic and shoving it 50 years into the future does not actually make it SF. Bleh.
“The Tomato Thief”, by Ursula Vernon
— The strength of the voice in this piece is amazing. It reach out and grabs you in the very first paragraph. You are living in the world of this crotchety old grandma, and she is obstinate and salty and does not have time for your shit. It’s writing like this that makes you viscerally understand the difference between masters of the craft and people who write on a lark. It is just plain good. The voice is just the start, of course. The setting (American Southwest Desert mythology) is beautiful and richly detailed, the world building is comfortable and builds in well-executed blocks. The plot ramps at a great pace as well. This doesn’t have the deep emotional scars and quakes of last year’s killer “Jackelope Wives” (by Vernon), so I don’t find it to be as impactful. But it is a good tale, and very enjoyable.
“Touring with the Alien”, by Carolyn Ives Gilman
— An interesting concept, but lacking in execution. The piece tries to re-examine the “intellect without consciousness” theme in a light-hearted way, and it just doesn’t work very well. Who is able to look at the death of consciousness and shrug? It’s a horrifying concept, it’s basically the impetus behind our fear of zombies. Every good handling of this that I’ve seen has been dark/horror, culminating with Watts’s masterwork. Maybe there’s a way to do it that isn’t so angst-heavy, but this attempt certainly didn’t pull it off. Also, the protagonists attitude throughout is basically one of “Meh, whatever,” including her decision at the end to allow the human race to be “colonized.” There’s been times in my life when I was OK with wiping out the human race, but never when my attitude was one of general “whatevs” and it just felt off. A decision like that needs some more motivation IMHO.
“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, by Alyssa Wong
— Beautiful prose, and an fantastic world. Again, American Southwest Desert mythology, because trends in SF are a thing. :) I love the world here, the “just beneath the skin of everything” magic, and the idea of the desert itself as a non-physical being – one that can marry a physical human and give birth to a son. The emotion throughout is beautiful, and the twist at the end makes for a good spice. It turns out this is basically a villain origin story, or what the rest of the world would consider a ‘traditional villain’ at any rate. I have a huge love of stories where the protagonist is a “villain”. That being said, the prose sometimes gets in the way of the story, rather than adding to it. The beginning drags on much longer than it has to. And then the end, where you expect to see our protagonist wreak bloody vengeance on his murderers (who are legitimately evil assholes destroying his hometown and way of life), you instead get a dance scene. Literally, a bunch of people dance with their deceased loved ones. I get what she was trying to do, a Dia De Los Muertos thing, but it just did not work with the narrative flow of what Wong had been writing up to that point. It interrupted it so badly that I didn’t remember how this story ended — I had originally read it back in 2016. I had to reread for the bookclub, and realized why this story hadn’t stuck in my mind (all I could remember was “cool world, pretty writing). The ending is dis-congruent enough that it’s hard for the story to cohere and leave a footprint behind in my memory.
[[ The next two aren’t available online, and so weren’t read by the majority of our book club. Here’s my impressions anyway ]]
Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, by Stix Hiscock
— this year’s Rabid Puppy troll nomination. Hilarious in many scenes! :) But not a contender. And not nearly as well written as Chuck Tingle erotica, which is weird. Chuck Tingle manages to capture the “New Relationship Energy” butterflies very well, and writes some hot sex scenes. Alien Stripper had great comedy, but didn’t do either of the things that erotica is supposed to do. IMHO… I’m not a huge erotica reader, maybe there’s sub-genres I’m not familiar with.
The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde
— Epic Fantasy in short form! The magic system is *amazing*! Semi-sentient gems grant people powers, but also slowly drive them mad through constant whispers into their brain. It’s like wearing The One Ring all the time. The story starts out right at the Disaster scene, and details an fantastic friendship between the princess and her magic-using servant as they try to survive an coup/invasion. The tension ramps constantly, and the stakes keep increasing. Every time a problem is solved, a new one crops up that’s even bigger, and oh god, how will they get out of this? A damn fine story! The voice wasn’t notable, but this one is probably my favorite. It’s one major downside is that it doesn’t really have an ending. It just… stops. It feels like the first few chapters of a great epic fantasy novel, rather than a self-contained story with an arc.
“The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin
— Another contender for the OMG AMAZING VOICE award! From page one you are in the skin of a the protagonist, a street rat in NY swept up in the affairs of inhuman godlike powers. It is gripping and epic, like everything of Jemisin’s I’ve ever read. Another one of those “Wow… this is why they are masters and they get the awards” moments. The story is a bit sparse, and near the end it gets so metaphysical and dreamlike that the story kinda loses the reader a little. A great display of craft, but it left me feeling sorta empty at the end, and I’m not really sure why. I don’t think the protagonist had an emotional/personal shift over the course of the story, leaving it without a solid arc for us to follow. That, unfortunately, means it won’t stay with me very long.
“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong
— I wanted to love this story. Two reasons – first, the twist that finally comes clear in your mind about halfway through is a massive bombshell. It rearranges everything you’d read up to that point. And what had been confusing and incoherent suddenly all snaps into place and makes perfect sense and you get a feeling of “Ooooohhhhh!!! …woah, shit!” That is a superbly executed twist! Second – this story is what Vellum would be, if someone tried to write it as a short story. The same heartbreak, the same refusal to accept the unacceptable, the same desperate cycling of attempts to change the past, over and over across so many different universes. The same impossible frustration of never seeing it come to pass, of the horror-event occuring relentlessly, and the helplessness to do anything about it, ever. I love this thing so much. BUT… it really needs a full-novel-length treatment to do it right. You need all the pages and attempts and struggle of a full novel to bring the emotional devastation to bear. You need the time and word count to really get to know the characters, and fall in love with them, and feel the wrenching agony of the undivertable horror. When done as a book, it’s one of the best things ever written. When done as a short story, it is abrupt and truncated and falls flat. I wanted to love this story for what it could be. But it didn’t have the length to become what it needed to be. It isn’t a story that can be told well in this few words. :(
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander
— I like the experimental structure of this story. I was disappointed by the content. It is a revenge story, except without the revenge. We don’t get emotionally involved in the wrong that was done. And when the revenge comes it is off-screen. How do you tell a revenge story without the wrong OR the revenge? IMHO – you don’t. It basically boils down to braggadocio. “We’re so bad ass. We’re the baddest ass mother fuckers. Don’t fuck with us. We’re rolling around in a bad-ass car, smoking cigarettes, and being bad ass, cuz that’s how bad ass we are.” It would have appealed to me when I was an angry young teenage boy, but that sort of posturing doesn’t really do it for me anymore.
Also – as part of their revenge, the protagonist and her sisters damn someone to unending, unimaginable, eternal suffering. At that point any author completely loses my sympathy. Your protagonist is LITERALLY AS EVIL AS THE CHRISTIAN GOD! Fuck right off, I will never empathize with that sort of monstrosity, no matter how horrendous the victim of the retribution was. Please do better than “literally the most morally depraved actor imaginable” for your protagonist…
That being said, several people in my bookclub loved this story, so tastes differ.
“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar
— An interesting mash-up and retelling of two little-known fairy-tales. The visuals are very cool, and it has a rich fairy-tale flavor. And the friendship forged between the protagonists is done very well. I also read this one in 2016, and it also didn’t really stick with me, because it seemed, for lack of a better word, childish. I could tell there was supposed to be some sort of message the author was conveying, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it’s supposed to be. Centuries-old fairy tales are really sexist? Well, ok. That’s not news, and usually a message is supposed to impel one to reconsider their biases or update their view of others or modify their unexamined behaviors, or something. What is anyone supposed to do with “very old fairytales are sexist”? We already know, and it’s not like we can go back in time and change them…
Readers in my bookclub suggested the message is “Treating women as objects to be pursued/won instead of people is bad. Women are people too.” I think this just doesn’t come across well in the fairy-tale format, because fairy-tales are already so cartoonish by nature. Having a bunch of cartoon men at the base of a hill shaking their cartoon fists at a woman really didn’t convey an emotional truth. Compare to James Tiptree Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” which conveys powerfully and in a gut-churning way what it is like to live in a world full of hostile, physically-overpowering creatures who’s primary motivation is sexual exploitation. I’ll never forget that story, it crystallized so many things, and I cannot recommend it enough. “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is mostly a gathering of applause lights for things we already know. Abusive husbands are bad, selling your daughter is bad, and women shouldn’t put up with it. That’s a great theme, but putting it in a fairy-tale just sorta makes it cartoony instead of emotionally relevant. This is the sort of story I’d expect to see as someone is working their way up to writing something significant, but it isn’t there yet.
“That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn
— A great piece about being understood in the midst of isolation. The protagonist is the only non-telepathic person in a country populated by mind-reading telepaths. All her thoughts are on constant display to everyone, but she can’t see anything they are thinking. Interestingly, it never feels overly paranoid, due to the protagonists warm disposition and acceptance of her circumstances. It takes place after a war between their two people, where she was a nurse in a POW camp that held the telepathic soldiers, where she befriended one. The connection they make despite their differences brings warmth to both their lives, and while this is never said in the story, I get the impression that both of them are very isolated in their societies, and discover they can only be truly understood by the enemy. It also touches a little bit into game theory, but not very significantly for those from a rationalist background. Still, it was fun to see! I found this piece touching and comfortable to read. Not intense like I usually like my stories, but pretty good anyway. The ending seems to come too soon, and without enough punch. Overall, I think I liked this one best in this category.
[[ The last story isn’t available online, and so weren’t read by the majority of our book club. Here’s my impressions anyway ]]
An Unimaginable Light, by John C. Wright
— John C. Wright has never been subtle. He’s basically today’s Ayn Rand, with monologueing characters who spell out the superiority of their morality for the benefit of the reader. Of course this is my guilty pleasure, so I generally really enjoy his work. It doesn’t hurt that he is an extremely talented writer. Say what you want about the shlockly substance of his stories, he is a master of wordcraft.
Anyway, he’s decided that all his previous screeds were TOO SUBTLE and went full frontal. The antagonist is a disgusting, ugly, fat man, that spouts non-stop SJW platitudes. Basically the worst possible representation of liberal america as culled from the internet. He is a literal inquisitor in a hellscape future where SJWs have taken over. Our protagonist is a female version of Jesus. Not the offspring of God, but that is the only difference between her and the historic Christ. She espouses Christian ideals, takes on all the sins of her people, forgives her persecutor, and is then chained to a cross-like structure and tortured to death in order to absolve her people of their sins. YES, REALLY. (also, for extra culture war points, the SJW caricature demands she fellate him)
So, yeah, not subtle. But the twist delivered at the end is super effective. I had to go back several pages and reread their final conversation with the new information in mind, and it changed everything. It turned from a putrid anti-SJW screed, to a really beautiful message of redemption that happens to be wrapped up inside a putrid anti-SJW screed tortilla. I can overlook the festering tortilla for the tasty redemption story underneath, because that’s what was instilled into me in childhood, and those roots run deep. I’m embarrased to admit this, but I liked the ending. Like I said, morally self-righteous screeds are my guilty pleasure. I like Ayn Rand’s works too. I just know better than to take her (or Wright) seriously. It is like porn for my moral sense. Fun to diddle to now and then, but not something that should impact real life in anyway.
I hope no one thinks much worse of me due to this admission? Both Rand and Wright as still repugnant as people. They just make art that tickles a thing in me that doesn’t get much tickling IRL.
Overall Impressions of 2017
I found this to be a lackluster year, from my perspective. Some good examples of craft, but almost every story lacked the thematic depth and emotional super-stimulus that I crave in fiction. I know that’s just a taste thing, but most years the Hugos manage to have a couple pieces in every category that really hit “theme” and “emotion-journey” very well. None of the 2017 crop were as compelling or wrenching as the few I found for myself. I hope this will not be a trend.
When you mentioned 2017 to be a lackluster year, do you mean only for short stories, or overall?
I thought the novels were somewhat odd. The nominees I read were good, but they weren’t “hugo award winners”. There was nothing really heavy like Fire on the Deep or literary like Hyperion. Some were fun but a little light, others were middle books or first books in a clearly still to be finished story. I know we’ve had some of those recently, but Ancillary Justice was a first novel, but it had a complete story arc; if there was no second or third book it would have been satisfying by itself. And 5th season could have been a standalone novel with a minor tweak to the end. It didn’t feel unresolved to me.
I meant it for the shorts and novelettes. In terms of books, I dunno, I felt it was average. There’s some years that are fantastic, with two or three books that are just stand-out amazing. Other years the pickings are lean, and you worry about the state of the industry. :) But I think it’s just the chaotic nature of inspiration and publishing and popularization. This year I really liked Too Like The Lightning, even though, as you say, it’s not a finished work, ending literally with “the story will be continued in the next volume.” Not a great year, but they can’t all be I guess, and there’s been worse.
Huh. I thought it was really over-done, spent too long just spinning its wheels or indulging in prose that didn’t add much. At least “If you were a dinosaur” had the decency to be short. Perhaps I’m just a bit jaded on this kind of storyline? It comes up a lot, and the twists this time didn’t surprise much.
On second thought, actually, you might be right. The story is bigger, and this was just what was supposed to be the emotional crescendo, cut out and left flopping on the ground without a support structure. Or, the story should have been made smaller, scaled down uniformly rather than taken apart. Either would have been a vast improvement, and the first would keep the correct sense of scale.