Monday, July 26, 2010

The 2010 Hugo Awards: Novelette Shortlist

This is the second post regarding the upcoming voting for the Hugo Awards to be presented at Aussiecon 4 in Melbourne, Australia.

Best Novelette Shortlist
“Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky ( 3/09)
“The Island” by Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2)
“It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith (Eclipse Three)
“One of Our Bastards is Missing” by Paul Cornell (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume Three)
“Overtime” by Charles Stross ( 12/09)
“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster (Interzone 2/09)

Three of these stories (the Foster, Griffith, and Swirsky) are about romantic, sexual relationships that are revealed to be false and artificial. The strongest and most intriguing of the three is “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast,” which is a cross between the Jack Vance classic "The Moon Moth" (1961) and Joss Whedon's recent, short-lived Dollhouse television series. Vance describes a society where status and wealth are dependent on choosing a mask and a musical instrument. Foster offers a society where individuals are blank slates and the mask they choose programs them with a role to play, as with Whedon's programmed dolls. Foster takes the further step of making her protagonists non-human, possibly insectoid, possibly hermaphroditic. Unexplained is why the masks create such human-seeming tableaus as a male-female marriages, torture scenes, etc. The plot concerns an effort to subvert the control of the masks.

I have already discussed “It Takes Two” (follow here). Among the three it has the most compelling description of human sexuality.

“Eros, Philia, Agape” works through the emotional issues the most thoroughly of the three stories. It concerns a woman who purchases a robot lover and falls in love with him. It's well done, if a little staid.

The best of the remaining stories is “The Island,” a taut and layered story set on board a spaceship, which I have previously discussed (follow here). It easily has the most hard science fiction content of the novelettes on the shortlist.

“One of Our Bastards is Missing” is handicapped by clearly being a fragment of a larger story, leaving loose ends and missing context. The story is set in a class-stratified British Empire, circa 1800s, with space-folding technology.

Stross' “Overtime” is a one-joke Christmas-Cthulhu story that goes on too long. It is part of Stross' series of stories concerning Bob Howard and the secret agency called The Laundry. I've enjoyed previous stories in the series. This is a weak addition.

SF Strangelove's Hugo ballot
1. “The Island” by Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2)
2. “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster (Interzone 2/09)
3. “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith (Eclipse Three)
4. “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky ( 3/09)
5. “One of Our Bastards is Missing” by Paul Cornell
6. “Overtime” by Charles Stross

The novelette shortlist has more quality work than the 2010 Hugo short story shortlist. Still, it would be a stretch to say that these are the six strongest novelettes of the year.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The 2010 Hugo Awards: Short Story Shortlist

The Hugo Awards ceremony will take place September 5, 2010, at Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, to be held in Melbourne, Australia.

Best Short Story Shortlist
“The Bride of Frankenstein” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s 12/09)
“Bridesicle” by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s 1/09)
“The Moment” by Lawrence M. Schoen (Footprints)
“Non-Zero Probabilities” by N.K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld 9/09)
“Spar” by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 10/09)

“The Bride of Frankenstein” retells the story of Victor Frankenstein from the viewpoint of his unhappy wife. This treads overly familiar ground. The character of the wife and her relationships with Victor, Igor, and the monster are tired and predictable throughout. This is far from the best work the genre has to offer and it is disappointing to find it on the short list for the Hugo Award.

“The Moment” is a series of vignettes describing far future star-faring races and superhuman entities as they stumble upon a human footprint on our moon. The vignettes pale quickly and grow tiresome. The payoff for the story is the realization that the footprint represents the moment that humanity became a star-faring race, which is trite. The self-congratulatory attitude toward human achievement is painfully simplistic. Like “The Bride of Frankenstein,” this story is well short of the best work the genre has to offer.

“Bridesicle” brings speed-dating to the frozen dead. Preserved dead women are woken for conversation with men who will pay for a woman's full-revival if the woman will agree to become their bride. The story works best in the moments when it makes clear how this process is creepy and exploitive. Among the numerous questions the story doesn't adequately address are: why does this process only involve frozen women and why would a man choose to pay for an expensive revival rather than find a living woman? The relatively happy ending feels a little unearned, but at least it's tempered by some sadness.

I discussed “Spar” recently here. It's successful in that it is a disturbing story. On rereading it seems more empty and less engaging.

“Non-Zero Probabilities” depicts a present-day Manhattan where unlikely events have become commonplace. If a train crash was once a one-in-a-million chance, now any mass transit travel is a life-or-death risk. On the positive side, remission of cancer is now frequent. We follow Adele's quotidian life. She is an appealing character. She decides, with the altered odds, to try again on the dating scene. This is my choice as the strongest of the five short stories on the shortlist.

SF Strangelove's Hugo ballot
1. “Non-Zero Probabilities” by N.K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld 9/09)
2. “Spar” by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 10/09)
3. “Bridesicle” by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s 1/09)
4. No Award

Anyone approaching the shortlist of five short stories who assumes that it represents a selection of the best that the science fiction genre has to offer would be sadly mistaken. Any of the best of the year anthologies offers a better cross-section of the genre with consistently stronger stories than this list. This list is especially weighed down by “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Moment.”

Related posts:
2010 Hugo Results and Reactions
The 2010 Hugo Awards: More on the Shortlist
The 2010 Hugo Awards: Novelette Shortlist

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Spar by Kij Johnson

I enjoyed "Spar," although not as much as some others on the internet. One human and one alien share a tiny lifeboat after their ships are destroyed in a collision. Their only communication is sex. The description of their wordless interaction is unsparing. There is little context. The story starts after the collision and ends at the moment of rescue, as the lifeboat is opened from outside. The bulk of the story is interior monologue as the human woman endures within the lifeboat. Since her partner in the lifeboat is alien and all communication is non-verbal, the story is claustrophobic. The non-verbal nature of the story leaves it ambiguous as to whether the alien is sentient. Another reading is that the relationship is pre-verbal and that the story's subtext is that of childhood sexual abuse.

The story fits within Japanese tradition of "tentacle erotica." There's a Wikipedia entry for tentacle erotica.

Related post: The Years Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume Four, table of contents

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Pelican Bar by Karen Joy Fowler

This story is taut and suspenseful, immersive and unpredictable. It is a character study that starts with an unsympathetic character and by the end the reader is cheering for her. Norah is an out of control teenager. Her parents contract with an organization that will set her straight. Without warning, Norah is kidnapped from her bedroom and taken to a rundown motel where she endures "group," where she must reveal her faults and secrets. For lying, she is sent for TAP, the Think Again Position, where she must lie face down on the bare floor without moving for hours. If she moves she is put in restraint where one staff member places a knee on her spine while others pull her arms and legs up and backward. Norah must earn points for the privilege of having a toothbrush and hairbrush. There are indications that the people running the organization are not human.

There are many wonderful things happening: a lost teenager seeks her identity, a horrible and possibly rehabilitative center is revealed layer by layer, and images and events suggest a science-fictional underpinning. This is an outstanding story.

"The Pelican Bar" by Karen Joy Fowler first appeared in Eclipse Three (Night Shade Books) edited by Jonathan Strahan.

Related post: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Four, table of contents

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Locus Awards Results and Reactions

The 2010 Locus Awards winners were announced June 26.  Here are the novel-length categories:

Science Fiction Novel: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Tor)
Fantasy Novel: The City & The City by China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
First Novel: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books)
Young Adult Novel: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse; Simon & Schuster UK)

Congratulations to the winners. As reported in the July issue of Locus. There were 680 valid ballots. Of these 36 were paper ballots, and the remaining 644 were electronic submissions. Locus subscribers cast 306 votes, or 45 percent of the vote. Since 2008, when online voters outnumbered subscribers, Charles N. Brown changed the system, doubling the point value of subscriber votes to better reflect Locus readership.

Then comes this quote: "It didn't make a difference in the winner of any category this year." That may be true, strictly speaking, regarding the revised point system, but what were the Locus subscriber results? Aren't there two polls going on here with quite different sensibilities? In describing the SF novel results: "Subscribers put the Robinson first by only 100 points, not enough to dent the large lead non-subscribers gave the Priest." That's Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream. That's the poll I want to know about. Priest's novel is a fine young-adult steampunk adventure novel, but really rather slight. I am surprised it was on the short list, much less the winner. (For the SF Strangelove review of Boneshaker follow here.)

Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which won the Nebula Award, placed only 15th among Locus Poll SF Novels. What they don't mention is that it wasn't part of the pull-down list of SF novels that the online voting form offered as choices. Every vote for The Windup Girl for SF Novel was a write-in vote, which couldn't help but reduce the number of votes it received. Since it was a first novel, that was the only category where it appeared in a pre-built list in the online form.

The Locus Poll is interesting and rather complicated. As I've already mentioned, there are two polls here that have been mashed together: the subscribers and the non-subscribers. Why not report them separately? The numerous categories are sometimes ill-defined. Isn't Boneshaker better listed as a fantasy novel or a young-adult novel? Is The City & The City really fantasy and not science fiction? Why shouldn't The Windup Girl have been present in the list of SF novels built into the online poll?

For a brief overview of Locus Poll results, follow here.