25 June 2014 ~ 9 Comments

Hugo Novelette Review 2014

written by David Steffen

Now that the Hugo packet is finally out, I can finish my reading of the Hugo nominees.

 

1. “The Waiting Stars”, Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam)
This is told as two seemingly separate stories, taking place in a world that will be familiar to her fans, as she has told stories from this world before. One story is about Lan Nhen and her sister Cuc as they go to rescue a damaged mindship that contains the mind of a relative. They come from the Dai Viet culture where ships are controlled by human minds, birthed as mechanical objects from human wombs. The other story follows Catherine, who has been “rescued” from Dai Viet culture by the empire which has tried to give her a new life in the imperial way.

Aliette’s stories have a great deal to say about how cultures interact with each other, not in the war that is often the subject of SF stories, but more in regards to cultural assimilation, imperialism, and the motivations of individuals who are just trying to survive in the boundaries where wildly disparate cultures intersect. She has a real gift for exploring this topic. This is a very good story. It did take me most of the story to guess how the two tales are related to each other, but it was done well.

 

2. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013)
A very interesting story on the subject of memory. The main part of the story is written from the POV of a journalist documenting his trial of the new memory enhancement product called Remem. Lifelogs that record everything that you see and hear have been available for quite some time, but the process of finding a particular memory in the huge set of data that any person builds up is time consuming enough that it’s generally only used for special occasions or for court cases where a team can be paid to look through the evidence. But that has all changed now with the Remem product that can find any memory in just a moment, by only giving it a vague explanation. Our protagonist is very concerned about what this will do to the way people think and remember when they no longer need to do the remembering for themselves. And in particular that it will lead people to constantly recall each other’s faults instead of letting them fall into the vagueness of memory.

There is a parallel story about a man named Jijingi who is a member of a tribe that has not developed a written language, and their visit from missionaries. A missionary named Moseby offers to teach Jijingi to write and Jijingi accepts, but is soon alarmed to find how much he is changed by the process–writing is a technology like any other, and one can’t use it without being changed by it.

Both stories were compelling and heartfelt. The journalist’s more so than Jijingi because I share some of his concerns about how modern technology is affecting people’s mental abilities, and I felt for the trials that he went through–who hasn’t thought they remember something completely different from another person, but in real life there’s generally no way to prove it.

 

3. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com/Tor.com, 09-2013)
An aging woman astronaut is offered another chance to go into space, to visit an extrasolar planet, but her husband Nathaniel is nearing the end of his life and he might not last the three years the mission will take. She has yearned for another opportunity to relive the missions of her younger days. Should she stay or should she go?

This story and the people in it felt exceptionally real. This story is an apt metaphor for the kind of difficult life decision that we may come across from time to time, and by using the speculative element to reinforce it, it only becomes stronger, more understandable. How could you not relate to that?

My only qualm with the story was that it had an obvious reference to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz right in the first paragraph, referring to Dorothy who was raised by her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em in Kansas. While Dorothy played an important role in the story, as far as I could tell the story had nothing to do with L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories. This left me disappointed at the namedrop that apparently went nowhere.

 

4. “The Exchange Officers”, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013)
This is the story of Chopper and Chesty, both members of the Orbital Defense Initiative Station, run by the United States military forces to protect the USA’s interests in space. It flashes back and forth between the past as Chopper and Chesty begin their training for the ODIS, and the present as Chopper and Chesty are the only remaining defenders of the ODIS against an attack by Chinese agents. Chopper and Chesty are Operating their robotic avatars remotely.

This story was okay. Kind of a Golden Age SF, the kind that has action but not a lot of deep thought, and you can enjoy it if you just watch the stuff happening but don’t expect much else out of it. The codename Chesty for the protagonist’s female colleague just made me cringe whenever I heard it–even though it was apparently a reference to Marine Chesty Puller and very fitting as the character is rare Marine in the organization. I had no idea who it was referencing while I read the story and it just seemed like a needless sexual reference of the only major female character–just a bit more explanation of where the nickname would’ve gone a long way toward reducing the cringe factor. Overall, not a bad story, but it doesn’t fit my idea of award-nominated material. I need something more than this.

 

5. “Opera Vita Aeterna”, Vox Day (The Last Witchking, Marcher Lord Hinterlands)
This is the story of an elf that asks to stay in a monastery, offering to make illuminated manuscripts during his long stay in exchange for answers on the subject of religion from the abbot. A demon follows in the elf’s footsteps, demanding the elf leaves with it.

I just found this story dull from start to finish. I didn’t care what happened, or about the fate of any of the characters.

I feel that I should mention that this story has been involved in some of this year’s drama (there’s always SOME drama during award season). Vox Day is the pseudonym of Theodore Beale, who blogs about various topics such as the supposed unsustainability of feminism. He has publicly posted this last year that he aimed to get himself on the ballot and implied that he would be willing to bankroll WorldCon memberships of people who support his views. All this to piss people off and prove a point that he’ll get voted off because the Hugo voting population is voting based on what they think of author’s personal views rather than story quality. I won’t link to his blog. You can find it easily enough with a websearch if you feel inclined.

If you feel that you should vote against Vox Day because of his personal views, I have no problem with that. You should make whatever vote you know you won’t regret and I certainly understand wanting to automatically vote against someone whose views you see as poisonous.

My heart tells me that I should vote based entirely on story quality. The Hugo Award for Best Novelette is not meant to be a contest of the popularity or rationality of the author. It’s meant to be about the quality of the story. If Vox Day wrote an amazing story that topped all the others, then I would vote for it. And if someone buys their way onto the ballot, I figure that quality will out itself.

I had heard about the controversy of someone buying their way onto the ballot before I knew which author it was that was at the center of it, but to avoid biasing my views I intentionally avoided finding out which author until I’d read all the stories in that category. I ranked all of the stories after I’d read them, and without taking into account his personal views, I still voted him at the bottom, under where I will vote for No Award, meaning that I would rather no one at all walk home with the trophy than for this story to win it.

Assuming he did buy his way onto the ballot, the real shame is that some other story, some worthy story actually chosen by the Hugo voters as a whole, was bumped from the ballot for this. We don’t know whose story that was at this stage, though we will be able to determine that later after the Hugo awards release their voting numbers.

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