Liz reads the 2015 Hugo-nominated short stories

I thought that Project: Read As Much As Possible And Vote By Merit would be easier if I didn’t sit around waiting for the voter pack.  Accordingly, I’ve reserved a bunch of the nominated novels at my elibrary of preference.  As for short stories, all but one are available online, and I’ve started reading and organising my preferences.

(I really love preferential voting.  I like to have my senate ballots prepared weeks ahead of an election.  Of course I vote below the line.  SO GREAT.)

The stories!

“On A Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli

It’s not clear whether this version on Antonelli’s blog is the same as that published in Sci Phi Journal #2.  For the sake of my embarrassment squick, I hope not.  The blog version’s dialogue is full of run on sentences, which (aside from being grammatically problematic) makes it a bit hard to read.  I dearly hope it’s a first draft.

Anyway, it’s a story about an alien planet whose magnetic field creates ghosts of the dead, and a human chaplain who has to deal with the first human ghost.

The concept is mildly interesting, the execution mildly frustrating.  An example:

Ymilans believe–as do many Terran religions–that each individual has a spark of an eternal extra-dimensional over-arching consciousness that is imbued in each of them at birth and ultimately returns to a higher dimensional plane when the physical form is no longer viable. I told him we call it the “soul”. They also know–I won’t say believe because the evidence was obvious on Ymilas–that while alive we develop an electromagnetic imprint as a result of the experiences of life that survives after death. I told Dergec an ancient Terran religion had the same belief, and in fact built elaborate pyramids and tombs filled with personal belongings to keep those spirits happy.

I don’t know that the Egyptian concept of the ba had anything whatsoever to do with electromagnetism, but the Ymilan religion — where ancestors remain part of a person’s life after death — has more to do with Chinese beliefs anyway.  Beliefs which are contemporary and actually practised right now in the actual real world, and aren’t in fact alien in any way whatsoever.  That the author doesn’t seem to realise this is … well, it shows a certain carelessness in research, or a lack of general knowledge, or maybe a cultural arrogance?

I found the writing amateurish and the central idea poorly executed.  This is going above No Award, but only because it’s not actually insulting.

“The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C Wright

This is actually insulting.  If Bible-quoting animals debating their place in the world after the extinction of humanity is your idea of a good time, this might be the story for you.  If you thought that The Last Battle was amazing but needed to make its metaphors more obvious, this is definitely for you. If you like interesting, original and insightful fiction, I’m sorry, you will have to move on.

Wright is trying very hard to incorporate Catholic theology into this story, but the result frankly makes me a bit embarrassed to share a religion with him.  It takes a very talented writer to pull off explicitly Christian references in what appears to be a secondary world fantasy setting, and John C Wright is no C S Lewis.

Going below No Award.

(A note: both of these short stories have been posted to blogs but formatted for paper — indents, no paragraph spacing, etc.  Guys, don’t do that.  It’s fine for a book or ereader, but in the context of a website, it’s just hard to read.  And neither story has been worth the eye strain.)

“Totaled” by Kary English

Finally, some formatting I can read!

And this is the best story so far, which is not to say it’s not derivative in concept and execution, and kind of sexist in its portrayal of the sandwich-fetching grad student hated by the heroine.  A scientist working on the preservation of living tissue after death is killed in an accident, her brain is preserved, but she only gets a short afterlife before decay sets in.

The idea’s been done a bunch of times, but this gets a neat ZOMGObamacare twist: preservation is dependent on your monetary worth.  Death panels, guys! It’s weird and specifically American, but hey, this is an American story.

I’m pretty lukewarm overall, but it was readable (in every sense of the word) and largely inoffensive.  I’m probably going to give this my first preference.

“Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa

Look, the integration of human, AI and spaceship is not a new idea.  Anne McCaffrey wrote The Ship Who Sang before I was born; Ann Leckie gave the concept a powerful new twist, oh, just a couple of years ago.

I guess Rzasa deserves some praise for claiming the subgenre for People Who Aren’t Named Ann(e), but it’s just soooooo boring.  A whole paragraph about the protagonist’s hull and weaponry?  *snore*

This feels like the author read Ancillary Justice and went, “Yes, but what this really needs is less ambiguity and a really boring main character.”  It’s competently written, which is sadly high praise for the short story category this year, but that’s all I can say.

This whole “vote by merits” thing is really hard, guys.  Like, I don’t think that this deserves an award.  And yet two-fifths of the category is SO BAD that the overall standard is so low, I can’t in good conscience NOT place it second on my ballot.

The fifth nominated story is “A Single Samurai” by Stephen Diamond, which doesn’t appear to be available online.  That will have to wait for the voter pack.  Until I’ve read it, my ballot currently looks like:

  1. “Totaled”
  2. “Turncoat”
  3. “On A Spiritual Plain”
  4. No Award
  5. “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”

(I keep typing “The Parliament of Beats and Birds”, which I presume is about DJs and HORRIBLE AVIANS gathering together to work out their place in the universe after the fall of non-DJ humanity.)

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13 thoughts on “Liz reads the 2015 Hugo-nominated short stories

    1. It’s quite possible that the generally poor quality is lowering my standards. “You can format AND punctuate AND tell a story with minimal infodumps! You totally deserve a Hugo! Or at least a nice gold star!”

    2. I did get a sense that Liz is grading a bit on a curve. But since I am reluctant to No Award except in extremis, this is a feature, not a bug, for me.

  1. merriank

    This makes it so clear that the Hugo is not an award for the best SF in a given category. I’d be leaning to No Award being better than the stories you’ve described. I’m also wondering if the Hugos only work if we (the reader/voter in general) have some shared, considered standard in our own heads when it comes to reading the nominated text with works not standing on their own merit. Interesting to think about this in a growing diverse world and divergence within the genre; what was shared is no longer, therefore the Hugos can no longer stand. Also if this ‘standard’ has always been in relation to what a reader considers great & good it makes perfect sense seen in the light of the actions and rhetoric of the vile puppies both sad and rabid, that this personally calibrated standard doesn’t even have to relate to books or the genre

    1. You make a whole bunch of good points. The Hugos aren’t necessarily an award for “best” so much as “most popular with a general consensus that they are also quite good”. And that’s subjective — there’s been more than a few years when I’ve read a Hugo winning work and gone, “Wait, really?”

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  3. Ray

    The best short story was “readable and largely inoffensive”
    Second was “just soooooo boring”
    Third was “amateurish and the central idea poorly executed”

    I think you need to reconsider the position of No Award on your ballot

  4. I’m reading ahead of the packet, as well, and so far there is nothing that I feel is worthy of an award in the shorts categories. I admit to saving a few aside, those that weren’t pushed on a slate, so that I can hopefully have an uplifting moment.

    I have no problem voting No Award for an entire category, though. I’m unwilling to hold my nose and “rank” according to the best of a bad lot.

  5. I feel you are grading too much on a curve. This is supposed to be the best science fiction or fantasy story of the year. Do any of these qualify?
    Read several Hugo Award winning short stories from past years and see if any of this year’s measure up. I suspect it is at most 50/50 if your top pick or two measures up and the others fall below No Award.

    1. You’re certainly not the only one to suggest it! Despite the blog’s name, I’m reluctant to vote No Award for a whole category, but after I’ve read the Stephen Diamond story, I’ll be reconsidering my position.

  6. J

    Liz, I appreciate your thoughts. I’ve finished reading all of the nominated short stories.

    Last year, I placed all the the short stories below “No Award” except “The Water that Falls from Nowhere” which I fell had decent character development, but had structural flaws and only barely could be considered SF&F. Mostly, it’s ending fell flat for me. I didn’t find any of the short stories last year to be original. My philosophy of aesthetics professor would probably smack me for even considering originality in my critique. But my critiques speak for me and no one else.

    This year, I feel like the stories are somewhat similar, but I’m not certain if I will use No Award–yet.

    I liked “Totaled” the most. I like dealing with issues of consciousness/awareness and how it’s defined. It’s a subject that fascinates me. So, one would think that “On a Spiritual Plain” would be my next pick, but I agree that it’s execution could have been better.

    “Turncoat” I think is well done. It’s not the kind of story that speaks to me, despite also having a consciousness/awareness theme. I think it just doesn’t go far enough.

    “A Single Samurai,” it got some characterization. Though it was better than I expected, it hasn’t really stuck with me.

    As for the John C. Wright story. I’ve read a couple of his other stuff. I’ve made peace that he writes niche stories. The Christian SF&F sub-genre is there. It does about as well as any other sub-genre, though I’m not certain where it is heading. It is a uniquely polarizing sub-genre. “Parliment of Beasts and Birds” is rather deep in this sub-genre. It presents a theological debate that has little to no real world resonance for most people. Makes me wonder if it belongs in a general SF&F award. It’s not getting my #1 slot, but I haven’t decided where to place it. I suspect it will come in below No Award because it is written for a narrow audience. The fact that John C. Wright has other nominations will certainly cause it to get ranked lower. I habitually rank authors with multiple nominations lower.

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