Monday, July 13, 2015

Now That's What I Call Kinda Okay: reading the Hugo short fiction nominees

Links courtesy of Geeky Library

Best Novella
Best Novelette
Best Short Story

Reading through the short fiction categories for the Hugo Awards - I've learned a number of things. For starters, I've learned what a novelette even is (longer than a short story, shorter than a novella, in case you were wondering). 

But I've also discovered that reviewing the nominees piecemeal would just prolong damnation by faint praise. And people who've actually written stories and gotten them published don't deserve that. So what follows is more of a general reflection than a forensic look at each story.

Competency is not enough.

I've read more than a few people suggesting that the slate-dominated short fiction nominations are terrible. 

I beg to differ. 

It's worth reminding ourselves these are all published stories - they've crossed that crucial first hurdle. And I'd go further: if I was to play at being an editor for a moment I'd probably publish many of them too. This is because, by and large, the shortlist comprises competent work that would slot right in among the rest of the field.

And thanks in part to the Best Semiprozine Hugo category I've read a lot of short genre fiction recently, so I do have some perspective beyond this shortlist.

The key word here, however, is competent

In the main, we're dealing with solid exercises in various sub-genres - space opera looms large but not exclusively so - each with their own points of interest. But no story crosses the line from a tale that passes the time to a one you won't want to end.

And the Hugo's are not awards for the merely alright. What would be the point in that?  

So, it's a respectful nod to all the nominees, but nine categories in, these are the first where No Award gets my top vote. 

Best Novella - No Award
Honourable mention - The Plural of Helen of Troy, John C. Wright

Best Novelette - No Award
Honourable mention - Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium, Gray Rinehart

Best Short Story - No Award
Honourable mention - Totaled, Kary English

What's missing here?

Other reviewers will write about issues of character, tone or plotting that stop these stories leveling up. I think we also need to talk about the limits of looking back. 

Inevitably more than most genres science-fiction looks forward. Technologically yes, but also stylistically, intellectually, linguistically too. And one generation's inspiration can get mined out by its successors until all that remains are stock ideas and the risk of pastiche. Subtract the pathological futurism, and a similar point applies to fantasy and its struggles under the dead hand of Tolkien.

What much of this shortlist offered was a look back at the classic SF or fantasy yarn, and no more than that. I did not walk away these books awed or lost in thought. There were no new tricks on display, nor were any old ones performed with overwhelming flair.

You could say with Michael Chabon that all authors write fan fiction, and that we place too much emphasis on chasing originality. And there's nothing wrong per se with drawing on retro influences, as these nominees did.

For example, an author can: 

  • Lovingly revisit the postwar pulps (Rajnar Vajra's The Triple Sun - A Golden Age Tale).
  • Homage different strains of classic space opera (Edward M Lerner's Championship B'tok and Steve Rzasa's Turncoat).
  • Revisit planetary exploration and colonisation (Lou Antonelli's A Spiritual Plain and Gray Rinehart's Ashes to Ashes...).
  • Remodel CS Lewis' Christian fantasia in more forceful tones (at least two out of John C Wright's four nominations)

Whatever tropes float your boat. 

But if that's all you do then, like the recurring obsession of British bands for replicating the glory days of the sixties, it's unlikely to be truly memorable. The very best fiction should not be hermetic - it's is about moving beyond, perhaps even challenging your influences, not just playing with them.

Two things this critique isn't

This isn't necessarily an argument for being more 'literary' - although looking outside the genre is one way of expanding your writing toolkit and I don't feel particularly that there are boundaries in need of defending. 

In fact, I found the most mainstream story among the nominated short fiction, the Coupland-esque magic realism of Thomas Olde Heuvelt's The Day The World Turned Upside Down, inexplicably annoying. And it was the only non-slate nominee in these categories. 

Neither is it a case for writing which is progressive in a narrowly political sense. I don't apply a Dead Poets' Society test to books and I consider the suggestion that there are lots of contemporary genre authors churning out 'left-wing message fiction' something of a canard unless proven otherwise. 

Good writers play with ideas as themes - they don't pick them according to doctrine, nor do they take so didactic an approach as to jar the reader out of their reverie. 

For example, I found my enjoyment of John C Wright's four nominated short works of fiction depended on how much his conservative religious convictions overtly drove the story. The best - The Plural of Helen of Troy - was the one where his talent and experience was given most space.

Having read JCW's nominated non-fiction writing, it's safe to say there's a lot we disagree on. But my point here isn't about what an author believes, but how their convictions and their art interact.

Ideas, yes. Politics, if you will. But let the story breathe too.

A concluding note

In the final days before the ballot closed, I revisited File 770's Hugo round-ups from recent months in search of some passionate advocacy for the voting slates. I wanted to understand why someone out there might think these stories were awesome, as opposed to just alright. 

Proportionate to the polemic, I noticed there doesn't seem to have been as much cheer-leading for the nominations as might be supposed by an outsider. There's a lot more about what the proposers and their supporters don't want, which I suppose is always easier to write. 

What did I take from my background reading? Well, if I was being charitable, I would say that these stories needed to be seen less as candidates for the best stories of 2014, more as exemplars of a particular kinds of traditional speculative fiction the people behind the slates wanted to promote. 

If I was being less generous, I'd suggest the reason why we haven't heard great claims for the quality of the slates is that they are a proxy for the other parts of the Hugo conversation - the political antagonisms and personal rivalries - that have been raging away on the internet.

But whatever the motivation, if you turn up to a literary contest, you better bring the stories to back up your case. And - with all respect to the nominated authors - I'm not seeing it here. 

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