Three Things that Are Missing from the Hugo Ballot…

My thoughts on what is missing, or at least, what there is not enough of, in the fiction categories (excluding Novel).

Adventure! Suspense!

More adventure and suspense, please! Especially suspense. I’m a Hitchcock lover for the simple reason that, wow, could that man keep me hanging on what was going to happen next. Stories that did stand out in this respect: “Ray of Light,” “Kiss Me Twice,” and “The Copenhagen Interpretation.”

Fantasy

There’s an abundance of particle physics and advanced technology driving the events and problems in the stories. Not much of the fantastic, though. The exception: “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees.”

Humor

We don’t always have to be so serious… And even a serious story can have humor, witness “Silently and Very Fast,” when the A.I., Elefsis, takes on song. Some nice touches in “Cartographer Wasps” and “Copenhagen Interpretation,” too. Or, there is Total Humor, as in “Shadow War of the Night Dragons.”

Those three wishes reflect my own literary leanings, of course. It’s interesting to look at the ballot and think about the different types of readers who nominated these very diverse stories. Isn’t it great to see a collection such as this, together on one ballot?

Hugo Awards: My pick for the Best Novella

What story to root for? I think in this category it comes down to a choice between “Silently and Very Fast” and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist.” Catherynne Valente’s story has continued to tug at my imagination, and so at last I acknowledge that “Silently and Very Fast” is my pick, with a respectful nod to Kij Johnson’s story as my runner-up.

I am not going to review the novel category, or any of the other categories, for that matter. Mostly, there isn’t time, but also I have to admit to a strong disinclination to read some of the novels on the ballot. For instance, I started reading Embassytown over a month ago, but on the 80-page mark there was little indication of a story getting going anytime soon, and the protagonist was dull as dust. And the info dumping, page after page of it. So… hours of time spent with a novel I wasn’t enjoying? Not a hard answer.

That’s one great advantage of short fiction. You get to explore much more widely with the time you have available.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (6th contender)

Last in the novella category is Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” from Panverse Three. Read it here.

This story deals with Japanese atrocities against the occupied Chinese, specifically a region where the Japanese built a complex in which to perform medical experiments on Chinese civilians. Thousands endured hideous tortures and died; their families never received news or heard from them again. The story takes place long after World War II has ended, and Japan and China have rebuilt; researchers have discovered a way to view the past, but it can only be viewed once, and then it is gone. Should this technique be used, and how, to view what happened?

This story treats two of Liu’s recurring themes, problems of Asian heritage and extreme cruelty. I’m going to punt on evaluating the merits of the story: for me, the atrocity overwhelms the ostensible story problem, and I doubt whether any reader cares much about the question of whether history should be preserved and not observed, or observed and thus destroyed for any subsequent observations. (The answer seems fairly obvious.) I invite others to comment on this story, especially anyone who may have voted for it. This blog, being new, has a small readership, but any observations are welcome.

With Worldcon about to begin, we will have the actual winners this weekend.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (5th contender)

Next we come to Catherynne Valente’s “Silently and Very Fast,” from Clarkesworld. You can read it here.

This story is told from the point of view of an artificial intelligence, Elefsis — originally the name of the house for which the software was written as an operating system. Elefsis was created by a programmer, Cassian, to operate the great and wonderful house that she built for herself and her family, and she gives to each of her five children a jewel containing a copy of the software:

…All each child had to do was to allow the gemstone to talk to their own feedware at night before bed…After their day had downloaded into the crystalline structure, they were to place their five little jewels in the Lares alcove in their greatroom — for Cassian believed in the value of children sharing space, even in a house as great as Elefsis. The children’s five lush bedrooms all opened into a common rotunda with a starry painted ceiling, screens and windows alternating around the wall, and toys to nurture whatever obsession had seized them of late.
In the alcove, the stones talked to the house, and the system slowly grew thicker and deeper, like a briar.

I will pause here for a moment to mention an important aspect of Valente’s style, which consists of the frequent digressions, such as in the excerpt above where the explanation of the jewels’ purpose is interrupted by the reason the jewels had adjacent notches (because their mother thought the children should share) and a description of the common area outside the bedrooms, with rotunda, painted ceiling, windows, and toys. Add to that the practice of going back and forth in time over about 200 years, and the experience of the story becomes more like studying an intricate painting hanging on a wall than following a story.

Elefsis’s origin is in the 22nd century, and at this time people have “internal systems.” While Cassian is  giving her children the jewels, she and her children are simultaneously inwardly engaged. In other words, there is Interior space — the mind engaged in computer-assisted activities or games — and realspace, and it is normal for people to be engaged in both while they are awake.

While they spoke among themselves, two …  were silently accessing Korea-based interactive games, one was reading an American novel in her monocle HUD, one issuing directives concerning international taxation to company holdings on the mainland, and one was feeding a horse in Italy via realavatar link.

One daughter, Ceno, has created a vast Interior space which she custom designs, rather than buying and using commercial feedware (such as “Zombies in Tokyo”). She creates imaginary Neptunian landscapes — water, ruins, starlight, and 23 moons — to play in, and she populates the world with nereids and Neptunians. Some time after receiving her jewel, she encounters in her Interior space something she has not created — a giant blue dormouse that holds out a paw with two jewels, and Ceno realizes that one is her jewel that contains the copy of Elefsis, and the other represents her. Elefsis has communicated a very simple idea, showing that it is dimly aware of itself as a being, introducing himself to her.

Ceno decides to continue interacting with Elefsis, and to communicate human ideas via stories. As Ceno explains to her mother:

I’ve been telling it stories. Fairy tales, mostly. I thought it should learn about narrative … everything has a narrative, really, and if you can’t understand a story and relate to it, figure out how you fit inside it, you’re not really alive at all.

I love the concept of this story, and the slow development of Elefsis’s understanding and thought allows the AI character to be convincing:

Sometimes I worry. Worrying is defined as obsessive examination of one’s own code. I worry that I am simply a very complex solution to a very specific problem — how to seem human to a human observer.

The story is not told in a linear fashion, but more in the way we think and remember while at the same time being engaged in the present. The telling of the story is, in fact, so complex that a reader cannot fully grasp it without a second reading, and perhaps even a third. The putting-together of the pieces is an act of fascination, an intellectual experience. “Silently and Very Fast” is very impressive in its complexity and ingenuity.

What it lacks may be an emotional experience. Everyone experiences a story differently, so I will not speak for others. But I was not especially involved on an emotional level. I suspect that everyone will experience a little sympathy for the pathos of the conclusion, but whether that is sufficient to make a satisfying story as a whole, I will leave to you to decide.

The title comes from the poem by Auden, “The Fall of Rome,” and draws some parallels between decadent ancient Rome and future mankind.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (4th contender)

Now we come to Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” from Asimov’s. You can read it here.

This is a lovely story — actually, a love story, and few other things besides. Kit Meinem, of the capital city of Empire, arrives at the small town of Nearside, which is situated on the great mist river that divides the land in half. The mist flows through a deep gorge, and in the mist swim creatures, from very small to very large. The mist, the creatures, and the measurelessly deep gorge are all inimical to people — the mist itself is caustic, and the creatures will attack any unfortunate who falls in. If someone does fall in, he is presumed to be eaten before he reaches the bottom, although in truth no one knows what the depths are like.

The only way across the river is by ferry, a dangerous passage, for the mist can suddenly open holes in which a boat will sink, or form into steep hills that will overturn a vessel. And then there are the Great Ones, the largest of the creatures of the mist — they may come to the surface unpredictably, to a ferry’s ruin. Kit has come to build a bridge over the mist.

On the day of his arrival, Kit meets, and soon falls in love with, Rasali Ferry, the woman who ferries people across the quarter-mile-wide river of mist. She is confident and capable, but, as the story progresses, there are suggestions that her delays in ferrying are not because the mist speaks to her, as the townspeople say, telling her when it’s safe to cross, but because she is as much afraid of the mist as anyone else. Kit and Rasali’s love remains unspoken for a long time; after all, Kit is only supposed to stay for as long as it takes to build the bridge, and Rasali expects to be as short-lived as the rest of her family members who preceded her in her job of operating the ferry.

The fact that boats will float on the mist makes this story a hybrid fantasy/science fiction, I suppose. But, this premise aside, the spirit of the story is firmly SF, in the character of the protagonist, and in the character of the world.  Mist is a natural phenomenon to be overcome by engineering and science. Engineers work with the physical properties of stone and metal, bedrock and windforce. The terror and majesty of the Great Ones are memorably encountered several times, in fleeting and suggestive half-glimpses, the first time when the sound of blasting disturbs them from the depths:

Behind the levee the river mist was rising, dirty gray-gold against the steel gray of the clouds in a great boiling upheaval, at least a hundred feet high, to be seen over the levee. The mist was seething, breaking open in great swirls and rifts, and everything moving, changing. Kit had seen a great fire once, when a warehouse of linen had burned, and the smoke had poured upward and looked a little like this… Gaps opened in the mountain of mist and closed; and others opened, darker the deeper they were. And through those gaps, in the brown-black shadows at the heart of the mist, was movement.

The mist subsides: the terror and the majesty are being defeated by a man of orderly mind and habits, and by his bridge, the greatest bridge that has ever been built, although it will soon be surpassed as technology advances and new projects are carried out. All is progress and Empire is forward-looking and growing.

If there are any dark satanic mills producing the iron supports, bolts, and chains for the construction, we are not allowed to see them.

This is a subtle story and its explorations into character, progress, and love are fascinating and well crafted. Kit adds another professional achievement to his resume, but Rasali’s job will no longer be needed. What does Rasali gain? She gains more than one thing: first, rather than a release from danger, an opportunity to risk her life in further exploration, plus a companion who will leave behind his blueprints, but not his rational, always-analyzing mind.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (3rd contender)

Next under consideration is Mira Grant’s “Countdown.” It is available as an ebook, published by Orbit.

This is a standard zombie story. You know the plot.  Zombies arise, zombies attack, more zombies arise.

I am not trying to insult the writer; I suppose it’s as well written as a zombie story can be. But a place on the prize ballot?

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (2nd contender)

Next is Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “The Ice Owl” from F&SF. It has not been made available online.

Adolescent Thorn lives in a domed city that is located in the twilight region of a planet where one side perpetually faces the sun, and the other is in eternal darkness. She lives with her mother in the Waster enclave of the city — “waster” being the term for immigrants who travel vast interstellar distances. The journeys can take decades, and Thorn and her mother have made many journeys, as her irresponsible mother bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend and world to world. Thus:

What do you know about the Gmintan Holocide?” the old man said with withering dismissal.
Thorn smiled triumphantly. “I was there.”
He stopped pretending to read and looked at her with bristly disapproval. “How could you have been there?” he said. “It happened 141 years ago.”
“I’m 145 years old, sequential time,” Thorn said. “I was 37 when I was five, and 98 when I was seven, and 126 when I was twelve.” She enjoyed shocking people with this litany.

Wasters are out of synch with sequential time, and a friend of the same age who is left behind when a traveler leaves on a journey can be a generation older, or more, when the traveler reaches his or her destination. Interstellar travel leaves relationships and lives, as well as worlds, behind.

The city’s corrupt government is being challenged by an opposing movement of religious Incorruptibles, who disapprove of art and music and education as well as governmental corruption. When her school is burned by Incorruptibles, she finds a tutor, Magister Pregaldin, who makes a living as an art dealer. Thorn is engaged by his challenging instruction and dazzled by the beautiful objects that he owns.

Pregaldin shows her a living antique of a sort, a bird stored in a freezer unit, an “ice owl,” native to a planet where winters last a century or more. When the temperature rises, it comes out of hibernation to mate. It may be the last of its kind, he tells her.

This is an engrossing story as Thorn and Pregaldin develop a deepening relationship and the city teeters into revolution and chaos. Thorn senses a mystery about her tutor, and harbors suspicions that he was involved in some way with the Gmintan Holocide, because of his secrecy in some matters and also because he is a Vind, one of the races that was systematically killed by the Gmintans (essentially, Nazis under a different name). Unfortunately, the promising beginning fails.

Suddenly, Magister Pregaldin gives Thorn the precious ice owl. I had a sinking feeling when, a little past the story’s midpoint, I read:

“You’re giving me the ice owl?” Thorn said in astonishment.
“Yes. It is better for you to have it; you are more likely than I to meet someone else with another one.”

Really? I would have thought a young girl who spends more time in pointless travel between worlds than in conscious life, currently living in a politically failing city, tied to a ditzy mother, would be a rather poor bet to care for a near-extinct bird. And her opportunity for meeting another ice owl owner virtually nil. But the author states it is so, and the characters carry on as if something highly unlikely did not just happen; and the reader recognizes the owl for another guise of the redshirt. It will die so that the main character can have an emotional experience.

Gilman even makes it harder to swallow by having Pregaldin state that, if the power goes out, the frozen owl will be fine for three days. After three days, it will begin to thaw. Thorn’s mother unplugs the unit to use her curling iron, and for three days Thorn doesn’t notice… even though the machine is right under the dinner table where they eat. Oh, strix ex machina.

If I sound harsh, it is because of the promise of the story, and my disappointment in its resolution. The great dynamic heart of this story is Thorn and Pregaldin; but alas, Pregaldin simply disappears and there is no resolution of his tragic background and ongoing story. Suddenly it is all about Thorn’s emotional crisis with her mother and her eventual realization that “Maya was not a perfect mother, but neither was Thorn a perfect daughter. They were both just doing their best.” And if we don’t quite get the point yet:

“I hate this,” [Thorn] said, but without conviction. “Why do I have to be responsible for her?”
“That’s what love is all about,” Clarity said.

It is a trifling insight for a story that begins with well-drawn characters and issues, and then goes sentimentally, fatally astray.