Reading the Hugos 2016: Novelettes

FUNNY STORY: so I thought I was eligible to vote for the Hugos already, but then I realised that I didn’t have a membership for the current WorldCon. So, a few weeks ago, I bought a supporting membership … for WorldCon 75. You know. Next year’s WorldCon.

But now it’s all sorted, I have a supporting membership to the right con, and more importantly, I have the Hugo packet.

I’ve realised that I have a problem with short fiction, in that I can’t read a whole lot of it at once. One short piece a day is about as much as I can handle — more, everything blurs into one, and it feels like the reading equivalent of channel surfing. (I also hate channel surfing.)

Accordingly, I’m reading one novelette a day, and this post has been a month or so in the making.

“And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead” – Brooke Bolander

The only non-Puppy story on the slate, a mixture of Tarantino and cyberpunk in which a one-eyed cyborg soldier attempts to save the consciousness of her hacker boyfriend, whose brains are blown out of his skull in the first paragraph.

I’m quite mixed about this story — I liked the plot and characters, it has a couple of tropes I adore, yet I was relieved when it was over. This was all down to the writing style, which just bombards the reader with profanity and violence and set-up all at once. I’m into all of these things — I fucking love profanity — but the overall effect was numbing. That’s probably intentional on Bolander’s part, but it didn’t work for me.

I liked it enough that I’ll put it above No Award, but in a normal year, I’d expect it to be close to the bottom on my ballot.

“Flashpoint: Titan” – Cheah Kai Wai 

A Japanese ship defends Titan from Chinese invasion. Tedious, largely devoid of personality or characterisation and unbearably dull. There are no female characters whatsoever, unless you count the ships (I don’t) and the brief mention of the protagonist’s wife and daughter. Tipped from “forgettable” into “offensive and forgettable” by an unearned ethnic slur towards the end.

(It’s curious how many Chinese authors and authors of Chinese descent were on the Puppy slates, which aren’t exactly bastions of internationalism or diversity. But here we have Cheah Kai Wai, the first Singaporean Hugo finalist. But a lot of Chinese SF seems to be classic hard SF, which the Puppies say western authors aren’t doing anymore.)

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu

For reasons of population management, Beijing has been divided into three zones, separate dimensions that occupy the same temporal space. To earn the money for his daughter’s education, a sanitation worker illegally crosses from zone 3 (crowded and working class) to zone 2 (middle class, less crowded) and finally zone 1 (white collar, privileged, relatively low population).

It’s a simple plot that lets us appreciate the worldbuilding as Lao Dao meets university students and diplomats and sees how the other thirds live. I hope the setting is used for a novel, because I’d like to see more of it. Definitely my favourite of the lot.

“Obits” by Stephen King

“So this is going to be a story about a guy who has the power to kill people by writing their obituaries,” I thought. And I was right.

It’s a simple and predictable story, well-executed but not especially interesting. I’ve never enjoyed Stephen King’s fiction, and this did nothing to change my mind.

“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke

Humanity is at war with the alien Meme, and one of its most capable pilots wakes up in a virtual reality, where there’s little to do but run flight simulations.

I enjoyed this a lot — again, it was simple and predictable (“Folding Beijing” was the only really original finalist, alas), but although I didn’t really connect with the characters, I appreciated their approach to the situation. Reading it felt like replaying Mass Effect — I know how it’s going to turn out, but there’s something satisfying about turning that corner and pulling that trigger. (Or, you know, hitting the mouse button.)

How I’m voting

  1. “Folding Beijing”
  2. “And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead”
  3. “What Price Humanity?”
  4. “Obits”
  5. No Award
  6. “Flashpoint: Titan”

YES, I’m putting a Castalia House story above Stephen King. I just liked it, okay?