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Do the Hugo Awards have a short fiction problem?

At least one person complained that the Sad/Rabid Puppy nominees kept award-worthy short stories off the 2015 Hugo ballot… So I was curious. Was this true? Were these stories better than the stuff I’d read? An experiment was in order. I’ve now read the nominees on io9’s Puppy-free ballot. Here’s how I’d have voted.

#1 WINNERWhen it Ends, He Catches Her, Eugie Foster

When It Ends, He Catches Her has a tale behind it, and it’s the saddest in the Hugos. The day after Daily Science Fiction published the story, Eugie Foster died. It was her last chance to win the award.

There is no doubt – to me – that When It Ends, He Catches Her should have won Best Short Story. It is a story I wish I could have written. That – to me – is the purpose of the Hugos, to showcase work that I know I can’t… Perhaps can never write.

It’s a tale of a zombie who dances alone in a deserted theatre, long after humanity has died in an apocalypse. A tale of memory and of loss, it depends wholly on its fantasy setting to give it meaning. Beautifully constructed, it neither wastes words nor outstays its welcome. Utterly apolitical, it addresses human universals – death, love… life itself. Were I to make one criticism, it would be that the story depends heavily on the literary trick of the dancer not remembering she’s a zombie until the end. I can’t complain too much, however, as Eugie carefully foreshadows the kicker in the first paragraph.

Sadly, despite appearing on the io9 list, When It Ends would have been disqualified from the Hugos. It only received 44 nominations, less than the 5% needed to become a nominee (Section 3.8.5 of the WSFS constitution) . A big shame… And perhaps a reflection of a problem with the awards. A small crowd of superfans can’t read everything, and this story wasn’t published in one of the big professional magazines.

#2 NO AWARD – Nothing below this point was bad… It was all competent.  Good, but not great.

#3 RUNNER-UP. The Breath of War, Aliette de Bodard

I feel bad that I would have No Awarded The Breath of War. It’s a cute  story about a heavily-pregnant woman travelling through a war zone to find her  ‘breath-sibling’, the stone starship  she carved as a teenager and now needs to give birth. Will she find the starship before she goes into labour and her child is stillborn?

My problem with this story is twofold. First, the worldbuilding. The author has created a universe with sentient stone that humans carve into living creatures (including warships) and need to reproduce successfully. Yet there’s no evidence – in the story, at least – that Aliette had fully considered the enormous economic, social, and political effects of this magic material.

  • Why don’t the rebels simply confiscate the stone and send their enemies extinct?
  • Why are there science fiction elements like aircars and drones, but everything else seems near-medieval?
  • Why do the locals seem to have only one use for the stone – the traditional carving of breath siblings? Why don’t they use it for robots, drones and fliers?
  • Why – when Rehan can create a warship from stone – is she messing around being oppressed, pregnant and single? Why not loan out her services to whoever is in charge, meet some family-orientated dude (or gal) impressed by her panache, and end the war she hates so much? Maybe I missed that bit…

In fact, why is Rehan so infuriatingly passive full stop? The newly-carved warship invites her to explore the galaxy (or similar). She turns it down. She inseminates herself, knowing there’s a war on, and waits until the last possible moment to journey to the mountains – vulnerable and pregnant. At the end of the story, she again bottles her decision to go with the warship but – instead – opts to stay home and give birth. Bear in mind, she doesn’t have a lover waiting  in the wings.

The story feels as if she’s accultured to war and oppression… She almost displays Stockholm syndrome. And unrealistically so. Real refugees risk their lives to escape wars. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat despite being oppressed. In short, Rehan is a passive patsy. In a universe where the worldbuilding raises more questions than it answers.

The stone spaceship doesn’t behave believably either.  It spends at least a decade fighting for Rehan and then – at the end of the story-  chooses to fly into  space.  It’s almost like an accountant who abruptly decides to become a lion tamer. In reality, after several years, it would probably have drifted into being a soldier of fortune – and sought another war – or become psychologically part of Rehan’s family.

For me, The Breath of War would have been neck-and-neck with Turncoat from the Rabid Puppy slate. But maybe I’m being harsher on The Breath of War than Turncoat. My husband was intensely moved by Aliette’s story. He read it as a metaphor for a person who wastes a decade of their life, only to discover they’re infertile when they want children. I don’t have baby hunger so I guess The Breath of War didn’t work for me.

#4 Jackalope Wives, Ursula Vernon

It was a ‘call of the wild’ myth. It was prettily written, but far, far too long for what it was. As magical creatures, the jackalope wives were never explained, or developed. I skimread thinking,  as with A Single Samurai from the Puppy list“Aren’t jackalope wives just a re-skin of the sirens in the Odyssey? And Homer had 2,000-year head start…”

If you want to write award-worthy traditional myth (or overcoming the monster) then – for me – you’ve got to REALLY hit it outside the park.  And Jackalope Wives doesn’t break any new ground.

#5 A Kiss with Teeth, Max Gladstone

An immortal vampire tackles the banality of contemporary Western parenthood. I liked the beginning of A Kiss with Teeth and I liked the end… The problem was the middle. Vlad spent far too long stalking his son’s teacher, so long that I got bored and skipped off the story to read a blogpost. I had to wonder if the author wasn’t being paid by the word and, in a short story, I should never wonder that.

#6 The Truth About Owls, Amal El-Mohtar

The Truth About Owls was among the best stories on the non-Puppy list. Unfortunately, it wasn’t science fiction or fantasy and – as such – ineligible for a Hugo (in my opinion). That may be a little harsh, but if The Truth About Owls can get a Hugo, then Haruki Murakami should win a Hugo. As should all magical realism. As should the story of – say – a Hampstead literary critic who gets over their husband’s affair by watching the third Hobbit film. You’ve got to draw genre boundaries somewhere…

The Truth About Owls is a literary short story about a girl who overcomes her demons by her love of owls and her passion for the Welsh myth about the flower maiden, Blodeuwedd. Judged as a literary story, it’s above average, but it doesn’t hold a candle to – say – Hilary Mantel. And, as such, it shouldn’t be winning ‘science fiction’s most prestigious award’. The purpose of SF&F is scientific, fantastical and social speculation – not to be a dumping ground for fandom’s literary fiction.

All that said, The Truth About Owls was  cute, I quite liked it and I’d be happy to share it with friends

***

It’s noteworthy that The Breath of War,  Jackalope Wives and When it Ends, He Catches Her were  shortlisted for the 2014 Nebula Award.  Given the number of short stories published annually, it seems incredible that only three or four are award-worthy.  Either that or Hugo-nominating voters are interchangeable with SFWA members – the same people or they share the same literary tastes. Neither is a good sign…

[UPDATE: 23/09/2015. I’ve sent Aliette a friendly (hopefully) email to let her know, out of politeness, that I blogged about her story as I wrote so much about it… It’s how I  try to walk the fine line between making sincere, passionate, but sometimes negative, comments, and being an asshat].

15 thoughts on “Do the Hugo Awards have a short fiction problem?”

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Good post! 🙂

    I think that the Hugos definitely have a short fiction problem; personally, I attribute it to the immense broadening of the field.

    Here’s an interesting observation: every one of the five stories on this list are ezine-published, and freely available. *No* print magazine or anthology is represented. I don’t think that’s coincidence.

    Once, the “big” genre magazines were a kind of cultural campfire that readership gathered around (to various degrees). Today, readership is fragmented – short fiction is even more niche than it used to be, and on the other hand, there are *so* many free or cheap online magazines, that any reader has an easy time finding a *ton* of reading material.

    So on the one hand, there’s a huge boom in the *ability* to publish short fiction. On the other hand, we’ve lost the common campfire, and heightened the discoverability problem. It’s *much* easier to promote a story you can just link to, than one a reader needs to shell out a few bucks for, or a dozen bucks for (if it’s an anthology…), or needs to dig up back-issues of magazines for, etc., etc.. But free online fiction isn’t necessarily the best fiction written in a year.

    And it’s a vicious cycle. The lass cachet people store by short fiction, the less attention it will get, the less people will be willing to pay to read “the best short fiction of the year,” the fewer authors will be interested in investing in writing great short fiction to begin with.

    The Hugos (and Nebulas, and other short fiction awards) are actually precisely meant to counter this cycle – by spotlighting great fiction, wherever it may originate. But the awards are only as good as their juries and nomination bases – and being widely read in the immense field of modern fiction is BLOODY HARD. It takes a ton of effort. And, of course, they’re vulnerable to “drift” – to a gradual coalescing around a particular stream, around particular favorites, just because that’s what a large enough portion of the voters are reading most of.

    So… there’s a discoverability problem — that great stories are hard to share and spread. And there’s a clustering problem — that the field has grown so wide, that whatever clusters we have are extremely small (falling under the 5% mark).

    For me, at least, I take this as something of a challenge and a goal. I know the gems are out there, and I want to find them. I have some stories I love; I want to help other people find those. And I also know that different readers have different tastes, and I need to look for the writing that suits *me* best.

    For this, paying disproportionate attention to the various awards might *not* be the best way to go. I’ve found “better” stories on the Hugo recommendation list of a blogger I love, than I saw on the actual ballot. I feel I’ve gotten much greater value out of my 50$-a-year overseas subscription to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, than out of the plethora of free fiction being constantly published.

    If the field’s so big and so wide, then to find the gems, you kind of need to explore.

    Happy exploring 🙂

    1. Standback says:

      Whoops! Hadn’t meant to write all that anonymously. Hi; I’m Standback 🙂

  4. Cat says:

    I don’t see the comparison between Jackalope Wives and sirens in The Odyssey.

    The sirens are described as having beautiful voices, and being dangerous–luring sailors to their deaths–sometimes by natural means (running their ships onto rocks, starving on islands with no food that they refuse to leave because that means not hearing the sirens anymore) and sometimes at the hands of the sirens themselves.

    In The Odyssey in particular what they promise Odysseus is specifically knowledge.

    While Jackalope Wives is about a group of entities that human men desire–and how these entities can be forced into a mold that suits men but only by destroying part of them–burning that part alive, as I recall.

    The only thing I see in common is that both groups are entities that human men strongly desire. The story of the sirens contains nothing that I recall about them suffering harm (except in some versions the sirens will die if anyone escapes them–which doesn’t seem much like destroying part of an entity’s potential to make it suit you better.)

    The story about the Jackalope Wives contains nothing about them harming humans. Indeed early in the story it says “It was uncanny, sure, but they never did anybody any harm.”

    But yes, if you thought that story was just a retelling of “non-human uses mens’ desires against them to harm them, but one clever man escapes their wiles” I can well imagine that you thought it was too long, since that part happens completely offstage and the recap is finished very early in the story.

    So what made the equivalence for you? Simply the “nonhuman entity strongly desired by human men” issue?

  5. Vivienne Raper says:

    @Cat So what made the equivalence for you? Simply the “nonhuman entity strongly desired by human men” issue?

    Hey. Thanks for commenting.

    In short, yes, but isn’t simply about a straight retelling. It’s about what a modern myth means (to me).

    I – myself – wanted the Jackalope Wives to do more than they did. They were so neat, as an idea, that I almost wanted them to be part of a wider mythology or an ecosystem of mythical creatures. That’s possibly too much to expect in a short story, but – even in the story – the jackalope wife is, of course, mostly passive. I didn’t get a true sense of it as anything but a target of abuse.

    When I feel myths need to be ‘new’, I’m thinking about authors like Stephen King who create modern objects of horror and legend (e.g. the car in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/From_a_Buick_8). Or modern myth-making like the Chupacabra (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chupacabra). I suppose I felt that – like A Single Samurai – there was something a little old-fashioned about Jackalope Wives. As if it could have been written at any time in history – not in the 2000s.

    In many ways Greenface (in the Baen Book of Monsters) feels more modern than Jackalope Wives, and that was – apparently – first published in 1943. That’s simply because of the surrounding setting, including the technology.

    I suppose you could make the same complaint about When It Ends, He Catches Her. But zombies do seem to have become a modern myth, in many ways, and – thus – I suppose I mentally ported the setting into the present… simply because of the surrounding tropes.

  6. Vivienne Raper says:

    @ Standback Here’s an interesting observation: every one of the five stories on this list are ezine-published, and freely available. *No* print magazine or anthology is represented. I don’t think that’s coincidence.

    Thanks for commenting.

    I noticed this too. I thought it may be because several of the stories had been nominated for a Nebula. I noticed several magazines made their Hugo-nominated stories free to view – I thought perhaps the same had happened when the Nebula nominees were announced.

    You are correct that 100% print magazines and anthologies aren’t represented. It represents the same problem that The Times newspaper had when it went behind a paywall. People can’t freely link, and publicise stories, but the publication has to make money somehow.

    You are also right – I think – about the difficulty of sharing stories. I’ve been sharing nomination ideas with someone in my writing group. I tried ordering a back issue of F&SF to read Dixon’s Road, and – it may be me – but I have an awful feeling F&SF are sending me a paper copy… Multiplied across numerous magazines and anthologies, that starts getting expensive/awkward.

    I thought originally there was a problem with declining payment for short stories, but I’ve been investigating (I’ve interviewed a couple of people so far) and it appears that theory may be wrong. So, yes, a good theory is a proliferation of online outlets. It’s very easy (I’ve been doing it automatically too) to see if a favourite author has written any short stories and, yes, if a small pool of voters do that then the same people will get nominated for multiple prizes.

  7. Greg Hullender says:

    @standback My husband and I came back from Sasquan thinking we ought to create a site to make it easier for people to find copies of stories from print magazines and have something to link to. For example, we think “Calved,” by Sam J. Miller is Hugh-worthy. http://www.rocketstackrank.com/2015/09/calved-by-sam-j-miller.html

    We also felt that most existing short-story reviewers don’t give great guidance for stories to read. Their reviews often spoil the story, and they don’t make it clear which are the good ones and which to avoid. So we invented our own one-to-five-star system.

    We’re in the process of going through the back issues trying to give ratings to everything in six magazines. (We’ve got everything from May so far.) By our standards, anyway, there do seem to be a good number of excellent and outstanding works of short fiction in the print magazines. The key is to let people know that it’s not that hard to get the back issues in online format and to point them to the best stories.

  8. junego says:

    I was somewhat disappointed when I saw the nomination list that Covenant by Elizabeth Bear would not have made the finalist list. I think it was #7 or 8 of the non-slated nominees? Have you read it? I thought it was one of the best of the year. A near future SF thriller with very believable tech as the basis. Available online, but published as part of an anthology called Hieroglyphs.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/09/covenant_a_creepy_sci_fi_short_story_from_the_anthology_hieroglyph.html

    1. Greg Hullender says:

      I agree. I think it was the best story in Hieroglyph, bar none.

  9. Vivienne Raper says:

    @Greg I think your one-to-five system is excellent. The descriptions of how you rate are – to me – a great, systematic way to think about stories. I recently read a story that I thought was really good, but wonder if I’d have given it three…

    I was going to ask ‘Is there any way to add my own ranking?’, i.e. like GoodReads for short fiction… But realise – after looking – it’s for you and your husband’s reviews/ranks only. A GoodReads system for short SF&F stories would be very cool. Not sure how you’d set that up without a good coder though.

    @Junego @Greg On my reading list 🙂

    1. Greg Hullender says:

      Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

      We would love to see it someday become a place where people came to discuss the short fiction they’d just read, so you are very welcome (encouraged!) to comment on any or all of the stories and offer your own ranking. Lots of stories were on the borderline, so a good argument could easily get us to change the ranking.

      Making an automated system such as Amazon uses presents a much larger programming task. We wanted to start with something we knew we could build and maintain and then extend that as time goes on. Letting people propose stories that weren’t in our list is another thing we’d like to do eventually.

  10. Lela E. Buis says:

    Daily Science Fiction is one of the big pro publications. They get about 10K submissions a year and have a sizable subscription base. They just normally publish flash fiction, which is hard to nominate for awards. When It Ends, He Catches Her was a long story for their format.

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  15. Matthew Foster says:

    Since you are going off i09’s (and others) figuring of what would be the nominees without the puppies, we can subtract out not only their nominees, but also their votes. Remove the few hundred puppies from the mix, and the total number of voters drops, and so “When It Ends, He Catches Her”‘s percentage rises to over 5%. Or at least that seems to be how the math works out.

    It is still a low number of votes, but then if the Hugos are done fairly, it is always going to be a low number of votes.

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