Hugo Blogging: Best Novelette

It’s been a while since I did the first posts in my series about the Hugo nominees this year, but after a month in which I’ve been scrabbling to finish an overdue book (the draft is now finished, and sent to the editor) as well as trying to deal with family dramas of various kinds, there’s now only the fact that I’m dying from the heat and my entire city is filled with the constant smell of smoke to stop me from writing new blog posts.

As I don’t have very much on writing-wise that needs to take priority, this month I’m planning to concentrate on reviews — I’m going to look at some stuff by my friends (Matt Rossi’s book Nameless, The Book of the Enemy, and Blake Jones’ new album, for example), and also to review a lot of stuff that’s not by anyone I know. To start with, I’m getting back to the Hugos. As I’ve said before, it’s unlikely that I’ll get through all the Hugo categories, but I’m going to try to get through as many as I can, so here are the novelettes.

For those who don’t know, novelette is a term that is now basically only used in science fiction fandom for awards purposes — it means, in this case, a short story between the lengths of 7500 and 17500 words (17500 and over becomes a novella, 40000 and over is a novel, in this classification system). It’s not really a sensible word to use, and definitely not a term anyone uses in normal life (it may have been in earlier decades, when novels in genre fiction were much, much, shorter than they tend to be these days). Its main purpose is so that the Hugos can have three awards for shorter fiction, along with the “Best Novel” (and now “Best Series”) awards for longer fiction — SF (fantasy not so much) has always been a field where a disproportionate amount of the important work in the genre has been done in short story form, and so it makes sense to have the multiple awards, even if the terms aren’t really very helpful.

I’ll be ranking these best to worst, as I did for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) and Best Short Story.

Winds Will Rove
by Sarah Pinsker is in the issue of Asimov’s in the packet. I first became aware of Pinsker from her rather wonderful novella “And Then There Were (N-One)”, which I’ll be talking about when we get to the Best Novella section, but I’m otherwise unaware of her work.

This, after reading that one, confirms me in my impression that I *really* need to read more of Pinsker’s work. The two stories are not anything alike in most ways, but both in their different ways speak to my interests very profoundly. In this case, what we have is a story about history, and the folk process, and the futility but also the necessity of trying to recreate lost art and history. It’s set on a generation ship, and told by a woman who was born there and who expects one day to die there, without ever seeing the Earth or the planet the ship is headed towards. On the ship, before she was born, someone let loose a computer virus which wiped all records of Earth culture and history, as well as cutting off communications with the home planet, and much of the culture for the decades since has either been about recreating it from the memories of those still alive who remember Earth, or about reacting against the whole idea of cultural preservation.

Our narrator is a history teacher and a folk musician, so you can tell what side of this debate she falls, but much of the story is also about the state of being in the middle of a longer journey — the narrator is a grandmother, dealing with her own very young grandchildren, but much of the story is about her own memories of her grandmother.

It’s about folk music, but also, tangentially, about remix culture and jazz, about the ways we repurpose and reinvent traditions to our own ends but also about the importance of recognising the traditions in their own contexts. It’s not especially plotty in the standard SF way — it’s more about the moments of epiphany and realisation, like literary fiction is meant to be — but it still exemplifies the best SFnal virtues. This is a story about ideas, and relies on its worldbuilding for much of its impact.

And all through it, we have the story of a folk song, about things that no-one on the ship can ever experience, being half-remembered and adapted first on Earth, then in space.

It’s also *extremely* well written, just on a pure wordsmithing level. Read this for example:

“I pictured a real farm, the way they looked in pictures, and let the song tell me how it felt to be in the place called Oklahoma. A sky as big as space, the color of chlorinated water. The sun a distant disk, bright and cold. A wood-paneled square building, with a round building beside it. A perfect carpet of green grass. Horses, large and sturdy, bleating at each other across the fields.”

This is the kind of thing that in other writers might be too purple — several of the other writers in the current crop of Hugo nominees would have written this in such a way as to make my eyes glaze over — but here it has that “transparency” that so many writers claim (wrongly, in my view) as a virtue. It’s extraordinarily clear writing, which manages to tell you a great deal about the character and her thoughts in an extremely small amount of time. It’s proper, good, writing, which doesn’t draw attention to its own cleverness, but which also *is* actually clever — it’s not just the kind of novelised film script one comes to expect from writers who pride themselves on clarity.

This story is, honestly, about as good as you could expect from a science fiction story, and I say this as someone who tends to prize plot over characterisation. No doubt the puppyfascist contingent will (if they bother reading it at all) sneer at it because it features LGBT+ characters, who just happen to mention the fact in passing (I’d have to double-check exactly what mentions there were, but I remember the narrator mentioning that she had been in a relationship with a woman, a couple of uses of singular “they” when describing individuals, and one character (with a gender-neutral name) referring to themself in relation to their child as “his other parent”. This is the kind of thing that for a portion of the SF audience is “turning a story into message fiction”, but for the rest of us is just an effort at realism (and, truth be told, for many people it’s an entirely necessary signal in the current political climate, both within SF and in the wider world, that the author isn’t going to suddenly call for their death out of nowhere).

(Indeed, almost every one of the stories here features LGBT+ characters, often characters who fall into more than one of those boxes, and many of the writers here also fit into one or more of those categories. I mention this not in a Terry Gilliam “you can’t even say you’re a straight white man now” way, but because I know that some of my friends will want to know that this is a selection of stories that does not erase them from existence. That should not be notable, but it is, at least within SF.)

But if there’s a message (and there definitely is) it’s a message about the way culture works, about the dangers of forgetting and the necessity of adapting old ideas to new situations rather than either forgetting them altogether or preserving them perfectly as a museum piece. One certainly *could* take a political message from that — and it would be a useful one at a time when one of the big cultural battles in Pinsker’s home country is over whether one should treat the constitution as a document to be interpreted in light of the current situation, or whether the intent of the country’s founders should be paramount, and when the big cultural argument within SF fandom is over the idea that there might be people for whom modern authors are a better introduction to the genre than the works of Heinlein.

But this is not a political story, except in so far as everything is political. It’s a story about music, and about memory, and the past and the future. And I love it.

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time
by K.M. Szpara is likewise excellent — at least as far as I can tell, but there’s a big caveat there. It’s a story that is, in large part, about being a gay trans man, and as a cis het man without a great deal of experience of queer fiction I don’t know to what extent this is leaning into or going against tropes and cliches. In particular, I can’t have any idea if the sex scenes (relatively graphic for the kind of stuff that gets nominated for the Hugos, though not Chuck Tingle level graphic) are remotely good at depicting the experiences they’re meant to. I imagine though that they are, as Szpara appears himself to be a trans gay man, and the rest of it is well-written enough that I’d assume him to be competent in writing about his own experiences.

(This is, I hasten to point out, a failing of mine, not Szpara’s — that I haven’t read enough work by trans gay men to be able to judge this work is a fault in me as a reviewer, not in Szpara as a writer, and I’m pointing this stuff out to explain why less weight should be given to my opinion of this story as a result. I could be accurately assessing the quality of the work, or I could be like someone who’s never heard of Albert King or Robert Johnson thinking Eric Clapton invented the blues).

I should also point out for those with triggers that the story starts, right in the first paragraph, with a description of a vampire attack that is clearly intended to be read as a rape, that it features several later instances of the vampire attacker using mind control, and that the narrator goes through several traumatic experiences as a result of being turned into a vampire which induce dysphoria in him, and which are described well enough that they may well do so for other trans people. The narrator also faces transphobia from within the gay community, All these things are necessary for the story being told, but they may well not be something a lot of my friends are comfortable with reading.

While I can’t speak for the accuracy or otherwise of the trans stuff, though, what I can say is that Szpara does an excellent job in depicting the way that people with multiple marginalisations have to navigate bureaucracies. In the world Szpara sets up, vampirism (which seems to follow much the same sorts of biological and physical rules as in the Anne Rice books) is legal but heavily regulated, and in particular trans people are not allowed to become vampires because “we don’t have conclusive studies on how vampirification affects atypical bodies”. The following paragraph will ring a *lot* of bells with a *lot* of people I know:

I’ve seen the Federal Vampire Commission’s list of atypical bodies. It’s trans and intersex folks. Disabled and neuroatypical folks; the F.V.C. even provides a list of prohibited surgeries and medications. Never mind those who can’t afford the required physical exams and application fee. And heaven forbid you’re a woman of childbearing age who “might want to have kids someday; how can you be sure you won’t want to?

There’s a lot more going on in here than just the stuff about navigating bureaucracies and medical gatekeepers — there’s stuff about the mainstreaming of subcultures, for example, that I’m sure will ring a lot of bells with older LGBT+ people — but that’s the stuff that rang truest to me, and I found it spookily well done.

A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is… it’s hard not to damn this with faint praise really, especially compared to some of the other stories here. It’s a very good story, well told, with a few nice turns of phrase, about forgers in near-future China creating bootleg steaks using 3D printers. It’s a perfectly enjoyable story, but nowhere near as good as Prasad’s other Hugo-nominated story, the short story “Fandom for Robots”, which I absolutely loved rather than merely enjoyed. It’s just a bit insubstantial and lacking in thematic depth. It reads a little like some of Greg Egan’s more lightweight short fiction, but perhaps with a little more geek-awesome in the characterisation of one of the supporting characters. It’s actually more my kind of thing than the Szpara or Pinsker stories in some ways — but insofar as one can be objective about quality, it’s less good than those. I certainly won’t be upset if it wins (and on the basis of this and “Fandom for Robots” I will almost certainly be ranking Prasad first for the Campbell award) but it isn’t a story that feels like it matters in the same way.

The Secret Life of Bots
by Suzanne Palmer has a lot of the same qualities as “A Series of Steaks”. It’s a very nice old-school SF story of a type which could easily have been written in 1955 or so, in which an obsolete maintenance bot on a spaceship is reactivated in an emergency, and Saves The Day by Showing Initiative unlike all the more modern bots. There are a few nice details (rather than “loading subroutines” or whatever, the bots “recite mantras”, but also a few basic failures of craft like unclear antecedents, which it’s surprising the editor didn’t pick up on. I found it thoroughly enjoyable, but utterly unchallenging — this is something that could have appeared in Astounding under Campbell, and while that’s true of this in a *good* way (and it would have been the best story in its issue in all likelihood) I personally don’t read SF in order to remain completely unchallenged. Others do, though, and this certainly wouldn’t be an unjustifiable winner.

Children of Thorns, Children of Water
by Aliette de Bodard has two qualities I personally dislike. The first is that it isn’t really a standalone story at all — it’s set in a larger world in which two of de Bodard’s novels are also set, and it was originally intended as a preorder-exclusive extra story for one of those novels. Shorn of that context, there’s a ton of unexplained worldbuilding references (and see the next story for more of that) , which leave me not knowing if something’s going to be explained later, I’m supposed to figure it out from context, or I’m just supposed to go with it. With a truly standalone short story, you know that everything you need to follow the story is in there, with series works, unless the author takes *great* pains to ensure it’s spelled out, you don’t.

The second problem is that there is, for me, far too much description of physical environments. It’s all this kind of thing — “Room after room, deserted reception rooms with conversation chairs draped in mouldy coverings, closed pianos that looked as though they wouldn’t even play a note, and harps with strings as fragile as spun silk, rooms with moth-eaten four-poster beds, bathrooms with cracked tiles and yellowed tubs…”

I understand that this is something that’s appreciated by those who have visual imaginations, but for an aphantasic like myself it’s like wading through treacle. Obviously this is a matter of taste rather than a failure of craft, and I imagine that for anyone who enjoys that kind of descriptive writing it’s very interesting, but I can’t cope with it at all.

(Again, a problem with me, not with the writing — and de Bodard has written other stories which don’t have this effect on me).

For those reasons I can’t rank it higher than fifth, though it’s not at all bad given that.

And Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee I gave up on about a quarter of the way through. It’s a mil-SF/space mercenary type space opera story, and I don’t like those at the best of times, but this one is also set in a larger universe (the one in Lee’s novels) and again does that thing that works set in established universes do of dropping references in such a way that you’re not sure if you’re meant to know what they are or just go with the flow. That kind of thing, if done well, *can* work well for immersion, but in this case twenty pages into the epub I was still unsure as to why I should care. Given that I’ve literally never enjoyed a story about Space Marines/Mercenaries/Spies In Spaaace! (at least in prose, I have slightly lower standards for the cinema), I decided I’d be wasting my time to go any further with it. I’m still, though, ranking it above No Award, because I know that this kind of thing is a big part of the genre, and while it’s not the part of the genre I’m interested in at all, it would be unreasonable of me to punish something that’s a perfectly well-executed example of its subgenre for not being a subgenre I enjoy. So I’ve ranked it sixth, but won’t be ranking No Award.

Overall, this may be the strongest set of novelette finalists I’ve seen since I started taking part in the Hugo voting a decade or so ago. There were four stories here I thoroughly enjoyed, all of them were at least superior examples of their subgenres, and there was no horrible Nazi shit in there (which, frankly, even before the Puppies was sometimes a bit of a problem). After last year, where my reaction was mostly “oh thank God at least it’s back to being proper stories again instead of Nazi propaganda” but I was largely unimpressed with the actual stories on offer, it’s a massive relief to be able to sit down and read these things with a genuine sense of enjoyment. We’re in the middle of a mini boom in science fiction and fantasy short fiction (at least at the short story and novelette length — the novella market is largely owned by a single publisher at this point, which is disappointing) and these nominees show it.

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One Response to Hugo Blogging: Best Novelette

  1. First of all, I agree that this a strong set of novelette finalists. “Winds Will Rove” and “Small Changes…” were two excellent stories. You are correct that both stories from Bodard and Lee are drawn from a wider world. Lee’s story is from the excellent Ninefox Gambit/Raven Strategem series that I absolutely love, so I really enjoyed Lee’s short entry. I highly recommend you give it another chance. As for Bodard, goodness… the writing is exquisite. Yes, there was a lot of description to immerse you in the fantasy ambiance, but I was awed by her prose. As a story, it was a Bildungsroman about loyalty and friendship, which works across all genres. I ranked “Bots” and “Steaks” behind the others, but in other years, they would have stood out more.

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