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Hugo Shorts

My thoughts on the Hugo-nominated short stories.

The only category of Hugo award in which I’ve read all the nominees are the short stories. In novels, novellas and novelettes I’m voting for works I’ve read and loved, but it’s possible that there are others I haven’t read that I’d like more, if I only had the time. Things are similar with fanzines, semiprozines, editors and the Campbell award.

But in the case of the short story I’ve read all of them, so I have to justify the decision. So I thought I’d put my thoughts in writing, for what they’re worth.

Just to start with, these are five stunning pieces of work, and I’d be happy to vote for any of them. Here are my comments in alphabetical order by title (links are to the Escape Pod audio versions):

“The Bride of Frankenstein”, Mike Resnick
Interestingly, this story is fan fiction. I know there are disagreements about the definition of that term, and I’m sure Mike would disagree, but under the definition I staked out in the relevant Readercon panel, it clearly qualifies. (It’s fan fiction based on the movie Frankenstein, not based on the novel. The castle, Frankenstein’s Barony, Igor, the presence of a spouse during the creation of the creature, the existence of household electrification, etc., are all things that don’t appear in the novel.) It’s an emotionally satisfying story about two people gradually learning what it means to have meaningful human relationships. That one of them is already married, and that the person she learns to love is her own husband, makes the story that more poignant. The reason why this needs to be an SF story is that the creature’s innocence/ignorance about human relationships, and the Baronness’s need to teach him, is what drives the action. It would tickle me to see a fanfic win the Hugo; on the other hand, Mike needs another Hugo like I need another grey hair.

“Bridesicle”, Will McIntosh
A wicked and horrifying concept with beautiful character development. Emotionally satisfying not only because the protagonist succeeds in being reanimated and reviving her partner, not only because she manages to forge an honest relationship with a "client" in the dating service, but because she learns to differentiate between intrusive, abusive intimacy (her mother) and loving intimacy (her partner and others). It is very strong. I see two weaknesses, however: The first is that the story rests on a social/cultural premise which is not made believable by the story. In this world, people are permitted to use the possibility of revival of the dead as a lever to make the revived into what are essentially sex slaves. I don’t deny that the culture could develop in that direction, but a civilization that would countenance such things would be far different in other ways as well. But all the human relationships that we see in this culture bear a striking resemblance to our own — homophobic mothers, wives worrying that their husbands will develop feelings for other women, men desiring trophy wives, etc. Given how familiar most of this society seemed, I didn’t buy the Zombie Bride premise. The other problem, stemming from the same source as the story’s intense satisfaction, is that there are too many problems that solve each other all at once: Protagonist gets over her fear of intimacy and gets revived and learns to love a child and gets her lover back and develops honest relationships… It just tied up too neatly.

“The Moment”, Lawrence M. Schoen
This is a mind-blowing romp through far-distant futures. I especially enjoyed the tenuous linkage between each of the increasingly distant scenes, the failure of each new character to understand what motivated the earlier ones, because of the great expanse of time and the paucity of information. Meditating on memory and loss of memory, where every narrator becomes unreliable because of the impossibility of knowing what the past was like, gets me where I live. I think middle-aged people are naturally prone to brood on the remoteness of our own pasts and of the world’s past, and so to love stories like this one. The ending disappointed me, though. That all the energy behind these millions of years of emotional resonance should come from the fact that humanity decided to go to the stars, when so many other races have already done so?  Somehow it feels like a letdown. 

“Non-Zero Probabilities”, N.K. Jemisin
Nora’s story is clever, funny, touching and conceptually fascinating. The central character is compelling. The ending didn’t quite reach me, however. I see, or I think I see, what Nora is trying to do with that ending — a broad claim that to give up probability, to let go of the need to predict what is likely to happen and to stop planning your life accordingly, is to achieve a precious freedom. But for some reason it didn’t persuade me, didn’t make me feel it. I don’t know why.

“Spar”, Kij Johnson
Of course Kij already won the Nebula for this story. What it really deserves is a medal for valor. Its insistence that we look at the conflation of sexual intimacy with emotional intimacy, that we confront our ultimate inability ever to know our partners, that we acknowledge the falsity of the concrete perception of closeness that comes with sex, is horrible and courageous. It is more like a poem than a story, really, as it doesn’t really have much of a plot or character development. It’s the ending, though, that really makes it work for me as fiction — the protagonist’s decision to leave the enveloping comfort of her physical entwinement because of its falseness, because of her desire to find something real, makes her into a hero rather than just a victim.

Having talked all this out, it’s nearly impossible for me to vote. Fortunately the Hugos are voted on a ranking system, so I can hedge a little bit. Interestingly, my mind actually changed as I was writing all this down. I think (at this second) that my votes are going to go this way:

  1. "Bridesicle"
  2. "Spar"
  3. "The Bride of Frankenstein"
  4. "Non-Zero Probabilities"
  5. "The Moment"

I’m surprised by my choice of "Bridesicle" after all the flaws I identified in it. But I asked myself, "What story would I want people in later years to go back and read, because it presents such a unique perspective or attack on SF?" "Bridesicle" and "Spar" were the obvious answers, and people are already going to go back to "Spar" because of the Nebula.

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