Clavis Aurea #30: 2015 Hugo Awards edition (Short Fiction)

by on Jun 11, 2015 in Blog | 7 comments

I will not be coy and pretend I do not know that the contenders for this year’s Hugo Awards are controversial. The nominees in, especially, the short fiction categories have mostly been drawn from the “Rabid Puppies” slate: stories chosen to reflect the values of a vocal ideological minority in fandom, often published by them directly. These are stories that were largely unfamiliar to most readers of speculative fiction until very recently.

I intend to vote in the Hugo Awards, and while I am well aware that voting
“No Award” in the face of a slate offered in bad faith is an option preferred by many of my peers, I prefer to make my decisions armed with well-informed reasons for my choices. I have opted to read the slates with a generous attitude, to determine for myself if there are any hidden gems in the corners of SFF that I have unfairly overlooked.

On a Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli

“On A Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2) is definitely not that gem. This is a straight-forward piece about a Methodist minister posted to a remote outpost on the planet Ymilas. The local aliens are a “low-tech highly-ritualized” people who live alongside the ghosts of their dead, called “Helpful Ancestors.” Due to the planet’s odd magnetic field, the first human killed on the planet, Joe McDonald, also lingers as a ghost, until the minister can find a way for him to move on.

Antonelli does a decent job of trying to universalize spiritual concepts, showing the overlaps between his protagonist’s Christian beliefs and the Ymilans’, as well as some nods to Hinduism and Agnosticism. Though the Terran presence on Ymilas is described as “colonial,” Antonelli doesn’t depict any clashes between the two races. The Terrans exist as a small, peaceful, innocuous presence, not interfering with the local culture.

Of course, this is made easy by a spiritual world-building that assumes Christians were right all along. Sentient lifeforms have “a spark of an eternal extra-dimensional over-arching consciousness” (what the minster calls “the soul”) which moves on to a “higher dimensional plane” when the body dies. In addition, a person leaves behind a “electromagnetic imprint” when they die – a ghost.

Though Antonelli makes it explicit that the soul and the ghost are two different things – the soul is already gone while the ghost lingers – both the Terrans and the Ymilans assign a good deal of spiritual value to the ghost. The ghost is only an imprint without a soul, but it is capable of making decisions, self-awareness, and fatigue. It is also the focus of a culturally significant pilgrimage to a spot where it can move on. The minister explains to Joe that he will be “going home” when he undertakes the pilgrimage, but to where? Does this “imprint” also have a place on a higher dimensional plane?

The fine theological differences between a person’s many states are lost in large part by the distracting grammatical errors in the piece. Imprecise language, uneven punctuation, odd tense choices and contradictions within the text (for example, Ymilans are a “highly-ritualized” people, but later chide Terrans for putting a “great deal of stock in … rituals”) get in the way of a deeper understanding of the spiritual triumvirate that Antonelli is trying to describe. It falls short as a philosophical dialogue, and as a story it is merely dull – a straight forward journey with neither struggle nor conflict.

Turncoat by Steve Rzasa

“Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House) is another attempt at moral philosophy told through science fiction. X 45 Delta is a machine intelligence occupying a Mark III frigate. He is an instrument of the Man-Machine Integration, a post-human empire seeking to rebel against and ultimately subjugate the more conventionally human Ascendancy forces. Though the Integration’s mission began as a fight for freedom, it has become a more brutal, less tolerant machine of conquest as it becomes more powerful, leading X 45 Delta to reconsider his values.

X 45 Delta is a powerful warship required to have a human crew to act as his “Moral Intelligence,” though they demonstrate no more moral intelligence than he. How this safeguard is meant to work is unclear – the humans inside X 45 Delta have little function except to slow and annoy him. He can shut them out and belay their instructions at will, and does.

His betters at the Integration can see this as well, and soon he is relieved of his human crew and upgraded to operate much better without them. Despite the fact that his human crew has never been shown to be of any use to him, he is puzzled when they are removed and deemed wasteful. “I do not understand how we can consider a trained crew to be a waste of resources,” he says, but almost immediately we are shown a battle in which his improved efficiency is demonstrated pretty plainly.

X 45 Delta’s moral awakening is pretty abrupt. We are given to understand he read “thousands” of philosophical texts at his last berth, including the Christian bible. He is struck especially by a line from the book of Isaiah about agency, which is understandable, given his position. How or why he picks up other arbitrary 20th century human values – a particular fondness for the young and infirm, for example – is much less clear. X 45 Delta, like other machine intelligences, is an emotional being, capable of being amused, afraid, embarrassed, angry and annoyed. Perhaps he is simply sentimental. The reader is left with the sense that we are meant to take for granted some universal morality that X 45 Delta simply acquires by virtue of existing (yet his superiors somehow don’t.) This is deus ex machina in the most literal sense – a well-tested trope, at least, even if it is unsatisfying.

Totaled by Kary English

“Totaled” by Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine #9) is the story of Maggie, a research scientist who is killed in an accident and finds her brain has been donated to her own lab. Her own research makes it possible for her brain to be kept active and communicative, allowing her to finish the research with her former partner, Randy.

I wish there were more to say about this story, but there isn’t much to hold on to. It’s competently told; an interesting, if bland, description of how emotional responses might be used to extract ideas from a brain in a jar with some novel ideas about sensory responses. Maggie’s anguish and concern about the sons she has left behind – and whom she can hardly interact with – is sweet and gives the piece a convincing human touch.

There is little else of note in the piece. “Totaled” is noteworthy primarily in how inoffensive it is, how unchallenging.

A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond

“A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen Books) is similarly forgettable. As suggested by the title, this is the story of a single samurai who has managed to mount and ascend a mountain-sized kaiju – think the biggest of all Godzillas – that is decimating his homeland. He needs to kill it in order to prevent the total annihilation of his country.

Diamond’s samurai owes more to The Legend of the Five Rings than Japan. He is a samurai in the Lone Wolf, rather than class, sense, with a sprinkling of fantasy. His daisho is not merely an heirloom and sign of office but a spirit-bound set of weapons signifying his supernatural training. Oni and other demons wander the land, attacking randomly in order for Diamond to demonstrate the samurai’s martial skill.

The samurai recalls his backstory as he ascends the kaiju, relating to us how he came to have his core values: honour and self-sacrifice. By the time the story’s climax arrives, we understand this samurai is a tough, skilled, self-disciplined hero, ready to demonstrate what a bad ass he is. Big heroes are always fun to watch in action, but the finale doesn’t blow up as spectacularly as the reader might expect – the final target is simply too big to fight, and the samurai opts for self-sacrifice instead. It’s as good a solution as any, but there are too many holes in the samurai’s situation to truly feel the pathos of this sacrifice – how did he come to be the one person who would climb this kaiju, anyway? Could any samurai have done what he did? What has he lost in his journey and what does he lose by making his final difficult decision?

This is a story that doesn’t reward heavy thinking, and that’s fine. It’s a bit of mindless fun, a throwaway piece.

The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright

Finally, we have “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House) This is a story which does hold up to closer reading, though the ideal reader might need more theological grounding than I have in order to understand what is at work in the piece. “Parliament” is a possibly allegorical story in which the beasts of the world wake up one day to find that Man (and Woman) has vanished from the world. They drift together to debate what has happened and what should happen next.

The beasts (and birds and one insect) are divided along lines reflecting their connections to Man and the order in which they left the Garden of Eden. Beasts loyal to Man – like Hound, Horse, and Bull – wish to respect the edicts and desires of their once-masters, while wild beasts like Fox, Owl and Lion want to fight over who gets to be the boss next. Eventually it falls to Cat, who is both domesticated and not, to point out that they are following in the footsteps of Man, whether they like it or not.

Both sides seem to get what they want. The domesticated animals that have only ever wished to serve their masters get to continue living their lives of loyalty and service, albeit to a slightly different master, and the wild beasts that have other ideas get to go back to being beasts. Worm gets to graduate from lowly and wild to domesticated dragon, a unique transformation that earns him a king’s crown.

No doubt there is religious significance to this, but it was lost on me. Wright’s world also contains a number of other fantastic beasts, including unicorns and phoenixes that do not have the same mortal problems that Man and Beasts have, suggesting a secondary, non-Christian mythology at work here as well.

The whole thing is wrapped up in thick, affected Old Testament language and more interesting imagery than found in the other nominated stories. In one sense, Wright’s story is the most effective of the lot: I suspect that as far as biblical fables written in 2014 go, it cannot be beat. It is not, however, my sub-genre of choice, having no relatable characters, intriguing plots or mind-blowing ideas.

None of these stories challenged or delighted me the way a story meant to represent the best of the year should. They range from poorly executed to merely dull, a great disappointment, given some of the truly excellent work that was published last year. But novelettes are still ahead of me – perhaps I will be impressed yet.

image018Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She has reviewed short stories for ChiZine.com and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at http://once-and-future.com/.

7 Comments

  1. Interesting, if the result is an unsurprising pity.

    I wonder if competitive slate recommendations don’t have a useful role in the future of the Hugos, though. As you say, there is much good fiction being published, and likely more than most people can easily consume without making a concerted effort (unless they have some cushy reviewing gig to motivate them, of course..!). If the run-up to next year’s nomination window sees well-informed readers hailing their best-of selections, maybe the stand outs will get the broader exposure needed to make it to the final five.

  2. Wright’s story is basically just a Medieval debate poem written in prose style. Interesting as an anomaly, perhaps, since I don’t think many people are writing those these days, but not exactly science fiction or fantasy by most people’s definitions of the word.

    Wright’s world also contains a number of other fantastic beasts, including unicorns and phoenixes that do not have the same mortal problems that Man and Beasts have, suggesting a secondary, non-Christian mythology at work here as well.

    I think this might be a little off the mark. The unicorn is explicitly described as Edenic, and the phoenix is apparently also associated with Eden

    Anyway, even if there is a non-Christian mythology in the piece, it’s totally eradicated by the didactic, dogmatic ending. The impression I get is less one of a story and more one of a sermon masquerading as science fiction. Sigh. 🙁

    On another note, this story probably should go below “no award” even if it had been awesome, because it was first published on Wright’s blog in March of 2013—although it’s since been taken down.

    In fact, if you do a search for the story title on Google, one of the first-page results is a link to it from Goodreads, dated March 20, 2013.

    The fact that the Hugo administrators were apparently so sick of the whole Sad/Rabid Puppies thing by then that they did not bother to remove it from the slate is disappointing at best. I realize they were tired of people taking stories off, but bleh.

    • Huh, I wonder why a bigger point isn’t being made of Wright’s story being published previously?

    • All fair points! The Hugo packet addresses some of the pieces having been “changed” since their original publication, but I don’t believe this one was included in that caveat. Outrage fatigue on the part of the organizers? Perhaps.

  3. Thanks for the review! The samurai story sounds like it drew inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus.

    To me, the best short story of last year was Usman Malik’s “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”. Still haunts me after reading it so many months ago.

  4. Like yourself, I’m voting for the Hugos this year and also believe I have to read anything I vote on. I’m finding the puppies slate works to be a real grind. i will have a clear conscience for my no awards.

  5. I disagree about Wright’s piece lacking “mind-blowing ideas”.

    I haven’t seen a story delve so far into a vertical, cosmological premise since I read Lord Dunsany’s The Kind of Elfland’s Daughter. The way that the increasing cognitive dissonance gives way to a larger, even dangerous vision is a prime attribute of great science fiction.

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