When I wrote, in my review of the Nebula nominees, that the awards this year could prove quite political…I had no idea the extent to which that would prove true. Most of you are, no doubt, well aware of the slate voting and Sad/Rapid Puppies in this year’s Hugo nominations. (If not, visit George R. R. Martin’s (not a) blog for an extensive and carefully thought out reaction. Or visit Brad Torgerson’s blog for a counter-take on the issue from the person who organized the Sad Puppies segment of the slate.)
My intent all along has been to read each of the nominees and judge them regardless of who wrote them or who nominated them. That, of course, has become more problematic as the controversy rages. No person can be completely without bias. Nevertheless, I will do my best to review these short stories as if this were a normal year for Hugo nominations. I’ve gone out of my way to avoid learning whether the individual writers in this list were involved, supported, or knew ahead of time anything about either slate.
With that in mind, here are the nominees for short fiction:
“On A Spiritual Plain”, Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2, 11-2014)
This is the story of a chaplain on a planet where the natives’ ghosts linger after they die. When the first human death happens, they discover that his ghost remains as well. The chaplain is forced to seek out the advice of the religious leaders of the aliens and rely on their help to guide the human ghost onward. Their interactions and the journey they take with the ghost form the heart of this story.
The concept of ghosts hanging around in an SF story is an intriguing one, and the counterpoint with the chaplain’s beliefs provides fertile ground for an interesting dilemma. The story doesn’t fully live up to its promise, mostly because of a lack of any significant tension. The journey northward—taken by the chaplain, his alien counterpart, and the ghost—presents few outward challenges, and more significantly, despite the potential for a spiritual dilemma, there is very little internal tension either. The fact that the aliens accept the concept of a soul so in line with the chaplain’s own feels like an easy way out of what could have been a more interesting depth to the story.
Even so, as far as this slate goes, this is a competent story and worth reading.
“The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”, John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)
This a fable-like story, with a group of animals wondering what to do now that some sort of apocalypse has fallen. The humans (called “Man” here) have disappeared, leaving the animals uneasy and confused. The truth they uncover is that some version of the Christian end times has carried humans away, leaving the animals to decide what to do now with this human-less world.
Writing-wise, this captures the feel of animal folk tales well most of the time, though at times the attempt falls into overwrought prose. But overall, it’s weakened by the fact that it fails to do much more than retell a specifically religious tale, adding only the idea of animals being saved or condemned. It offers little new, neither to those already well familiar with the religious backdrop nor to those who do not self-identify with a Left-Behind sort of Christianity.
“A Single Samurai” [not available online], Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen Books)
“A Single Samurai” tells the story of a fight between a samurai and a mountain. Or rather, a creature the size of a mountain that has lain dormant for centuries and suddenly comes to life. As the destruction begins, he alone is left on the mountain’s back and must find some way to stop it before it levels the city ahead.
I have to admit that I have a soft spot for stories that play with size, stories of impossibly and implausibly large (or small) geography, architecture, etc., and this story taps into that. It takes the admittedly absurd idea of a creature the size of a mountain and runs with it. Boulders tumble from its sides as it moves. Trees that had spread roots down to the monster’s skin now break free. There’s a whimsy to that, which I enjoyed.
As the samurai climbs the mountain-monster, there’s a fight scene with some rock-scaled cats which is itself finely told—rock-scaled cats, how cool is that?—but has no real bearing on the story as a whole, as if it was added merely to give an extra action scene. The climax is well done, though I don’t wish to spoil it. Getting to that point does feel somewhat contrived, placing too much emphasis on him happening to arrive at the right place just as the monster happens to be crossing the final space before the city.
These points weaken what is otherwise an entertaining story.
“Totaled”, Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, 07-2014)
The initial hook of this story is the idea that future health insurance policies would be allowed to declare a person totaled, just like car insurances can, and pay out life insurance rather than pay to heal the person. It’s a clever idea, but ultimately tangential to the story as a whole. The real story is that after being totaled in a car accident, the narrator has her brain hooked up in a lab–her own lab where she’d worked before the accident.
In the brief weeks they have before the connections fail, the narrator and her former co-workers are able to work through some of the brain-computer interface they’d been researching prior to her accident. It’s a story of exciting new technological developments paired with the bittersweet end of the narrator’s odd not-quite-life as a hooked-up brain.
While I’ve tried to avoid reviews by others, I did happen across some discussion of this one, lamenting the not-entirely-believable depiction of the way the lab is run. To me it was a small complaint, because the real heart of the story is in the narrator’s desperation to help her team solve the various challenges with the neural connections before her brain tissue deteriorates too much.
There’s a “Flowers for Algernon” feel to the ending as the narrator’s brain slips further and further away, and a touching scene involving the family she’s had to leave behind.
“Turncoat”, Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House)
Given the title, it’s no real spoiler to say this is a story of someone questioning orders and ultimately turning away to join the other side of a conflict. While that overall arc lies beneath many stories, it still has the power to create an effective story. Unfortunately, this story doesn’t do much more with it than to reiterate it.
In this case, the person questioning is an AI spaceship, and the conflict lies between those who see the future as exclusively machine- and AI-driven or a future with room for unenhanced humans as well. The story frequently bogs down to catalog the weapons the spaceship carries or the weapons of the enemies and the numbers of every kind of ship.
Oddly, the imagined future is apparently entirely male. The story uses “man” for human (without even the folk-tale rationale that might be granted the Wright story), and every character is identified as male. Even the ship, by the end, defends his defection by saying, “I want to know what kind of man I will become.”
While the action is clearly the intent for much of the story, it feels oddly tension-free. The narrator-ship has little personality for us to cheer for it, and its defection never feels much in doubt. Once it decides to disobey orders, we’re given no reason to wonder or fear that it might fail, leaving the story unsatisfying.
And the big question facing voters this year, in all categories, are any of these stories truly Hugo-worthy? How do they match up, on their own merits, regardless of slates and puppies? I’ll leave that to each voter to decide, but it is worth saying that any one of the Nebula-nominated stories are superior to any of these. So give these a read as you wish, check out the ones that sound interesting. And then go re-read the Nebula nominees to cleanse your palate, if necessary. Or check out the Locus nominees, which I will be reviewing sometime soon.
Author: Daniel Ausema
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