Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Hugo Ballot Reviews: Novelette

My ballot for the 2017 Hugo for Best Novelette

The shortlist is as follows:

Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex by Stix Hiscock (self-published)
"The Art of Space Travel" by Nina Allan (Tor.com, July 2016)
The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde (Tor.com Publishing, May 2016)
"The Tomato Thief" by Ursula Vernon (Apex, January 2016)
"Touring with the Alien" by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld, April 2016)
"You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny, May 2016)

A little better showing for SF here, with the Allan and Gilman stories. All six nominees are women.

My ballot, then, will look like this, tentatively, though the first three stories -- actually, the first four -- are real close in my mind:

1) "The Art of Space Travel", by Nina Allan

I wrote this in my Locus review: ""The Art of Space Travel", by Nina Allan, [is] a fine meditative story about Emily, who works at the hotel where the Martian astronauts are staying before they head out to space. The story isn’t about the astronauts, though, but about Emily, and about her mother, a scientist who has a sort of Alzheimer’s-like disease, perhaps because of contamination she encountered while investigating a plane crash, and about her mother’s involvement in preparation for a failed earlier Martian mission, and about Emily’s desire to learn who her father was. A good example of the effective -- not just decorative -- use of an SFnal background to tell a mundane story." Allan actually had three very strong longer stories this year: also "Ten Days" from the NewCon Press anthology Now We Are Ten, and "Maggots", a very long novella (perhaps indeed novel length) from the horror anthology Five Stories High.

2) The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde

From my Locus review: "The Jewel and the Lapidary by Fran Wilde is a novella from Tor.com’s line of slim books. The central fantastical idea is pretty cool: there is a valley protected from outsiders by powerful jewels that are wielded by the ruling family ("Jewels") but contained by Lapidaries who each bond to a single Jewel. This story concerns the betrayal and fall of the valley, leaving one surviving Jewel and her Lapidary, both fairly insignificant young women. They must find a way to resist the invaders, and at least to prevent them using the valley’s mines to supply jewels to allow them to cement and extend their conquest. It’s a slim story, fairly uncompromising in its plot, nicely written: I liked it, and I suspect the world it’s set in might yield more fine stories."

3) "Touring with the Alien", by Carolyn Ives Gilman

And I wrote this in Locus: "a welcome new piece from Carolyn Ives Gilman, "Touring with the Alien", [is] a rather unusual alien invasion story. It concerns Avery, a woman working as a delivery driver, who is hired to take an alien and his human companion -- an abductee -- on a not-very well specified trip. On this trip (from Washington D. C. to St. Louis, the reverse, I believe, of Gilman’s recent move) we learn about Avery’s complex past, and about Lionel, the human companion, and a little bit about the alien, who is, well, pretty alien, and not in a clich├ęd way. Avery is left to make a decision with pretty broad consequences. Thoughtful work."

4) "The Tomato Thief", by Ursula Vernon

OK, here's one I missed earlier. I must have encountered it in a bad mood or something. But I just read it, and it's a delight. It's about Grandma Harken, who lives in a house with its back to the desert. She cherishes her solitude, and her tomatoes, and both are threatened when someone starts stealing the tomatoes. She manages to discover a shapechanging mockingbird as the thief, and when she realizes this woman is imprisoned in this form, she reluctantly decides she must try to free her. Which ends up leading to a visit with the Mother of Trains, an encounter with a gila dragon, and a journey to a fold in the Earth where a monster is hiding. (And a price for the help she gets, which involves the loss of solitude I mentioned, and which presumably sets up future stories.) The plot is well enough done, but the glory of the story is the storytelling voice. It's really a lot of fun.

5) "You'll Surely Drown Here if You Stay", by Alyssa Wong

OK, this is the inflection point. The first four stories on my list seem worthy award nominees, even if in my opinion none of them are as good as the stories I nominated. This story, however, frustrated me. It's very well-written on the prose level. But what it is doing neither interested me nor convinced me. It's the story of Ellis, a young man, son of the desert, who helps out in a brothel in a western town, abused by the Madame, who is his stepmother. He's mourning the murder of his father, and the deaths of many other people due to his mother's anger. He has one friend, one of the women at the brothel, Marisol. Finally executives of the mining company show up, and when they realize Ellis's power to raise the dead, they try to make use of it. This doesn't end well. I think my failure to much like this story is a case, in part, of my personal lack of interest in this sort of fantasy. Which is partly a matter of taste. But it's partly due to the arbitrariness of the action and the magic, and partly due to some, to my mind, very inconsistent characterization. Ellis, in particular, didn't seem to hold together as a person, and Marisol was just flat. This is a story that in an ordinary year I would just leave off the ballot. But this year, when I want to use No Award with purpose, I guess I feel that there is enough redeeming value here (the prose, mainly, and my sense that Wong really is a talented writer), that it doesn't deserve to be below No Award. So, fifth.

I note, by the way, that both this and "The Tomato Thief" are Weird Westerns, a category that seems quite prominent in recent years.

6) No Award

7) -- or, actually, not on the ballot at all (which is important -- a No Award vote is wasted if you put any stories on the ballot after it): Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, by Stix Hiscock

I feel a tiny bit sorry for the author of this story, a woman writing under a rather blatant and silly pseudonym, who, as far as I know, has no connection with Vox Day, nor really any knowledge of the Rabid Puppy movement. On the other hand, she probably sold a lot more copies of this than you could expect. The story is porn, of course, and pretty stupid -- the title describes all you need to know of the action -- a green, three-breasted, voluptuous alien trying to make money as a stripper (to repair her spaceship) encounters a humanoid T Rex and they have sex after her show. There are some lame jokes about the T Rex losing his beloved mate (in a meteor strike, of course!), and such. It doesn't seem very good porn to me, and it's far worse as SF. It's really quite poorly written, to boot.

In summary -- there are four pretty good stories on this ballot. Any of them winning would be OK with me.

I'll reiterate my personal nomination ballot, just because I think the stories deserve all the notice I can give them:
"Everybody From Themis Sends Letters Home", by Genevieve Valentine (Clarkesworld, October)
"Project Empathy", by Dominica Phetteplace (Asimov’s, March)
"The Visitor From Taured", by Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s, September)
"The Bridge of Dreams", by Gregory Feeley (Clarkesworld, March)
"Told by an Idiot", by K. J. Parker (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 4)

In my experience, in a typical year only a couple of my nominees make any given category shortlist, and that's probably as it should be. My list does reflect a mild personal preference for Science Fiction, and I certainly don't want to say that that preference should hold sway over other preferences. But in particular I think that "Everybody From Themis Sends Letters Home" is one of the best novelettes in recent years, and the best of this year. Its neglect is a shame. My ballot includes two print magazine stories, as well, not that there should be a quota or anything, but if indeed the print magazines are getting overlooked, due to price or availability issues, it would behoove us -- or at least me, as something of an old fart partisan of print! -- to keep promoting them.

11 comments:

  1. Why do you think No Award is wasted if you put anything on the ballot after it? When you list a work after No Award, it's saying "I'd rather give no award at all, but if we have to award something anyway, then here are my choices in order."

    When you leave something off the ballot, the meaning varies depending on whether you put No Award on your ballot at all. (I think this is a defect in the rules, by the way.) If you didn't use No Award, then leaving a finalist off the ballot means "I have no opinion." But if you did use No Award, it means "these finalists are the worst of the worst. If we really do award any of them, all is lost anyway, so I didn't rank them."

    Anyway, if you put No Award in spot #4, I guarantee it'll have no effect on the one you left off the ballot.

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    1. But if you put No Award on your ballot, and then rank stories after them, your No Award vote goes away (typically) on the first round of counting. And then the rest of your ballot is as if you didn't use No Award at all. Perhaps that's a distinction that makes no difference, but it was explained to me long ago (and perhaps I or the explainer misunderstood things) that the effect was to vitiate your No Award vote.

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    2. Anyway, I'd put No Award fifth really. Certainly "The Tomato Thief" is worthy of a ballot vote.

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    3. If No Award is eliminated early, then it doesn't matter whether you used it at all nor where you put it on the ballot. (Ignoring the runoff vote.)

      By placing No Award above things that you genuinely believe don't deserve awards, you increase the chance that those things will be eliminated. It really is a strict statement of your preference.

      Look at it this way: suppose your ballot was

      A B N C D (E F) where the parens mean E and F weren't on your ballot at all.

      On each pass, one item is eliminated. Thereafter, it's the same as if that item didn't exist at all. So if No Award is eliminated on pass 1, then there really cannot be any difference between A B N C D (E F) and A B C D N (E F). They both turn into A B C D (E F).

      On the other hand, if A and B are eliminated first, there is a world of difference between N C D (E F) and C D N (E F).

      Likewise, in the runoff, everything is eliminated except No Award and the winner. If the winner were C, then, again, there is a huge difference between a ballot for N C vs. C N.

      My guess would be that your explainer was repeating something he or she had heard from someone else; there's a lot of misinformation going around on this topic.

      George R.R. Martin has this one right. He always says to rank everything, and rank No Award, if you think it's justified, above all the ones that you really don't think deserve awards.

      The only exception is for things you don't know anything about. In that case, if you have No Award in your ranked list, you're saying that you'd rather see no award at all than give it to something you didn't read/don't know about.

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    4. I think where I got confused (and this was many years ago) was

      A) Probably whoever was explaining it got it wrong, or (perhaps more likely) I misunderstood; and

      B) The more important issue -- if you mean to use No Award to decline to award a Hugo to a bad work, you're in a tough spot with works you haven't read. You either vote them below No Award but ahead of the bad choices, or above No Award. Either seems a bit iffy on ethical grounds (I hate to rank things I haven't read), but I suppose might be justifiable.

      Fortunately, in my case, I don't have to worry about this in regards to the Short Fiction categories!

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  2. That makes my head hurt. The only one I read was The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde, which I liked quite a lot.

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    1. The simplest explanation is "Rank everything, and listen to what your heart says." Rank them in order from best to worst. Put No Award in the list, if some of the items don't deserve awards.

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  3. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/valentine_10_16/
    "Everybody From Themis Sends Letters Home", by Genevieve Valentine

    Rich, I think it's worthwhile to link stories available online in your writeups (which I always enjoy, and sometimes agree with).


    FWIW, I thought "The Art of Space Travel", by Nina Allan was pretty good (B/B+) but much preferred "Touring with the Alien", by Carolyn Ives Gilman

    I've yet to read the other nominees.

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    1. I probably should but links in, I guess I get a bit lazy. Sorry!

      I can see preferring "Touring with the Alien". As I said, I have the first four on my list very close.

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  4. OK, now I've read "Everybody From Themis". It's pretty confusing on first read, which may be why it didn't make it, but a hell of a story.

    Have you read any of her other stuff?

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    1. Yes, lots. She's one of my favorite writers of short fiction. I've reprinted about a half dozen of her stories in my books.

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