Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Hugo Ballot, Short Story

Here's the first of what will be a series of posts detailing my thoughts on my final ballot ordering for a number of the Hugo categories.

Short Story

The Hugo shortlist is:

"Carnival Nine" by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
"Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand", by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)
"Fandom for Robots", by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)
"The Martian Obelisk," by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)
"Sun, Moon, Dust", by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
"Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience[TM]", by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)

This is by no means a bad shortlist. Every story on it is at least pretty decent.  My ballot will look like this:

1. “The Martian Obelisk”, by Linda Nagata – This is set in a future in which a series of disasters, with causes in human nature, in environmental collapse, and in technological missteps, has led to a realization that humanity is doomed. One old architect, in a gesture of, perhaps, memorialization of the species, has taken over the remaining machines of an abortive Mars colony to create a huge obelisk that might end up the last surviving great human structure after we are gone. But her project is threatened when a vehicle from one of the other Martian colonies (all of which failed) approaches. Is the vehicle’s AI haywire? Has it been hijacked by someone else on Earth? The real answer is more inspiring – and if perhaps just a bit pat, the conclusion is profoundly moving.

2. “Fandom for Robots”, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad – a quite delightful story of a 1950s robot (called Computron, natch!) writing fan fiction about an anime called Hyperdimension Warp Record. Prasad pulls it off with a perfect deadpan delivery, which makes Computron, as it were, come alive – and which captures the fan fiction culture right on the nose.

3. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, by Fran Wilde – a story of a visit to a museum exhibition that in the end seems to be a “freak show”, and which has a distinct and scary effect on the visitor. It’s told in the second person, and this is (perhaps rarely!) the exactly correct choice for this story, as the reader slowly realizes that the act of viewing the perhaps grotesque (or just misunderstood?) exhibits has parallels with how they see people who are different. I will say that this is a story that improved on rereading – either because my mood was different, or because I saw more on a second pass.

4. “Carnival Nine”, by Caroline M. Yoachim – a nice take on the notion of windup dolls that are truly alive, as Zee, blessed with a mainspring that takes extra winding, grows up with her beloved Papa, marries a nice young boy, and then makes a child who can hardly be wound at all. It’s a simple idea, and told straightforwardly, with no compromises or miracles.

5. “Sun, Moon, Dust”, by Ursula Vernon – a fine magic sword story in which Allpa’s grandmother leaves him a sword on her death, with the three title warriors enchanted into it to teach him to fight. But Allpa is a farmer, and doesn’t see much need for a sword, much to the frustration of Sun, Moon, and Dust. Allpa has plenty to learn, but maybe he has more to teach – and maybe perhaps one of these warriors will realize that there’s more to life than war.

6. "Welcome to your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM", by Rebecca Roanhorse – another second person story, and while that’s done well enough, it doesn’t seem quite as effective a choice as in the Wilde story. It’s the story of a Native American man working in a near future tourist destination where people can have “authentic” virtual experience of historical Indian life – but instead of being truly “authentic” the experiences are overlaid with typical fake Indian clich├ęs. I thought it was fine, well worth reading, but it didn’t really wow me.

On reflection and rereading, even though I only nominated one of these stories (and the second wasn’t too far off my nomination ballot), I’m pretty happy with the nominations of the top four stories on my ballot, and the other two are solid work that I can’t and don’t complain about. That said, the nominators missed some outstanding work, I think largely on the basis of ready availability.
My prime nomination candidates were:

Maureen McHugh, "Sidewalks" (Omni, Winter/17)
Giovanni de Feo, "Ugo" (Lightspeed, 9/17)
Charlie Jane Anders, "Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue" (Boston Review, Global Dystopias)
Sofia Samatar, “An Account of the Land of Witches” (Tender)
Linda Nagata, "The Martian Obelisk" (Tor.com, 7/17)
Karen Joy Fowler, "Persephone of the Crows" (Asimov’s, 5-6/17)
Tobias Buckell, "Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance" (Cosmic Powers)

The only one of those stories (besides the Nagata, which made the ballot) that was as readily available as the six stories on the final ballot is de Feo’s “Ugo”, a first story by an Italian writer. The other stories are all outstanding. I would say that the Anders, McHugh, and Samatar stories are particularly big misses, and in each case the story appeared in a print publication that was very easy for a reader to miss. Them’s the berries, I guess. For all that, I have to say that this is one of the best Short Story Hugo ballots in a long time.

I’ll note that all six nominees are women – and that that seems fair, this year. Yes, Tobias Buckell and Giovanni de Feo did work on a level with all these women (Anders, Samatar, Fowler, and McHugh included), but they didn’t do work obviously better.

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