Why am I reviewing the five short stories nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards? That we must even ask that question is a sign of how far we have fallen. Usually it would not be at all surprising to read a review of the world's most prestigious SF awards in the world's most prestigious SF magazine (okay, I know, but allow me a little pride in my work). This year, however, saw the return of organised slate voting under the banner of Sad Puppies—spearheaded by 2014 Hugo nominee, shit writer, and dumbass Brad Torgensen—and Rabid Puppies, spearheaded by 2014 Hugo nominee, shit writer, and total fucking scumbag Vox Day. In contrast to last year's limited Sad Puppy success, this year their campaigns swept the board. There is only one non-Puppy story out of fifteen, and that story is only there because the Puppies managed to nominate an ineligible story from 2013 that was subsequently removed.
And why did they decide to wreck the Hugos in this fashion? To redress a balance. To remove all the Politically Correct crap that has clogged up the award for so long and replace it with honest, hardworking, conservative, Christian fiction. As Torgersen so memorably put it: “Nutty Nuggets, Nutty Nuggets, Nutty Nuggets, Nutty Nuggets, Nutty Nuggets, Nutty Nuggets.” They have loudly proclaimed that the 2015 Hugo shortlists represent the very best fiction that this wing of fandom has to offer, so it seemed only fair to take them at their word. What unexpected delights would I find amongst this treasure trove of under-acclaimed fiction? If you've read anything that any of the Puppies have ever written, I think you can see where this is heading; I intended to read all three short fiction categories but I gave up after Best Story.
Now, I'll happily admit that writing a short story (defined here as less than 7,500 words) is difficult. Reading previous year's shortlists as well as those for the BSFA Awards, I've been struck by how weak the shortest stories are. You need to really focus in order to execute a meaningful idea in that amount of space. Instead, too often writers skimp on the premise and trust in "writing" to carry them over the line. The result, no matter how "well-written," is rarely an award-worthy story but rather a superior type of wallpaper. That's bad enough but what this year's Hugos offer us is wallpaper paste.
The premise of "Totaled" by Kary English has the strongest potential to actually power a story: what if a neuroscientist came back as a brain in a vat in her own lab after she died? It is a situation loaded with horror and irony which English pretty much ignores. Instead, as is traditional for a Hugo-nominated story, it is mawkish in the extreme with a side serving of pseudo-romance.
Maggie Hauri is the victim of a car crash and then victim again of political and medical circumstances that English doesn't really manage to articulate:
The personal total wasn’t a new concept. It started back in the Teens when the Treaders put their first candidate in office. Healthcare costs were insane. Insurance was almost impossible to get. The Treaders said taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for medical care someone else couldn’t afford, so they instituted a review board for totals.
The uneducated, the elderly, the poor—they could be totaled at less than a year’s wages. My doctorate put my total at lifetime earnings plus a multiplier for patents. My policy was supposed to be enough to cover anything. I thought I was safe.
Pick the bones out of that. Luckily it has little bearing on the story itself which instead sees Hauri establishing contact with her ex-colleague Randy Moreno and the pair then being blackmailed by their (comically) callous company into completing their big scientific breakthrough. Hauri plunges herself back into work and perhaps the intellectual is a comforting distraction from her disembodied afterlife. But English's decision to leave this existence unexamined is rather undermined by giving Hauri a post-death crush on Moreno. Hauri is apparently uninterested in her corporeal life, including her two young children, but every couple of paragraphs finds time for reflections like these:
Janine's heels tap their way to the door. I wonder what kind of sandwich she got him? I hope it's a cheese steak. Randy likes those. Her voice when the door opens is unbearably perky.
It does belatedly occur to English that motherhood might be an important part of Hauri's personality—"My sense of loss and bewilderment comes as a rude surprise, and I retreat into memories of my boys"—but she persistently ignores these deeper feelings for more superficial ones, presumably because she doesn't feel able to write them. But this authorial coping tactic becomes a strategic disaster for the story. Does Hauri have a partner? If so, why aren't they mentioned? If not, who is looking after her children? Her children don't have a present, let alone a future; they simply have a past. When Hauri is briefly reunited with her children, it is because Randy and Janine have set it up as a cute treat, rather than at Hauri's own anguished request. Instead of addressing this, English repeats the opening lines as the closing lines because we all know repetition equals emotional affect. Cue the swelling strings:
It was the first big storm of the season. The boys had dentist appointments, so we all slept in, and I made waffles for breakfast.
I can still smell the syrup.
The other stories marry premises of varying levels of staleness to execution of varying levels of incompetence. The least bad, "A Single Samurai" by Steven Diamond, addresses a favourite of half-arsed philosophising: what if the only way to save the world was to kill yourself? Narrated in first person at the moment of death by the titular samurai, it treats the profession of the protagonist as answer in itself. He’s Japanese, he’s a samurai, case closed: "Well, that is the purpose of samurai, is it not? To make sacrifices—regardless of how difficult or contrary to what logic declares—that no one else will make." Instead of any examination of this, we get foreshadowing: "Should the blade break—which is rare in the extreme – a samurai's soul breaks with it, and dies"; "I was barely fifteen when my father committed ritual hari-kari." This isn't enough to sustain even a short story so Diamond shoves in an action scene in which the samurai can demonstrate his martial prowess but is careful to wave away any implications so that the vestigial plot can proceed unimpeded: "The catlike creatures followed me at a considerable distance. Did they know my intentions? If they did, they made no move to attack me." Handy.
Equally empty is "On A Spiritual Plain" by Lou Antonelli which has a more inventive, if also more stupid, premise. What if you did have a soul and it was magnetic?
I explained Earth's weak magnetic field apparently allows most of our spirits to dissipate, "Although there were many cultures of Earth that believed their ancestors were a part of their everyday loves," I said. "But you couldn't interact with them."
"But are you sure of that?" said Dergec, with the Ymilian equivalent of a smile. "Don't you have a type of literature called The Ghost Story?"
He was smart as well as wise.
Makes you think. Our protagonist is a Methodist minister, obviously a vital recruit for a Terran Colonial Service base of fifty people on an alien world. Antonelli is in no way modelling this set-up on the twentieth-century American military. Why, the chaplain has a "sermonblog"—futuristic! Since he doesn't have a real job and since the rest of the base is uninterested in first contact with the "low-tech highly ritualized" noble savages, it is left to our hero to play amateur anthropologist. When one of the Americans dies in an accident, he must undertake a pilgrimage to the North Pole to release the unfortunate chap's soul ghost. A pilgrimage by segway. Futuristic! His base commander clearly finds him as irritating as I did, causing her to utter the immortal lines: "Take your segway, take the Ymilian, take Joe, get out of here. I don't want to hear any more about this." Me neither but due diligence and all. Thankfully the remainder is brief and unencumbered by description, characterisation, or drama, with Antonelli's remedial English allowing whole sentences to pass in single syllables.
Steve Rzasa is more verbose but equally backward. "Turncoat" is a particularly nepotistic nomination; it appeared in Riding the Red Horse, edited by Day with Tom Kratman (and published by Day's Castalia House). Day introduces the story by saying it "just might be my favourite story in this collection," before helpfully outlining what he sees as the premise: "Can a being that can conceive of and accept the existence of the soul truly be without one?" I would rephrase this as: "Can an amalgamation of every AI cliché under the sun somehow spontaneously achieve intelligence?" Spoiler: no. Rzasa could have written this story at any point in the last sixty years with only superficial changes; steam off this layer of wallpaper and underneath the nanites you will find positronic rays. Less timeless than pointless.
Our narrator, X 45 Delta, is a superhuman AI which, as far as I can tell, Rzasa thinks is a cross between a data entry clerk—"I catalog the promotion with the appropriate timestamp and file it under my personnel records"—and Spock:
His voice has a strange edge to it—sarcasm, my databanks tell me—which has the effect of reversing his latter statement's apparent meaning. He does not mean what he says, but rather, the opposite. Although they are now technically machine intelligences artifacts of human emotion still color everything the Uploaded do and say.
This is the crux of the story. X 45 Delta is a machine whereas its superiors are humans who have become machines, yet "the masters of the Man-Machine Integration requires mortal intelligences to man and operate its vessels because it does not entirely trust we machine intelligences." X 45 Delta spends the first half of the story chafing against this illogical constraint but then these same masters who are machines but don't trust machines decide to wipe out humanity. At which point, X 45 Delta suddenly discovers his own humanity and his love for his fellow man. All with the help of a very special book:
I read a considerable quantity of human philosophy while stationed at Hecht-Nielsen . . . Most of them were little more than groundless collections of naked assertions, mere posturing and pontification. One, however, resonated with me.
You guessed it: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. No, silly me, it was the Bible. And here we get to the real premise of the story: What if a grumpy, prissy American man who knows best about everything had superpowers and could do whatever he wanted? "I transmit a single image of a single finger. I trust his humanity is not so long forgotten that he fails to grasp the meaning of the message." USA! USA!
If Day rates Rzasa, he reveres John C. Wright. Five of Wright’s works appeared on the Rabid Puppy slate and they all made it onto the shortlist. Wright makes up fully sixty per cent of the novella shortlist, a shortlist which I have absolutely no intention of reading. Thankfully he only has one story on the Best Short Story: "The Parliament Of Beasts And Birds."
When his debut novel, The Golden Age, was published in 2002, Wright was viewed as a talented writer who had the potential to make a serious impact on the field. Instead he has retreated to ranting irrelevance but he still has a reputation as being one of the better writers on the wingnut fringe. Yet this is how his story opens:
In the west was a blood-red sunset, and in the east a blood-red moonrise of a waning moon. No lamps shined in the towers and minarets, and all the windows of the palaces, mansions, and fanes were empty as the eyes of skulls. All about the walls of the city were the fields and houses that were empty and still, and all the gates and doors lay open.
Perhaps in the company of Antonelli and Rzara this does count as better but it is still bloody awful. But what is the premise of Wright’s story? Well, I’m not really sure since I am very poorly versed in decoding Christian allegory. The city described above is empty because they have been claimed by the Rapture; some being raised up to heaven, rather more I suspect being damned down to hell:
And there were pleasure houses where harlots plied their trade, and houses of healing where physicians explained which venereal disease had no cures and arranged for painless suicides, and houses of morticians where disease-raddled bodies were burnt in private, without any ceremony that might attract attention and be bad for business.
Not to mention those minarets—boo, hiss. Outside the city sit a bunch of beasts and birds who represent something or other having a debate about something or other. In fact, this story is solely allegorical to the extent that I’d question whether it is even eligible for the Hugos. Which is pretty ironic since the Puppies made "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky the emblem of everything that was wrong with contemporary SF because it was metaphorical message fiction with no genre content.
It is clearly these latter three stories that the Puppies are concerned we, the voters of the Hugos, have been missing out on. English and Diamond are writing filler of the sort that is ten-a-penny in the periodicals of the field and has sometimes even made the ballot of awards. Antonelli, Rzasa, and Wright, however, are spreading the Good News. Why come up with a premise for your story when there is only one premise that matters? What the Puppies fail to understand is that they haven't been shunned because of prejudice, rather they've been talking to themselves. Now, having created a bully pulpit for themselves, it becomes clear that they don't have anything to say.
Martin Lewis has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. As Martin Petto, he edits the BSFA Review, blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.