Sunday, May 14, 2017

Hugo Ballot Reviews: Short Story

My ballot for the 2017 Hugo for Best Novelette

The shortlist is as follows:
"The City Born Great", by N. K. Jemisin (, September 2016)
"A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers", by Alyssa Wong (, March 2016)
"Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies", by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)
"Seasons of Glass and Iron", by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press; reprinted in Uncanny Magazine)
"That Game We Played During the War", by Carrie Vaughn (, March 2016)
"An Unimaginable Light", by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House)
Again, two SF stories, one of them the Rabid pick. Yes, the Fantasy-heavy lineup is making me a bit grumpy. and as we'll see, I think the Fantasy nature of a couple of the stories is a weakness in them. Again -- Fantasy is absolutely eligible for the Hugo, and if that's what you like, I can't argue. And I do like a good Fantasy story. But it's also important to recognize good SF, and SF does some important things, different from Fantasy, that I don't think we do well to be ignoring.
All the writers save Wright are women. Four of the stories were first published online in free venues, and one more was reprinted last year in a free venue.
My ballot will look like this:
1) "That Game We Played During the War", by Carrie Vaughn
Easy pick for me. It was the only story on my nomination list to make the final ballot. (As I've noted before, that's not unusual.) And it's SF. More importantly, it's really good. From my Locus review: ""That Game We Played During the War" is a moving piece about Calla, a woman who was a nurse for Enith during their war with the telepathic Gaant people. The war is over, and Calla is visiting Gaant, trying to meet and continue a game of chess she had been playing with Major Valk, whom she had encountered both in Enith and later after she was captured, in Gaant. This version of chess is unusual -- because of the Gaantish telepathy -- and it’s not so much the point -- the point, of course, is how enemies can come to a peaceful meeting (and, too, how telepathy complicates that!)" So -- a core SF idea used very well in service of a worthwhile moral point. With good writing and good characters. Works for me.
2) "Seasons of Glass and Iron", by Amal El-Mohtar
Here's the first inflection point, for me, in this category. I think the gulf between Carrie Vaughn's story and the rest of the ballot is pretty wide. The next two or three are pretty decent stories, but not stories I'd consider quite Hugo-worthy (which doesn't mean I'll leave them off my ballot). Next on my list, then, is "Seasons of Glass and Iron", which has grown on me a bit after rereading. It's about two women, fairy-tale heroines from traditional stories. One is Tabitha, forced to wander the world until she wears out seven sets of iron boots becaue she let slip the secret that her husband was both beast and man; Amira is the princess on the glass hill, forced to wait until a suitor can make it all the way up the hill. The ending is a bit too obvious -- we can see it as far in the distance as Tabitha sees the hill. Still, it's a nice enough story, just not, to me, a great story.
3) "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies", by Brooke Bolander
This grew on me a bit upon rereading as well. Still, it's a short-short (perhaps 1100 words), that does one thing -- tell a story of rape and murder, or, more appropriately, vengeance and finding power without ceding power to the villain -- and it does it with panache and energy. But there's little enough of true fantastical interest here. That's one thing I do want in my Hugo winners -- a core element of SFnal or Fantastical interest. Anyway, this is, again, a fine story, and it does what it wants to do quite well in its short space, but there were better stories this year.
I reread this one too, and I'm wobbling on it a bit. It's the story of two sisters, one of whom leaves their family, and the other who stays -- and dies, in her sister's thoughts (and perhaps actually) ending the world. But there are multiple worlds, especially as the two sisters keep trying to rewind time. Lots of flash to the story -- it's well written, and agonized, and ... Well, I didn't care that much. Which to be sure could be my fault. Also, the magic seemed simply arbitrary -- which is a big reason I didn't care. Again, I want more true SFnal or fantastical zing. This is well-done, sure, but, for me, kind of meh. 
5) No Award
Sometimes you have to make a stand. I didn't think either of the two remaining stories -- wholly aside from any Rabid Puppy influence -- good enough to rank ahead of No Award.
6) "The City Born Great", by N. K. Jemisin
About a young man who becomes aware that something is coming to life in the fabric, as it were, of New York City. And he becomes, I guess, the steward of New York's new life, after meeting and befriending (?) an older (much much older) man who seems to know what's going on. Some decent prose here, and nothing much else that interested me. The idea -- that a city can attain an actualized "life" -- become a true living thing -- is very old, to the point of cliché. (Which doesn't mean it can't still be used profitably.) And the story really does nothing interesting with this idea. (And, to my mind, is totally unconvincing in suggesting that New York is only now (in story terms, which seems roughly present day, or at most a couple of decades in the past) coming to life, and no other American city is similarly alive -- this seems, in context of the story, just false to fact.) I also didn't think the main character believable. And once again -- arbitrary magic, leaving us with another story with insufficient Fantastical zing. But, hey, lots of people obviously liked it!
7) "An Unimaginable Light", by John C. Wright
This story is a talky piece, mostly dialogue between a robot -- a whorebot -- accused of violating the "general directives" governing robot behavior; and the robot's examiner. Loads the dice in the direction we expect, then pulls an unconvincing twist at the end. It is interesting in exploring deep ideas, but I think kind of fumbles this. It also depends overmuch on the context of the rest of the closely linked anthology it appeared in -- but I'm voting for "Best Short Story" here, not "best part of a linked narrative".
For what it's worth, I'll publish my nomination ballot. I actually listed a number of other stories in my post on my nomination thoughts -- most of which were on a par with the stories I nominated. I didn't have a clear winner among all my short story choices, that is; and that's emblematic of a wider, and basically unsolvable, problem with this category in particular: there are so many stories published each year that there are typically way more worthy stories than potential nominations. (This of course is the biggest reason the short story category used to have potential nominees thrown out due to the now vanished "5% rule.) It's easy to understand why some of these five didn't get noticed as much: Kanakia's story was in Interzone, which is not only a print 'zine but based in the UK, and Rich Larson may well have been competing with himself too much -- he published several nomination worthy stories last year, and it's easy to imagine they sort of split the Larson vote. I will note that three of these stories appeared first in print. It would have been nice to see Rambo get the nod, after the disappointment of her disqualified Nebula nomination. 

"Empty Planets", by Rahul Kanakia (Interzone, January/February)
"Red in Tooth and Cog", by Cat Rambo (F&SF, March/April)
"Red King", by Craig de Lancey (Lightspeed, March)
"That Game We Played During the War", by Carrie Vaughn (, March)
"All That Robot Shit", by Rich Larson (Asimov’s, September)



    Good story, as you say.

  2. "That Game We Played During the War", by Carrie Vaughn

    Another good story, that I somehow missed. And I share your strong preference for SF over fantasy. Mostly.

  3. Your ballot is nearly identical to my own. I placed the No Award down one slot is the only change. Honestly, I only enjoyed the Vaughn and the El-Hohtar.