Reading the Rockets – Best Short Story
If you’re interested in reading science fiction, you’ll know about the Sad/Rabid Puppies controversy that’s dogged this year’s Hugo Awards. The furore encouraged me to buy my first supporting membership, which gives me the right to vote for the prize winners. I’m currently reading my way through the nominees.
First up, Best Short Story. The nominees are:
- “On A Spiritual Plain”, Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2, 11-2014)
- “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”, John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)
- “A Single Samurai”, Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen Books)
- “Totaled”, Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, 07-2014)
- “Turncoat”, Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House)
These range between dire and good. And only one of them, in my view, is even remotely worthy of being considered for a Hugo Award (if I’m being charitable). And that, surprisingly, is the military SF story Turncoat.
First, a disclaimer. I don’t blame the low quality of this year’s nominees on the Sad/Rapid Puppies. Last year’s winner, The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere, also had basic flaws in style and plot.
So why are the award nominees so poor? I think Eric Flint had it nailed when he wrote:
The truth is, there is no financial incentive at all for a modern F&SF author to write anything except series and multi-volume stories. For the good and simple reason long ago enunciated by the bank robber Willie Sutton: “That’s where the money is.”
There is no incentive to write professional-quality short fiction if no one will pay properly for it. Any writer who thinks they can get paid for writing a novel (or multi-series), will do. The only reason to write F&SF short stories is to practice your craft and/or raise your profile among other writers. Neither of these motivations is likely to consistently generate high-quality storytelling.
Now onto the Hugo Award nominees..
#6 The Parliament of Birds and Beasts by John C. Wright
I’ve read several of John C. Wright‘s stories. I’ve even bought his City Beyond Time. The Parliament of Birds and Beasts isn’t his best work. My husband was more charitable than I, but my impression was FAR too much dialogue and nothing much happening.
The Parliament of Birds and Beasts reminded me of the Chronicles of Narnia, but with all the interesting action-adventure removed. Many animals stand around discussing the disappearance of man from a glorious mythical city. Then some Angels appear and the animals rise up to replace mankind. THE END.
The imagery is beautiful in places, e.g. ‘in the center of the citadel rose a tower tall and topless, its dome open to the sky like an ever upward-peering eye’. Unfortunately, having little exposure to the Christian faith, the story was lost on me. That made it a ‘No Award’ candidate.
Storytelling is a human universal. We can still appreciate The Illiad today, and it’s three thousand years old. If I need a Bible primer (or any other primer) to understand your story, it’s not eligible for a Hugo Award.
#5 Totaled by Kary English
Maybe I’m spoiled. Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe I belong to some badass writing groups, but I routinely see stories of similar quality and on a similar theme to Totaled. It’s competently written, it’s perfectly decent, but the ‘research subject is decanted from their body and ends up losing their mind‘ story is as old as Flowers for Algernon.
Also, on a technical point, the narrator spends too much time in her own head (literally). If I’d seen a story like this at my crit groups, I’d have recommended the author hack a few of the early paragraphs and cut straight to the interaction with the protagonist’s colleague, Randy Moreno.
A fun read, but ultimately forgettable. Sorry.
#4 On A Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli
With On A Spiritual Plain we move from actively ‘meh’ to ‘good, but flawed’. This is a story about a chaplain on a mining world where some hokum magnetic fields mean that the dead stay around as ghosts. When the first human dies and returns as a spirit, the chaplain seeks help from an alien priest to help the man move on.
It’s a great premise, but the story doesn’t quite deliver. In fact, it doesn’t do much at all. The chaplain and the dead guy walk to the planetary pole. He passes without incident. Then someone else dies. The chaplain thinks the humans can handle it this time. THE END.
My writing is often criticised for lacking ‘jeopardy’. You know, those knotty fictional situations that have you clutching the bedclothes and squirming at the protagonist’s predicament. Is Indiana Smith scared of snakes? Well, the only way he can save his daughter is by crossing the snake pit of doom.
On A Spiritual Plain has zero jeopardy. The guy dies. He seems cool with that. The chaplain asks the aliens for advice. They’re delighted to help. They all walk to the pole. The dead guy makes peace with his situation and passes on smoothly. Some other person dies. The chaplain is cool with that too. There’s not one hint of conflict or ethical dilemma. No one is forced, by desperate circumstances, to challenge the beliefs they hold dear and undergo meaningful, lasting change.
It’s notable that my copy of the short story has a ‘Food for Thought’ section at the back, which explains the ethical issues raised. It’s akin to modern art exhibitions that have a splatter of red paint on a white background, and a twenty-page explanation of what that means. If your story doesn’t convey the ethical dilemma, without further explanation, perhaps you should rewrite it.
I should say something positive, so I will. On A Spiritual Plain is clearly written and easy to read. Not all the Hugo Award short fiction nominees manage that feat, so it’s worth a mention.
#3 A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond
A Single Samurai is on the border of ‘No Award’ and ‘Ok, I’ll vote for this story to stop it looking like I’m making an anti-Puppy protest’. It’s not a profound story, it’s not breaking new ground in science fiction, but it is well-written and effective. The author had evidently done some research into samurai and it shows, e.g. the wakizashi sword.
It’s also among the best stories with a single character I’ve ever read. It tells the tale of about a lone samurai who sacrifices his life to protect his country from a monster the size of a mountain. He is inspired in this feat by the example of his father, who sacrifices his own life to protect the honour of his lord. I felt the ideas of honour, life in a feudal society and personal sacrifice were well-explored.
‘In front of our local magistrate, my father shrugged off the top of his robe and let it fall to the ground. He slipped his wakzashi from the scabbard, reversed his grip on the blade, and settled the point against his flesh.
I glanced at the magistrate and saw the sadness that filled his eyes.
My father had not been the one to cause offense. My father’s lord had been the one to do that. But even with his faults, our lord was the best person to lead. The best person to see our people through different times. My father knew that.
So he offered to cleanse his lord’s honour with his own life.
The trouble is A Single Samurai is just a monster story. It doesn’t do anything that the Epic of Gilgamesh didn’t do, and that was about 4,000 years ago. It’s not ‘kaiju for the 21st century’. It’s not ‘kaiju invade contemporary Manhattan’ or ‘kaiju attack reality TV stars’. It’s about a lifestyle, honour code and era that is long past.
For me, a Hugo Award winner has to be a product of its time… And that’s a shame because I’d love to vote A Single Samurai for ‘Best Pulp Monster Story of 2015’, an award it heartily deserves because it is very cool.
#2 No Award – self-explanatory
#1 Turncoat by Steve Rzasa
I didn’t expect to like Turncoat. I don’t read military SF and I was somewhat daunted by the beginning of the story, which appears to kick off with a tech-dork-porngasm of military equipment. I expected a Republican senator straddling a phallic-shaped missile by page five.
My suit of armour is a single Mark III frigate, a body of polysteel three hundred meters long with a skin of ceramic armour plating one point six meters thick. In place of a lance, I have 160 Long Arm high-acceleration deep space torpedoes with fission warheads.
In fact, the story evolved into the sweet tale of a AI’s love for its irritating, but oddly companionable, human crew. And its sadness and loneliness when they are dismissed, which leads it – inexorably – to defect and seek asylum with humanity.
Stories of machine intelligences deciding that humans are obsolete are ten-a-penny, but what was new (to me) in this story was the idea that humans can be likable. Not useful. Not better than an AI, but enjoyable companions in the dark void of space. It made me think of what I call the absent dog problem. That feeling when you walk into your house and the sofa is empty, and there’s no one there to greet you with a bark and a wagging tail.
The writing is overly technical and impenetrable, but I didn’t mind that. I’m a ‘voice writer’. And the narrator of Turncoat definitely has the right voice for a military machine intelligence. Very technical. Very numerical. Very precise. The story wouldn’t work if the narrator sounded like Rebecca Bloomwood.
When we depart 540 kiloseconds later, my frigate is faster, stronger and quieter. Inserting myself into the command matrix is euphoric. Connections between my various systems are instantaneous. Oceans of data flood my senses. I can see everything. I can do anything.
And yet it is too quiet. There is no inane chatter from my crew. No rhythm of their boots on deck plates. No soft hum of air through the ventilation shafts. No scent of an overworked crewman or a stressed officer wafts through my corridors.
Turncoat isn’t the greatest story I’ve read, but it’s definitely the best out of a bad bunch. And a total surprise – I never expected to like this one.
What I think counts as good short SF&F fiction
Paolo Bacigalupi’s The People of Sand and Slag
Robert Sheckley’s A Wind is Rising (not Hugo quality, in my opinion, but a nicely-structured joke)
William Gibson’s Johnny Pneumonic
Outside of SF&F, They’re Not Your Husband by Raymond Carver is a masterpiece. It communicates a subtle, profound truth about the human condition with an economy of words.
And finally, I don’t criticise without exposing myself to criticism. Berlin Sting is one of my early shorts (2,000 words). I’ve never tried to get it published. Wouldn’t know where and I don’t have the confidence.