by Doctor Science
I've already reviewed the short story nominees, so here are the novelettes (between 7,500 and 17,500 words). They are listed in the order in which I read them, so you can more easily play along at home.
- "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013)
- "The Waiting Stars", Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam)
- "The Lady Astronaut of Mars", Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com/Tor.com, 09-2013)
- "The Exchange Officers", Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013)
- "Opera Vita Aeterna", Vox Day (The Last Witchking, Marcher Lord Hinterlands)
My opinions and detailed spoilers after the cut.
"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang is a hard-core SF premise -- a plausible technological change not far in our future -- treated in a novel, anthropological way. The premise is that most people have basically Google Glass installed in their retinas, and can use it to make audio-visual records of their life as they live it, a "lifelog". The new tech being considered is Remem, which makes it easy for you to *find* the lifelog record you might be looking for -- so an "objective", camera-like record is available along with your human memories.
The story is 1st-person POV, and unusually good in that it actually reads like a work of published, creative non-fiction or "new journalism". The author/1st person intercuts his experiences with Remem with an anthropological account of the Tiv people's encounter with literacy and text-based evidence.
Both stories -- that of Remem, and that of the Tiv -- are about how we can use memory and technology to negotiate between the "truth of fact" (i.e. the kind of objective truth we might get from a photograph) and the "truth of feeling", human experience and what we feel *ought* to be true, even if it's not the truth of fact. The narrator, at first disposed to be very dubious about Remem and its validation of Fact above Feeling, tests it and discovers that he has been mis-remembering a critical incident in his life to bolster his self-image. Without Fact, something that different parties can agree on, the warmth of Feeling can too easily become self-deception and injustice. Humans need both.
Anyway, it's a good and thought-provoking story, very well-written though not excessively "literary" -- it's like a New Yorker non-fiction piece from the future.
"The Waiting Stars" by Aliette de Bodard is part of a very complex alternate-history + space travel series, the Xuya. I haven't realized this when I read the story, but that's OK -- part of the pleasure of reading SF is picking things up as you go along. I may have taken longer than someone already following the series to realize what the connection was between the Dai Viet girl "Elizabeth" and astronaut Lan Nhen, on a secret mission to a derelict spaceship, but I put the pieces together before the end of the story.
The story is gripping and well-written, but it doesn't quite stand on its own -- it's only "OK" without the context of the other stories in the series, which I am now seeking out.
"The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal is also about space travel after alternate history, but in this case the fork point is in the 20th century, and the style is a little -- not pulpish, but Golden-Age-
Or rather, the story's setting is very like the Golden Age of Science Fiction (or the 1950s, anyway), but the issues -- of women's work, of aging, of marriage -- resonate hard with the modern world. It's another very well-written story, truly science fiction, moving and thoughtful.
After reading "Lady Astronaut", I discovered it had been subjected to Hugo ballot shenanigans last year. Here's Kowal's account. Basically, it was published in 2012 as an audiobook, which received enough nominations to get on the Hugo ballot as a novelette -- but it was cut from the 2012 ballot on the grounds that audiobooks count as "Dramatic Presentation." Also, at the time the Hugo committee was making its ruling, the text of the story had been published -- and they anticipated that the story would be on the Hugo ballot this year.
TLDR: there are a lot of people who will vote for "Lady Astronaut" on the grounds that the story was screwed out of the competition last year. I haven't decided how I feel about it yet.
All three of the stories I read up to this point are extremely good SF, and choosing between them will take some pondering. But also, this is the first category where I've encountered works from Larry Correia's Hugo recommendations, aka the ConservaMonster™ slate. In Correia's own words:
the awards are biased against authors because of their personal beliefs. Authors can either cheer lead for left wing causes, or they can keep their mouth shut. Open disagreement is not tolerated and will result in being sabotaged and slandered. Message or identity politics has become far more important than entertainment or quality.However, he has also said that he wants to make literati heads explode! Let's see, shall we -- will it be my literata head that explodes, or my leftist one?
"The Exchange Officers" by Brad Torgersen reads to me like one of those fics you find in every fandom, that aren't very well-written but are popular, and you can't figure out why -- except that they hit that fandom's Id in some specific way. Yes, I am saying that "The Exchange Officers" is not very well-written for fanfic -- which means that it is actually not of professional quality. The fact that it's been nominated for a prestigious award reduced me to howls of disbelieving laughter (and literary pain), as I was reading. Here's a sample:
After training was over, it took Chesty and I few sorties to really get the hang of things. Even with the many, many hours logged in simulation, the real thing took just that much more adjustment, before we began to feel proficient. After that, it was very much a lunch bucket job..If I were beta-reading this story, I would have to teach Torgersen when to write "X and I" and when "X and me", because he doesn't know (it's a consistent error). It would be trickier to improve his sentences so they aren't so clunky -- not to mention his sentence fragments, which aren't in this sample but are all over the place. And that's not even getting into the issue of the infodumps, so many infodumps.
Here's another sample:
"Unlike the last time America went to the moon," the Colonel continued, "this time we're doing it in steps. Not one-shots. And because the entire thing is rolled up under the significant umbrella of the Department of Defense, there's not been as much sensitivity to cutbacks as during the Apollo years—though certain politicians, and a certain President in particular, have done their worst."I burst out laughing at this, because the idea that this kind of story could be defended by saying Politics don't belong in science fiction is hilariously absurd.
Again, I found myself nodding.
The problem with this story isn't Torgersen's politics, it's that the story is objectively *bad*. Not much about literature is objective, but grammar, punctuation, word-choice and sentence-construction errors actually are. I can't figure out which is more surprising (and dismaying): that Analog, which also publishes some of de Brodard's stories, *paid* for this, or that the poor ConservaMonsters didn't have anything better to nominate for a Hugo.
Not many, it turns out. OVA is better than "The Exchange Officers" on a technical level -- there are fewer grammar mistakes, and the sentences are more dull than anything else. Stephanie Zvan does a better job at close reading than I have the strength for, but basically the prose is boilerplate-stupid, and the plot just kind of sits there. VD could really, really stand to have a good editor, and to read Diana Wynn Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Notably, the core of the story -- the presentation of a barely-alternate-universe Catholicism -- seems to involve a kind of "D&D Catholicism", not anything that resonates with my Catholic upbringing or with other Catholic fiction. Aha aha, I see why -- VD does not call himself Catholic, as I had supposed, but non-denominational Christian. That's why the Latin is garbled and the description of the monastic life is so cursory. OVA's shortcomings are particularly obvious because the setting inevitably brings up Ellis Peters' Cadfael Chronicles -- and VD fails miserably by comparison.
Reading the ConservaMonsters' two Novelette choices, I realize why they didn't have any nominees for Short Story. Short stories are the most technically difficult length for sf/f, because every word must count -- and that leaves precious little room for the world-building that's a core sf/f value.
But I really wonder if Correia et al. realize that the stories they've nominated are actively *bad* on a purely technical, objective level. Is this what Correia means by "make literati heads explode" -- trying to prove that a story doesn't have to have consistently good sentences to be up for a Hugo Award? Frankly, I think it just makes him and his supporters look stupid, as though they can't tell the difference between a good sentence and a bad one, or even good grammar and bad.
I think my ballot will be:
- de Bodard
- No Award
I won't put Torgersen and Day on my ballot at all, because I don't think either story is of professional quality, much less Hugo quality.